Most people, I suspect, think of Goldenrod as a big, rangy plant. Canada Goldenrod (S. canadensis), is probably considered by many to be the typical Goldenrod. People imagine it running rampant over open fields with 6′ stems and mopheads of yellow flowers. In our garden, however, we have mainly little Goldenrods, growing not much more than 3′.

Bluestem Goldenrod with Short’s Aster.

First there’s Bluestem Goldenrod (S. caesia), with arching purplish stems featuring clusters of flowers held along the stem like little yellow bouquets. Bluestem Goldenrod does not run at the root, though it will self-sow a fair amount.

Aromatic Aster with Bluestem Goldenrod.

Then there’s Zigzag Goldenrod (S. flexicaulus). For us it grows over 3′ and tends to lean but not flop. I’ve tried cutting it back but that doesn’t seem to make much difference, so these days I leave it alone. Flowers bloom in alternating bursts most of the way up the stems.

Zigzag Goldenrod

Zigzag Goldenrod can spread aggressively by rhizome, so it is best suited to an informal woodland garden.

Zigzag Goldenrod

Both of these Goldenrods are shade tolerant and fairly adaptable. Pollinators, especially bumblebees, love these more compact wild Goldenrods just as much they love the taller members of the genus.

Bumblebee on Zigzag Goldenrod

You don’t need sunny, open spaces and room for 6′ plants in order to provide the pollinators in your garden with the benefits of Goldenrod. These two modestly-sized Goldenrods are a good fit for a variety of garden settings.

Years ago, I gave a friend some Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) volunteers, along with a number of other natives. A few months later she confessed to me that she had pulled it out of her garden because it looked too weedy.

Calico Aster

Not too long after that, I came to the conclusion that she was right. Not only was it kind of weedy, it was absolutely rampant in my garden. It seeded everywhere, and grew to the size of a small shrub, so I decided to replace it.

Which is too bad, because Calico Aster has many virtues. It is absolutely LOVED by many native bees and other pollinators (including a couple of butterflies for whom it is a host plant). The number of stings I got trying to remove this plant was, I suspect, good evidence of pollinator devotion. (In place of Calico Aster I planted other pollinator-friendly native Asters, so I did not feel guilty about this. I mean that.)

Calico Aster from more of a distance, looking more floriferous than usual.

I think the reason Calico Aster strikes some people as weedy is that the flowers are quite small, though they are enhanced by a mix of maroon and yellow centers. My understanding is that there are a number of showier cultivars, but I haven’t tried them.

Anyhow, my attempted removal of Calico Aster set the stage for an annual struggle whereby I was constantly spotting and pulling new volunteers. Like I said, it seeds like crazy, and it just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my garden.

Calico Aster up close

After this year’s dry summer, I noticed that Calico Aster was actually the dominant Aster in the Parkway Bed, which gets absolutely no supplemental water.

At this point, something clicked.

So I hereby give notice: Calico Aster, you can have the Parkway Bed. Honestly, you’ve earned it. And while you might be a little weedy, you’re still kind of cute. However, I maintain the right to cut back your flowers before they go to seed.

A few days ago I got a delivery of 3 Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) from Bluestone Perennials. This was a fine thing, as I love Wild Columbine. However, I couldn’t remember making this order, nor could I remember where I had intended to put the plants.

Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
Columbine in the front foundation bed.

But I was not about to look some gift plants in the mouth. Well, not really gift plants, but unexpected. Most likely these were back-ordered during the Great Covid Garden Panic when sellers of seeds and plants were running out of practically everything. Better to show up now than never.

However, this still left me with the problem of location. Whatever I had originally intended was long forgotten. And one thing about Wild Columbine, at least in my experience: you never know where it’s going to make itself at home. (I’m talking here about the eastern, red-and-yellow Wild Columbine. Perhaps other species are more predictable.)

Columbine close up.

Over the years I’ve planted Wild Columbine in several places which seemed to meet their basic requirements: part shade to shade with medium moisture. In each of these locations, they tend to thrive, but only for a couple of years. Then they disappear – only to pop up in some other unexpected place. But even in places of their own choosing, they are short-lived. At this point the garden is, sadly, a Columbine-free zone.

