The Vole Patrol

It’s more about rabbits, actually, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymes with rabbit (Babbit?).

The biggest catastrophe that befell my garden last winter came as a result of nibbling and gnawing creatures. The worst damage was to three dwarf Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) ‘Iroquois Beauty’ that I had just planted. Every single stem had been chewed down, and while they weren’t killed, they did not quite recover during the growing season. There was lesser damage done to some serviceberries (Amelanchier) as well.

While I’m quite sure the damage done last year was by rabbits, I’ve recently learned about the Vole Menace at my Plant Health class at Chicago Botanic Garden. Voles, which are like even smaller versions of mice, can girdle young trees and shrubs by chewing the outer layers at the base of the plant. I’m pretty sure there are voles living in my garden, but I haven’t spotted that sort of damage to date.

So yesterday Measures Were Taken. Specifically, I surrounded my Aronia, my two youngest serviceberry, and my new flowering dogwood with a barrier of hardware cloth, which is like chicken wire but with much smaller holes. From this exercise I can offer my readers two pieces of advice.

First, if you do something like this, wear gloves. Well, of course, you might think. I never think “of course” when it comes to wearing gloves. Partly it’s because I like to feel the soil in my hands when I garden. But my point now is, despite the name, hardware cloth is not made of cloth. It is made of metal wire, with lots of sharp pointy bits sticking out when you cut off lengths of it. These pointy bits will hurt and cause your hands to bleed. While this does provide a unique opportunity to impress your spouse with what you remember of the dialogue from Macbeth, I don’t recommend it. Neither does your spouse, or mine.

Second, measure the lengths of hardware cloth before you cut them. Once again, you might think this is obvious. But it is not obvious if, like me, you pride yourself on the ability to do things by eye. I keep forgetting that this pride is entirely misplaced. If you don’t measure, you may very well finish off what the rabbits started by breaking off live twigs trying to install lengths of hardware cloth that are too short.

In addition to hardware cloth, I also sprayed an animal repellent, Repels-All, on and around the lower parts of the plants. It claims to be effective for two months. We’ll see. It smells like rotten eggs, which turns out to be one of the ingredients.

What are you doing to protect your garden from hungry critters over the winter?

Something Different for Thanksgiving Dessert

We had a fine Thanksgiving. Both kids were home – David had taken the bus down from Minnesota. Also taking part were Judy’s brother and sister-in-law Paul and Paula; also their son Marc, his wife Cathy, and granddaughter Miranda. Miranda, not yet two, was the star of the evening.

We had many of the staples: turkey, mashed sweet potatoes, braised brussels sprouts, two kinds of cranberries. For dessert, though, Judy (with assistance from Daniel), made something a little different: galettes, which are a sort of open-faced pie. There were three kinds: cherry, mixed berry, and pear with ginger.

Freshly baked galettes: mixed berry (right), pear and ginger (center), cherry (left).

The prear galette recipe was kind of improvised, so here it is, as dictated by Judy and Daniel.

  • Cut two pears up into little pieces. Mix with the juice of one lime and a scant tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. Add sugar to taste and about a tablespoon of cornstach.
  • Roll out one pie crust. Put pear mix in the middle. Fold the pie crust edges over and crimp (see picture).
  • Brush crust with egg wash if desired for browning.
  • Bake at 400 degrees F for 35 to 40 minutes, or until browned. Allow to cool before cutting or it will be runny.


Miranda, the guest of honor, with parents Marc and Cathy.


The other guest of honor.

Book Review: On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell

Once upon a time newspapers had garden writers. Such a one was Henry Mitchell, who wrote a gardening column for the Washington Post from 1973 to 1991. Mitchell was an avid gardener, but he started writing about gardens only in the latter part of his career in journalism. His love of both gardens and the English language shines through in his finely honed and entertaining columns.

On Gardening is a collection of the best of Mitchell’s garden writing. He writes about favorite plants; about the seasons and insects; about gardeners’ obsessions and their reversals.

Occasionally he sounds a bit cantankerous, as when he derides common,  “low maintenance” plants like Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ in favor of those more delicate creatures in need of a bit of pampering:

“… it is better to have rejoiced in sweet peas (which are extremely chancy beasts here) and delphiniums and tuberoses and oleanders and jasmines and much more, than to have settled for the hardiest toughest dullest plants of the Western world.”

