Gardeninacity In The News!

One of the birders who came to see the Varied Thrush in our yard was Jeff Reiter. Jeff writes a birding column for The Daily Herald, the leading newspaper in the Chicago suburbs. Today’s column was about seeing the Varied Thrush, which happened to be the 500th bird species he has watched – an important milestone. He was kind enough to mention and quote from Gardeninacity. The column is here.

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

Stackable Snacks For The Birds

We are still snow bound. Last week, I thought the snow might be on the verge of melting for the last time of the season. Silly me. On Tuesday, we got another 8″. It is melting again, but slowly.

Chicago snow
Our latest snowfall. Chicago is not ready for spring.

So not very much to be done in the garden right now. Instead, I can fiddle with my bird feeding operation.

Yesterday, I bought some cylinders of nuts, seed, and dried fruit bound together with gelatin. These go under the product name “Stackables”, which sounds a  lot like “Snackables”, pre-packaged lunches for grade schoolers you can buy at the grocery. We bought Snackables for a while, but they were expensive and probably unhealthy. Naturally, our kids loved them.

Red Breasted Nuthatch inspects our new Stackables.
Red Breasted Nuthatch inspects our new Stackables.

The similarity in names is probably not a coincidence. Our interest in backyard bird feeding intensified greatly once our kids had moved out of the house, and I don’t think we are alone in that.

Stackables are sold by Wild Birds Unlimited, which provides something in the way of bona fides. They have holes through the center, and you slide them onto the central pole of a bell-feeder, which I already owned. The packaging claims that Stackables are attractive to Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Grosbeaks, Catbirds, and others.

I wanted to try out the Stackables as a replacement for the shelled peanuts that I put out during the winter. Shelled peanuts are very popular with Nuthatches and Woodpeckers. They’re also very popular with Starlings, Grackles, and House Sparrows, and I’d guess 80% of the peanuts were eaten by these nuisance birds.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker helps himself to some suet.

The nuisance birds also eat from the cylinders, but supposedly get a smaller share because they have to work harder to get the parts they like. I’m a little skeptical, but we’ll see.

Another advantage of the cylinders is that you don’t need to keep 20 lb. sacks on your porch, as you do with shelled peanuts. Also, they’re supposed to provide a better look at the birds, as they have to stay on the feeder longer in order to get what they want.

Other foods we provide include suet, sunflower, peanuts in the shell, and nyjer seed. Peanuts in the shell are popular with Cardinals and Bluejays, but they provide little of interest for the nuisance birds. Nuthatches and Woodpeckers will eat from peanuts in shell, though given the choice they will go for shelled peanuts. In the summer we put out grape jelly and oranges for the Orioles.

I put out the cylinders this morning. The response so far has been modest: Cardinals and Red Breasted Nuthatches have taken some bites.

This is not surprising. It usually takes a while for the birds to get used to a new food. Also, for some reason this is a slow day in general at the feeders.

Have you made any changes lately in your bird feeding practices, or are you thinking about making any changes?

West-Of-The-Driveway Bed

About two years ago I put in one of my newer beds. It’s situated between the crabapple tree on the north and the sidewalk on the south. A thin strip of lawn separates the bed from the driveway to the east, and on the west is the neighbors’ lawn. Though it gets a bit of shade from the crabapple, this bed gets a lot of hot afternoon sun and is probably the driest of all my flower beds.

I wanted this bed to be no more than 3′ tall and wildlife-friendly. All of the plants attract pollinators, provide seeds for birds, or both.

Plants I have used here includes the following:

Tulipa praestans 'Fusilier'
Species Tulips ‘Fusilier’

Species Tulips (Tulipa praestans ‘fusilier’ and others). As I’ve written before, I love species tulips. Much more perennial than hybrids, the bulbs are smaller and easier to fit into a perennial bed.

Prairie Smoke and Starry Solomon's Plume
Prairie Smoke. This picture has both the flowers and a couple of seed heads.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum). This prairie native forms a drought-resistant, low-growing ground cover. Unique pink flowers in early spring mature into wispy seedheads.

