Crocus!

Yesterday I was delighted to find my garden’s first crocus blooms of the season! Hurrah! There are quite a few crocus in my garden, but their bloom time varies over a couple of weeks depending on both variety and location – some spots warm up much sooner than others.

Crocus chrysanthus 'Cream Beauty'
Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ emerges from the dead leaves.

 

Crocus tommasinianus 'Baar's Purple'
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Barr’s Purple’

The first blooming crocuses of the year were almost all either Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ or Crocus tommasinianus ‘Barr’s Lilac’. ‘Cream Beauty’ in particular makes a powerful and optimistic statement emerging from the browns and grays that dominate this March.

And there are other signs of life. The Snowdrops (Galanthus) patch has come more fully into its own.

Snowdrops, Galanthus
Snowdrops blooming among the Hydrangea stems.

 

Snowdrops, Galanthus
Snowdrops and unknown fungus growing on old maple stump.

I’ve counted 40 tulips emerging from the containers where they were planted last fall, out of a total of 90 planted. I’m optimistic about the rest, as we have a mix of early, mid-season, and late varieties. For those of you following my container tulip saga, I’ve moved the containers back out of the garage. At this point I don’t care how cold it gets, I’m not going to lug them back in.

Container tulips
One of the containers planted with tulips. The emerging leaves are dark red.

Tulips, Daffodils, and Virginia Bluebell foliage is emerging from the slowly warming soil. I guess I really do believe that spring has arrived.

Virginia Bluebells
Purple Virginia Bluebell leaves make their appearance.

How about you – are your spring bulbs blooming yet?

Happy spring everyone, and happy Easter/Passover/(insert appropriate holiday here)!

 

All Right, Who’s Been Chewing On Sally Holmes?

Now that the snow has finally melted and left us for the season (please, please, please), I’ve had a chance to inspect the winter damage inflicted on the garden by the neighborhood rodents. My investigation reveals that, once again, rodent enemy #1 is none other than:

Rabbit
Petey “the Gnasher” Cottontail

Yes, the cloyingly cute bunny rabbit, known to his criminal friends as Petey “the Gnasher” Cottontail. How appropriate for Easter! And what has Peter done that I should indict him so? Well, I would show you except that the victims are a young Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) ‘Iroquois’ and a young witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), chewed down to within 3″ of the ground. Kind of hard to take a compelling photo of some 3″ sticks.

Petey also chewed on some dwarf grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa ‘Muskingam’), but the damage was not so extensive.

But how do I know that “the Gnasher” is guilty? Because his MO is unmistakable. I learned in my Plant Health class at the Chicago Botanic Garden that a rabbit’s bite is a sharp clean cut, like someone used a good pair of garden pruners.

In addition to rabbits, some violence against plants was committed by unknown assailants. Most disturbing is that someone has been gnawing on ‘Sally Holmes’, a favorite shrub rose. I put the evidence before you. (I also apologize for the quality of the photo, I took it with my phone – all the good pictures on this blog are taken by Judy). I’m guessing this was mice or voles, but I’m not sure.

Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’. Kind of hard to see the gnawing, you have to look closely

And so you can understand why this upsets me, here is a picture of ‘Sally Holmes’ during happier days.

Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
‘Sally Holmes’ is a great shrub rose with lovely cream flowers. 

Hopefully she will make a full recovery.

Less upsetting but more mysterious is the damage to this shrub Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica). The surface of the stem has been almost shredded – you can see long woody shreds hanging from the stem.

Lonicera tatarica
You can see there are long shreds hanging from the stem.

 

At first I thought this looked like damage from young deer rubbing their antlers – but thankfully we have no deer in this area. I’ve also read that crows use shreds of grape bark to make nests, could something like that be happening? In any case, the more damage done the better. This Lonicera tatarica is an inherited plant and an invasive I’d love to remove. This could provide me with just the excuse I need, heh heh.

Fortunately, I did remember to protect most of my young shrubs with chicken wire over the winter, so the damage could have been much worse.

Have you had a chance to evaluate the winter rodent damage in your garden yet? Would you say it is felonious or just a misdemeanor?

Wildflower Wednesday: Harebell

Wildflower Wednesday is a monthly appreciation of wildflowers hosted by Gail of Clay and Limestone on the fourth Wednesday of every month. (Admittedly, as I write this it is actually Tuesday night, but I don’t think I will have time for blogging tomorrow.) This month I want to recognize Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia L.), a bellflower native to North America and an excellent choice for the front of the border in a dry, sunny spot.