More often, though, his is a voice of tolerance, equanimity, and wry experience. Here are a few samples:

On gardening manias: “Once a gardener has some plant he once longed for, he takes it for granted.  It is somewhat like sex – the mad excitement cannot be expected to last forever.”

On the joy of gardening in an uncertain world: “Still, as I went about my potting on a glorious afternoon, one small treasure after another, the world of nature that is so terrible and so beautiful appeared only in its sweetest aspect.”

On his personal gardening philosophy: “I well know I have neither the time nor the energy nor even the desire to have a garden that people admire. It is not for them but for me.”

On growing two large plants where there is room for only one: “Often when people see such things they think the gardener does not know how big plants get. Ha. The gardener knows quite well, but he is greedy and wants both. Greed in this case is not far from love, both of which exact a price in this world.”

On insects in the garden: “If gardeners stopped thinking of insects as enemies they would find some pleasure in them. Butterflies alone are reason to forget poison sprays … Every garden should have a weed patch of nettles, dock, thistles, and milkweed for the benefit of these epicurean beasts, and even a quite small garden should have a Buddleia, as no plant attracts them better.”

Henry Mitchell

On Gardening is a pleasure to read, a fine book for anyone who loves gardens and enjoys good writing.

On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell, First Mariner Books 1999, New York, NY.

The Bird Jacuzzi: Who Says it’s Ridiculous?

Notwithstanding climate change, we can have some pretty harsh winters here in the Chicago area. During these winters, birds find fresh water even harder to come by than food. And that’s why I bought my heated bird bath from Wild Birds Unlimited, or as I call it, the Bird Jacuzzi.

Mourning Dove Heated Bird Bath
January 2012 – Mourning Dove at the heated bird bath

I just recently set up my heated bird bath for the third year in a row. When I saw that the regular  bird bath had a floating cap of ice in the morning, I figured it’s time. This year I added an extra touch: a little plastic waterfall complete with pump. With this addition, I christened my heated bird bath the Bird Jacuzzi.

The Bird Jacuzzi 2012, just recently set up.

The bird bath and the pump are plugged into an outdoor outlet we have attached to the back porch. I use a bright orange extension cord that Judy thinks is tacky, but I find to be highly festive.

The bird bath doesn’t actually make the water warm. It just keeps the water from freezing. Now, I realize that non-migratory birds somehow survived the winter before the advent of heated bird baths. Typically, they would eat snow. But eating snow forces birds to expend energy and body heat that have to be carefully conserved for survival.

I do sometimes feel a little defensive about my Bird Jacuzzi, that it’s a bit over the top. Is there anybody else out there with a heated bird bath? Surely there must be. Does anyone else feel the need to truly go the extra mile for our avian friends? And please, no sniggering from people who live in places with warm or mild winters.

Negotiations Reach a Critical Phase

So remember how in my last post I wrote about how I’d like to replace the Bridalwreath in the front yard? Well, Judy has agreed! This is important, because Judy doesn’t like change. But now we have to agree on what to replace it with.

My first preference is a serviceberry (Amelanchier). Judy doesn’t like serviceberries (I think she just doesn’t like the name), and she doesn’t like shrubs in general. She could be happy with something if it could be classified as a small tree, but not a shrub. Why? Pursuing that question is entirely unproductive.

We both like crabapples (Malus), but I wouldn’t want to plant a full size crabapple that close to the house. There’s a dwarf crabapple recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden called ‘Red Jade’, but the habit shown in the picture wasn’t that appealing to either of us. Maybe if we could find a multi-stem ‘Red Jade’…  Judy likes multi-stem trees, though she doesn’t like shrubs. Why? Do not try to pursue that discussion.

Crabapple 'Red Jade'
Malus ‘Red Jade’ Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

Also, I worry about planting a crab in a spot with less than full sun, and I’ve been hearing warnings in class about how crabapples always come down with scab and other nasty conditions. I have a ‘Donald Wyman’, though, that’s been disease-free so far.

