The stone path to the backyard that lies on the west side of our house had problems. The steps were sinking in places and were covered by soil that had washed down from the border. Also, the stepping stones were a couple of inches below the level of the bricks that start at the backyard gate. Plus, the gaps between the stones were full of grass and weeds.
So this past weekend I implemented a quick fix. I lifted up the steps where needed, spread new sand, then replaced the steps so that the were adequately elevated. Moving the stones also made it easier for me to purge the path of weeds. Finally, I planted some mat forming low groundcovers in the larger spaces between the stepping stones. I planted nutmeg thyme in the sunnier part of the path, and Irish or Scotch moss in the shady parts.
I also planted some Corydalis lutea along the inside of the path.
I realize this is a lazy way of fixing the path, and that the stones will sink again in a few years. But so what? I’ll just pull them up again, lay down more sand, and put them back in place.
I’ve read that you’re supposed to use the same material for paths throughout your property. I have violated this garden design injunction, but I hope that I am guilty of only a misdemeanor. Actually, I think switching from stone to brick at the backyard gate works as a transition from one space to another. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I have to admit this wasn’t planned. We inherited the stone path, and laid the brick path ourselves without thinking about how it would connect to the stone. B ut we like it anyway.
Every year we grow far more herbs, in gross tonnage, than we consume. A single oregano plant goes a long way, even if you are vigilant in beating back its efforts to take over the entire neighborhood. Admittedly, I make matters worse by planting far more parsley, dill, and fennel than we could ever use in order to entice black swallowtail butterflies to our yard.
It feels just wrong to keep pinching back your herbs to keep them from flowering when most of the pinched material just goes unused. So, I am on the lookout for recipes that enable us to consume large quantities of herbs in a single go.
Judy made just such a recipe last night: chimichurri. This is an Argentine sauce made with fresh cilantro, oregano, and parsley. Delicious!
You can put it on beef, chicken, fish, or vegetables, or use it as a marinade. Here is a link to a good chimichurri recipe.
Break Out the Hoses. It’s definitely turned into a dry Spring. Hot, sunny weather, and just a little over an inch of rain for the past thirty days.
It’s a point of pride with me that except for the vegetable gardens, I almost never water. I do hand water my containers and new shrubs and perennials. As for the rest, many of my plants are prairie natives or otherwise well-adapted hombres that laugh at drought. And if the grass grows dormant, so be it.
However, it’s gotten just dry enough that I’ve given in. I’m being a little extra careful because I do have a lot of new perennials, plus I’m using many more annuals as fillers and these are more vulnerable to drought.
So I got some new soaker hoses that are a big improvement on the last one I had. Sold under the brand name Gilmour, they are flexible and easy to use.
If I have to water, I definitely prefer the soaker hoses. They use water much more efficiently and you can target the water more precisely. The disadvantage is you have to be careful laying down the hose in a bed full of growing plants – I snapped the main stem of a tall white cosmos while doing so yesterday.
Step Away from the Peanuts. On the avian front, I’ve decided to give the peanut feeder a rest until the cold weather returns. I’m tired of feeding the grackles, who’ve been consuming about 90% of my peanuts, sometimes emptying an entire tube feeder in a single day. I put out the peanuts for the benefit of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other nice, colorful birds.
Grackles are not nice. They are like the Hell’s Angels of bird feeding: they show up in a gang, eat everything, and then hang around intimidating everybody else. Grackles can be kind of attractive in a menacing way with their glossy purple sheen, and I wouldn’t mind them if their behavior wasn’t so atrocious. I also like to watch how they dunk their peanuts in water.
Fortunately, the grackles leave the bird feeders alone during the winter. Until then, I’ll have jelly for orioles, suet for woodpeckers, nyjer seed for the goldfinches, and sunflowers for everybody else. No peanuts.
