A bright red Cardinal against a snowy backdrop is one of my favorite sights of winter. We had a few inches of snow (preceded by rain) last week, so Judy had an opportunity to take some pictures. The light wasn’t great, so they’re a little dark.
Cardinals have been very plentiful in the garden this winter. They love sunflower and safflower seeds. This winter I discovered that they also like peanuts in the shell. Several times I’ve seen them pick up a peanut by its stringy fibers, then fly off with the prize. Who knew? I also find that Cardinals prefer platform feeders. Most tube feeders have perches that are too small for these large finches.
The snowfall ended 355 days without snow of one inch or more, so technically our snow drought is over. What’s more, we’ve been catching up on our moisture deficit – precipitation since December 1st has been almost 3″ above normal. However, this part of the state is still considered to be in a moderate drought.
There’s not much snow on the ground right now, it’s been mostly melted by rain or by warm temperatures.
In any case, I am grateful to the Cardinals for lifting my spirits and distracting us from cold, drought, and dreary things of all kinds.
Goldfinches are one of my favorite birds. They are bright and cheery, even in their more somber winter plumage. They have a lilting song that is easy to recognize. And they are entertaining to watch while eating, as they display an acrobatic sense of balance.
Goldfinches love seeds. So if you want them in your garden, the thing to do is plant perennials offering seeds that goldfinches cannot resist.
Here are three plants that goldfinches love, and that I love for their ornamental qualities. All are native to central North America.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This is a fantastic all around plant. It blooms for a long period of time, with fuzzy spikes of tiny blue flowers. The edible heart-shaped foliage has a wonderful anise scent, and you can brew it into tea (it was once commonly grown as an herb). Anise Hyssop is also tough and adaptable, thriving in sun or part shade, in moist or dry soil.
Two warnings about Anise Hyssop, though. First, it self-sows with abandon. The seedlings are easy to weed out, however. Second, it may need staking and/or cutting back to keep it from getting too tall (up to 4′) and flopping over. A. foeniculum is a North American native, but there are also Asian species and some popular hybrids.
Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Much like Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), but taller and with clouds of smaller golden yellow flowers. This is another plant that will grow under diverse conditions. I’ve found volunteers growing robustly in some unlikely spots, like at the base of my Siberian Elm. Goldfinches will eat the tiny black seeds on the plant, and as the seeds scatter on the ground they will attract buntings, sparrows, and other birds.
But be warned: Brown Eyed Susan self-sows promiscuously. And like Anise Hyssop, it can grow quite tall, up to 5′, but does respond well to cutting back.
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). OK, this plant is not for everyone, but I love it. First thing to keep in mind is that it is big. I mean BIG, like 8-10′. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. What is it they say about big plants: architectural, makes a great specimen, etc. Yeah, all of that.
I actually like the size. But there are so many great things about Cup Plant. The sunflower-like yellow flowers start in July and last all summer. And the leaves are big and dramatic, almost tropical.
What’s more, goldfinches LOVE the seeds. Plus, the leaves are perfoliate. That means pierced by the stem, so they form little cups that fill with rain water. Birds and butterflies drink from the cups.
A couple of warnings. First, not surprisingly, you will probably have to stake this guy. Last year I started using 10′ lengths of rebar, stuck a couple of feet into the ground. Second, be vigilant about pulling volunteers, or you will end up living in a Magical Forest of Cup Plant. Sounds kind of nice, actually, but not necessarily what you want for your garden.
I should mention that Goldfinches also love the seeds of Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpureum) and other Echinaceas. However, these have become so susceptible to aster yellows disease in my garden that I sadly no longer count them as a personal favorite.
Are you a fan of Goldfinches? What plants do they love in your garden?
About seven years ago I dug up an L shaped length of turf, with the longer section along the front sidewalk and the shorter one along the property line with the neighbors. The result was a border in almost full sun, 4-5′ wide and about 25′ long. The soil was rich and moist, even before I started adding organic matter.
I wanted something that passing neighbors would enjoy while walking past, that would have a cottage garden feel but not too wild. Over time I’ve made adjustments, adding and removing plants to see what worked best. Here’s a report cards on some of the plants that are or have been in this bed.
Plant: Salvia (Salvia xsylvestris ‘May Night’ and Salvia nemerosa ‘Blue Hill’). Grade: A-
After being inspired by the River of Salvia at the Lurie Garden, I pulled out the Geranium maculatum that I had originally planted and replaced it with Salvia. While not comparable to Lurie, they have done very well and have provoked admiring comments. Long blooming, good for pollinators. My only criticism is a tendency to sprawl. Next year I’ll try cutting them back to prevent this.
