My Favorite Gardening Catalogues for Mail Order Plants

I cannot live without gardening catalogues. In fact, I divide my mail order plants among many retailers not just to access maximum variety and good price, but also to assure a diverse array of catalogues for bedtime perusal.  By now I know some of these catalogues almost by heart. Nevertheless, I get the same comfort from going over and over even the most familiar pages that some people get from re-reading the Bible or their favorite poems.

I was reminded of this the other day when the fall issue of the Bluestone Perennials catalogue arrived. People think of fall as the time to plant bulbs, but it is also an excellent time to plant most perennials and many shrubs and trees. And now is the time to start thinking about those orders for fall planting. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite catalogues – favorites both for the plants on offer and the viewing pleasure they provide. Links to the websites are provided (I also love looking at websites for mail order nurseries.)

Bluestone Perennials (Ohio). This is my go-to catalogue for non-native perennial favorites (though they carry many natives as well). Nice pictures, good descriptions. This retailer deserves extra credit for being one of the first to use biodegradable pots – no plastic to throw away and make you feel guilty.

Prairie Nursery (Wisconsin). These folks have downsized their catalogue, but it’s still a pleasure to read and an excellent source of Midwest natives. Plants are helpfully organized based on the environmental conditions to which they are adapted. Twice a year they have an open house and tour. My brother and I went a couple years ago, and got to meet the owner and native plant authority Neil Diboll. And how’s this for local color: the nursery is near the federal prison in Oxford, Wisconsin. The B&B we stayed at was also used by relatives of Chicago political legend (and my former Congressman) Dan Rostenkowski when they visited him in the hoosegow. 

Oakes Daylilies (Tennessee). Daylily specialists, Oakes stands out both for their wide selection and the size and quality of the plants when they arrive.

Forest Farm (Oregon).  This catalogue is substantial, almost like a phone book for a small city. Unfortunately, there are very few pictures. Forest Farm makes up for the lack of photos with an incredibly broad selection of plants. Also, the introduction from the owners makes you feel like these are folks who really love plants AND people. I’ve had good experience using Forest Farm as a source for shrubs and small trees.

Prairie Moon (Minnesota). These people are SERIOUS about Midwest natives, and they have an incredibly wide selection. Prairie Moon sells mostly bare root plants. Bare root plants have lots of advantages – they’re cheaper to ship, they’re dormant so no transplant shock, plus you often get more plant for your money. On the other hand, there’s something unsatisfying about opening a box and finding plastic bags full of what looks like dried squids and octopus. Prairie Moon does sell potted plants, but only in bulk. The catalogue features tables with key plant characteristics, but no narrative descriptions, making for a more clinical reading experience. On the other hand, there is some beautiful photography.

John Scheeper’s Beauty from Bulbs (Connecticut). My favorite bulb catalogue. Huge selection, pretty good prices, very good quality bulbs. I especially like  the selection of species tulips.

Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm (Illinois). These folks sell lots of different plants, but this is where I go for peonies. They have an outstanding reputation for developing new varieties of both peonies and daylilies, and are also well-known for their arboretum.

So what are your favorite plant catalogues? Or do you prefer to buy only from garden centers?


Weekend Notes: Disappearing Berries, We’re Jammin’, and Flop Goes the Perennial

Disappearing Berries. As they are ripening very early, the birds are consuming the berries of fall and late summer much earlier than normal. The black currants continue to ripen, as they do throughout the summer. In addition, grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa) berries are eaten as soon as they turn greenish white, so you almost never see the white ripe berries. The books say that the pedicel turn bright red, but my C. rasemosas haven’t read the books, apparently. Some of the pedicels show some good color, but most are just plain green. On the plus side, some of my gray dogwoods are yielding berries this year after I had almost despaired that they would ever do so.

Unripe gray dogwood berries with red pedecils.

The black elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are almost half gone.

Wild black elderberries.

The cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) berries are mostly gone. This is unexpected because V. trilobum are often uneaten until after the winter freeze, and many write that their berries remain untouched through the winter.

Cranberrybush viburnum berries

What will the birds eat when these berries are gone? There is a bumper crop of crabapples this year, they’re just turning orange now. There are also snowberries and coralberries; these will not be ripe for weeks. Still, you have to wonder if the food supply and the timing of the bird migrations may be getting out of sync. At least for  now the cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, and other fruit eaters have plenty to choose from at the Garden in a City.

