Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April the Idiot

“April comes in like an idiot,
babbling and strewing flowers.”
–Edna St. Vincent Millay

Well, I’m not sure it’s so idiotic, but April certainly is strewing flowers! Or, if not flowers, then lots of shoots that will eventually bloom. Here are some of the pleasant surprises in my garden beds lately.

The hyacinths are nicely budded out…
Hyacinth 'Ostara'
The ‘Pink Giant’ Chionodoxa (a gift from my friend Stephanie for a certain BIG birthday) are just about ready to go…
Chionodoxa 'Pink Giant'
And the ‘Ice Follies’ Daffodils have been going strong for a while now.
Narcissus 'Ice Follies'
Hooray! Mr. Squirrel did NOT find all of my lily bulbs. It looks like most of them are coming back, except for a couple I was pretty sure he had carted home for dinner.
I am also breathing a sigh of relief over Ligularia ‘The Rocket.’
Ligularia 'The Rocket'
I had planted one of these in the same spot a couple of years ago (the only part of my yard that is moist enough for it), but it did not survive the winter. This time, I mounded soil over the crown for a little extra protection, and it looks like it worked! It’s hard to believe these tiny little leaves will soon be several inches across.

Aquilegia seedlings are bursting forth everywhere, mostly because I helped with some of the “strewing” in this case.
Aquilegia seedlings
I hope these will look like their dearly departed mother, Aquilegia ‘Cardinal.’ She was a real beauty.
Aquilegia 'Cardinal'
But Columbines are notoriously promiscuous in their cross-breeding. With my luck, the babies will all take after the common blue variety from the other side of the yard.

Perhaps my greatest thrill (doesn’t take much for us gardeners, does it?) was finding these poppy seedlings—about 16 at last count.
Shirley Poppy seedlings
I’ve been trying to establish a patch of poppies in my garden since we moved here almost five years ago, but with no luck. Mr. BrownThumb suggested scattering the seed over the ground in February (even over snow, if need be). I had dutifully been planting them after the last frost, as suggested on the seed package. (For the record, I recently did an informal survey of poppy packets in three different garden centers. Only one suggested planting them during the winter.) Thanks, Mr. BT! It looks like it worked!

Now I’m just crossing my fingers that they will come out the right color. They’re supposed to be Shirley poppies—nice soft pinks, reds, salmons, and whites. The last time I got this variety to grow, all but one came out bright orange, and I don’t do much orange in my gardens. I ripped them all out (after they bloomed but before they set seed) except the one pink one, and of course it didn’t multiply. Maybe I cursed myself to several years of bad poppy karma?

Yes, there are lots of pleasant new developments in the garden every time I venture outside during this idiotic, flower-strewing month. But there are a few less-pleasant developments as well…
I guess these devilish not-so-dandy-lions were bound to show up sooner or later. But did it have to be so early? And right where I just mulched to prevent them?

I’m also disappointed that no tulips are blooming yet. Yesterday, I pulled out my garden journals from 2005 and 2006 (the last years I tried keeping a journal: in both cases I started out with a bang, then quit by the end of June). Back then, my species tulips were blooming away by now. This year, the buds are just beginning to emerge. I’m not sure what to attribute the difference to, but I am certain they will soon add their rainbow splashes of color to the landscape.

And then, no doubt, I will be the one babbling and gushing over them like an idiot.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Return to Mulch Mountain

Saturday was the day. One of the big, red trucks of spring came and deposited four yards of beautiful mulch at the end of our driveway. And I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day either. Sunny, temps in the 50s… I had a great time shoveling, hauling, and spreading the rich, earthy stuff into all the garden beds. I even got one of the Sprouts to help…for about 15 minutes. Photobucket
Sure I’m sore now, but it’s a “good sore,” as they say. And it’s a sore accompanied by a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I think of all the benefits for my flowers—weed deterrence, moisture retention, soil nourishment. It’s worth every ache and pain.