This is a lovely plant with star-shaped sky blue flowers in spring. Nice fine textured foliage. Only thing is, don’t underestimate how big it gets! I planted this one too close to the sidewalk, so I’m always struggling with staking and cutting back by the middle of the summer. Also, the fall color for me is not nearly as dramatic as advertised.
Plant: Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus). Grade: D
The seed heads, evocative of amber waves of grain, are nice. However, the plant is just too floppy, at least in rich soil. This guy is also an aggressive self-sower. I took it out after a few years and replaced it with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’. I am happy with ‘Northwind’, which is very upright. However, since it is planted to the south of the Salvia, which is planted along the sidewalk, I am a little worried that it will eventually throw too much shade. (Note to Jean: sorry I advised you to plant this, I’d just get rid of it now.)
This is planted between the clumps of ‘Northwind a’long the back of the border. Clusters of tubular white flowers on upright stems (though I usually have to do some staking). It’s fun to watch bees climb in and out of the flowers. ‘Husker Red’ has red/purple foliage and more pinkish flowers.
Plant: Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Grade: B+
Flat topped umbels of golden yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. A very easy plant that takes shade. May need to be cut back. Supposed to be a host plant for swallowtail butterflies but I have not seen any caterpillars to date.
Striking raspberry red flowers in summer. Resistant to powdery mildew, but still got a mild case in this bed by late summer. For the back of the border. Great for hummingbirds and polinators.
Plant: Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Grade: B
Wild Bergamot is more subdued than its cousin Beebalm, with smaller lavendar flowers. I find it quietly charming, however. It does tend to grow tall in my garden, up to 5′, and may need cutting back.
Plant: False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). Grade: D
This plant could possibly earn an A in another location. Sunflower-like yellow flowers starting in June and lasting through the season. Only problem was that it was just too tall and bulky for a bed along the sidewalk – even with aggressive cutting back. Some neighbors feared that wild animals were hiding in its bushy inner depths. Heliopsis also tended to smother smaller neighbors. I ended up pulling them out and replacing them with the much more demure Penstemon.
Other plants in this bed: Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia), Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).
As you plan for the coming year, have you been giving grades to the plants in your garden?
I’ve probably already mentioned that I spend a lot of time driving for my job. Chicago to Springfield and back (404 miles). Chicago to Rock Island and back (354 miles). Plus various Chicago suburbs and other cities in the Land of Lincoln.
I know what you’re thinking. Don’t I get jaded by all the glamour? That is a concern, but a bigger problem is finding something to listen to. There are long stretches where the only options are Christian radio, country music, and golden oldies. I have nothing against any of these, but I also don’t want to listen to any of them for any great length of time.
This is how I came to discover the audio books section at my local library. I really like listening to books, especially fiction, when I’m driving. When I started listening to audio books in the car, I began with the classics – meaning books I was supposed to read in high school or college but didn’t. Erasing the accumulated guilt of all those neglected homework assignments felt great.
I went on to a handful of authors that I knew I liked. When I finished those, I was stumped on how to proceed. Finally, instead of picking books at random, I decided to go with an alphabetical approach. I skipped authors that I knew I didn’t like, also some that seemed to fit into a genre that didn’t interest me.
The result is that I’ve discovered a lot of authors that I enjoy, that I had never heard of before. My only complaint is that as the library obtains new books, or as I see old books returned to the shelves, I haven’t been able to get past the letter B.
In any case, today I am going to share part of this list with you. These are all books that I liked. If you’re looking for something new to read in the area of fiction, this might be helpful.
Things Fall Apart. The life of a tribal leader is gradually destroyed as Christianity and colonial governance is established in Nigeria.
The White Tiger. A very dark comedy about one man’s path from poverty to wealth in modern India.
Last Man in Tower. A retired teacher stands in the way of the construction of a luxury high-rise in Mumbai.
In the Kitchen. The human face of globalization revealed through the kitchen of an upscale London restaurant.
Brick Lane. Bengali immigrants struggle to adjust to life in England.
Alentejo Blue. English expatriates generally not finding happiness in a scenic region of Portugal.
In the Time of the Butterflies. Sisters are drawn into the movement to overthrow the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic.
