The Day of the Giant Brown Stalky Things

It was late October just about ten years ago, when my younger son looked at me with considerable exasperation and asked, “Dad, why do we have the only house with giant brown stalky things in the front yard?”

This is as good as any introduction to the issue of autumn garden clean-up. More specifically, is it better to cut back the dead stems of your perennials now or wait until spring?

There’s a lot to be said for not tidying up too early. Some perennials, such as upright grasses, stay attractive through winter. Seedheads of plants like Rudbeckias and Echinaceas provide food for birds, and many desirable insects overwinter in stems and garden debris. In addition, dead plant material provides winter insulation for perennial roots.

Some people have strong opinions in this regard. The famous Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf wrote that a thorough fall cleanup in the perennial border was “unnecessary and destructive.”

The Rudbeckias and Echinaceas are done, but the Nepeta is still reblooming.

However, even if you have no regard for the embarrassment you inflict on your teenage children, there are some downsides to leaving everything up until spring.

In my opinion, it is extremely easy to overstate the attractiveness of most perennials during winter. Grasses, sure. Coneflowers, maybe. Most other perennials, not so much. This is especially true of the really big plants some of us like to grow – the Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum), Joe Pye Weeds (Eupatorium sp.), and Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) that add majesty and color to the late summer garden, but that have also made the phrase “giant brown stalky thing” a byword in our family.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) in its pre-brown stalky phase.

The other practical consideration for me is that Spring is a very busy period at work, and so leaving all of the clean up until then can create a difficult time squeeze for me.

So I spent a few hours this weekend cutting back the dead stems of my really tall plants. The birds won’t miss them, since almost all the seeds were already gone by then. I cut the stems into 6-12″ lengths and either let them lie in the flower bed or throw them under the shrubs like mulch. I also removed all the bamboo and metal stakes, including the 10′ rebar I use for the Cup Plant and Joe Pye Weed. The grasses, asters, coneflowers, and lower-growing plants I pretty much leave until spring.

So until then, there will be only mid-sized brown stalky things. That’s OK, though, the kids don’t live at home any more.

So how about you? Do you clean up in fall or spring – or some of each?

A Compost Post

On Sunday I observed the bi-annual Changing of the Compost Bins. That means two things. First, that I will empty one bin of its more or less finished compost. And second, that the other bin will receive no more lemon rinds or slimy lettuce, and should consider itself under strict orders to start decomposing in earnest. The emptied bin will now start accumulating our kitchen and garden waste, and so the cycle continues.

Compost, Composting
Home decomposed compost.

For a long time I felt that my composting was inadequate. The bins I speak of are just rolls of chicken wire attached to metal stakes. What’s more, I don’t do most of the things that you’re supposed to do in order  be an efficient composter. I don’t pay attention to the ratio of greens to browns, whatever that means. I never turn the compost piles, nor do I moisten them. My water bill is high enough, thank you very much.

At one time, I was a more ambitious composter. In fact, I bought one of those rotating plastic compost barrels on a stand. Unfortunately, I never remembered to rotate the rotating barrel. For that and possibly other reasons, when I opened the barrel I found a dense sludge that smelled like an extremely unhygienic bus station bathroom. I couldn’t use the sludge because, even if I could tolerate the smell, I was afraid it would waft over to the neighbors. I ended up driving my rotating barrel out to a landfill (with ALL windows open – an unpleasant trip, I can tell you) and emptying it out there. I hope the EPA never catches up with me.

So that leaves me with my current minimalist approach. I do throw a shovelful of garden soil into the bins occasionally, and I do remember not to throw in any fats or meat scraps.

My chicken wire compost bin.

What I get in return is about half a dozen buckets of compost twice a year. For a long time I had a nagging feeling that if I was more diligent about composting, I would get more compost. Then it hit me: even if I used the most sophisticated and complex techniques, I would still end up with the same amount of compost. We only have so much in the way of kitchen scraps and garden waste, so who cares if it decomposes faster or slower?

As is often the case in the garden and in life, you ultimately get the same results whether you fuss with something or not. What about you – are you an ambitious composter or a lazy one like me?

Wordless Wednesday: Sally Holmes and Friends

Rosa Sally Holmes


Swamp Milkweed


Serviceberry Autumn Brilliance


Garden Art, Concrete Chicken





An October Stroll Through the Garden

Let’s start in the backyard. Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’ still has a few blooms, and even some buds straining to open before the frost.

Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
‘Sally Holmes’

Most of the asters have gone to seed …

Big Leaf Aster
Big Leaf Aster

But the dwarf New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, is a very late bloomer – it’s just hitting its stride.

Aster 'Purple Dome'
Aster ‘Purple Dome’

Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is still blooming on the arbor.

'Darlow's Enigma'
‘Darlow’s Enigma’

The last shiny seeds of Blackberry Lily(Iris domestica) will drop soon. Too bad they aren’t edible.

