Book Review: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

If perennial flowers are the backbone of your garden, as they are of mine, you may occasionally feel the need for an orthopedist. Keeping perennial flowers blooming, attractive, upright, adequately contained, and the right size and shape is an ongoing challenge. Experience and occasional expert advice are necessary to meet that challenge with reasonably consistent success.

well tended per garden

That’s where The Well-Tended Perennial Garden comes in. Author Tracy DiSabato-Aust has written a useful and engaging book that should be read through once and then kept on hand as a reference work.

The first part of the book deals with staking, dividing, pruning, cutting back, bed preparation, rejuvenating old beds, and the intersection between plant maintenance and garden design. I found the sections on staking and cutting back to be particularly useful.

I grow a lot of wildflowers that exult in my fertile garden soil, often growing much taller than books and catalogs indicate they should. I usually end up cutting back AND staking a lot of these plants. And with all that, I may still end up struggling with floppers.

From reading DiSabato-Aust, I learned that I should probably be cutting back many plants earlier and harder. In some cases I should cut back a second time (I’m talking about you, New England Aster). I realized that my Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) didn’t bloom much this year probably because I cut it back too late in the season. And it turns out I could be cutting back the spires of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) for more compact plants, whereas I thought cutting back would result in no blooms at all, which is the case with Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).

I would have had more of these Wild Bergamot flowers if I had cut the plants back earlier.
I would have had more of these Wild Bergamot flowers if I had cut the plants back earlier.

There were also some interesting ideas about staking I’d like to try out. For example, tying stakes in an X pattern holding back plants as a group, rather than vertically to individual plants. This could work with taller, bushier plants like asters and Monarda. I’m also curious, though a little skeptical, about using chicken wire with stakes. Can that really be done in a way where the chicken wire is not visible?

Spare the shears and spoil the New England Aster. I should have been cutting them back harder!
Spare the shears and spoil the New England Aster. I should have been cutting them back harder!

DiSabato-Aust appreciates that gardening is an art as much as it is a science. Few cookie cutter formulas can be applied because there are so many environmental variables. In addition, every approach to perennial maintenance involves trade offs: more compact plants versus delayed bloom, longer bloom time versus smaller flowers, etc. You cannot approach these trade offs without having a personal vision of the kind of space you want your garden to be.

Cardinal Flowers can be cut back. Who knew?
Cardinal Flowers can be cut back. Who knew?

The second part of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a guide to the maintenance of about 300 perennial species, with an emphasis on pruning. This section especially merits use as a reference book on its own, a valuable one because plants can differ dramatically in how they respond to being cut back, pinched, etc. In addition, there are lists of plants by maintenance characteristics.

I’m not ready to embrace everything that the author recommends here. For example, she is enthusiastic about peat moss in bed preparation, and declares it environmentally sound without any hint regarding the fact that others disagree.

Even so, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a stimulating and practical book that would enhance any gardener’s library.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, Timber Press, Portland OR, 2006.

Tardy Wildflower Wednesday: Celandine Poppy

Gail over at Clay and Limestone hosts Wildflower Wednesday on the fourth Wednesday of the month. I’ve been travelling and forgot about this, but I’m not too embarrassed to bring up the rear with a tardy post.

Celandine Poppy
Celandine Poppy

I don’t know about you, but it does me good as I hunker down for winter to think about cheerful spring flowers. One of the most cheerful, to my mind, is Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). This is a native of moist woods in Eastern North America.

Celandine poppy has four-petaled, bright yellow flowers. It blooms in April and May in my garden, which makes it good for combining with grape hyacinths. It has interesting leaves – deeply lobed, with a slightly downy look and a nice blue-green color. There is occasional re-bloom in cool weather. The plant makes interesting nodding seedheads.

Cellandine poppy blooming with grape hyacinths.
Celandine poppy blooming with grape hyacinths.

This is a flower that is easy to grow and requires no coddling. Some people consider it to be a thug. That has not been my experience, though it does self-sow moderately. The seedlings are easy to transplant. Celandine poppy is not really a poppy, and is unrelated to the invasive Ranunculus poppies.

