Saturday, January 31, 2009

Microclimate Triumphs and Tears

Over the years I’ve come to realize that my sunny south foundation bed is a “microclimate.” Its brick backdrop is warmed by the sun all year round, which helps marginally hardy plants thrive here. More about that in a moment, but first let me give you a little background on this bed.


When we moved here, this was a very narrow, foundation-hugging strip of dirt, with a row of landscape blocks running its entire length. I gave the blocks to a neighbor and began digging the wider, curving bed I wanted.

That first settling-in year, I planted a few inexpensive shrubs and perennials to brighten this area until I could afford to “do it up right.” Mr. P.O. had bequeathed us only some daisies and yellow daylilies, and an overgrown barberry. Ninety percent of the bed was empty, unless you count bindweed and oxalis, which I still battle to this day.

On the east end, I planted three Weigela florida ‘Evita.’ These are a sight to see when dressed in their deep red flowers, but are a sprawling mess the rest of the season. I am still undecided about whether to keep them.


The purple stems and flower spikes of Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ provide a nice foil to Evita’s red. Other plants on this end include yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’) and lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina ‘Silver’Carpet’).


Near the center of the bed is a red rambling rose (Rosa ‘RADramblin’). She picks up where the weigela leave off with their show of red. My most vigorous rose, she reaches above the roofline every year, and puts on a non-stop show all summer. I’m thinking of trying a few cuttings from her next summer.


At the other end is a serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora) I planted two years ago. At its feet is a variety of perennials, including Amsonia, Coreopsis, more Salvia, Nepeta, lilies, rock cress, and groundcover sedum.

In the middle section is a purpleleaf sand cherry (Prunus x cistena), and near her are several of my microclimate triumphs. My first clue to the potential zone-denying power of this bed came from two Caryopteris shrubs.


Here in zone 5 they are purported to die to the ground each winter, much like the butterfly bush. I went out in early spring to cut back the dead branches to make room for new growth. But lo and behold, the old stems had leaf buds all over them, and some were opening already. I let them be and they came in just fine—in fact, too fine.


By the end of the summer they were HUGE, and were smothering other plants around them. Yes, they were a gorgeous cloud of blue when they bloomed in the fall, but I really hadn’t planned for them to be so large. So the next winter, I went out nice and early, before they could bud, and cut them back. In the spring, I waited…and waited…and waited for new shoots. This time they didn’t return. Fortunately, they were rampant reseeders, so I’ve had plenty of babies to replace them.

This experience, though a mix of triumph and tragedy, encouraged me to try other marginal plants here. A neighbor had given me a Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bluebird.’ It had never bloomed for her and she was tired of looking at it. I tried it in two shady, protected areas, with the same results. This is typical of the bigleaf hydrangeas in zone 5. They bloom on old wood, but die to the ground in winter, which means no flowers.

But then the lightbulb went off and I decided to give ‘Bluebird’ a cozy nest against the warm brick wall. (It is shaded by the sand cherry in summer.) Last spring I watched eagerly to see if it would produce any buds, but alas, the old wood was all dead. I cut it back and forgot about it. Then one day, what do you know! It suddenly had two floppy pink mopheads!


Whether it’s the location or some other factor, I am delighted that I have gotten this beauty to bloom. Never mind that I have a pink ‘Bluebird.’ (Mr. P.O. used to empty the fireplace ashes into this bed, so it’s highly alkaline, and of course hydrangeas need acidic soil to produce blue flowers.) It’s blooming and that’s enough for the moment.

I’ve had a couple of other successes too. Easter lilies are marginally hardy here, but last year one of mine had lovely trumpets. I’ve also had tri-color salvia return, though it’s sold as an annual here. On the other hand, I’ve replaced a ‘Golden Showers’ rose twice in this bed (I love its clear yellow blooms), despite good winter protection.

Clearly, microclimates are no guarantee of success. Still, I look forward to pushing the zone limits even more next summer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Seeds of Promise

Nestled under its snow-downy comforter, the winter garden rests peacefully after its summer toil.

Yet here and there, sleepy seedheads have escaped the covers, assuring the watchful gardener that they, too, are dreaming of spring days to come.

They lie still and silent, yet their promise resounds:
Soon they will forsake their frosty nightcaps and once again stretch their yearning arms to the warmth of the sun.

From “Ode to the West Wind”
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

“Each like a corpse within its grave, until…

“Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth,

“…and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odors plain and hill…

“Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!

“O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Walk on the Sunny Side

If I scrinch my eyes really tight and concentrate really hard, I can almost remember what my sunny border looks like in summer. It’s pretty much a winter wasteland out there right now. The few photos I have help some. Let me see if I can conjure up a good description for you.

This border is on the opposite (south) side of our house from the shade beds we toured in earlier visits. It started out as a three-foot by twelve-foot bare patch where we had removed an ugly privacy screen of buckthorns.

Every year, I have widened and lengthened the bed a bit until it now runs almost the entire length of our side yard. After four years, it is filling in nicely, if I may say so! There’s a good mix of flower colors, largely pinks, purples, burgundies, whites, and yellows. You’ll notice a variety in foliage too, with golden, purple, and variegated plants to break up the green.

This bed does have its challenges, however. It is exposed to strong, harsh winds off the reservoir behind us, especially in the winter, so I have to be careful what I plant here. After one storm, I found my butterfly bush snapped off at the base. I’d love to grow sunflowers, but I don’t think their tall stems would stand a chance.

Three years ago, I brought home a long-coveted Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ from an end-of-season sale and promptly plopped her into this bed. Only after she was nicely settled did I learn she can “suffer significant winter injury…if planted in locations exposed to cold winter winds and full sun” (Missouri Botanical Garden). They don’t put that stuff on the little plastic tags! So far she has done well, although she’s a fashionably late arriver in the spring and has me holding my breath every year till she decides to make her grand appearance.

Other shrubs here include deutzia, panicle Hydrangea, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’—incredible fall color, and a great replacement for the overused and invasive Burning Bush), doublefile and dwarf viburnum, a gold-leaved ninebark, and a red-leaved weigela.

Scattered across the front you’ll see several golden varieties of spirea. I’ve also incorporated a few rose bushes, such as soft pink ‘Geoff Hamilton’ and ‘The Fairy,’ yellow ‘Carefree Sunshine,’ and ‘Meidiland Red.’

Taller perennials include siberian and bearded iris, plus many bird and butterfly favorites: biennial foxglove, cosmos, cleome, coneflowers, hyssop, joe pye weed, penstemon, and phlox. I planted two varieties of false indigo (Baptisia) last fall and can’t wait to see how they come in next summer. There’s also a nice patch of assorted asiatic and oriental lilies.

Shorter perennials include coreopsis, daylilies, lavender, asters, and several varieties of sedum, including my current favorite ‘Matrona.’ (In full sun, she grows strong and sturdy, never flops, and has rich red stems and flowers.)

Down low are mat-forming dianthus, creeping phlox, and several varieties of groundcover sedum. From top to bottom, I’m pleased with the way this border is coming along. Come back next time for a glimpse of the sunny foundation bed across from this border.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

More Shady Characters

Thanks for coming back to see more of my gardens! Last time, we left off with my favorite shade border. Right across from it is another shade bed, along the north foundation of the house.

I think of this one as a “working” bed—that is, it has a job to do besides just providing joy and beauty. It is charged with disguising the unattractive “mechanicals” of the house: the air conditioner, gas meter, PVC furnace vents, and basement window wells.

Four years ago, this area was overrun with invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle. Mr. Previous Owner had fettered the 12-foot beasts to the downspout with an old clothesline to keep them from snagging unsuspecting bypassers. (The old walkway was only two feet from the wall.) Someone buy that man a pair of loppers! Stat!

There was also a healthy patch of ferns in front of the gas meter. The buckthorn and honeysuckle got the boot immediately, but I kept the ferns. With a little reining in, they’ve done quite nicely. I’ve even relocated a few divisions elsewhere in the yard.

One well-behaved ornamental tree and several shrubs have replaced the ousted brutes, providing a nice framework for this bed. At the wider end, near the AC unit, is a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Red Emperor’). Three types of Viburnum make their home here as well (V. trilobum, V. plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake,’ and V. lantana ‘Mohican’).