For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been using the free mulch offered by our village’s public works department. It’s ground from all the wood they gather in tree pruning and storm clean-up, as well as from discarded Christmas trees. There’s a three-yard minimum and you pay just $10 per yard for delivery. You can also go any time and pick it up yourself, at no cost. I used to do this all the time before I traded my fuel-slurping SUV for a teeny little gas-sipper. Now I can’t haul enough to make it worth the trip.

I’ve always been very happy with this mulch. It’s well aged, so it’s about half-composted by the time it comes to me. (It sits in HUGE piles in the public works yard. When it’s delivered, you can still see the steam rising off it from the composting process at work, and it actually feels hot to the touch.)

My plants—and the earthworms—seem to love it. It’s not treated with chemicals, like much of the bagged stuff at the Box-mart, so it continues to break down and feed the soil once it’s in place. Some sources say it robs nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down, but my arborist neighbor assures me that this is true only if you mix it into the soil.

I usually prefer to spread mulch a little later in the season, when the ground has had a chance to warm up and when I can tell more easily where my plants are. However, the delivery schedule fills quickly and you take what you can get. Right now, it’s a bit of a guessing game where the perennials are, though I have markers on most of them, which helps. (My neighbor, Maya, still laments the first spring in her home, when she “mulched to death” many of the perennials left by the previous owner. She’s since replaced them many times over, though.)

I also have to be careful in areas where I have self-seeders, so I don’t smother any potential seedlings. I’m already seeing lots of new Corydalis and Aquilegia babies. I put down 3-4 inches elsewhere, being careful not to place it too close to stems and trunks. Coreopsis, dianthus, mums, and a few others especially dislike having soggy feet. I leave a wide girth for them so they won’t rot.

Last year I only ordered three yards and did not have enough to cover one last bed in the back. I spent the whole summer pulling garlic mustard, thistle, and hordes of other nasty weeds that wander in off the field behind us. It’s well worth the extra $10 for that reason alone.

Did I get all four yards distributed? No, I’m about halfway. And here’s what the pile looks like today, thanks to yesterday’s lovely weather:

Ah, spring. Do ya think you could make up your mind to stay put for a while?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Sunday was about the best spring day you could hope for here: temp right at 60 degrees, sunny, no wind. So I did what any gardener worth her salt would do: I got myself outside and worked all afternoon.

I did a rough clean-up of about two-thirds of the garden beds, and as I cleaned, I noticed many small signs of emerging life.

This is striped, or Lebanese, squill (Puschkinia libanotica).

It’s a pretty little thing if you can get down low enough to see it. It’s much smaller than the package photo would lead you to believe. If all 25 of them had sprouted, they might make a better mass impact, but only a handful got past the squirrels (or maybe they don’t like the soil under the white pine?). They’re supposed to naturalize well, but I only planted them two years ago. It could take a while…

I think this may be another variety of squill, though I didn’t plant it:
I think it hitchhiked its way in with a passalong daylily from a friend. I hope it stays and raises a large family.

These are Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) just popping forth under the crab tree in the front:
After three or four years, they’re beginning to fill in nicely. I’m hoping they will eventually make a thick blue collar around the tree.

I also found lots of new shoots on the dwarf, bearded, and Siberian irises, as well as all the daylilies. And I was delighted to see the tiniest leaves of Corydalis, Dicentra, and Tradescantia, still too small for a decent photo with my cheap camera and mediocre skills. I even noticed a few hosta nubs here and there. Many shrubs have buds as well, including this young ‘Excel’ lilac:
Of course, the daffodils are ready to burst forth in all their golden glory…
This is Alchemilla mollis ‘Auslese’. It’s hard to improve on Mr. McGregor’s Daughter’s description of these as ballerina wanna-be’s. Don’t they look just like frilly little tutus? A few drops from a gentle, early morning rain make a pretty pearl trim.
Not to be left out of the show, the red maple’s plump buds stand out beautifully against the water behind her.
Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima ‘Splendens’) is still sporting her winter blush, but I think there’s some green in there too.
From here on out, I’m sure there will be something new to discover every day. I hope you are enjoying many pleasant surprises in your own garden. (Don’t worry, Jodi! Your glaciers have to melt eventually, and you’ll catch up before you know it!)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Johnny Crocus-seed

They’re here! They’re here! After weeks of watching gardens burst into bloom in warmer climates, I finally have a few tiny blossoms of my own.
White crocus and sedum
My son (then 10) helped me plant these crocuses back in 2004—our first Fall in this house. I worked my way through the flower beds digging small holes here and there. He loaded his hoodie pocket with corms, then followed me around like Johnny Crocus-seed, scattering kernels of future beauty as he went. (Every once in a while I can get him interested in a little task like that.)