Why is this? I’ve read that this Columbine prefers alkaline soil, which is certainly not a problem here. Also that they prefer soil that leans to dry, which is actually not consistent with what I’ve observed. The Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center says that they prefer soil that is not too rich. Maybe that’s the problem. When WIld Columbine grows in our garden, it tends to grow big, up to 3 or 4 feet – but it doesn’t stick around in subsequent years.

Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
Wild Columbine

In any case, my solution to not remembering where to put the Columbines was to split them up. One went to a place that was a little shadier, one to a spot that was a little drier, and one to a spot that was more wet. And now we’ll see what happens.

Botany for the Willfully Ignorant: Why I Don’t Grow Succulents

Today is my second chemo treatment, so I thought this might be a good time to reblog some old posts. I hope you find this one entertaining. Incidentally, I apologize for not commenting consistently on your blogs, but as you can imagine my energy is not what it was. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this post from November, 2014.


Let me start with a few acknowledgments. First, I know almost nothing about succulent plants. However, this does not prevent me from exercising my rights as an American to have opinions about them.

2013-06-30 13.46.08

These opinions may not be based on fact. However, I feel that they are true. Therefore, while they may not be accurate, they have (to use the phrase coined by Stephen Colbert) truthiness. And that’s good enough for me.

That said, I don’t grow succulents for the same reason I wouldn’t have a lizard or snake as a pet. Succulents strike me as cold-blooded plants.

The spines are really leaves and the leaves are really stems, or possibly the other way round. Ruth Bancroft Garden. The spines are really leaves and the leaves are really stems, or possibly the other way round. Ruth Bancroft Garden.

I like plants that are more like golden retrievers or maybe a well-behaved cat, Plants that would cuddle up to you as you watch TV on the couch. Plants that are warm…

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Right now I’m liking the Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’ blooming in the Lamp Post Bed. This is a cultivar of the native Helenium autumnale, also known as Sneezeweed. As a general rule I plant straight species native plants, but now and then I feel like something different. This is one of those times.

Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’

It’s just that at this time of year I’d like a bit more in the red-orange color range, and there are a number of Helenium cultivars that fit the bill. Sneezeweed is yellow, thought it does have an unusual shape.

Photo from

People familiar with my garden know that I have many, many, many yellow native wildflowers – what some botanists call the DYCs (Damn Yellow Composites) – Rudbeckias, Silphiums, Ratibidas, Coreopsis, etc. So I feel I’ve done my bit on that front.

Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower)

We used to have a Helenium cultivar called ‘Short’n’Sassy’. It had orange flowers that bloomed for months, starting in June. Sadly it was short-lived. ‘Mardi Gras’ is more typical of Heleniums in that it starts blooming in late summer and into fall, but it also has been more durable.

Helenium ‘Short’n’Sassy’

Soon the blue-purple of the former asters will make themselves felt, and I am looking forward to that. But even then, I’d like some color contrast in addition to the yellow of the Goldenrods. Of course, this is one reason why I grow Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) with its deep orange daisies. But the Heleniums provide a touch of red-orange more at mid-height.

Anyhow, as I peruse the online catalogs, that’s why I keep going back to various Helenium cultivars. Do you grow Heleniums in your garden? Do they make you happy?

It’s foolish to take the weather personally, but I can’t help it. It’s especially foolish given what is going on elsewhere in the country.

Brown-Eyed Susan and Orange Coneflower, unhappy in the Parkway Bed.

Even so, I check the weather app on my phone several times a day. We haven’t had a good rain for over a month. A rainless 10-day forecast provokes exasperated sighs. What’s worse are predictions of rain a few days off. As the promised relief approaches, the likelihood starts to evaporate, so to speak – from 70% chance to 50 to 30. Then nothing.

Alternatively, we may get an hour or two of sprinkles, barely enough to moisten the surface, nothing like the good soaking that we really need.

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Drought Monitor, our area has gone from Abnormally Dry to Moderate Drought. In the Parkway Bed the Orange Coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Brown-Eyed Susans (R. triloba) are definitely droopy, and some of their flowers are crinkling up. they look better. Moisture lovers, the Monardas and Joe Pye Weeds, are looking distinctly fatigued.

Approaching the garden from the west.