I’ve offered an American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) as a possibility. Small tree, takes shade, interesting catkins and fruit, and good fall color. If we can find one that is multi-stem, we could be close to a deal.

American Hornbeam.
Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

So do you have an opinion? Should we look at another crabapple? Is there another species we should consider? All input appreciated!

A Different Kind of Foundation Planting? Yew Bet!

The Ostrich Bed is what I call the area that is immediately in front of our living room windows. The windows face North towards the street. When we moved to this house ten years ago, this part of the yard was simply a foundation planting of tormented Japanese Yews (Taxus cuspidata). The yews were suffering  because they were forced to stay just 3′ tall, whereas they yearned to grow out and up to 15′ or more, as their sister in the backyard has done.

The Ostrich Bed, with Ostrich Fern, Bleeding Heart, and Golden Alexander in May.

I put the yews out of their misery. I just kept cutting back stems until all that remained were the thick and gnarled trunks. Then I got out my pruning saw and cut the trunks off at ground level. I didn’t try to dig out the roots. I’ve done that before, and it requires a very strenuous effort if you are using only hand tools. This was at an earlier house we lived in, where I also did away with the the foundation planting of Japanese Yews. Digging them out is unnecessary: I’ve never seen these plants grow back from the roots.

I sometimes wonder if I could become a kind of Johnny Appleseed in reverse for Japanese Yews (Johnny Yew Stump?), traveling from place to place and yanking out foundation plantings instead of planting orchards.

But I digress. In front of the Yews there was a shelf of grass that extended a few feet before sloping down sharply about two feet to the main part of the front yard. I dug out the grass and, using flagstones from an old patio, built a low retaining wall in front of the slope, then filled in the gap with topsoil.

You can see the retaining wall in this picture. A front yard path between other front yard flower beds leads to the Ostrich Bed.

Then came the plants. Along the front of the house I planted ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), who dominate this bed for much of the Spring and Summer and inspired the nickname. These are wonderful plants, in their second year they were already over three feet high, and I’m hopeful that they will eventually reach their majestic potential height of six feet. This would be tall enough to be imposing but not tall enough to block the view from the windows, as our first floor is a couple feet above ground level.

Wild Columbine blooms in the Ostrich Bed in May.

In front of the Ostrich ferns are a mix of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), old fashioned Bleeding Hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) for Spring bloom. There are also Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) for early summer. Daffodils and daylilies (Hemerocalis ‘Aye-yi-yi’) are planted along the edge of the retaining wall (the area of this bed that gets the most sun). I also let a couple of Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii) and Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) seed in here and there for fall color.

Daylily ‘Aye-yi-yi’ flowers on the sunnier edge of the Ostrich bed.

I like my Ostrich Bed, but I’m not completely satisfied. First off, I planted Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ along the concrete landing on the west end of the bed. I think they want a more acidic soil and aren’t very happy. Didn’t bloom at all this year, and last year bloomed very sparsely. I’ve been thinking of replacing them with American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa). White flower spikes in summer, berries for the birds in fall, likes shade, big but not too big – why  not?

Also, I would really like to get rid of the old  Bridalwreath Spirea (Spirea vanhoutei) on the east end of the bed. I would replace them either with Serviceberry (Amelanchier) or Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia).

The Ostrich Bed in November. You can see the Clethra and Bridalwreath at either end.

So what do you think? Dump the Clethra and the Bridalwreath? Bring on the Spikenard and Serviceberry? The ostriches are waiting.

The Big Chill and Autumn Color’s Last Stand

Every year there is a sort of tipping point reached some time in November that signals the coming end of fall and beginning of winter. Yesterday seems to have been one of those days. Following a week of very mild weather, almost shirtsleeve weather, a biting cold arrived riding in on strong winds. Suddenly the night was cold enough to make an icy cap on the water in the bird baths.

The cold shriveled my last blooming annual, Cleome ‘Senorita Rosalita’, which had kept blooming gamely even as the calendar wore on. Nevertheless, the last of the fall colors strive to hang on, unwilling to go softly into that good night. Judy and I both took some of these pictures (mine are the fuzzy ones). Unfortunately, her good camera, a Nikon, isn’t working right now.