Harebell, Lanceleaf Coreopsis
Harebell with Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia).  Harebell is a North American native Campanula. The small, blue, bell-shaped flowers bloom pretty much from early summer to frost. Harebell looks dainty but is actually pretty tough, and can get by without much water. I grew both Harebell and Praire Smoke at the front of this bed along the sidewalk.

Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). Long-blooming yellow daisies on a 2′ tall, undemanding plant. Mine tended to grow a bit taller and needed staking.

Scabiosa 'Butterfly Blue' and Lanceleaf Coreopsis
Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ and Lanceleaf Coreopsis, displaying my favorite blue/yellow combination.

Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’). Scabiosa is one of the few non-native plants in this bed. However, with deadheading the blue pincushion flowers bloom all summer and into the fall. Another easy care plant, I combine it with Coreopsis along the east side of the bed.

Starry Solomon's Plume, Prairie Smoke
Starry Solomon’s Plume with Prairie Smoke in late Spring.


Starry Solomon's Plume Berries
Starry Solomon’s Plume Berries

Starry Solomon’s Plume (Smilacena stellata). Starry Solomon’s Plume grows only about 18″ high and does well in dryer soils. This North American native has small bunches of white, star-shaped flowers in spring and interesting striped berries in fall. Birds are fond of the berries. This plant spreads by rhizomes, but I find it does not grow thickly enough to really make a good ground cover. An undemanding plant, I’ve got it in the center of the bed.

Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius, Anise Scented Goldenrod, Solidago odora
Aromatic Aster with Anise-Scented Goldenrod. I love the dark centers on this aster.

Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). One of the best Asters because it stays relatively compact (about 3′) and is not overly aggressive. Also it has many, many small blue-violet flowers in mid- to late-fall.

Anise Scented Goldenrod
Anise Scented Goldenrod

Anise Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). A wonderful (2-3′) compact  goldenrod that plays well with others in the garden. I combine this plant with Aromatic Aster towards the back of the bed.

Prairie Dropseed
Prairie Dropseed.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis). I planted these along the west edge of the bed. This is a low-growing warm season grass of the prairie. Takes a few years to get established, so in the meantime I’ve filled in with ‘Orange Profusion’ Zinnias. The Dropseed is starting to look good, though.

I’m also trying to grow Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) in this bed. So far it’s just limping along, but I hope it will grow into more robust shape. I also had planted some Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) along the west edge. This was a mistake. Carolina Rose spreads very aggressively. It’s also extremely thorny (ouch!). So last fall I pulled it out and replaced it with various Salvias.  We’ll see how it looks next year.

What are your favorite plants for dry, sunny spots?




5 Reasons To Be Grateful We Are Not Having An Early Spring

Mother Nature is a tease. Since early February here in Chicago, we have several times been granted a couple of lovely mild days. The snow would melt. Us gardeners would tentatively venture out to sniff the air and perhaps prune a shrub or two. We would start to think – this is it, we’re having an early spring. Then – WHAM! Wind, cold, snow, hail, and the slaying of the first born. Oh wait, that’s Passover.

Mourning Dove Heated Bird Bath
January 2012 – Mourning Dove at the heated bird bath

Thaw. Freeze. Thaw. Freeze. The cruel cycle goes on, raising hopes only to dash them. And of course, these days it’s pretty hard to know what to expect from the weather. What we would consider an early spring is gradually becoming the norm. It was not always thus. When I first moved to Chicago in 1983, you would typically begin March with a thick layer of ice and compacted snow on the ground, a layer which may not be inclined to melt before April.

Last year, however, February was like a mild March, and March was like May. This year is more like the old days. There is snow and ice on the ground, and there was more snowfall today.

All this can lead to considerable frustration for the gardener. However, in an effort to help all of us maintain a positive attitude, I am offering five reasons to be glad that we are NOT having an early Spring.