Berries of Spring. We’ve got a nice crop of ripe spring berries for the birds: red elderberry, blueberries, serviceberries, and wild strawberries. The serviceberries are being gobbled up by the robins and others. This is the first year we have an appreciable number of blueberries. I grow them in containers to make it easier to keep the soil acidic. I have two low-bush varieties: Top Hat and Little Crisp.
I’m growing the straight species of native red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) as a hedge on the east side of the house. They must be happy because they have a bumper crop of berries for just their second summer. The birds don’t seem to be eating them, though. I wonder if I should put up a sign that says something like “FREE EATS.”
I find wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) make an excellent groundcover. The berries don’t taste like much, so I’m happy to leave them for the robins, squirrels, and chipmunks.
I also really like the unusual striped berries of Starry Solomon Seal (Smilacina stellata).
There are other berries later in the Summer and in the Fall. I’m very happy to find that my gray dogwoods (Cornus racemosa) are loaded with green berries for the first time, after several frustrating years. When the berries turn white in Autumn, they are devoured by birds – or so I’m told.
Back in April, Judy and I visited Paris for the first time as a birthday/anniversary celebration. Great trip. Judy is still sorting through the 1,500 pictures she took (thank God for digital cameras). So far I’ve done one post on Monet’s Garden at Giverney. Both of us have been very hard pressed at work since then so the sorting is going pretty slowly.
All this is a lengthy explanation for why I’m posting in June about a trip in April. With that out-of-the-way, let me tell you about the Luxembourg Gardens, the second largest park in Paris. The gardens form a sort of enormous front yard for the Luxembourg Palace. It was not exactly my sort of garden (to put it mildly), but I enjoyed it anyway.
The first thing I liked about this Garden was that it was so alive with people. We went twice, and even on a chilly day it was being used by hordes of people: young, old, and middle-aged; reading, flirting, strolling, hanging out, and (my favorite) racing toy boats in the reflecting pond. There were enough people to make the scene lively, yet the garden is big enough and laid out so that there is never a feeling of being crowded. I liked the idea that this garden, which was built for the amusement of aristocrats, serves as a common open space for the pleasure of so many people.
The second thing I liked was the statuary and fountains. One thing about France is that you really can’t throw a rock anywhere without hitting some statue or other. Most statues in the Luxembourg Gardens were busts or full size creations representing various worthies or mythical characters. These I thought were just ho-hum. The really entertaining ones were those that seemed (to me) completely over the top. For example, there was a fountain containing a bunch of naked ladies holding a giant globe surrounded by rearing horses, surrounded by fish squirting streams of water, surrounded in turn by turtles squirting streams of water right back at them.
There was also a statue of a drunken Dionysus being carried off by a bunch of naked lads and lasses. I don’t think this is a statue the old Mayor Daley would have approved of. Classical themes were much more common than religious ones, by the way, but more on that in another post.
The Luxembourg Gardens had large areas of open lawn, playgrounds, and wooded areas. There were formal flower beds as well, filled mostly with tulips and forget-me-nots when we were there. The flower beds were not my style, but the element of color definitely contributed positively to the feel of the place. The other striking element was the views. Given that this was Paris, the “borrowed views” included things like the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon.
Finally, there were the square trees. Why were the trees square? I’m not really sure. I’ve read that the gardens of Louis XIV (who built Versailles) were inspired in part by the idea of soldiers standing in rank, and these trees certainly give a militaristic impression.
Fortunately, not all the trees are tortured in this way. It was interesting to me that two of the most common street trees in Paris were sycamores and good old American buckeyes.
All in all, I’d say the Luxembourg Gardens should be a priority destination for any gardeners visiting Paris.
Returning from another work trip on late Friday afternoon, the first thing I did was to inspect the garden. Then I spent a couple of hours staking, clipping, weeding and generally puttering around. At one point, I asked myself: why am I doing this after being absent from home all week? More generally, why do I spend so much time as well as physical and mental effort on the garden?
