I have been walking, walking, walking through the past ten months (!) of Covid, and perhaps you have, too. Walking to get out of the house, walking to get exercise, to get out of the chairs we sit in all day, to deal with stress, with boredom, and to see something new or at least different. I’ve discovered some interesting places on my walks, mostly close to home. Some of them are new to me, some of them I have seen with fresh eyes.

The other day I took a walk in Lincoln Park, near Lake Michigan, about two miles north of the Loop (Downtown Chicago). I set out to investigate the erosion caused by very high lake levels this past year. The lagoons visible from Lake Shore Drive overflowed their banks, and I wanted to see up close what the damage was. I found so much more than I expected — a nature preserve tucked between the lake and the city.

It says half a mile, but that’s just the boardwalk. It’s easy to get in more steps.

Normally, it can be very difficult to park here, but due to cold weather and Covid, I pulled right up to the curb and parked for free. Here is the lovely nature preserve I found on my way to the lagoon.

Boardwalks circle the pond. The two barns are part of the Lincoln Park Zoo – after all, cows are exotic to city children!

Who knew! This is not a part of Chicago that I come to often — though I do sail by on the Drive headed to the Loop. Boardwalks surround a large pond which is no doubt full of life in other seasons. The preserve was opened in 2010, and was recently certified as a Level II Arboretum, under the auspices of the Lincoln Park Zoo, a wonderful free zoo just to the north.

The pond was frozen along the edges.

Thanks to native perennial plantings, there was plenty of winter interest. I imagine that 25 years ago, this park would have been planted with neat rows of petunias and begonias.

I set off toward the statue of General Ulysses Grant and the lagoon along the lakeshore.

I’m not sure why Grant is here, since Grant Park is along the lakefront by the Loop, and this is Lincoln Park. But he’s been riding his horse along this piece of the lake since the 1890s.

A berm blocks the view of the lake, and the noise of the Drive, making this area feel out-of-the-way, even though it’s actually right in the middle of things. I admire how the landscape designers put this all together — it really feels like a refuge.

Looking at Grant from the east, or lake side. Due to the berm, the preserve has two levels of paths here — I was atop the berm and came down those steps, but there’s also a path at the pond level straight through the base of the statue.

Of course, it helps to visit on a cold day in the midst of a pandemic, if you want to have the place to yourself.

Those parking spaces just below the statue are all filled up in normal times (I personally have gnashed my teeth in traffic jams there). The zoo is free, but that’s paid parking.

Here’s the view from the top of the stairs — the mezzanine of the statue. The first pavement you see is zoo parking, the first water is the lagoon. Then there’s Lake Shore Drive — a beautiful drive along Lake Michigan, which is the final water that you see below the horizon.

You can’t really see it in this photo, but there is lots of goose poop, fortunately all frozen solid. Cars on the far side are on Lake Shore Drive, which goes most of the length of the city, with parkland along most of it and no trucks allowed. (Can one photo caption discuss both goose poop and the beauty of Lake Shore Drive, without some transition?)

Here’s what I came to see — the erosion of the edges of the lagoon. The water was up over the top of those concrete embankments for several months. I have lived in Chicago for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen that.

This lagoon is more than a mile long, and is used for rowing practice by local crew teams, including the first African-American high school rowing team. It is also popular with local fishermen — it’s connected to Lake Michigan, and apparently you can even catch salmon at the right season.

Back on the path in the nature preserve, I came to this fence, beyond which is the zoo. Fortunately for the animals, they are mostly not behind bars, but are in more naturalistic settings. This fence is aimed at keeping people out when the zoo is closed. Past the families and the low wooden railings you see here are habitats for llamas and camels.

It was a gorgeously sunny winter day; the light was lovely.

Chicago sits along the Mississippi Flyway, and is a great place for seeing migratory birds. Here’s an earlier post by Jason about another bird sanctuary along the Chicago lakefront a little further north.

I had been walking east and north to this point. As I turned back south, I had a great view of the downtown Chicago skyline, not very far away.