Donald Wyman crabapple
Flowering fruit trees are better off if they don’t come out of dormancy too early. This is the ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple in front of our house.
  1. Early Flowering Trees and Shrubs are Safer! Last year March was like May, sure, but then April was like February. The result was a lot of traumatized woody plants. These plants had gotten all cozy and vulnerable, only to have their leaves and flower buds flash frozen. Orchards in Illinois and all over the upper Midwest were devastated.
  2. Freezing and Thawing Reduces Soil Compaction! Sure all that restless soil may heave your new perennials out of the ground to whither in the frozen wind, but there is also a bright side. Compacted soil is a widespread problem, especially in the city and suburbs. The cycle of freezing and thawing tends to reduce compaction, at least in the upper layer of soil. 
  3. Fewer Pests! Longer, colder winters means fewer unhelpful insects and disease-causing organisms around for the following spring, especially those that are creeping North with climate change.
  4. Justifies My Investment In The Heated Bird Bath. If it turns out we’re not going to have long, cold winters, what am I doing with a heated bird bath?
  5. We’ll Appreciate Spring That Much More! That is, if we make it that long. 


Farewell to Impatiens?

Recently I have read a number of articles and posts about the devastation caused among Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana and related) by downy mildew. While usually just an unsightly nuisance among perennials, this strain is deadly for Impatiens. It can be treated but only if caught early and if you are willing to resort to the chemical arsenal.

I used Impatiens to fill in between new perennials in this bed. Eventually the space will be taken over by ferns, Columbine, Solomon Seal, and Wall Iris.

This raises two questions. First, is it worth planting Impatiens in 2013? And second, what would you replace them with? My tentative answer to the first question is no. Regarding the second question, I’m not sure, though I have some ideas.

I realize that some people really don’t care. They disdain Impatiens as common, boring, etc. For myself, I do not believe that because a plant is common it is therefore of no value in the garden. I use Impatiens extensively in my shady back garden, mostly in containers but also in beds, as a filler. I also used it last year to fill in between the new perennials in the shady bed on the east side of the house.

We’ve been using this old wheelbarrow as a planter for several years. Last year there was a mix of Impatiens and petunias. Petunias were an experiment that did not work.

Impatiens has several notable virtues, or at least it did until the Impatiens plague came along. First, it blooms its little head off from early summer right through frost. Second, it is not at all bothered by dense shade or by Chicago’s hot and humid summers. Third, it needs almost no attention, the main thing is to keep it from getting too dry. Fourth, it spreads nicely, creating a mounded flowery carpet. Also, it will obligingly spill over the sides of containers, and it attracts hummingbirds. Oh yeah, one other thing: they’re really cheap.

Almost all the Impatiens I plant are white, I like to have lots of white flowers in shady parts of the garden.

Despite all this, I don’t think I will plant any Impatiens this year. Just seems too risky, because once you have infected plants the disease will be in the soil, lying in wait, for Lord knows how long. The best way to be able to plant this species again is to wait out the infestations, or until the breeders come up with resistant varieties.

So what should I plant instead of Impatiens? I will probably use a mix of plants, but they all should be shade tolerant, low-growing, have white flowers, fill in nicely, and not require a lot of attention. Ideally, they will also be good for wildlife. Oh, and not too expensive. A few possibilities include:

Flowering containers
Flowering containers on our back porch landing.

Floss Flower (Ageratum houstonianum).  Usually blue, but has white varieties. Meets all my criteria, except that in my experience this plant will not spill over the side of containers.

Saphire Flower (Browallia). There’s a variety called ‘Endless Flirtation’ with white flowers. This plant is supposed to be a good spiller. Not nearly as cheap as Floss Flower, though.

Foliage Plants. There are varieties of Coleus and Calladium with green and white or near-white leaves. Calladiums are much more expensive, though I usually plant a few anyway.

I also considered but rejected a few possibilities, including annual Lobelia (Lobelia erinus) and various types of Begonias. I like annual Lobelia, but it usually shrivels in the heat of summer. On the other hand, Judy and I just don’t like Begonias. Hard to explain, but there you are.

What about you – will you be planting impatiens this year? And if not, what will you use as a replacement?

