Interview with Neil Diboll, Native Plant Pioneer

Neil Diboll is President of Prairie Nursery, one of the Midwest’s best known growers of native plants. He is an internationally recognized expert on topics related to native plants and sustainable garden and landscape design.  Neil was nice enough to answer some questions I sent him, thus making possible Gardeninacity’s first interview.

Neil Diboll
Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery

Question: Do you find that the interest in native plants continues to grow? Are natives in danger of being passed by as a gardening trend?

Answer: When I started in business 31 years ago, lots of people said that native plants were just a passing fad. Instead, there has been a steady, gradual acceptance of the use of native plants in landscapes as an excellent alternative to non-natives. There will always be gardening trends, some of which will be fads, but the use of native plants simply makes too much ecological and economic sense not to be adopted as a long-term viable alternative to high-maintenance, large carbon footprint, and chemically dependent traditional landscapes.

Q: Do you think additional species of North American native plants (beyond the ones already grown) will become common in the garden? If so, can you give some examples?

A: We have only begun to use the various native trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, grasses, sedges, ferns, and mosses in our landscapes. There is, of course, a finite number of species native to a given region, but there is an excellent palette of native plants from which to select in almost every region of North America.

Palm Sedge, a native of the Midwestern USAPhoto: Missouri Botanic Garden
Palm Sedge, a native of the Midwestern USA
Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

I think that most of the showier, widely adaptable species are now in the trade, but we have only recently begun to use sedges in our landscapes. This is a new frontier in native plants, because many members of this group of plants are so diverse, adaptable, and easy to grow. Many sedges also grow in problematic habitats, such as wet soils, dry shade, etc.

There are also many readily available prairie flowers that are under-utilized in our gardens. I expect to see more people including these fabulous plants in the future, especially after the drought of 2012, during which so many prairie flowers absolutely excelled!

Q. Some people argue that there is no advantage to native plants as such, that gardeners should focus on the characteristics of plants (such as drought resistant, etc.), and not their origins. What’s your response?

A. The recent research by Douglas Tallamy proves beyond a shadow of doubt that plants that are native to a region have a significantly higher value to the native fauna with which they have co-evolved over thousands of years. Most native plants have sufficient natural enemies that they do not present an invasive threat to diverse ecosystems, unlike certain invasive non-native plants that have caused huge ecological and economic damage.

Western Sunflower, Purple Coneflower
Western Sunflower with Purple Coneflower

Q. Global warming is changing the local climates to which native plants are adapted. Do you think this affects the rationale for planting natives?

A. There are many rationales for planting native plants. One is that they are adapted to their local climatic conditions. If the planet continues to warm rapidly, this is one rationale that will not continue to hold true for all species. However, there are other native plants that could well be perfectly adapted to the new conditions. While a warmer climate will not be favorable for sugar maples and white cedars, it will be ideal for many heat-loving prairie flowers and grasses.

In fact, plant geographers (phytogeographers) have determined that prairie species dominated the Midwest during the Xerotherimc Period, which occurred around 1,500 BC. This was apparently a period of elevated temperatures and possibly drier growing conditions that led to the demise of mesic forests and the rise of prairies and oak savannas. As the climate cooled and became more moist in more recent times, forests have invaded areas that were previously vegetated in prairie. Remnant prairies as far east as Long Island, NY point to the possibility that prairie communities were common all the way to the east coast in recent geologic time, only some 3,500 years ago. There is no reason to believe that this phenomenon would not occur again during a period of warmer temperatures in the future.

Purple Milkweed
Purple Milkweed

There will be both winners and losers among native plants under the new climatic regime. Plants have migrated and ebbed and flowed throughout history. It will be no different this time around, although the changes may occur at a more rapid pace than in past periods of climatic perturbation.

Q. How do you feel about people mixing natives and exotics in the garden?

A. I am not a native plant purist. I mix native woodland plants with hostas in my gardens at home. I am careful as to which non-natives I plant, so as to prevent the spread of invasive non-native plants. I also grow apple trees, originally from Kazakhstan, pears from Europe, potatoes from the Andes, onions from Persia, garlic from Kyrgyzstan, and so on. I also have planted our No Mow Lawn Mixture extensively on my property. This turf mix blend contains six different varieties of fescue, none of which are native to Wisconsin [where Prairie Nursery is located].  And I love cheery golden daffodils, reviled by deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels alike!