It was a great walk, and I’m looking forward to going back when it’s blooming and full of life.

Our home garden is under a few inches of snow, but Jason just ordered seeds, and spring will come eventually.

Have you been walking during the pandemic, and what new places have you discovered?

New Year’s Day is past, but it’s not too late to wish all a happy Hippeastrum Day. Or Amaryllis Day, if you prefer, though what we generally call Amaryllis are really Hippeastrums, just as what we generally call Geraniums are really Pelargoniums. But honestly, who cares?

Hippeastrum ‘Naranja’

Currently we have two varieties of Hippeastrum in bloom. The first, ‘Naranja’, came into flower a couple of days after Christmas. I love orange flowers, especially in the middle of winter. So vibrant!

Within a few days the other 3 flowers on the first stalk of ‘Naranja’ also bloomed, and there is a second flower stalk getting ready to put on its own show.

The second Hippeastrum to bloom was ‘Picotee’. At least, I’m pretty sure it was ‘Picotee’. We are also growing a third variety called ‘Picasso’, which looks just like ‘Picotee’ but it’s supposed to be fragrant. ‘Picasso’ still has a few days to go, it seems.

Here’s another look at ‘Picotee’. Seems like the red edging is less pronounced, once the flower is open, than in prior years. Unless this is really ‘Picasso’ after all.

I do very little with indoor plants, in fact they seem to have a reduced life expectancy when I am around. But I make an exception for Hippeastrums. They are definitely a pick-me-up during the cold, dark days of winter.

Jason here. So Christmas has come and gone, and we had a good one.

From l to r: Beckee, Daniel, David, Meridith

There were 6 of us. David and Meridith drove down (after Covid tests!) from Minnesota on Christmas Eve and stayed with us through the weekend. Danny and Beckee came up each day from their Chicago apartment. Not a big crowd, but enough.

Olive checking out her first Christmas tree.

In addition to the humans, Danny and Beckee brought their 2 new kittens most days. Their names are Lucy and Olive. This is Olive checking out the Christmas tree. Combined with our Mollie and Walter, that made 4 cats in addition to the 6 humans.

Meridith monitors Mollie monitoring the tree

The cats were very interested in the Christmas tree. The ornaments had to migrate upward to avoid getting knocked down, but none were eaten or destroyed.

We didn’t do major gifts, but we did our traditional customized homemade Christmas stockings, filled with peanuts-in-the-shell, chocolates, dried fruit, and the occasional pair of socks or coffee mug. We also had a nice fire going most days.

We cooked, ate lots of snacks, and played games, especially One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which I think has become a family favorite.

Danny made rugelach from scratch.

For Christmas dinner we had roast lamb, roasted root vegetables, and salad. We had eaten so much chocolate and so many cookies throughout the day that we didn’t really need dessert.

For myself, I was grateful to be able to spend a solid chunk of time with our kids and their partners. My appetite and energy level was much improved by a 3-week break from chemo.

It was a fun holiday, and as we kept things pretty simple, even a relaxing one. Though most of us were not quite as relaxed as Walter here.

I hope the holidays were good for all of you. Best wishes to all for a better New Year.

Now, if the previous post made you long for summer tomatoes, here is a recipe for the next best thing — a roasted tomato and bean appetizer to put on crusty bread, using winter cherry tomatoes (even ones that are past their prime).

Roast until they are turning brown around the edges and oozing delicious juices. These are just starting.
  • 12 ounces cherry tomatoes (fine if they are past their prime)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus a bit for sautéing the onions
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 medium onion, sliced or diced
  • 2 or 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 2 tsp lemon zest, or 1 T preserved lemon, minced
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

Toss the cherry tomatoes with the olive oil, thyme, salt & pepper, and roast at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes Рuntil they begin to caramelize and turn brown around the edges. While the tomatoes are roasting, saut̩ the onion with a bit of olive oil in a pan big enough to hold the whole dish (my pan is 10 inches). When the onion is soft, add the garlic cloves, and cook briefly. Add the cannellini beans, parsley and lemon, and heat through. When the tomatoes are done, scrap them and all their juices into the pan with the beans. Add the red pepper to taste.

