Mystery Bird! ID Help Needed!

So we have a very handsome but unfamiliar avian guest in our backyard. He (or she) was first seen snacking on sunflower seeds on the platform feeder about three days ago. Since then, this mystery bird has been a regular presence.

Varied Thrush, Eastern Meadowlark
Varied Thrush? Eastern Meadowlark?

Probably a member of the Thrush Family, shaped like a Robin but bigger.  Very different from anyone we’ve seen in the garden before.

Varied Thrush

After consulting Sibley’s, we can think of two possibilities. First, it might possibly be an Eastern Meadowlark. Meadowlarks are not unknown in the Chicago area. However, the illustrations I’ve seen don’t look as dark or as orange as our new guest.

Varied Thrush

Also, our back garden is the wrong sort of habitat. Meadowlarks are birds of open fields –  hence the name. The only place nearby where they have been known to nest is a golf course with naturalistic prairie landscaping. Our yard is in filtered shade, with mature deciduous trees – cottonwoods, silver maples, and exotic elms.

The other possibility is Varied Thrush. Problem with the Varied Thrush is, their normal range is along the West Coast of the USA and Canada, extending into the western Rocky Mountains. They have been spotted further east, but very rarely.

ID help needed! Anybody out there want to venture an opinion?

To Order Now or Buy Later, That is the Question

It’s the end of January in the Midwest and I am suffering from gardening withdrawal. I’m feeling queasy, irritable, unable to concentrate. I must have plants! Herbaceous perennials, shrubs, small flowering trees, I don’t care! Just something!

box of plants 2

One way to take the edge off of gardening withdrawal is to order plants online. This produces a feeling of satisfaction and calm, at least briefly. I’ve been holding back, though, because I have to go through a period of indecisive fretting trying to decide whether it is better to order online now, or wait to buy plants at the garden center later on.

Of course, some things you just naturally buy at the garden center. Annuals, for example. (Who are these people who spend $9.50 for a single Impatiens plant (plus shipping) from White Flower Farm? I assume that they are either billionaire Wall Street types, or they are on their way to bankruptcy court.)

And some things are best ordered from online retailers. For example: seeds, bulbs, unusual varieties and specialty plants you are unlikely to find at the garden center.

plants for sale

But for other plants, the conscientious gardener has to weigh a number of pros and cons:

  • Online you have the greatest variety and are most likely to get exactly what you want.
  • But at the garden center you can inspect your specific plant before you buy it.
  • On the other hand, garden centers have the annoying habit of only selling plants  once they are in bloom. This can either mean that your plant has been subject to unnatural practices (how else could there be blooming Echinaceas in May?), or that they won’t make the plant available until late in the season (as with Eupatoriums and Ratibidas).
  • At the garden center you get bigger plants, which satisfies your inner child’s need for instant gratification.
  • On the other hand, those larger plants generally mean higher prices. And you often get more plant for your money by ordering bare root plants online. Of course, opening up a box of bare root plants feels a little bit like receiving a shipment of dried squids – not the most satisfying experience for the lover of green things.
  • Also, this is not a big deal, but getting rid of the packing materials that come with your plant deliveries can be a pain. Worst case was when I received a box of plants that had been packed with those styrofoam peanuts – and opened it outside on a windy day. Wind-borne styrofoam peanuts are darn difficult to catch.

As the gardener in charge, it’s my job to make the tough decisions. But it’s a difficult burden.

So how about you? Are you primarily a consumer of horticultural e-commerce or a patron of your local garden centers? Or both? Or do you go the frugal route of seeds, propagation, and pass along plants?

Wildflower Wednesday: Merrybells

Wildflower Wednesday is hosted on the fourth Wednesday of every month by Gail at Clay and Limestone

Sadly, I have no blooming wildflowers to write about at this time. However, in anticipation of the coming spring (only 59 days to go!), I will talk about one of my favorite spring wildflowers for shade: Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora).

Merrybells, Uvularia grandiflora
Merrybells on the west side of the garage.

Merrybells should be used more widely than they are. Both the nodding yellow flowers and the pale green foliage are lovely and distinctive. A May bloomer, it provides good early forage for native bees.

U. grandiflora also forms an attractive groundcover throughout the season in a shady, reasonably moist spot. In drier locations it will go dormant in summer.

This wildflower is native to deciduous woods of eastern North America. If planted in the right spot, I’ve found it to be a care free plant. Merrybells spreads moderately to form clumps, which can be divided in spring or fall. U. grandiflora’s other common name is large-flowered bellwort, but I think merrybells is a much better name, evoking the image of festivities on the village green.

