A Different Kind of Foundation Planting? Yew Bet!

The Ostrich Bed is what I call the area that is immediately in front of our living room windows. The windows face North towards the street. When we moved to this house ten years ago, this part of the yard was simply a foundation planting of tormented Japanese Yews (Taxus cuspidata). The yews were suffering  because they were forced to stay just 3′ tall, whereas they yearned to grow out and up to 15′ or more, as their sister in the backyard has done.

The Ostrich Bed, with Ostrich Fern, Bleeding Heart, and Golden Alexander in May.

I put the yews out of their misery. I just kept cutting back stems until all that remained were the thick and gnarled trunks. Then I got out my pruning saw and cut the trunks off at ground level. I didn’t try to dig out the roots. I’ve done that before, and it requires a very strenuous effort if you are using only hand tools. This was at an earlier house we lived in, where I also did away with the the foundation planting of Japanese Yews. Digging them out is unnecessary: I’ve never seen these plants grow back from the roots.

I sometimes wonder if I could become a kind of Johnny Appleseed in reverse for Japanese Yews (Johnny Yew Stump?), traveling from place to place and yanking out foundation plantings instead of planting orchards.

But I digress. In front of the Yews there was a shelf of grass that extended a few feet before sloping down sharply about two feet to the main part of the front yard. I dug out the grass and, using flagstones from an old patio, built a low retaining wall in front of the slope, then filled in the gap with topsoil.

You can see the retaining wall in this picture. A front yard path between other front yard flower beds leads to the Ostrich Bed.

Then came the plants. Along the front of the house I planted ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), who dominate this bed for much of the Spring and Summer and inspired the nickname. These are wonderful plants, in their second year they were already over three feet high, and I’m hopeful that they will eventually reach their majestic potential height of six feet. This would be tall enough to be imposing but not tall enough to block the view from the windows, as our first floor is a couple feet above ground level.

Wild Columbine blooms in the Ostrich Bed in May.

In front of the Ostrich ferns are a mix of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), old fashioned Bleeding Hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) for Spring bloom. There are also Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) for early summer. Daffodils and daylilies (Hemerocalis ‘Aye-yi-yi’) are planted along the edge of the retaining wall (the area of this bed that gets the most sun). I also let a couple of Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii) and Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) seed in here and there for fall color.

Daylily ‘Aye-yi-yi’ flowers on the sunnier edge of the Ostrich bed.

I like my Ostrich Bed, but I’m not completely satisfied. First off, I planted Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ along the concrete landing on the west end of the bed. I think they want a more acidic soil and aren’t very happy. Didn’t bloom at all this year, and last year bloomed very sparsely. I’ve been thinking of replacing them with American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa). White flower spikes in summer, berries for the birds in fall, likes shade, big but not too big – why  not?

Also, I would really like to get rid of the old  Bridalwreath Spirea (Spirea vanhoutei) on the east end of the bed. I would replace them either with Serviceberry (Amelanchier) or Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia).

The Ostrich Bed in November. You can see the Clethra and Bridalwreath at either end.

So what do you think? Dump the Clethra and the Bridalwreath? Bring on the Spikenard and Serviceberry? The ostriches are waiting.

The Big Chill and Autumn Color’s Last Stand

Every year there is a sort of tipping point reached some time in November that signals the coming end of fall and beginning of winter. Yesterday seems to have been one of those days. Following a week of very mild weather, almost shirtsleeve weather, a biting cold arrived riding in on strong winds. Suddenly the night was cold enough to make an icy cap on the water in the bird baths.

The cold shriveled my last blooming annual, Cleome ‘Senorita Rosalita’, which had kept blooming gamely even as the calendar wore on. Nevertheless, the last of the fall colors strive to hang on, unwilling to go softly into that good night. Judy and I both took some of these pictures (mine are the fuzzy ones). Unfortunately, her good camera, a Nikon, isn’t working right now.

Incredibly, there are still a few flowers blooming. The trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is having a last flush of flowers.

Trumpet honeysuckle

And my white roses, ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, ‘Cassie’, even ‘Sallie Holmes’, continue to have a few flowers.

Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’

There are also rose hips, though these are quickly eaten by the birds once ripe.

Rosa ‘Westerland’
Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’

The above-mentioned roses still have green foliage, but I was pleased to see that the wild pink rose Rosa setigera has lovely fall color. I’m growing R. setigera, also called prairie rose or Illinois rose, against a south-facing white brick wall, where it is gradually entangling itself with the trumpet flower. This is its second year.

Rosa setigera autumn foliage Illinois Rose
Rosa setigera autumn foliage

Most of the leaves have fallen, but there are a few that still stubbornly refuse to drop. The Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet) still has many of its golden yellow leaves.

Summersweet autumn foliage

My native Viburnums are just now beginning to concede that the seasons are changing. V. prunifolium, blackhaw Viburnum, is turning a deep red. V. trilobum (cranberrybush Viburnum) is turning a multitude of colors, from burgundy to bright yellow.

Cranberrybush Viburnum

And my young Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), planted just this spring, is the last of my dogwoods to keep its foliage.

Cornus florida fall foliage
Flowering Dogwood

Carry on as long as you can, you last few holdouts of autumn. As white and brown gradually covers the land, I will think of you.

Movie Review: A Royal Affair

And now for something completely different: a movie review. Judy and I took the very unusual step (unusual for us these days) of going out to see A Royal Affair at an actual movie theater. Our son Daniel joined us, though his girlfriend was out-of-town attending a family wedding.

Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelson), Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikanda), and Christian VII (Mikkal Folsgaard)

I thought the movie was definitely worth seeing. It’s in Danish with subtitles, though, so it may not be your cup of tea if that bothers you. The film is part tragic romance, part political and historical drama.

The story takes place in Denmark in the late 18th Century, and is at least partially based on actual events. At the time, the country was a backwater of serfdom, obscurantism, and physical cruelty. It was ruled by the young and mentally unstable Christian VII (Mikkal Folsgaard), one of the three central characters. Christian is married to the unhappy Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikanda) , who feels trapped and isolated.

Things start to head in a different direction with the unlikely appointment of Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelson) as royal physician. Struensee, an idealist of great personal warmth, is able to establish a strong bond with Christian. He also falls in love with Caroline, and they begin an affair that eventually destroys them both.

At the beginning of the film, Christian is a figurehead dominated by the nobles and clergy of the royal council. Under the influence of Struensee and Caroline, however, Christian asserts his authority and enacts a variety of reforms, humanitarian and political. Ultimately, however, the forces of reaction reestablish their dominance over the country.

Dr. Struensee faces the wrath of the power structure.

It’s difficult to depict political conflict convincingly in fiction and even more so in the movies, but A Royal Affair does so compellingly. The portrayal of Christian as a titular ruler who in fact has very little control over his own life reminded me strongly of  the tragic title character in The Last Emperor.

Both Judy and Daniel agreed with me that the acting in A Royal Affair was powerfully moving. At two hours and thirteen minutes, though, they thought it could have used a bit more editing. Personally, I was not aware of the time while the movie was playing.

If you’re reluctant to see A Royal Affair because it sounds too dark, I should mention that there is an optimistic ending of sorts. I’m not sure how widely this movie is playing in the US, but if you get the chance it is a rewarding experience.

Physocarpus, Heal Thyself

So last night I went to the first class of the new course I’m taking at the Chicago Botanic Garden, “Introduction to Plant Health”. Actually, I thought it was the first class – really, it was the third class. I was confused about the date due to the parallel space-time continuum I enter whenever there is a period of insane busyness at work. I hate it when that happens.

This course is a requirement for the certificate in garden design that I’m pursuing, but I’m a little apprehensive about taking it. That’s because when it comes to plant health, I could probably be sued for negligence. When a plant in my garden has serious health issues, my usual response is to just get rid of it. I mean, illness is such a downer.

Rust on a hollyhock leaf. Pretty disgusting, huh?

Sometimes you really have no choice in the matter, such as when your purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are infected with the incurable aster yellows. However, when my hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) developed rust, I didn’t try to save them with fungicides, I just pulled them all out. I still miss those hollyhocks, but I got rid of  them all the same.