Eat warm or cold, on crusty bread or on crackers. Or straight from the pan, with a spoon.

Think about summer. Repeat as needed.

It’s not necessarily beautiful, but it is OMG delicious.

I will admit here that this recipe is the result of a felicitous mistake. I set out to make Roasted Tomato and White Bean Stew, from the New York Times website, but somewhere along the way, I lost my train of thought. I was also baking some crusty bread, and I believe Daniel was making homemade bagels, and we have a very small kitchen, and too much was happening. I only had three-fourths of the tomatoes the original recipe called for, and I meant to reduce everything else proportionately, but I didn’t, except for the beans, where I cut the quantity in half. (My real goal for this exercise was to use up the slightly wilty cherry tomatoes, which had been sitting on the counter making me feel guilty for days.)

By the time I dumped the tomatoes into the beans and onions, and of course tasted the result, I had forgotten that I was aiming for stew. I dunno, I was admiring Daniel’s bagel-dipping technique, or something. Anyhow, the roasted-bean-and-tomato dip or spread or whatever it is (please feel free to tell me what you would call it in the comments!) was so delicious, all other thoughts were blown out of my mind, and it wasn’t until later that I remembered it was supposed to be a stew.

If the day is as cold and gray where you are as it is in Chicago, you will know why I want to talk about summer tomatoes.

We don’t have a lot of space in the garden that is sunny enough to plant vegetables. This makes me a bit sad (perhaps you have seen that I, Judy, am writing this post, my very first). I am a much bigger fan of growing vegetables than Jason is. He plants cherry tomatoes and a few herbs to humor me. They grow cheek-to-cheek with the flowers.

Tomato and clematis happily cohabiting in July.
By September, the wall of cherry tomatoes has grown over the Wall of Giant Purple Clematis.

Here the tomato vines are, heading for the roof. There is something about this particular small garden spot, right outside the front door, which plants love. Followers of the blog will perhaps recognize this as the space that is occupied by the Giant Purple Wall of Clematis earlier in the season.

The plants produced rather late this year — this is from September.

The vines produced plentifully, if a bit later than expected. There were two plants, Black Cherry and a red cherry whose name we have forgotten.

Of course, the very best way to appreciate summer tomatoes is plucked straight from the vine as you walk past. Most of the tomatoes were eaten outdoors, some were brought in for salad, and naturally, the squirrels got more than their share.

They even kept blooming into October, which can’t be normal for Chicago. This is October 30.

The vines kept producing into the fall, well past the point in the season that the sun could provide enough light and warmth to ripen them. I brought some into the house to ripen on the window sill. In late October, the vines were still heavy with tomatoes, mostly hard and green.

Eventually, the point came when we began worrying about frost. There were too many tomatoes to lose them all without making some effort to eat them.

The photo below is the vine after the first serious frost — but as you can see, there were still tomatoes to pick.

So one fine day, I picked them all. Many were hidden in the depths of the vines, and as you can see, many were also high enough that I had to bring out a ladder. It may be the first time I’ve needed a ladder to pick tomatoes. This bowlful represents only part of the harvest.

Now what to do? I cut them in half, dipped them in egg, then in flour and salt and pepper, and made fried green tomatoes.

We made many more than this, but they disappeared rapidly.

Just as good as full-sized fried tomatoes.

If I’ve made you long for summer tomatoes, in a couple of days I will post a recipe for an amazing roast tomato and bean spread made with winter tomatoes, the next best thing. (It was going to be in this post, but Jason is looking over my shoulder and told me the post was too long.) You can even use those sad cherry tomatoes that have been sitting on your counter waiting for you to eat them in a salad, but, admit it, they are past their prime, you bought too many, and one of these days you will need to throw them out — unless you make this roasted tomato and bean spread.