Merrybells, Uvularia grandiflora, Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis var. alba
Merrybells with white Bleeding Heart.

A Good Winter for Woodpeckers

Or at least, for watching woodpeckers in our back yard. We’ve been getting lots of downies, plus regular visits from some hairy and Red Bellied Woodpeckers.

But the species I’m happiest to see is the Northern Flicker. That’s because we had a Northern Flicker show itself occasionally during the summer of 2010, but neither he nor any of his tribe returned for the next two years. Now we must have a pair nesting nearby, because they are showing up several times a day.

Northern Flicker on suet feeder
Northern Flicker on suet feeder.

Unfortunately the light has been terrible for photographs lately. We’ve either had heavy overcast or a low sun with terrible glare most of the day. So here’s a better picture Judy took that summer of 2010.

Northern Flicker on Silver Maple tree.
Northern Flicker on Silver Maple tree.

They are handsome birds. They’ve been drawn to our yard mostly by the suet feeder. We use plain suet, the woodpeckers at least don’t need to be enticed by mixing peanuts or fruit into the fat. They also will grab peanuts in the shell and fly off with them, as do the Red Bellied Woodpeckers.

Northern Flickers are not exactly rare, but their numbers are declining due to competition from starlings for nesting sites. They are unusual for woodpeckers in that they will hunt for ants and other insects on the ground. Also, they will sometimes perch instead of clinging to the sides of trees.

Have you seen any unusual birds in your yards this winter?





Book Review: The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Traci DiSabato-Aust, Timber Press, 2003.

The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

A beautiful garden is in the eye of the gardener, or in the case of garden designers, the eye of the client. That’s what makes the subject of Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s very valuable book, The Well-Designed Mixed Garden, so challenging. She meets the challenge ably, I think. DiSabato-Aust shows us what goes into the making of gardens most people would consider very beautiful, including why certain combinations of structures, colors, and textures tend to be seen as having the quality of beauty.

However, she repeatedly and rightly returns to the point that she can only provide guidelines that a gardener has every right to change or ignore: “Your style should be reflected in your garden. Do whatever makes you happy.” This is a book that gives gardeners the tools to design gardens that are beautiful for them, even if their ideas of beauty diverge from DiSabato-Aust’s at times.

The Well-Designed Mixed Garden is divided into three parts. The first lays out the basics of garden design. The second provides designs of actual gardens, along with explanatory text. And the third includes a number of the author’s favorite plant combinations.

The first part begins with the benefits of a mixed garden, containing both woody and herbaceous plants. Unlike Piet Oudolf (who prefers herbaceous-only beds), DiSabato-Aust believes mixed gardens have many advantages: a more diverse plant palette, more layering and verticality, more winter interest, and a stronger underlying structure. For myself, I would endorse her argument and add that woody plants are generally lower maintenance.

There is a useful discussion of the complexities of color. The author helps us understand that blue is not always “cool” and red “hot”, there can also be warm blues and cool reds depending on the mix, tint, and hue. She explains various color schemes in terms of finding the right balance of harmony and contrast – which ultimately, like so much else, is a matter of personal taste. The importance of plant shapes and textures also gets substantial attention.

I especially appreciated her explanation of the design principles of order, unity, and rhythm. I had heard these phrases before, but in my mind they were quite vague and I suspected that they all meant the same thing. They are in fact all related concepts, but not really the same thing. Order refers to a garden’s underlying structure or organizing principle. Unity is a common theme that pulls the garden together. And rhythm is what gives gardens a sense of movement. The author explains all in some depth, then uses the section on specific garden designs to provide examples.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust
Tracy DiSabato-Aust

The section including various garden designs is inspiring, but also a little frustrating for a gardener on a small urban lot. I suspect that big gardens are the author’s true love, because she devotes about twice as much space to them as she does to small and medium-sized gardens. In fact, more than half of this section is devoted to a single massive garden the author designed for a client in Ohio, a garden containing 425 kinds of plants. I have  no doubt that this garden is a real accomplishment and a thing of beauty.

However, it has limited value as an example for the small-scale gardener. Further, it’s a little on the overwhelming side for the amateur designer even as an object of study. Similarly, I was surprised by the large number of plants present in the author’s designs as only a single specimen. The author, I infer, is a person who loves plants and places a premium on using many species and varieties.

In addition to the encyclopedia of plant combinations, there are roughly two hundred pages worth of information on plants the author likes to use in her designs. The plants are organized into two charts, one for cultural characteristics and one for design characteristics.

