Luxembourg Gardens

Back in April, Judy and I visited Paris for the first time as a birthday/anniversary celebration. Great trip. Judy is still sorting through the 1,500 pictures she took (thank God for digital cameras). So far I’ve done one post on Monet’s Garden at Giverney. Both of us have been very hard pressed at work since then so the sorting is going pretty slowly.

All this is a lengthy explanation for why I’m posting in June about a trip in April. With that out-of-the-way, let me tell you about the Luxembourg Gardens, the second largest park in Paris. The gardens form a sort of enormous front yard for the Luxembourg Palace. It was not exactly my sort of garden (to put it mildly), but I enjoyed it anyway.

Eiffel Tower seen from Luxembourg Gardens. Palace is to the right.

The first thing I liked about this Garden was that it was so alive with people. We went twice, and even on a chilly day it was being used by hordes of people: young, old, and middle-aged; reading, flirting, strolling, hanging out, and (my favorite) racing toy boats in the reflecting pond. There were enough people to make the scene lively, yet the garden is big enough and laid out so that there is never a feeling of being crowded. I liked the idea that this garden, which was built for the amusement of aristocrats, serves as a common open space for the pleasure of so many people.

The second thing I liked was the statuary and fountains. One thing about France is that you really can’t throw a rock anywhere without hitting some statue or other. Most statues in the Luxembourg Gardens were busts or full size creations representing various worthies or mythical characters. These I thought were just ho-hum. The really entertaining ones were those that seemed (to me) completely over the top. For example, there was a fountain containing a bunch of naked ladies holding a giant globe surrounded by rearing horses, surrounded by fish squirting streams of water, surrounded in turn by turtles squirting streams of water right back at them.

Something missing here. Could they add some elephants, maybe? Or pandas? People like pandas.

There was also a statue of a drunken Dionysus being carried off by a bunch of naked lads and lasses. I don’t think this is a statue the old Mayor Daley would have approved of.  Classical themes were much more common than religious ones, by the way, but more on that in another post.

These people who are reading don’t seem to be aware that there is an orgy going on right in front of them.

The Luxembourg Gardens had large areas of open lawn, playgrounds, and wooded areas. There were formal flower beds as well, filled mostly with tulips and forget-me-nots when we were there. The flower beds were not my style, but the element of color definitely contributed positively to the feel of the place.  The other striking element was the views. Given that this was Paris, the “borrowed views” included things like the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon.

Finally, there were the square trees. Why were the trees square? I’m not really sure. I’ve read that the gardens of Louis XIV (who built Versailles) were inspired in part by the idea of soldiers standing in rank, and these trees certainly give a militaristic impression.

Fortunately, not all the trees are tortured in this way. It was interesting to me that two of the most common street trees in Paris were sycamores and good old American buckeyes.

Pantheon viewed from Luxembourg Gardens.

All in all, I’d say the Luxembourg Gardens should be a priority destination for any gardeners visiting Paris.

Why do we Garden?

Returning from another work trip on late Friday afternoon, the first thing I did was to inspect the garden. Then I spent a couple of hours staking, clipping, weeding and generally puttering around. At one point, I asked myself: why am I doing this after being absent from home all week? More generally, why do I spend so much time as well as physical and mental effort on the garden?

I can think of a few reasons. There is a sense of contentment and tranquility that comes from observing either a single flower – or patchworks of color and texture that seem just right. The same feeling comes from watching a bumblebee climb in and out of the tubular flowers of smooth penstemon, or a monarch butterfly nectaring on purple coneflower, or goldfinches feeding on the ripe seeds of an anise hyssop.

The Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ is doing well this year.

Gardening is an assertion of influence on a small piece of the environment. That’s influence, not control. A wise gardener seeks to channel the elements of the garden’s environment – soil, plants, critters, weather – to produce a small community of beauty and abundance. Trying too hard to rigidly control the garden generally leads to results that are sterile – literally and figuratively – and dull.

Achieving the effect you want with the right mix of effort and letting things take their own course is tremendously satisfying. A wall covered with rich purple clematis, a flower bed that gradually rises from sprawling blue geranium to towering yellow cup plants, makes me feel that the world can be handled to create beautiful results.

Zebra swallowtail nectaring on a purple coneflower.

Personally, I like a style of gardening that maximizes the quantity and variety of creatures in the garden. This world is full of malice, indifference, and selfishness, but a garden can be a small-scale exercise in altruism and benevolence that I find comforting. A healthy garden, of course, is full of carnage and predation mostly invisible to people, so you can easily overstate the benevolence aspect. But at least a garden can welcome many forms of life by providing easy access to those things which are necessary to survival.