We planted over 200 corms all together, of several varieties purchased at local Box-Marts. But as Alan Armitage so aptly puts it, “A crocus is a crocus is a crocus.” Most of them look pretty similar.

Still, for those who like to know these things, here’s what we planted. About a hundred of them were C. tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’.
Crocus 'Ruby Giant'
Don’t be fooled by her name: there’s nothing large, nor even red, about this Ruby. All “giant” means is that she is bigger than other tommasinianus crocuses. But what she lacks in size she makes up in vigor. Tommies are supposed to be the fastest multiplying variety of crocus. They’ve certainly spread nicely here. They’re also known as “snow crocuses,” which tells you something about how early they bloom.

Another 50 were C. vernus ‘Pickwick,’ a slightly larger Dutch crocus that has silvery-lavender flowers with darker purple stripes. The vernus varieties are supposed to be among the later-blooming crocuses, and indeed this is the only one open in my gardens so far:
Crocus 'Pickwick'
Then there were 80 of unnamed mixed species: purple, white, yellow, and striped.
I’m pretty sure that not all those original crocuses survived (Mr. Squirrel undoubtedly made off with his cut), but those that remain have formed nice little patches here and there. I’ve read that they don’t like wet feet, and it’s true that my happiest ones are in raised, well-drained areas.

Thus begins spring. It’s not much so far, but I’ll take it! Besides, big things grow from small beginnings, right? There’s a whole lot of hope packed into those teeny, tiny flowers.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Miracle Muscari

Around this time last year (maybe for Easter?) my good friend Maya gave me a small pot of blooming grape hyacinths. After enjoying them on my kitchen counter for a while, I intended to plant them out in the garden. When they began to decline, I stuck them in a corner of the patio… and promptly forgot all about them.

A couple days ago, during a brief warm spell, I made a circuit of my gardens to see if anything was sprouting yet. And… yippee!...there are many signs of life, including crocuses...Photobucket

and species tulips.
I took note of myriad clean-up jobs that await me, once the weather warms up for real: dried stalks and stems to be cut back, misplaced mulch to be returned to its proper place after our recent heavy rains, windblown leaves and debris to be raked out of corners…

But what’s this? Where did this little pot come from?
I picked it up, pulled the dried plant stuff from the top, and found this:
Puzzled, it took me a minute to dredge up the memory of that pot of muscari from last spring. It must have been rolling around out there in the wind all winter long—and we get some mighty strong winds off of the reservoir behind us, as I’ve mentioned before. How these little bulbs survived—or even stayed in the pot!—is beyond me.

The pot is a very thin plastic, and there’s not much soil in it. It would be like setting a package of bulbs on the ground for the winter and expecting them to sprout. All I can think is that they must have had just enough snow cover to protect them during the worst parts of the winter.

It’s a humbling sort of experience for a gardener. We plan and prepare to get our precious babies ready for the coming cold, yet these forsaken and unprotected little miracles did just fine on their own. Who do I think I am, that they should need me?

“Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”
—Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Road Trip

This is the week of the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, and I had been planning all winter to go and bring back fabulous photos to show you. But alas, our much-delayed kitchen remodel has finally become a reality, and I’m stuck here babysitting the work crew. If I’m not around, questions tend to get answered the wrong way, if you know what I mean.

Instead, you get some photos of a recent trip the Suburban Sprouts and I made to the Friendship Park Conservatory, in nearby Des Plaines, here in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. The Sprouts (ages 11 and 13) were on the last day of a four-day weekend and were a little stir-crazy, so I posed the idea and surprisingly they were up for it.