We’re Jammin’. Our son Danny, his girlfriend Caitlin, and their friend Megan came over to make blackberry and peach jam with Judy. They had purchased a large supply of beautiful fruit at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, some of which ended up frozen. Making jam seems deceptively simple: you just need the fruit, sugar, and pectin. The blackberries have to be crushed, and the peaches scalded and peeled. I asked Judy if I could include the recipes on my post, and she pointed out that it was the recipe on the box of Sure-Jell pectin, which can also be found on-line.

Our share of the loot.

Their efforts yielded six half-pint jars of blackberry jam and five of peach jam. Afterwards, they rewarded themselves with blackberry gin fizzes, just as our pioneer ancestors would have. I stayed out of the way, my role was limited to going out to get the bottle of gin.

Flop Goes the Perennial. Since the rains have returned, it seems that my gardening tasks these days consist almost entirely of the following: 1) keeping plants from flopping; 2) mowing the lawn; 3) keeping the grass from sneaking into the flower beds; and 4) picking tomatoes. Of these, it is the anti-flopping duty that seems to be the most time-consuming and exasperating, though I think I have made a substantial contribution to the profits of the bamboo stake industry. (Weeding has not been a big problem because at this point there’s no bare ground left.)

In the land of the giant flopping perennials (my front yard).

A partial list of my floppers includes the following: cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis); Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum and ‘Gateway’); anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium); New England aster (Aster novae-angliae); and – oh, hell, it seems like just about everything, and that’s after I’ve cut a lot of stuff back in May.

Now, you may say this is only to be expected when you grow so many plants in the 4X Big and Tall size. To this I say, dream no little dreams, and plant no little perennials.

Reach for the skies! This cup plant wanted to lean so badly that it pulled masonry nails out of a brick wall.

I think part of the problem is that my soil may be too rich, causing excessive growth and floppiness. I’m going to have to swear off of compost for my perennial beds and see if that helps. In the meantime, do you know where I can find a supply of 10′ bamboo poles?

Black Eyed Susan’s Big Sister Provides Color in Shade

 There are those who disdain black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), also known as orange coneflower, simply because it is so common, especially the varieties ‘goldsturm’ and ‘fulgida.’ I do not share their disdain, and consider black-eyed Susan to be an indispensible flower for any sunny Midwestern garden.

R. triloba with Monarda.

However, black-eyed Susan has an older sister, brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba), and I think this Susan is not common enough. This is one of the few perennials that will give you late season color in moderate shade, though it also grows fine in full sun. In fact, I’ve seen R. triloba growing contentedly in some pretty unfriendly spots, such as beneath Siberian elms and silver maples (these were volunteers, I don’t think I would recommend placing a nursery plant in such a location). This is an adaptable plant that can live with competition.

R. triloba flowers.

Brown-eyed Susan grows to 4′ or more, around twice the height of R. fulgida. The flowers are smaller but more numerous, with short, bluntly rounded petals (ray flowers). The flowers create an airy, cloud-like effect when combined with R. triloba’s tall, rounded shape. It makes a fine back of the border plant, though you can cut it back around the end of May to keep it more compact.

Brown-eyed Susan will self-sow with abandon, which is a good thing because the plants can be short-lived. However, to limit the number of new volunteers you can cut off the seed heads before they ripen. R. triloba attracts both birds and butterflies.

R. fulgida. Shorter than R. triloba and with longer petals (ray flowers).

Cardinal Flower: If You Love Red, You Need this Plant

I’m very fond of flowers that are vigorous and tough, almost thuggish. But there are a few fussy plants that I still find worthwhile. One of these is cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Cardinal flower, a North American native, blooms in a clear, vibrant shade of red that you find almost nowhere else. The tubular flowers have a fascinating shape, with a prominent three-lobed lower “lip.” This is a premier plant for attracting hummingbirds.

Lobelia cardinalis likes part sun and lots of moisture. I have mine growing by a downspout. They have semi-evergreen basal rosettes. These need winter protection where I live, and are vulnerable to both smothering and heaving. The flowers grow on stalks that can reach 3′ or higher and often need staking.