My other approach to plant diseases: ignore them. You say there’s downy mildew on the Monarda? That’s funny, I can’t see it.

I have made some attempts to actually bring stricken plants back to health. For instance, I used to have a small Magnolia, not sure what species, in the backyard. The Magnolia became badly infested with soft  scale insects. Soft scale are pretty disgusting because they produce a sticky substance called honeydew. The honeydew in turn feeds sooty mold, which unlike honeydew is aptly named.

Magnolia scale. Also disgusting, even before the sooty mold gets all over everything. Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden.

After consulting the internet, I tried to apply a dormant oil to smother the scale. Apparently timing is important with applying dormant oil and I got the timing wrong, because the scale bugs and their friend Mr. Sooty Mold didn’t go anywhere. My patience exhausted, I cut down the Magnolia, replaced it with several Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and have not seen any scale since.

I’m proud to say that I once did cure a plant of what ailed it. Earlier this year, some of the stems of my Forsythia were dying back. Using a book called What’s Wrong with My Plant? by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, I figured out that the stems were infested with borers. Cutting the stems back below the infested areas did the trick.

Actually, I really haven’t had much in the way of pest or disease problems in my garden over the years. I put that down to growing tough plants in the right cultural conditions, along with a very healthy population of beneficial insects. That may not always be enough, however. For example, in that first class the instructor warned of the high probability that crabapples will become diseased. I love my crabapple, and I don’t want to cut it down.

So I hope that after this class I can do something other than tell my plants to cure themselves.

What about you? Do your plants get sick much, and how do you handle it when they do?

Book Review: Designing with Plants, by Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury

This is a book that should be read slowly. The writing is certainly clear and accessible, but the text is dense with thought-provoking insights on garden design. The insights are illustrated with  gorgeous photographs that merit close study. Designing with Plants is more of a meditation on garden design, rather than a how-to book. But those meditations are well worth the gardener’s time, coming as they do from the famous Dutch garden designer who has given us magnificent green spaces such as Chicago’s Lurie Garden.

The insight that left the greatest impression on me was the importance of plant shape. Like many others, I tend to think of gardens primarily in terms of color. Oudolf counsels against this: “Structure is the most important component in a successful planting; color is important too, but it is a secondary consideration” – because it is temporary, and because structure provides the context for color.

The authors provide a classification scheme for types of plant shapes. They discuss how differently or similarly shaped plants can be combined, and how combinations of shapes interact with complementary and contrasting colors.

Spires and buttons: Brown Eyed Susan and Anise Hyssop in my garden. Shapes first, then colors, says Oudolf.

The tone of the writing is contemplative rather than didactic or evangelical, and I appreciated that. Oudolf recognizes that what is beautiful in the garden is subjective and based in emotion, and he encourages gardeners to avoid rigid rules.

Oudolf’s designs are natural-looking rather than “natural” in the sense of using only indigenous plants. He praises native plants as well as plants generally that remain in or are close to their wild state. His primary goal, however, is to use whatever perennials work to create gardens that are full and abundant, generally relaxed in tone, and visually effective. In this book he discusses other important but frequently ignored aspects of garden design such as light, movement, and mood.

Switchgrass ‘Northwind’. Oudolf is a big proponent of grasses for their ability to capture light and movement.

I did not agree with everything in Designing with Plants. For instance, mixed borders with perennials and woody plants are one of the few things that bring out Oudolf’s judgemental side. I myself would like to put more woody plants in my borders, in part because they are less work – no staking, fall or spring clean-up, or dividing. Oudolf argues that using more wild or near-wild perennials will reduce the work load, but in my experience that is true only to a limited extent.

Also, Oudolf tends to deal with larger spaces for his gardens, and I would have appreciated more of a focus on translating his ideas for smaller gardens.

Designing with Plants was fist published in 2000, so it is not a new book. Many people consider it something of a classic. I’m reluctant to call any book essential. I would say that, if they haven’t already read it, most gardeners who want to think more creatively about their gardens would find this book extremely valuable.