I had read about the conservatory in a number of local publications and had wanted to check it out. I knew it would be no Garfield Conservatory, but the website had a couple of nice photos.

All in all, it was okay. It was a 30-minute drive for us, and I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it if you live further than that. It’s one not-so-large room, with one loop around, which my kids toured in about one minute flat. Then we went back and took a closer look. Most of the greenery seemed like larger versions of plants I have in my own house—nothing terribly exotic.
They did have several varieties of orchid, but most were looking a little tired, and all were identically labeled “#84, orchid.” Here are the only two that still looked half-way decent.
They did have some enormous begonias—I think. Many of the plants were unlabeled.
When labels were in view, they kind of messed up a good photo op.
The trunk of this tree philodendron was interesting, with its “owl-eye” pattern of leaf stem scars…
… and its aerial roots wrapped around the base, looking a little too snake-like for my comfort.
PhotobucketThe Sprouts enjoyed the koi pond next to the bridge at the “high” end of the room…
But I’m sure their favorite part was romping in the nearby playground afterwards…
Or, on second thought, the stop at Dairy Queen on the way back home.

It was no Flower and Garden Show, but it was a pleasant afternoon. I noticed a lot of perennial beds outside, so I may sneak back in the summer to take a peek at those. The outdoor pond circled by an electric train (plus the playground…and the DQ) may be enough to lure my kids back too.

In the meantime, I hope somebody else posts a lot of photos of the show, so I don’t feel like I totally missed out. (Mr. BrownThumb and Mr. McGregor’s Daughter, I’m counting on you!)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Get Your Blotanical Fix

PhotobucketFor the past day or so, many of my garden blogging friends have been in an uproar. “Where is Blotanical? Why isn’t it coming up? It’s been ‘suspended’? When is it coming back? Where is Stuart?????”

To the uninitiated, the fuss may have seemed puzzling. But to those who have joined the Blotanical community, this was a BIG DEAL! I saw words like “hooked,” “addicted,” “morning fix,” “withdrawal symptoms,” “fish out of water,” and “panic” flying everywhere I looked.

It turned out to be a temporary downtime, of course—undoubtedly allowing creator Stuart Robinson to make Blotanical even better than it already is. All is fine now, and we're breathing a collective sigh of relief. For many of us garden bloggers, Blotanical is our main link to each other. We can show off our successes, vent our frustrations, plead for help with a troubling plant, or just enjoy each other’s company for a spell.

If you are not yet acquainted with Blotanical, I encourage you to scoot on over and check it out. And you don’t have to be a blogger to enjoy it, either. You can sign up (at no cost) as either a blogger or just a “civilian” member and partake of its numerous features.

Blotanical offers many ways to find and stay connected with other gardeners. One way is to search by location. I have enjoyed comparing notes with other bloggers right here in the Chicago area. Or, when I’m feeling adventurous, I can pick any part of the world and escape for a virtual tour of bloggers’ gardens there.
Blotanical screen
A search feature allows me to find all postings on any topic I care to dream up. And there are lots of other ways to sort blogs and postings, as well, including most recent, most popular, and posts by new bloggers. If I like, I can choose a list of favorites, so I can always find them easily.

As a new kid on the gardening blogger block, I have greatly appreciated the extra exposure my blog has received through Blotanical—not to mention the encouraging words and great tips and ideas from all my new friends around the world.

We’re so glad you’re back, Blotanical. (Now, can I have my red star, Stuart? :)

#1 Sure Sign of Spring

What is the one sure-fire, never-miss, bonafide sign that spring is on its way to Chicagoland? No, it’s not the first crocus elbowing its way up through the earth. Nor is it the robin’s jubilant wake-up call.

It’s the arrival of the big trucks!

Like clockwork they make their appearance shortly before spring arrives. First, in mid-February, we hear the approaching rumble of the village tree-pruning squads in their bucket trucks…
Pruner 2
Nary a dead nor errant branch escapes their notice. I’m always happy to see the trees get a good shaping-up, but they look conspicuously bare at the moment—like a young boy with a too-short haircut, his newly exposed ears and forehead gleaming against tanned skin. But they’ll fill in nicely again soon.

