Getting the Garden in Shape

It was a beautiful weekend, and I’m very pleased with myself for all the spring garden chores I accomplished. For starters, cutting back the rest of the stems and stalks, leaving behind enough dead leaves and plant litter to keep the bugs and birds happy.

Southeast corner of the back garden, with Deutzia and 'Sally Holmes' rose not yet leafing out. It's hard to see, but Jacobs ladder and merrybells are coming up.

Southeast corner of the back garden, with Deutzia and ‘Sally Holmes’ rose not yet leafing out. It’s hard to see, but Jacobs ladder and merrybells are coming up. You can also make out the trench border.

What’s more, I edged all the beds and borders. I like using a shallow trench to form a clear demarcation between the lawn and the flowers, though in some beds pavers fill this function. I only need to clear the trenches once a year, then keep the turf grasses and other invaders from sneaking past. The soil cleared from the trenches is like compost, full of decayed leaves and other vegetable matter, and you can use it as such.

Backyard fountain

Our backyard fountain

Plus, I put away the heated bird bath and got our little fountain started up. And did it without pulling any muscles in my back.

First of the Tulips and Daffodils

Tulipa turkestanica

Tulipa turkestanica

Species tulips are wild tulips, with blooms smaller than the hybrids, that grow in a swath from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. They are wonderful for many reasons, not least of which is that they tend to bloom weeks earlier than the hybrid tulips. Tulipa turkestanica, with its yellow base and nearly flat cream-colored tepals, is a particular favorite of mine. It seems to be successfully naturalizing in my beds.

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Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’ has vivid red flowers and variegated leaves. It blooms at the same time as T. turkestanica, and they make good companions.


Tulipa biflora

Tulipa biflora

Another early species tulip is Tulipa biflora. Similar to T. turkestanica, but shorter and with delicate, cup-shaped blooms.

'Little Gem' daffodils

‘Little Gem’ daffodils

The first of the daffodils are blooming, including ‘Little Gem’. There’s also a number of bi-colored Large-Cup daffodils, but I’ve lost track of the varieties. I’m especially fond of bi-colored daffodils with white perianths and yellow crowns.

Bicolored daffodils, variety unknown.

Bicolored daffodils, variety unknown.

Containing My Excitement

Hyacinths coming up.

Hyacinths coming up.

The hybrid tulips planted in containers seem to have come through the winter with flying colors. I am eager to see them in bloom. Given the severity of the winter, it would seem that burying the containers provided better protection than putting them in an unheated garage. In addition to nine containers of hybrid tulips, I planted one of common hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis).

Emerging foliage of container tulips.

Emerging foliage of container tulips, underplanted with sweet alyssum.

This weekend I bought a flat of lemon-colored sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and used it to underplant the container tulips.

Our old wheelbarrow planted with pansies.

Our old wheelbarrow planted with pansies.

I also filled our unoccupied containers, including our old rusty wheelbarrow, with pansies: blue, yellow, white, and white with a purple face.

My old shoes planted with  sweet alyssum.

My old shoes planted with sweet alyssum.

Finally, I came up with a use for my old shoes. First I should tell you that I hate shopping for shoes (and clothes in general), and I hate throwing them away. I tend to wear my shoes until the sole is worn through and parting ways with the rest of the shoe. I’ve had a few pairs of these old shoes lined up near the front door, but just recently realized that they would make great planters. Ta da! And the extra holes provide openings for more plants.

Did you get some quality time in the garden this weekend?



In April I usually start changing the mix of bird foods that I offer in my back garden feeders. There are a few reasons for this. First off, I want to get ready for the neotropical migrants – orioles, grosbeaks, indigo buntings, etc. – that usually arrive in Chicago right around May 1. If you can snag these birds when they first arrive, they are likely to stick around for a while at least.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Also, spring tends to bring large numbers of grackles and starlings to the backyard feeders. I have nothing against these birds individually, but in groups they become Hordes of Giant Black Locusts that devour everything in their path. These birds love peanuts above everything else, and so in spring I stop offering peanuts (a good food for winter), both shelled and in the shell.

Here’s what I do offer:

Nutrasaff Safflower Seed. Safflower is popular as a substitute for sunflower because grackles and other bully birds don’t like it. However, safflower hulls can accumulate into a big mess just like sunflower, though safflower is not toxic to plants the way sunflower hulls are. Hulled sunflowers avoid the mess on the ground, but they’re expensive and will be scarfed up with alarming speed by the bully birds.

A Rose Breasted Grosbeak party on the platform feeder.