The tactile quality of gardening is also very attractive. Like so many people, my work involves dealing with concepts, personalities, varying degrees of truthfulness, and, it must be said, a whole lot of bullshit. So it is a relief to leave that world and literally get my hands in the soil. This may be one reason I prefer not to wear gloves when I garden, though Judy complains I make a mess of the bathroom sink. Of course, in addition to touching things that are  real, the senses of sight and smell are also gratified.

Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) is just starting to peak.

Finally, gardening helps me be more connected to my human community. I’ve gotten to know a number of neighbors (especially the dog walkers and those with small children) while gardening in the front yard. Without gardening, I’m sure that community connection would be greatly diminished. Some of the neighbors think my obsession is a little odd, but more often I hear expressions of admiration. At one point a neighbor waved at my front yard, bursting with the colors of mid-summer, and told me: “This is a joy!” Yes, that about sums it up.

Front yard, June 2, 2012.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is a native bellflower. It’s a low-growing, tough plant with delicate looking flowers. Only drawback is a tendency to sprawl.

Wild Parrots of Chicago

Yes, there are parrots living wild in Chicago. See below for proof. These parrots were eating at our peanut feeder this morning, then flew up to the telephone wire when Judy went to get her camera. I’m guessing they have down coats to make it through the winter.

These are not ex-parrots.

Separation (from the Garden) Anxiety

 One of the unfortunate things about my job is that I have to be out of town a great deal during May, a crucial gardening month. This past week I left on Tuesday morning and returned Saturday afternoon, just a few hours ago. I have to leave again on Monday morning (yes, Memorial Day), and won’t return until Friday.

During these periods I long for my garden. Judy helps by emailing me photos occasionally, but I still  do a great deal of worrying. (Oh, and I miss Judy, too.) Is anything drying out? Are there plants flopping over and in need of staking? Am I missing the fleeting blooms of some particularly choice flower? My plants are  used to fairly constant attention while I’m at home, will they be resentful or alienated by my long absences?

The upside of being away from home is that when I return, seeing the new blooms has a greater emotional impact. For instance, my rose ‘Cassie’ was covered with unopened buds when I left, but with lovely semi-double white flowers when I returned.

My rose ‘Cassie’ sits in front of the house. It’s a mid-size shrub rose with a light fragrance.

Actually, many of my roses took great leaps forward during my absence. ‘Sally Holmes’, now entering its third summer in my backyard, is just starting to hit its stride.

‘Sally Holmes’ has trusses of flowers that fade from blush to cream.

And the roses I planted on the backyard arbor are doing well. ‘Westerland’ has bloomed for the first time (this is its second summer), and ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is coming into its own.


 I also grow two wild roses, Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) and Illinois Rose (Rosa setigira). These bloom later in the summer. All the roses I grow are tough shrub roses or ramblers and require little pampering. 

Aside from the roses, I was very glad to see that the baptisia and salvia were now in full bloom.

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) is a great perennial. Beautiful pea-like flowers, and grows to shrub-like proportions. Only drawback is that it’s slow to achieve substantial size. Also, you can’t move it once it is settled in.
Salvia ‘May Night’ with Cosmos and Golden Alexander.

By the end of this coming week I’ll get to be a homebody again and spend more time in the garden, at least for a while. I can’t wait.

Painted Lady (I think) butterfly on nepeta.

From the Freezer to the Frying Pan and Other Weekend Notes

  • This weekend it was 90 degrees, 2o above normal. A few weeks ago in April it was 20 degrees below normal. Plants were enticed to leap ahead in March, then flash frozen in April – now they are wilting under a hot sun.
  • The heat brought on a need for mulching. First I used the leaves from last fall. It amazes me that you can accumulate what seems to be a huge pile of leaves, but when you use them for mulch the following spring they don’t seem to go very far, even if you’ve begged or stolen many bags from the neighbors. So I had to supplement my leaves with bagged mulch. For the first time, I tried cocoa shells. I like the look, and they are supposed to be ecologically correct. The smell of chocolate is a little disconcerting,  but it’s supposed to fade with time.
  • I spent some time today trying to get ahead of the staking curve. I staked the blue false indigo, a bunch of smooth penstemon, and a couple other things. I’m trying what is supposed to be the technique used at Monet’s garden at Giverney. Basically, you stake roughly every third stem with a thin bamboo pole, and the stems are supposed to hold each other up.  This is supposed to give you a more natural look. Not sure how this applies to taller grasses that tend to flop, like silky wild rye.
Blue false indigo just starting to bloom.
The grass path between the flower beds in the front yard.
  • The flowering dogwood is definitely dead, but I won’t give up. I’m ordering another.
  • I like common bluestar. It has unusual star-shaped flowers in spring that are, well, blue. However, this is one of those plants where you have to be careful about placement. Once it matures, it shall not, it shall not be moved. It doesn’t grow fast, but it grows big. I planted one of mine too close to the sidewalk and now I must struggle every year to keep it from getting in the way of the neighborood pedestrians.
Common bluestar