Bluebeard and Red Poppies, Plus Other Plant Combinations from the Chicago Botanic Garden

Looking at photos from a summer outing to the Chicago Botanic Garden, I was particularly struck by three of the plant combinations Judy took pictures of. (UPDATE: As Alison and Alberto point out in comments, the blue flower below is a tall variety of Nepeta, not Bluebeard. Sorry for the error!) First, Bluebeard (Caryopteris) and Poppies (Papaver). (Sorry, I don’t know the exact variety of any of the plants in this post.) I love mixing blue with hot colors like red or yellow.

Caryopteris, Red Poppy
Nepeta with Red Poppy

Second, Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Russian Sage and Purple Coneflower
Russian Sage and Purple Coneflower

And finally, Allium (looks like ‘Purple Sensation’) and White False Indigo (Baptisia alba L.) What I really like here is the contrast in shape between the Allium lollipops and the softly serrated spikes of the Baptisia.

Allium and White False Indigo
Allium and White False Indigo

Have you been thinking about trying any new plant combinations this year?

Wildflower Wednesday: Virginia Bluebells

As we all have spring on our minds, I’d like to write about a lovely spring wildflower, Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). The flower buds of Virginia Bluebells tend to start out pink, and the flowers are tinged with pink before they turn blue.

Virginia Bluebells
Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells are native throughout much of eastern and midwestern North America. It likes fertile, moist soil in deciduous woodlands. In the right spot, they are an easy care perennial. It is hardy from zone 8 all the way up to zone 3.

This spring ephemeral blooms usually in April here in Chicago. The foliage is oval, smooth, and blue-green, but becomes unsightly as it dies back. Virginia Bluebells are best planted with ferns or other companions that can obscure the dying foliage. Bleeding Heart  (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) (that’s right, Lamprocapnos, not Dicentra, the taxonomists strike again) is another classic companion for Virginia Bluebells.

Virginia Bluebells will expand to form substantial clumps, but will also self-sow energetically, so that you will always have little seedlings to give away or move. I tend to let it grow where it sprouts if at all possible.

Thanks to Gail at Clay and Limestone for hosting Wildflower Wednesday on the fourth Wednesday of every month.

The Front Island Bed: A Wildlife-Friendly Spot Full of Bold Plants

The Front Island Bed lies between the Sidewalk Border and the low retaining wall of the expanded Foundation Bed. It is filled mostly with taller plants that enjoy lots of moisture, since the soil is a moist clay loam. It gets almost full sun, even though it is on the north side of the house. It’s also more of a peninsula than an island, I guess, since I expanded it to go right up to the retaining wall for a couple of feet.

Garden Design
The Front Island Bed, July 2012

The Front Island Bed is separated from the Sidewalk Border and the Driveway Border by grass paths, roughly 3′ wide. The key plants in this bed, from front to back, are as follows:

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). I have both the straight species and the cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’. The species is taller (4-5′) with pink flowers, ‘Ice Ballet’ is shorter (3-4′) with white flowers. Both have a delicious vanilla scent, and both have long bloom periods, starting by late June and lasting into August.

Asclepias incarnata
Swamp Milkweed, straight species


The seed pods can be beautiful in fall. Under the right conditions (sun, moist soil) this plant is easy to grow. Like other Milkweeds, Swamp Milkweed is a host plant for Monarch butterflies, and are superlative nectar plants for pollinators. I think the Perennial Plant Association doesn’t want us to use the common name “Swamp Milkweed”, so you may find it listed in catalogs and elsewhere as “Red Milkweed”. Swamp Milkweed will self-sow and form expanding clumps, but it is not an overly aggressive plant.

Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet'
Swamp Milkweed ‘Ice Ballet’ (white)


Swamp Milkweed seed pods
Swamp Milkweed seed pods

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). The New England Aster stands more or less behind the Swamp Milkweed. This aster has spun off innumerable cultivars, but I have the straight species. This guy is a tall aster (5-6′) with variable flowers – mostly blue but sometimes pink or purple. He will spread by seed and by rhizome, but I don’t have to work too hard to keep him in bounds. Blooms August to October. I highly recommend cutting back hard at least once during the season, in order to get a bushier plant of more manageable height. A good nectar plant for butterflies, and birds will eat the seeds.

