Back to School at the Chicago Botanic Garden

For the last year or so I’ve been taking classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG). I skipped the April/May classes because that is our busiest time at work. My goal is to get a Certificate in Garden Design, though I’ve got a very long way to go. 

Linnaeus statue at the CBG’s Discovery Garden.

Monday night I started on my new course. I was supposed to start the Monday before last. In fact, I had taken the day off so that nothing would interfere with getting to the first class on time.

Only thing was, I got so caught up in working on the garden that I forgot I had a gardening class that evening. How’s that for irony?

Anyhow, the class is on Modern Garden History. It’s taught by Barbara Geiger, who also teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She’s a very knowlegable and entertaing lecturer (I’ve already taken the Early Garden History class with her). There are about 10 people in the class, a diverse and interesting group.

Most of the CBG classes are held here at the Regenstein Center.

I’ve got to tell you, any gardener who visits Chicago must go to the Chicago Botanic Garden. I love that place. Just take a look at the website. And for those of you who live in the area, I highly recommend the adult education programs.

Raspberry Surprise

I have a bed at the base of the backyard silver maple that I call my “wild bed”. Whatever grows there is what grows there. The only exception is woody plants; any tree or shrub seedlings get  yanked as soon as I see them.

It wasn’t originally supposed to be a wild bed. When I smothered the grass I envisioned a bed full of daffodils and wildflowers. I planted 100 daffodil bulbs, and they have hung on but not flourished.

I tried planting wildflowers, but most of them just didn’t want to live at the base of a silver maple, with the exception of a clump of Solomon’s Plume (Smilacina racemosa). Also, despite the brick edging I installed (not too smart because of potential damage to tree roots), the grass kept creeping in, thriving in a way it never had before I tried to kill it. This shows you just how malicious grass can be.

Finally, I decided to turn defeat into victory by declaring the bed a wild or meadow bed. The results have been interesting. The daffodils declined somewhat in number. After a while, the dominant plants were Boltonia and some kind of tall goldenrod. I cut both back to keep them more compact. Along the edges some other flowers and grasses would volunteer, mainly Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) and Bottlebrush Grass (Hystrix patula). Tell the truth, it looked pretty good.

The Wild Flower Bed. Note containers and brick edging.

Then came the next devlopment: raspberries. Thanks to some visiting bird, raspberry canes started popping up in the wild bed. Last year and this they have yielded a growing number of really delicious black raspberries.

I intend to allow the raspberries to spread within the bed. The challenges are: 1) keeping them from spreading outside the bed, and 2) on a related note, keeping them from attacking passersby with their thorns. So far I’ve dealt with both problems by training the canes to 6′ stakes. Not exactly elegant, but the setting does n0t lend itself to the usual straight row of raspberry canes.

So, from failed shady flower bed to goldenrod mini-meadow to raspberry patch, my wild bed marches on!

A Gardener Grew in Brooklyn

I had a very nice Father’s Day. In the morning, Judy and I went to the Skokie Farmer’s Market for the first time this year. When we returned, we found our oldest son Daniel at our doorstep, bearing bagels. We sat on the porch through the late morning and into the afternoon, drinking coffee and eating bagels, talking about things serious and silly. During that time, our younger son David called from his apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, and we had an excellent talk.

I count myself very lucky to have such good kids. Thinking about them on this day makes me think about my own father. Our relationship did not always go smoothly, but of course he influenced what I became as a person through ways intentional and not. He was the one who started me on the path to becoming a gardener.

Dad and Daniel at the Museum of Natural History. This picture is from around 1995.
Dad and Daniel at the Museum of Natural History. This picture is from around 1995.

My dad was a Brooklyn boy who moved to the suburbs, a Navy veteran who bought a nice house in one of the big developments built on Long Island after World War II.  He thought it was Paradise. I remember him telling me that it had the beauty of the country and the convenience of the city.

My perspective was very different. To me, our home had neither the open space and solitude offered by the countryside, nor the vitality and easy access to interesting goings on that could be found in the city.

We both had an interest in plants, however. My dad grew up in an apartment building with parents who associated things of the soil with their origins in the Old Country, a time for which they had not the slightest bit of nostalgia. As long as they could buy food at the grocery and flowers at the florists, they were happy to leave it at that. My father sought to escape their world of the family business, the synagogue, and the claustrophobia of an ethnic urban neighborhood.

For my dad, having a lawn to mow and flower beds to fill with blooms represented a move to a different and better way of life, as well as a financial achievement. Unlike some of the neighbors, he wanted us to take care of the yard ourselves. Much as he took pleasure in it, though, I think he found gardening to be something essentially exotic.