For height on the bare brick wall, I added a clematis that was supposed to be ‘Niobe’ but isn’t. Its small, purple flowers are unspectacular except that there are hundreds of them. This mystery clematis is the best bloomer of the seven varieties scattered throughout the Suburban Sanctum. Go figure.

There’s also a climbing hydrangea (H. anomala petiolaris) on the chimney. After a typically slow start, it’s finally beginning to fill in nicely. The beautiful white lacecap flowers help to brighten this dark side of the house in summer. Another plus: It won't chisel away the mortar like some clinging vines can.

Perennials here include assorted hostas, Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Ligularia, Globeflower (Trollius chinensis), Astilbe, and ferns (maidenhair, Japanese painted, and the unidentified existing ones).

Along the edge, I’ve planted golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’). I love the way it lights up this shady area, and it also softens the edge of the walkway.

However, a word of caution: The photos above were taken in May and October of last year. In just those few short months, Jenny had spread her fingers into every last bare inch of that bed. I would never plant her somewhere she did not have a hard and fast border. Fortunately, she’s easy to yank out when she goes places I don’t want her—plus, I have plenty of great, draping filler for summer containers. I just pull out a handful, stick it in the pot, and she roots readily.

Well, that’s it for this side of the Sanctum. Up next: a walk on the sunny side. Hope to see you again soon!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Creating a Shady Corner

Since I’m still in denial about our foot of snow and deep-freeze temps, I’ll continue the warm-weather tour of my gardens today.

Follow me past the berm I told you about in my last post, down the new paver pathway around the north side of the house, and here we are at my favorite shade bed. (Pardon my neighbor's temporary construction mess behind it!)

Four years ago, this area was a weedy patch of dirt, a real eyesore. It’s a low spot in the yard, under three white spruce. The trees are beautiful now, but back then a couple of half-dead branches sagged unattractively to the ground, and the roots were quite exposed. Mr. Previous Owner had piled a bunch of rocks and old lumber near the shed, and the space looked like little more than a dumping ground.

Our arborist neighbor encouraged us to remove the two dragging branches and cover the roots with a bit of topsoil—not more than a few inches, he warned, or it could smother the trees. He recommended tucking some shade-loving perennials among the roots—but no large shrubs, because they would compete with the trees for moisture and nutrients. Well, that was all the encouragement I needed!

In came the topsoil, followed by a few more perennials every year since. A variety of hostas provide a good foundation. They include several unknown variegated ones inherited from a neighbor making way for a home addition (perhaps ‘Albomarginata’?), a few solid green and solid blue ones, several gold varieties, and of course a couple of the “biggies” (‘Blue Angel’). Last year I added a ‘Fire and Ice,’ which is almost all white. I’m curious to see how it does next summer.

Other “gift plants” include ‘Dragon’s Blood’ sedum, from my mom, a gorgeously floppy blue geranium from a neighbor who moved to New Orleans just in time for Katrina, and a rhododendron from the same neighbor who gave me the hostas. (Don’t tell my arborist neighbor, but I snuck a few other rhodies along the back of the bed to help provide a little privacy here in the Sanctum.)

If you come back in the spring, I’ll show you all of the species tulips that are popping forth, along with white and pink Bleeding Heart (Dicentra), Columbine (Aquilegia), and Bergenia. Last year I added Hellebore and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

Then you’ll see a summer-long parade of perennials, including Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla), yellow Corydalis, Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), Spiderwort (Tradescantia), yellow foxglove (Digitalis), turtlehead (Chelone), and several varieties of Heuchera (pictured: ‘Snow Angel’).

Groundcovers include European Wild Ginger (Asarum), Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum), and Pulmonaria.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with grasses. A couple years ago I planted two varieties of Hakonechloa, neither of which survived the winter. I am trying ‘Aureola’ again, with a little extra winter protection. I planted Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) last summer, and am hoping it will do well. Carex elata ‘Aurea’ is barely hanging on—I think it’s too dry under the trees. Astilbe and ferns have likewise found the conditions too dry.