I can think of a few reasons. There is a sense of contentment and tranquility that comes from observing either a single flower – or patchworks of color and texture that seem just right. The same feeling comes from watching a bumblebee climb in and out of the tubular flowers of smooth penstemon, or a monarch butterfly nectaring on purple coneflower, or goldfinches feeding on the ripe seeds of an anise hyssop.
Gardening is an assertion of influence on a small piece of the environment. That’s influence, not control. A wise gardener seeks to channel the elements of the garden’s environment – soil, plants, critters, weather – to produce a small community of beauty and abundance. Trying too hard to rigidly control the garden generally leads to results that are sterile – literally and figuratively – and dull.
Achieving the effect you want with the right mix of effort and letting things take their own course is tremendously satisfying. A wall covered with rich purple clematis, a flower bed that gradually rises from sprawling blue geranium to towering yellow cup plants, makes me feel that the world can be handled to create beautiful results.
Personally, I like a style of gardening that maximizes the quantity and variety of creatures in the garden. This world is full of malice, indifference, and selfishness, but a garden can be a small-scale exercise in altruism and benevolence that I find comforting. A healthy garden, of course, is full of carnage and predation mostly invisible to people, so you can easily overstate the benevolence aspect. But at least a garden can welcome many forms of life by providing easy access to those things which are necessary to survival.
The tactile quality of gardening is also very attractive. Like so many people, my work involves dealing with concepts, personalities, varying degrees of truthfulness, and, it must be said, a whole lot of bullshit. So it is a relief to leave that world and literally get my hands in the soil. This may be one reason I prefer not to wear gloves when I garden, though Judy complains I make a mess of the bathroom sink. Of course, in addition to touching things that are real, the senses of sight and smell are also gratified.
Finally, gardening helps me be more connected to my human community. I’ve gotten to know a number of neighbors (especially the dog walkers and those with small children) while gardening in the front yard. Without gardening, I’m sure that community connection would be greatly diminished. Some of the neighbors think my obsession is a little odd, but more often I hear expressions of admiration. At one point a neighbor waved at my front yard, bursting with the colors of mid-summer, and told me: “This is a joy!” Yes, that about sums it up.
Yes, there are parrots living wild in Chicago. See below for proof. These parrots were eating at our peanut feeder this morning, then flew up to the telephone wire when Judy went to get her camera. I’m guessing they have down coats to make it through the winter.
One of the unfortunate things about my job is that I have to be out of town a great deal during May, a crucial gardening month. This past week I left on Tuesday morning and returned Saturday afternoon, just a few hours ago. I have to leave again on Monday morning (yes, Memorial Day), and won’t return until Friday.
During these periods I long for my garden. Judy helps by emailing me photos occasionally, but I still do a great deal of worrying. (Oh, and I miss Judy, too.) Is anything drying out? Are there plants flopping over and in need of staking? Am I missing the fleeting blooms of some particularly choice flower? My plants are used to fairly constant attention while I’m at home, will they be resentful or alienated by my long absences?
The upside of being away from home is that when I return, seeing the new blooms has a greater emotional impact. For instance, my rose ‘Cassie’ was covered with unopened buds when I left, but with lovely semi-double white flowers when I returned.
Actually, many of my roses took great leaps forward during my absence. ‘Sally Holmes’, now entering its third summer in my backyard, is just starting to hit its stride.
And the roses I planted on the backyard arbor are doing well. ‘Westerland’ has bloomed for the first time (this is its second summer), and ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is coming into its own.
I also grow two wild roses, Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) and Illinois Rose (Rosa setigira). These bloom later in the summer. All the roses I grow are tough shrub roses or ramblers and require little pampering.
Aside from the roses, I was very glad to see that the baptisia and salvia were now in full bloom.
By the end of this coming week I’ll get to be a homebody again and spend more time in the garden, at least for a while. I can’t wait.
This weekend it was 90 degrees, 2o above normal. A few weeks ago in April it was 20 degrees below normal. Plants were enticed to leap ahead in March, then flash frozen in April – now they are wilting under a hot sun.