He loved gardening gadgets. His favorite was the “tree feeder”, a tube you would stick in the ground at the base of a tree, then connect to the hose so that it could deliver liquid fertilizer directly to the tree’s roots (an item of extremely dubious value). He liked roses and bedding annuals, which we would buy on outings to Hicks’, the big nursery in the area. He had faith in the benefits of science, and so did not hesitate to use chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.

My brother and I developed our own interest in gardening. He put a flower bed into the backyard, and I started a vegetable garden. We laughed at our father’s tastes and methods as misguided at best. We both went on to become avid gardeners as adults, though. I find it hard to believe that this would have occurred if we had not absorbed some of our father’s pleasure in bringing color and life out of the soil.

My father and guess who some 50+ years ago.
My father and guess who some 50+ years ago.

Dad was hard working to a fault, and his devotion to family was absolute, not unlike many from his generation. While he could be distant and had a short temper, he mellowed with age. With his grandchildren he was able to be much more playful than he was with his own kids. He worked until close to the end of his life, and volunteered at the public library and a local clinic, where he was much loved.

My boys have little interest in gardening, though they do have many interests and an outlook on the world that are very similar to those held by their mother and me. Perhaps gardening will come later. Either way, I don’t really mind. Though I have not been a perfect father, they still wanted to spend time with me today. That’s what counts.

Weekend Notes: Who Was that Masked Bird?

Another Avian First for Gardeninacity: Yesterday a Cedar Waxwing came to visit a couple of times. Here’s hoping he soon returns with a flock of friends. This is the first sighting of this species in our yard. I’m guessing the red elderberries made the difference, since this bird is a big fruit eater and has a particular fondness for red berries.

Cedar Waxwing on our backyard fountain.

Cedar Waxwings have been a high priority on our list of birds we’ve been trying to attract. It’s a dramatic looking bird, with the Zoro-like black mask, red spots on the wings and partly yellow tail feathers. Combined with the Indigo Buntings sighted earlier this spring, this has been a banner year for backyard bird watching.

Farewell to Carolina. I’ve dug up and disposed of the Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) that had been growing in the bed north of the crabapple tree. This rose just wasn’t a good fit for a bed intended to be for low- to medium-height plants. Carolina Rose is supposed to grow to 3′ tall, but it had reached 4′ and I’d say it had no intention of stopping. It also had a habit of spreading by runners. and was shading and crowding out my Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis). On top of everything else, it refused to bloom. So I dug it out – carefully, because this plant has serious thorns.

Now I have to decide what to replace it with. For this year, I’ve just filled in with Calibrachoa. I’ll plant some perennials in the fall. I want something that can take a sunny, drier spot and won’t shade the Dropseed. I’m thinking Downy Phlox, Harebell, Butterflyweed, maybe in combination. I’ve had good experiences with Butterflyweed and Harebell and have been wanting to try Downy Phlox.

Downy Phlox

Finally, Some Rain. I have been watering like a demon all week. Finally, we got somewhat over a half inch of rain last night.  Even after last night, though, we are within shouting distance of the record for driest year so far, about 4″ below normal. On top of that, the weather service predicts several days in the upper 90s this week. I’m going to have to be vigilant in order to make sure my new plants between the stepping stones don’t get fried.

Something Cute to Start the Week With. This juvenile robin has been hopping around our backyard all weekend.

Juvenile Robin at the bird bath.

Bloom Day +1

I’m never able to get this done on the 15th, but so be it. Here’s what’s blooming in my garden:

Native Perennials and Shrubs (including Cultivars)

Asclepias purpurascens, Purple Milkweed. Well behaved milkweed that grows in light shade.

Purple Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed. Love this plant.


Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey Tea. Low growing shrub GREAT for pollinators.

New Jersey Tea

Coreopsis lanceolata and ‘Sunfire’

Cornus racemosa, Gray Dogwood

Heliopsis helianthoides, Early Sunflower

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’

Lonicera sempervivens,Trumpet  Honeysuckle

Trumpet Honeysuckle

Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, Smooth Penstemon

Polygonatum biflorum, Solomon Seal

Rosa setigera, Illinois Rose. Dainty pink flowers on a monster plant. I may regret planting this, but I’m loving it now. Blooming for first time after three years.

