Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wildflower Wednesday: A Look Back

As the cold rains of late fall descend on northern Illinois, the garden is entering its yearly sleep. The last of the goldenrods are finishing their blooms, at least from what I can tell in the dark by the time I get home.

So for Wildflower Wednesday, I thought I'd take a look back at this year in native plants... early spring I was enjoying shade wildflowers, particularly woodland phlox (P. divaricata), and the rare beauty, yellow pimpernel (Taenidia integerrima).

By early summer (although I missed WW in June), my garden sported prairie phlox (P. pilosa), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata), among others.

The unique, bobbing flowerheads of the prairie smoke made an exceptional combo with the airy blue plumes of another native, Camassia scilloides.

Midsummer was a great time for wildflowers, with native bee balms (Monarda fistulosa) making an incredible comeback from what I assumed was certain death from powdery mildew.

They were joined by the 2011 MVP, purple hyssops, plus yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata) and the classic Echinacea coneflowers.

Asters and goldenrods then picked up where these wildflowers left off. Elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia) had a wonderful second year in my garden. Unfortunately, some native stalwarts struggled this year, such as Joe-Pye Weed and zig-zag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis).

Despite those troubles (and the massacre of my purple prairie clovers by rabbits), native plants again thrived in this year's crazy weather and slow-to-start-summer. The zizias and numerous sedges will need to be divided next year. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which are beautiful clumping grasses, have settled in nicely.

And in the rain garden, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and obedient plants (Physostegia virginiana) flourished vigorously.

The natives in my garden have attracted bees, butterflies, and dragonflies. They helped absorb pounding rains while surviving droughts. They brought beauty and biodiversity to this little slice of Suburban Wasteland all year, and I can't wait to see them again next year!

For more wildflowers this Wednesday, see Gail at Clay and Limestone.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

MVP 2011

It's that time of year again! The World Series is underway, and again the White Sox are nowhere to be found, although I can't say I'm surprised. They had a tough year with a lot of ups and downs. It was not unlike this year in the garden, which saw bumper lettuce harvests, crippling mini-droughts, destructive downpours, and a lovely indian summer, to name just a few happenings.

As I enjoy the garden's final act, I can't help but reflect on the performances of individual plants and their success (or failure) as a team. And so it's time to name this year's MVP, Most Valuable Plant.

To be considered for the MVP award, a plant must make a lasting contribution to the garden, both through its own beauty/productivity and by enhancing that of others.

It must truly be a team player and make the entire garden look good, but still be able to carry the team when other, less stellar, plants are struggling.

The cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) were definite contenders. They bloomed bright crimson for weeks on end, really acting as the standouts in a very robust rain garden.

But their performance was really limited to this one area of the garden, so they didn't quite make the MVP cut.

The native bee balms (Mondarda fistulosa) turned in an incredible performance. After three years of being bench-warmers, with nothing notable about them except for their preponderance for powdery mildew, these uniquely shaped flowers bloomed vigorously and became a new favorite of the bumblebees. But I think that "Comeback Player of the Year" would be a more accurate award than MVP.

The yellow coneflowers (Ratbida pinnata) had a break-out year, bringing bright yellow to a backyard border full of prairie plants. They were so vigorous, however, that they almost obscured the nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum) and rattlesnake masters (Eryngium yuccifolium). An MVP can't be overbearing; they won't be winning it this year, but will hopefully be in the running again soon.

One perennial contender (pun intended) had a surprisingly dismal year: Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatoruim maculatum). This towering favorite typically dominates the midsummer with dusty lavender flowers that are a magnet for bees and butterflies. But this year its normally robust flowers were dull and short-lived, leaving a distinct absence in the garden.

Yet into this void stepped some unlikely heroes, the purple hyssops. Both the species Agastache foeniculum and the cultivar 'Blue Fortune' started blooming in July and the are just now, in October, finishing up.

Like their rookie year last year, the hyssops made great teammates with the 'David' phloxes, creating a complementary mix of textures, shapes, and colors. The bright white of the phloxes stood out beautifully against the hyssops, but once those faded the purple spikes of flowers kept this swath of the garden colorful through late summer.

They were constantly visited by bees, mostly bumblebees.

These plants had, shall we say, eagerly re-seeded last year. As a result I removed many seedlings this spring and it left me a little irritated. I figured the seedlings that remained would definitely not flower in their first year, but I was wrong. Just as the established plants finished blooming, the younger generation took over.

And the 'Blue Fortune' cultivars were planted only last fall, but you wouldn't know it by their robust showing.

