Department of Underused Plants: Merrybells

The Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora) are blooming. This is one of my favorite spring flowers (native to the midwest) but one I don’t see very often. Like everything else this spring, it’s blooming early. So early that it seems to have rushed into bloom before reaching it’s normal height of about 18″.

What makes this a great plant is, first, the flowers. They are long, slender, yellow bells that dangle from the end of nodding stems.

Second, the perfoliate foliage is attractive through the summer and makes a good groundcover. Merrybells spread gradually and eventually the foliage gets nice and thick.

Merrybells prefer part to full shade and moist to mesic soil.

It’s not easy to find, but you can order from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin and Prairie Moon in Minnesota.

A Spring Weekend in the Garden

Well, today and yesterday were not as eerily beautiful as some of the days we’ve had recently. They were on the chilly side and mostly overcast. However, they were good enough to get outside and spend many enjoyable hours doing spring chores. As noted in my previous post, the first thing I did on Friday afternoon (after returning from another week in Springfield) was plant my new flowering dogwood.

I was delighted to find when I returned home that my crabapple was at its peak of bloom.

My "Donald Wyman" crab at peak of bloom in my front yard.

 Also, the grape hyacinth, the scilla, and the Virginia bluebells are now in full swing.

Virginia Bluebells outside my back door. Is it wrong of me to wish they could genetically engineer them to last all year?
Grape hyacinths along the front walk to the house.

The first of the yellow celandine poppies are blooming, as are the bleeding heart, and the false forget-me-not have started blooming, but are a week or two from their peak.

I spent most of my time edging the flower beds. A few years ago I switched from using pavers length-wise for edging to shallow trenches. I prefer the trenches because they tend to make a sharper, clearer line between lawn and bed. However, the trenches tend to fill with soil, leaves, etc. over time and I have to go over them with an edger once or twice a year. I’ve been told by a guy who works at the Chicago Botanic Garden that I should fill the trenches with wood chips. I may do that this summer.

One thing I noticed while working on the edging was that some unwanted visitors had invaded a few of the flower beds. Specifically, the grass had grown into and around the crowns of some New England aster and Red Milkweed, and were expanding outward from there. I really don’t want to dig up these plants and disentangle the plant roots.

 Also, I’ve got creeping bellflower in a couple of my beds. Again, there is no way to get rid of this plant without digging up everything, and even then they’ll just grow back from the underground tubers. My inclination is to just be mellow and accept the presence of these unwanted guests but practice some containment. My concern is that I may be kidding myself, that I have to eradicate or be completely overrun. Gardening may be relaxing, but it still provides plenty of stuff to fret over for those of us who are inclined to be fretful (that would be me).

I also transplanted some carolina roses. They were planted just a couple feet from the driveway – not the greatest place for a very thorny plant. I moved them a few feet to the south side of the crabapple.

My New Flowering Dogwood

Yesterday I planted a flowering dogwood I had ordered from ForestFarm. It’s a variety developed at the University of Tennessee called “Appalachian Blush” with pink and white flowers. It’s funny how you never see flowering dogwood at garden centers around here and it’s even somewhat rare among on-line retailers. The Chinese dogwood Cornus kousa seems much more common. I guess it’s the danger or anthracnose, though I’m not sure if anthracnose is common in the Midwest. Thing is, the fruit of the Chinese dogwood is not nearly as attractive to birds. 

Anyway, I planted my new flowering dogwood in part sun in deep, fertile soil. I’ll give it some pampering and see what happens.

This is what “Appalachian Blush” flowers look like:

I put it agaist the back fence where I had cut down the bridalwreath. It should grow tall enough to block the view of the neighbor’s house across the alley but not so tall that it’s a problem for the power lines. Right now it’s about 5′ tall and hasn’t leafed out yet. Actually, it kind of looks like a long skinny stick, but I remind myself that dogwoods are fast growers.

Live long and prosper, “Appalachian Blush.”

Memo to Flowers: Slow Down!

My pleasure in all the new spring flowers is diminished by the sense that spring will be over before I really get a chance to savor it. For example, my crabapple is thisclose to blooming. However, I have to go on a business trip tomorrow morning and won’t be back until Friday. I have a feeling it will bloom and pass its peak by the time I get back.

Also, it’s not even April 1st and already most of the backyard daffodils have faded. Fortunately, not all of them.

Nevertheless, I love how everything is leafing out. And I am really enjoying my species tulips, especially Tulipa praestans “Fusilier.”

I love species tulips. Just as beautiful, but much easier and long-lived.

And the serviceberries have come into bloom, and they are lovely as always.

Serviceberry blooms with red flower buds from the neighbors' crabapple.

With all this early blooming, I’m wondering if the flowers will be pollinated. My spicebush has bloomed and it doesn’t appear that many, if any, flowers will bear fruit. That would be very disappointing. Also on the Failure to Berry front, I have several gray dogwood that just refuse to flower and once again this spring they have no signs of flowering. I was thinking it must be lack of sun, but some other gray dogwood I have in even shadier locations bloomed last year and have the beginnings of blooms already this spring.