Overall, The Well-Designed Mixed Garden is a book that gardeners should read through once, then keep on hand as a reference they are likely to consult frequently.

Please check out Roses and Other Gardening Joys for more reviews of great books.

The Echinacea Cultivar Control Board: A Modest Proposal

I’m very fond of purple coneflowers and other members of the genus Echinacea. However, there is something disconcerting about the multitude of occasionally bizarre Echinacea cultivars being put out by plant breeders. I mean, what was the thinking behind Echinacea ‘Double Decker’?

Echinacea 'Double Decker'
Echinacea ‘Double Decker’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a straight species purist. I plant cultivars. But why develop cultivars that negate the essential character of the plant? For example, the whole idea of a coneflower is the central cone. It’s in the name, right? And yet, we have this.

Echinacea 'Secret Passion'
Echinacea ‘Secret Passion’

What’s this supposed to be, a dahlia? A double zinnia? It’s certainly no coneflower.

What’s more, based on the comments generated by my last post, it seems that the Echinacea cultivars are frequently not garden-worthy. I had written that I was considering Echinacea ‘Tikki Torch’ because I wanted a taller orange perennial. Almost without exception, the commenters advised against such a move. In their experience, the cultivars often had problems with disease resistance and making it through the winter.

Their reaction confirmed my reflexive resistance to Echinacea cultivars, which was based on a gut feeling that even the less peculiar ones just didn’t look right.

Echinacea 'Pink Poodle'
Echinacea ‘Pink Poodle’. What an undignified name for what should be a dignified flower.

(NOTE: the above three photos all come from

In any case, we as gardeners must stand up for that great genus, Echinacea, before it’s too late. But how?

I would propose the creation of a Federal Echinacea Cultivar Control Board (FECCB). The FECCB would be empowered to prevent commercial production and sale of Echinacea varieties that are just too stupid for words. Doesn’t the European Union do something like this?

All Echinacea cultivars would be subject to FECCB approval. The Board would divide cultivars into three categories:

  1. Nice. These would be cleared for distribution without any restrictions.
  2. If You Must. These could be produced and sold, but only with an official FECCB sticker which reads: “WARNING: Purchase of this plant may make you feel silly in a year or two.”
  3. You’re Kidding, Right? These cultivars would be banned. Possession of a small number for sale would be a misdemeanor, massing for greater impact would be a felony.

With the creation of the FECCB, we can rest assured that Echinaceas have been saved for future generations. Thank you

Purple Coneflowers
What purple coneflowers are supposed to look like.

I Got the Orange Blues

I am not at all systematic about color. I mean, I do think about which plant combinations look good. But I have never had a color scheme for any of my flower beds as a whole.

Not that I felt the lack of a color scheme very acutely up until now. I was too busy figuring out how to jam in some plant I had just fallen love with.

Beautiful flower border
Raised bed along driveway and front walk.

But lately I’ve been overcome by a sense of inadequacy, and inadequacy that is most intense while I’m looking at illustrations of garden design books. And so now I must have a color scheme. I’m going to start with the raised bed that lies along the driveway and the walk to the front door.

My color scheme for this bed will be blue, orange, and yellow – with accents of white and mauve. Why? Well, two reasons.

First, I like these colors, and I’ve always been attracted to the contrast between the cooler blue and the warmer orange and yellow. I just like the combination. If I knew more about color theory I might have an explanation for this, but I don’t.

Celandine poppy, grape hyacinth
Celandine poppy with grape hyacinth. I just like blue and yellow.

Second, I don’t want to get rid of the many plants I already have that are blue, orange, or yellow. Or white (Oriental lilies ‘Casa Blanca’), or mauve (Eupatorium ‘Gateway’). Hence the accents.

But something must be sacrificed in order to make room for the new order. And that something is: purple coneflowers. I’ll be sad to say farewell, but I’m also tired of the aster yellows that seems to strike every year.

Here’s what I have currently that fits into my blue/orange/yellow  future.

Culver's Root 'Fascination'
Culver’s Root ‘Fascination’

Blue. Grape hyacinth for spring, cranesbill (Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’) and blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) for late spring and early summer, plus Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and catmint (Nepeta ‘kit kat’)  for summer. The bergamot is more lavender but that’s close enough.

Yellow. Celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) for spring, gray headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) for summer, and bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) for fall.

Grey headed coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
Gray headed coneflower. More of these would be good.

Orange: Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Eye-yi-yi’) for summer, plus orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘fulgida’) for summer and fall. Though I always thought orange coneflower was actually more an orange-hued yellow, but whatever.