My front garden, mixing natives and exotics in mid-summer.
My front garden, mixing natives and exotics in mid-summer.

Q. Is the economic climate becoming more challenging for independent nurseries like yours?

A. The economic climate of the past ten years has been extremely challenging for those of us in the ornamental nursery business. Sales of perennials have been in decline since 2004, and the lack of housing starts from 2008 until recently has devastated the industry. Add the uncertainty in the economy since the Great Recession, and you have a very tough business climate for those of us selling something that is not generally considered to be a necessity. Many of my friends have closed their nurseries or sold them for a fraction of what they might have been worth ten years ago.

That said, we enjoyed good sales in 2012, and our booked orders for 2013 to date are well ahead of last year for the comparable period. I believe that native plant business has been less affected by the recent downturn, as the market share for natives seems to be growing. However, that does not make us immune to the economic realities of the marketplace.

Thrush-o-Mania! Our 15 Minutes of Reflected Glory Are Not Over

A little more than two weeks ago, I wrote about an avian phenomenon in my back yard that had generated major excitement in the Chicago birding world. Specifically, a bird called the Varied Thrush had adopted the area around our yard as his temporary home. Varied Thrushes are a very big deal in Chicago because they are spotted here only once or twice in any given year (they are fairly common in their normal range in the Pacific Northwest).

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush in our back yard.

So for the past two weeks, dedicated birders (are there any other kind?) have been braving the cold, standing in the alley behind our fence. They are carrying binoculars and cameras with massive zoom lenses, hoping for a glimpse of the fabulous Varied Thrush.

I’ve wondered just how long this phenomenon would last. Would the Varied Thrush tire of the Paparazzi and find himself  a new home? Would we run out of Varied Thrush enthusiasts, resulting in an empty alley?

Birders standing in the alley behind my house around noon today.

Well, fear not. Fame has not yet soured for our friend the Varied Thrush. And Thrush-o-Mania remains strong, although perhaps a little reduced in intensity. There were at least a dozen bird watchers who showed up in the alley today. I think they all got what they were looking for.

Birder with a serious camera.

I’m thinking about monetizing this Varied Thrush happening. Can I persuade the Varied Thrush to stay longer term? And if so, how about a line of Varied Thrush merchandise – sweatshirts, caps, mugs, Varied Thrush Action Figures …  The kids of a friend of mine are suggesting selling hot coffee and those Styrofoam Also, I really need to think long term. If the Varied Thrush becomes a permanent resident, eventually the excitement for local birders will have to fade. So can I engineer the arrival of other rare birds? Must work on that.

Has your house or garden ever gotten unexpected attention?

A Garden Valentine

You can have year-round valentine gifts in the garden, you know. Take Judy and I. We’ve been married for almost 28  years. If you walk around the garden, you’ll see many valentines from me to her.

Peony 'America'
Peony ‘America’.


For example, there’s the Lilac on the east side of the house. There are many shrubs I prefer over a Lilac. She loves Lilacs, though, so I planted one, right by the window so she can smell it in bloom. If this doesn’t count as a valentine, then I don’t know what does.

Then there are the Peonies. I really don’t like Peonies. However, Judy yearned for Peonies, so I ordered five from Klehm Song Sparrow Farm. Now they take up scarce space in the back that could be filled by some  really worthwhile perennials. But you cannot have love without sacrifice.

Tomato 'Black Cherry'
Heirloom cherry tomato ‘Black Cherry’.


Oh, and don’t forget the cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes. I’m not really interested in vegetable gardening when there are several perfectly good Farmers’ Markets within a few miles of our house. But she really wanted some home-grown edibles, so I put in a small vegetable garden.

There’s also the Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum). For a long time, Judy would ask wistfully, “Why don’t we have any Prairie Smoke?” So I got some.

Prairie Smoke
Prairie Smoke


Now, you could point out that I chose the vast majority of our garden plants based on my own interests. This is true. Fortunately, Judy likes almost all of those plants as well, so that’s all right.