 On the other hand, I have some red elderberry in their second year that have formed flower heads – I can’t wait to see what birds they attract.

Spring in Fast Forward

We’ve had several days with temperatures up in the 80s. On the plus side, the daffodils have begun their show. The forsythia and the spicebush are blooming. The spicebush is much more understated than the forsythia, though still lovely. Spicebush leaves have a lovely citrus scent when crusched, and I planted half a dozen because the red berries are supposed to be of very high value to the birds during fall migration. I just started getting berries last fall – hoping for a much bigger crop this year.

Purple crocuses in bloom.

Everything is leafing out, the crabapple, the lowbush blueberries, the roses … I can already see the flower buds on the crabapple; I think it will bloom no later than mid-April.

Forsythia in bloom.
Spicebush, the thinking person's forsythia



On the minus side, the snowdrops have dropped their flowers. The purple crocuses have bloomed and passed their peak within a few days, drooping with the unaccostomed heat.

I’ve taken advantage of the excellent weather by getting some garden work done. I’ve filled the containers with pansies and johnny jump ups. I’ve cut down the bridalwreath that sits close to where I intend to plant the flowering dogwood – a job that was easier than I expected.

I also re-dug some of the edging trenches, if that’s the right way to say it. I carted the soil so obtained over to the compost piles, and dumped it on the pile that is currently “maturing.”  And I made my first round of weeding this afternoon, mostly digging up dandelions, clumps of wild rye, and bits of grass infiltrating into the flower beds.

On the bird front, the robins, grackles, and redwing blackbirds are out in force. I’ve also seen wood thrushes and another kind of unidentified thrush scratching and hunting in the backyard. And I’m quite pleased with my sunflower chips – little mess, and they don’t get eaten up immediately.


I Love Crocuses

I got back from a particularly grueling work trip on Friday to find the crocuses blooming their little hearts out. This truly gladdened my own heart, and my step became lighter as I carried my bags to the front door.

Yellow crocuses make me happy.

 I’ve loved crocuses since I was a little kid. It’s partly that they bloom so early, partly the bright colors and the way they glow in the sun. Sure, snowdrops bloom even earlier, but the understated and elegant white snowdrops cannot compete with the bright colors of crocuses that shout “Hey! Look at me!” just as the winter weather withdraws.

Crocuses glowing in the sunshine.

Spent some more time cutting down dead stalks of perennials this weekend. My new approach is: leave it all on the ground, it’s free mulch. This makes spring clean up much easier. As I worked, I noticed all the daffodils and species tulips sticking their noses up out of the dirt, the first signs of peonies emerging, the spicebush flowers looking like they were about ready to pop.

I also transplanted my dwarf and lowbush blueberries into new, larger containers. I’m growing them in containers because here in the limestone soil of the midwest it’s the easiest way to keep things sufficiently acidic. The blueberries looked fairly happy, lots of buds. Maybe we’ll actually get berries this year.

Snowdrops are understated but elegant and long lasting.
Lavender crocuses. Croci?

On a less positive note, I saw that some critter has bitten off  almost every single bud on one of my “Iroquois” black chokeberry, which I planted just last year. I’m hoping that won’t be a problem.

Spring Stirrings

The snowdrops are blooming. Hooray! This is something of a relief. Many of them emerged from the ground during those mild January days we had, and I was afraid they’d get blasted by a hard freeze. But it appears that snowdrops, as the name implies, are hardy beasts.

The crocuses (croci?) are always up. In some places, like in the front parkway, it’s just the leaves. However, in the backyard many of the crocus tommasinianus have purple flower buds that looks like they will open with the next mild spell. In the same bed, there are the remains of crocus chrysanthus whose flower buds have been bitten off and some of the leaves chewed down close to the ground. Damn your spotted souls to hell, cursed rabbits! I guess this is good news in that it seems to back up the claim that critters leave the crocus tommasinianus alone.

Crocus tomassinianus

Other bulbs are also showing signs of life. If you look closely you can see the daffodil and species tulip leaves poking up from among the dead leaves and mulch. Oh, and I say a grackel yesterday (not that grackels are cause for celebration, but still) and the first redwinged blackbird today.














Seeds of a Dilemma

Grosbeaks party on the platform feeder

I have a seed problem. I bought a new bird feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited. It serves its purpose admirably, which is to attract large finches, such as cardinals and grosbeaks. Well, the grosbeaks don’t arrive until spring, but the cardinals definitely love this feeder. It’s a tube feeder with extra large perches designed for the big finches. The problem is that it generates a staggering amount of spilled seed.

I used to attract large finches with a platform feeder. It definitely did the trick, but it had a couple of problems. First was that it attracted  birds other than the large finches. Mourning doves, for example. I have nothing against mourning doves. I like the plaintive “coo, coo.” And I don’t mind how it sounds like they need some WD-40 when they fly. But those things are eating machines. Whenever I put out new seed, a squadron of mourning doves would descend, and the seed is gone.

Mourning dove on the platform feeder.

