Spring in Fast Forward

We’ve had several days with temperatures up in the 80s. On the plus side, the daffodils have begun their show. The forsythia and the spicebush are blooming. The spicebush is much more understated than the forsythia, though still lovely. Spicebush leaves have a lovely citrus scent when crusched, and I planted half a dozen because the red berries are supposed to be of very high value to the birds during fall migration. I just started getting berries last fall – hoping for a much bigger crop this year.

Purple crocuses in bloom.

Everything is leafing out, the crabapple, the lowbush blueberries, the roses … I can already see the flower buds on the crabapple; I think it will bloom no later than mid-April.

Forsythia in bloom.
Spicebush, the thinking person's forsythia



On the minus side, the snowdrops have dropped their flowers. The purple crocuses have bloomed and passed their peak within a few days, drooping with the unaccostomed heat.

I’ve taken advantage of the excellent weather by getting some garden work done. I’ve filled the containers with pansies and johnny jump ups. I’ve cut down the bridalwreath that sits close to where I intend to plant the flowering dogwood – a job that was easier than I expected.

I also re-dug some of the edging trenches, if that’s the right way to say it. I carted the soil so obtained over to the compost piles, and dumped it on the pile that is currently “maturing.”  And I made my first round of weeding this afternoon, mostly digging up dandelions, clumps of wild rye, and bits of grass infiltrating into the flower beds.

On the bird front, the robins, grackles, and redwing blackbirds are out in force. I’ve also seen wood thrushes and another kind of unidentified thrush scratching and hunting in the backyard. And I’m quite pleased with my sunflower chips – little mess, and they don’t get eaten up immediately.


I Love Crocuses

I got back from a particularly grueling work trip on Friday to find the crocuses blooming their little hearts out. This truly gladdened my own heart, and my step became lighter as I carried my bags to the front door.

Yellow crocuses make me happy.

 I’ve loved crocuses since I was a little kid. It’s partly that they bloom so early, partly the bright colors and the way they glow in the sun. Sure, snowdrops bloom even earlier, but the understated and elegant white snowdrops cannot compete with the bright colors of crocuses that shout “Hey! Look at me!” just as the winter weather withdraws.

Crocuses glowing in the sunshine.

Spent some more time cutting down dead stalks of perennials this weekend. My new approach is: leave it all on the ground, it’s free mulch. This makes spring clean up much easier. As I worked, I noticed all the daffodils and species tulips sticking their noses up out of the dirt, the first signs of peonies emerging, the spicebush flowers looking like they were about ready to pop.

I also transplanted my dwarf and lowbush blueberries into new, larger containers. I’m growing them in containers because here in the limestone soil of the midwest it’s the easiest way to keep things sufficiently acidic. The blueberries looked fairly happy, lots of buds. Maybe we’ll actually get berries this year.

Snowdrops are understated but elegant and long lasting.
Lavender crocuses. Croci?

On a less positive note, I saw that some critter has bitten off  almost every single bud on one of my “Iroquois” black chokeberry, which I planted just last year. I’m hoping that won’t be a problem.

Spring Stirrings

The snowdrops are blooming. Hooray! This is something of a relief. Many of them emerged from the ground during those mild January days we had, and I was afraid they’d get blasted by a hard freeze. But it appears that snowdrops, as the name implies, are hardy beasts.

The crocuses (croci?) are always up. In some places, like in the front parkway, it’s just the leaves. However, in the backyard many of the crocus tommasinianus have purple flower buds that looks like they will open with the next mild spell. In the same bed, there are the remains of crocus chrysanthus whose flower buds have been bitten off and some of the leaves chewed down close to the ground. Damn your spotted souls to hell, cursed rabbits! I guess this is good news in that it seems to back up the claim that critters leave the crocus tommasinianus alone.

Crocus tomassinianus

Other bulbs are also showing signs of life. If you look closely you can see the daffodil and species tulip leaves poking up from among the dead leaves and mulch. Oh, and I say a grackel yesterday (not that grackels are cause for celebration, but still) and the first redwinged blackbird today.














Seeds of a Dilemma

Grosbeaks party on the platform feeder

I have a seed problem. I bought a new bird feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited. It serves its purpose admirably, which is to attract large finches, such as cardinals and grosbeaks. Well, the grosbeaks don’t arrive until spring, but the cardinals definitely love this feeder. It’s a tube feeder with extra large perches designed for the big finches. The problem is that it generates a staggering amount of spilled seed.

I used to attract large finches with a platform feeder. It definitely did the trick, but it had a couple of problems. First was that it attracted  birds other than the large finches. Mourning doves, for example. I have nothing against mourning doves. I like the plaintive “coo, coo.” And I don’t mind how it sounds like they need some WD-40 when they fly. But those things are eating machines. Whenever I put out new seed, a squadron of mourning doves would descend, and the seed is gone.

Mourning dove on the platform feeder.

Also, the seed was exposed to the elements on the platform feeder, so it was always getting wet and gunky.

Judy, of course, didn’t want me to stop using the platform feeder. She thought the mourning doves looked like they were having a cocktail party on a terrace when they congregated there. Judy is extremely conservative when it comes to any kind of change in domestic life.

So I got the new tube feeder with the extra large perches. As I say, the new feeder works, but all the spilled seed on the grass looks really, well, seedy. So what to do? Can’t go back to the platform feeder, that would mean admitting to Judy that I made an unnecessary purchase. And once I start going down that road, it could spell ruination for future gardening and related  projects.

I recently bought some cheap, wide plastic birdbaths without stands. I placed them on the ground under the tube feeder, and they catch at least some of the seed. My thought is to remove them when company comes over. I’m also considering taking up the turf around the feeder and replacing it with stone or brick pavers. That would make it easier to occasionally scoop up the fallen seed.

I should check out the price of sunflower chips and see if it would be that much more expensive than the safflower seeds I’m using.

If anyone who reads this has suggestions for dealing with this problem, let me know – even if it’s just the seed of an idea. (Sorry.)

Cloak and Trowel

The spy who came in from the cold to plant a viburnum

Over the years I’ve developed a growing appreciation for small to medium-sized shrubs and the contribution they can make to the home  landscape. I suppose this appreciation is fueled mainly by laziness, as shrubs are just a lot less work than perennials. You don’t have to stake shrubs, divide shrubs, or cut them down at the end of the season (or figure out what to do with the stalks, etc.).

Unfortunately, Judy is irrationally prejudiced against shrubs, something I still don’t understand. Her dislike has prompted me to resort to clandestine shrub planting at times. I will arrive home from the garden center with something in a 5 gallon container, then check if the coast is clear. If it is, I’ll carry it as fast as I can, putting my body between the plant and the house to minimize chances of detection.

Later, while inspecting the yard, Judy will notice the new addition and ask, “Where did that come from?”

At this point I assume my most innocent expression and reply, “Oh, that? That’s been there for years.” After a certain amount of sighing and eye rolling, Judy will say, “OK, but after this, no more shrubs!”

In this way I have been able to add several snowberries, grey dogwoods, “Brilliant” serviceberries, and dwarf black chokeberries to the backyard. These complement the elderberries, serviceberries, viburnums, and wild currants I’ve put in without resorting to clandestine activity, as well as the Annabelle hydrangeas we inherited from the last owners.

Some of these have replaced the invasive buckthorn, privet, shrub honeysuckle, and siberian elm saplings I’ve taken down over the years.

I do really enjoy what my mostly native shrubs add to the home landscape. I like the creamy white lacecap flowers of the viburnums, elderberries, and shrub dogwoods, not to mention the star shaped serviceberry flowers of early spring. Most of these varieties have excellent fall color, especially the serviceberries and chokeberries. And I love the berries both for the ornamental value and the birds they attract. The red cranberrybush viburnums and the pearly white snowberries are particular favorites.

 I’ve noticed some front yard gardens that consist mostly of dwarf shrubs and ornamental grasses. They look really good and very low maintenance. In the future, I might try to make the front gardens more of a mix of shrubs and perennials – guess I should keep my trenchcoat handy.

Should Trees be Forever?

I have a confession to make.  About three years ago, I took out the eastern red cedar in my front yard. I know many people feel that taking down any tree is an immoral act. Some would point out that when you cut down a tree, the decomposing wood releases carbon into the atmosphere. Also, you are removing wildlife food and habitat – and eastern red cedar is supposed to be one of the highest value trees for wildlife.

But I don’t care! I’d do it again, I tell you! I hated that tree. It deserved to die. First of all, it was ugly. Second, it took up a lot of space and created a wide barren zone under its drip line. But worst of all were the prickles. They were sharp! They were constantly being shed over a wide area, so walking barefoot in the front yard was a truly painful experience. Not to mention how they would get in your hair, etc.

Still standing: my neighbors' cedar to the left of our house. The one we had was to the right, on the other side of the driveway.

Plus, it’s not as if there were a shortage of eastern red cedar. When the houses on our block were built, the developer planted one in every front yard, and just about all are still there, along with the silver maples and siberian elms in the backyards.

What’s more, I made amends. Where the red cedar stood, I planted a “Donald Wyman” crabapple. Crabapples also have high wildlife value, don’t they? Well, don’t they? What do you mean, I sound defensive?