You have to be careful about which plants you combine with cardinal flower. They can’t handle much competition. Up until now, I’ve been using like annual blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus). I’m thinking of trying scotch moss (Sagina subulata) or Australian violet (Viola hederacea).

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) is a more adaptable related species with blue flowers. The botanical name comes from the fact that people thought it could be used to cure syphilis. They were wrong. There are also a number of cultivars, but none of them have the straight species’ captivating shade of red.

So if you love red, don’t mind providing a little coddling, and have a moist spot in part sun – give cardinal flower a try. What are your favorite plants for red, or that require a little coddling?

Flowering Container Notes, Summer 2012

I have a lot of containers filled with flowers. I did not plan for that to happen. The thing is, the containers that came with the bigger plants I’ve purchased were usually not recyclable. And it seemed wrong to just throw them away. So the logical solution was to keep them and use them as planters.

Zinnias, orange cosmos, ornamental millet, Lantana, sweet alyssum

Of course, eventually Judy pointed out to me that these containers were really ugly. And she was right. But by now we were used to having flowers in containers on the front and back steps and elsewhere. So I bought replacement containers, mostly at Lowe’s. Then I threw the old containers away. So you see, in our consumer society, even an honest attempt to reduce waste eventually results in buying more stuff. (I still have a few of the sturdier and marginally less ugly containers that came with plants from the nursery.)

But what’s done is done. The question is, how are those containers doing? Let’s start with the front yard containers in sun.

Tropical milkweed, orange cosmos, star flower, ivy geranium, zinnias, sweet alyssum, lobelia, ageratum.

Spring containers are always easy for me: just fill everything with pansies. Summer is the challenge. I still have a few pansies languishing in wait for the cooler fall weather, but most have been replaced with the following:

  • Orange Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus). First time in my containers, and they are winners. Orange cosmos actually come in either red, clear  orange or red streaked with orange. They definitely get your attention from a distance. Very good for filling in, but they also have more height than I expected. They’re easy to grow from seed. Will definitely use next year.
  • Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias currasavica): These definitely have height, but otherwise I’m not too impressed. They are kind of gangly, and the orange-red flowers are nice but rather sparse. Won’t use again.
  • Zinnias (Zinnia ‘zahara’): How can you not love zinnias? Only thing is, I was counting on them for a vertical element, and this year at least ‘zahara’ just isn’t that tall, the flowers are about the same height as the cosmos. May use a different variety next year.
  • Star Flower (Penta lanceolata): Another first timer for me. Clusters of cherry red star-shaped flowers. Gets moderately tall. Very nice. Only thing, when they say full sun on this one they really mean full sun.  I tried part sun on one plant and got zero blooms. Will use again next year.
  • Ornamental Millet (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’): I really like this ornamental millet. I bought it on sale later in the season (just $2 for a 4″ pot at Anton’s). It’s supposed to grow 3+ feet, but mine seems to top out at about 2 feet. Will use again next year.
  • Other Plants: I tried ivy geranium (Pelargonium peltatum) as a spiller, but so far it hasn’t spilled very much. Maybe it will with time. I used sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and annual blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus) as fillers. I love sweet alyssum for the fragrance. If you place it right, it’ll do a good job of spilling over the edge of containers. Doesn’t love this really hot weather, but it’s hanging on and will have a resurgence in fall. On the other hand, blue lobelia just gets fried in this kind of summer, and adequate water doesn’t help. Too bad, because I love the color.

I’ll try to write about the backyard containers later. What have your container successes and disappointments been this year?

Tomato Report

I’m definitely a flower person first when it comes to gardening. Edibles come a distant second with me. However, Judy feels that a home is not a home without some kind of vegetable garden, so I try to oblige.

Since the backyard is just too shady, I tucked a little vegetable garden into the front yard, obscured from the street by our crabapple tree. It’s roughly the shape of a long oval cut in half, about 10′ long and 5′ at its widest point.

The tomatoes have gotten off to a roaring start this summer. They love the heat, of course, and I’ve been dutiful with watering. We have four plants, each of a different heirloom variety: ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Black Prince’, ‘Black Krim’, and ‘Green Zebra’. I’m tying all of them to a six-foot wooden trellis, but all four plants are gone well past six feet. The trellises have not toppled over yet, but one is starting to get that Leaning Tower of Pisa look.