Also, the seed was exposed to the elements on the platform feeder, so it was always getting wet and gunky.

Judy, of course, didn’t want me to stop using the platform feeder. She thought the mourning doves looked like they were having a cocktail party on a terrace when they congregated there. Judy is extremely conservative when it comes to any kind of change in domestic life.

So I got the new tube feeder with the extra large perches. As I say, the new feeder works, but all the spilled seed on the grass looks really, well, seedy. So what to do? Can’t go back to the platform feeder, that would mean admitting to Judy that I made an unnecessary purchase. And once I start going down that road, it could spell ruination for future gardening and related  projects.

I recently bought some cheap, wide plastic birdbaths without stands. I placed them on the ground under the tube feeder, and they catch at least some of the seed. My thought is to remove them when company comes over. I’m also considering taking up the turf around the feeder and replacing it with stone or brick pavers. That would make it easier to occasionally scoop up the fallen seed.

I should check out the price of sunflower chips and see if it would be that much more expensive than the safflower seeds I’m using.

If anyone who reads this has suggestions for dealing with this problem, let me know – even if it’s just the seed of an idea. (Sorry.)

Cloak and Trowel

The spy who came in from the cold to plant a viburnum

Over the years I’ve developed a growing appreciation for small to medium-sized shrubs and the contribution they can make to the home  landscape. I suppose this appreciation is fueled mainly by laziness, as shrubs are just a lot less work than perennials. You don’t have to stake shrubs, divide shrubs, or cut them down at the end of the season (or figure out what to do with the stalks, etc.).

Unfortunately, Judy is irrationally prejudiced against shrubs, something I still don’t understand. Her dislike has prompted me to resort to clandestine shrub planting at times. I will arrive home from the garden center with something in a 5 gallon container, then check if the coast is clear. If it is, I’ll carry it as fast as I can, putting my body between the plant and the house to minimize chances of detection.

Later, while inspecting the yard, Judy will notice the new addition and ask, “Where did that come from?”

At this point I assume my most innocent expression and reply, “Oh, that? That’s been there for years.” After a certain amount of sighing and eye rolling, Judy will say, “OK, but after this, no more shrubs!”

In this way I have been able to add several snowberries, grey dogwoods, “Brilliant” serviceberries, and dwarf black chokeberries to the backyard. These complement the elderberries, serviceberries, viburnums, and wild currants I’ve put in without resorting to clandestine activity, as well as the Annabelle hydrangeas we inherited from the last owners.

Some of these have replaced the invasive buckthorn, privet, shrub honeysuckle, and siberian elm saplings I’ve taken down over the years.

I do really enjoy what my mostly native shrubs add to the home landscape. I like the creamy white lacecap flowers of the viburnums, elderberries, and shrub dogwoods, not to mention the star shaped serviceberry flowers of early spring. Most of these varieties have excellent fall color, especially the serviceberries and chokeberries. And I love the berries both for the ornamental value and the birds they attract. The red cranberrybush viburnums and the pearly white snowberries are particular favorites.

 I’ve noticed some front yard gardens that consist mostly of dwarf shrubs and ornamental grasses. They look really good and very low maintenance. In the future, I might try to make the front gardens more of a mix of shrubs and perennials – guess I should keep my trenchcoat handy.

Should Trees be Forever?

I have a confession to make.  About three years ago, I took out the eastern red cedar in my front yard. I know many people feel that taking down any tree is an immoral act. Some would point out that when you cut down a tree, the decomposing wood releases carbon into the atmosphere. Also, you are removing wildlife food and habitat – and eastern red cedar is supposed to be one of the highest value trees for wildlife.

But I don’t care! I’d do it again, I tell you! I hated that tree. It deserved to die. First of all, it was ugly. Second, it took up a lot of space and created a wide barren zone under its drip line. But worst of all were the prickles. They were sharp! They were constantly being shed over a wide area, so walking barefoot in the front yard was a truly painful experience. Not to mention how they would get in your hair, etc.

Still standing: my neighbors' cedar to the left of our house. The one we had was to the right, on the other side of the driveway.

Plus, it’s not as if there were a shortage of eastern red cedar. When the houses on our block were built, the developer planted one in every front yard, and just about all are still there, along with the silver maples and siberian elms in the backyards.

What’s more, I made amends. Where the red cedar stood, I planted a “Donald Wyman” crabapple. Crabapples also have high wildlife value, don’t they? Well, don’t they? What do you mean, I sound defensive?

I admit, I can’t help feeling I have committed a sin. That I am morally obligated to live with a tree I don’t want, like two people in a loveless marriage, until one of us croaks. But don’t I have a right to happiness? Must I be prevented from trying to grow the yard of my dreams?

Now I’m having conflicted feelings about a big old bridalwreath in the back yard. I want to get rid of it and plant a pagoda dogwood in its place. But guilt holds me back. The bridal wreath is just a shrub, and still it feels wrong to get rid of it. Will I ever be free to garden without guilt?

What I would like our Donald Wyman crab to look like. Ours is nice, but not this nice.
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