I admit, I can’t help feeling I have committed a sin. That I am morally obligated to live with a tree I don’t want, like two people in a loveless marriage, until one of us croaks. But don’t I have a right to happiness? Must I be prevented from trying to grow the yard of my dreams?

Now I’m having conflicted feelings about a big old bridalwreath in the back yard. I want to get rid of it and plant a pagoda dogwood in its place. But guilt holds me back. The bridal wreath is just a shrub, and still it feels wrong to get rid of it. Will I ever be free to garden without guilt?

What I would like our Donald Wyman crab to look like. Ours is nice, but not this nice.

Spring 2012: To Do and To Buy

Our backyard bird bath as seen from second story window.

Gardening is supposed to impart wisdom concerning signs from the natural world as to when is the proper time to sow and reap, etc. For me, when it’s cold and the pile of catalogues by my side of the bed is as high as the bottom of the mattress, I know it is time to make my wish list for spring planting in the garden.

So here goes:

1) Replace the Heliopsis in the bed along the sidewalk. By the end of the season, the Heliopsis is really smothering and shading the Salvia and other plants I’ve put closer to the sidewalk. I want something shorter and more upright. I think I’ll go with Achillea “Schwellenberg”,  a yellow yarrow I saw in the Bluestone Perennials catalogue.

2) Replace the Korean lilac on the east side of the house. I planted this lilac about two years ago, and it’s just about dead. I’m torn about what to replace it with. Personally, I’d like to put a witch hazel or pagoda dogwood. However, Judy is yearning for a lilac, for that brief period of sweet lilac fragrance in Spring. There really isn’t enough sun for a lilac in this spot, but Judy is not one to be bound by cultural requirements. Actually, I’ve seen lilacs do all right in spots with much less than full sun. The new lilac should be some variety of common lilac, which I have read is better at coping with part shade.

3) In the same bed, I have to get rid of all the volunteer asters, goldenrods, and Joe Pye Weeds that I’ve planted. I thought I would be frugal and transplant all these volunteers to fill space as the lilac and red elderberry bushes there fill in. Unfortunately, the effect is excessively weedy. I feel bad about this, because this bed lies along the neighbors path to their backyard along the west side of their garage. So out with the big, rangy wildflowers and in with the low-growing, ground covering plants. My thought is to plant a mix of lady ferns, columbine, heuchera, solomon’s seal, and foamflower. I already have this bed edged with wild geranium, celandine poppy, and woodland phlox.

4) Finally, I want a new fountain/bird bath. For several years we’ve had a concrete bird bath with a removable top. The top has a little fountain that spurts about 4″, then flows into a depression suitable for bathing robins before continuing on and then flowing into the concrete basin. The top has fetching little concrete birds on it. The thing is, though, the top may be removable but it’s also damn heavy, so every time I clean the basin section I fear I’ll injure my back. What I want is to put my pump in one of those fake half barrels, then pile in a mix of cinder block and stones so that I can create a little waterfall, bathing area, and area of deeper water. Maybe I’ll put some emergent plants, like marsh marigold or Louisiana iris. This arrangement may be a little more complicated to take apart and clean, but it is less likely to injure my back. I also like that this would have more open water, which may attract damselflies, dragonflies, maybe even frogs.


Winter Interest

After hearing apocalyptic predictions about bad winter weather, we are experiencing a very mild winter here in the Chicago area. Today was in the 40s and partly cloudy. There’s no snow on the ground. But even in a mild winter, we have to live mostly without the things that we enjoy most in the garden: foliage, flowers, etc.

I’m usually pretty skeptical about “winter interest”. It seems to be a way of politely pretending that we’re happy with fish sticks when we really wanted trout almondine. Even so, there are plants that are attractive in winter in a puritan, minimalist sort of way.  This is especially true of grasses.

I cut down most of the flowers in the front yard in late fall, but leave everything behind the house standing until spring. The front yard clean-up is partly to avoid irritating neighbors who prefer a more well-kept look. My younger son David, who frequently protests the presence in our yard of what he calls “giant brown stalky things,” shares their preference.

Below are some pictures taken today, plus one from late fall.

Rudbeckia seedheads.
Here’s some goldenrod growing in a wild patch I have under a Silver Maple tree.
And here’s a clump of Silky Wild Rye in a raised bed.
Here’s some Sweet Joe Pye Weed in late Fall.
Finally, here’s some Anise Hyssop by the backyard arbor.
There’s also some nice clumps of switchgrass I didn’t get pictures of. Maybe another post.

My Garden, Part II

Sweet Joe Pye Weed dominates the wild island bed.

Let’s move on from the parkway to the front yard proper. Though our house faces north, all my sunniest spots are in the front. For this reason, I try to plant the front yard with butterflies in mind. I’ve had only modest success in attracting butterflies, but more on that another time.

