Has something like this ever happened to you? I planted some ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) in the fall of 2010. The following spring there is no sign of it. I assume they didn’t make it through the winter. All through 2011 ironweed seemed as absent from my garden as coconut palms.
Fast forward to this summer. I saw some tall weeds nestled among the other plants. Are they really weeds? I decide to let them get a little bigger to see what they turn into. A couple weeks later, I’m still not sure. I reach to pull them out … but then … Could it be? Yes, my ironweed had returned!
What was it doing, where had it been hiding all this time? Perhaps last year it broke dormancy late and never put on much top growth because it was putting down roots. It certainly didn’t bloom – then the torch of red-purple flowers would have been unmistakable. It’s possible that I mistook it for some stems of blue culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Temptation’). The flowers of these two species are completely different, but otherwise the plants have a vague similarity.
In any case, I am very pleased my ironweed has been found again. This plant blooms in a cluster on top of an upright 4-6′ stalk. Bloom time is in late summer and fall. I promise to post photos when they bloom.
The last time I went on the Evanston Garden Walk was in 2007, and I swore I wouldn’t go again. What stuck in my craw was that the event seemed to show off the gardens of people who were not gardeners, but who hired a pricey but very nice local garden center to produce an instant garden. In general it was garden center staff, and not the actual gardeners, who were showing off the yards and answering questions.
In the most egregious case, a youngish couple were reclining on their lawn furniture, completely absorbed in their laptops and ignoring all the garden walk participants. I wanted to go up to the man and grab his laptop and deliver the following speech: “Sir! One does not earn the right to a beautiful garden simply by writing a check. To give you a chance to think about this, I’m going to take this laptop with me. You can ask for it to be returned at the end of the growing season.”
However, I’m really not the kind of person who holds a grudge. After a five-year hiatus, I went on the Evanston Garden Walk again, and I’m glad I did. What follows is a summary of highlights and things where there is room for improvement.
First of all, for the most part this Garden Walk included gardeners’ gardens, and the homeowners were very friendly and eager to discuss their plants and designs. While many of the gardens had been installed with the help of professionals, the owners also had hands on involvement, as indicated by the following objets d’art.
Second, I was impressed by how certain long, narrow yards were made to seem much more spacious, including some very nice “garden rooms” for relaxing, dining, etc.
Third, lots of water features that made me very jealous, including the above.
Finally, in what may be a first, the Garden Walk included the Evanston Township High School organic garden. I thought this was positive both because the project deserves recognition, and also because it’s in my part of town (more on that below).
Areas for Improvement
Very roughly speaking, my adopted home town has two distinct areas. The first is near Lake Michigan in the east and in the northwest, close to the Northwestern University (NU) campus. These areas range from very affluent to just unbelievably affluent. Then there’s the central west and southwest areas, where I live, which are much more diverse economically and racially. With the exception of the High School vegetable garden, all of the gardens included in the walk were in the east and northwest. Members of the Evanston Garden Club! There are some very nice home and other gardens in the west part of town! Check it out and see if you can’t be a little more inclusive next time.
The walk included the newly landscaped home of the NU President. Frankly, I thought it was pretty conventional and not very interesting. I can understand why that would be: limited budget, conservative alumni to keep happy, and a need for a very large area of lawn for receptions, etc. But I think this home could have been left out without any great loss.
I like daylilies, but I am not a fanatic, like some people I know of. I don’t belong to the American Hemorocallis Society. I don’t use up my garden budget buying the latest cultivars. My enthusiasm for daylilies is more episodic. Every few years I think to myself: what this border really needs is some daylilies! Then I get engrossed in the Oakes Daylilies website, and the next thing I know a box full of bareroot plants has arrived from Tennessee.
At this time of year, you have to appreciate what daylilies have to offer . They are tough, reliable, and adaptable plants. Moreover, the thousands of varieties offer an amazing selection of colors and even shapes. Actually, the vast number of cultivars makes it a challenge to make a final selection. I solve this problem in part by going with varieties with ‘Chicago’ in the name. The ubiquity of certain daylilies, like ‘Stella D’Oro’, reduces daylily appeal to many. But when I look at the varieties at bloom now in my garden, it reminds me that this can be an exciting plant.
The milkweeds in my garden are blooming their hearts out right now. Some of these are fragrant, and they give the air around them a honey/vanilla scent. I love these plants for the colors, the scent, the unusual shape of the flowers, and the (mostly) easy cultivation.
Right now I have three kinds of milkweed in bloom:
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). This is a fairly tall (about 4′ in my garden) perennial with pink/red flowers. Likes moisture, but will do ok in medium soil. Forms clumps and will self-sow moderately. Fragrant.
Swamp Milkweed ‘Ice Ballet’ (A. incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’). Like the species, but shorter (about 3′) and with white flowers. Makes a nice combination with the species.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). About 2′ tall with bright orange flowers. Likes well-drained soil. I’ve had some trouble getting this plant established, but once it settles in it forms big clumps and the seedlings start popping up here and there.
Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) grows in my backyard, but it finished blooming in late June. The flowers are purple with no fragrance. Unlike most milkweeds, Purple Milkweed will tolerate part shade and is very demure in its behavior.
I’d like to grow the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which has beautiful pink flowers and a wonderfully strong fragrance. In fact, I’ve noticed it growing in the Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago. However, I’m just scared off by its generally rampant behavior. Too bad.
Milkweeds are the only food of Monarch caterpillars, which reminds me. Are others noticing a decline in the number of Monarch butterflies and butterflies generally this summer? It’s definitely the case in my garden, and I wonder if it might be an effect of the drought.
Thanks for the rain, but could you turn up the AC? Friday we finally got a decent amount of rain, and I’m giving the soaker hoses a rest. However, it’s brutally hot and humid, and temperatures are supposed to stay in the 90s all week. I try to take a lot of breaks and drink a lot of water while gardening, and I’ll try to do more earlier in the morning and later in the day.
Containers Full of Summer Annuals. So I’ve chosen the summer annuals, and now it’s just a question of watering and watching how they do. The containers in the front are mostly hot colors: red, orange, and yellow; with some blue and white for counterpoint. In the shadier back, the colors are cooler: mostly shades of white and blue. Most of the pansies ended up on the compost pile, but I’ve kept some of them and will cut them back later in the summer.
Vertical plants: Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias currasavica), Star Flower (Penta lanceolata), Zonal Geranium (Pelargoniumhortorum), Zinnias (Zinnia ‘Zahara’), Canna Lilies. Actually, we’ll see how vertical the pentas and geranium end up. They’re really more mounding than vertical, but they should be taller than all their neighbors.
Filler plants: Red and Orange Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus), Lantana, Petunias, Million Bells (Calibrachoa) , Ageratum (Ageratum hustonianum).
Trailing plants: Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) , Blue Lobelia (Lobelia erinus), Bacopa (Sutera cordata), Ivy Geranium (Pelargonium peltatum). The Sweet Alyssum was planted in mid-Spring. Though it tends to stop blooming in very hot weather, I’m going to keep it through the Summer and cut it back in August. I love the scent, and when you crowd it against the edge of the container it spills nicely over the side. It will rebloom in the Fall.
Stone Path Update. Since resetting the stone path, I’ve been trying to establish plants to take over the spaces between the stepping stones. This has been made more challenging by the intense heat, which is magnified by the stones. Here’s a report card for the plants I’ve tried.
Nutmeg Thyme (Thymus praecox). Grade: D-. I found an eight pack of this thyme at Home Depot for about $10. Such a deal! Planted in the sunny part of the path, only two remain alive. The others were quickly fried by the heat.
Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Grade: A. I replaced most of the dead Nutmeg Thyme with Garden Thyme. More expensive in individual pots, but they shrugged off the heat. While this thyme grows taller than ideal for planting between flagstones, I find I can cut it with my push mower.
Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’). Grade: A. This plant has settled in without any fatalities. It already seems to be spreading and even blooming a little.
Irish Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Irish Moss’). Grade: A-. This has been slightly less successful than the Scotch Moss, one of the plants looks almost dead. Also seems more mounded, less spreading, and not quite as low-growing as the Scotch Moss.
So where do you come down on the issue of native versus exotic plants?
Seems to me there are three camps one can belong to. The first argues for gardening exclusively with natives. The second says that it makes sense to include natives in the garden, but it would be a mistake to exclude all the wonderful exotic plants that are available. And the third argues that it is irrelevant, if not downright pernicious, to consider the geographic origin of plants.
I belong to the second camp.
In my amateur view, there are two convincing reasons to make a point of including natives. First, they give gardens a distinctive regional feel. Second, I buy into Douglas Tallamy’s argument that natives do the best job of supporting an insect population that the birds and other critters depend upon.
There are also some unconvincing arguments. Some say natives are uniquely adapted to local conditions and so require a minimum of watering, etc. Here in the Midwest, it’s true that there are many natives that are carefree plants, and I love just about all of them. But it’s also true that there are exotic plants that are carefree, and that some natives need considerable coddling to make it in the home landscape.
I also think for most people gardening is an expression of creativity, and it is just too confining to use natives exclusively. I don’t want to go without tulips. daylilies, ‘Casa Blanca’ oriental lilies, peonies, etc.
I was reminded of this argument the other day at my Modern Garden History class. We learned about Jens Jensen, a pioneer of the movement for naturalistic gardens with a strong preference for native plants. Jensen, a Dane by birth who emigrated to the US after being forced in the Kaiser’s army, had a strong dislike of regimentation (he hated straight lines). For him, naturalistic gardens were expressions of democracy, connecting people to the landscape and to each other.
Ironically, the native plant idea was also seized upon by Willy Lange and other German fascists who strangely based an approach to plants in their philosophy of racial superiority. Michael Pollan and others have used this history to attack native plant advocates, an attack I find to be offensive and absurd. (What conclusions should we draw from the fact that the Nazis promoted organic gardening and professed to love nature, plus Hitler was a vegetarian?) Any idea in the realm of politics, religion, or anything else can be twisted until it becomes grotesque and hateful.
