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.

The Day of the Giant Brown Stalky Things

It was late October just about ten years ago, when my younger son looked at me with considerable exasperation and asked, “Dad, why do we have the only house with giant brown stalky things in the front yard?”

This is as good as any introduction to the issue of autumn garden clean-up. More specifically, is it better to cut back the dead stems of your perennials now or wait until spring?

There’s a lot to be said for not tidying up too early. Some perennials, such as upright grasses, stay attractive through winter. Seedheads of plants like Rudbeckias and Echinaceas provide food for birds, and many desirable insects overwinter in stems and garden debris. In addition, dead plant material provides winter insulation for perennial roots.

Some people have strong opinions in this regard. The famous Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf wrote that a thorough fall cleanup in the perennial border was “unnecessary and destructive.”

The Rudbeckias and Echinaceas are done, but the Nepeta is still reblooming.

However, even if you have no regard for the embarrassment you inflict on your teenage children, there are some downsides to leaving everything up until spring.

In my opinion, it is extremely easy to overstate the attractiveness of most perennials during winter. Grasses, sure. Coneflowers, maybe. Most other perennials, not so much. This is especially true of the really big plants some of us like to grow – the Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum), Joe Pye Weeds (Eupatorium sp.), and Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) that add majesty and color to the late summer garden, but that have also made the phrase “giant brown stalky thing” a byword in our family.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) in its pre-brown stalky phase.

The other practical consideration for me is that Spring is a very busy period at work, and so leaving all of the clean up until then can create a difficult time squeeze for me.

So I spent a few hours this weekend cutting back the dead stems of my really tall plants. The birds won’t miss them, since almost all the seeds were already gone by then. I cut the stems into 6-12″ lengths and either let them lie in the flower bed or throw them under the shrubs like mulch. I also removed all the bamboo and metal stakes, including the 10′ rebar I use for the Cup Plant and Joe Pye Weed. The grasses, asters, coneflowers, and lower-growing plants I pretty much leave until spring.

So until then, there will be only mid-sized brown stalky things. That’s OK, though, the kids don’t live at home any more.

So how about you? Do you clean up in fall or spring – or some of each?

A Compost Post

On Sunday I observed the bi-annual Changing of the Compost Bins. That means two things. First, that I will empty one bin of its more or less finished compost. And second, that the other bin will receive no more lemon rinds or slimy lettuce, and should consider itself under strict orders to start decomposing in earnest. The emptied bin will now start accumulating our kitchen and garden waste, and so the cycle continues.

Compost, Composting
Home decomposed compost.

For a long time I felt that my composting was inadequate. The bins I speak of are just rolls of chicken wire attached to metal stakes. What’s more, I don’t do most of the things that you’re supposed to do in order  be an efficient composter. I don’t pay attention to the ratio of greens to browns, whatever that means. I never turn the compost piles, nor do I moisten them. My water bill is high enough, thank you very much.

At one time, I was a more ambitious composter. In fact, I bought one of those rotating plastic compost barrels on a stand. Unfortunately, I never remembered to rotate the rotating barrel. For that and possibly other reasons, when I opened the barrel I found a dense sludge that smelled like an extremely unhygienic bus station bathroom. I couldn’t use the sludge because, even if I could tolerate the smell, I was afraid it would waft over to the neighbors. I ended up driving my rotating barrel out to a landfill (with ALL windows open – an unpleasant trip, I can tell you) and emptying it out there. I hope the EPA never catches up with me.

So that leaves me with my current minimalist approach. I do throw a shovelful of garden soil into the bins occasionally, and I do remember not to throw in any fats or meat scraps.

My chicken wire compost bin.

What I get in return is about half a dozen buckets of compost twice a year. For a long time I had a nagging feeling that if I was more diligent about composting, I would get more compost. Then it hit me: even if I used the most sophisticated and complex techniques, I would still end up with the same amount of compost. We only have so much in the way of kitchen scraps and garden waste, so who cares if it decomposes faster or slower?

As is often the case in the garden and in life, you ultimately get the same results whether you fuss with something or not. What about you – are you an ambitious composter or a lazy one like me?

Wordless Wednesday: Sally Holmes and Friends

Rosa Sally Holmes


Swamp Milkweed


Serviceberry Autumn Brilliance


Garden Art, Concrete Chicken





An October Stroll Through the Garden

Let’s start in the backyard. Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’ still has a few blooms, and even some buds straining to open before the frost.

Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
‘Sally Holmes’

Most of the asters have gone to seed …

Big Leaf Aster
Big Leaf Aster

But the dwarf New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, is a very late bloomer – it’s just hitting its stride.

Aster 'Purple Dome'
Aster ‘Purple Dome’

Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is still blooming on the arbor.

'Darlow's Enigma'
‘Darlow’s Enigma’

The last shiny seeds of Blackberry Lily(Iris domestica) will drop soon. Too bad they aren’t edible.

Blackberry Lily
Blackberry Lily

Now let’s head out to the front. The birds have eaten most of the crabapples, but there are a few left.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), and ‘Profusion’ orange Zinnias make a nice fall combination.

Prairie Dropseed, Aromatic Aster, and ‘Profusion’ Zinnias

Most of the Cleome have long gone to seed, but ‘Senorita Rosalita’ is still blooming. I guess this is  one advantage of sterility.

Cleome 'Senorita Rosalita'
Cleome ‘Seniorita Rosalita’

The Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) is tall but airy.

Switchgrass 'Northwind'
Switchgrass ‘Northwind’

The Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) has outstanding seedheads. It also has way too many &%$#@ seedlings.

Northern Sea Oats
Northern Sea Oats

We’re getting into late October, and still no frost. It’s coming, though. Best to savor these mild days while they last.

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