The foliage will die back in hot summers. When this happens, it sufficient to cut the leaves back and you will get new growth before too long.

If you’re looking for something with yellow blooms for spring that can tolerate some shade (and you’re tired of daffodils), Celandine Poppy is worth considering.

Moscow Memories

In these post-Thanksgiving days, I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic about past experiences shared with our kids. One such that involved myself and our older son Daniel was when I visited him in Russia just about three years ago. He was spending the fall semester studying at St. Petersburg University, and we all decided that I would visit him for one week in November.

Our hotel in Moscow. Really much better than it looks.

Going to Russia is still a little complicated. Based on reliable advice, I spent a couple hundred dollars hiring a travel agent to make sure there were no problems in obtaining a visa. The visa application was rather odd, as I remember it asked about my military training (including any experience with nuclear weapons – I could honestly say I had none), as well as a list of political and other organizations I had ties to. Now, I give money to a lot of organizations, but I scrupulously attached a list including the Audubon Society, Friends of the Cook County Forest Preserves, etc. It seems none of these were deemed too troubling, as I did get my visa.

Daniel met me at the Moscow airport. We took a train into the city, where we checked into the guest house Danny had found.

This guest house was located on the third floor of an old apartment building near the center of town. Of course, Daniel travels like a student, so the place he found was pretty cheap for Moscow, which can be a pretty expensive city (there are plenty of luxurious hotels if you can afford them). Certain amenities were missing, as the rooms had no windows and the bathrooms were shared. On the other hand, we were within walking distance of the Kremlin and Red Square.

Daniel outside our hotel in Moscow.

That first night we had dinner in a sort of club where there was singing and dancing. The singer had a good voice, although she sang “Strangers in the Night” in English without realizing that the word “strangers” is pronounced with a soft g, so the lyrics came out as “Strongers in the night…” Despite this, I would say that people were definitely having a good time.

Red Square sits just outside the Kremlin walls. It is built on a monumental scale, and is bordered by a variety of landmarks, including St. Basil’s Church, a historical museum, the Lenin Mausoleum, and a World War II memorial. This is one of those places where the sense of history is awe-inspiring, almost intimidating.

Entering Red Square. St. Basil’s can be seen in the distance.
Kremlin walls and Presidential Palace seen from Red Square.
St. Basil’s Church
Red Square: another view.

We spent a day and an evening wandering Red Square and the environs. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is very much a post-communist society. There are McDonald’s, high-end stores, and stalls everywhere selling just about everything. While there are clearly wealthy people, you also got the feeling that many are not materially better off under the new regime.

Red Square McDonald’s.

The following day we came back to see the Kremlin. To enter you must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Kremlin simply means fort, and the Moscow Kremlin is essentially a large walled compound containing the Presidential Palace, various governmental buildings, and several churches and other structures left from the days of the Czars.

Inside the Kremlin.
More inside the Kremlin.

We also spent a day exploring other parts of Moscow, using the subway system originally built in the 1930s. I thought the Moscow subway compared favorably to the rapid transit systems in Chicago and New York. I especially liked how the subway stations had chandeliers and clocks showing the number of seconds since the last train had left.

In the Moscow subway. I think more subway systems should have chandeliers.

We left Moscow on an overnight train for St. Petersburg. We had seen only a small fraction of the city, and I would jump at a chance to go back. I’ll write a follow-up post on St. Petersburg sometime soon.

The Vole Patrol

It’s more about rabbits, actually, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymes with rabbit (Babbit?).

The biggest catastrophe that befell my garden last winter came as a result of nibbling and gnawing creatures. The worst damage was to three dwarf Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) ‘Iroquois Beauty’ that I had just planted. Every single stem had been chewed down, and while they weren’t killed, they did not quite recover during the growing season. There was lesser damage done to some serviceberries (Amelanchier) as well.