They carried much of the front garden through nearly half the gardening season; they stepped in when another player went down; they helped support pollinators; and with their unique shape and spicy anise scent they made a multi-faceted contribution.

For all these accomplishments, I say congratulations Purple Hyssops, you are the 2011 MVP!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

October Bloom Day: Coda

After a beautiful indian summer, we've now settled into classic crisp fall days. The garden is in its last act. Taking center stage are the short's asters (Symphyotrichum shortii)...

...which are being enjoyed by the remaining bumblebees as well as by me.

Elm-leaved goldenrods (Solidago ulmifolia) are still blooming, although their sparkler-like yellow blooms are starting to fade. Behind it are some blurry big-leaved asters (Eurybia macrophylla), which have had a banner year. They started blooming back around July and they're just now finishing and going to seed. I'm hoping the new ones I planted this spring make great strides next year and I'll have a mass of these plants very soon.

Late-season non-natives are in their final flourishes as well, such as these toad lilies, Tricyrtis 'Tojen', passalongs from Mr. McGregor's Daughter...

...and of course it wouldn't be fall without a mum!

To see more of what's blooming visit Carol at May Dreams Garden!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Veggie Garden Wrap-Up: 2011

Last weekend I closed up shop in the vegetable garden as an impending frost threatened. Now of course it's sunny and in the 70s all week.

Although I'm aggravated about the green beans and vine-ripened tomatoes that might have been, it was a good time to call it a season. Now as I'm reflecting on how vegetable growing went this year, I think the entire operation is summed up by one word: decent.

Decent, not great, not horrible. The tomato yield was good, and I really enjoyed both varieties, Amish Paste and Hungarian Heart (pictured above). The former is great for making sauce, and the latter has a good texture for slicing. I've also used it for homemade salsa, which has been delicious. The fungal leaf spot that swamped the plants late in the season was an unwelcome development, but it was controllable and, thanks to shall we say challenging weather conditions, not all that surprising.

(Super Chilis...mis-labeled in an earlier post.)

The hot peppers were equally decent. The yields weren't as great as last year, but last year was much drier. Some of the jalepenos turned out to be duds (no spiciness) which confused me to no end. But oh well, I've got some frozen Bulgarian Carrot Peppers for the winter months and Super Chili peppers drying to make homemade crushed red pepper.

Broccoli and green beans were decent...barely. Broccoli plants, I have learned, are humungous and only a small percentage of those enormous plants is the edible part. So in a small garden like mine, it's difficult to have enough room to grow the number of plants needed for a truly fulfilling harvest. This is disappointing because my family loves broccoli. But for that reason I'll keep growing it and harvesting what I can.

The Kentucky Wonder green beans were delicious, but these heirlooms are clearly not mildew resistant. They struggled with powdery mildew early on, and that really slowed down the yield even after I got it under control with my 1-to-3 milk/water solution. Next year I will probably try another variety.

My exceptions to the "decent" label are lettuce (fantastic), and carrots and bell peppers (terrible).

The cool, moist conditions early in the season were perfect for my four varieties of lettuce (Lolla Rossa, Tom Thumb, Rough D'Hiver, and Wine Country Mesclun [courtesy of Renee's Garden]). I had more lettuce than I knew what to do with by June, which is a problem I'm happy to have.

On the contrary, bell peppers were a bust yet again. Every year I've grown bell peppers they don't start producing until September, by which time there isn't enough sun to get them to ripen. I honestly think next year I will skip them altogether.

Almost more frustratingly, I only harvested a measly five carrots. I tried two different varieties and my multiple sowings just failed miserably. The first sowing produced my only harvest, and all subsequent sowings resulted in wimpy, weak seedlings that never matured, if they even sprouted at all. I think the excessive heat had something to do with the poor germination and growth, which leads me to another lesson I've learned...

...starting seeds indoors is the best way for me to get good harvests. Mid-season sowings of broccoli, lettuce, kale, and those carrots all petered out due to the vagaries of summer weather and my neglect. I really tried to keep seedlings watered, but it seems that only when they're growing in my living room in a self-watering seedling kit will they get the attention they need to thrive and reach maturity. These vegetables that can survive cooler early fall temperatures don't like to germinate in the heat of summer. Throw in crazy, pounding rains and it's a recipe for disaster. The only issue is, will I make time to start seeds again in the summer? I thought about it this year and didn't make it happen.

(The seed starting kit that made it all possible.)

So there it is! Vegetable growing in 2011 was...decent. I'm already pondering what varieties to grow next year, what to bring back from this year, and how to finally get a quality mulch for the vegetable bed.

How was vegetable gardening for you in this year of wild weather? Can you agree it was decent?

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