I used Mr. P.O.’s pile of rocks to add little retaining walls here and there, which don’t actually retain much, but do add a little visual interest. Some old slate stepping stones (replaced by the new paver walkway) make a nice, meandering path through the bed. They provide for easy maintenance, and also give a little guidance to the feet of small visitors who love to wander through the garden.

I hope this tour has helped to warm up your corner of the world. As for me, I think I can almost feel my toes again!

Come back soon and we’ll take a stroll together through another part of my little Suburban Sanctum.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Outdoor Makeover

It’s another snowy day around here. We’ve gotten a good eight or ten inches since yesterday, and it’s still coming down.

But enough about the cold stuff. Let me give you a glimpse of my garden in warmer times.

Before we even moved in to our home four years ago, we did a major overhaul on the yard. Our one-third acre suburban lot was home to some 30 trees at that time, and our arborist neighbor advised us to remove many of them, including eight large ones in the back yard. This not only relieved the overcrowded and unhealthy conditions, but also opened a nice view from our back windows.

I wish I had some good “before” shots to show you, but my camera must have been packed in a box somewhere. All I have are a couple nasty photocopies from the realtor’s brochure.

In the front, we evicted an ancient grove of junipers that loomed over the driveway and blocked the view of our home to approaching visitors. (A basketball backboard found lurking in the shadows was also sent unceremoniously on its way.)

Now we had a clear view of not only our house, but—lo and behold—our new neighbor, who happens to be just as rabid a gardener as I am! It was her suggestion that we replace the unfortunate junipers with a berm down the sunny property line, half on our side, half on hers. Within days, we had a load of soil delivered and have gardened (and chatted about gardening) quite happily ever since, I on my side, she on hers.

During that first year of settling in, I appointed a skeleton crew of shrubs to duty on my side of the 25- by 15-foot mound. There are three Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’, chosen for their fabulous scent, as I mentioned in my first-ever post. There is also a Weigela florida ‘Variegata Nana’, chosen for its gorgeous green and white foliage and “compact” size (both of which proved to be a myth: With pruning, I have kept it to six feet across, rather than the promised three, and the leaves come back in green and yellow each spring). I also planted a Spirea japonica ‘Neon Flash’, purchased as a four-dollar space filler until I could afford something “better.”

Over the years I have added a mix of perennials and bulbs, until this year, it suddenly occurred to me that I am quite happy with the results. Most surprisingly, that four-dollar spirea has turned out to be the tone-setter for the entire berm! Its reblooming habit makes it a fairly constant burst of deep pink, which blends nicely with its neighbors, from spring to fall.

Perennials include Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’, Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’, Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’ (Do you have this one? It just never stops blooming!), Salvia nemorosa ‘East Friesland’, Sedum ‘Matrona’ (my favorite sedum, with its gorgeous red stems), and Coreopsis ‘Crème Brulee.’

Low-growers along the edge include Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’, several groundcover sedums, and Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety.’

I also get to enjoy the “borrowed” view of my neighbor’s side of the berm, as her lovely assortment peeks through between my own.

After four years, the berm is finally coming into its own. I apologize that I have no photos of it in the height of its summertime glory. (I guess I didn’t believe myself when I kept saying, “I’m going to start a blog…”) Stay tuned for follow-up postings this summer…

(Yes, summer will return. I promise.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Snow-flaky Day

It’s a snow-flaky day around here. I guess that’s better than a regular ol’ flaky day! It’s certainly much prettier. Witness these snowy tapestries from the Sanctum, some captured today, some on other wintry days.

The view from my laundry room. If I hafta work in there, at least I have something nice to look at!

The back yard on a hazy morning.

White pine, paper birch, and silver poplar on the same sunny-hazy day.

This photo hardly does justice to the interplay of textures on the paper birch, Austrian pine, and blue spruce.

We optimistically planted this tiny Norway spruce to help divert the strong winds that traced this pattern. Some day...

The curve of the crab apple's snow-laden branches is nicely echoed by the weigela and cotoneaster below it.

