Tackling a Problem Side Yard

My good friends Jean and Jim have asked for my help figuring out what to do with the side yard to the south of their home. Right now this area has a U-shaped flower bed. The northern arm of the U lies along the house, and receives lots of sun. It is mostly empty, though it has some peonies, a rose bush, Calico Asters (Aster lateriflorus), and Cream False Indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

The northern arm of the U. Please note that while Judy’s camera is fixed, Judy herself has gone to New Orleans on a work trip, poor thing. Or so she claims. Anyhow, that’s why I took this picture and the next one. I am not much of a photographer. Fortunately, the remainder are hers.


The southern arm lies along a chain link fence (marking the border with the neighbors). It gets some morning sun but is mostly shady and the soil is moist. There’s a golden alexander (Zizia aurea) and an oak leaf hydrangea in the southwest corner. Otherwise this area is pretty much overrun by Creeping Buttercup (Ranuculus repens).

The southern arm of the U. Jean had pulled out the Buttercup foliate, you can see it stealthily growing back.

The far end of the U faces west and backs against the chain link fence. Some conifers about 30′ tall stand on the other side of the fence. Down the middle of this side yard is a peninsula of lawn with large square pavers for stepping stones. The whole property had been professionally landscaped by the prior owner and the garden designer had surrounded the stepping stones with Buttercups, which went on to rampage through the moist part of the yard. Oops.

So there are two challenges. First,  fill the empty spaces on the northern arm with perennials adapted to a dryish sunny spot, particularly ones which will shine after the peonies are done blooming. Second, come up with some tough plants that like moisture and shade – and that can compete with and even  shade out the Creeping Buttercups. (My feeling is that trying to remove the Buttercups is a fool’s errand, unless Jean wants to use some very heavy duty herbicides, which she doesn’t.)

Preference is for plants that are mat-forming or otherwise dense enough to inhibit weeds. Filling in quickly would also be a good thing.

I’m trying to come up with a list of plants for this project. Some initial thoughts …

For the north/sunny arm:

Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)

Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)

Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

The above have the advantage of being free, as I have to remove some from my beds.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) ‘Paprika’

False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis)

Pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)

Shining coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) ‘Herbstsonne’

Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’

Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) ‘Katherine’

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) ‘Northwind’

Switchgrass ‘Northwind’ (Panicum virgatum)

Obviously, this list will have to be narrowed down, but I’m thinking of a basically blue/yellow border with something tall to stand in front of the gas meter.

For the south/moist/shady arm:

Variegated sedge (Carex morrowii) ‘Ice Dance’

Palm Sedge (Carex muskingumensis)

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) ‘Raspberry Wine’

Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine’

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

Wall Iris (Iris tectorum)

Dwarf Goatsbeard (Aruncus aethusifolius)

Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. pumila)

Variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum) ‘Variegatum’

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophyllum)

Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)

OK, once again, this list needs to be narrowed down.

So which would you choose? Which would you reject? What suggestions do you have that aren’t listed?

All ideas are welcome. I’m waiting. My friends Jean and Jim are waiting. Help!

We Order Our Bulbs for Fall Planting!

So we have ordered our fall bulbs from Scheeper’s. We ordered 90 tulips for planting in containers. Judy has been pining for luxurious hybrid tulips. I stopped planting the hybrids in the flower beds because their size got in the way of caring for the perennials. I’ve switched mostly to species tulips and grape hyacinth in the perennial beds, but suggested we try growing the hybrids in containers.

Judy picked several varieties of hybrid tulip with a red/yellow color scheme.

Tulip ‘Kingsblood’, one of our choices. Photo: Tulip Gallery.
Tulip ‘West Point’, a second choice. Photo: John Scheeper’s
A third choice: ‘La Courtine’.

I’ve never grown tulips in containers before, but I’ve read it can be done. I’ll store the containers in the garage for most of the winter, and I’ll have to throw the tulip bulbs on the compost pile when they are finished blooming.

I also ordered some 200 crocuses. I love crocuses, but I hate how they are vandalized by squirrels. What is most maddening is how the squirrels sometimes just bite off the flowers. This strikes me as pure rodent malice. I’m told that Crocus tommasinanus is less appealing to squirrels, so I got Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’.