2012: The Year in Birds (Part II)

Since my head may be about to explode as a result of watching cable news and reading political blogs, this seems like a good time to work on the second installment of 2012: The Year in Birds.

A summary of the year would not be complete without mentioning the wild parrots in my neighborhood, though I’ve written about them before. Presumably, they are the descendants of escaped pets. They live in the Chicago area through the winter,  though it’s really hard to imagine how they’ve adapted to this climate.

Wild Chicago Parrots

When the parrots visit my yard it’s always about the peanuts. They may look out-of-place, but they don’t let anybody push them around at the peanut feeder.

A note for my fellow garden bloggers: this topic drew far more people to my blog from search engines than any other. So, for search engine optimization, just one word: parrots. And I’m not charging for that one.

Chicago parrots are tough, they’re not intimidated by starlings or grackles.

2012 has been a mixed year for members of the woodpecker family in the garden. The little downy woodpeckers are an almost constant presence, helping themselves to suet and peanuts. I used to buy the suet mixed with ground peanuts, but that stuff would be wolfed down by a motley assortment of nuisance birds, mainly grackles and house sparrows. There can be a problem with plain suet melting on really hot days, but since my bird feeders are all in part shade, I haven’t seen that happen.

Downy Woodpecker on suet feeder.

We also get the occasional hairy woodpecker, which looks like a downy on steroids.

On the other hand, we used to see red bellied woodpeckers and northern flickers, but they haven’t shown themselves all year. That’s a shame, because northern flickers are beautiful birds. By the way, it’s odd that red bellied woodpeckers have red necks and not red bellies. Maybe we don’t call them red necked woodpeckers because that sounds too much like a Jerry Jeff Walker song (“Up against the wall, redneck woodpeckers”).

Northern flicker of yesteryear.

We rarely saw nuthatches this year, but that changed dramatically a few weeks ago. Apparently, this is a year birders are calling a nuthatch invasion, especially for the smaller red breasted ones. Nuthatches are quick and charming birds. We’ve haven’t been able to get a good picture of the reds. They are another bird that loves peanuts.

White breasted nuthatch

Cardinals were a steady presence in the garden, as they are most years. They are particularly dramatic in a winter landscape (don’t worry, these photos are from last winter). Cardinals like fruit, and seem particularly fond of the dogwood, elderberry, viburnum, and wild currant berries.

Cardinal coming in for a landing on platform feeder in winter.
Two cardinals in a Deutzia shrub.

Well, my head is cleared. Guess I can turn the tv on again.

Which backyard birds are your favorites?

2012: The Year in Rodents

When I first envisioned the results of wildlife gardening, I thought of clouds of butterflies, flocks of colorful songbirds, all punctuated by dragonflies and hummingbirds darting about. The thing is, wildlife gardening does not work like an exclusive country club, only letting in the most desirable sorts of critters. And so you also can end up with more than your share of more or less pestiferous rodents, namely squirrels, rabbits, skunks, possums, mice, and chipmunks.


Squirrels were certainly plentiful in the garden this year. They are not as much of a nuisance now that I’ve figured out how to keep them out of the bird feeders. I hang all the feeders from poles with squirrel baffles from Wild Birds Unlimited. These metal cylinders work pretty well, and they provide entertainment as you see the squirrels climbing into them, then come back out looking, well, baffled.

Luckily for the squirrels, the birds are extremely messy eaters, so there’s plenty of food dropped to the ground even if the baffle keeps them away from the feeders.

For a while, though, I did have a problem with Commando Squirrel. Commando Squirrel would climb out on a telephone wire, then drop down at least 8′ to the platform feeder attached to the pole below. I finally removed the platform feeder, thus depriving Commando Squirrel of his landing pad.

The other criminal activity of the squirrels this year consisted of biting the flower buds off the crocuses. I am convinced that this was their way of getting even for the squirrel baffle.