Blackberry Lily
Blackberry Lily

Now let’s head out to the front. The birds have eaten most of the crabapples, but there are a few left.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), and ‘Profusion’ orange Zinnias make a nice fall combination.

Prairie Dropseed, Aromatic Aster, and ‘Profusion’ Zinnias

Most of the Cleome have long gone to seed, but ‘Senorita Rosalita’ is still blooming. I guess this is  one advantage of sterility.

Cleome 'Senorita Rosalita'
Cleome ‘Seniorita Rosalita’

The Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) is tall but airy.

Switchgrass 'Northwind'
Switchgrass ‘Northwind’

The Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) has outstanding seedheads. It also has way too many &%$#@ seedlings.

Northern Sea Oats
Northern Sea Oats

We’re getting into late October, and still no frost. It’s coming, though. Best to savor these mild days while they last.

Book Review: Painting with Flowers

Monet at Giverny, by Caroline Holmes; Cassel and Co., 2001.

Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration, and Insights from the Painter’s Gardens,by Elizabeth Murray; Pomegranate Communications, 2010.

Some of you know that Judy and I were lucky enough to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny in April of this year. Despite the clouds and chill, we were completely bewitched by the garden. When we visited, it was overflowing with tulip, crabapple, and other spring blooms.

Grand Allee, Giverny,
The Grand Allee in the upper garden at Giverny, during our April visit.

Since then, I’ve been reading up on Claude Monet and his garden at Giverny. For those most interested in replicating aspects of Giverny in their own gardens, I highly recommend Monet’s Passion. The author, Elizabeth Murray, helped to restore Giverny in the 1980s after it suffered through a long period of neglect.

Murray provides an enticing description of Monet’s garden through the seasons. She discusses both the upper garden, with its rectangular “paintbox” beds, and the Japanese-influenced lower garden with its mirroring pond, bridges, and water lilies. In the book and in person, I was most enchanted by the upper garden, with its dramatic grand allee, as well as the contrast of geometrically shaped beds filled with exuberantly undisciplined masses of bloom.

The paintbox garden

For gardeners who seek to emulate Monet, Murray provides a wealth of resources. In addition to the gardens, information is provided on the plants growing on the house and balcony. Murray discusses Monet’s favorite plants, including irises, sunflowers, and wildflowers such as the red poppies native to the area. She reviews his color schemes, such as combining blue with yellow, and his preferred plant combinations. All this is described with the aid of drawings complete with overlays.

For those more interested in Monet the man and his art, then Monet at Giverny is the better choice. Monet had a complicated but mostly happy personal life. He was essentially penniless when he moved to Giverny in 1883. In addition, he was supporting not only his own family, but the wife and children of his former patron, who had fled the country to escape bankruptcy.

Reflections in the pond of the lower garden.

Eventually, Monet became a wealthy man. He was a very social type and enjoyed friends and family. He eventually married Alice, the patron’s wife, after his own first wife died.

Holmes’ book is beautifully illustrated to demonstrate how Monet’s garden and his paintings shaped each other. She shows how Monet sought to paint not just objects, but the atmosphere and light around objects, and how this made both his gardens and his paintings uniquely dynamic and alive.

Thanks to Roses and Other Gardening Joys for hosting these monthly book reviews.

Careless Gardening, or Planting 200 Crocuses in 2 Minutes

Well, maybe 5 minutes. I’d wanted to get these corms of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ planted for a while, but could never find the time when the weather was decent and the ground wasn’t a muddy mire. (How odd to write that after enduring this year’s drought.) When I woke this morning, I was possessed by an overwhelming urge to plant my crocuses before I left for work.

Crocus tommasinianus Lilac Beauty
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’
Photo: John Scheepers

It was simple enough:

  1. Dig shallow hole, about 5″ deep.
  2. Throw a bunch of crocuses in the hole. They should be about as crowded as the Red Line “L” train at 3 PM, but not as crowded as it gets at 5:30 PM.
  3. Cover up the hole.
Crocuses thrown in hole, about as crowded as an “L” train at 3 PM

In this way I was able to deposit the 200 crocuses, about 80 in one hole and 120 in the other, before heading to the office. (I took the picture above with my cell phone, so it is not up to Judy’s usual standards.)

This episode reminds me of one of the big changes in my approach to gardening since I started. I used to be a very careful gardener. If the catalog said space plants 14″, I would try to measure out 14″ – not 12″ or 16″.

With crocuses, the instructions generally say plant 3-4″ apart. As a result, you could find me on a blustery fall day, making little individual holes three inches apart, dropping a crocus corm in each hole, then smoothing over the ground.

