Drought, Deadly Nightshade, and a Happy Birthday

Yesterday we drove up to St. Paul, Minnesota, to celebrate my birthday with my younger son, my brother Richard, and his wife Diane.

When we get to St. Paul, we like to take a little hike at Minnehaha Park, site of the waterfalls made famous, though never actually visited, by the poet Longfellow (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining big sea water,” etc.) This time we saw dramatic evidence of the severity of the drought that hit this part of the Midwest not just this year, but for the past several years.

Minnehaha Falls, showing water flow before the drought
Minnehaha Falls, seen from above, Spring of 2011
Minnehaha Falls from the top today, showing effects of drought
Minnehaha Falls from the top today, with barely a trickle of water.
Minnehaha Falls today, showing effects of drought
Minnehaha Falls today, as seen from the bottom.

Normally the falls are a roaring torrent of water. Today we saw barely a trickle, and Minnehaha Creek was essentially a string of puddles.

Even so, we had a pleasant hike.

Though David may have grown taller than I, I have the stature that comes with the wisdom of years.

I also got to see my brother’s garden, though at this point in October there isn’t much color. I did admire his water feature, however. The little pond has its own waterfall created by pumping water up a hole drilled through a small boulder. Shallow depressions have been cut in the boulder for the benefit of the birds.

Water feature for the garden
Thou shalt not covet thy brother’s water feature, but I do. Note sedges growing along boulder, not sure the species.

Blurring the line between weeds and ornamentals, Richard is growing Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) up the side of his house. They do have colorful berries …

Deadly Nightshade as an ornamental vine for the garden
Deadly Nightshade as an ornamental vine. Nice berries, just don’t eat them.

In his front yard, Richard took down a big Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) and replaced it with a Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa), now only about 4′ high. The rest of the front is planted in native perennials and shrubs, including Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and a Redbud (Cercis canadensis). Along the street he’s planted a “lawn” of Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) that is spreading very nicely. It’s remarkable that this garden has received no supplemental water (except from a water barrel), even with the drought.

Front yard with native grasses and flowers
Front yard in October with native grasses and flowers.

After inspecting the garden, we headed to a restaurant called the Bachelor Farmer for a fine birthday meal. Tomorrow we have brunch with an old college friend, then back to Chicago.

Favorite Spring Annuals?

A recent article by Linda Wesley in Fine Gardening magazine has inspired me to think more about using annuals to supplement the spring color in my flower beds. Yes, I have spring bulbs and early-blooming perennials, but there’s still an awful lot of bare brown spots in April and even in May where later-blooming perennials have yet to make their presence felt. Eventually I hope most of those areas will be covered by bulbs like Muscari, Crocus, Scylla, and species tulips – but in the meantime I feel the call of the annuals.

I had initially been considering pansies, stock, and forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica). (Though I haven’t been able to find a retailer who sells forget-me-not seed.)


But the article got me thinking about other alternatives I have never grown before, including:

  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis).
  • Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).
  • California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). (Frost tolerant, according to the article. Who knew?)
  • Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas).

A couple of the annuals mentioned by Fine Gardening are not on my list of options. Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), because Judy doesn’t like snapdragons. Also sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), which I have never grown, because they grow so tall. I want annuals that will graciously fade into the background to make room for the perennials and summer annuals.

So, which cool weather annuals have been most successful for you, and which are your favorites?

Adventures in Soil Testing

So I’ve been taking a class called “Soil Basics” at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The instructor is Ellen Phillips, who has many years experience as a soil scientist in the US and overseas. (She’s an excellent teacher, and I recommend the class for those of you in the area.) As part of the class we each brought in a soil sample to be tested.  My sample was from the raised flower bed along the path to the front door. I’ve often suspected that the soil in this bed is actually too rich, because plants tend to grow like gangbusters.

So here’s what I learned:

  • This flower bed has one heck of a lot of organic matter: 14.7%. Usually 5% is considered pretty good. Guess all that compost and mulch didn’t go to waste. Actually, though, turns out that soils with too much organic matter can be hard to rehydrate once they are thoroughly dried out. I was given an explanation for this that completely baffled me. Fortunately that problem has not yet occurred in this bed. My plan is to continue mulching, but no more compost for you!
  • The nutrient levels ranged from “Medium” (calcium) to “Very High” (phosphorous). It’s good to have enough nutrients, but too much of anything can cause runoff or even toxicity. Given the performance of plants in this bed, I don’t think anything is at a toxic level. I have read, however, that very high phosphorous can inhibit mycorrhizae (the critters that help roots absorb nutrients).

  • The testing company recommended that I apply three pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, even though the test can’t measure nitrogen. Isn’t that odd? My instructor explained that this recommendation was based on research showing that in general, comparable soils in this area need this much nitrogen. Okay … if you say so, but I think I’ll pass on adding more nitrogen.
  • No big surprise, but my soil is alkaline, with a pH of 7.5. The testing company recommends that I till in 10 lb. of sulphur per 1,000 square feet. But why should I, since most of the plants I’ve tried in this bed are perfectly happy with the pH and everything else. Seems like tilling in sulphur could mess up my perennials, so again I’ll take a pass.
  • The test indicated that the soil in this bed has a low cation exchange capacity (CEC). What is the CEC? Basically, it’s the ability to hold nutrients that take the form of positively charged ions. What is a positively charged ion? When you’re older you’ll understand. However, Ellen explained to me that the results of this test were probably skewed by the high level of organic matter, so not to worry.

What I conclude from this: Soil tests can be very useful, but don’t run off to the garden center to buy stuff based on the recommendations until you really understand what they mean.

October Morning

Bumblebee on New England Aster

“Oh, hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all …

Oh, hushed October morning mild,

begin the hours of this day slow.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day,

At noon release another leaf.

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst…”

From “October” by Robert Frost

Short’s Aster
Ripe seedheads of Swamp Milkweed

Japanese Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’
Joe Pye Weed Seedhead
New England Aster

Someone likes me!

Since I started writing Garden in a City back in January, I’ve found that I like garden blogging much more than I expected. Among the things I like are all the ways that this virtual community finds to express appreciation as well as increase mutual awareness. For example, I like the various collegial awards that we present to each other.

One reason I like these awards is that I’ve just been nominated for two of them (the Sunshine Award, and the Beautiful Blogger Award) by one of the bloggers I enjoy following, Garden Sunshine, an avid Canadian gardener with a young family. Now, receiving this type of award does not mean that your blog has been judged outstanding by some panel of worthies. It just means that at least one other blogger thinks you’re doing a good job.

But that’s more than good enough for me! I’ve felt for a long time that most people just don’t get enough recognition in this life, and I think this sad fact applies particularly well to myself. So thanks, Garden Sunshine!

To claim these awards, you have to do some homework, namely, write something about yourself and nominate some other blogs to receive the same awards.

So here goes. The Sunshine Award asks the following:

  • Favorite Number: Anything but one, which is the loneliest number.
  • Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: Fresh pomegranate juice.
  • Favorite Animal: Downy Woodpeckers. They are tough (can keep the house sparrows in line) yet comical.
  • Facebook or Twitter: A little of each, not much of either.
  • My Passion: Native wildflowers.
  • Favorite Day of the Week: Any day I can avoid going to the office.
  • Favorite Flower: Anise Hyssop. No, Swamp Milkweed. No, Butterflyweed …

Now for the Beautiful Blogger Award, which wants seven interesting facts about myself.

1. If you took all the papers piled on my desk at work and laid them end to end, they would circle the earth three times.

2. I have a private nickname for every gas station on I-55 between Chicago and Springfield, Illinois.

3. When Judy wasn’t around, I used to give the kids canned ravioli for breakfast.

4. I have an inexplicable desire to visit all the breakaway regions of the former Soviet Republics. (Nagorno-Karabak, anyone?)

5. I was once stupid enough to drive from Bismark, ND, to Pierre, SD, in January. During a snowstorm.

6. Favorite movie: Action on the North Atlantic with Humphrey Bogart.

7. Favorite novel: Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie.

Now, as to my nominees.

For the Sunshine Award:

For the Beautiful Blogger Award:

I sincerely encourage you to take a look at these blogs, which feature very fine writing, outstanding photography, or both – and all reflect a deep knowledge of and an entertaining and stimulating take on gardening and related topics.

Challah with Figs

I love figs, in fact one of the holiday season gifts I get every year is a string of dried figs. I also love challah. For those of you who don’t know, challah is an egg bread that is often slightly sweet.

So it was very nice of Judy to use a recipe she found on line to bake a challah that has a filling of dried figs and orange zest swirled throughout. Delicious! I confess I may have eaten more than my share.

Fresh from the oven

If you’d like to try making this yourself, the fig challah recipe is here.