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’. Photo: John Scheeper’s

Further Thoughts on Flowering Containers

Now that we’re heading into the fall season I’m rethinking my preferred plants for next year’s containers. A few conclusions I’ve drawn:

  • Big Thumbs Up for Pentas. I was very happy with the Star Flowers (Pentas lanceolata) in my containers for sun. They bloom enthusiastically and can take the heat. Plus, they are great for hummingbirds. In August I regularly came to the front door on my way out and saw hummingbirds on the porch nectaring at the Pentas – they had never appeared on the front porch before this. While the red clusters of small star-shaped flowers are unique when viewed up close, from a distance they look like zonal geranium flowers.
Pentas (left) with Canna.
  • Orange Cosmos v. Orange ‘Profusion’ Zinnias. Earlier this year I was enthusiastic about my orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus), which I used as a filler in containers. However, in late summer the cosmos tended to get ragged and bloom sparsely, no matter how conscientiously I deadheaded. I think next year I would use orange ‘Profusion’ Zinnias instead. I used them in one of my sunny beds, and  they are more reliable for flowering throughout the growing season. Even when I don’t deadhead them, they bloom, well, profusely.
  • Cannas are Really a Foliage Plant. This is the first year I had more than one Canna, and I realized that this should really be grown as a foliage plant. I wouldn’t go as far as Garden Walk Garden Talk, who removes the flower buds before they bloom. I like Canna flowers, but they are too few and far between to be the main selling point of this plant. The foliage is really something, though, and in the future I will make interesting foliage my first criteria when picking Canna varieties. I’ve found that they do make good container plants, though I haven’t tried the really gigantic ones.
Cannas with flowers on the back porch – green and purple foliage
  • Prune those Lantanas. My ‘New Gold’ Lantanas did not bloom as freely as I expected this summer. Only after I pruned them back did they start flowering as I had hoped. I conclude that deadheading is not enough, these plants really need to be cut back at least a couple times over the summer.
  • Bacopa Has Staying Power. I expected the annual lobelia (Lobelia erinus) to sulk during the summer months and then bounce back in fall. However, this summer’s extreme heat just wiped these guys out. In the future, I’ll be inclined to use Bacopa (Supera cordata) as a trailing plant with blue flowers. It’s not as eye-catching as annual lobelia, but it does have staying power.
We inherited this old wheelbarrow from the former owners. It was already rusting, so I turned it into a planter for the remainder of its days.

Question of the Week: Should it Stay or Should it Go? Joe Pye Weed, That Is

Not go as in to the compost pile, but rather to another spot in an nearby flower bed.

Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ (right) in the front raised bed in early August.

Some two seasons ago I had to fill a hole in the raised bed along the front walk created by my removal of some diseased purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea). I filled it with two Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) ‘Gateway’, basically because I had been lusting after this plant. I already had Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). I like Sweet Joe Pye, but its flowers are a dusty pale pink and I wanted the richer flower color and deep purple stems of ‘Gateway’.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed in the front island bed.

Thing is, it wasn’t really a very good spot for ‘Gateway‘. Eupatorium maculatum loves moisture, but I planted ‘Gateway’ in a raised bed with soil more well-drained that moist. But I didn’t care, I just wanted this plant. Plus, I figured moisture-loving plants sometimes adapt reasonably well to drier soils. So it was something of an experiment.

The ‘Gateway’ I planted closer to the middle of the bed has done just fine. However, the one planted closer to the west edge of the bed has clearly had moments of stress in this year’s drought, despite my frequent waterings. Leaves drooped regularly and by late August one of this plant’s four stems had completely died back.

More ‘Gateway’.

So I’m thinking of moving both ‘Gateway’ to the island bed in the center of the front yard, which has fairly moist soil. This bed is mostly full of big plants that like moisture – Sweet Joe Pye Weed, New England Aster (Aster Novae-angliae), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

Swamp Milkweed

To make room for ‘Gateway’, I would take out some of the New England Aster, whose performance has been somewhat disappointing to me.

And I’ve already ordered the plants to fill the hole created by moving ‘Gateway’: Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and white Carolina Phlox ‘Miss Lingard’ (Phlox maculata).

Yellow Coneflower

Only problem is that Judy doesn’t want me to move ‘Gateway’. In the continuum of gardening mentalities from compulsive revisionist to defender of the status quo, I lean more toward revisionism and Judy is the hidebound conservative. She likes the ‘Gateway’ where they are.

There is a compromise position: just move one of the ‘Gateway’ plants. However, that would sacrifice the massing effect you get with two (yes, two are a mass, this is a big plant).