Meanwhile, an update on Jason. He’s had his ups and downs through eight rounds of chemo, but he’s hanging in there. Lately, for whatever reason, his appetite has returned somewhat, and with it, a bit more energy than he has had. He was able to eat a couple of Hanukkah latkes this past week, and with an extra week off before the next round of chemo, we’re looking forward to a good Christmas, with both boys and their partners with us (after testing and with all the precautions we can take).

And we both wish you a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and all the other holidays you may celebrate, and hope that you can have your families as close as possible in this crazy year.

It’s been about 3 weeks since my last post. As most of you know, I’ve been grappling with chemotherapy during this time, and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Chemotherapy doesn’t leave a lot of energy for other things.

Aromatic Aster

Nevertheless, I wanted to get in another short post, this one about Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), definitely one of my favorite Asters. The two qualities I especially like best about Aromatic Aster are first, that it is relatively compact; and second, that the flowers tend to have a deeper blue that you will find in most asters. Also, it’s a relatively late-blooming Aster and provides color late into the season (though I should confess I took these photos over 2 weeks ago).

Back in the spring I replaced the Catmint that was growing along the western edge of the Driveway Border with Aromatic Aster, which seems to appreciate the hot afternoon sun. I think it was a good choice.

View from the front steps.

That’s about all for now. Tomorrow, I realize, is the election. Like most of you, I am in a state of intense anxiety, but frankly I don’t have anything new to say on the subject – except that if you or anyone in your household has not yet voted, for heaven sake please do so.

Otherwise, be well.

The Japanese Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ is one of my favorite autumn flowers. The white petals with golden centers are just so luminous and elegant. I looked in the thesaurus but couldn’t find any better words than those.

‘Honorine Jobert’

I have ‘Honorine Jobert’ growing in a border where it emerges up out of an area dominated by ‘Purple Sensation’ Alliums in May and June. The foliage of ‘Honorine’ emerges late, and isn’t noticeable until summer. This makes it a good successor plant for spring bulbs with long-lasting foliage.

More ‘Honorine Jobert’ flowers. I like the almost-rounnd unopened buds as well as the flowers.

The stems are tall, about 4′, but very upright – no staking needed. The foliage is concentrated near the base of the plant.

Here’s a more vertical look, giving you a better sense of the overall habit.

‘Honorine Jobert’ foliage

And this picture gives you a better look at the foliage, which is dark green and deeply cut.

In this spot ‘Honorine Jobert’ has established as a slowly-expanding clump. It tolerates a fair amount of shade and gets by with very little supplemental water, even during a dry summer.

In more ideal locations, I’m told that Japanese Anemones generally can get pretty aggressive. I haven’t seen that yet in my own garden. However, that’s a problem I’ll deal with when and if it arises. In the meantime, I will enjoy ‘Honorine Jobert’s’ dazzling flowers as fall settles in.

If you walk in front of our house these days you’re likely to be impressed by the masses of Aster flowers, most notably those of Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii).

View of the front door from the sidewalk.

Short’s Aster is a particularly floriferous Aster, sporting clouds of light blue flowers with golden centers. Honestly, I don’t understand why this particular Aster isn’t more popular. You can get it from native plant nurseries, but you never see it at garden centers.

Short’s Aster flowers close-up

Short’s Aster has a shrubby habit that I appreciate, with wiry stems that do not flop. Though I confess that so far I have not succeeded in shaping it into the smooth cloud-like shapes I dream of.

A lone Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) pushes through a crowd of Short’s Aster.

Short’s Aster blooming on the Left Bank Bed

There are more masses of Short’s Aster on what I call The Left Bank Bed, on the far side of the Driveway.

Here you can see how the Left Bank Bed encompasses Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) and Starry Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum stellatum) along with the Short’s Aster. At the far end, there is Rue (Ruta graveolens), Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and ‘Italian White’ Sunflower (Helianthus annuus).

One last picture highlighting the ‘Italian White’, which is my favorite annual sunflower.

I wish you a happy October, full of more aster blooms than you could possibly count!