My attitude towards those who advocate landscapes made up exclusively of natives is a lot like my attitude toward vegetarians. I think it is a good thing to plant more natives, just as I think most of us could stand to eat more vegetables. However, I am not willing to give up my lamb chops. I view those who voluntarily give up lamb chops with respect, as long as they keep their promotional efforts educational and not coercive.
So, which camp do you belong to? Do you believe in natives only, an eclectic approach, or would you insist we remain blind to issues of botanical origin? And are there exotic plants you just can’t live without?
So I had what I thought was a brilliant, original idea. Grow Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in front of ‘Jackman’ Clematis (Clematis jackmanii).
I love both plants. Jackman Clematis are widely esteemed for being smothered with rich purple flowers. Cup Plant, on the other hand, is not too common as a garden plant. Mainly it is grown by wildflower enthusiasts and prairie restorationists.
Almost everything about Cup Plant is big: the plant itself (up to 10′), the leaves, the enormous clumps it will form if not kept in check. The sunflower-like yellow flowers are on the small side, but they are produced in quantity. For those of you who are not part of the Big is Beautiful School of Gardening (I am a charter member), Cup Plant has other virtues. The perfoliate leaves clasp the stem to form a cup that holds rainwater, which attracts birds and insects. In addition, the seeds are addictive to goldfinches.
My Clematis grow on the west-facing wall near the garage, and they do very well if I say so myself. My idea was that they would grow through the Cup Plants. Then they would bloom at the same time, the yellow Cup Plant and purple Clematis contrasting nicely.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Never happened. Not gonna happen. Basically, they never bloom together. While they could in theory, they seem to react differently to variations in the weather so that any overlap in bloom time is minimal at best. In addition, the Clematis don’t seem to like climbing on the Cup Plant. All the Cup Plant does in practice is hide the blooming Clematis. In fact I get complaints from neighbors who enjoy looking at the Clematis and don’t like having their view obstructed.
I’ve thought of getting rid of the Cup Plant at this location – I have them growing in two other spots in the garden. Judy doesn’t want me to, though she also complains of the Clematis not being shown to their full glory. I’ve thinned the Cup Plant stalks, but I’m not that solves the problem.
Plants just refuse to follow directions if they don’t feel like it.
Succession of Blooms. In case you were in any doubt, the flowers in my garden as well as the calendar will tell you that we have crossed the line from Spring into Summer. The Columbine, Penstemon, and even the Salvia are done. Now the Swamp Milkweed (the white Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’ the red/pink straight species) have begun blooming, along with the daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Chicago Star’ and ‘Eye-Yi-Yi’) and Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata and grandiflora ‘Sunfire’), and the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The flower heads are forming on the Joe Pye Weeds and the Sunflowers. The Monardas should start blooming within a week or so. Yup, Summer has started.
Tomato Report. This looks like it will be a good year for tomatoes, as long as I remember to water. All four of my vines have got lots of flowers and green fruit, the largest the size of plums. If my luck holds they will be plentiful and early. “Black Cherry’ is already 6′ high, and ‘Black Prince’ is just one foot behind. It is received wisdom that you are supposed to cut off the tomato suckers, but what are you supposed to do when the vines reach the top of the trellis? Let them grow back down to the ground? I am always baffled by this.
Still No Rain to Speak of. Illinois is dry – 70% officially has drought conditions – and there’s no sign of any improvement soon. We’ve had less than half an inch of rain so far this June; normal would be about three and a half inches. The clouds teased us with a few drizzles on Thursday, but this barely moistened the surface. I continue to water with my soaker hoses. On the plus side, looks like the weather will be sunny for the gathering we are having in the backyard for Judy’s birthday.
If your purple coneflowers look like this, go get your shovel.
The first Purple Coneflowers just started to bloom a few days ago. I saw that on one plant the flowers were discolored and the ray flowers were undersized. I have lost a number of Purple Coneflowers to the viral disease Aster Yellows in the past. However, the symptoms were misshapen disk flowers and seed heads, so I hoped this time it was something less deadly. The thing about Aster Yellows is that it can’t be cured, and it will spread by sucking insects to other plants in the Aster family (though in my experience, Purple Coneflowers are particularly vulnerable).
However, a check on Google Images confirmed that this was indeed Aster Yellows. So out went a particularly large clump of Purple Coneflowers. So far it doesn’t look like any other Echinaceas are infected, but I’ll keep a close eye on them.
There are two silver linings in this situation. The first is that I will never run out of Purple Coneflowers. Even if I had to pull out every single mature plant in this border, new seedlings would come along and in a year or two I’d have just as many as ever. Also, this was of course an opportunity to buy replacements! In fact this very day I stopped at Gethsemane nursery and bought two plants I’ve wanted for a while, Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata – not an Echinacea) and Coreopsis ‘Star Cluster’, a tall, cream-colored Tickseed.
So I suppose I have emerged from the latest Aster Yellows crisis without being completely crushed.