Saving the World. An idealistic international aid worker gets involved in a dubious project in the Dominican Republic.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum. A very funny and very painful story of emotional deprivation being passed from one generation to the next in an “ordinary” English family.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Everything this guy writes is a mix of brilliant, hilarious, and horrifying. An adolescent Native American boy tries to create a future for himself off the reservation.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A collection of short stories portraying the lives of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, on and off the reservation. See first sentence in description above.
So that’s the As. I’ll have to talk about the Bs in Part II at some point in the future. My three favorites were The White Tiger (Adiga), Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Atkinson), and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Alexie). If you haven’t read some or any of these, you might want to give then a look.
For the first time since last Tuesday, there were no birders in the alley this morning, peering into the back yard. Perhaps our fifteen minutes (well, six days) of fame are over.
The whole experience with the Varied Thrush has inspired me to write about the plants I have in my back yard that are beautiful but that also help create an environment that is attractive to birds. These plants are just a small sample of the many that can serve this purpose, of course. All are native to the American midwest, or are hybrids or varieties of native plants. Here are my top five:
1. Serviceberry (Amelanchier xgrandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’). I love this plant. It has white flowers in early spring, edible berries in late spring, and terrific fall color. Birds love the berries, which look and taste sort of like small blueberries. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is a hybrid cultivar of two Amelanchier species. We have some right next to our east porch window and enjoy watching the robins feeding on the berries.
2. Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). My favorite Viburnum. Beautiful lacecap flowers in spring, translucent red berries ripen in late summer, and the maple-like foliage turns a mix of burgundy and other colors. I have both the straight species and the variety ‘Redwing’, which is recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden. The literature usually says that the berries are not eaten until after a freeze has made them more palatable, but mine get eaten in fall. This is a favorite of the Cedar Waxwing.
3. Wild Currant (Ribes americanum). This is a terrific and underused shrub. Very compact (usually 3-4′ tall), it is also tough and thrives in shade. It is not a showy plant, but does have dangling clusters of chartreuse flowers in early spring, as well as handsome foliage. The black berries ripen over a long period in summer. They are edible, but very sour. I enjoy watching the Robins, Northern Cardinals, and other birds hopping from branch to branch when the fruit is ripe.
4. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). The leaves of this shrub have a strong citrus fragrance when crushed. This plant has fuzzy little yellow flowers in early spring, kind of like an understated Forsythia. The red berries ripen in fall, and are quickly eaten by migrating birds. Another plus for Spicebush is that it is a host plant for the Spicebush butterfly. Haven’t seen any caterpillars on my Spicebush yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
5. Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa L.). I suppose it is a bit weedy, but I like it anyway. The pyramid-shaped cream flower clusters and glowing red berries are gorgeous. Birds love the berries, but they are toxic to people.
6. Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera Sempervirens). The tubular red flowers are loved by hummingbirds, and the berries are eaten by birds. This native vine needs little pampering, and will take some shade. After a lovely flush of bloom in late spring, it will bloom intermittently all season.
Of course, what performs well in the Chicago region will not necessarily do the same elsewhere. If you’re interested in “birdscaping”, I can recommend three books you may like. The first is The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, by Stephen Kress. Be sure to get the second edition, which came out in 2006. Then there’s Bird by Bird Gardening, by Sally Roth. Finally for my follow Midwesterners, there’s Birdscaping inthe Midwest, by Mariette Nowak.
Yesterday the letter carrier brought tidings of great joy: two of my favorite gardening catalogs, Prairie Nursery and Forestfarm.
Their arrival, along with several others of their kind, means that it is time to put in my orders for spring. And so here’s my intended line-up – it’s easy to tell I am focusing on butterfly friendly plants, as well as the color blue.
Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). I became determined to buy this small flowering tree after reading about it in Traci DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Designed Mixed Garden. Unique, fragrant white flowers, blue fruits attractive to birds, good yellow fall color. Also does well in shade. I’m going to put one at the northeast corner of the house where the Bridalwreath is now, and one in the back.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’). These are dwarf butterfly bush that are supposed to grow to 3′. I’m going to plant them with the Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and Bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) at the north end of the driveway border. I’ve tried to grow these unsuccessfully in containers.
Bluebeard (Caryopteris xclandonensis ‘Longwood Blue’). This will be at the south end of the driveway border with the False Indigo (Baptisia australis) and the Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’). This is a taller variety, supposed to grow to 4′. In my zone the stems will die back every winter, so I’ll treat it as a perennial.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). These will join the Butterflyweed I already have growing on the west side of the driveway border. They will be placed behind the Nepeta, making a nice color and texture contrast with their orange umbels and slightly shiny foliage.
Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). The new Ratibida will join the few I already have growing next to the Anise Hyssop in the driveway border.
Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). A woodland perennial with unusual flowers, lacy foliage, and attractive blue berries. Putting these in my shade garden in the back.
Salvia (Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ and ‘Blue Hill’). These will go at the east end of the parkway, which I’m trying to fill with plants shorter than what I have now (I redid the west end last fall).
Calamint (Calamintha nepetoides). Similar to Nepeta but with white flowers, also destined for the parkway.
Sundrops (Oenothera tetragona ‘Summer Solstice’). Bright yellow saucers to provide a contrasting accent to the Salvia above.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’). This will go in the raised bed on the east side of the parkway.
So what do you think? I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, so I’m open to feedback (alternative cultivars, etc.).
Also, here are a few more of my favorite retail nurseries that sell online: Prairie Moon (midwest natives), Bluestone Perennials (wide variety of perennials, some shrubs), Shooting Star (natives of the midwest and Appalachian regions). Do you have any particular online nursery favorites?
Remember that post about the unusual bird I was trying to identify? Well, that bird has turned my back yard into the epicenter of an avian sensation.
Turns out it was a Varied Thrush. And a Varied Thrush (which I shall refer to henceforward as VT) in the Chicago area is a Very Big Deal. How do I know it is a big deal? Because every morning I come down to breakfast to see people standing in the alley, bundled up against the freezing cold and peering into my yard with binoculars and cameras (cameras equipped with massive zoom lenses).
You see, VTs are seen in the Chicago region only once or twice a year. (This I am told by Ann, a friend of mine who is a serious birdwatcher). Their normal range is in the Pacific Northwest, but they have been known to make rare and mysterious appearances, like Elvis, in other parts of the US and Canada. To learn more about the VT, check this out.
So this is a very rare opportunity for Chicago area birdwatchers, a chance for a “lifer” – meaning a first ever view of a particular species.
With my permission, Ann posted an announcement about the VT, along with a link to this blog, on a Yahoo Groups site for Chicago birders. Within two days, my little blog got over 800 views. That may not impress some of you, but for me it is a BIG number. So forget Search Engine Optimization – just find yourself a rare bird!
And then the emails started. I had told Anne I didn’t mind people coming to see the VT, they should just write first and let me know. Within hours I had heard from dozens of people, from as far away as St. Louis (about a six-hour drive). All were extremely polite, and most wrote as if requesting a rare and precious privilege. Although I remember one, perhaps a veteran, who asked with military flair: “Request permission to view Varied Thrush!”
Eventually, at my request, some helpful birders put out the word that emails were not necessary, people just needed to observe a few simple ground rules. Since the birders started arriving on Tuesday morning, I believe those rules have been observed scrupulously.
I should say here that while Judy and I enjoy watching birds, we are not serious birders. We like the birds to come to us, to be viewed from the comfort of our covered porch.
So I admire the zeal of the birders. And I will say that without exception they are very nice people, and extremely grateful. One of them brought me oatmeal raisin cookies. Many others have emailed me their thanks, along with detailed accounts of all the birds they saw in my yard and nearby, sometimes with photographs.
It has been a good experience, and should you ever find yourself with a rare bird hanging out in your yard, I would urge you to welcome the birders.
In fact, I feel sometimes that the VT’s celebrity status rubs off on me a bit, as with the business manager of a rock star. I try not to let that feeling get out of hand, or become distorted by jealousy (“You don’t care about me! You just want to look at my bird!”).
So what about you – are you a serious birder, or just a dilettante like Judy and I? What extremes, if any, would you go through to see a beautiful bird for the first time?
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that Judy and I took our first ever trip to Paris back in April. I’ve already posted about Monet’s garden at Giverny, as well as the Luxembourg Gardens. Now I’m finally tackling one last part of the trip: the gardens at the Palace of Versailles.
You may already know that Versailles was built by Louis XIV, whose reign is considered the pinnacle of pre-revolutionary France. #14 was not known for his humility. His minions dubbed him the Sun King, a nickname he probably encouraged. It was also he who famously said, “L’etat, c’est moi” (I am the nation).
The gardens at Versailles are worth seeing, but I cannot say I really thought they were beautiful. There were elements of the gardens I admired. However, I found the overall effect to be oppressive, due I think to the regimented landscape and an overdone opulence.
But let’s start with the positive, so here are four things I did like about Versailles.