Occasionally a whole tree has to go and that’s sad. This one used to stand just across the cul de sac from our house. The trunk was half hollow from some ailment or other. We’ll miss its shade this summer.
After the bucket-truck brigade come the road repair crews. The winter snowplowing has left its mark on our streets, and there are potholes everywhere. I missed my chance to get a photo of these trucks today—but that’s not what you came to a garden blog for anyway, is it? How about this instead:
This intriguing live sculpture graces the entrance to a truck company near here. In summer it’s surrounded by a pretty patch of annuals. (My apologies for lopping off the “T”—I left my glasses in the car when I jumped out to snag this shot. Time for a large-print camera…)

Not exactly an idea I’d choose to replicate in my own front yard, but it makes me smile every time I pass. I’d love to get the story on it—Whose idea was it? Who maintains it so perfectly? But I can’t quite bring myself to wander into a truck yard full of burly men and inquire about their topiary and posies. I’m hoping to catch the pruner in action some day and maybe mosey over for a chat.

So that’s that. The big trucks have arrived, and spring can’t be far behind. Patience, my friend!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meet My Arch Enemy

Drat. He’s at it again. Who, you ask? Why, my ARCH ENEMY here in the Suburban Sanctum, of course. Who else?

Is he a deer, you might wonder? No, the deer around here are amazingly well behaved. We’re on the far side of the reservoir from their usual stomping grounds, so they wander our way only once or twice a year. I don’t begrudge them the hosta or two that they nibble from the back bed, where nobody sees them anyway. Last year they de-leafed a couple branches of a doublefile viburnum. Even that didn’t really bother me. (And yes, I know full well how lucky I am! My mom has tried every repellent recipe in the book, but still they munch mercilessly on anything they can reach in her yard.)

Okay, then maybe a rabbit? No, between the coyotes and the hawk, I haven’t even seen a rabbit in years. Groundhog? Negatory on that one too. The big fella that used to hang out here considered my flower beds his own private salad bar. But I sealed up his hidey-hole under my shed…and got a VERY BIG dog. The groundhog wisely decided the gardens were greener (and safer) around the reservoir a ways.

The skunk still comes around. (The coyotes know better than to mess with him…unlike Sam, the VERY BIG but NOT SO BRIGHT Suburban Pup.) Occasionally Mrs. Skunk and her babies overturn a plant while rooting around. But that’s not a bad trade-off for all the grubs they eat.

Well, who is it already? Who has me so spittin’, sputterin’ mad?It’s that blasted squirrel!

Now that the ground has defrosted, he’s been digging around in my gardens again, like he does every year. (Why can’t those coyotes learn to climb trees?) Last summer, as I relaxed in my family room, I glanced out the window just in time to see the dreaded Mr. Squirrel scamper by with a softball-sized lily bulb in his mouth. By the time I got out the back door, he was long gone. And so was my lily.

Earlier that same season, he paraded across the patio with a tulip in his mouth. And I mean the whole tulip! He looked like a mini sideshow weightlifter with a barbell in his mouth, the bulb and roots on one side balanced by the flower on the other. Arrrgggh!

Today I peered out my laundry room window to see if any crocuses were popping up in the south-facing bed. Our 50-degree temps yesterday had melted most of the snow, so I could finally see what’s been going on under there. But what’s this? A huge hole! Right where another one of my oriental lilies used to be!
lily hole
And there were smaller holes nearby. I don’t think he got deep enough to get those lily bulbs, but I’m sure he’ll be back for a second course.
More lily holes
This means war! I have to find a way to stop him. The Suburban Spouse offered to pull out his pellet gun for a little target practice, but that’s not my style. As murderous as my thoughts are towards this varmint right now, I couldn’t do him any harm. I just want him to stay OUT of my flowers!