What I need to complete the new color scheme is more summer yellow or orange at the northern end of the bed – near the anise hyssop. Also, more blue for summer and fall at the southern end, near the ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed. Though I’m less worried about fall, because the surrounding beds have lots of blue/purple asters.

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

For the yellow/orange, I’m thinking either more grey headed coneflower or the new purple coneflower cultivar ‘Tikki Torch’, which is a nice orange.  I’ve always resisted these new Echinacea varieties, the colors often seemed just wrong, but now I’m tempted. I also want to plant more butterflyweed just behind the nepeta.

For the blue, I’ve got some ideas I’m excited about. First, I’d like to put in a shorter butterfly bush (Buddleia), something like ‘Adonis Blue’ that grows 4-5′. Second, I’d go with 2-3 bluebeard ‘Longwood Blue’ (Caryopteris x clandonensis). Though if I had to eliminate one of these, I think it would be the Buddleia.

Nepeta and hummingbird moth
Nepeta and hummingbird moth.

Finally, I’d grow morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’) up some kind of tutuer near the Joe Pye. Wouldn’t that be a great combination?

Any suggestions? Would you go with the grey headed coneflower or the purple coneflower ‘Tikki Torch’? Or do you have another suggestion for orange or yellow? And the catalogs say you can integrate Buddleia ‘Adonis Blue’ into a flower bed – would you be skeptical? All feedback gratefully accepted!

Snow Drought?

The Chicago Botanic Garden blog has just added a new post regarding the “snow drought” we are apparently experiencing here in Chicago. This makes an interesting follow-up to my last post looking back at 2012’s unsettling weather.

melting snowman
Image from

I had always thought that drought was something we experienced only during the growing season. Apparently, this is not the case. There are three aspects of this: lack of snow, lack of precipitation generally, and temperature.

Our part of the state is still considered to be in a condition of “moderate drought” – due to a moisture deficit that built up over the course of 2012. That deficit has not been erased, even though the last few months have brought above average precipitation.

In addition, the lack of snow cover compounds the drying effects of winter winds upon the soil. Apparently the scanty snowfall has broken a whole grab bag full of climate records. Oh, and we can probably expect a bumper crop of aphids and other garden pests next year thanks to the mild winter. Happy New Year to you, too, CBG!

According to the post, we can protect our plants with plenty of winter mulch – and even winter watering. That last leaves me a little puzzled, though, since the ground is pretty much frozen.

Anyhow, this is a worthwhile article for gardeners in Chicago and the Midwest  especially. You can find it here.

2012, the Year of Unnerving Weather

Extreme weather dominates my thoughts about gardening for this past year. It started with extreme winter mildness. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it was unnerving for those of us accustomed to harsh Chicago winters. January was about 8 degrees warmer than normal on average. Snow melted, the snowdrops (Galanthus) came up early.

Snowdrops in January

The unusual warmth intensified by March, and all kinds of stuff started blooming early by a month or more. On the whole, March was about 15 degrees F warmer than normal.

Species tulip 'Fusilier'
Species tulips in March – the red Tulipa praestans ‘Fusilier’ is one of my favorites.

But if March lulled us with warmth, April slammed us with a frigid sucker punch. A new flowering dogwood I had planted early was annihilated, and stone fruits like cherries and peaches were devastated. Fortunately, many of my spring flowers are extremely hardy, and these bloomed through the cold snap without missing stride.

Celandine Poppies, Grape Hyacinths
Celandine Poppies and Grape Hyacinths.

It was in May that I got the first intimations of the drought that was to dominate the summer. The whole year had been on the dry side to date, but I think it was in May when I really noticed how few and far between the rain showers had become. One change I had made in the front garden was fortuitous for a dry year, however. Inspired by the river of blue Salvia at the Lurie Garden, I had pulled out a long patch of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and replaced it with Salvia ‘May Night’ and ‘Blue Hill’. The wild geranium will go dormant in a dry summer, but the Salvia is relatively drought tolerant.

Salvia 'May Night', Golden Alexander
Salvia ‘May Night’ with Golden Alexander

In June, I invested in some soaker hoses that I could move from bed to bed. I also had to dig out some purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) infested with aster yellows. I replaced them with yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Culver’s root ‘Fascination’ (Veronicastrum virginicum). I was pleased with these choices.

Culver's Root 'Fascination', Veronicastrum virginicum
Culver’s Root ‘Fascination’ with Asiatic lilies in the background.