‘Black Cherry’ on the vine.

I started picking ‘Black Cherries’ about the fourth of July, the ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Black Krim’ have been producing modest numbers of ripe fruit since the middle of this month. This is about four weeks earlier than normal.

I am so happy I tried ‘Black Cherry’  – they are without doubt the most delicious cherry tomatoes I have ever eaten. Very sweet and juicy, with a nice snap when you bite into them. The ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Black Krim’ have been good, but not outstanding.

Ripe ‘Black Cherry’ tomatoes with green.

The cherry tomatoes I just eat as a snack or in a salad. The larger tomatoes I use to make toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches: just put tomato slices on bread, top with shredded cheese and some dried oregano, then cook in the toaster oven. I have been known to eat these for three meals a day. Plus snacks. (It’s odd, but for some reason dried oregano works much better than fresh.)

3 ‘Black Prince’ left, 2 ‘Black Krim’ right. Though they may not look it, they are fully ripe.

While this is shaping up to be a good tomato year, it hasn’t been perfect. Some of the ripe tomatoes have had growth cracks after the return of heavy rains following a long drought. And ‘Black Prince’ has leaf curl, though I’m not sure if it’s the virus – the plant seems vigorous enough otherwise.

I’ll do another post on the rest of my edibles soon.

Gosh, thanks

I was very flattered to learn that Cheryl at Gardenhood  has nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award. Like most people, I like to get compliments and I like to get recognition. Of course, I understand that this is one of those awards given for the purpose of increasing awareness and readership of garden blogs in general – as well as to recognize the efforts of garden bloggers. I must also say that if this blog is lovely, it’s because of the photographs taken by my spouse Judy.

Speaking of lovely, Gardenhood is definitely worth checking out. Both the writing and photography are excellent.

Accepting the nomination involves nominating another 10 blogs in turn (and notifying the bloggers), then listing seven random facts about myself. So here goes (once you get going, limiting yourself to 10 blogs gets kind of hard).

Some of my favorite blogs I’d like to nominate:

  1. A Corner Garden
  2. Black Walnut Dispatch
  3. Jean’s Garden
  4. Just a Girl With a Hammer
  5. Promenade Plantings
  6. Rhone Street Gardens
  7. Sunil’s Garden
  8. Talking to Plants
  9. The Blonde Gardener
  10. Woodchuck Acres

These are all very enjoyable reads.  Finally, seven random facts about myself.

  1. I have visited every state in the Union except for Alaska, Hawaii, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas, and Oregon.
  2. I have visited the following countries: Mexico, Canada, Russia, Israel, Turkey, France.
  3. Worst three jobs I ever had: working at a car wash, working in a “rat farm” raising rats for laboratories, working in a cheese rennet factory (google it if you have to know).
  4. Spent the last two years of high school at a vocational center learning carpentry. Learned that there was no way I could support myself as a carpenter.
  5. Have two sons ages 25 and 22, both much smarter than me.
  6. Have been married for 27 years.
  7. Once stole a car completely by accident. No charges were filed.

Weekend Notes: Floral Fireworks, Lean on Me, and Gardener in the Rye

A Glorious Weekend. After whacking us around for the last couple months, Mother Nature decided to take it easy on us poor mortals for a few days. First we got some serious rain (finally) on Wednesday and Thursday. Then Friday was the kind of day summers should be made of: sunny, dry, warm but not hot. As luck would have it I took a vacation day that day and got to spend it in the garden.

Lilies, Joe Pye, coneflowers, cleome, anise hyssop, butterflyweed … summer in living color.

The rest of the weekend was not bad. Humid, but “only” in the upper 80s. Tomorrow it’s supposed to go back up to 100 degrees. Well, it couldn’t last.

Joe Pye weed ‘Gateway’ with cup plant in the background. ‘Gateway’ has richer color than sweet Joe Pye weed, both in flowers and stems. Not quite so tall, also, and blooms later.
Black wasp on the milkweed. Judy really did get up close and personal this time.

