OK, not wilderness really. But the Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin is part of an officially designated Scenic Riverway, so that’s kind of close. Little did we know that this river would test our wilderness survival skills (which is like testing our neurosurgery skills, as both are pretty limited).

The plan was that Judy, Daniel, and David would kayak on the river for a couple of hours. For myself, I like to avoid water craft of all kinds. I dropped the family off at Jack’s Canoe Rental, then headed over to the Trego Nature Trail for a nice little hike.

Namekagon River seen from Trego Nature Trail. Since Judy's phone ended up in the river I have no pictures of any family members kayaking on this trip.

Namekagon River seen from Trego Nature Trail. Since Judy’s phone ended up in the river I have no pictures of any family members kayaking on this trip. These pictures were taken with my phone.

The kayaking got off to an idyllic start. The water was clean and lovely, the trees verdant, the weather mild, the sky an azure blue.

Things started going awry, however, about a half hour into the trip. Judy gave Daniel her phone (the boys had left their phones with me) and asked him to take her picture. In the process, Daniel got distracted and collided with a tree trunk lying in the water.

His kayak overturned, plopping him in the river along with Judy’s cell phone (which still sleeps with the fishes).

Another view of the Namekagon.

Another view of the Namekagon.

The current carried Judy, David, and Daniel’s kayak several yards downstream until Judy and David grabbed hold of some overhanging shrubs.

Danny, meanwhile, had managed to get on shore (did I mention he was barefoot?). Walking upstream proved pretty much impossible. The three of them could hear each others’ shouts but could not see each other, nor could they make out the words.

Eventually, Judy told David to kayak down to the landing at Jack’s and get some help. Meantime, she kept trying to shout to Daniel while sitting in her kayak, holding onto a branch and being eaten by mosquitos. After at least a half hour more of this she decided to try heading upstream.

This was not a good idea. The current pushed her kayak against some driftwood, where it promptly overturned and dumped Judy in the water, bringing our party’s aquatic immersion rate to 2 out of 3. Standing in the waist-high water, she tried to empty the waterlogged kayak with the only tool at her disposal, namely a one gallon Ziploc bag.

At least this didn't happen.  Source: Dommy.wordpress.com

At least this didn’t happen. Source: Dommy.wordpress.com

After an excruciating length of time, fortune smiled on Judy in the form of Carly and Rick, two people passing by in a canoe. They helped her dump the remaining water out of the kayak so she could get back in.

While all this was going on I was taking my hike, contemplating the trees and ferns, lichens and mosses. After two hours I got back into my car and headed to the landing by Jack’s. Just as I got to the river I saw David arriving in his kayak. (I think David qualifies as the most maritime member of our family, as he managed to avoid getting dumped and also is the only one of us who doesn’t get seasick.)

I was just about to congratulate him on his excellent timing when he told me there was a problem and that we needed to find Jack. We rushed to the rental office, images of emergency helicopter rescues filling my mind. Jack, however, could only suggest that we try to find our family members by walking along the river on the trail I had been hiking.

One of the first maple trees turning color, viewed through branches of white pine.

One of the first maple trees turning color, viewed through branches of white pine.

So David and I headed back to the Trego Nature Trail, which stretches along the riverbank for about three miles. We called out to Judy and Daniel, but answer came there none.

When we reached the end of the trail I called Jack, who told me that Daniel had just arrived in his office. Apparently Daniel had climbed the riverbank and dragged himself to the highway. There he was able to hitch a ride despite his shoeless, soaked, and disheveled appearance. Still no sign of Judy, however.

Then, as David and I hiked back down the trail we saw her, paddling downstream. We shouted that Daniel was fine and she should meet us at Jack’s landing. She did so, and we were finally all reunited.

Judy, Daniel and David are moderately experienced kayakers. They all agreed the main lesson of the day’s events was a simple one: you really have to pay attention and look where you are going, especially when the current is a little faster and the water full of more obstacles than you are used to. They were a little overconfident given the conditions.

To commemorate these traumatic events, we had decided to propose a Namekagon River Inept Outdoorsman Triathlon (RIOT). Legs of the event would include:

  • Kayaking for one mile, then falling into the water (extra points for style);
  • Bailing water out of your kayak with a Ziploc bag;
  • Climbing the riverbank and hitchhiking to the kayak rental office.

