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’

Baltimore Oriole Parenting: Pass the Jelly

A male Baltimore Oriole feeds a juvenile at our feeder this afternoon.

Flowing with Milkweed and Honey

The milkweeds in my garden are blooming their hearts out right now. Some of these are fragrant, and they give the air around them a honey/vanilla scent. I love these plants for the colors, the scent, the unusual shape of the flowers, and the (mostly) easy cultivation.

Swamp milkweed, species (pink) and ‘Ice Ballet’ (white).

Right now I have three kinds of milkweed in bloom:

  • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). This is a fairly tall (about 4′ in my garden) perennial with pink/red flowers. Likes moisture, but will do ok in medium soil. Forms clumps and will self-sow moderately. Fragrant.

  • Swamp Milkweed ‘Ice Ballet’ (A. incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’). Like the species, but shorter (about 3′) and with white flowers. Makes a nice combination with the species.
  • Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). About 2′ tall with bright orange flowers. Likes well-drained soil. I’ve had some trouble getting this plant established, but once it settles in it forms big clumps and the seedlings start popping up here and there.

Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) grows in my backyard, but it finished blooming  in late June. The flowers are purple with no fragrance. Unlike most milkweeds, Purple Milkweed will tolerate part shade and is very demure in its behavior.

Purple Milkweed

I’d like to grow the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which has beautiful pink flowers and a wonderfully strong fragrance. In fact, I’ve noticed it growing in the Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago. However, I’m just scared off by its generally rampant behavior. Too bad.

Milkweeds are the only food of Monarch caterpillars, which reminds me. Are others noticing a decline in the number of Monarch butterflies and butterflies generally this summer? It’s definitely the case in my garden, and I wonder if it might be an effect of the drought.

Weekend Notes: Heat, Containers, and a Stone Path Update


Thanks for the rain, but could you turn up the AC? Friday we finally got a decent amount of rain, and I’m giving the soaker hoses a rest. However, it’s brutally hot and humid, and temperatures are supposed to stay in the 90s all week. I try to take a lot of breaks and drink a lot of water while gardening, and I’ll try to do more earlier in the morning and later in the day.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) with Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine in background.

 Containers Full of Summer Annuals. So I’ve chosen the summer annuals, and now it’s just a question of watering and watching how they do. The containers in the front are mostly hot colors: red, orange, and yellow; with some blue and white for counterpoint. In the shadier back, the colors are cooler: mostly shades of white and blue. Most of the pansies ended up on the compost pile, but I’ve kept some of them and will cut them back later in the summer.

Containers newly planted with Summer annuals.
  • Vertical plants: Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias currasavica), Star Flower (Penta lanceolata), Zonal Geranium (Pelargonium hortorum), Zinnias (Zinnia ‘Zahara’), Canna Lilies. Actually, we’ll see how vertical the pentas and geranium end up. They’re really more mounding than vertical, but they should be taller than all their neighbors.
  • Filler plants: Red and Orange Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus), Lantana, Petunias, Million Bells (Calibrachoa) , Ageratum (Ageratum hustonianum).
  • Trailing plants: Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) , Blue Lobelia (Lobelia erinus), Bacopa (Sutera cordata), Ivy Geranium (Pelargonium peltatum). The Sweet Alyssum was planted in mid-Spring. Though it tends to stop blooming in very hot weather, I’m going to keep it through the Summer and cut it back in August. I love the scent, and when you crowd it against the edge of the container it spills nicely over the side. It will rebloom in the Fall.

Stone Path Update. Since resetting the stone path, I’ve been trying to establish plants to take over the spaces between the stepping stones. This has been made more challenging by the intense heat, which is magnified by the stones. Here’s a report card for the plants I’ve tried.

Stone path with thyme.
  • Nutmeg Thyme (Thymus praecox). Grade: D-.  I found an eight pack of this thyme at Home Depot for about $10. Such a deal! Planted in the sunny part of the path, only two remain alive. The others were quickly fried by the heat.
  • Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Grade: A. I replaced most of the dead Nutmeg Thyme with Garden Thyme. More expensive in individual pots, but they shrugged off the heat. While this thyme grows taller than ideal for planting between flagstones, I find I can cut it with my push mower.
Stepping stones with Schotch Moss and shadows.
  • Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’). Grade: A. This plant has settled in without any fatalities. It already seems to be spreading and even blooming a little. 
  • Irish Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Irish Moss’). Grade: A-. This has been slightly less successful than the Scotch Moss, one of the plants looks almost dead. Also seems more mounded, less spreading, and not quite as low-growing as the Scotch Moss.