Vistas. You’ve got to hand it to Andre Le Notre, who designed Versailles – he knew how to create a view. Of course, money was no object, and he did not hesitate to change the topography so that it sloped down through a central axis to a cross-shaped canal built especially for the palace.
Fountains. Most of the fountains were not yet in operation due to the early season, but even so some had statuary that were just plain exciting.
Niches. There were several pebble walks running parallel to the central axis, bordered by high hedges on both sides. Occasionally there were seating locations tucked in among these hedges. They would also open up for more fountains and statuary.
Bulbs. Well, it was April, and many of the beds were full of tulips and daffodils. These are always beautiful no matter where they are.
So, what didn’t I like? First off, everything was just too regular and geometrical. Even formal gardens need at least a touch of wildness, or all the vitality gets sucked out of them. And the clipped shrubs standing in rank like soldiers were a bit much. The monumental scale of the gardens accentuates the feeling of regimentation.
Plus, some of the shrubs were clipped into shapes that were just silly (see above), especially the little pom-poms on top. Honestly, I was embarrassed for them. Also, all those white marble statues and giant urns were monotonous. There were just too many of them.
I would say the Versailles Gardens are definitely worth seeing, for the historical value if nothing else. But if you are in Paris, and have time for just one day trip to see a garden – go to Giverny, not Versailles.
So we have a very handsome but unfamiliar avian guest in our backyard. He (or she) was first seen snacking on sunflower seeds on the platform feeder about three days ago. Since then, this mystery bird has been a regular presence.
Probably a member of the Thrush Family, shaped like a Robin but bigger. Very different from anyone we’ve seen in the garden before.
After consulting Sibley’s, we can think of two possibilities. First, it might possibly be an Eastern Meadowlark. Meadowlarks are not unknown in the Chicago area. However, the illustrations I’ve seen don’t look as dark or as orange as our new guest.
Also, our back garden is the wrong sort of habitat. Meadowlarks are birds of open fields – hence the name. The only place nearby where they have been known to nest is a golf course with naturalistic prairie landscaping. Our yard is in filtered shade, with mature deciduous trees – cottonwoods, silver maples, and exotic elms.
The other possibility is Varied Thrush. Problem with the Varied Thrush is, their normal range is along the West Coast of the USA and Canada, extending into the western Rocky Mountains. They have been spotted further east, but very rarely.
ID help needed! Anybody out there want to venture an opinion?
It’s the end of January in the Midwest and I am suffering from gardening withdrawal. I’m feeling queasy, irritable, unable to concentrate. I must have plants! Herbaceous perennials, shrubs, small flowering trees, I don’t care! Just something!
One way to take the edge off of gardening withdrawal is to order plants online. This produces a feeling of satisfaction and calm, at least briefly. I’ve been holding back, though, because I have to go through a period of indecisive fretting trying to decide whether it is better to order online now, or wait to buy plants at the garden center later on.
Of course, some things you just naturally buy at the garden center. Annuals, for example. (Who are these people who spend $9.50 for asingle Impatiens plant (plus shipping) from White Flower Farm? I assume that they are either billionaire Wall Street types, or they are on their way to bankruptcy court.)
And some things are best ordered from online retailers. For example: seeds, bulbs, unusual varieties and specialty plants you are unlikely to find at the garden center.
But for other plants, the conscientious gardener has to weigh a number of pros and cons:
Online you have the greatest variety and are most likely to get exactly what you want.
But at the garden center you can inspect your specific plant before you buy it.
On the other hand, garden centers have the annoying habit of only selling plants once they are in bloom. This can either mean that your plant has been subject to unnatural practices (how else could there be blooming Echinaceas in May?), or that they won’t make the plant available until late in the season (as with Eupatoriums and Ratibidas).
At the garden center you get bigger plants, which satisfies your inner child’s need for instant gratification.
On the other hand, those larger plants generally mean higher prices. And you often get more plant for your money by ordering bare root plants online. Of course, opening up a box of bare root plants feels a little bit like receiving a shipment of dried squids – not the most satisfying experience for the lover of green things.
Also, this is not a big deal, but getting rid of the packing materials that come with your plant deliveries can be a pain. Worst case was when I received a box of plants that had been packed with those styrofoam peanuts – and opened it outside on a windy day. Wind-borne styrofoam peanuts are darn difficult to catch.
As the gardener in charge, it’s my job to make the tough decisions. But it’s a difficult burden.
So how about you? Are you primarily a consumer of horticultural e-commerce or a patron of your local garden centers? Or both? Or do you go the frugal route of seeds, propagation, and pass along plants?