Another thing. If I don’t move ‘Gateway’, I set off a game of musical plants as I try to figure out where to put the Phlox and Yellow Coneflower currently en route. I can usually shoehorn things in if I need to, I suppose.

As usual, I am racked with indecision. So, what do you think? Move one or both ‘Gateway’ plants or leave them where they are?

Weekend Notes: Shrubz 2 Treez, Rose Resurgence, Grasshoppers

  • Shrubz 2 Treez. I may have mentioned this before, but Judy really dislikes shrubs. She’s fine with small trees, but despises shrubiness. Me, I like shrubs. But I was very taken with a photo I found from the website of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in which Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) had been pruned into small trees. This allows for more vigorous growth by the perennials at the base of the shrubs. The birds had just stripped my Spicebush of berries – within days of their ripening. So I took my trusty Fiskars bypass pruner and went to work. Then I read from Donna at GWGT how you weren’t supposed to do heavy pruning until late fall or winter – earlier pruning encourages tender growth that will be killed by frost. Now I’ll just have to wait and see if my eager improvements will cause any damage. This is my problem as a gardener: I lack patience, when I am seized by an idea I have to act RIGHT NOW.

By the way, Judy’s having camera problems so today’s pictures were taken with her cell phone. Not up to her ordinary standards…

Spicebush after first attempt at pruning.
  • Rose Resurgence. With the cooler weather, my roses have started blooming more enthusiastically, especially the small white single flowers of ‘Cassie’ and the pink buds and  cream-colored flowers of ‘Sally Holmes’. ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ has bloomed more modestly, on the other hand I’m growing it on an arbor and it has almost reached the top. I’m a little worried about ‘Westerland’, which is not blooming and seems less than robust.
‘Darlow’s Enigma’ on arbor.
‘Sally Holmes’
  • Grasshoppers. There are grasshoppers hopping about my flower beds. Not many, just one or two at a time that I can see. For some of you that might sound commonplace, but in my inner ring suburban town they are an unusual presence in the garden. My first reaction was one of quiet pride: another sign that I have created a wildlife friendly habitat garden. Then I read that grasshoppers are in fact the same as locusts: we just call them locusts when there are a lot of them. They are hungry herbivores with broad tastes. However, I will not panic. There are plenty of birds in our garden, and perhaps other predators. I’ll assume that the other critters will prevent things from getting seriously out of whack.
Grasshopper playing hide and seek in the Anise Hyssop.

Many Hands Pick Good Plants

Speaking for myself, I’ve always found that having to choose plants for a garden project causes acute agony. The moment I pick one plant, a sneaking suspicion that another option would be far better begins to grow in my mind. I obsessively review the plant descriptions, searching for hidden meanings. Then I decide to switch to another plant, and the process starts all over again.

Geranium renardii ‘Tschelda’. Photo: Hardygeranium.com

That’s why I wrote a post about a week ago regarding an oval 4’x6′ raised bed on our parkway that I wanted to make over. The goal was something shorter and tidier-looking. Well, I got quite a bit of useful advice,  and thanks to all the input I am now able to make my final choices. Some people suggested specific plants, and others helped me clarify what I wanted from this bed. So here’s the final plan:

  • Geranium renardii ‘Tschelda’, to spill over  the bed’s edge facing the sidewalk. This one I came up with myself, and I decided to stick with it because it is supposed to be shorter (10″), and the foliage  should be able to withstand a lot of hot sun through the summer. Jean of Jean’s garden helped me realize it was really Geraniums I wanted here.
  • Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, to stand at the west end of the bed as a specimen, providing late season interest. This was a suggestion of Scott at Rhone Street Gardens.
  • Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny’, along the east end of the bed. I was worried that ‘Hameln’ might grow taller than I want, and this cultivar is supposed to grow only to 12″. Gardensunshine and Plantpostings‘ comments were helpful with this decision.
Calamintha nepetoides. Photo: mgohio
  • Calamintha nepetoides in the middle of the bed behind the Geranium ‘Tschelda’. This is a long-blooming mound of tiny white flowers and a favorite of pollinators. Calamintha was suggested by Rachelle from Talking to Plants.
  • Salvia nemorosa ‘Carradonna’ towards the back of the bed. ‘Carradonna’, also a suggestion of Rachelle, has purple spikes that should provide a nice contrast to the Calamintha.
  • Sedum spectabile ‘Matrona’ will join ‘Carradonna’ in the back. ‘Matrona’, and suggestion of Scott’s, will provide fall color and a contrast with the orange-yellow of the Rudbeckia fulgidas between the raised bed and the curb. I worried this color combination might be too garish, but I think ‘Matrona’ has such a soft pink I think it will work.
  • Sidalcea ‘Party Girl’  – just a couple – will stand next to the Panicum at the west end of the bed. A 3′ mini hollyhock that will provide summer color.
Sedum ‘Matrona’. Photo: Bluestone Perennials

So there it is. Thanks also to Promenade Claire, AbbySunil, and Patrick.