    Daylily ‘Eye-yi-yi’ with butterflyweed.

Question of the Week: Do the Natives Make You Restless?

So where do you come down on the issue of native versus exotic plants?

Seems to me there are three camps one can belong to. The first argues for gardening exclusively with natives. The second says that it makes sense to include natives in the garden, but it would be a mistake to exclude all the wonderful exotic plants that are available. And the third argues that it is irrelevant, if not downright pernicious, to consider the geographic origin of plants.

I belong to the second camp. 

My front walkway bed combines natives and exotics.

In my amateur view, there are two convincing reasons to make a point of including natives. First, they give gardens a distinctive regional feel. Second, I buy into Douglas Tallamy’s argument that natives do the best job of supporting an insect population that the birds and other critters depend upon.

Native wild indigo, a great plant.

There are also some unconvincing arguments. Some say natives are uniquely adapted to local conditions and so require a minimum of watering, etc. Here in the Midwest, it’s true that there are many natives that are carefree plants, and I love just about all of them. But it’s also true that there are exotic plants that are carefree, and that some natives need considerable coddling to make it in the home landscape.

Peony ‘America’, an exotic and also a great plant.

I also think for most people gardening is an expression of creativity, and it is just too confining to use natives exclusively. I don’t want to go without tulips. daylilies, ‘Casa Blanca’ oriental lilies, peonies, etc.

I was reminded of this argument the other day at my Modern Garden History class. We learned about Jens Jensen, a pioneer of the movement for naturalistic gardens with a strong preference for native plants. Jensen, a Dane by birth who emigrated to the US after being forced in the Kaiser’s army, had a strong dislike of regimentation (he hated straight lines). For him, naturalistic gardens were expressions of democracy, connecting people to the landscape and to each other.

Ironically, the native plant idea was also seized upon by Willy Lange and other German fascists who strangely based an approach to plants in their philosophy of racial superiority. Michael Pollan and others have used this history to attack native plant advocates, an attack I find to be offensive and absurd. (What conclusions should we draw from the fact that the Nazis promoted organic gardening and professed to love nature, plus Hitler was a vegetarian?) Any idea in the realm of politics, religion, or anything else can be twisted until it becomes grotesque and hateful.

My attitude towards those who advocate landscapes made up exclusively of natives is a lot like my attitude toward vegetarians. I think it is a good thing to plant more natives, just as I think most of us could stand to eat more vegetables. However, I am not willing to give up my lamb chops. I view those who voluntarily give up lamb chops with respect, as long as they keep their promotional efforts educational and not coercive.

My lamb chops.

So, which camp do you belong to? Do you believe in natives only, an eclectic approach, or would you insist we remain blind to issues of botanical origin? And are there exotic plants you just can’t live without?

Clematis and Cup Plant: A Fabulous Combination. Or Not.

So I had what I thought was a brilliant, original idea. Grow Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in front of  ‘Jackman’ Clematis (Clematis jackmanii).

I love  both plants. Jackman Clematis are widely esteemed for being smothered with rich purple flowers. Cup Plant, on the other hand, is not too common as a garden plant. Mainly it is grown by wildflower enthusiasts and prairie restorationists.

Almost everything about Cup Plant is big: the plant itself (up to 10′), the leaves, the enormous clumps it will form if not kept in check. The sunflower-like yellow flowers are on the small side, but they are produced in quantity. For those of you who are not part of the Big is Beautiful School of Gardening (I am a charter member), Cup Plant has other virtues. The perfoliate leaves clasp the stem to form a cup that holds rainwater, which attracts birds and insects. In addition, the seeds are addictive to goldfinches.

Cup Plant not blooming as ordered and blocking view of Clematis.

My Clematis grow on the west-facing wall near the garage, and they do very well if I say so myself. My idea was that they would grow through the Cup Plants. Then they would bloom at the same time, the yellow Cup Plant and purple Clematis contrasting nicely.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Never happened. Not gonna happen. Basically, they never bloom together. While they could in theory, they seem to react differently to variations in the weather so that any overlap in bloom time is minimal at best. In addition, the Clematis don’t seem to like climbing on the Cup Plant.  All the Cup Plant does in practice is hide the blooming Clematis. In fact I get complaints from neighbors who enjoy looking at the Clematis and don’t like having their view obstructed.

I’ve thought  of getting rid of the Cup Plant at this location – I have them growing in two other spots in the garden. Judy doesn’t want me to, though she also complains of the Clematis not being shown to their full glory. I’ve thinned the Cup Plant stalks, but I’m not that solves the problem.

Plants just refuse to follow directions if they don’t feel like it.

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