Harebell, Lanceleaf Coreopsis
Harebell with Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Campanula means little bell, and all members of the genus have bell-shaped flowers. According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, the common name is believed to come from an association of this plant with witches, who in certain circles are believed to turn themselves into hares. Look, if you can’t believe Ladybird Johnson, who can you believe? It is definitely not called harebell because hares like to eat it. As far as I have seen, this flower is pretty much left alone by rabbits. (Rabbits are the same as hares, aren’t they?)

Harebell has small but profuse dangling blue flowers from June through September. If blooming stops or the plant gets too untidy, it should be cut back. It may have a second flush of blooms later in fall. Bees like the flowers, and reportedly hummingbirds do as well, though I have never seen this.

Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia
Harebell Closeup

This is a plant that is content in dry, thin soils. It also does fine in more fertile soils with medium moisture. Harebell likes full sun, but tolerates some shade.

As noted earlier, this is a good candidate for the front of the border, growing about one foot tall with a bushy habit. Harebell forms a clump, but does not run and I have not noticed any tendency to self-sow. In the right conditions it is a very easy plant.

Consider Harebell as an alternative to the Carpathian bellflower (Campanula carpatica), an excellent plant from Europe but far more common in American gardens.

Weekend Garden Notes: Is It Spring Yet?

Yes, technically, it is. But it is still by no means spring-like. The ground is still mostly frozen. Yesterday was sunny, but had a high of 37 degrees F (3 C). Today is gloomy and windy, and snow is expected tonight and tomorrow.

However, you can’t keep a good (or at least an obsessive) gardener down. I did manage to spend some quality time with the garden this weekend, and made good progress on a variety of tasks.

Snowdrops
Snowdrops

Conducted a tour of inspection. Every gardener knows that one of the most important tasks is to walk through each part of the garden, examining with a critical eye developments (however microscopic) among the plants. Only the snowdrops (Galanthus) are blooming right now, which is at least something.

Note to self: buy some Hellebores and maybe Primula for next year in case we have another spring like this one!  Also, I was gratified to see that some of the early plants – such as the Serviceberry (Amelanchier), Forsythia, and Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – have flower or leaf buds that are swollen with determination, readying for the right moment to burst open.

Gave the flower beds a haircut. Which is to say, I cut back the dead stems of last year’s perennial growth. I got all the beds in front, and made a good down payment on the back. I’m using the approach I wrote about recently, cutting in smaller pieces and letting most stuff fall where it may.

I can see, however, that I will have to rake up some grassy areas in order to maintain even lax standards of neatness. Also, I ended throwing the Nepeta stems, which  collectively were a huge stringy mass of soft brown, on to the compost. I will put some garden soil on top and hope for the best.

Birdhouse
Chickadee birdhouse, up in the right corner.

Hung the birdhouse. I have a birdhouse for chickadees. This year I am hanging it in the old Japanese yew. I hope it’s a good location. Watching it sway in the wind, it occurs to me that perhaps the chickadees would like their house to be a little more stationary. I know I would. Also, I thought I had skilfully hung it so that you could see the opening from the porch. Of course, it twisted away the moment I went inside.

Brought in some Forsythia stems for forcing. I cut seven stems, and they should provide some indoor cheer in a week or so.

Were you able to do any work in the garden this weekend? Is it spring only in the calendar, but not in the garden, where you are?

The Brown, Brown Stalks of Spring

As I have noted before, I am of the camp that believes in letting perennials stand over winter, then cleaning up in spring. It tends to be better for the birds, the plants, and the beneficial insects. Some people say it looks messy. They may have a point, but I prefer messy to bare frozen earth, which I find depressing.

Virginia Wild Rye
Grasses are among the easier plants to clean up in spring. This is Virginia Wild Rye.

There is still the question of what to do with the dead stalks that remain when the snow melts, like ghosts of gardens past. For ghosts, they are very bulky. If you have a lot of space planted with perennials, as I do, you can generate a fairly massive quantity of what my younger son refers to as “dead stalky things”.

There are two solutions that I find unsatisfactory: the compost pile and the yard waste bag. What remains of perennials plants is mostly cellulose (if I remember my botany correctly),  which will not compost well unless it has been shredded. I have been tempted to buy a shredder/chipper, but hate the idea of a gasoline powered tool in the garage.

Putting this stuff in the alley as yard waste to be picked up by the city seems just wrong. I have used the approach of placing bundles of stalks in out of the way places in the garden, to break down in nature’s own time. However, there is a limit to how much you can do this on an urban lot.

Goldenrod
Goldenrod stalks in the back garden.

This year I am trying an approach that my brother suggested to me: just cut back the perennials in lengths of 6″ or so, and let the stalky bits fall where they may. I started putting this approach into practice last weekend, even though it was dang cold. So far I have drawn the following tentative conclusions:

Advantages:

  • Good exercise for your wrists and arms.
  • Gives you a head start on getting mulch down on the beds.
  • You don’t have to wrestle stuff into yard waste bags.
  • You are not generating solid waste.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s a lot more work.
  • Your beds will look messier, at least initially.
  • You are inviting more volunteers from self-sowers.
  • Soil may warm more slowly with if covered with more organic material.

