A Visit To The Garden Of Pat Hill

Recently I got acquainted online with Pat Hill, author of Design Your Natural Midwest Garden. Pat’s book had a big influence on me, and I think it is an important book for any gardener interested in designing with native plants.  Pat is a garden writer and designer, and is active in promoting natural landscapes.

Pat Hill
Pat Hill in her garden.

She was kind enough to invite me to visit her and her garden, and I did so just recently. Unfortunately, Judy was not able to come with me, and so all the photos for this post are mine, taken with my phone. I regret that they don’t really do justice to Pat’s garden, but bear with me.

Patricia Hill
Pat’s side yard.

This is a prairie garden, with native grasses and flowers mixed throughout, although with a far higher ratio of flowers to grasses than you would find in a wild prairie. My own garden, by contrast, is more of a cottage garden which includes many prairie wildflowers and a few grasses. Pat actually conducts annual burns in spring, which is necessary to sustain the health of prairies.

Patricia Writght, Baptisia
Front door. Note the absolutely massive Baptisia australis by the door – I would love to see that covered with blue flowers in June!

Pat generally has a more laissez-faire approach to her garden. She does some editing of self-sown volunteers, and has battled to remove some plants that are overly aggressive.  On the other hand, to some extent she lets plants roam freely, with some beautiful results.

Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye Weed at its peak.

For instance, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) has spread widely through her garden, and at this point in the season they make a gorgeous mass.

Wild Petunia
Wild Petunia

Similarly, she allowed Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis) to self-sow throughout her parkway, making a lovely meadow dotted with lavender flowers.

A huge clump of Switchgrass growing in the parkway garden.

Pat also does not struggle with staking – if plants are going to lean, she lets them lean. In her garden, this looks right. However, I could not do this in my own garden, as my compulsive control tendencies would give me no peace.

Flowering Spurge
Flowering Spurge, aka Prairie Baby’s Breath

While I was familiar with many of the plants in this garden, there were a few I had not seen before that intrigued me. For example, I really liked Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) – it also goes by the more appealing and apt common name of Prairie Baby’s Breath).  Flowering Spurge has an airy mass of tiny white flowers up to 4′ tall, which is great for filling in between larger, more substantial plants. It turns a beautiful red in autumn.

Prairie Dock leaves
Prairie Dock leaves

I was also intrigued by Prairie Dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), a relative of Cup Plant. Like other Silphiums, Prairie Dock has tall stalks bearing yellow daisies. But it can also be grown as a foliage plant, as it has huge basal leaves that remind many of Elephant’s Ears (Colocasia).

Pat’s garden was about more than plants. There were many repurposed objects turned into garden art. Unfortunately I did not have the presence of mind to take pictures of these.

Prairie Plant Screen
A private place to chat, courtesy of Pat’s prairie plants.

I was so glad to be able to visit this unique garden and gardener. Pat was great fun to talk to, extremely knowledgeable and with a great sense of humor. You may not be able to visit her garden yourself, but you can do the next best thing by reading Designing Your Natural Midwest Garden.



Update: West Parkway Raised Bed

Last fall I did a makeover of the raised bed on the west side of our parkway. The bed was full of larger perennials and was a bit too big and wild-looking for something between the sidewalk and the street. My goal was to have something relatively low-growing and tidy but colorful and full. It also had to be self-reliant in terms of water and other codling. Many friends from the garden blogging community helped me get through the agony of choosing plants.

Parkway Planting
Parkway raised bed seen from street. Good plants here but too big and wild for between sidewalk and street.

Now the first season of this new planting is coming to a close. How is it working out? Overall, I’d say I got close to my goal, but I’m not there yet. In particular, it needs some additional elements to make it stand out more from the surrounding groundcover of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and the Orange Coneflower that sit between this raised bed and the curb.

Let’s walk through my plant choices one by one and see how they did.

Geranium 'Tschelda'
Geranium ‘Tschelda’


Geranium Renardii ‘Tschelda’. I like this plant! Both the flowers and leaves are somewhat distinctive from other hardy geraniums. It provides good blue color and texture in late spring and early summer, taking over from the bulbs. It also makes a nice edge, making a good start this year at spilling over the pavers that define the raised bed.

Geranium 'Tschelda'
Geranium ‘Tschelda’

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’. This is a good example of the high cost of being cheap. Because I bought only a small plug of ‘Shenandoah’, it was more vulnerable to the bunny attacks that occurred in late  spring. In addition, it has been struggling against being shaded out by its neighbors. It is currently just barely hanging on. I’m going to have to buy a larger plant this fall, which I should have done in the first place. A decent sized ‘Shenandoah would have given this raised bed more of the definition that it currently needs.


Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny’. I planted three last fall, two didn’t make it through the winter. I’m guessing it is only marginally hardy here. Also, this is a replay of the problem with ‘Shenandoah’ – the one surviving ‘Little Bunny’ is overwhelmed by its neighbors and barely noticeable.  As above, I think I will buy some larger plants at the nursery this fall. Not sure if I will go with ‘Little Bunny’ or another grass.

Calamint, Sedum Matrona
Calamint and Sedum Matrona seen from street. The Rudbeckia are planted along the curb.

Calamintha nepetoides.  Great plant! A cloud of little white flowers that drive the pollinators mad with desire. It is both tough and lovely. Only thing is, it is a little bit too much of a dominating presence. it is hiding a little too fully most of the other plants that are done blooming. This may be in part because I crammed too many into the available space, a bad habit of mine. I think I will either remove one of the Calamints or try cutting them back in early summer. I won’t touch them now, for fear of provoking an Attack Of The Mega-Wasps.

Sedum 'Matronna'
Sedum ‘Matronna’

Sedum spectabile ‘Matrona’. The two that made it through the winter (one was lost) are doing great, in fact they look like more than two plants. These are the first Sedum I’ve ever planted, for some reason I’ve always avoided them up until now. Don’t think I’ll ever plant a lot more, but I’m glad I have these.  Only problem is if you are looking from the sidewalk they are a bit obscured by the Calamint.

Salvia 'Carradonna', Phlox Miss Lingard, Geranium Tschelda
Salvia ‘Carradonna’,with some stray Penstemon and Geranium ‘Tschelda’

Salvia nemerosa ‘Carradonna’.  This Salvia has rich purple color and an upright habit. It needs to fill in some more but I am happy with this choice. Just hope it isn’t smothered by the Calamint.

Phlox 'Miss Lingard'
Phlox ‘Miss Lingard’

Phlox maculata ‘Miss Lingard’. Very happy with this plant. A shorter Phlox (mine were about 2′)  with white flowers that come in mid-summer. Absolutely no problem with powdery mildew, and it does fine in drier soils. Known by the common name ‘Carolina Phlox’.

So there you have it. Any thoughts or suggestions gratefully accepted! Have you been evaluating any new beds lately?




Summer Finale: August 2013 GBBD

We are at the mid-point of August. Mid-summer flowers are fading, late summer bloomers are peaking, and the very first flowers of autumn begin to open, like scouts checking out a new territory.

Anise Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed
Flowers of the Driveway Border and Front Island Bed, including Anise Hyssop, Yellow Coneflower, ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye Weed, and Cup Plant.

I am very impressed with Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). The flowers are very long-lasting, and the bright clear yellow wears well through the summer. This spring I planted several more Ratibida. For this year they are growing only basal foliage, but I am confident that next year they will bloom, providing me with a more dramatic swath of this plant.

Yellow Coneflower
Yellow Coneflower

Three other stand-out plants at this time of year are Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ (Eutrochium purpureum subsp. maculatum), and Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). The Anise Hyssop was slow to start blooming this year but is providing lots of very blue flower spikes right now. It goes well with the pink/purple umbels of ‘Gateway’ and the yellow daisies of the Ratibida and Cup Plant.

2013-08-11 11.40.50
Anise Hyssop
Joe Pye Weed 'Gateway'
Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ with Cup Plant in background

Tall Ironweed (Vernonia altissima) is blooming for me for the first time this year. I’m looking forward to larger and more dramatic clumps of this plant.

Tall Ironweed
Tall Ironweed

‘Prairie Sunset’ Heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides) continues to bloom effortlessly, as they have since the end of June. You can see that the flowers of the Wild Bergamot are close to played out, though. The clump of Bergamot in the Sidewalk Border became afflicted with powdery mildew, so I cut them way back.

Heliopsis 'Prairie Sunset'
Heliopsis ‘Prairie Sunset’

The ‘Rasberry Wine’ Bee Balm, on the other hand, still has a fair amount of color.

Bee Balm 'Raspberry Wine'
Bee Balm ‘Raspberry Wine’

The Susans have arrived, both the shorter Orange Coneflower or Black Eyed Susan (Rudbecia fulgida), and the taller Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba).

Orange Coneflower
Orange Coneflower with Firecracker Plant in a pot to the back.

In the parkway, Sedum spectabilis ‘Matronna’ has begun blooming. These are the first Sedum I’ve ever planted, for some reason. Also Calamint (Calamintha nepetoides) has formed low mounds filled with tiny white flowers much favored by pollinators.

