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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