Spicebush Berries

I planted Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) four years ago and this is really the first year I’ve gotten  berries in any serious quantity. Spicebush berries are a highly valuable fall food for songbirds, particularly those in the thrush family. The berries are also ornamental, and have a citrus fragrance when crushed – as do Spicebush leaves. And the leaves are the larval food of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly – not that I’ve seen any yet. (If any spicebush swallowtail butterflies are reading this, they can take that as a hint.)

Spicebush berries in our backyard.

Since Spicebush are dioecious, you’ll need male and female plants if you want berries. There’s no way to tell the sex of a Spicebush (this suggests a botanical joke in search of a punchline), so you just have to play the odds and plant several. I have five, which seems to have done the trick, although I wasn’t completely sure until this year.

Spicebush are happiest in part shade and moist soil. I have mine in the backyard in a spot that is usually moist, but they’ve suffered in drought and on very hot days.  I’ve given them a fair amount of supplemental water this summer.

In spring Spicebush have small fuzzy yellow flowers that make it look like a very understated forsythia. I thought I had a picture of them blooming in my garden but I couldn’t find it, so here’s one from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center:

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Photo: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Looking at this picture makes me realize I need to pay more attention to pruning and shaping my Spicebush. Notice the graceful habit, almost like a small multi-stem tree? Mine aren’t anything like that, they’re more of a shrubby mess.  In any case, this is one very nice shrub, worth considering for any shady garden in the eastern, midwestern, and most of the southern US.

Busy Bees

The bees surely do love Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). They are practically swarming around the spiky blue flowers. Judy took this video with her cell phone the other day. Please forgive the quality, this is a first effort.

Here Comes the Sunflower

The perennial sunflowers (genus Helianthus), that is. Most sunflowers grown in gardens are annuals, and they are beauties in a sunny spot. Perennial sunflowers are wildflowers of the prairies, or cultivars much closer to the wildflower species than their annual cousins.

Downy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis) – Cup Plant to right.

The rap on perennial sunflowers is that they are far too aggressive for a garden setting. That hasn’t been my experience, but of course behavior varies widely depending on species and conditions. When I lived in Wisconsin I saw some truly out-of-control colonies of Helianthus tuberosus (the source of Jerusalem artichokes, by the way) in a couple of backyards.

I’ve had some very mixed experiences with three perennial sunflower species: Downy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus), and Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus). H. mollis and H. occidentalus need sun and well-drained soil, H. strumosus will take some shade and tolerates more clay.

Bring on the yellow daisies of summer! From the left: Blackeyed Susan, Cup Plant, Downy Sunflower. Anise Hyssop is far left.

I planted Downy Sunflower three years ago in the raised bed that stretches along the driveway and walk to the front door. That first year it did not do well. There was lots of rain that year, and my H. mollis was shaded by plants that grew tall early in the season. The result was that it grew stems in an odd corkscrew pattern and flowered sparsely. I concluded early that this was a failed experiment and yanked the plants out of the bed (or so I thought).

Next year, no sign that I noticed of Downy Sunflower.

Then this year, I witnessed Downy Sunflower II: The Return of the King. There were two plants that popped up in Spring and then just kept growing straight and strong, one to about 6′ and the other to at least 10′. Yes, I did have to stake them to keep them upright. They are blooming now: 3″ yellow daisies with centers that start dark and gradually turn golden.

Perennial sunflowers are one of those plants that will regrow if even a small piece of root is left in the soil. I think H. mollis has benefited from a drier year and a different mix of plants around it. I like it for the multiple flowers, and for the fuzzy grey-green leaves that look almost like Lambs Ears. Plus, as I’ve written before, I like tall plants, and this one seems to whisper: “Remember the tall-grass prairie.”