Sedum 'Matronna'
Sedum ‘Matronna’

Across the driveway, the very first aster flowers are opening – the low-growing, blue Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius). Odd, because usually these asters tend to open later in the season.

Aromatic Aster
Aromatic Aster with friend

Near the front door, the compact Summersweet ‘Hummingbird’ (Clethra alnifolia) is blooming and scenting the air with a sweet fragrance.

Clethra Hummingbird
Summersweet ‘Humingbird’

The last of the Clematis jackmanii are blooming on their west-facing wall. They certainly were magnificent this year. And the rose ‘Cassie’ is having a new flush of blooms.

Jackman Clematis
Jackman Clematis
Rose 'Cassie'

Not a great deal to see in the back garden in terms of flowers right at the moment. There are Cup Plant growing against the outside of the alley fence, plus containers, fading ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangeas,  and the very beginnings of Brown Eyed Susan.

Hydrangeas in the back garden.
Cup Plant
Cup Plant growing against the alley fence.

Garden Blogger Bloom Day is graciously hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Check out the link to see the flowers blooming in other gardens.

The Ripening Fruits of August

It seems a melancholy thing that summer is slipping away into fall. I especially regret seeing the daylight hours slowly shortening with each sunset.

Crabapple Donald Wyman
‘Donald Wyman’ Crabapples

On the other hands, there are compensations for us and for the suburban wildlife around us. For people, there are plentiful peaches and tomatoes, cooler temperatures, fewer mosquitos (or at least slower ones that are easier to slap).

For the birds and other wildlife, there is the promise of a great bounty of berries and other fruits. These may not be ripe just yet, but the signs of ripeness are there to be seen. These are the ripening fruits in our garden right now.

2013-08-11 11.35.23

Like apples, crabapples have years of alternating light and heavy yield. This is year of heavy yield, and the branches of the ‘Donald Wyman’ crab are weighed down with fruit. They are ripening, not yet ripe, and will be eaten through the fall and into the winter by many birds.

Black Elderberry
Black Elderberry

The huge clusters of Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are turning from green to black. They are another favorite with many birds. An unruly suckering plant, we keep ours in the corner of the back garden, behind the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila).

Cranberrybush Viburnum
Cranberrybush Viburnum berries ripening

Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) berries are gradually turning bright red. These are eaten by Cedar Waxwings and other birds, especially after a hard frost.

Grey Dogwood
Unripe Grey Dogwood berries.
Grey Dogwood
Ripe Grey Dogwood berries. The pedicels eventually turn bright red.

Grey Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) berries, high in calories, are a highly valued fruit for migrating birds. Most are still green, but you can see the first ripe white ones, though they quickly disappear. I was dismayed to see a squirrel gorging on the berries, both green and white, over the weekend. He ignored me when I said they were not for him.

Wild Currant
Wild Currant berries are black when ripe. Edible but sour.

Wild Currant (Ribes americanum) ripens slowly throughout the summer. They are edible for people, but I let the Robins and Cardinals take the lion’s share.

Do you grow fruiting plants for the birds?

Do Heirloom Tomatoes Really Taste Best?

I may have to surrender my subscription to Organic Gardening Magazine for saying this, but the two hybrid tomato varieties I’ve been growing this summer have tasted better than any of the heirlooms I have grown in past years – with one exception.

'Celebrity' Tomato

In the past I have grown only heirlooms – Black Krim, Green Zebra, German Johnson, Caspian Pink, Black Prince, Brandywine, etc. The results were uneven.

This year I planted just three tomatoes, each a different variety: the hybrids ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Early Girl’, and the heirloom ‘Black Cherry’.

‘Celebrity’ and ‘Early Girl’ appealed to me because they are supposed to be more compact.  Frankly, I am tired of trying to keep my trellises from toppling over under the weight of tomato vines. And I have to say that these two hybrids have lived up to their promise in this regard.

'Early Girl' Tomato

What’s more, the fruits have been just delicious. Dense and meaty, but with a taste that is bright and sweet. They aren’t overly large, about 6 ounces or so.

That size is perfect for our purposes. Judy’s favorite thing is to make BLTs, and I love open-faced toasted tomato and cheese sandwiches sprinkled with oregano.

Early Girl Tomato

I suspect that soil, weather, and cultural practices are at least as important as the variety in determining what makes for a really tasty tomato. And I would bet that what gives you the greatest yield (and the largest, most beautiful fruits) is not necessarily what gives you the greatest taste.

'Black Cherry' Tomatoes
A cluster of unripe ‘Black Cherry’ tomatoes. The daylilies want to hang out with the tomatoes.

For example, I haven’t been watering my tomatoes this summer, even when things were getting pretty dry. Does that account for the pleasingly dense texture of this year’s fruit? There’s no way to say for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

'Black Cherry' tomatoes
‘Black Cherry’ tomatoes

However, when it comes to cherry tomatoes, I am a ‘Black Cherry’ fanatic. This heirloom is without doubt the most delicious cherry tomato I have ever eaten, anywhere. It is intensely flavorful, sweet and tangy. So I always plant one ‘Black Cherry’, despite the tendency of the vines to grow to infinity and beyond.

Are you a believer in hybrid or heirloom tomatoes – or are you agnostic on this issue?

Hail, Hail Tithonia

I’ve already mentioned the Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) growing in the vegetable/herb patch. The longer I watch this annual from Mexico and Central America, the surer I am that I want to plant it again next year.

Mexican Sunflower
Mexican Sunflower with Common Oregano blooming in the background. Photo: Judy

First of all, when I hear the name “Tithonia” I think of Freedonia, the fictional country in the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup, possibly the greatest movie ever made. This puts me in a good mood, at least for a few moments.

Duck Soup
Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), leader of Freedonia.

As if that were not enough, I find that you can’t beat Tithonia’s attention-grabbing reddish orange color (I’m a person who loves orange flowers).

Mexican Sunflower
Photo: Judy

Mexican Sunflower hasn’t had any insect or disease problems. It likes hot weather, full sun, and medium to dry soil.

I’ve read that Tithonia grows to 6′ and may want staking. However, in my garden it is under 4′ with a shrubby habit – at least as broad as it is tall. The ones growing at the Chicago Botanic Garden have the same mounded habit, though they are pruned to be more nicely rounded. Without pruning, the flowers tend to have really long stems that poke outward like spokes.

Mexican Sunflower habit. Photo: ag.auburn.edu.
Mexican Sunflower, showing habit. Photo: ag.auburn.edu.

The pollinators do seem to like the orange flowers.

Speaking of pollinators, I’ve been seeing a lone Monarch butterfly in the front garden most days for the past week or so. This is still less than normal. but a marked improvement. I hope their presence continues to increase, and maybe I’ll get some caterpillars on the milkweed.

The other day I used my phone to get our first and only picture of a Monarch in the garden this year.

Monarch butterflies
Monarch on the Swamp Milkweed the other day, taken with my phone. Photo: Jason

Have you tried growing Mexican Sunflower?

Containers for Sun – August Update

It’s August, a good time to evaluate my plant choices for containers in sun, particularly those I am trying for the first time. There are some definite stars, and one surprising disappointment.

Star Flower, Floss Flower, Calibrachoa, and Zinnia in containers on the front step. Photo: Judy
Star Flower, Floss Flower, Calibrachoa, Salvia, Bacopa, and Zinnia in containers on the front step. Photo: Judy

Firecracker Plant (Cuphea ignea). This guy is also known as Cigar Plant, but Firecracker Plant is both more descriptive and lacks the negative connotations. Either way, this plant has definitely been one of the garden stars, the hummingbirds think so too!

Firecracker Plant with Star Flower.
Firecracker Plant with Star Flower. The violets obscure the fact that these are in a container. Photo: Judy

As an annual in zone 5, Cuphea grows to about 2′ and gets very bushy. Depending on the size of your pot it can be your thriller and your filler. The tubular red and yellow flowers and the red-tinged glossy green foliage are wonderful.

Firecracker Plant
Firecracker Plant. Photo: Jason

Unfortunately, Japanese beetles love Firecracker Plant as much as the hummingbirds. To prevent the damage from getting excessive, I’ve been picking the little bastards off daily and dropping them in a container of soapy water.

The Cuphea leaves were turning white during the first weeks after planting, and I feared they were infected. However, it was just a reaction to the colder than normal temperatures. These plants want a warm climate.

Salvia 'Black and Blue'
Salvia ‘Black and Blue’. Photo: Jason

Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ (Salvia guaranitica). This plant always looks great in the containers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, so I expected something similar at home.  In my containers, it is merely OK.

While the blooming got off to a good start, it has become increasingly sparse – not the case with my other container plants. Not sure what I am doing wrong.

Also, the stems are quite fragile. SInce our front walk is not all that wide, there are lots of broken stems as people brush past this plant. I doubt I will plant ‘Black and Blue’ again.

Mexican Petunia
Mexican Petunia. Photo: Jason

Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana). If you want something vertical, Mexican Petunia is 3′ tall, with an airy “see through” texture. I love the blue/purple trumpet-shaped flowers. I placed two of these on the landing behind the shrub rose ‘Cassie’ to contrast with ‘Cassie’s’ white flowers

This plant has been problem-free so far, a winner in my book.

The remainder of my sun container plants have been good to excellent. I planted Star Flower ‘Butterfly Red’ (Pentas lanceolata) for the first time last year, and I am still infatuated with the clusters of five-pointed flowers that draw hummingbirds and butterflies.

Flowering Containers up the steps to the front door. Photo: Judy
Flowering Containers up the steps to the front door. Photo: Judy

Floss Flower ‘Blue Planet’ (Ageratum houstonianum) is a tall variety that has been useful for adding blue flowers and a vertical element to containers.

Million Bells (Calibrachoa xhybrida) has been a reliable bloomer with a trailing habit that spills over the container edges. Ditto for Bacopa (Sutera cordata). I trim them back if they start frizzling in the heat.

How have your containers been faring in the sun? Do you have any new favorite plants?

Lights! Cameras! Pollen!

So now there are bees and pollinators all over the front garden. Especially bumblebees. Judy took these videos with her phone. This first one is mostly bumblebees on the Wild Bergamot. Judy says these bees are rather hyperactive and difficult to keep in the frame.

Bumblebees always seem so industrious, but also cute. Maybe because they’re furry-looking.

Still very few butterflies, though.

Here’s another video featuring big scary-looking black wasps and other pollinators on the swamp milkweed.

These wasps have never stung me, and I try to stay out of their personal space.

Watching bees in the garden is one of my favorite things, I find it almost mesmerizing.

True Or False, This Is A Good Plant

Why are some plants called “false”? Like the Midwestern native False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), whose common name implies that it is guilty of impersonating a sunflower (Helianthus sp.). This is unfair on so many levels.

Heliopsis helianthoides Prairie Sunset
Heliopsis ‘Prairie Sunset’ with Wild Bergamot

First of all, who is to say that the sunflowers came first, and that the Heliopsis is the imitation? Even its Latin species name (helianthoides) means “like a sunflower”. This is an egregious example of the botanical elitism of our sunflower-centric culture. Doesn’t Heliopsis have value simply for being itself, as opposed to being like another flower that just happens to be better known? Heliopsis means “like the sun”, while Helianthus means “sun flower”. Seems to me that being “like the sun” is just as good as being a “sun flower”.

Heliopsis helianthoides Prairie Sunset

Some retailers have handled this and similar problems by inventing their own common names, in this case “Early Sunflower” instead of “False Sunflower”. For me, this merely compounds the insult. Yes, Heliopsis flowers as early as June, but that still does not make it some auxiliary form of sunflower.

But where was I going with this? Oh, right. What I had actually meant to write about was that Heliopsis helanthoides ‘Prairie Sunset’ is a really cool flower, and in my opinion an improvement on the species.

Heliopsis helianthoides prairie sunset

The species is nice, don’t get me wrong. It bears many yellow flowers usually from June through September. My only criticisms are that it can be quite large and rather sprawling, smothering its smaller neighbors. For me it grows to 4′ even after being cut back. The other thing is that it self-sows, as they say, freely. For these reasons I ended up removing Heliopsis from my sidewalk bed.

‘Prairie Sunset’ has a more upright habit, though I also have it growing with taller neighbors less likely to be overwhelmed. In addition, it has attractive purple stems and flowers with red centers. Sometimes the flowers have a reddish ring around the inner part of the “petals” (ray flowers).  I have yet to see if ‘Prairie Sunset’ is any less free when it comes to self-sowing.

Heliopsis helanthoides Prairie Sunset

One other thing I have discovered this year is that Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is an excellent companion plant for ‘Prairie Sunset’, in terms of both colors and habits.

Have you grown ‘Prairie Sunset’, or any other Heliopsis? And don’t you think it is an injustice for it to be called “False” Sunflower?

The Bees are Back

Until recently there seemed to be far fewer bees than normal in the garden, which is ordinarily a place humming with insect activity. The bees seem to have returned in quantity over the last couple of weeks, though still in smaller numbers than last year. Butterflies are still pretty scarce. Here are some bee and pollinator pictures Judy took this past Sunday.

Bumble Bee, Wild Bergamot
Bumblebee coming in for a landing

Bumble Bee, Wild Bergamot

Bee on Anise Hyssop
Bee on Anise Hyssop
Bees, Swamp Milkweed
Bee on Swamp Milkweed
Bees, Wild Bergamot
Bee on Wild Bergamot

Are you seeing fewer bees and butterflies than ususal in your garden

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