The heat brought on a need for mulching. First I used the leaves from last fall. It amazes me that you can accumulate what seems to be a huge pile of leaves, but when you use them for mulch the following spring they don’t seem to go very far, even if you’ve begged or stolen many bags from the neighbors. So I had to supplement my leaves with bagged mulch. For the first time, I tried cocoa shells. I like the look, and they are supposed to be ecologically correct. The smell of chocolate is a little disconcerting, but it’s supposed to fade with time.
I spent some time today trying to get ahead of the staking curve. I staked the blue false indigo, a bunch of smooth penstemon, and a couple other things. I’m trying what is supposed to be the technique used at Monet’s garden at Giverney. Basically, you stake roughly every third stem with a thin bamboo pole, and the stems are supposed to hold each other up. This is supposed to give you a more natural look. Not sure how this applies to taller grasses that tend to flop, like silky wild rye.
The flowering dogwood is definitely dead, but I won’t give up. I’m ordering another.
I like common bluestar. It has unusual star-shaped flowers in spring that are, well, blue. However, this is one of those plants where you have to be careful about placement. Once it matures, it shall not, it shall not be moved. It doesn’t grow fast, but it grows big. I planted one of mine too close to the sidewalk and now I must struggle every year to keep it from getting in the way of the neighborood pedestrians.
I was out of town on the 15th on a business trip. (Work was absolutely brutal, but that’s another subject.) Therefore, I am granting myself a four day extension on the bloom day due date. Here goes, in no particular order:
Lonicera ‘John Clayton’
Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’
Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’, many buds almost ready to open
Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’
A rambler, we are training Darlow’s Enigma on an arbor. This should be a good year for roses, all of ours are covered in buds.
Allium ‘Purple Sensation;
Corydalis lutea grows well in dry shade. The funny little tubular flowers bloom for months.
Achillea millefoliumm ‘paprika’
Various annuals – cleome, cosmos, pansies, sweet alyssum, lobelia …
Though it’s not blooming, an honorable mention for my ostrich ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris. I’ve told the neighbor kids that when the ferns get big enough they will attract dinosaurs.
The Baltimore orioles – one of my favorite birds – have arrived! Also, for the first time, we have attracted indigo buntings to our yard. To entice them, I’ve been spreading millet on the ground for about two weeks. The buntings look like someone took a goldfinch and painted it an intense, electric blue. Unfortunately, Judy couldn’t get a good picture of one. Her good camera is still in the shop being fixed.
I got to Anton’s and Gethsemane to buy some plants Friday, then got them in the ground today. For my front yard island bed, a moist and sunny spot, I got three monarda “bluestockings,” two phlox “David,” and one obedient plant.
It’s too early for cleome, I know, but I couldn’t stop myself from buying a couple. I intend to fill in all the empty spots in the front yard flower beds with cleome and cosmos this year. No bare ground!
I also got my little front yard vegetable garden started. I installed the wooden tomato trellises I started using last year, then planted four tomato plants: Black Krim, Black Cherry, Black Prince, and Green Zebra. This will be the Year of the Black Tomato! I know it’s a little early for tomatoes, but what the hey. Also planted bush pickle cukes, dill, and parsley. Oregano and thyme lived through the winter.
The amsonia, the columbine, the starry solomon seal, and the cranberry bush viburnum have just started blooming. Plus, I have to say this has been a banner year for trumpet honeysuckle and Nepeta “kitkat” – in terms of both very early and profuse blooming.
AAARRRGH. That is my mature and thoughtful response to the fact that my new “Appalachian Blush” flowering dogwood, which I planted with such high hopes on April 1, appears to be dead. The stems are green, but all the leaf buds are clearly kaput. The April cold must have done it in. I have to decide whether I want a replacement from Forest Farm, or just buy something locally. But I REALLY wanted a flowering dogwood, and you can’t find one in garden centers around here.