While I’m quite sure the damage done last year was by rabbits, I’ve recently learned about the Vole Menace at my Plant Health class at Chicago Botanic Garden. Voles, which are like even smaller versions of mice, can girdle young trees and shrubs by chewing the outer layers at the base of the plant. I’m pretty sure there are voles living in my garden, but I haven’t spotted that sort of damage to date.

So yesterday Measures Were Taken. Specifically, I surrounded my Aronia, my two youngest serviceberry, and my new flowering dogwood with a barrier of hardware cloth, which is like chicken wire but with much smaller holes. From this exercise I can offer my readers two pieces of advice.

First, if you do something like this, wear gloves. Well, of course, you might think. I never think “of course” when it comes to wearing gloves. Partly it’s because I like to feel the soil in my hands when I garden. But my point now is, despite the name, hardware cloth is not made of cloth. It is made of metal wire, with lots of sharp pointy bits sticking out when you cut off lengths of it. These pointy bits will hurt and cause your hands to bleed. While this does provide a unique opportunity to impress your spouse with what you remember of the dialogue from Macbeth, I don’t recommend it. Neither does your spouse, or mine.

Second, measure the lengths of hardware cloth before you cut them. Once again, you might think this is obvious. But it is not obvious if, like me, you pride yourself on the ability to do things by eye. I keep forgetting that this pride is entirely misplaced. If you don’t measure, you may very well finish off what the rabbits started by breaking off live twigs trying to install lengths of hardware cloth that are too short.

In addition to hardware cloth, I also sprayed an animal repellent, Repels-All, on and around the lower parts of the plants. It claims to be effective for two months. We’ll see. It smells like rotten eggs, which turns out to be one of the ingredients.

What are you doing to protect your garden from hungry critters over the winter?

Something Different for Thanksgiving Dessert

We had a fine Thanksgiving. Both kids were home – David had taken the bus down from Minnesota. Also taking part were Judy’s brother and sister-in-law Paul and Paula; also their son Marc, his wife Cathy, and granddaughter Miranda. Miranda, not yet two, was the star of the evening.

We had many of the staples: turkey, mashed sweet potatoes, braised brussels sprouts, two kinds of cranberries. For dessert, though, Judy (with assistance from Daniel), made something a little different: galettes, which are a sort of open-faced pie. There were three kinds: cherry, mixed berry, and pear with ginger.

Freshly baked galettes: mixed berry (right), pear and ginger (center), cherry (left).

The prear galette recipe was kind of improvised, so here it is, as dictated by Judy and Daniel.

  • Cut two pears up into little pieces. Mix with the juice of one lime and a scant tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. Add sugar to taste and about a tablespoon of cornstach.
  • Roll out one pie crust. Put pear mix in the middle. Fold the pie crust edges over and crimp (see picture).
  • Brush crust with egg wash if desired for browning.
  • Bake at 400 degrees F for 35 to 40 minutes, or until browned. Allow to cool before cutting or it will be runny.


Miranda, the guest of honor, with parents Marc and Cathy.


The other guest of honor.

Book Review: On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell

Once upon a time newspapers had garden writers. Such a one was Henry Mitchell, who wrote a gardening column for the Washington Post from 1973 to 1991. Mitchell was an avid gardener, but he started writing about gardens only in the latter part of his career in journalism. His love of both gardens and the English language shines through in his finely honed and entertaining columns.

On Gardening is a collection of the best of Mitchell’s garden writing. He writes about favorite plants; about the seasons and insects; about gardeners’ obsessions and their reversals.

Occasionally he sounds a bit cantankerous, as when he derides common,  “low maintenance” plants like Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ in favor of those more delicate creatures in need of a bit of pampering:

“… it is better to have rejoiced in sweet peas (which are extremely chancy beasts here) and delphiniums and tuberoses and oleanders and jasmines and much more, than to have settled for the hardiest toughest dullest plants of the Western world.”

More often, though, his is a voice of tolerance, equanimity, and wry experience. Here are a few samples:

On gardening manias: “Once a gardener has some plant he once longed for, he takes it for granted.  It is somewhat like sex – the mad excitement cannot be expected to last forever.”