On the other hand, most established summer- and fall-blooming native plants are holding their own, as are the grasses. Location matters, of course. In general, plants in the most densely planted areas are suffering the least. From a distance the garden as a whole doesn’t look too bad.

View from the front sidewalk.

I don’t have any kind of irrigation system, but a few favored plants get watered by hand. The Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) are in this privileged group, along with shrubs and perennials newly planted this year. If they are within range of the hose, I wave a water wand around for the length of a podcast, long enough to give the ground a soaking. Or I might just leave the hose trickling at the base of a woody plant.

Otherwise, I have 2-gallon watering cans. Since the chemo started, I’ve been relying on my sons David and Daniel to carry these around.

A glance at the weather app on my phone tells me that rain is predicted for Sunday and the following three days. I’m hoping for the best, but keeping the watering cans handy.

My recent life feels as if it can be divided into two periods, BC and AC (Before Chemo and After Chemo). Having been through the first round of six treatments, I have no desire to discuss chemotherapy. It’s enough to say that while many have experienced much worse than I, the modern improved version is still bad enough. For one thing, I have only the most minimal energy available for the garden.

Molly (l) has a bit of orange while Walter (r) is darker.

Fortunately, there have been other things to occupy my time. Chief among these has been our new kittens, Walter and Molly. They were brought to us last week by our good friend Joanna, who has been fostering numerous kittens for her local animal shelter.

Walter is intrigued by the internet. They both think that Judy and I make convenient climbing posts.

Walter and Molly have added a great deal of entertainment to our days, though Judy is still trying to convince them that her earrings are not cat toys, especially when she is wearing them.

Monarch on Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia lacniata)

While I don’t feel up to most gardening chores, I can still go out and take pictures of the Monarch Butterflies.

Though lord knows I’ve got enough pictures of Monarchs on Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). I like this one more because of the Brown-Eyed Susan (R. triloba) in the fuzzy background.

Came across this picture of a Pearl Crescent (?) on Allium. It was taken back in July, but I’ve never used it, so I figured why not?

Aside from kittens and butterflies, Judy is constantly doing everything she can to keep me comfortable. Our son Daniel and his wife Beckee are over frequently, and our son David from Minnesota will be visiting soon. We get cards and gifts of food on a pretty regular basis (homemade quiche and marinara sauce the other day). So things are not so bad. If only it would rain.

It was way back in the fall of 2016 that I planted Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) in a corner of the Sidewalk Border. I was excited about this member of the Pea Family (Fabaceae) because of its unusual flowers and foliage, because it was highly attractive to bumblebees, and because it is a host plant for Sulphur butterflies.

Wild Senna flowers

Well, over the following three years it was pretty slow to establish. By last summer it featured just a sparse handful of flowers. I was worried that its location was too shady, as Wild Senna prefers full sun. While some gardeners engage in zone denial, I have a habit of convincing myself that a given spot is really sunnier than it actually is.

When I saw Late Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) listed in one of my favorite native-plant catalogs, I was immediately intrigued.

Late Figwort

Over the past few months I’ve been bothered by a number of physical symptoms, most notably chronic abdominal pain. This is one reason why this blog has seen fewer posts over the summer and a general reduction in the level of sparkling wit.

Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum

Anyhow, the symptoms led to appointments with doctors which led to medical tests which led to more tests and more appointments with more doctors, all of which have led to the regrettable conclusion of a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I expect to start chemotherapy in about a week.

I felt that I ought to share this information with the readers of this blog, mainly because I consider so many of you to be friends. Also, I wanted to let you know that I intend to keep writing posts, but it is likely that those posts will be shorter and more infrequent.

My motivation in doing this is purely selfish. This blog has always been, for me, an effective distraction from more serious matters. Now that those serious matters have become more personal than ever, I expect that this blog will continue as a useful distraction.

Similarly, I want to be able to stay in touch with this community of gardeners and garden writers. As always I enjoy your comments, including shared experiences from your won gardens.

This will continue to be a garden blog, and not a blog about cancer or health issues generally, though I may have an occasional update on my condition.


That’s pretty much all for now. I already have several future posts taking shape in my mind, including visits to the Lurie Garden and the West Ridge Nature Center, as well as experiences with Wild Senna, Late Figwort, and my Zinnia-themed flowering pots. Until then, stay well.

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