An Astonishing Variety of (Mostly) Wild Asters

Now that I have the taxonomy issue out of my system (see last post), I can write about the asters in my garden. (As hillwards points out, “They may not be Asters any more, but they will always be asters …”). All the asters I grow except for one are Midwest USA natives and straight species. They represent a small slice of the hundreds of species and cultivars available.

I love asters because they flower freely, provide lots of fall color, and are extremely tough and easy to grow. They vary widely in the kind of environments to which they are adapted.

New England Aster with Purple Flowers

New England Aster (Sympohtrichum novae-angliae). This is a tall aster that likes moist soils and sun. Mine grow to 6′ and require staking even after I cut them back in late May. Next year I plan to cut them back at least twice and see where that gets me. The wild species is variable in color, and mine bloom in both a rich purple and pink. In my garden this plant gradually expands to form large clumps. New England Aster is a good flower for monarchs and other fall butterflies, and goldfinches eat the seeds.

New England Aster with Pink Flowers

A common dwarf variety of New England Aster is ‘Purple Dome‘, which I have growing in my back yard. In my garden it stays under 2’ tall. For me it blooms later than the species.

‘Purple Dome’ just starting to open

Short’s Aster (Symphotrichum shortii). This aster is less common in gardens, but I find it to have many virtues. Short’s Aster blooms profusely, covering itself with sky blue flowers in fall. It grows well in part shade or sun, and is generally adaptable. It can grow quite large and bushy (up to 4′), and I usually cut it back once in late May. It will self sow – if you hate pulling out seedlings you might want to cut it back before the seeds ripen.

Short’s Aster
Short’s Aster with Bluestem Goldenrod

Aromatic Aster (Symphotrichum oblongifolium). Aromatic aster is well adapted to drier, sunny spots. It also stays more compact  than many wild asters and self-sows infrequently. The light blue flowers have golden centers. One of my favorites.

Aromatic Aster with Anise-Scented Goldenrod
Aromatic Aster

White Woodland Aster (Eurybia divariticus). I’ve read that this aster spreads aggressively, but that has not been my experience. In fact, I planted it years ago in a moist, shady spot and it gradually disappeared. I’ve got it growing now in dry shade, and we’ll see how it does. A low-growing aster with white flowers.

White Woodland Aster

Calico Aster (Symphotrichum lateriflorum). Do not plant this aster in fertile soil and full sun. It will become a monster, more a shrub than a perennial, and self-sow aggressively. However, I have found it to be well-behaved in shade. Many tiny white flowers with maroon and yellow centers grow along horizontal stems. I like the way it looks, but I gave one to a friend of mine and she thought it was quite weedy. Especially loved by bees and other pollinators.

Calico Aster

Crooked-Stem Aster (Symphotrichum prenanthoides). Crooked-Stem Aster likes moist soil and does well in shade. It creates an airy cloud of white to light-blue flowers.

Crooked-Stem Aster

Big Leaf Aster (Symphotrichum macrophyllum). This is another aster with a reputation for thuggish behavior. I have it in dry shade where there is plenty of competition from shrubs, and there it has spread slowly to form a nice groundcover with its large, heart-shaped leaves. Big Leaf Aster blooms earlier than most of the other asters in my garden.

Big Leaf Aster

These asters can be ordered on line from native plant nurseries. Also, most of the above species have cultivars which can be found in garden centers. If you feel your garden needs more fall color, it’s worth taking a look at these plants.

The Aster Disaster

I like Asters. Along with Goldenrods, they make my favorite fall garden combination. When it comes to Asters, however, I have been botanically incorrect for years. Thanks to the taxonomists, Asters aren’t really Asters anymore (with a few exceptions).

No, now  they are Doellingerias, Eurybias, and (for most North American Asters) Symphyotrichums. A couple have even become Solidagos!

Was this really necessary? Aster is a very appropriate name for Asters: a simple name for a simple flower. If the taxonomists had to come up with new names, couldn’t they at least have come up with new names that were equally easy to remember and pronounce? You would think that this would be the sort of thing that would be regulated by the USDA.

Aster – no, sorry, Symphyotrichum shortii (Short’s Aster)

But no. I can only say that taxonomists are the natural enemies of gardeners. Or at least a natural irritant.