In case this idea doesn’t catch on, we bought some t-shirts from Jack to make sure we would remember the day.

Actually, our week in the woods was very nice, in spite of overturning kayaks. More details in future posts.

A Little Slice of Fall

Autumn seems to be taking over in a hurry. Suddenly I find I need to wear a jacket when I go outside.

Crooked Stem Aster

Crooked Stem Aster

The Crooked Stem Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides) is covered with tiny sky blue flowers.

Big Leaf Aster

Big Leaf Aster

Then there is Big Leaf Aster (Symphyotrichum macrophyllus). I have finally admitted to myself that Big Leaf Aster (or as my kids call it, Big Ass Leafter) flowers are really nothing to get excited about. It’s value lies more in the large heart shaped leaves that will form a ground cover in dry shade.

Short's Aster

Short’s Aster

Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii) blooms a little later – its flowers are just starting to open. And the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) blooms later in the season.

Aromatic Aster and Anise Scented Goldenrod. I have never found Aromatic Aster to be aromatic at all, but Anise Scented Goldenrod really is anise-scented.

Aromatic Aster and Anise Scented Goldenrod. I have never found Aromatic Aster to be aromatic at all, but Anise Scented Goldenrod really is anise-scented.

I think of Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius) as a late bloomer, but this year it seems to be blooming early, though the flowers are just starting to open. No matter, the flowers keep coming over a long period.  Here it is blooming with Anise Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora), a fairly short goldenrod that tolerates some shade.

Now, you might say that all these asters look essentially the same. However, if you say this to me I will have to report you to the American Horticultural Society, resulting in a ceremony in which they strip you of all the online nursery coupons in your possession. They will also break your trowel. You don’t want that to happen.

Anyhow, Judy and the boys and I are heading up to northern Wisconsin tomorrow for a week of relaxation. There is no internet access in the cabin that our friends Bob and Wendy are generously letting us use, so I think I will probably not be posting again for a week or so. So take care, and make the most of autumn while it lasts.

Beth over at Plant Postings hosts a meme called Lessons Learned, which is about pretty much what it sounds like. This is a good thing, as it’s extremely useful to compare notes with fellow gardeners. So I’m taking this opportunity to write about a couple of lessons I learned over the summer.


Nasturtium and Cigar Plant in a container.

Nasturtium and Cigar Plant in a container.

Lesson Number 1: When you have a grouping of containers, every container should not be planted with the same mix of plants. Sounds obvious, right? But that didn’t stop me from using the thriller/filler/spiller formula with each and every one of the containers on my front landing. I’m such a slave to convention!

OK, this is how the containers looked in late July. I don't have a more recent picture. Believe me, the Cigar Plant and Mexican Petunia get big and bushy, obscuring the other plants.

OK, this is how the containers looked in late July. I don’t have a more recent picture. Believe me, the Cigar Plant and Mexican Petunia get big and bushy, obscuring the other plants.

The result is that eventually a lot of the lower-growing fillers and spillers got obscured or shaded out, and the whole grouping ended up looking a overgrown and shaggy by late summer.

Mexican Petunia, Nasturtium, Lantana

Mexican Petunia, Nasturtium, Lantana

If I had it to do over again, I would plant the thrillers – Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea) and Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) – only in a couple of the containers at or near the top of the landing, instead of in all of them. The remaining could have been planted only with the filler Star Flower (Pentas lanceolata) and the spiller Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), or other low to mid-height plants. The idea is to think about  the picture created by all the containers as a whole.

A grouping of containers at Great Dixter. As a combination, it is more than the sum of its parts.

A grouping of containers at Great Dixter. As a combination, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Really what I want is to have my container groupings look like this.   

Lesson Number Two: When planning a bed or border, it’s critical that you factor into your design whether or not a plant is a late riser. 

Two more container combinations at Great Dixter.

Two more container combinations at Great Dixter.

Case in point: the Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in my Driveway Border. In theory, it’s planted in a spot where at its full height it should get adequate sun. However, it is surrounded by perennials that have already gotten fairly tall by the time the Switchgrass breaks dormancy in May.

As a result, it is gets shaded and remains fairly stunted. This fall I’m moving it to a better spot on the Left Bank.