“Nature has undoubtedly mastered the art of winter gardening and even the most experienced gardener can learn from the unrestrained beauty around them.”
—Vincent A. Simeone, Wonders of the Winter Landscape: Shrubs and Trees to Brighten the Cold-Weather Garden

That's the view from my corner of the world today. I hope you can find time to enjoy the beauty around you today, too.

Monday, January 5, 2009

You Say It’s Your Birthday? It’s My Birthday Too, Yeah!

Today is my birthday. And other than a nice breakfast with my mother-in-law this morning, it’s been pretty uneventful so far. That’s the problem with having a birthday so close to the holidays. Everybody’s had enough partying for a while.

But last year? That was a very different story…

First, you have to understand one thing about me. I. Love. The Beatles. It’s gotten progressively worse with age. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing, a longing for my youth. All I know for sure is that their music makes me happy.

A couple years ago I decided to combine that passion with my other favorite pastime: gardening, of course. I began noticing how many Beatles lyrics mentioned gardening, or flowers, or sunshine. I decided to incorporate some of those lines into my flowerbeds. Little did I know that those tunes would soon come to life right in my very own back yard.

Last year was my *cough* fiftieth *cough* birthday, so the Suburban Spouse, along with the Suburban Sprouts (our then-seventh-grade son and fourth-grade daughter) conspired to throw one spectacular surprise party for me.

One Friday in September (four months early—the best way to keep a surprise!), I came home from work to find a couple big trucks unloading in our driveway.

Out came band equipment…

inflatable “moon walks” for the kids…

a food tent…

and even some portable “Suburban Sanitation” units. (The Spouse thinks of everything, bless his generous little heart.)

Soon, about 2-300 of our closest friends and neighbors showed up for the main event: a concert by American English, my favorite Beatles tribute band! Our house sits on a little bit of a hill above the field behind us, so our patio made a great stage.

They played a couple hours’ worth of my favorite songs, before a 10-minute rain shower sent everyone running for home. (I was sort of thankful for that. I had visions of happy partiers keeping the neighbors—okay, me—up till all hours.)

Then, “Paul McCartney” came inside and played a brief private concert for the few of us who remained. He even made our sadly-out-of-tune piano sound good!

It was a beautiful evening. So many friends pitched in to help with set-up and food preparation. Some drove a good distance to be there. Many brought very nice gifts (mostly Beatles or garden-related—bonus!). My friend Megan had a special “watering can” cake made for me!

It was a birthday I’ll never forget. And that’s a good thing, because it’s not likely to happen again any time soon.

Oh, well. “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Life Goes On…”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sub-Zero Sanctum?

We moved to our current home about four and a half years ago. Our old house was just around the corner from where we are now. (We rolled our piano right down the middle of the street, much to our neighbors’ amusement.)

Why bother with such a short move? Well, the house is a little bigger, yes, but mostly it was, as they say, location, location, location.

Our new house backs up to one of our town’s reservoirs, which means we have wide-open space behind us, with a great view of the water and wildlife. We also happen to be on a cul-de-sac, with an extra-wide back yard, making for even better views of the sunsets across the pond (not to mention more space for flowerbeds!). It truly is a Sanctum in the midst of the suburban insanity.

The week before Christmas we got about eight inches of snow in our area, coupled with below-zero temperatures. This was quickly followed by two days of rainy, 40-degree weather. All that snow was gone in no time, and the run-off added an extra 10 feet to the depth of the reservoir.

Now, a week later, the Reservoir Gods (presumably the Chicago Water Reclamation folks) have decreed that the excess water be drained out of the reservoir, which has left some interesting ice formations around the edges.

That's a "no swimming" sign behind Sam, the Suburban Pup. As if anyone would be tempted!

Somehow, the ducks don’t seem to mind it. Totally ignoring the signs, they float contentedly right in the middle of the freezing cold water. (I suspect it’s partly to make sure that Sam and our resident coyotes keep their distance.) How can they stand it? Curious, I did a little web surfing to find an answer.

According to Dandy Designs, it has to do with a complex mass of capillaries in their feet that keeps up a constant exchange of warm blood for cold.

Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a human version of that this time of year. Oh, well. Cold feet, warm heart, right?

Stay warm and cozy, friend!