That was before I had a startling revelation: plants, if they’re in the right kind of spot, are pretty resilient. For the most part they do not need to be coddled. They certainly did not evolve in nature depending on exact spacing provided by the elements. And the ones that do, to hell with them. I have prospered as a gardener by acting on this philosophy.

Admittedly, this is not a good approach to growing, say, orchids. But I have no interest in growing orchids.

But I do like growing crocuses. (And I checked and the plural is either crocuses or croci, in case you were wondering.) I’ve been fond of crocuses since I was a little kid. They provide a bright splash of color in early spring, when the landscape is still mostly brown and tan. Crocus tommasinianus is supposed to be more squirrel resistant. You need to plant them in big bunches to have an impact, though. And that’s where careless gardening makes life so much easier.

‘Autumn Brilliance’ Indeed

Right now the showiest foliage in my yard is displayed by ‘Autumn Brilliance’ Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’).  I have six of these upright, multi-stem shrubs in a couple different spots in my yard, and I consider them pretty much indispensible. There are few shrubs that are happy in shade that have as much to offer.

serviceberry Amelanchier autumn foliage autumn brilliance
Serviceberries along our east property line.

The foliage turns to glowing red and orange fairly early in the season. Powdery mildew is an occasional problem, but never too serious for me. I think the color is just as striking as that of Burning Bush (Euonymous alata), which is considered invasive in some areas.

Serviceberry foliage shows even brighter against the green hedge on our west property line. Some misguided pruning accounts for the odd shapes.

Serviceberry covers itself in white flowers in early spring. This year it was very early, the flowers were open by the last week of March.

Serviceberry flowers on March 24th of this year. The neighbors’ crabapple makes for a nice contrast.

And in June there are berries, which look very similar to blueberries. The berries are edible, some say they taste like a cross between blueberry and almond. They are also well-timed for the many birds nesting at that time. We like to watch the Robins hopping from branch to branch, helping themselves to the berries. They’re also a favorite of other fruit-eating birds, such as Cedar Waxwings.

Serviceberry berries, not quite ripe. They’re a deep blue-purple when ready to eat.

While the books say this shrub grows 15-25′, the specimens I planted almost 10 years ago have grown from five to about twelve feet high.

What has the most colorful foliage in your yard right now? And have you had good or bad experience with Serviceberries?

I Get the Tulips Planted!

Yep, all 90 of them. I planted them in containers for the first time, having decided that tulips weren’t really a good fit in my perennial beds. For starters, the dying foliage flops over other emerging plants. Also, they are often short-lived, and since tulips need to be planted deep, replacing them can be disruptive to established plants.

But Judy loves hybrid tulips. She picked the varieties we ordered and decided how they should be combined in the containers. Here’s what we did:

Tulip 'Flair'
Tulipa ‘Flair’ Photo: Van Englen

Combined tulip ‘Flair’ (red and yellow, early, 14″) with ‘Bellona’ (yellow, early, 14″).

Combined ‘Flair’ with ‘West Point’ (yellow, lily-flowered, 20″, mid-season).

Tulip 'Coleur Cardinal'
Tulipa ‘Coleur Cardinal’ Photo: Van Engelen

Combined ‘West Point’ with ‘Kingsblood’ (red, early, 24″).

Combined ‘Kingsblood’ with ‘La Cortine’ (yellow and red, late, 26″).

Tulipa ‘West Point’ Photo: Van Engelen

Combined ‘La Cortine’ with ‘Coleur Cardinal’ (red and plum, early, 12″).

Combined ”Coleur Cardinal’ with ‘Rainbow Warrior’ (yellow with red edge, mid-season, 22″).

Tulip World Expression
Tulipa ‘World Expression’ Photo: John Scheepers

Combined ‘Bellona’ with ‘Rainbow Warrior’.

Filled a container with ‘World Expression’ (cream and red, late, 24″).

We put 10 tulips in 16″ containers and 8 tulips in smaller containers – probably could have squeezed a couple more into the larger containers. My understanding is you can stick as many tulips as you can into a container, as long as the bulbs aren’t touching. If you’re interested in how to plant tulips in containers (or how I did it, anyhow) it’s pretty simple:

  • Pull out all the container plants and dump them on the compost pile.
  • Pour the potting mix or soil from your containers into a larger container and mix with a few handfuls of compost.
  • Fill the containers with the refreshed mix until it is 6-8″ from the top. Throw in some bulb food if you want, following label directions for quantity.
  • Place the bulbs in the container. You can crowd them in there but they should not be touching.
  • Fill the rest of the container with mix, and give it a good soak with the hose. The containers should not dry out over winter.
  • Store in the garage or basement, a place where the bulbs will be chilled but the container won’t freeze.
Tulip bulbs in container
Tulip bulbs in container. I could probably have squeezed in a couple more. Sadly, I don’t have a proper potting bench, have to make do with the front steps.

And now, to dream of tulips until spring …

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