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?

July Bloom Day

So mid-July is here, and it’s time for Garden Blogger Bloom Day. I like this custom. Anyhow, we have really entered the season of high summer. And when I say high, I mean really tall, as in really tall plants mostly with yellow flowers. At least, that’s how it is in the American Midwest. So, here’s the perennials in bloom in my garden right now.

Agastache foeniculum, Anise Hyssop. This is one of my favorites. Adaptable and almost trouble free. Good idea to cut it back around the end of May for a more compact plant.

Anise hyssop with Oriental lilly buds and daylilies.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed (species and ‘Ice Ballet’). Wrote a post on these earlier. These are now just past their peak.

Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed

Chasmanthium latifolium, Northern Sea Oats. A great grass that grows in sun or shade. In my yard grows a little too tall and tends to get floppy.

Northern Sea Oats

Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower

Eupatorium purpureum, Sweet Joe Pye Weed. When I see these with Cup Plant, I think of Godzilla versus Megalon. Some seriously tall plants. Keeping them staked is a challenge.

Godzilla and Megalon! I mean Cup Plant and Sweet Joe Pye Weed, standing tall behind Swamp Milkweed and New England Aster.
Sweet Joe Pye Weed in the sun.


Helianthus occidentalus, Western Sunflower

Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Prairie Sunset’, False Sunflower. This is another plant, like ironweed, that I thought had died.

Bee in flight among wild bergamot and false sunflower.

Hemerocallis ‘Eye-yi-yi’, ‘Egyptian Spice’, ‘ Chicago Star’, ‘ Chicago Apache’

Iris domestica, Blackberry Lily. The taxonomists have now decided this is an iris. Geez, you guys, give it a rest.

This Blackberry Lilly must have been planted by a bird.

Lonicera sempervivum, Trumpet Honeysuckle. This blooms heaviest in spring but reblooms in summer and fall.

Lilium auratum ‘Casa Blanca’, Oriental Lily. Another favorite. The fragrance is wonderful.



Flowers from the dainty to the mighty.


Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower. There isn ‘t a better hummingbird plant, and you won’t find a better red anywhere.

Cardinal Flower

Monarda fistulosa, Wild Bergamot

Monarda hybrids ‘Raspberry Wine’ and ‘Claire Grace’

Phlox paniculata ‘David’

Ratibida pinnata, Yellow Coneflower

Rosa Casey, Sally Holmes

Rudbeckia fulgida, Black Eyed Susan

Ruelia humilis, Wild Petunia

Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’

Cup Plant. My, you are tall.

Silphium perfoliatum, Cup Plant

The Return of the Prodigal Ironweed

Has something like this ever happened to you? I planted some ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) in the fall of 2010. The following spring there is no sign of it. I assume they didn’t make it through the winter. All through 2011 ironweed seemed as absent from my garden as coconut palms.

Fast forward to this summer. I saw some tall weeds nestled among the other plants. Are they really weeds? I decide to let them get a little bigger to see what they turn into. A couple weeks later, I’m still not sure. I reach to pull them out … but then … Could it be? Yes, my ironweed had returned!

What was it doing, where had it been hiding all this time? Perhaps last year it broke dormancy late and never put on much top growth because it was putting down roots. It certainly didn’t bloom – then the torch of red-purple flowers would have been unmistakable. It’s possible that I mistook it for some stems of blue culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Temptation’). The flowers of these two species are completely different, but otherwise the plants have a vague similarity.

Blue Culver’s Root

In any case, I am very pleased my ironweed has been found again. This plant blooms in a cluster on top of an upright 4-6′ stalk. Bloom time is  in late summer and fall.  I promise to post photos when they bloom.

The Evanston Garden Walk

The last time I went on the Evanston Garden Walk was in 2007, and I swore I wouldn’t go again. What stuck in my craw was that the event seemed to show off  the gardens of people who were not gardeners, but who hired a pricey but very nice local garden center to produce an instant garden. In general it was garden center staff, and not the actual gardeners, who were showing off the yards and answering questions.

In the most egregious case, a youngish couple were reclining on their lawn furniture, completely absorbed in their laptops and ignoring all the garden walk participants. I wanted to go up to the man and grab his laptop and deliver the following speech: “Sir! One does not earn the right to a beautiful garden simply by writing a check. To give you a chance to think about this, I’m going to take this laptop  with me. You can ask for it to be returned at the end of the growing season.”

However, I’m really not the kind of person who holds a grudge. After a five-year hiatus, I went on the Evanston Garden Walk again, and I’m glad I did. What follows is a summary of highlights and things where there is room for improvement.


First of all, for the most part this Garden Walk included gardeners’ gardens, and the homeowners were very friendly and eager to discuss their plants and designs. While many of the gardens had been installed with the help of professionals, the owners also had hands on involvement, as indicated by the following objets d’art.

Second, I was impressed by how certain long, narrow yards were made to seem much more spacious, including some very nice “garden rooms” for relaxing, dining, etc.

Third, lots of water features that made me very jealous, including the above.

Finally, in what may be a first, the Garden Walk included the Evanston Township High School organic garden. I thought this was positive both because the project deserves recognition, and also because it’s in my part of town (more on that below).

Areas for Improvement

Very roughly  speaking, my adopted home town has two distinct areas. The first is near Lake Michigan in the east and in the northwest, close to the Northwestern University (NU) campus. These areas range from very affluent to just unbelievably affluent. Then there’s the central west and southwest areas, where I live, which are much more diverse economically and racially. With the exception of the High School vegetable garden, all of the gardens included in the walk were in the east and northwest. Members of the Evanston Garden Club! There are some very nice home and other gardens in the west part of town! Check it out and see if you can’t be a little more inclusive next time.

The walk included the newly landscaped home of the NU President. Frankly, I thought it was pretty conventional and not very interesting.  I can understand why that would be: limited budget, conservative alumni to keep happy, and a need for a very large area of lawn for receptions, etc. But I think this home could have been left out without any great loss.

Newly landscaped NU President’s home.

These are the Days of the Daylilies

I like daylilies, but I am not a fanatic, like some people I know of. I don’t belong to the American Hemorocallis Society. I don’t use up my garden budget buying the latest cultivars. My enthusiasm for daylilies is more episodic. Every few years I think to myself: what this border really needs is some daylilies! Then I get engrossed in the Oakes Daylilies website, and the next thing I know a box full of bareroot plants has arrived from Tennessee.

‘Egyptian Spice’

At this time of year, you have to appreciate what daylilies have to offer . They are tough, reliable, and adaptable plants. Moreover, the thousands of varieties offer an amazing selection of colors and even shapes. Actually, the vast number of cultivars makes it a challenge to make a final selection. I solve this problem in part by going with varieties with ‘Chicago’ in the name. The ubiquity of certain daylilies, like ‘Stella D’Oro’, reduces daylily appeal to many.  But when I look at the varieties at bloom now in my garden, it reminds me that this can be an exciting plant.

Not sure about this one.
‘Chicago Apache’
‘Chicago Star’
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