Incredibly, there are still a few flowers blooming. The trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is having a last flush of flowers.

Trumpet honeysuckle

And my white roses, ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, ‘Cassie’, even ‘Sallie Holmes’, continue to have a few flowers.

Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’

There are also rose hips, though these are quickly eaten by the birds once ripe.

Rosa ‘Westerland’
Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’

The above-mentioned roses still have green foliage, but I was pleased to see that the wild pink rose Rosa setigera has lovely fall color. I’m growing R. setigera, also called prairie rose or Illinois rose, against a south-facing white brick wall, where it is gradually entangling itself with the trumpet flower. This is its second year.

Rosa setigera autumn foliage Illinois Rose
Rosa setigera autumn foliage

Most of the leaves have fallen, but there are a few that still stubbornly refuse to drop. The Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet) still has many of its golden yellow leaves.

Summersweet autumn foliage

My native Viburnums are just now beginning to concede that the seasons are changing. V. prunifolium, blackhaw Viburnum, is turning a deep red. V. trilobum (cranberrybush Viburnum) is turning a multitude of colors, from burgundy to bright yellow.

Cranberrybush Viburnum

And my young Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), planted just this spring, is the last of my dogwoods to keep its foliage.

Cornus florida fall foliage
Flowering Dogwood

Carry on as long as you can, you last few holdouts of autumn. As white and brown gradually covers the land, I will think of you.

Movie Review: A Royal Affair

And now for something completely different: a movie review. Judy and I took the very unusual step (unusual for us these days) of going out to see A Royal Affair at an actual movie theater. Our son Daniel joined us, though his girlfriend was out-of-town attending a family wedding.

Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelson), Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikanda), and Christian VII (Mikkal Folsgaard)

I thought the movie was definitely worth seeing. It’s in Danish with subtitles, though, so it may not be your cup of tea if that bothers you. The film is part tragic romance, part political and historical drama.

The story takes place in Denmark in the late 18th Century, and is at least partially based on actual events. At the time, the country was a backwater of serfdom, obscurantism, and physical cruelty. It was ruled by the young and mentally unstable Christian VII (Mikkal Folsgaard), one of the three central characters. Christian is married to the unhappy Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikanda) , who feels trapped and isolated.

Things start to head in a different direction with the unlikely appointment of Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelson) as royal physician. Struensee, an idealist of great personal warmth, is able to establish a strong bond with Christian. He also falls in love with Caroline, and they begin an affair that eventually destroys them both.

At the beginning of the film, Christian is a figurehead dominated by the nobles and clergy of the royal council. Under the influence of Struensee and Caroline, however, Christian asserts his authority and enacts a variety of reforms, humanitarian and political. Ultimately, however, the forces of reaction reestablish their dominance over the country.

Dr. Struensee faces the wrath of the power structure.

It’s difficult to depict political conflict convincingly in fiction and even more so in the movies, but A Royal Affair does so compellingly. The portrayal of Christian as a titular ruler who in fact has very little control over his own life reminded me strongly of  the tragic title character in The Last Emperor.

Both Judy and Daniel agreed with me that the acting in A Royal Affair was powerfully moving. At two hours and thirteen minutes, though, they thought it could have used a bit more editing. Personally, I was not aware of the time while the movie was playing.

If you’re reluctant to see A Royal Affair because it sounds too dark, I should mention that there is an optimistic ending of sorts. I’m not sure how widely this movie is playing in the US, but if you get the chance it is a rewarding experience.

Physocarpus, Heal Thyself

So last night I went to the first class of the new course I’m taking at the Chicago Botanic Garden, “Introduction to Plant Health”. Actually, I thought it was the first class – really, it was the third class. I was confused about the date due to the parallel space-time continuum I enter whenever there is a period of insane busyness at work. I hate it when that happens.

This course is a requirement for the certificate in garden design that I’m pursuing, but I’m a little apprehensive about taking it. That’s because when it comes to plant health, I could probably be sued for negligence. When a plant in my garden has serious health issues, my usual response is to just get rid of it. I mean, illness is such a downer.

Rust on a hollyhock leaf. Pretty disgusting, huh?

Sometimes you really have no choice in the matter, such as when your purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are infected with the incurable aster yellows. However, when my hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) developed rust, I didn’t try to save them with fungicides, I just pulled them all out. I still miss those hollyhocks, but I got rid of  them all the same.

My other approach to plant diseases: ignore them. You say there’s downy mildew on the Monarda? That’s funny, I can’t see it.

I have made some attempts to actually bring stricken plants back to health. For instance, I used to have a small Magnolia, not sure what species, in the backyard. The Magnolia became badly infested with soft  scale insects. Soft scale are pretty disgusting because they produce a sticky substance called honeydew. The honeydew in turn feeds sooty mold, which unlike honeydew is aptly named.

Magnolia scale. Also disgusting, even before the sooty mold gets all over everything. Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden.

After consulting the internet, I tried to apply a dormant oil to smother the scale. Apparently timing is important with applying dormant oil and I got the timing wrong, because the scale bugs and their friend Mr. Sooty Mold didn’t go anywhere. My patience exhausted, I cut down the Magnolia, replaced it with several Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and have not seen any scale since.

I’m proud to say that I once did cure a plant of what ailed it. Earlier this year, some of the stems of my Forsythia were dying back. Using a book called What’s Wrong with My Plant? by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, I figured out that the stems were infested with borers. Cutting the stems back below the infested areas did the trick.

Actually, I really haven’t had much in the way of pest or disease problems in my garden over the years. I put that down to growing tough plants in the right cultural conditions, along with a very healthy population of beneficial insects. That may not always be enough, however. For example, in that first class the instructor warned of the high probability that crabapples will become diseased. I love my crabapple, and I don’t want to cut it down.

So I hope that after this class I can do something other than tell my plants to cure themselves.

What about you? Do your plants get sick much, and how do you handle it when they do?

Book Review: Designing with Plants, by Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury

This is a book that should be read slowly. The writing is certainly clear and accessible, but the text is dense with thought-provoking insights on garden design. The insights are illustrated with  gorgeous photographs that merit close study. Designing with Plants is more of a meditation on garden design, rather than a how-to book. But those meditations are well worth the gardener’s time, coming as they do from the famous Dutch garden designer who has given us magnificent green spaces such as Chicago’s Lurie Garden.

The insight that left the greatest impression on me was the importance of plant shape. Like many others, I tend to think of gardens primarily in terms of color. Oudolf counsels against this: “Structure is the most important component in a successful planting; color is important too, but it is a secondary consideration” – because it is temporary, and because structure provides the context for color.

The authors provide a classification scheme for types of plant shapes. They discuss how differently or similarly shaped plants can be combined, and how combinations of shapes interact with complementary and contrasting colors.

Spires and buttons: Brown Eyed Susan and Anise Hyssop in my garden. Shapes first, then colors, says Oudolf.

The tone of the writing is contemplative rather than didactic or evangelical, and I appreciated that. Oudolf recognizes that what is beautiful in the garden is subjective and based in emotion, and he encourages gardeners to avoid rigid rules.

Oudolf’s designs are natural-looking rather than “natural” in the sense of using only indigenous plants. He praises native plants as well as plants generally that remain in or are close to their wild state. His primary goal, however, is to use whatever perennials work to create gardens that are full and abundant, generally relaxed in tone, and visually effective. In this book he discusses other important but frequently ignored aspects of garden design such as light, movement, and mood.

Switchgrass ‘Northwind’. Oudolf is a big proponent of grasses for their ability to capture light and movement.

I did not agree with everything in Designing with Plants. For instance, mixed borders with perennials and woody plants are one of the few things that bring out Oudolf’s judgemental side. I myself would like to put more woody plants in my borders, in part because they are less work – no staking, fall or spring clean-up, or dividing. Oudolf argues that using more wild or near-wild perennials will reduce the work load, but in my experience that is true only to a limited extent.

Also, Oudolf tends to deal with larger spaces for his gardens, and I would have appreciated more of a focus on translating his ideas for smaller gardens.

Designing with Plants was fist published in 2000, so it is not a new book. Many people consider it something of a classic. I’m reluctant to call any book essential. I would say that, if they haven’t already read it, most gardeners who want to think more creatively about their gardens would find this book extremely valuable.

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