LOTS of rabbits this year. Also, they seem to be getting awfully unconcerned around people. Now it seems I have to shoo them, instead of having them hop away at my mere approach. I swear one of them looked right at me, yawning and looking nonchalantly at his paw as I neared. I blame the rabbits for chewing many of my woodland phlox plants (Phlox divaritica) down to the ground, as well as nearly nibbling my new black chokeberry bushes (Aronia melanocarpa) to death.

The rabbits are getting a little too comfortable, and much too numerous, around the garden.


We had skunks living under our back porch landing this spring. Had to trap three of them before we could have the landing skunk-proofed. Enough said.

A fuzzy cell phone picture of a skunk in the backyard.


Now, I think of possums as beneficial rodents. If this is not an official ecological category, it should be. Mostly they come out only at night, they don’t smell bad if you don’t stick your nose right up to them, and – this is important – they eat other rodents, like mice and rats. Judy thinks they’re creepy, though. She used her cell phone to take a picture of the one below while drinking her early morning coffee. I’ll admit that albino thing they’ve got going  on with the naked tail is not exactly endearing.

Another fuzzy photo of our friendly neighborhood possum. They at least do something useful, yet chipmunks get all the love.

Mice and Chipmunks

The mice are pretty harmless until the weather turns cold, when they decide they’d rather move into our house. So far we’ve caught three of them inside. I am advocating for a new cat, or even better, two new cats, though these we would have to keep inside unlike our last cat, Phoebe, who passed on some time ago.

Chipmunks. They think they’re so cute.

Everybody thinks chipmunks are cute, but I don’t buy it. They seem to expect people to think they’re cute. Personally, I think the cuteness is just a cover, and I’m keeping an eye on them.

So there you are, my year of rodents. Could be worse, I suppose. I am profoundly grateful there are no deer in this area.

2012: The Year in Birds (Part I)

Backyard bird watching has had its rewards and disappointments this year. Among the high points were the first ever appearances of cedar waxwings and indigo buntings. The cedar waxwings just hung around for a week or so, but I’ve planted a number of their favorites (including serviceberry and both black and red elderberry), so I’m optimistic they’ll stay longer next year.

Cedar Waxwing

Sadly we didn’t get any good pictures of the indigo buntings, who were also present for just a brief time in spring. I have lots of asters, Rudbeckias, and other plants that leave seeds loved by buntings and other small finches. I also spread some millet seed on the ground. Not sure which of these did the trick.

We have had some exciting visits from a number of predator birds, such as this red-tailed hawk. We’ve also seen kestrels and, on one occasion, an owl – but no pictures of those.  It seems if you attract enough birds, the predators will show up. Now and then we see a clump of feathers or other grisly evidence of a successful hunt. This doesn’t really bother me, though I wish they would confine themselves to starlings, grackles, house sparrows, and rodents.

Red-Tailed Hawk on the back fence.

One disappointment this year was the scarcity of rose breasted grosbeaks. Last year we’d have five or six at a time, and they were present for at least four weeks in May and June. This year we only saw one or two at a time, and for a shorter period.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

On the other hand, Baltimore orioles have become a very common sight in our garden from May into September. They first showed up in our yard about three years ago. They normally live high in the tree tops but will come down for the love of grape jelly. We love watching the orioles feeding: how they seem to smack their beaks, then try to wipe their beaks on some hard surface to scrape off the sticky stuff.

Male Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore orioles, adult feeding juvenile.

Robins seem to love our yard, as they are very plentiful. You can see them eating wild currants or hunting for bugs on the lawn or in the mulch. They may be a common bird, but I find them very endearing, especially the young juveniles like the one below.

Juvenile robin at the edge of the bird bath.

So how was the bird watching in your garden this year?

Preparing for Halloween

One of the nice things about kids in their twenties is that you can trust them with adult responsibilities. For example, carving the Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween. Last night Danny and his girlfriend Kaitlin came over for dinner, after which Danny worked on the pumpkin. Judy and I sat in comfortable chairs, observing and offering constructive criticism.

Pumpkin carving requires both technical skill and inspiration.
Alas, poor Pumpkinhead, I knew him well.
My girlfriend the Pumpkinhead.
The finished product.

Afterwards we ate pumpkin seeds toasted with salt and olive oil.

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