Tardy Bloom Day

 I was out of town on the 15th on a business trip. (Work was absolutely brutal, but that’s another subject.) Therefore, I am granting myself a four day extension on the bloom day due date. Here goes, in no particular order:

Peony ‘America’

Second spring for this peony. There were four buds getting ready to bloom when I left town Tuesday, when I returned Thursday two were gone and the other two had only a couple days left. Gaaah! That’s why I don’t like to plant peonies.

 Brunnera macrophyla


Lonicera sempervivens

Lonicera ‘John Clayton’

Polemonium carneum

Polemonium reptans

Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’

Geranium maculatum

A bee visiting wild geranium.
We inherited this weigela from the last owners, and don’t know the variety. Some strategic pruning has perked it up considerably.

Rosa  ‘Sally Holmes’, many buds almost ready to open

Rosa ‘Cassie’

Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’

A rambler, we are training Darlow’s Enigma on an arbor. This should be a good year for roses, all of ours are covered in buds.

The columbines were really bushy and floriferous this year. I love the flowers, like red and yellow chandeliers.

Allium ‘Globemaster’

Allium ‘Purple Sensation;

Allium Purple Sensation does pretty well in our partly shady backyard.
The Salvia ‘May Night’ and ‘Blue Hill’ are just starting to bloom (center). Golden Alexander is toward the end of the border.

 Corydalis lutea grows well in dry shade. The funny little tubular flowers bloom for months.

Achillea millefoliumm ‘paprika’

Nepeta ‘kitkat’

Nepeta kitkat blooms earlier than other nepetas. I use it to edge the hot, western border of a flower bed. Great for bees and butterflies.

 Geum triflorum

Prairie Smoke makes a good groundcover in a sunny spot. I like the unusual pink flowers.

 Amsonia tabernamontana 

Various annuals – cleome, cosmos, pansies, sweet alyssum, lobelia …

 Though it’s not blooming, an honorable mention for my ostrich ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris. I’ve told the neighbor kids that when the ferns get big enough they will attract dinosaurs.

Live Orioles, Dead Dogwoods, Black Tomatoes, and Other Weekend Notes

  • The Baltimore orioles – one of my favorite birds – have arrived! Also, for the first time, we have attracted indigo buntings to our yard. To entice them, I’ve been spreading millet on the ground for about two weeks. The buntings look like someone took a goldfinch and painted it an intense, electric blue. Unfortunately, Judy couldn’t get a good picture of one.  Her good camera is still in the shop being fixed.
Baltimore orioles love grape jelly. Also oranges.
  • I got to Anton’s and Gethsemane to buy some plants Friday, then got them in the ground today. For my front yard island bed, a moist and sunny spot, I got three monarda “bluestockings,” two phlox “David,” and one obedient plant.
  • It’s too early for cleome, I know, but I couldn’t stop myself from buying a couple. I intend to fill in all the empty spots in the front yard flower beds with cleome and cosmos this year. No bare ground!
  • I also got my little front yard vegetable garden started. I installed the wooden tomato trellises I started using last year, then planted four tomato plants: Black Krim, Black Cherry, Black Prince, and Green Zebra. This will be the Year of the Black Tomato! I know it’s a little early for tomatoes, but what the hey.  Also planted bush pickle cukes, dill, and parsley. Oregano and thyme lived through the winter.
My small vegetable and herb garden is in the front yard, hidden from the street by a flower bed and a crabapple tree. I grow tomatoes (on the wooden trellises), cucumbers, thyme, dill, mint (in a pot), parsley, and oregano. The backyard is too shady for vegetables.
  • The amsonia, the columbine, the starry solomon seal, and the cranberry bush viburnum have just started blooming. Plus, I have to say this has been a banner year for trumpet honeysuckle and Nepeta “kitkat” – in terms of both very early and profuse blooming.
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is really big and bushy this spring. They always disappear where I plant them and pop up in various other locations. My policy is to let them grow wherever they like it.
Starry solomon seal (Smilacina stellata). White spring flowers and striped berries in summer. A tough plant that takes some shade and difficult conditions.
  • AAARRRGH. That is my mature and thoughtful response to the fact that my new  “Appalachian Blush” flowering dogwood, which I planted with such high hopes on April 1, appears to be dead. The stems are green, but all the leaf buds are clearly kaput. The April cold must have done it in. I have to decide whether I want a replacement from Forest Farm, or just buy something locally. But I REALLY wanted a flowering dogwood, and you can’t find one in garden centers around here.