Late summer and fall are the time when Brown-Eyed Susans, Black-Eyed Susans, and other members of the genus Rudbeckia come into their own. This year has given us a chance to consider how some of these species perform in a year of moderate drought and with no supplemental water provided.

Brown-Eyed Susan

Let me be up front with my own bias: Brown-Eyed Susan (R. triloba) is by far my favorite Susan. To my mind, nothing beats those masses of golden daisies with small, rounded rays (petals). It can grow up to 5 feet and get bare knees but if that bothers you it responds very well to being cut back for a more compact habit.

Brown-Eyed Susan close up

Anyhow, Brown-Eyed Susan stood up to our August-September drought pretty well. Flowering remained profuse and foliage looked normal. A few individual plants in exposed areas did go somewhat droopy or brown, but those were rare exceptions.

Cutleaf Coneflower still pumping out new flowers

Ask Cutleaf Coneflower (R. laciniata) about our drought, and the response you’ll get is “Drought? What drought?” This big clumping Coneflower, which showed up in the garden on its own initiative (as far as I can remember), is not easily slowed down by a lack of rainfall.

Grass path between two beds in the front garden. Brown-Eyed Susan to the left, Cutleaf Coneflower to right.

In fact, it kept pumping out blooms long after the first flush of flowers were going to seed.

Cutleaf Coneflowers

We have only three Rudbeckia species in the garden, and the last of these had the hardest time this year. It could be painful to watch the frequently droopy leaves of Black-Eyed Susan, or Orange Coneflower (R. fulgida). Sometimes the leaves or even the flowers got crispy. Black-Eyed Susan is probably the most common garden Rudbeckia, especially the popular cultivar ‘Goldsturm’. It’s relatively compact habit is, perhaps, one reason why this Susan is fairly ubiquitous.

Black-Eyed Susan had a harder time this year

Very happy to have all three of these Rudbeckias in the garden, even when they do struggle a bit. Also happy to say that we had a long, soaking rain last night. We may also get a couple days of rain later in the week. That should help with fall planting/transplanting in a week or two.

It has been my ambition to have red fruits adding to our garden’s fall and winter appeal, particularly in the shade garden in back.

Cranberrybush Viburnum fruit in the 15 seconds between turning slightly red and being eaten by squirrels.

My main plant for achieving this goal was supposed to be Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). On this score, the effort was a complete failure, mainly because squirrels eat all the fruit in late summer as soon as they get a hint of red. Apparently they have not read that the fruit is supposed to be unpalatable until after a freeze or two, though squirrels are not known for their delicate palates.

(Though I should point out that otherwise Cranberrybush Viburnum is still an admirable shrub.)

Solomon’s Plume in flower

It’s still possible to find red fruits in our garden, however. Except that you have to look down, not up.

Solomon’s Plume fruit

Most notably, we have the red berries of Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum). This is a handsome plant with frothy white flowers in spring. My only complaint is that the arching stems tend to flop with the weight of the ripe berries, despite my attempts to provide discrete assistance.

More Solomon’s Plume fruit

This year, though we did manage to avoid total floppiness.

Starry Solomon’s Plume ruit

There’s also a close cousin of Solomon’s Plume, Starry Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum stellatum). This is a shorter plant, not quite as elegant, but without any floppy tendencies.

Starry Solomon’s Plume in summer

Earlier in summer, Starry Solomon’s Plume berries are green with interesting dark stripes.

Starry False Solomon's Seal
Starry Solomon’s Plume flowers

The spring flowers are attractive. I should make clear that both of these plants are best in the shade garden.

Spicebush berries before eaten by songbirds.

There are some other plants with red fruits in the garden. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has red berries but songbirds eat them by early September, so no winter interest there. I don’t begrudge the songbirds, this is partly why I planted Spicebush. The ‘Donald Wyman’ Crabapple has long-lasting red fruits most years but this year it had almost no fruits at all.

Also, this year I added a couple of Red Chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia). They’re still quite small, though, so I’m waiting to see how they do.

Do you have favorite plants for red fruits lasting into fall and winter?

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