Fall Planting!

The Left Bank – the bed that lies west of the driveway between the crabapple and the sidewalk – has been born anew. The last three weeks I’ve hardly gotten into the garden at all, but yesterday I spent a good six hours digging out the old and planting the new.

The Left Bank as the makeover begins.

The Left Bank as the makeover begins.

You may recall how I was dissatisfied with the Left Bank, which looked to me like an amalgam of green piles of dirty laundry (perhaps the piles from my old bachelor apartment come back to haunt me). They were a collection of good plants that didn’t go well together. (Hey, maybe that could be a book: “When Good Plants Make Bad Partners“.)

New plants from Prairie Nursery and my friend Rachelle.

New plants from Prairie Nursery and my friend Rachelle.

Since the new plants had arrived, it was time to get to work. Out went the Smilacina stellata, the Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius), the “May Night” Salvia, the Coreopsis palmata. Actually, they did not go easily. Between the Coreopsis, Aster, and Smilacina, the top few inches of soil were a dense mass of rhizomes. I thought at first the soil had somehow become compacted, but it was just all those dang roots. The Coreopsis roots in particular were like iron spaghetti.

No doubt I’ll be battling remaining bits of these rhizomes for years to come, but c’est la jardin.

Prairie Smoke and Starry Solomon's Plume

Prairie Smoke and Starry Solomon’s Plume

What stayed were the Anise Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora), the Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), and the Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepsis).  The Dropseed I rearranged to make more of a border along the west side of the bed.

And of course, the many species tulip bulbs. Actually I was quite pleased that I was able to avoid digging up more than a few of the existing bulbs.

Lead Plant. Photo from prairienursery.com.

Lead Plant. Photo from prairienursery.com.

The new plants had mostly arrived from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. There were a whole bunch of Prairie Onions (Allium stellatum), which I used to make a border along the east side of the bed. There were enough Prairie Smoke to make the existing drift of this plant much deeper There were some Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis), and one Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens).

'Summer Beauty' Alliums at the Lurie Garden.

‘Summer Beauty’ Alliums at the Lurie Garden.

Also, my good friend Rachelle from Talking to Plants sent me some ‘Summer Beauty’ Allium, which are like a larger and showier version of the Prairie Onion. I saw masses of ‘Summer Beauty’ this year at the Lurie Garden and knew I had to have some. Thanks again, Rachelle!

The Left Bank at the end of the day.

The Left Bank at the end of the day.=

By late afternoon I was done – at least for this stage of the makeover. I still have a bunch of bulbs to plant – species and Kaufmanniana tulips, and a few Lilium auratum ‘Gold Band’ – but they have not yet arrived. Which is a good thing, because my back, knees, and thighs were preparing to go out on strike against my brain.

Next year I think I’ll mix in some brightly colored annuals, maybe Zinnias, to contrast with the summer lavender blooms of the Ruelia and Alliums.

Have you done any fall planting yet?

There was a somewhat encouraging but confusing opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday about the decline of honeybees. 

In the column, biologist Noah Wilson-Rich states that “Scientists I’ve spoken to in both academia and government have strong reason to believe that CCD [Colony Collapse Disorder] is essentially over.” Wilson-RIch claims that there hasn’t been a definitive case of documented CCD in three years.

Bumble Bee, Wild Bergamot

Bumblebee coming in for a landing

My first reaction to the column was to wonder if the author was part of some front group put up by the pesticide industry to counter demands for banning neonicotinoid insecticides. But Wilson-Rich seems to be legitimate: he is a professor of biology at Simmons College in Boston. He is the founder of the Best Bees Company, which installs and manages hives for residential, commercial, and agricultural properties. Profits generated by Best Bees is dedicated to bee research. And he is a giver of TED talks, if you like that kind of thing.

And Wilson-Rich is not saying that all is well, far from it. CCD may be over, but bees are still dying. He says that honeybee losses have stabilized at about 30% a year: “The danger to bees is no longer growing.” I found myself a bit confused about what exactly that means.

2014-07-04 16.28.06 Tithonia and bee

According to the article, bees are still threatened by diseases, insecticides,  and habitat loss. Wilson-Rich advocates moving away from monocultural farming practices and doing more to encourage pollination by native bees. In fact, he cites research indicating that expensive hired honeybees (living in hives trucked from farm to farm) are getting the credit for pollination performed by other species of bee.

Have you seen this article? What did you make of it?

We stayed at a cabin on Loon Lake owned by our friends Bob and Wendy.

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There was a wonderful small dock jutting into the water,

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It was perfect for gazing at reflections in the water …

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Not to mention reading, stargazing, and listening to the loons.

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Judy really enjoyed hanging out on the dock. You can see how the water level was unusually high due to all the rains.

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There was a canoe at the cabin and Danny and Judy took it out on the lake.

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They got all the way out there and back without falling into the water.

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We were there for the very beginning of fall color. Most of the color was from the maples.

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But there was also lots of sumac.

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And a bit of oak.

David dragging wooden sections of the dock to the barn.

David dragging wooden sections of the dock to the barn.

On our last day at the cabin Bob and Wendy arrived and we helped them bring the dock in for the winter. The disassembled wooden sections were unusually heavy because they were soaked by the high water levels.

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The last stage of bringing in the dock was rolling in the metal frame. Wendy provided essential encouragement.

norske nook

After finishing up with the dock, we drove back to St. Paul to drop off David. The next day Judy, Danny and I made the long drive back to Chicago. We did stop at the Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin, for some pie. If you ever have to drive on I-90 from Chicago to Minnesota, I highly recommend you make a stop. Danny bought a whole chocolate cream pie to bring back to his girlfriend.

Next post: fall planting!

When Beavers Attack

Our week in Wisconsin was about more than just falling out of kayaks. It was also about enjoying the natural world. And we particularly enjoyed the natural world on the day we went hiking at the Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary, which was about 30 miles from our cabin.

Some early fall color at Hunt Hill.

Some early fall color at Hunt Hill.

Hunt Hill has 400 acres of woods, meadow, and bogs – plus two glacial lakes. It was also one of the few places to hike where you didn’t need an orange jacket to reduce the chance of being shot by a hunter. While the main deer season is in November, in mid-September Wisconsin allows black bear hunting, wild turkey hunting, and crossbow hunting of deer. Hunting goes on in most public lands, but not in Audubon Sanctuaries.

Beaver on the rampage. Photo: Lauren Smith.

Beaver on a rampage. Photo: Lauren Smith.

There was still plenty of mayhem going on, though mostly it was perpetrated by beavers.

I mean, really, look at this.

I mean, really, look at this.

Walking near one of the one of the lakes we were astounded by the number of trees cut down by the little furry vandals.

2014-09-19 14.13.43 Hunt Hill

Tree placed by beavers across path.

In what may have been acts of rodent sabotage, we found large trees that had been felled so that they lay across hiking trails.

There was no way this tree was going to end up in the water.

There was no way this tree was going to end up in the water. So what’s the point?

I understand about how they use trees to build dams, but many of the trees taken down were not by the water. Perhaps those were just for practice, or it might have just been beavers on a rampage.

Acorns were plentiful.

Acorns were plentiful.

We were in a part of Wisconsin where the deciduous forest gradually transitions to coniferous, making the woods here especially diverse.

Birch trunks.

Birch trunks.

Birch and white pine mixes with oak and maple.

Jack-in-the-pulpit berries?

Jack-in-the-pulpit berries?

Walking through a bog we saw the green fruit of what seemed to be jack-in-the-pulpit. I didn’t think they grew in bogs, and wondered if these might be the berries of pitcher plants – but Google Images made that seem unlikely.

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This was a happy place for mosses.

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Not to mention fungus.

We also hiked through some of the meadows, which were traversed by grassy trails.

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You could see how these meadows would easily turn into shrubland and then woods without regular mowing.

Goldenrod, aster, and wild raspberry

Goldenrod, aster, and wild raspberry

There were grasses, asters, goldenrods, and other wildflowers – but also lots of wild raspberry and young woody plants.

Milkweed pods.

Milkweed pods.

The raspberry leaves were turning various shades of red, which combined nicely with the yellow goldenrod and blue aster.

Some kind of shrub dogwood.

Some kind of shrub dogwood.

We never actually did see any beavers or even much in the way of birds, but I am told that in general the birdwatching is excellent. And they have a very successful bluebird breeding program!

If you find yourself in northwest Wisconsin, near the town of Sarona, Hunt Hill is worth a visit. Just watch out for falling trees.

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?






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