There are garden valentines from her to me, as well. For starters, she tolerates the enormous amounts of time I dedicate to the garden. Then there’s all the photographs I badger her to take, even when she has something better to do. Then there are the walks we take around the yard together, examining the progress of the various garden beds.

Not that we don’t have conflict. She has her irrational prejudice against shrubs. This forces me sometimes to sneak shrubs into the garden and plant them in secret. When she sees the new shrub and asks where it came from, I say: “Oh that? That’s been there for years.”

It bothers me that she doesn’t believe me, even for a moment. After all, a strong marriage is built on trust.

Are there any valentines in your garden?

Cardinals in the Snow

A bright red Cardinal against a snowy backdrop is one of my favorite sights of winter. We had a few inches of snow (preceded by rain) last week, so Judy had an opportunity to take some pictures. The light wasn’t great, so they’re a little dark.

Cardinal, Deutzia
Cardinal perching in a Deutzia bush.

Cardinals have been very plentiful in the garden this winter. They love sunflower and safflower seeds. This winter I discovered that they also like peanuts in the shell. Several times I’ve seen them pick up a peanut by its stringy fibers, then fly off with the prize. Who knew? I also find that Cardinals prefer platform feeders. Most tube feeders have perches that are too small for these large finches.

Cardinals, platform feeder
Cardinals at platform feeder.

The snowfall ended 355 days without snow of one inch or more, so technically our snow drought is over. What’s more, we’ve been catching up on our moisture deficit – precipitation since December 1st has been almost 3″ above normal. However, this part of the state is still considered to be in a moderate drought.

Cardinal, Mourning Dove
Cardinal and Mourning Dove

There’s not much snow on the ground right now, it’s been mostly melted by rain or by warm temperatures.

In any case, I am grateful to the Cardinals for lifting my spirits and distracting us from cold, drought, and dreary things of all kinds.

Three Favorite Perennials for Goldfinches

Goldfinches are one of my favorite birds. They are bright and cheery, even in their more somber winter plumage. They have a lilting song that is easy to recognize. And they are entertaining to watch while eating, as they display an acrobatic sense of balance.


Goldfinches love seeds. So if you want them in your garden, the thing to do is plant perennials offering seeds that goldfinches cannot resist.

Here are three plants that goldfinches love, and that I love for their ornamental qualities. All are native to central North America.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This is a fantastic all around plant. It blooms for a long period of time, with fuzzy spikes of tiny blue flowers. The edible heart-shaped foliage has a wonderful anise scent, and you can brew it into tea (it was once commonly grown as an herb). Anise Hyssop is also tough and adaptable, thriving in sun or part shade, in moist or dry soil.

Anise Hyssop

Two warnings about Anise Hyssop, though. First, it self-sows with abandon. The seedlings are easy to weed out, however. Second, it may need staking and/or cutting back to keep it from getting too tall (up to 4′) and flopping over. A. foeniculum is a North American native, but there are also Asian species and some popular hybrids.

Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Much like Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), but taller and with clouds of smaller golden yellow flowers. This is another plant that will grow under diverse conditions. I’ve found volunteers growing robustly in some unlikely spots, like at the base of my Siberian Elm. Goldfinches will eat the tiny black seeds on the plant, and as the seeds scatter on the ground they will attract buntings, sparrows, and other birds.

Brown Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba
Brown Eyed Susan

But be warned: Brown Eyed Susan self-sows promiscuously. And like Anise Hyssop, it can grow quite tall, up to 5′, but does respond well to cutting back.

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). OK, this plant is not for everyone, but I love it. First thing to keep in mind is that it is big. I mean BIG, like 8-10′. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. What is it they say about big plants: architectural, makes a great specimen, etc. Yeah, all of that.

I actually like the size. But there are so many great things about Cup Plant. The sunflower-like yellow flowers start in July and last all summer. And the leaves are big and dramatic, almost tropical.

What’s more, goldfinches LOVE the seeds. Plus, the leaves are perfoliate. That means pierced by the stem, so they form little cups that fill with rain water. Birds and butterflies drink from the cups.

Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum
Cup Plant. Hello up there!

A couple of warnings. First, not surprisingly, you will probably have to stake this guy. Last year I started using 10′ lengths of rebar, stuck a couple of feet into the ground. Second, be vigilant about pulling volunteers, or you will end up living in a Magical Forest of Cup Plant. Sounds kind of nice, actually, but not necessarily what you want for your garden.

Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum
Cup Plant

I should mention that Goldfinches also love the seeds of Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpureum) and other Echinaceas. However, these have become so susceptible to aster yellows disease in my garden that I sadly no longer count them as a personal favorite.

Are you a fan of Goldfinches? What plants do they love in your garden?

The Sidewalk Border: A Herbaceous Report Card

About seven years ago I dug up an L shaped length of turf, with the longer section along the front sidewalk and the shorter one along the property line with the neighbors. The result was a border in almost full sun, 4-5′ wide and about 25′ long. The soil was rich and moist, even before I started adding organic matter.

A long view of the sidewalk bed.
A long view of the sidewalk bed.  Not at its most colorful, but gives you an idea. Our house is painted white.

I wanted something that passing neighbors would enjoy while walking past, that would have a cottage garden feel but not too wild. Over time I’ve made adjustments, adding and removing plants to see what worked best. Here’s a report cards on some of the plants that are or have been in this bed.

Salvia 'Blue Hill', Salvia 'May Night'
Salvia ‘Blue Hill’ and ‘May Night’

Plant: Salvia (Salvia xsylvestris ‘May Night’ and Salvia nemerosa ‘Blue Hill’). Grade: A-

After being inspired by the River of Salvia at the Lurie Garden, I pulled out the Geranium maculatum that I had originally planted and replaced it with Salvia. While not comparable to Lurie, they have done very well and have provoked admiring comments. Long blooming, good for pollinators. My only criticism is a tendency to sprawl. Next year I’ll try cutting them back to prevent this.

Plant: Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana). Grade: A-


This is a lovely plant with star-shaped sky blue flowers in spring. Nice fine textured foliage. Only thing is, don’t underestimate how big it gets! I planted this one too close to the sidewalk, so I’m always struggling with staking and cutting back by the middle of the summer. Also, the fall color for me is not nearly as dramatic as advertised.

Plant: Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus). Grade: D

The seed heads, evocative of amber waves of grain, are nice. However, the plant is just too floppy, at least in rich soil. This guy is also an aggressive self-sower. I took it out after a few years and replaced it with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’. I am happy with ‘Northwind’, which is very upright. However, since it is planted to the south of the Salvia, which is planted along the sidewalk, I am a little worried that it will eventually throw too much shade. (Note to Jean: sorry I advised you to plant this, I’d just get rid of it now.)

Smooth Penstemon
Smooth Penstemon

Plant: Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). Grade: B+

This is planted between the clumps of ‘Northwind a’long the back of the border. Clusters of tubular white flowers on upright stems (though I usually have to do some staking). It’s fun to watch bees climb in and out of the flowers. ‘Husker Red’ has red/purple foliage and more pinkish flowers.

Golden Alexander
Golden Alexander

Plant: Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Grade: B+

Flat topped umbels of golden yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. A very easy plant that takes shade. May need to be cut back. Supposed to be a host plant for swallowtail butterflies but I have not seen any caterpillars to date.

Golden Alexander with Salvia
Golden Alexander with Salvia
Short's Aster
Short’s Aster

Plant: Short’s Aster (Symphiotrichum shortii). Grade: A-

Very floriferous light blue aster. Tall, mounded shape – responds well to cutting back. Does not need staking. Self-sows, but not obnoxious about it.

Monarda 'Raspberry Wine'
Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’

Plant: Bee Balm (Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine). Grade: B+

Striking raspberry red flowers in summer. Resistant to powdery mildew, but still got a mild case in this bed by late summer. For the back of the border. Great for hummingbirds and polinators.

Wild Bergamot
Wild Bergamot

Plant: Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Grade: B

Wild Bergamot is more subdued than its cousin Beebalm, with smaller lavendar flowers. I find it quietly charming, however. It does tend to grow tall in my garden, up to 5′, and may need cutting back.

Plant: False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). Grade: D

This plant could possibly earn an A in another location. Sunflower-like yellow flowers starting in June and lasting through the season. Only problem was that it was just too tall and bulky for a bed along the sidewalk – even with aggressive cutting back. Some neighbors feared that wild animals were hiding in its bushy inner depths. Heliopsis also tended to smother smaller neighbors. I ended up pulling them out and replacing them with the much more demure Penstemon.