There was a similar situation with the ‘Heavenly Blue’ Morning Glories (Ipomoea tricolor). Their seeds can’t be planted until the soil warms in late May. I planted it by the Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), which is starting to bloom by then. The Morning Glory seedlings hate to be shaded, and I had to remove some of the stems of the Wild -Indigo – something I hated to do.

Have you ever found yourself ignoring the obvious in your garden?





A couple of years ago I transplanted some surplus Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) to the Parkway Border. They prospered, and were soon joined by a couple of volunteer Brown-Eyed-Susan (R. triloba). Around this time of year, as a result, there is a big cheerful drift of golden yellow in front of our house. Passing drivers would have to be distracted indeed not to notice.

Black and Brown-Eyed Susan in the Parkway Border. Keeps passing drivers awake.

Black and Brown-Eyed Susan in the Parkway Border. Keeps passing drivers awake.

There are at least 10 species in the genus Rudbeckia and countless cultivars and hybrids, but these are the only two I grow. Both are the straight species. I have nothing against the popular cultivar ‘Goldsturm’, but I really don’t see how it is superior to plain old R. fulgida.

Parkway Border

Parkway Border

A fall or late summer garden in the Midwest without Rudbeckias would be like a Labor Day picnic without sweet corn. Both of my Rudbeckias are adaptable and resilient. They are not deterred by neglect or challenging conditions. And both have the pioneer spirit: you are likely to find them staking a claim to just about any spot in your garden. In my opinion, they both look their best when planted in masses.

Black-Eyed Susan

Black-Eyed Susan

Black-Eyed Susan is the more compact of the two, growing 2-3′. Another common name is orange coneflower. If you look closely, you will see that the petals (ray flowers, actually) are orange near the central cone, then golden yellow further out.

Some dislike the fact that R. fulgida is so widely used, but to these persons I say, “Pshaw!” It’s widely used because it is such a fabulous plant!

Brown-Eyed Susan peek out from behind a tall clump of Norther Sea Oats.

Brown-Eyed Susan peek out from behind a tall clump of Norther Sea Oats.

Brown-Eyed Susan is my favorite Rudbeckia. It can grow quite tall and is best cut back by half around the end of May. The ray flowers are short and rounded, the composite flowers smaller but produced in great abundance.

Brown-Eyed Susan flowers up close.

Brown-Eyed Susan flowers up close.

Carl Linnaeus named Rudbeckia after Olof Rudbeck the Younger, a renowned Swedish scientist at the University of Upsala while Linnaeus was an impoverikshed student there. Olof took Linnaeus in and gave him a job tutoring his three grandchildren. Years later, Linnaeus named this magnificent genus of flowers after his patron.

Immature self-sown Brown-Eyed Susan in the shady back garden. Brown-Eyed Susan is fairly shade tolerant.

Immature self-sown Brown-Eyed Susan in the shady back garden. Brown-Eyed Susan is fairly shade tolerant.

Do you have a favorite Rudbeckia?

I had a colonoscopy on Friday, and let me start out by saying that the results were basically fine. I have mixed feelings about writing on this topic, this being a garden blog and all (annuals, biennials, colonoscopies … wait, something doesn’t fit here). However, there is a moral to this story that in the end I wanted to share.

monty python pipes 1

So there I was in the GI lab, lying on my side, and the nurse tells me they’re about to administer the sedative. Suddenly there is a hot, painful sensation in my arm with the IV needle. Now, this was the third time I have been through this procedure and this pain in the arm was a new experience.

Like a dummy, I didn’t say anything. I am one of those people who absorbed the lesson early in life that enduring pain without complaint is a sign of moral superiority. Deep in the primitive part of my brain I firmly believe that at some point i will get a medal for suffering in silence, or at the very least a round of applause.

rue des martyrs

Anyway, some minutes later the doctor asks me if I’m feeling sleepy. He’s experienced in his field with a reputation for being highly competent. I say no. He says something to the effect of: Give him another dose.

And then we’re off to the races, the doctor humming some tune that I can’t identify. Except I’m still not sleepy. In fact, I begin to experience discomfort, then pain. Eventually it’s enough pain that I can’t keep quiet any more. I start grunting and then muttering bad words. 

The doctor is puzzled. He asks how much sedative I’ve been given, apparently it is a lot. I think he says to give me another dose, I’m not sure. And we keep going, him still humming something that was melodic only in his own mind.