Most of these disadvantages don’t bother me too much. For one thing, I like my garden to be at least a little messy. I suspect, though, that I won’t be able to let all the dead plant material lie on the beds, that I’ll have to pile some in out of the way corners as I have done in the past. But for now I am content to see how this approach works out.

What about you – how do you dispose of the brown, brown stalks of spring?

Book Review: The Gardener’s Palette, by Sydney Eddison

Late last year I got interested in trying to be more deliberate about the color schemes in my garden. Prior to that, I thought in terms of how two or three plants might fit together in terms of color, but never of a whole bed, let alone a whole garden.

The Gardener's Palette

When I wrote about this interest, Jayne on Weed Street recommended The Gardener’s Palette, by Sydney Eddison. Having now read this book, I can confirm  that it is indeed very worthwhile for gardeners trying to think more systematically about color.

It really isn’t possible to summarize the whole book, but here are five things that caught my imagination.

Pay attention to how colors gradually meld into one another. In discussing the color wheel, Eddison notes that there are an infinite number of intermediate colors between the pure hues. You can create harmony by combining red and red violet, but add red-orange and you have created a note of contrast, because the red-violet does not share the yellow hue contained in the red-orange.

Aim for a limit of three colors. Monochromatic gardens are just too limiting for me, but there is definite value in trying to limit the number of colors, with three being a good goal to aim for. I have to confess my lust for possessing many different plants makes this difficult. However, in my front driveway flower bed I should get pretty close next year. In spring: red, yellow, blue. In summer: blue, orange, yellow, with accents of red and white. And in fall, blue, yellow, and purple-pink.

Pay attention to intensity. Red is generally an intense color, so a little bit goes a long way.  That’s why I generally don’t use more than a splash of it in my beds. In addition, intense colors can be tamed by using the related tints (mixed with white), shades (mixed with black), and tones (mixed with gray). Using a higher ratio of softer colors like blue prevent intense colors from overwhelming, while at the same time making them more effective through contrast. Green and silver/gray can also pull contrasting colors together, preventing contrast from turning into open warfare.

Sydney Eddison
Sydney Eddison

Use complementary colors. I was very interested in Eddison’s discussion of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, or complementary.  When presented with a lot of one color, the eye naturally seeks out its complement. This is why complementary colors, like orange and blue, look right (to me, anyway) – in effect, they complete each other. They also provide contrast, which I personally find to be a necessity because too much harmony is just boring.

Look to art and nature for ideas. Natural landscapes present us with many color schemes that can be translated to the garden with great effectiveness. Similarly, a great deal of inspiration can be found in paintings, and not just landscapes.

The photography in The Gardener’s Palette is worth an unhurried examination, as it effectively illustrates the points made in the text.

The author stresses that the critical thing is to look carefully at the color in our gardens and in the world around us with a perceptive and appreciative eye.

Container Tulips: Back to the Garage You Go!

Last fall I wrote about how I had planted 96 hybrid tulip bulbs in containers for the spring of this year. I prefer to use species tulips, which are smaller and more perennial, in my beds. Judy, however, missed the big, luscious hybrid tulips, and so I thought I would give growing them in containers a try. Tulips in containers bloom once, then go on the compost pile.

Tulip 'Kingsblood', one of our choices for containers.  Photo: Tulip Gallery.
Tulip ‘Kingsblood’, one of our choices for containers. Photo: Tulip Gallery.

When the really cold weather arrived, I moved the containers into the garage. I’ve read that tulips in containers are more vulnerable to freezing temperatures than those in the ground.

We have an attached, unheated garage. I assumed that if I lined the containers along the wall that the garage shares with house, the tulip bulbs would be OK. I did notice during the winter that the surface of the planting mix in the containers was frozen, and I worried a bit how the bulbs were doing.

Tulip bulbs in container
Planting tulip bulbs in container.

So imagine my delight two weeks ago when I saw the first red tips of tulip leaves emerging from the containers. At that point it seemed as if spring had finally arrived. I didn’t want my baby tulip leaves to go without sun, so I moved them out to the front steps.

Container Tulips
If you look really closely you can see the red tips of the tulip leaves.

However, as the days passed the arrival of spring turned out to be on hold. Temperatures went below freezing most nights.

Now that I am about to leave on a five day business trip, the low temperature for the week is predicted to be just 15 degrees F (-9 C). So I am moving my poor tulips back into the garage.

Container Tulips
Back in the garage they go. Yes, I know the garage is messy.