Like many people, including most of the plant retailers I’m aware of, I have followed a strategy of simply ignoring the new names. Unfortunately, if you ignore the taxonomists, they do not go away. And they have all kinds of justifications for why the renaming and reshuffling was necessary. Hardly anyone understands those justifications, but we are supposed to accept them because they are Scientific. I sometimes suspect that the taxonomists are running a racket, constantly coming up with reasons for changing the names of familiar and well-loved plants and in the process justifying the continued employment of taxonomists.

Despite my misgivings, I’ve decided it’s time to hoist the white flag of surrender. From now on, I will use the correct botanical names. But I won’t like it. And damn it, the common names stay the same, you hear me?

Goldenrod’s Midas Touch

Goldenrods (Solidago sp.)  are one of the iconic flowers of fall. Because it is a common roadside weed, and because it is often inaccurately blamed for the airborne pollen that aggravates hayfever, some people have a hard time thinking of goldenrods as garden plants. That’s a shame, because they can add texture as well as glowing color to the fall garden. As with many American wildflowers, goldenrod’s ornamental possibilities were first widely perceived in Europe. Just about all Goldenrods are magnets for pollinators.

There are about 100 species of Goldenrod, mostly in North America. In this post I’m going to write about the four species growing in my garden. All are straight species, not cultivars.

Anise-Scented Goldenrod

Anise-Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). I highly recommend this plant. It is relatively compact – most descriptions put it at 1-2′ but in my garden it grows at least a foot taller. It is relatively upright, though I’m going to try cutting mine back next year to reduce flopping. It’s the first of my Goldenrods to bloom, starting around mid-August. The flowers are fluffy clouds of gold. It grows in sun or part shade, and doesn’t spread aggressively. I’ve read you can make a tea from the leaves, but I’ve never tried that. I also haven’t noticed it being especially aromatic.

Blue Stem Goldenrod
Blue Stem Goldenrod – in this picture you can see the blue color of some mature stems.

Blue Stem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). This is another excellent Goldenrod for the garden. Like Anise-Scented Goldenrod, it is fairly compact. However, Blue Stem Goldenrod has a weeping habit, with cascades of arching and flowering stems. This Goldenrod will grow in sun or part shade. It self-sows pretty aggressively, but the seedlings are not hard to yank, and it does not spread by rhizomes.

Zigzag Goldenrod

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulus). Use caution when planting this guy. It spreads very aggressively, by both rhizomes and seed. I would put it only in difficult situations with plenty of tough competition. Zigzag Goldenrod has flowers that bloom at intervals up more or less rigid stems. Actually, I cut it back to prevent flopping. It can grow in full shade, and is an attractive plant in bloom.

Canada Goldenrod

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). OK, this plant really is a weed. Even so, I let Canada Goldenrod establish itself in a few difficult spots because it has its own beauty. It spreads aggressively by rhizomes and seeds, and I pull it up whenever it pops up outside its designated areas, which it does often. It’s kind of tall and gangly, but the racemes of flowers on top can be very attractive.

In a week or so I’ll do another post about Asters – I want to wait until mine have fully bloomed. Asters and Goldenrods are like the bread and wine of Midwestern gardens in autumn. Do you have Goldenrods growing in your garden, or do you plan to add some?

Pods, Seedheads, Fruit, and Foliage Follow-Up

Fall in the garden means seedheads, pods, and fruit join flowers and foliage as features of the garden. So here are some non-floral highlights for mid-September:

Caladium, Impatiens, ageratum.

I forget what this variety is called, but I think I’ve decided I like these plain green and white Caladiums  (Caladium bicolor) best. I built this raised bed on the stump of a tree we had to remove.

Persian Shield and Caladium

Persian Shield (Strobianthes dyerianus)  is nice, but I don’t think I’ll grow it next year. Too dark for a shady yard.

The crabapples are like clusters of round rubies this year.

Cup Plant

The Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) has a long bloom period, but now the seeds are ripe, being eaten by goldfinches or dropping to the ground.

Downy Sunflowers and Joe Pye Weed

The Downy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis) had a disappointingly brief bloom period. They are joined by Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ (Eupatorium maculatum).

Swamp Milkweed

I like how the seed pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) point skywards.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) has nice, fluffy seedheads.

Northern Sea Oats

Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) have some of the most beautiful seedheads.


Switchgrass ‘Northwind’  (Panicum virgatum) seedheads have a different look, but in my opinion are even more beautiful. It also doesn’t flop.

And finally, another sign of fall: spiderweb in the Cup Plant.

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