Eventually they finish the procedure (it takes 30-40 minutes, I think). And only then do they realize that my right forearm, the one with the IV needle, is swollen and red. Apparently the IV needle had moved, or perhaps had been inserted wrong, and so the sedative didn’t go into my vein. The doctor and other staff apologize profusely.

At this point I’m just glad it’s over. They wrap my arm in something, and I am left to recover. 

The moral of the story is this: pain, especially in this context, is a symptom of something wrong, not a test of your virtue. There will be no medal or applause in recognition of your stoicism. Or if there is, I’m still waiting for it. And I know that some of you share this delusion (you know who you are). It may be that most of you are guys, but I’m not sure.

So if something hurts unexpectedly, especially while you’re undergoing some kind of medical procedure, I highly recommend not keeping quiet about it. I could have avoided a lot of unpleasantness if I had done so at the very beginning.

monty python pipes 2

A little postscript. When the doctor came back some time later to debrief Judy and I, he gave us color photos of the two little non-cancerous polyps he had found in my intestines. Modern technology makes this possible, I guess. He seemed quite proud of the pictures, as if they were of his favorite grandchildren. I’m glad he is so enthusiastic about his work, but personally I didn’t feel any need for a memento of the experience.

Fall is the season of grasses. In my garden, my absolute favorite grass is ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). 

2014-09-01 17.22.03 Northwind Switchgrass

Now is when ‘Northwind’ sends up it’s airy panicles of tiny flowers. 

'Northwind' Switchgrass in the Sidewalk Border.

‘Northwind’ Switchgrass in the Sidewalk Border.

I have two big clumps of this Switchgrass in the Driveway Border. This grass is native to the eastern and central parts of the USA and Canada.

2014-09-01 17.14.53 switchgrass

‘Northwind’ has many virtues. It is big enough to make a statement, but not so big as to overwhelm everything around it. In my garden it grows about six feet tall. It does not self-sow or run, but it does make a substantial and gradually expanding clump. 

2014-09-01 17.17.27

It is a very upright grass. I am never even tempted to stake it, and that is saying something. 

2014-09-01 17.30.54

Like many grasses, at the right moments it can catch the light beautifully. 

2014-09-01 17.15.51

Switchgrass is a warm season grass, emerging late in the spring. It likes full sun best, and I have had some trouble with shading out by other plants that grow tall early and fast.

2014-09-01 17.16.03 switchgrass

The color is a deep green very lightly tinged with blue. In the fall it turns the color of straw, not flashy but appealing even so. 

Like many other grasses, Switchgrass adds a wonderful element of movement to the garden. Judy spent 90 minutes trying to use the video function of her camera to record the grasses waving in the wind.

Here’s another one where the wind isn’t blowing quite so hard. Can you hear the Cicadas? I find watching the grasses sway to be much like watching bees, very calming. OK, just one more.

Sorry, I can’t help myself. This is more of a close up.

What’s your favorite ornamental grass?


There is only one species of Hummingbird in the Chicago aea, the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. They spend their winters in Central America and arrive here in May. Throughout the summer, though, there was almost no sign of them in our garden this year.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Ruby Throated Hummingbird 

That changed about 10 days ago. Since then, we see hummingbirds almost every time we approach the front steps. Usually they are feeding at the containers stuffed with Hummingbird-attracting annuals.

DSC_0797 Hummingbird

Using the sports setting and a zoom lens, Judy got some pretty amazing photographs. These tiny guys move around so fast that they are a blur much of the time. Of course, that is part of what makes them so fascinating – plus their ability to hover like tiny helicopters.


Hummingbird feeding at Cigar Plant.

Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea) is a big hummingbird favorite. 

Hummingbird feeding at Star Flower.

Hummingbird feeding at Star Flower.

They also really like Star Flower (Pentas lanceolata).

Hummingbird feeding on Tithonia

Hummingbird feeding on Tithonia

And like the butterflies, they are very fond of Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia lanceolata). 

DSC_0799 hummingbird

After a while I thought the hummingbirds were getting tired of having their pictures taken. Is he mooning us here?

Despite this suspected rudeness, it’s been exciting having the hummingbirds around. 

Have you seen hummingbirds in your garden this year?


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