I’ve already given up on the smaller bulbs. Mr. Squirrel has those for a snack before they’re in the ground ten minutes. The only ones that survive are intermingled with Allium and narcissus. He doesn’t care for those. I’ve learned a few other tricks too, like being careful not to leave bulb husks lying around to attract him. He also has a keen eye and nose for disturbed earth, so when I plant bulbs, I press the soil back in place as firmly as I can, then top with mulch and firm this as well, so it looks like no one was ever there. Sometimes it works...

Being a practical-minded (read “somewhat lazy”) gardener, I’m usually not inclined to try anything more complicated than that. The usual suggestion is to lay chicken wire over the top of the bulbs before putting the soil back into place, but that crosses the line of What-I’m-Willing-to-Mess-With and What-I’m-Not. For most of my plants, it’s survival of the fittest. If they’re tough enough to make it on their own, they get to stay. If not, oh well. (Roses are one exception, though even they get a minimum of coddling.)

But lilies might be worth putting up a fight for. I’m not yet willing to do without these magnificent beauties.
Lilium 'Orange Pixie'
Lilium ‘Orange Pixie’—one that has survived so far!

Maybe a little chicken-wire warfare is in order. Or maybe you have suggestions? Have you found any safe, practical, uncomplicated ways to dissuade squirrels from feasting on your prized bulbs? If so, pass your ideas along fast—the Suburban Spouse’s solution is looking better all the time…

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Best Foot Forward?

Admit it. We gardeners like to show off our best work right in the front where everyone can see it, don't we? Yet, my front foundation bed has been a bit of a frustration in this regard. After four years I’m still not happy with it. (It does look much better now than it did in this early photo.)
Maybe it’s “gardener’s block”—I don’t know. But I’ve struggled with what to put in here. Part of the problem is that I want fairly constant color, since it’s in the front. However, it's tough to find shade-loving perennials that will provide the bold color I desire. I’ve been filling in with impatiens and begonias for now, but eventually hope to have a mix of perennials that will take turns providing interest. Without the annuals, this bed would be a dark, shadowy hole most of the summer. 

The other problem is that everything I have put in is still pretty small. If I can just be patient, I think it will look better some day. Here’s what I have so far. In the center is a chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’). It has pretty white flowers in spring, followed by red leaves in the fall. In winter its red berries stand out beautifully against the snow. It will eventually reach four feet by eight feet, which will help fill out the bed.
At either end are the two catawbiense rhododendrons I mentioned in my last post, one a ‘Nova Zembla’, with huge, velvety-red buds that open to deep pink, and ‘Boursault’, which is lavender-pink. They provide a nice jolt of color in the spring, along with a smattering of tulips and other bulbs, and their large, evergreen leaves make a nice backdrop the rest of the year.

Scattered in between are a few other small shrubs, including dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’), bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’), and an ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea. The hydrangea took a couple years to settle in, but is doing well now, though my alkaline soil makes it look more like its cousin, the pink-tinged ‘Blushing Bride.’
When we moved here, there was a dwarf Alberta spruce in the center (which I pulled out after half of it turned brown) and three globe arborvitaes. I think there had been a fourth arborvitae at one time, two on each side of the spruce. (I kept one of the three leftovers where it was, and moved one elsewhere; the third died the second year we were here.) Existing trees on each end are paper birch and Amur maple. There’s also a huge green ash on the parkway nearby, and full-grown Austrian pine and Colorado blue spruce to one side, which quickly slurp up any moisture this area gets.
I’ve kept the variegated hostas left by Mr. Previous Owner, and have added a couple of golden ones, as well as Heuchera ‘Green Spice.’ Three ‘Bridal Veil’ astilbes will move to a moister location in the spring. They have not thrived here.
I planted a soft pink, thornless ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ climbing rose at the partly sunny, southeast corner of the garage, since she is supposed to do fine in low-light conditions, but I think she died back to the root stock last winter: She came in short and shrubby instead of tall and leggy, and never bloomed. I’ll probably replace her in the spring. Next to the rose is a deep red ‘Niobe’ clematis, which also does well with limited sun.

I guess I’m happy with most of what is here now, but have many gaps to fill. Now if spring would just hurry up and get here so I can go to work!