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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