Sigh. I hate to deprive them of sunlight (not that we’ve had much of that either), but I’m also afraid of a massive tulip fail due to frozen bulbs.

Are any of you growing tulips in containers?

Garfield Park Conservatory Part II: Blooms for GBBD

Well, our blooms this March 15th are limited to snowdrops (Galanthus). I’ve already posted pictures of those. So this seems a good opportunity to post some more pictures from our visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory.

For starters, there was a “Spring Flower Show”, which consisted of a bunch of blooming azaleas in containers. Nice, but not too exciting.

Azalea

There was a compact hybrid Bougainvillea.

Bougainvillea

In the Aroid House we saw a Flamingo Flower (Anthurium) cultivar  in bloom. Someone should tell this plant that it is not polite to point with your spadix.

Flamingo Flower

There was Crown of Thorns (Euphorbium milii), which is aptly named, in the Desert House. What if William Jennings Bryan had said in his famous speech, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this Euphorbium milii …”?

Crown of Thorns

Loved this Popcorn Orchid (Oncidium).

Popcorn Orchid

This is called Hanging Lobster Claw (Heliconia rostrata), which is truly a great name for a flower.

Lobster Claw Plant

There was also Yellow Walking Iris (Trimezia martinicensis), also a pretty good name.

Yellow Walking Iris

Love the flower of this Red Torch Banana (Musa coccinea).

Red Torch  Banana

Finally, Flaming Sword Plant (Vrisea splendens), an apt name for a truly dramatic plant.

Flaming Sword Plant

All in all, a fine variety of flowers to enjoy on a cold March day in Chicago. For more blooms, check out MayDreamsGardens, which hosts Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

SOS for Monarch Butterflies

An article in today’s New York Times contained alarming news about the decline of Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly

This year the butterflies are occupying less than three acres of pine forest in their Mexican winter habitat. That’s down dramatically from the seven acres occupied in 2o11 and the 50 acres that have been full of Monarchs in some past years. Some scientists believe that further decline could bring Monarch populations below the point of no return. My own unscientific observation is that there are definitely fewer Monarchs than there were a few years ago.

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch of the milkweed.

The culprit is the decline of wild milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in the American Midwest. High prices have caused farmers to maximize acreage under cultivation, plowing up strips of land that had once been full of grasses and wildflowers. Also, the prevalence of herbicide-resistant corn means that there are far fewer milkweed plants growing as weeds among the corn rows.

Monarch Butterfly

Milkweeds are the only host plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. No milkweed means no food for  new generations of Monarchs as they migrate from south to north and back.

We can help the Monarch butterflies by planting more milkweeds in our gardens. There are several garden-worthy species available. A post about the milkweeds I like to grow is here.

Do you have milkweed in your garden? Or do you have plans to add some during the coming year?

Sunday in the Garfield Park Conservatory with Judy – Part I

Last Sunday Judy and I met Danny for breakfast in Logan Square, then visited the Garfield Park Conservatory for the first time in years. The Conservatory is a Chicago landmark, built in 1906 and designed by Jens Jensen, the great landscape architect of the Prairie Style. We wanted to see some green plants, but also we wanted to see how the Conservatory had recovered from the devastation caused by a hail storm in June, 2011.

Garfield Park Conservatory
2011 Hail Damage, Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo: Chicago Park District

The storm shattered half the glass panes over large sections of the conservatory. Through heroic efforts, the conservatory was reconstructed using temporary poly-carbonate sheeting. Starting in April, the Conservatory will be closed so that structural repairs can be made and permanent glass panes installed. It will not re-open until 2014.

Highlights of our visit included Chihuly glass installed with a pond and waterfall. I think I saw an article or blog post entitled “Beyond Chihuly Glass”. Are we supposed to be tired of Chihuly glass? I’ve never seen it anywhere else, so I like it.

Garfield Park Conservatory Chihuly Glass

We visited the Desert House,  where there was a sprawling cactus I didn’t see a name for, but which provided a pretty persuasive argument for keeping your shoes on.

DSC_0731

There was also Saguaro Cactus, and a Saguaro Cactus skeleton.

Saguaro Cactus

I thought this Century Plant was impressive. They bloom once after 2o or 30 years, then die.

Century Plant

In the Children’s Garden there were tropical fruit trees and plants, including this banana.

Banana

We walked through the Palm House, where we visited the Scheelea Palm. This is the Conservatory’s largest and oldest Palm, grown from a seed planted in 1926.

Scheelea Palm

Garfield Park Conservatory

Oh, and there was also some useful horticultural tips. For example, this helpful sign on pruning.

DSC_0710

On Friday I will post the strange and beautiful tropical flowers we saw at the Garfield Park Conservatory, in honor of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day – seeing as there is still very little blooming outside in our area.

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