Northern Sea Oats
Northern Sea Oats

Other plants in this bed: Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia), Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

As you plan for the coming year, have you been giving grades to the plants in your garden?

Modern Literature, from A to B – Part I

I’ve probably already mentioned that I spend a lot of time driving for my job. Chicago to Springfield and back (404 miles). Chicago to Rock Island and back (354 miles). Plus various Chicago suburbs and other cities in the Land of Lincoln.

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

I know what you’re thinking. Don’t I get jaded by all the glamour? That is a concern, but a bigger problem is finding something to listen to. There are long stretches where the only options are Christian radio, country music, and golden oldies. I have nothing against any of these, but I also don’t want to listen to any of them for any great length of time.

This is how I came to discover the audio books section at my local library. I really like listening to books, especially fiction, when I’m driving. When I started listening to audio books in the car, I began with the classics – meaning books I was supposed to read in high school or college but didn’t. Erasing the accumulated guilt of all those neglected homework assignments felt great.

I went on to a handful of authors that I knew I liked. When I finished those, I was stumped on how to proceed. Finally, instead of picking books at random, I decided to go with an alphabetical approach. I skipped authors that I knew I didn’t like, also some that seemed to fit into a genre that didn’t interest me.

The result is that I’ve discovered a lot of authors that I enjoy, that I had never heard of before. My only complaint is that as the library obtains new books, or as I see old books returned to the shelves, I haven’t been able to get past the letter B.

Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson

In any case, today I am going to share part of this list with you. These are all books that I liked. If you’re looking for something new to read in the area of fiction, this might be helpful.

Chinua Achebe

  • Things Fall Apart. The life of a tribal leader is gradually destroyed as Christianity and colonial governance is established in Nigeria.

Aravind Adiga

  • The White Tiger. A very dark comedy about one man’s path from poverty to wealth in modern India.
  • Last Man in Tower. A retired teacher stands in the way of the construction of a luxury high-rise in Mumbai.

Monica Ali

  • In the Kitchen. The human face of globalization revealed through the kitchen of an upscale London restaurant.
  • Brick Lane. Bengali immigrants struggle to adjust to life in England.
  • Alentejo Blue. English expatriates generally not finding happiness in a scenic region of Portugal.
Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie

Julia Alvarez

  • In the Time of the Butterflies. Sisters are drawn into the movement to overthrow the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic.
  • Saving the World. An idealistic international aid worker gets involved in a dubious project in the Dominican Republic.

Kate Atkinson

  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum. A very funny and very painful story of emotional deprivation being passed from one generation to the next in an “ordinary” English family.

Sherman Alexie 

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Everything this guy writes is a mix of brilliant, hilarious, and horrifying. An adolescent Native American boy tries to create a future for himself off the reservation.
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A collection of short stories portraying the lives of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, on and off the reservation. See first sentence in description above.

So that’s the As. I’ll have to talk about the Bs in Part II at some point in the future. My three favorites were The White Tiger (Adiga), Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Atkinson), and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Alexie). If you haven’t read some or any of these, you might want to give then a look.

What books have you been reading lately?

My Five Favorite Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds

For the first time since last Tuesday, there were no birders in the alley this morning, peering into the back yard. Perhaps our fifteen minutes (well, six days) of fame are over.

The whole experience with the Varied Thrush has inspired me to write about the plants I have in my back yard that are beautiful but that also help create an environment that is attractive to birds. These plants are just a small sample of the many that can serve this purpose, of course. All are native to the American midwest, or are hybrids or varieties of native plants. Here are my top five:

1. Serviceberry (Amelanchier xgrandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’). I love this plant. It has white flowers in early spring, edible berries in late spring, and terrific fall color. Birds love the berries, which look and taste sort of like small blueberries. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is a hybrid cultivar of two Amelanchier species.  We have some right next to our east porch window and enjoy watching the robins feeding on the berries.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance'
Serviceberry in bloom, with the neighbors’ crabapple in the background


Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance', Amelanchier
Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ fall color

2. Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). My favorite Viburnum. Beautiful lacecap flowers in spring, translucent red berries ripen in late summer, and the maple-like foliage turns a mix of burgundy and other colors. I have both the straight species and the variety ‘Redwing’, which is recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden. The literature usually says that the berries are not eaten until after a freeze has made them more palatable, but mine get eaten in fall. This is a favorite of the Cedar Waxwing.

Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum flowers
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum berries
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum fall color

3. Wild Currant (Ribes americanum). This is a terrific and underused shrub. Very compact (usually 3-4′ tall), it is also tough and thrives in shade. It is not a showy plant, but does have dangling clusters of chartreuse flowers in early spring, as well as handsome foliage. The black berries ripen over a long period in summer. They are edible, but very sour. I enjoy watching the Robins, Northern Cardinals, and other birds hopping from branch to branch when the fruit is ripe.

Wild Currant, Ribes americanum
Wild Currant in bloom.
Wild Currant, Ribes Americanum
Wild Currant fruit

4. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). The leaves of this shrub have a strong citrus fragrance when crushed. This plant has fuzzy little yellow flowers in early spring, kind of like an understated Forsythia. The red berries ripen in fall, and are quickly eaten by migrating birds. Another plus for Spicebush is that it is a host plant for the Spicebush butterfly. Haven’t seen any caterpillars on my Spicebush yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

5. Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa L.). I suppose it is a bit weedy, but I like it anyway. The pyramid-shaped cream flower clusters and glowing red berries are gorgeous. Birds love the berries, but they are toxic to people.

Red elderberries, Sambucus racemosa L.
Red elderberries. I  have a thing about the ornamental qualities of berries, maybe that’s why I have this picture but no picture of the Red Elderberry flowers.


6. Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera Sempervirens). The tubular red flowers are loved by hummingbirds, and the berries are eaten by birds. This native vine needs little pampering, and will take some shade. After a lovely flush of bloom in late spring, it will bloom intermittently all season.

Trumpet honeysuckle
Trumpet honeysuckle growing against brick wall.
Trumpet Honeysuckle
Trumpet Honeysuckle

Of course, what performs well in the Chicago region will not necessarily do the same elsewhere. If you’re interested in “birdscaping”, I can recommend three books you may like. The first is The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, by Stephen Kress. Be sure to get the second edition, which came out in 2006. Then there’s Bird by Bird Gardening, by Sally Roth. Finally for my follow Midwesterners, there’s Birdscaping in the Midwest, by Mariette Nowak.

So what are your favorite bird-friendly plants?

Sending for Reinforcements: New Plants for Spring and Favorite Catalogs

Yesterday the letter carrier brought tidings of great joy: two of my favorite gardening catalogs, Prairie Nursery and Forestfarm.

Their arrival, along with several others of their kind, means that it is time to put in my orders for spring. And so  here’s my intended line-up – it’s easy to tell I am focusing on butterfly friendly plants, as well as the color blue.

Fringe Tree, Chionanthus virginicus
Fringe Tree. Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). I became determined to buy this small flowering tree after reading about it in Traci DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Designed Mixed Garden. Unique, fragrant white flowers, blue fruits attractive to birds, good yellow fall color. Also does well in shade. I’m going to put one at the northeast corner of the house where the Bridalwreath is now, and one in the back.

Butterfly Bush ‘Blue Chip’ Photo: Bluestone Perennials

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’). These are dwarf butterfly bush that are supposed to grow to 3′. I’m going to plant them with the Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and Bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) at the north end of the driveway border. I’ve tried to grow these unsuccessfully in containers.

Bluebeard 'Longwood Blue'
Bluebeard ‘Longwood Blue’ Photo: Wayside Gardens

Bluebeard (Caryopteris xclandonensis ‘Longwood Blue’). This will be at the south end of the driveway border with the False Indigo (Baptisia australis) and the Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’). This is a taller variety, supposed to grow to 4′. In my zone the stems will die back every winter, so I’ll treat it as a perennial.

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). These will join the Butterflyweed I already have growing on the west side of the driveway border. They will be placed behind the Nepeta, making a nice color and texture contrast with their orange umbels and slightly shiny foliage.

Yellow Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
Yellow Coneflower

Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). The new Ratibida will join the few I already have growing next to the Anise Hyssop in the driveway border.

Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides
Blue Cohosh  Photo: Prairie Nursery

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). A woodland perennial with unusual flowers, lacy foliage, and attractive blue berries. Putting these in my shade garden in the back.

Salvia nemerosa 'Carradonna'
Salvia ‘Carradonna’  Photo: Bluestone Perennials

Salvia (Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ and ‘Blue Hill’). These will go at the east end of the parkway, which I’m trying to fill with plants shorter than what I have now (I redid the west end last fall).

Calamintha nepetoides
Calamintha  Photo: Bluestone Perennials

Calamint (Calamintha nepetoides). Similar to Nepeta but with white flowers, also destined for the parkway.

Sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa 'Summer Solstice'
Sundrops ‘Summer Solstice’ Photo: Bluestone Perennials

Sundrops (Oenothera tetragona ‘Summer Solstice’). Bright yellow saucers to provide a contrasting accent to the Salvia above.

Schizachyrium scoparius, Little Bluestem 'The Blues'
Little Bluestem ‘The Blues’  Photo: Bluestone Perennials

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’).  This will go in the raised bed on the east side of the parkway.

So what do you think? I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, so I’m open to feedback (alternative cultivars, etc.).

Also, here are a few more of my favorite retail nurseries that sell online: Prairie Moon (midwest natives), Bluestone Perennials (wide variety of perennials, some shrubs), Shooting Star (natives of the midwest and Appalachian regions). Do you have any particular online nursery favorites?

The Birders are Coming! The Birders are Coming!

Remember that post about the unusual bird I was trying to identify? Well, that bird has turned my back yard into the epicenter of an avian sensation.

Turns out it was a Varied Thrush. And a Varied Thrush (which I shall refer to henceforward as VT) in the Chicago area is a Very Big Deal. How do I know it is a big deal? Because every morning I come down to breakfast to see people standing in the alley, bundled up against the freezing cold and peering into my yard with binoculars and cameras (cameras equipped with massive zoom lenses).

Watching the Birdwatchers Watch the Bird

You see, VTs are seen in the Chicago region only once or twice a year. (This I am told by Ann, a friend of mine who is a serious birdwatcher). Their normal range is in the Pacific Northwest, but they have been known to make rare and mysterious appearances, like Elvis, in other parts of the US and Canada. To learn more about the VT, check this out.

Varied Thrush: A Star is Born
Varied Thrush: A Star is Born

So this is a very rare opportunity for Chicago area birdwatchers, a chance for a “lifer” – meaning a first ever view of a particular species.

With my permission, Ann posted an announcement about the VT, along with a link to this blog, on a Yahoo Groups site for Chicago birders. Within two days, my little blog got over 800 views. That may not impress some of you, but for me it is a BIG number. So forget Search Engine Optimization – just find yourself a rare bird!

And then the emails started. I had told Anne I didn’t mind people coming to see the VT, they should just write first and let me know. Within hours I had heard from dozens of people, from as far away as St. Louis (about a six-hour drive). All were extremely polite, and most wrote as if requesting a rare and precious privilege. Although I remember one, perhaps a veteran, who asked with military flair: “Request permission to view Varied Thrush!”

Varied Thrush

Eventually, at my request, some helpful birders put out the word that emails were not necessary, people just needed to observe a few simple ground rules. Since the birders started arriving on Tuesday morning, I believe those rules have been observed scrupulously.

I should say here that while Judy and I enjoy watching birds, we are not serious birders. We like the birds to come to us, to be viewed from the comfort of our covered porch.

So I admire the zeal of the birders. And I will say that without exception they are very nice people, and extremely grateful. One of them brought me oatmeal raisin cookies. Many others have emailed me their thanks, along with detailed accounts of all the birds they saw in my yard and nearby, sometimes with photographs.

It has been a good experience, and should you ever find yourself with a rare bird hanging out in your yard, I would urge you to welcome the birders.

In fact, I feel sometimes that the VT’s celebrity status rubs off on me a bit, as with the business manager of a rock star. I try not to let that feeling get out of hand, or become distorted by jealousy (“You don’t care about me! You just want to look at my bird!”).

So what about you – are you a serious birder, or just a dilettante like Judy and I? What extremes, if any, would you go through to see a beautiful bird for the first time?

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