When we moved to this house from Wisconsin in 2003, the first thing I did was build a raised bed that stretches along the driveway and the walk to the front door. (Raised beds were another one of those passing manias of mine, along with Asiatic lilies, etc.).  The neighbors were perplexed when a truck delivered a five foot pile of topsoil beside my driveway.

Our house from the street

The makeup of these beds has changed over time. The first couple years we had wonderful single hollyhocks, but I had to take them out because of rust. I usually have quite a few purple coneflowers, though every couple of years I have to dig most of them out due to aster yellows. They always self-seed and replace themselves eventually, though.

Along the sunnier, west side of the raised bed, I have Nepeta growing along the edge and spilling over the pavers. Along the more shaded (at least later in the season) east side, there are yellow celandine poppies.

Celandine poppy.
Hummingbird moth and Nepeta. Looks like a critter from Dr. Seuss.

There are some spring bulbs – grape hyacinths, tulips (both species and hybrid), and daffodils.

In summer and fall, you’ll find middle and taller layers of flowers growing above the Nepeta and other edging plants.  A middle level is made up of orange butterflyweed, white smooth penstemon, orange/red daylillies, blue anise hyssop, and yarrow “Paprika”, plus bluestem goldenrod.

Coneflowers, oriental lillies, and butterflyweed - to hell with the color wheel.

I just want to stop here and confess that I love anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). I love how it covers itself with fuzzy blue spikes from July into September. I love the strong anise scent and texture of the leaves. You don’t have to water or fertilize it, and it laughs at bugs and diseases. Critters love it too; it’s covered with bees and goldfinches feed on the ripe seeds. Anise hyssop’s only faults are a tendency to grow too tall (up to 5′) and flop over (cutting back helps). It’s also a little too prolific when it comes to self-seeding, which may explain why friends who have received free plants haven’t seemed quite as grateful as I expected.

Anise hyssop with butterfly (sulphur?). There's also a skipper just below the sulphur.

Then there’s a taller layer consisting of “Casa Blanca” oriental lilies, wild bergamot, the perennial western sunflower,  blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis), and the aforementioned purple coneflowers, mixed with switchgrass and silky wild rye.

Purple coneflowers mix affably with western sunflower.

My second front yard flower bed stretches along the front sidewalk. At the west end (near the driveway), there’s a large bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana). I planted this much too close to the sidewalk. At the east end there are lots of Short’s aster, “Raspberry Wine” bee balm, and northern sea oats.

In the middle I’ve been making changes. Inspired by the sweeps of salvia in the Lurie garden, I’ve planted a much tinier  sweep of Salvia (“Blue Hill”, “East Friesland”, “May Night”) along the sidewalk.  Behind the Salvia I’ve got several Heliopsis, but they’re just too big and tend to smother the Salvia. I do like the simple yellow flowers that last virtually all summer and fall, though.

Even so, I’m going to replace them with yarrow, which is more upright, and about one third the height. Plus the yarrow’s flat flower heads will contrast nicely with the spikes of Salvia. The yarrow should help keep this bed from looking quite so overgrown, which is a consideration since it lies right along the sidewalk. One of the neighbors told me she worries a critter will come jumping out of the plants when she’s walking in front of my house. I don’t want my garden to scare the neighbors if I can help it.


The third bed I dug is my wild island bed. It tends to get the most moisture. Here I’ve got New England Aster and swamp milkweed, with massive sweet joe pye weed (Eupatoreum purpureum) and cup plants towards the back. There’s also my oldest and most impressive clump of switchgrass.


Swamp milkweed. Sounds nasty, so in catalogues they're starting to call it "red milkweed."

The last bed I dug when I removed the old foundation planting in front of the middle of the house, putting some yews that were being kept unnaturally short out of their misery. I also built a small retaining wall in front of the small slope there, and filled in with top soil. The yews were replaced by ostrich ferns toward the back, plus old-fashioned bleeding hearts, Virginia bluebells, and golden alexanders – with daylillies along the front, where there is the most sun. There’s also a mix of daffodils in early spring.

Finally, there’s the entrance to the front door. On the steps and along the walkway to the brick stoop we have numerous containers. Three are filled with dwarf  “blue chip”  butterfly bush. Other containers have a mix of summer annuals, usually Lantana, geraniums, million bells, etc. A narrow triangle of soil between the walk and the driveway has a 3′ rose, “Cassie”, with small semi-double white flowers. There’s also a New Jersey Tea, and a groundcover of Vinca. Further back, along the west wall, there are cup plants and Clematis jackmanii.

Clematis trained against west wall of front door.
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