I’ll have to watch Downy Sunflower’s future behavior before settling its longer term role in my garden.

I have a very different story with Western Sunflower (H. occidentalus).  Western Sunflower is supposed to be the most garden-friendly wild sunflower. It grows only to 3′ or so and is much less aggressive. The foliage is mostly basal, and it flowers at the end of long, almost leafless stems.

My experience was that H. occidentalus is docile to the point of being unable to compete with other perennials. I planted several Western Sunflower, and within about three years they had all disappeared.

Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus). Photo: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Finally, I grow Woodland Sunflower in my lightly shaded backyard. It is a tough and reliable plant, providing color in late summer. I never watered it in this year’s horrendous drought. It’s grown shorter and bloomed less profusely, but otherwise doesn’t seem all that bothered.

Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)

I’m sure many would say that there’s no point in bothering with perennial sunflowers, the annuals are more colorful and generally easy to grow. They have a point. But I am one of those people who like some wildness in the garden (within limits – not right next to the sidewalk), who grow native wildflowers because there is very little wild space left for them to thrive in, and because they evoke the long-vanished prairie.

Question of the Week: What Should I Plant in This Raised Bed?

On my parkway there are two raised beds on either side of a young hackberry tree. On the west side of the tree, the raised bed is full of species tulips in early to mid-spring. Later in the summer, it is mostly anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and brown eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Some have suggested this is because I can’t stand to throw volunteers on the compost pile, or because I am cheap. No comment.

Parkway from street with raised bed behind Rudbeckias.

These are fine plants, but I have come to feel that they are a little tall (4′ even after they are cut back in spring) and wild for a parkway garden. Given that I have a lot of truly enormous plants toward the back of my front yard, I think it would be better to have lower growing plants in the parkway. This is for my own aesthetic sense as well as to help along the comfort level of the neighbors.

The raised bed is built from pavers and is about 6′ long and 4′ across at its widest point. It gets lots of sun and the soil is loamy but a little on the dry side. To the North of the bed, there is Rudbeckia fulgida, then the curb and street. To the South, there is wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana – outside the raised beds the parkway is mostly covered with this is a groundcover), then the sidewalk.

I have put together a rough plan – and I’d like to know what you think. I’ve done a graphic but for some reason I can’t upload it into the post.  So instead I’ll give a brief description of the bed as I envision it.

Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’. I have a bunch of this in the front yard opposite the parkway. ‘Tschelda’ is like this but shorter and the leaves have a “felty” texture.

Edging the sidewalk side of the bed, spilling over the pavers: Either Geranium renadii ‘Tschelda’ or Dianthus ‘Rose Zing’. ‘Tschelda’ is a blue geranium like ‘Johnson’s Blue’, but shorter. I like this possibility because it would echo some Johnson’s Blue on the other side of the sidewalk. On the other hand, I love red, and I don’t have any Dianthus anywhere.

Salvia ‘May Night’ in front yard along sidewalk.

Center/back of the bed: Salvia ‘May Night’ and Downy Phlox (Phlox pilosa). These should provide nice contrasts of color and form. Downy phlox is a prairie wildflower growing to 2′. It’s bright pink flowers and more mounded form should provide a nice contrast to the blue spires of the Salvia. These should provide color in the late spring/early summer. Also, the Salvia will provide repetition for the Salvias along the other side of the sidewalk.

Downy Phlox. Photo: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

East end of the bed (facing hackberry). Here I’d like to put some Dwarf Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’) to provide interest through summer and fall. This is a perennial I’ve been wanting to try.

Fountain Grass. Photo: University of Illinois Extension.

West end of the bed. At the very end, I’m thinking some Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolopsis). Just inside the Dropseed, I’d plant some false mallow (Sidalcea ‘Party Girl’). The Sidalcea is basically a miniature hollyhock (growing to about 3′) with pink to rose flowers that would provide a focal point in summer. OK, I know I said I didn’t want plants that are too tall, but at least a couple of plants can be moderately tall.

Prairie Mallow. Photo: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

So, what do you think? Do these sound like good choices? Once concern I have is that the color is mostly in spring and early summer. On the other hand, there’s all the Rudbeckia fulgida between the raised bed and the curb, which will provide late season color. Then there’s the Sidalcea and the grasses which provide interest later in the season.

Make free with the advice, criticism, and opinions. Talking over garden plans with equally obsessed gardeners can be as much fun as gardening itself.

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