On the joy of gardening in an uncertain world: “Still, as I went about my potting on a glorious afternoon, one small treasure after another, the world of nature that is so terrible and so beautiful appeared only in its sweetest aspect.”

On his personal gardening philosophy: “I well know I have neither the time nor the energy nor even the desire to have a garden that people admire. It is not for them but for me.”

On growing two large plants where there is room for only one: “Often when people see such things they think the gardener does not know how big plants get. Ha. The gardener knows quite well, but he is greedy and wants both. Greed in this case is not far from love, both of which exact a price in this world.”

On insects in the garden: “If gardeners stopped thinking of insects as enemies they would find some pleasure in them. Butterflies alone are reason to forget poison sprays … Every garden should have a weed patch of nettles, dock, thistles, and milkweed for the benefit of these epicurean beasts, and even a quite small garden should have a Buddleia, as no plant attracts them better.”

Henry Mitchell

On Gardening is a pleasure to read, a fine book for anyone who loves gardens and enjoys good writing.

On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell, First Mariner Books 1999, New York, NY.

The Bird Jacuzzi: Who Says it’s Ridiculous?

Notwithstanding climate change, we can have some pretty harsh winters here in the Chicago area. During these winters, birds find fresh water even harder to come by than food. And that’s why I bought my heated bird bath from Wild Birds Unlimited, or as I call it, the Bird Jacuzzi.

Mourning Dove Heated Bird Bath
January 2012 – Mourning Dove at the heated bird bath

I just recently set up my heated bird bath for the third year in a row. When I saw that the regular  bird bath had a floating cap of ice in the morning, I figured it’s time. This year I added an extra touch: a little plastic waterfall complete with pump. With this addition, I christened my heated bird bath the Bird Jacuzzi.

The Bird Jacuzzi 2012, just recently set up.

The bird bath and the pump are plugged into an outdoor outlet we have attached to the back porch. I use a bright orange extension cord that Judy thinks is tacky, but I find to be highly festive.

The bird bath doesn’t actually make the water warm. It just keeps the water from freezing. Now, I realize that non-migratory birds somehow survived the winter before the advent of heated bird baths. Typically, they would eat snow. But eating snow forces birds to expend energy and body heat that have to be carefully conserved for survival.

I do sometimes feel a little defensive about my Bird Jacuzzi, that it’s a bit over the top. Is there anybody else out there with a heated bird bath? Surely there must be. Does anyone else feel the need to truly go the extra mile for our avian friends? And please, no sniggering from people who live in places with warm or mild winters.

Negotiations Reach a Critical Phase

So remember how in my last post I wrote about how I’d like to replace the Bridalwreath in the front yard? Well, Judy has agreed! This is important, because Judy doesn’t like change. But now we have to agree on what to replace it with.

My first preference is a serviceberry (Amelanchier). Judy doesn’t like serviceberries (I think she just doesn’t like the name), and she doesn’t like shrubs in general. She could be happy with something if it could be classified as a small tree, but not a shrub. Why? Pursuing that question is entirely unproductive.

We both like crabapples (Malus), but I wouldn’t want to plant a full size crabapple that close to the house. There’s a dwarf crabapple recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden called ‘Red Jade’, but the habit shown in the picture wasn’t that appealing to either of us. Maybe if we could find a multi-stem ‘Red Jade’…  Judy likes multi-stem trees, though she doesn’t like shrubs. Why? Do not try to pursue that discussion.

Crabapple 'Red Jade'
Malus ‘Red Jade’ Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

Also, I worry about planting a crab in a spot with less than full sun, and I’ve been hearing warnings in class about how crabapples always come down with scab and other nasty conditions. I have a ‘Donald Wyman’, though, that’s been disease-free so far.

I’ve offered an American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) as a possibility. Small tree, takes shade, interesting catkins and fruit, and good fall color. If we can find one that is multi-stem, we could be close to a deal.

American Hornbeam.
Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

So do you have an opinion? Should we look at another crabapple? Is there another species we should consider? All input appreciated!

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.

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