A rose breasted grosbeak party on the platform feeder. That mourning dove in the background feels so out of place.

Nutrasaff is a new hybrid safflower with an extremely thin hull that makes a minimal mess. It also has a higher fat and protein content than regular safflower. I’ve found it to be a good value because, though it is expensive, it lasts longer. While the bully birds give it a peck now and then, they just won’t scarf it down. At the same time, cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, and chickadees seem to like it just as much as sunflower or safflower.

Rose breasted grosbeak.

Rose breasted grosbeak.

In terms of migrants, safflower will attract rose breasted grosbeaks. It’s important to offer the seed on a platform feeder of some kind, because grosbeaks eat on the ground and are less likely to perch on tube feeders. The same is true of cardinals, as both are large finches. Grosbeaks seem to hang around for a month or so before moving on to wherever grosbeaks go.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Grape Jelly. This is what draws the Baltimore orioles. Orioles are more common in the Chicago area than most people realize, but they tend to stay in the tree tops. They will come down to earth, however, for grape jelly. There are oriole feeders you can buy or just put some in a little bowl. Oranges will also attract Baltimore orioles. Once the orioles arrive, we’ve found that they tend to keep visiting the feeders until September.

Nyjer Seed. For the goldfinches.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker helps himself to some suet.

Rendered Suet. You can buy cakes of this stuff, which will attract nuthatches and all kinds of woodpeckers. I use the plain suet rather than the kind that is mixed with ground peanuts and other ingredients, which is done to prevent melting. In my shady back garden melting has never been a problem even on hot summer days. Moreover, the peanuts in the suet attract the bully birds and house sparrows, which will eat far more than the woodpeckers.

White Millet. I spread this on the ground in late April and early May to attract indigo buntings. I’ve had limited success, though, as we’ve had only a couple of sightings.

Do you feed the birds in spring and summer?


Because of rabbits, I need to replace the three ‘Autumn Brilliance’ serviceberries (Amelanchier x arborea) that stand along the west hedge of our lightly shaded back garden.

Serviceberry foliage shows even brighter against the green hedge on our west property line. Some misguided pruning accounts for the odd shapes.

All three of these serviceberries have been done in by rabbits.  Felonious pruning accounts for the odd shapes.


This past winter was so long and the snow so deep, the rabbits ended up chewing even more of the bark off some of their favorite trees than they normally do. They are especially fond of serviceberries, dogwoods (Cornus), crabapples (Malus), and most fruit trees. I noticed they generally stayed away from the spicebush (Lindera benzoin), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), and Viburnums.

When rabbits girdle small trees, chewing the bark around the entire circumference, the tree is a goner. That’s because the vascular tissues are interrupted, blocking the transport of water, nutrients, and sugars between roots and leaves.

On the bright side: when I first planted two of these serviceberries I did a criminally bad job of pruning them, so this is an opportunity to get rid of the embarrassing results. Note: don’t prune your new trees and shrubs by just lopping off the top three feet of the main stems. If you do you will find yourself referring to the unfortunate plant as Igor.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance'

Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ flowers

So the question now is: what should I replace the dying serviceberries with? Has to be shade tolerant, less than 20′ tall, and I prefer something with more of an upright shape. Also, wildlife value is important to me. Here are some possibilities.

  • More Serviceberries! I do love this plant, after all.  Beautiful white flowers in early spring, berries for the birds, and gorgeous fall color all make this a fantastic small tree. However, I would have to be very vigilant on the rabbit front. For one thing, I need to find something other than chicken wire to wrap around the base. I really don’t like working with chicken wire, it can give nasty scratches if you don’t wear gloves, which I often don’t.
  • Wayfaringtree Viburnum (Viburnum lantana). Nice white flowers, multi-colored berries, and decent fall color. Also viburnums seem to be less attractive to rabbits.
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum

Cranberrybush Viburnum flowers

  • Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). I actually have some of these already along the alley fence. Like the wayfaringtree except with red berries that can be translucent and are supposed to be a favorite of cedar waxwings.
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum

Cranberrybush Viburnum fall color

  • Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). I have it on good authority that this is another tree considered a tasty treat by rabbits. Another small tree with white flowers in April and good fall color. The glossy red fruits look really nice and last well into winter.
  • Hybrid Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia). Maybe ‘Arnold’s Promise’ or ‘Diane’. There are no witch hazels in our garden, and that makes me feel deprived. Another rabbit magnet, though, from what I hear.

Thoughts? Suggestions?


At this moment we are at sort of a pause in the garden. The early small bulbs are starting to wrap up, but the larger bulbs have not yet made their appearance.

2014-04-12 12.00.44

Common snowdrop with Virginia bluebell leaves emerging in the background.

The snowdrops are almost done.

Dragonfly/wrench with snowdrops.

Dragonfly/wrench with snowdrops. We bought this guy at an art fair from the artist, a welder from Indiana, who was just packing up. We had neither cash nor checkbook He told us to  mail him a check, which we did.

Their gleaming tepals are dropping and the grassy leaves are filling out.

Tommy Crocus.

Tommy Crocus.

The crocus are just past their peak, fading faster than we expected because of a couple of improbably warm days. The sun was shining, people wore shorts, and the crocus began to whither just a bit.

Crocus clumps scattered along the sidewalk border.

Crocus clumps scattered along the sidewalk border.

But now, as I write this post, it is snowing. We could have a couple of inches on the ground tomorrow morning. Yup. Welcome to Chicago.

Siberian squill.

Siberian squill.

The squill (Scilla siberica) are just starting to bloom but have not hit their stride. Squill is an incredibly easy bulb, spreads itself around enthusiastically but doesn’t make trouble. And I love that blue. Also, unlike crocus, the rodents leave them alone. What looks like grass in the background above is actually Siberian squill seedlings. As I said, they spread themselves around with abandon.

Narcissus 'Baby Moon'.

Narcissus ‘Little Gem’.

An early Narcissus I planted last fall, ‘Baby Moon’ has its very first flowers. ‘Baby Moon’ is only about 6″ tall. UPDATE: Actually, this is ‘Little Gem’. Annette of Personal Eden pointed out the error. Thanks Annette.  ‘Baby Moon’ blo0ms in May. I planted some of those last fall also.

Just a few more days...

Just a few more days…


You can see the flower buds on most of the other daffodils and a few look like they could pop with just a couple of warm days. Same thing could be said for the forsythia and spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Young hellebore with flower bud.

Young hellebore with flower bud.

Oh, and I planted hellebores (Helleborus niger) for the first time last fall. Most haven’t done much yet, but a few of them have started to send up new leaves and there are a couple with flower buds. I’m excited.

So I have lots more bulbs and other spring flowers to look forward to. Just as soon as the snow melts. Again.

For more blooms visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

The garden we loved best when we were in England last September was the late Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter. And so when we returned home I was determined to read some of his garden books.

color for adventurous gardeners2


I have been drawn to and perplexed by the subject of color in the garden for some time, and so the first of Lloyd’s books that I tackled was Color for Adventurous Gardeners. I’m very glad I did so, for through this book I was able to self-diagnose a mild case of garden color anxiety.

According to Lloyd, “color anxious gardeners” want to follow established rules that can be relied upon to yield results that are tasteful and will not shock the neighbors.  Reliance on color harmonies would be an example of this. Lloyd is not against color harmonies, but he believes they are a safe choice and should not be overused.


Purple harmony with tulips at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

In my case, I do not limit myself to color harmonies. In fact, I like lots of bright, exciting, and contrasting colors. At the same time, I have this nagging feeling that there are certain rules I should be following in order to achieve a really beautiful garden. What’s more, a confident understanding of these rules eludes me despite reading several books about color in the garden.

Lloyd says don’t worry about the rules: “The limitations imposed by rules are a safe haven, but the adventurous gardener wants to try something different.” And when I read Lloyd’s blunt confession that he didn’t understand the color wheel, I was moved to shout aloud: “Thank you! Thank you, Christopher Lloyd!”

Great Dixter

Adventurous color at Great Dixter

The adventurous gardener wants to experiment, which is essential if you want to come up with something that is personal and original. Moreover, says  Lloyd: “Given the right circumstances, I believe that every color can be used with every other …”, and so the possibilities for successful color combinations are practically endless.

One reason we shouldn’t worry too much about getting the “right” color scheme is that color is not the primary determinant of a garden’s success. Lloyd argues that the garden’s underlying structure, having the right plants properly cared for, and the complementary shapes and textures of those plants should all be considered before getting to color.

Christopher Lloyd, the gardener. Not Christopher Lloyd, the actor.

Christopher Lloyd, the gardener. Not Christopher Lloyd, the actor.

The bulk of Color for Adventurous Gardeners consists of chapters devoted to individual colors: red, orange, blue, etc. Lloyd discusses the qualities of each color and experiences he has had with them at Great Dixter and elsewhere. Each chapter concludes with notes on specific plants. These notes are interesting, though their practical value depends on how similar your garden’s conditions are to those in southern England.

I can’t even try to summarize what Lloyd says about each color, but his preference for color contrasts comes through pretty strongly. For example, of orange he says: “Of all colors orange is the one that cries out most for contrast.” And regarding blue: “More than any other color, blue needs contrast near it, to prevent its looking dull.”

The book is illustrated so beautifully with garden photographs that you may be tempted to skip the text altogether and simply gaze at all the lovely beds and borders.

Color for Adventurous Gardeners is an effective treatment for those of of us suffering from garden color anxiety. And even if you don’t, it provides a handy booster shot.





This is a particularly interesting time to watch American goldfinches, though I enjoy having them around all year long. But right now is when they do a partial molt, replacing all their feathers except for those on the wing and tail. The feathers that grow in are the bright yellow breeding plumage.

This male goldfinch at our nyjer feeder is going through his spring molt, exchanging his dull winter feathers for bright breeding plumage.

This male American goldfinch at our nyjer feeder is going through his spring molt, exchanging his dull winter feathers for bright breeding plumage.

In September the goldfinches molt again, this time replacing all their feathers, but now they turn to a relatively drab olive color. Here’s a link with more details on the molting cycle of male goldfinches.

Birds like goldfinches and cardinals use bright colors to attract mates. But why don’t goldfinches keep their breeding plumage all year, as the cardinals do? The answer apparently lies in the cardinals’ much lengthier breeding season, which can run from February to September. In other words, goldfinches believe that once you’re done with all that romantic nonsense it’s time to grow up and settle down, while the cardinals are always ready for action.

But what about male goldfinches that don’t have the brightest plumage but have really great personalities? Can the female goldfinches really be so shallow?

Male American goldfinch in summer plumage, perched on purple coneflower.

Male American goldfinch in summer plumage, perched on purple coneflower.

Apparently a brighter color is a good indicator of general health and strength. Research on cardinals indicates that the most brightly colored males have the greatest reproductive success, hold better territories, and offer more parental care. In other words, the flashy ones are also the best providers AND they help out more with the kids.

You can attract goldfinches to your feeders with nyjer and sunflower seed. It’s important to keep the nyjer fresh, even if it means throwing out uneaten leftovers (which can be hard to do because the stuff is expensive).

But goldfinches can also be attracted with garden plants, including sunflowers (Helianthus sp. and cvs.), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and just about any of the Rudbeckias. In late summer I enjoy watching the goldfinches feasting on the seeds of these plants.

Do you see goldfinches at your feeder or in your garden?

When I was little there was a corner planted with crocus that I would pass on my way to school. In my mind the appearance of those bright yellow, purple, and white blooms marked the true beginning of spring. Since then I have always had a soft spot for crocus. (By the way, I checked and the plural of crocus is either crocus or croci, and croci sounds weird.)

2014-04-06 13.15.42 crocus and honeybees

Bees and a clump of tommy crocus. That one in the upper left has been captured in mid-flight.

Crocus have now joined snowdrops as the only blooms in my garden. Not all – just the ones in the warmest spots.  They are covered with bees, who are either very hungry and/or sick of a diet of nothing but snowdrops. Judy spent a bunch of time this morning photographing the bees on the crocus.

Tommy crocus and  bees

Tommy crocus and bees

These are tommy crocus (Crocus tommasinianus). Tommies have the advantage of being less delicious to rodents than other crocus. They have the disadvantage of a more limited color palette, coming pretty much only in purple or lilac.

Tommy crocus and bees

Tommy crocus and bees

I really like the picture above. See that bee flying near the center of the photo?

2014-04-06 13.18.02 tommy crocus and bees

OK, here’s just one more. This gives a really nice view of the stamen and pistils.

Clump of yellow crocus.

Clump of yellow crocus.

Here’s a clump of yellow spring crocus (Crocus chrysanthus). Unfortunately, crocus (except for the tommies) is like apple pie and ice cream to rabbits and squirrels. In my back garden they almost always get eaten before they bloom. However, I’ve noticed that the spring crocus I plant along the sidewalk remain unmolested. I’m guessing that the rabbits are too nervous to eat so close to the street and sidewalk.

White spring crocus.

White spring crocus.

Crocus can spread fairly quickly if the rodents don’t get at them. But sometimes squirrels dig up a crocus corm, replant it for later noshing, and then forget about it. That explains this lone white crocus. Give it a few years and it will make a nice clump.

Do you like crocus? Do you grow them in your garden?


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