The drought, combined with a heat wave, hit its peak in July. I spent a LOT of time dragging around the soaker hoses. We’re lucky enough to live in the Lake Michigan watershed, which means we have no watering restrictions. However, that doesn’t make it free, and when the summer water bills arrive from the city I pretty much have to be scraped off the ceiling. Between the watering and my drought tolerant, mostly native plants, I was able to keep things looking pretty good.

'Casa Blanca' Oriental Lilies, Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway', Joe Pye Weed
Front garden with ‘Casa Blanca’ Oriental Lilies and Eupatorium ‘Gateway’.

We turned the corner on the drought in August. Rainfall and temperatures were normal, though we still had an enormous moisture deficit to make up. And of course, a “normal” August means, for me, days drenched in perspiration. In any case, I was pleased that in its second year my Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ was doing fine even though I had put it in a freely draining raised bed. (Joe Pye Weed likes LOTS of water.)

front garden, anise hyssop, purple coneflower, brown eyed susan
Grass path through the front garden in August.

The arrival of September was a relief. Things were cooling off. The asters and the goldenrods began blooming.

Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius, Anise Scented Goldenrod, Solidago odora
Aromatic Aster with Anise-Scented Goldenrod.

Fall foliage came into its glory as September turned into October.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance', Amelanchier
Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’

And November reminded me why it is such a good idea to devote significant space to grasses.

Northern Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium
Northern Sea Oats

So there you have it, the 2012 garden year. The garden did all right, thanks to lots of supplemental watering. But climate change worries me, and I think it should worry all of us. “Normal” weather is becoming a thing of the past, and gardeners as much as anyone need to let policy makers know that we expect them to get a grip on this emerging reality.

Happy Birthday, Gardeninacity!

In the Spring of 2012, a few months after I started Gardeninacity, I was dismayed to read that there was a workshop at the Spring Fling for garden bloggers that asked the question: is garden blogging dead?

Goldfinch on purple coneflower


Actually, I recently received an email from WordPress informing me that Gardeninacity is one year old. I have to say that my first year of blogging has been very rewarding.

The idea of starting a garden blog appealed to me for several reasons. First, I like to show off my garden, which has become something closer to a mania than a hobby. Though I am a reserved sort of person, shy really, the fact is that I crave recognition for my garden the way a new mother wants her baby to be admired.

Second, I do enjoy writing. What’s more, I enjoy writing short essays of several hundred words that I cannot post on Facebook or Twitter.

Bumble bee on Knautia macedonica

Finally, I needed more distraction so that I was not constantly thinking about my job. I love and admire many of the people I work with, and I believe in what we do. However, we work in a field where cynicism can reach toxic levels, and I need an antidote.

Well, this blogging stuff has provided distraction in spades. The first few months, my goal was to write one post per week. Then it was two posts. Now I write something roughly every other day. Over the course of the year, I’ve written more than 100 posts.

It has not always been easy. For me the biggest challenge was hitting the right tone: friendly, conversational, upbeat. I do a fair amount of writing at work, and the style I need to use there is very different: factual, understated, occasionally a bit sarcastic. What’s more, people who know me would not call me upbeat. I’ve been told that if I were a character from Winnie the Pooh, it would be Eeyore.

So when I sit down to write a blog post I have to change my mindset, and that is a good thing. Moreover, I feel that I’ve had some success along those lines. For instance, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with the use of exclamation points!

Purple coneflowers and Casa Blanca lilies

And I’ve come to understand the meaning of “on-line community”, which I had thought to be a phrase without meaning. But I was genuinely excited when people like yourselves started commenting on my blog. And through your comments and your blogs, I did in fact get to know a community of people.

This has been gratifying not just because I’ve discovered so many folks with good hearts who are full of useful knowledge and entertaining observations, but also because these people are from all over the USA and all over the world: the UK, Canada, Italy, Russia, Malaysia, the Philippines … in fact, gardeninacity has been viewed by people in 90 countries.

I have to acknowledge a special debt to my loving and talented wife Judy, who encouraged me to start this blog, and who provides almost all the photographs. She may be having second thoughts now that I frequently badger her to take more pictures for new posts. I am also extremely appreciative of all the people who read and write comments on Gardeninacity.

Monarch Butterflies on Zinnia

I am still new to this, but my experience over the last year is that garden blogging is not dead. Perhaps it is contracting because of other social media, I don’t know. For now, it seems to me that blogging provides a depth of expression, both written and graphic, that other media do not. And that’s good, because I’d like to have at least another couple of years.

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