New England Aster
New England Aster

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). I’ve written about this plant, which is a particular favorite of mine, in a number of posts. Cup Plant stands behind the New England Aster on the right side of the Island Bed. To avoid being overly repetitive, I will just summarize: VERY tall (8-10′), yellow daisy flowers from July to September, bold foliage that forms “cups” that hold rainwater around the stem, seeds are loved by goldfinches.

Cup Plant
Cup Plant

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum). Gaah! I just discovered that Joe Pye Weeds are now Eutrochiums, not Eupatoriums. That’s very annoying! But back to the topic at hand. Sweet Joe Pye Weed is like the more common variety ‘Gateway’ except that it is taller (7-8′), flowers earlier (July-August), and the flowers are more of a dusty pink. Supposedly the leaves are fragrant, but I haven’t noticed any fragrance myself. This plant sits behind the New England Aster and along side the Cup Plant.  The flowers are attractive to butterflies.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed
Sweet Joe Pye Weed in the front island bed.

This is a taller bed because it is generally viewed over the tops of other beds. Most of the plants require some serious staking. I use 10′ rebar for the Cup Plant and the Sweet Joe Pye Weed. It does have some shorter plants in the front: Blue Stem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia),  Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue” and Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). I removed most of the Chasmanthium I originally planted and replaced them with the Geranium, because I found this grass to be too tall and floppy to have very much of it at the front of the border.

Blue Stem Goldenrod
Blue Stem Goldenrod

There are also a couple of volunteer Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) that I allowed to grow that provide nice contrasts of color and form.

All of the plants in this bed, other than the ‘Johnson’s Blue’ are native to this part of North America. At the moment this is one of the beds where I am not scheming to add new plants or move things around.


Tomato and Goat Cheese Galette

The other night Judy made this tomato and goat cheese galette for dinner, and it was delicious. It would be even more delicious with home-grown or farmer’s market tomatoes instead of supermarket tomatoes, but it’s February, so there you are. She got the recipe here. The recipe called for thyme and she didn’t have any, so she used zaatar (a spice mix that includes thyme), then threw in some sumac powder for good measure.

Tomato and Goat Cheese Galette
Tomato and Goat Cheese Galette. Looks good, doesn’t it?

Judy says the key to making this successfully is slicing the tomatoes thinly, otherwise they will stay too juicy.

A quick postscript. Am I the only person who feels an urge to snicker when hearing the words “goat cheese”? I mean, goat cheese is delicious, but if someone had mentioned it to me when I was 15 (I was born in 1958), I would have snickered. And even today, it just sounds weird to my unsophisticated inner self. Of course, I also think boiled tongue and creamed herring are perfectly normal, so what do I know? But what about you, are there foods you enjoy today that you would have laughed at while growing up?

Book Review: The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, by Stephen Kress

This book has impeccable birder credentials, sponsored by both the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab or Ornithology. If I could have only one book on having a bird-friendly garden in the USA or Canada, this would be the one. It covers the basics – food, nesting, water, cover – in a more comprehensive manner than any of the other books I have seen on the topic.

Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds

The land management chapters deal with both backyard habitats and larger landholdings of forest, grassland, and shrubland.

My favorite chapters deal with plant selections. These are especially valuable because plants are listed regionally, with separate lists for the Northeast, Southeast, Prairies and Plains, Mountains and Deserts, and the Pacific Coast. Plant charts provide information on specific birds attracted by various plants, as well as plant descriptions and cultural information.

The section on nests includes information on both nest boxes and plantings that provide safe and attractive nesting sites. Challenges such as parasites, predators, and competition from invasive species are addressed. Water features, both simple and elaborate, are discussed, as well as aquatic plants. Finally, there is a thorough review of the dos and don’ts of supplemental feeding.

This book’s only serious shortcoming is the complete lack of photographs or any colored illustrations. This is a book for information, but not for sighing over the beauty of various plants and birds (I have a lot of those). The line drawings used for illustrations are adequate, but not inspiring.

Stephen Kress, The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds (Second Edition), Cornell University Press, 2006.


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