The other thing that made this a glorious weekend was the color in the garden. Now begins the time of year when there seems to be floral fireworks going off, in part because the tallest plants do seem to be blooming almost in the sky. The sweet joe pye weed and joe pye gateway have hit their stide, as have the Cup Plant. The ironweed is just barely starting though, and the downy sunflower has a week or two to go, so the summer show is by no means over.

Bumble bee nectaring on wild bergamot.

Then of course, there is the scent of my ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies. We used to have a cat who would express contentment by lying down on the sidewalk and wriggling around. The fragrance of ‘Casa Blanca’ makes me want to do this, but I restrain myself because the neighbors think I’m odd enough as it is.

‘Casa Blanca’ with cosmos and anise hyssop.
Monarch of the milkweed.


Lean on Me. Since it rained I have spent a lot of time staking. Given my love of really tall plants, I have no right to complain. If I don’t want to stake, I can just grow coreopsis ‘moonbeam’ and landscape roses or dwarf shrubs. Even so, I find myself getting irritated at some of the plants. “Stand up straight, for pete’s sake,” I scold, as if they are slouching children. I find that plain old twine is the best thing to use in staking, better (and much cheaper) than all the different fancy ties you can buy at the garden center.

I am pleased that some plants are doing a good job of holding each other up. My nepeta, for example, does a pretty good job of supporting the yarrow growing behind it, as well as the blue stem goldenrod, which in turn keeps the anise hyssop from flopping.


Gardener in the Rye. I might as well just tell you: I am through with wild rye as an ornamental grass. I tried to make it work. I tried Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus) and silky wild rye (E. villosus). Yes, I like the seed heads, but here’s the thing. It won’t stop flopping. OK, I don’t mind staking an 8′ Joe Pye weed, but a 3-4′ grass? I don’t think so. Also, it’s really hard to stake grasses in a way that doesn’t make them look like they’re wearing a corset. And did I mention that they seed themselves a bit too liberally?

Purple coneflowers with switchgrass.

I saw that Anton’s is selling switchgrass in gallon containers in a buy one, get one free sale. Might head over that way next week.

Currant Events: Berries for the Birds

This time of year you can see the cardinals and robins hopping around my wild black currant (Ribes americanum), helping themselves to the black fruit. I have a corner of my backyard devoted to wild black currant, which is one of my favorite native shrubs. It grows about 3-4′ and is about as carefree as they come, seemingly unbothered even by this year’s drought.

Wild Black Currant fruit

Wild black currant does best in part shade, but is otherwise very adaptable. It bears tart, edible berries over a long period in the summer, which are very popular with the birds. The maple-like foliage is nice and in spring there are long racemes of chartreuse flowers, understated but attractive nonetheless.

Wild Black Currant in April.

I’ve planted a second type of currant more recently, clove currant (Ribes odoratum). This is their second summer since I planted them in the front yard. Clove currant prefers sun. This year one of the three bloomed and bore berries for the first time. The others are still coming along. In spring clove currant has yellow flowers with a powerful clove fragrance. I placed them so that passersby on the sidewalk would notice the scent.

Clove Currant flowers


Clove Currant fruit


Question of the Week: Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wasp?

I’ve always felt a true gardener should be comfortable with insects, and mostly I walk the walk on that point. In my view, bumblebees are cute and I’m happy when I find spiders on my plants. The bad guys like hornworms and Japanese beetles engender irritation, not disgust, and I have no problem dispatching them with various old-fashioned manual methods.

Then there are these guys.

Wasp Vader view #1
Wasp Vader view #2. These images are a little small because Judy was somewhat reluctant to get up close and personal.
Giant scary wasp with festive orange abdomen, or whatever you call it.

Yes, there are some HUGE wasps that seem to love certain of my flowers, mainly oregano and swamp milkweed. Most of them are jet black, and remind me of Darth Vader. A few are orange and black.

Now, I have to admit that these wasps don’t seem especially aggressive, and they’ve never stung me. Nevertheless, when they get agitated, I find myself scurrying away as inconspicuously as I can manage. And I make no apologies for that, because, come on – these guys are scary.

So, my question(s) of the week: Do any insects give you the willies, and if so, which ones? Also, do any entomologists out there know who these guys are, and if they come in peace?

%d bloggers like this: