The Fuzzy Wuzzy Garden, or I Admit I Was Wrong About Spring Clean-Up

When I was in first grade, classmates who showed up after receiving a severe haircut were welcomed with this chant:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,

Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,

Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

How sweet, you say, but what does this have to do with the garden?

Well, you may recall that I wrote in an earlier post about how I intended to cut all the left over stems, etc., into short lengths and let them stay in the beds where they fall, and that would be my spring clean-up. Brave words, these were. Brave, but also dumb. Well, mostly dumb.

By the end of March I had gone through the front garden beds, cleaning up according to the above plan. It looked like this.

Garden Spring clean up

The garden did not have the non-fuzzy Fuzzy Wuzzy look. It had more the look I had after the one and only haircut I got from a neighborhood barber called Ben. We had just moved into a new house, and I discovered there was a barbershop just three blocks away.  How great, I thought, and I strolled over to get a haircut.

Ben was in his early 80s, which is not to say there aren’t many, many supremely competent barbers in their 80s. It’s just that I later discovered that Ben spent the day in his barbershop not cutting hair, but watching tv and avoiding his wife. In any case, Ben gave me a haircut which my kids called “the tufted look”, featuring tufts of hair of varying lengths sticking out at various angles all over my head.

But giving my garden the tufted look wasn’t the problem. The problem was that in beds with lots of tall plants and dense growth, the quantity of plant debris was such that it was smothering the bulbs as they were trying to come up. The poor little grassy leaves of the grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) were having an especially difficult time.

species tulips
Emerging species tulips, revealed.

So I ended up giving the front beds another haircut, and now they look like Fuzzy Wuzzy, who wasn’t fuzzy.

Garden spring clean up

They still have a modest amount of plant debris. And in the back and side beds, where the growth was not so tall or dense, I was able to stick with my original plan.

So where did all the stems and other plant debris go? Well, into two piles next to my compost bins in the alley. They looked like this after I stomped on them to make them more compact.

garden spring clean up

Maybe they will be eaten by the big pink blob crawling down from the upper left corner. Oh wait, that’s my finger. Will you be surprised if I tell you this isn’t one of Judy’s pictures?

Do you prefer the Fuzzy Wuzzy look, the tufted look, or something else in the garden?

Weekend Garden Notes: Blooms, Buds, and Pots

A Fine Weekend for Gardening

The sun was shining and the temperature was mostly pleasant. It got all the way up to 69 F (21 C) on Saturday. Today was cooler, in the mid 50s (13 C), but still darn nice. To make the weather even more perfect, we got some rain Saturday night, much needed because the soil was starting to get a bit dry. The clouds had thoughtfully excused themselves by Sunday morning, however. I got through most of my spring cleaning chores, though there are still some things that need doing, mostly in the back garden.

More Spring Blooms

More of the crocus are blooming, most notably Crocus vernus ‘Twilight’.

Crocus vernus 'Twilight'
Crocus vernus ‘Twighlight’

Also, the very first of the Siberian Squill (Scilla sibirica) is blooming. This is an advance guard, with many more to come.

Siberian Squill
Siberian Squill

On the other hand, there is very little sign of the 200 Crocus tommasinianus that I planted last fall. I hope this just means they are tardy making their first appearance, and not that they provided a feast for squirrels. To keep from brooding on this, I can always look at the Forsythia we brought inside two weeks ago,  now cheerfully blooming.

Forced Forsythia stems
Forced Forsythia stems.

Container Tulip Watch

According to Judy’s most recent count, 68 of the 90 tulips planted in containers have sent leaves up through the potting mix. A few look nibbled on or have a bit of frost damage, but generally they look good. The Great Container Tulip Experiment seems headed for success!

Other plants are also coming out of hibernation. You can see the flower buds on this Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica).

Virginia Bluebells
Emerging Virginia Bluebells

And the flower buds on the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) look just about to burst open.

Spicebush buds

New foliage can also be seen on the Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Celandine Poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), and several other perennials.

Coir Pot Report

There has been some discussion recently about Bluestone Perennial’s new practice of shipping their plants in coir pots. These can be planted straight into the ground, pots and all, thus reducing the amount of solid waste. However, there has been some concern that the pots do not degrade, trapping the plant roots inside.

Well, last fall I planted some Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaritica) from Bluestone. Today I had to replant several, because they had been heaved out of the ground. And what I found was this:

Coir Pot
You can see that the roots are coming through the pot.

The roots had worked their way through the coir, even though the coir had not yet broken down completely. So score one for Bluestone and their coir pots!

Did you get to have fun in the garden this weekend? (Note to Rachelle in Wisconsin: please keep away from sharp objects and loaded weapons when you consider this question. Also avoid ledges.)

Guess Who Came Early For Dinner?

You know when you’re expecting guests, and you are trying desperately to clean the house and get the food ready, and somebody shows up 30 minutes early while you are still shoving piles of papers and books into random drawers? Well, I had the horticultural equivalent to this experience today. I had taken the day off to spend some quality time with the garden, and my plan was to devote the day to spring clean up, of which there is a lot to do.

However, when I opened the door this is what I saw.

Forest Farm Nursery
Why, hello!

The two Fringe Trees (Chionanthus virginicus) had arrived from Forestfarm in balmy Oregon! These were 5′ specimens, still dormant, with nice root systems sitting in 5 gallon containers. Basically they look like 5′ sticks right now. (Note: today’s photos are Jason photos, not Judy photos, which means they aren’t very good.)

fringe trees in containers

But eventually they will look like this.

Fringe Tree, Chionanthus virginicus
Fringe Tree. Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

This North American native is a small flowering tree that does well in part shade. It also has unusual fragrant flowers. It comes highly recommended by author and garden designer Tracy DeSabato-Aust, who uses it frequently in her designs.

The Fringe Trees are going in the northeast corner of the house, where I have just removed three hoary old bridalwreath spirea shrubs. These were nice when their white mini-bouquet flowers bloom briefly in spring, but otherwise were just blah. Plus they took up an awful lot of space without really contributing much to the garden.

It was chilly today, in the 40s F (or about 7 degrees C),  but the sun was shining. I decided I would get my new arrivals planted. Once extricated from their boxes, I placed them about 7′ from the house and from each other, creating a triangle with the corner of the house making the third point. Following current recommended practice, I didn’t put any compost in the planting hole.

Instead, I gave my new trees a good soaking. Then I headed off to Anton’s, my favorite Evanston independent nursery, to buy a bag of mushroom compost for top dressing around (but not touching) the base of the trees.

While I was at Anton’s, some kind of plant-buying chemical was triggered in my brain, which is why I ended up buying a flat of white pansies, plus a couple of four packs of blue pansies. (White and blue are my preferred colors in the woodsy back garden.)

Pansies in planter
Our wheelbarrow planter. Not sure how much longer it is going to last.

This was enough to fill my old wheelbarrow planter, plus the planter I built on top of a tree stump. The pansies will hang around until the beginning of June when I’ll switch to more heat-loving annuals.

Pansies in planter
Tree stump planter.

Bottom line, at the end of the day I had not accomplished nearly as much spring garden clean up as I had planned. But I was happy.

How is the spring clean up going in your garden?

Good News on Invasive Plants?

A recent post by Julianne Beck on the blog of  the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) reports on an interesting new strategy for combating invasive plants. Specifically,  CBG research scientist Andrea Kramer is testing a new approach to stopping the spread of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) on the Colorado Plateau, which covers parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Cheatgrass wildfire.
Photo: US Forest Service

Cheatgrass is a Eurasian native and thrives in disturbed areas. It is highly flammable, poses a fire danger to homeowners, and has contributed to widespread wildfires on the Plateau. The wildfires in turn create conditions that promote further spread of this invasive plant. The spread of cheatgrass has been accompanied by a decline in native plants and wildlife, including the vulnerable sage grouse.

The strategy that Kramer is testing involves strains of native plants, such as wildflowers, that have adapted to areas infested with cheatgrass. Kramer calls these plants, simply, “winners”. The adaptations, such as growing roots deeper or faster, provide a competitive advantage against the invader.

Sage Grouse
Sage Grouse. Has kind of a punk look with all the spikes.
Photo: Wikimedia

If these native plants test well, then they will eventually be used in restoration work. The concept of using native plant winners is being applied to other environments, including wetlands here in Illinois.

Wetland, Dixon Prairie
Wetland, Dixon Prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden.

It’s interesting to think of plants adapting so quickly to a changed environment. However, I’ve read that quick evolutionary changes have been documented in wolves and dogs in response to contact with humans. Why not the same with some plants, who (except for biennials) produce a new generation every year?

It’s nice to think that native plants are not just wimpy victims but can develop new strengths enabling them to beat back invasive species. Kind of like the young hero in the movie Karate Kid.

Karate Kid

Is there an invasive plant you’d like to see foiled by a pumped up native?

Is It Hip To Be Square?

There was an interesting article in the June issue (is it already time for the June issue?)  of Fine Gardening magazine with the vaguely Orwellian title of “Finding Freedom Through Structure.”

Giverny upper garden
Giverny’s upper garden: formal, but full of life.

The author, George Schoellkopf, argues that gardens built around straight lines and right angles provides a more “attainable aesthetic” because “the structure is woven into the aesthetic itself.” He believes that it is a greater challenge to succeed with a more “natural” style of curved beds, because such gardens use “the plants themselves to provide most of the structure”, a structure that exists without being apparent.

I have to admit I’m not sure exactly what this means. Borders and paths don’t need to be straight to provide a degree of structure, apparent or otherwise. Also, plants are certainly part of the structure  of many gardens built around a straight axis and rectangular beds.

Giverny grand allee.
Giverny’s upper garden: the grand allee.

Mr. Schoellkopf does not advocate gardens that are rigidly controlled. The owner of Hollister House Garden, a project of the Garden Conservancy,  his article is illustrated beautifully to show how his garden combines straight lines, exuberance, and abundance: “My garden’s formal plan enables me to be much freer and more natural in the way I grow my plants.”

And here I find myself nodding in agreement. A formal layout can combine beautifully with plantings that are full and unrestrained. This combination can work so well because it contains a pleasing contrast between, as the author puts it, “order and chaos.”

Garden path
My garden: no right angles, but falls short of chaos.

We saw this principle at work at the upper garden in Monet’s Giverny, which is built around a central axis and rectangular beds. Even when we were there in April,  the exuberance and abundance of the plantings was apparent. Walking through this garden was a truly joyful experience.

In my view, garden designs can work with either formality and straight lines, or informality and curved lines. What determines success or failure lies with other factors.

You can find both approaches used successfully at Giverny. While the upper garden has elements of formality, the lower garden, built around a pond, is entirely without straight lines or right angles.

Giverny: the lower garden.

My own garden uses mostly curved lines, except where the flower borders lie along the house, sidewalk, or driveway. I don’t think that the combination of curved lines with a full, informal planting style produces an effect of too much chaos. Structure is reinforced by trees, shrubs, paths, raised beds, an arbor, and sharply defined borders between lawn and garden.

I will admit I sometimes wish I had an entire second garden (maybe the neighbors would oblige me?) so that I could try planting a garden with more formality and straight lines. However, if I have to choose only one style, then give me curves.

For me, what really doesn’t work is excessive control, what I would call the “constipated style” of garden design. I found much of Versailles to be objectionable along these lines. Also, sometimes gardens are described as naturalistic but in reality are just sloppy. I don’t like that either.

Versailles gardens
Versailles: the constipated style of gardening

What do you prefer, curves or straight lines, formal or informal? Or, like me, do you find yourself loving both if they are combined with the right sort of plantings?


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:

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.


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.

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 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:


  • 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.


  • 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?

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