Sambucus canadensis, Elderberry

Tradescantia ohioensis, Ohio Spiderwort

Non-Native Perennials and Shrubs

Achillea millefolium ‘Paprika’, Yarrow

Adenophera lilifolia, Ladybells. Aggressive plant  but flowers just as pretty as bellflowers.

Ladybells with pet concrete chicken in background.

Clematis ‘Jackmanii’. Wanted the Clematis to be blooming through the Cup Plant, but Clematis is early.

Clematis and Cup Plants.

Corydalis lutea

Digitalis ambigua, Yellow Foxglove

Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’, ‘Rozanne’, and ‘Biokovo’

Knautia macedonica

Lilium asiatica, various cultivars

Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’

Rosa ‘Cassie’, ‘Westerland’, ‘Darlow’s Enigma’

Salvia X nemorosa  ‘May Night’ and ‘Blue Hill’

Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’, Pincushion Flower

Annuals: Cosmos, Cleome, Impatiens, Nicotania, Verbena, Zinnia, Lobelia, Lobularia, Calibrachoa, Petunia, Pelargonium, Penta, Bacopa. Various cultivars.

Someone is Out to Get my ‘Casa Blanca’ Lilies

In the horticultural justice system, the gardener expresses two separate but equal responses to the loss of a beloved plant. The first is to have a tantrum. The second is to rush out and buy a replacement. This is my story. CHUNG-CHUNG.

‘Casa Blanca’ Oriental Lillies

I love my ‘Casa Blanca’ oriental lilies. The ivory flowers are wonderful, and the fragrance incomparable. Earlier this spring it looked like they would have an exceptional year, growing tall and healthy.

Then tragedy struck. One of the lily stalks became discolored. On closer examination, I decided that some kind of borer had gotten into it. To be on the safe side, I yanked the whole plant, including the bulb, and disposed of it. There were five lilies to start with, so that left four. Tragic, yes, but I could still move on with my life.

Torso of the victim (center) after the gruesome crime.

A couple  of weeks later I discovered that another of the lilies had become headless – the upper part of the stalk had snapped off. I was so disturbed by this that I went out and bought a replacement in a one gallon container.

Then this afternoon I got home and discovered that another lily had been snapped off near the bottom. Three lilies lost in one season. Coincidence? Hardly. Who is responsible for this crime spree? Neighbors jealous of my flowers or resentful of my unwillingness to have a normal lawn? Senseless vandalism by wayward teens? Or something more sinister?

Third victim.

Even worse, could this be a case of negligent lilycide? One of the snapped lilies was not staked, the other was. Could my failure to stake, or improper staking, be the culprit? Or could it just be birds attempting to perch on the lily stalks?

Will my ‘Casa Blancas’ ever feel safe again?

Changing of the Guard: Container Gardening Edition

I am one of those people who frets. I fret about important and difficult things. I also fret about things I do for fun, like gardening. I fret, therefore I am.

Pansies on the front steps just starting to hit their stride back in May.

These days I am fretting about pansies. Specifically, when should I replace the pansies with summer annuals in the various containers and planters I have? Right about now they should be getting ragged, but actually they are still looking pretty good. If I pull them out now, the summer annuals will fill in and establish themselves that much sooner. Also, the selection of annuals seems to deteriorate some time in June.

On the other hand, is it somehow wasteful or wrong to throw pansies on the compost pile while they are still in bloom?

Pansies and low-bush blueberries on the back steps.

Anybody out there have any thoughts on this? Also, I am doing some preliminary fretting on which summer annuals I should replace the pansies with. I like zinnias, Lantana, red millet, calibrachoa, petunias, caladium, Impatiens, coleus, and tropical milkweed. Also, Judy likes zonal geraniums so I always have a couple of those. Feel free to let me know what your favorite container plants are for sun and shade.

A Stony Path

The stone path to the backyard that lies on the west side of our house had problems. The steps were sinking in places and were covered by soil that had washed down from the border. Also, the stepping stones were a couple of inches below the level of the bricks that start at the backyard gate. Plus, the gaps between the stones were full of grass and weeds.

Path on the west side of the house leading to the backyard. I’m hoping that the Scotch and Irish moss will form a mat covering the gap between the stones. Also that they’ll get along. I’m training roses up that arbor beyond the gate.

So this past weekend I implemented a quick fix. I lifted up the steps where needed, spread new sand, then replaced the steps so that the were adequately elevated. Moving the stones also made it easier for me to purge the path of weeds. Finally, I planted some mat forming low groundcovers in the larger spaces between the stepping stones. I planted nutmeg thyme in the sunnier part of the path, and Irish or Scotch moss in the shady parts.