Monet’s Garden at Giverney

To celebrate her birthday and our anniversary, Judy and I went to Paris for the second week in April. It was great! Neither of us had been there before. The food,the architecture, the street life, the parks, the museums … just a wonderful experience.

I’m planning three posts about the gardens. Judy took over 1,500 pictures, and I’ll write my posts as she sorts through her photos. First, I want to write about one of the most beautiful gardens we’ve ever seen anywhere: Claude Monet’s garden in Giverney, about 50 miles from Paris.

The main allee leading to Monet's house.

What struck me about the main garden was the combination of relaxed exuberance and the formality of straight-lined rectangular beds. Like a combination of cottage garden and parterre. I was also inspired by the mixing of perennials and annuals, and am determined to do the same in my own garden this year. There is just a richness and abundance of color that is hard to describe.

Lots of red and yellow.
Lots of arbors with grape, rose, clematis, and other vines - not yet in bloom when we were there.
Fences made of espaliered apple trees.
Lots of trees in bloom when we were there - crabapple, cherry, plum ...
Meadow-like lawn with white daffodils growing in the lawn.
Monet kept farm animals, and they are still around his garden. These look like a cross between chickens and French poodles.

The second part of the garden is built around a pond that Monet created by damming a small tributary of the Seine.

Monet painted this bridge with the wisteria vines in bloom.
The garden around the pond is influenced by Japanese elements.

Anyone who loves gardens should see this place if they get the chance. It is a joy.

Weekend Highlights

  • It was cool and cloudy Saturday, cool and mostly sunny today. This should be remembered as “The Spring of Hurry Up and Wait,” for its excessive early warmth followed by downright chilly weather.
  • Dug out six Early Sunflower (Heliopsis) from my front bed along the sidewalk. While these are nice plants, they’re just too big and bushy, even when I cut them back, to fit into a flower border along a sidewalk. Also, they were shading the Salvia. These were three years old, and had grown some enormous root masses. Fibrous, I grunted as I worked,  these are supposed to be fibrous roots.
  • In place of some of the Early Sunflower, planted some Smooth Penstemon that just arrived from Bluestone Perennials. I wanted to replace the remainder with “Sunfire” Coreopsis, or one of the other varieties that has a dark eye. However, none such have yet to show at the local nursery.
  • Looked in vain for signs of my Joe Pye Weed “Gateway” and “Little Joe” emerging from the soil. Fantasized about what I might replace them with if they died over the winter. In a similar vein, looked for my red milkweed plants to finish breaking dormancy. A couple have, but several have not.
  • Wondered why my flowering dogwood “Appalachian Spring” has yet to leaf out. Just planted it at the beginning of the month. I can tell it’s alive from the color of the stems.  Leaf out, damn you!
  • Put an edging of pavers between garage bed and the stone path to the backyard. The path is too low and dirt keeps washing onto it. I could dig and reset the path, but figured it would be easier to use the pavers as a dam to keep back the soil. Did about one third of the bed.
  • Bought lots of sweet alyssum and blue lobelia as filler for my containers. A big improvement, reminding me of the fact that containers look much better when you cram in the plants. I planted pansies earlier, but they’ve been slow to spread.
  • Gave the neighbors some columbine and wild geranium volunteers, along with some hunks of oregano from the herb/vegetable garden.

All in all, a fairly satisfying weekend.

Sunday in the Garden with My iPad

Judy’s camera isn’t working, so we’ve got to take it to the shop. In the meantime, we’ll have to make due with our iPad. We both took these pictures, mine are distinguished by their fuzzy quality.

Trumpet honeysuckle.
Bleeding heart and wild currant in the backyard.
Wild currant is an easy and attractive low-growing shrub. As you can see, it has dangling chartreuse flowers in spring. The small black fruit is edible and sour, but the birds are enthusiastic.
First peony bloom of the season!
The wild geranium have started blooming.
Brick entrance path into the backyard. We got the arbor last year. I'm growing two roses up the sides - Darlow's Enigma and Westerland.
Our back door. We inherited the wheelbarrow from the last owners. It was past its useful life, so we turned it into a planter. We're growing dwarf and low-bush blueberries and annual flowers in the containers.
The mighty ostrich ferns emerging from behind the bleeding hearts in front of the house.
There were lots of red admiral butterflies this weekend, and another species I couldn't identify.




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