I also planted some Corydalis lutea along the inside of the path.

I realize this is a lazy way of fixing the path, and that the stones will sink again in a few years. But so what? I’ll just pull them up again, lay down more sand, and put them back in place.

I’ve read that you’re supposed to use the same material for paths throughout your property. I have violated this garden design injunction, but I hope that I am guilty of only a misdemeanor. Actually, I think switching from stone to brick at the backyard gate works as a transition from one space to another. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I have to admit this wasn’t planned. We inherited the stone path, and laid the brick path ourselves without thinking about how it would connect to the stone. B ut we like it anyway.

An Herb is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Every year we grow far more herbs, in gross tonnage, than we consume. A single oregano plant goes a long way, even if you are vigilant in beating back its efforts to take over the entire neighborhood. Admittedly, I make matters worse by planting far more parsley, dill, and fennel than we could ever use in order to entice black swallowtail butterflies to our yard.


It feels just wrong to keep pinching back your herbs to keep them from flowering when most of the pinched material just goes unused. So, I am on the lookout for recipes that enable us to consume large quantities of herbs in a single go.

Judy made just such a recipe last night: chimichurri. This is an Argentine sauce made with fresh cilantro, oregano, and parsley. Delicious!

You can put it on beef, chicken, fish, or vegetables, or use it as a marinade. Here is a link to a good chimichurri recipe.

Weekend Notes: Soaker Hoses, Gluttonous Grackels, Spring Berries

Break Out the Hoses. It’s definitely turned into a dry Spring. Hot, sunny weather, and just a little over an inch of rain for the past thirty days.

It’s a point of pride with me that except for the vegetable gardens, I almost never water. I do hand water my containers and new shrubs and perennials. As for the rest,  many of my plants are prairie natives or otherwise well-adapted hombres that laugh at drought. And if the grass grows dormant, so be it.

Foxgloves (Digitalis ambigua)on backyard path.

However, it’s gotten just dry enough that I’ve given in. I’m being a little extra careful because I do have a lot of new perennials, plus I’m using many more annuals as fillers and these are more vulnerable to drought.

So I got some new soaker hoses that are a big improvement on the last one I had. Sold under the brand name Gilmour, they are flexible and easy to use.

If I have to water, I definitely prefer the soaker hoses. They use water much more efficiently and you can target the water more precisely. The disadvantage is you have to be careful laying down the hose in a bed full of growing plants – I snapped the main stem of a tall white cosmos while doing so yesterday.

Step Away from the Peanuts. On the avian front, I’ve decided to give the peanut feeder a rest until the cold weather returns. I’m tired of feeding the grackles, who’ve been consuming about 90% of my peanuts, sometimes emptying an entire tube feeder in a single day. I put out the peanuts for the benefit of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other nice, colorful birds.

Yes, I’m talking to you.

Grackles are not nice. They are like the Hell’s Angels of bird feeding: they show up in a gang, eat everything, and then hang around intimidating everybody else.  Grackles can be kind of attractive in a menacing way with their glossy purple sheen, and I wouldn’t mind them if their behavior wasn’t so atrocious. I also like to watch how they dunk their peanuts in water.

Fortunately, the grackles leave the bird feeders alone during the winter. Until then, I’ll have jelly for orioles, suet for woodpeckers, nyjer seed for the goldfinches, and sunflowers for everybody else.  No peanuts.

Berries of Spring. We’ve got a nice crop of ripe spring berries for the birds: red elderberry, blueberries, serviceberries, and wild strawberries. The serviceberries are being gobbled up by the robins and others. This is the first year we have an appreciable number of blueberries. I grow them in containers to make it easier to keep the soil acidic. I have two low-bush varieties: Top Hat and Little Crisp.

Serviceberries. Their taste has been described as a cross between blueberry and almond.

I’m growing the straight species of native red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) as a hedge on the east side of the house. They must be happy because they have a bumper crop of berries for just their second summer. The birds don’t seem to be eating them, though. I wonder if I should put up a sign that says something like “FREE EATS.”

Red elderberries.

I find wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) make an excellent groundcover. The berries don’t taste like much, so I’m happy to leave them for the robins, squirrels, and chipmunks.

I also really like the unusual striped berries of Starry Solomon Seal (Smilacina stellata).

There are other berries later in the Summer and in the Fall. I’m very happy to find that my gray dogwoods (Cornus racemosa) are loaded with green berries for the first time, after several frustrating years. When the berries turn white in Autumn, they are devoured by birds – or so I’m told.

%d bloggers like this: