Busy Bees

The bees surely do love Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). They are practically swarming around the spiky blue flowers. Judy took this video with her cell phone the other day. Please forgive the quality, this is a first effort.

Here Comes the Sunflower

The perennial sunflowers (genus Helianthus), that is. Most sunflowers grown in gardens are annuals, and they are beauties in a sunny spot. Perennial sunflowers are wildflowers of the prairies, or cultivars much closer to the wildflower species than their annual cousins.

Downy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis) – Cup Plant to right.

The rap on perennial sunflowers is that they are far too aggressive for a garden setting. That hasn’t been my experience, but of course behavior varies widely depending on species and conditions. When I lived in Wisconsin I saw some truly out-of-control colonies of Helianthus tuberosus (the source of Jerusalem artichokes, by the way) in a couple of backyards.

I’ve had some very mixed experiences with three perennial sunflower species: Downy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus), and Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus). H. mollis and H. occidentalus need sun and well-drained soil, H. strumosus will take some shade and tolerates more clay.

Bring on the yellow daisies of summer! From the left: Blackeyed Susan, Cup Plant, Downy Sunflower. Anise Hyssop is far left.

I planted Downy Sunflower three years ago in the raised bed that stretches along the driveway and walk to the front door. That first year it did not do well. There was lots of rain that year, and my H. mollis was shaded by plants that grew tall early in the season. The result was that it grew stems in an odd corkscrew pattern and flowered sparsely. I concluded early that this was a failed experiment and yanked the plants out of the bed (or so I thought).

Next year, no sign that I noticed of Downy Sunflower.

Then this year, I witnessed Downy Sunflower II: The Return of the King. There were two plants that popped up in Spring and then just kept growing straight and strong, one to about 6′ and the other to at least 10′. Yes, I did have to stake them to keep them upright. They are blooming now: 3″ yellow daisies with centers that start dark and gradually turn golden.

Perennial sunflowers are one of those plants that will regrow if even a small piece of root is left in the soil. I think H. mollis has benefited from a drier year and a different mix of plants around it. I like it for the multiple flowers, and for the fuzzy grey-green leaves that look almost like Lambs Ears. Plus, as I’ve written before, I like tall plants, and this one seems to whisper: “Remember the tall-grass prairie.”

I’ll have to watch Downy Sunflower’s future behavior before settling its longer term role in my garden.

I have a very different story with Western Sunflower (H. occidentalus).  Western Sunflower is supposed to be the most garden-friendly wild sunflower. It grows only to 3′ or so and is much less aggressive. The foliage is mostly basal, and it flowers at the end of long, almost leafless stems.

My experience was that H. occidentalus is docile to the point of being unable to compete with other perennials. I planted several Western Sunflower, and within about three years they had all disappeared.

Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus). Photo: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Finally, I grow Woodland Sunflower in my lightly shaded backyard. It is a tough and reliable plant, providing color in late summer. I never watered it in this year’s horrendous drought. It’s grown shorter and bloomed less profusely, but otherwise doesn’t seem all that bothered.

Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)

I’m sure many would say that there’s no point in bothering with perennial sunflowers, the annuals are more colorful and generally easy to grow. They have a point. But I am one of those people who like some wildness in the garden (within limits – not right next to the sidewalk), who grow native wildflowers because there is very little wild space left for them to thrive in, and because they evoke the long-vanished prairie.

Question of the Week: What Should I Plant in This Raised Bed?

On my parkway there are two raised beds on either side of a young hackberry tree. On the west side of the tree, the raised bed is full of species tulips in early to mid-spring. Later in the summer, it is mostly anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and brown eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Some have suggested this is because I can’t stand to throw volunteers on the compost pile, or because I am cheap. No comment.

Parkway from street with raised bed behind Rudbeckias.

These are fine plants, but I have come to feel that they are a little tall (4′ even after they are cut back in spring) and wild for a parkway garden. Given that I have a lot of truly enormous plants toward the back of my front yard, I think it would be better to have lower growing plants in the parkway. This is for my own aesthetic sense as well as to help along the comfort level of the neighbors.

The raised bed is built from pavers and is about 6′ long and 4′ across at its widest point. It gets lots of sun and the soil is loamy but a little on the dry side. To the North of the bed, there is Rudbeckia fulgida, then the curb and street. To the South, there is wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana – outside the raised beds the parkway is mostly covered with this is a groundcover), then the sidewalk.

I have put together a rough plan – and I’d like to know what you think. I’ve done a graphic but for some reason I can’t upload it into the post.  So instead I’ll give a brief description of the bed as I envision it.

Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’. I have a bunch of this in the front yard opposite the parkway. ‘Tschelda’ is like this but shorter and the leaves have a “felty” texture.

Edging the sidewalk side of the bed, spilling over the pavers: Either Geranium renadii ‘Tschelda’ or Dianthus ‘Rose Zing’. ‘Tschelda’ is a blue geranium like ‘Johnson’s Blue’, but shorter. I like this possibility because it would echo some Johnson’s Blue on the other side of the sidewalk. On the other hand, I love red, and I don’t have any Dianthus anywhere.

Salvia ‘May Night’ in front yard along sidewalk.

Center/back of the bed: Salvia ‘May Night’ and Downy Phlox (Phlox pilosa). These should provide nice contrasts of color and form. Downy phlox is a prairie wildflower growing to 2′. It’s bright pink flowers and more mounded form should provide a nice contrast to the blue spires of the Salvia. These should provide color in the late spring/early summer. Also, the Salvia will provide repetition for the Salvias along the other side of the sidewalk.

Downy Phlox. Photo: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

East end of the bed (facing hackberry). Here I’d like to put some Dwarf Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’) to provide interest through summer and fall. This is a perennial I’ve been wanting to try.

Fountain Grass. Photo: University of Illinois Extension.

West end of the bed. At the very end, I’m thinking some Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolopsis). Just inside the Dropseed, I’d plant some false mallow (Sidalcea ‘Party Girl’). The Sidalcea is basically a miniature hollyhock (growing to about 3′) with pink to rose flowers that would provide a focal point in summer. OK, I know I said I didn’t want plants that are too tall, but at least a couple of plants can be moderately tall.

Prairie Mallow. Photo: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

So, what do you think? Do these sound like good choices? Once concern I have is that the color is mostly in spring and early summer. On the other hand, there’s all the Rudbeckia fulgida between the raised bed and the curb, which will provide late season color. Then there’s the Sidalcea and the grasses which provide interest later in the season.

Make free with the advice, criticism, and opinions. Talking over garden plans with equally obsessed gardeners can be as much fun as gardening itself.

Caterpillar Dreamin’

So I’ve begun ordering stuff for fall planting, starting out by ordering one plant I MUST have. I know that I MUST HAVE IT, even though I’m not exactly sure where I’ll put it.

Dutchman’s pipe

The plant in question is Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla), a native vine with large, heart-shaped leaves. I could tell you that I’ve ordered this plant because the foliage adds an understated elegance to the woodland garden, but that would be a lie. I’ve ordered this plant because I want caterpillars – pipevine swallowtail caterpillars.

One of the instructors for the course in groundcovers and vines I’m taking at Chicago Botanic Garden brought in pictures of pipevine swallowtail caterpillars eating the leaves on HER Dutchman’s pipe. Seeing those caterpillars made me realize I must have this plant.

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar on Dutchman’s pipe leaf

I do have butterflies, but no caterpillars. And I yearn for caterpillars the way Linus yearned for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. This yearning is mostly unrequited. I have tons of milkweed, four different species, yet I have seen a grand total of two monarch caterpillars over the past nine years. I have planted dill, parsley, and fennel, but have not seen a single black swallowtail caterpillar. Oh, and I’ve got five spicebush, but – you guessed it – no spicebush swallowtail caterpillars.

Why do the caterpillars forsake me? I don’t know. Perhaps I am unworthy. Perhaps they are remembering some caterpillar I squished when I was nine years old.

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly seen from top

However, I am not giving up. It could be that pipevine swallowtail caterpillars are my destiny. Once they arrive on my Dutchman’s pipe, it will be like being seen hanging out with the most popular kid in school: all the other caterpillars will start showing up in my garden and inviting me to have lunch at their table in the cafeteria.

Finding a place that could fill an order for Dutchman’s pipe wasn’t that easy. Not many nurseries carry it, and it was out of stock at the first couple of nurseries I found that do sell the vine. Finally I was able to place an order at Shooting Star Nursery in Kentucky. I’ve had good experiences with them in the past.

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly

Now that my Dutchman’s pipe is coming, I have to figure out where to put it. It’s a big vine, so I’m thinking I’ll let it cover the backyard fence on the alley side. The fence is only 5′ high, but 50′ wide. Dutchman’s pipe is a twiner, so I’ll have to maybe put fishing line on the fence with eye hooks. It’ll be in part sun facing the alley, with fairly light shade.

Do you also yearn for caterpillars? Is there a name for that condition? Have you been successful at attracting caterpillars, and if so, what’s your secret?

Fruit, Foliage and Grasses Follow Up

I’ve been meaning to post a few more photos as a follow up to GBBD, but things have been very busy and I just got back from an overnight work trip. In addition to flowers, the seed heads on the grasses are ripening. I have three switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) ‘Northwind’ in the front bed along the sidewalk. Of these, two are very robust, the third is struggling with the shade it’s getting from the surrounding forbs.  I love this plant for the blue green color, the airy seedheads, and the fact that it is tall and substantial but also very upright.

Switchgrass in the front yard.

The ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple is loaded with fruit this year.  The fruit, as it ripens, is just as beautiful as the flowers.

Crabapples

Also, I did find some ripe grey dogwood berries before the birds got to them. There are also a handful of black chokeberries – I have four dwarf shrubs still very young and recovering from being chewed down almost to the ground by rabbits during the winter. The first spicebush berries have turned red, but I have yet to see any spicebush swallowtail caterpillars, which is disappointing.  And the snowberries and coralberries are coming along.

Grey dogwood berries.
Grey dogwood berries

Oh yes, and foliage. The caladiums in the backyard are doing well, and for the first time this year I have planted Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus). At first I thought they were too dark, but I’m growing to like them.

I have these caladiums and Persian shields in containers located to hide the fact that there is a turnoff to this path that ends very abruptly.

 

 

 

August Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day

The first of the asters and goldenrods are blooming, and that means fall is coming. The heat and drought made for a difficult summer, and yet I hate to think of it ending so soon. Anyhow, here’s what’s blooming:

Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop). Late to bloom this year, but now at its peak.

Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed).

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed).

Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis)

Asclepias tuberosa (butterflyweed). These two milkweeds are almost at the end of their season.

Aster macrophyllus (big leaf aster). My kids like to call this “big ass leafter”.

Aster oblongifolius (aromatic aster).

Aster prenanthoides (crooked-stem aster). This is the earliest to bloom. I’ve got at least another four species that won’t flower for another couple of week or more.

Anise scented goldenrod with anise hyssop.

Campanula rotundifolia (harebell).

Canna, various cultivars.

Cleome hasslerana ‘Sparkler’ (spider flower).

More anise hyssop in the front yard with Joe Pye weed and cup plant in the background.

Cleome ‘Seniorita Rosalita’ (spider flower).

Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sensation’.

Cosmos sulphureus (orange cosmos).

Path between two beds in the front yard. There’s very little grass left. The bed to the right has swamp milkweed which is mostly done and New England aster which won’t bloom for at least two more weeks.

Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower).

Eupatorium ‘Gateway’ (Joe Pye weed).

Eupatorium purpureum (sweet Joe Pye weed).

The garden on the east side of the house. Not very exciting, I’ve filled in with impatiens and verbena while waiting for the columbine, ferns, and solomon seal to fill in.

Helianthus mollis (downy sunflower).

Helianthus strumosus (woodland sunflower). A sunflower for shade!

Heliopsis ‘Summer Nights’ (oxeye sunflower).

‘Darlow’s Enigma’ – I am growing this rose up an arbor. It blooms through the season and is fragrant. Despite the smallish flowers, this rambler rose can achieve an impressive size.

Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’.

Impatiens, various cultivars.

Lantana ‘New Gold’.

Flowering tobacco

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower).

Lobularia maritima (sweet alyssum).

Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’ (bee balm).

Nicotania alata (flowering tobacco).

Rudbeckia, cleome, cosmos, etc.

Pelargonium peltatum (ivy geranium).

Pelargonium hybrids (zonal geranium).

Pentas lanceolata (star flower).

Petunia, various cultivars.

Canna

Rosa ‘Cassie’, ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, Sally Holmes’. These are really good for blooming through the season, though the heaviest bloom is early summer. They are all white or cream colored and single or semi-double.

Rudbeckia fulgida (black eyed susan).

Rudbeckia triloba (brown eyed susan).

Ruelia humilis (wild petunia). Not really a petunia. Supposed to self-seed aggressively but I haven’t found that to be the case.

Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’ (pincushion flower).

Silphium perfoliatum (cup plant).

Solidago odora (anise scented goldenrod). The first of the goldenrods to bloom! A shorter goldenrod that does well in dry shade or sun.

Symphirocarpos album (snowberry).

Symphirocarpos orbiculatus (coralberry).

Verbena ‘Cherry Red’, ‘Homestead Purple’.

Vernonia altissima (ironweed). This is their first year blooming. They are only 4-5′ tall this year, but wait until next year!

Weekend Notes: Goldfinches, Heavy Artillery, Right Plant Wrong Place

Seed Buffet for Goldfinches. As summer lingers on and seeds ripen, our yard is providing an all-you-can-eat buffet for goldfinches. Funny thing, earlier this year goldfinches were very scarce at my birdfeeders. Purple finches and house finches in abundance, but no goldfinches. Was there an alarming regional decline in the goldfinch population? (I always suspect there are alarming declines all over the place that no one is telling me about.) Knowledgable friends assured me that this was not so, the finches just had better stuff to eat elsewhere.

So many seeds, so little time.

Sure enough, goldfinches started popping up when the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds started to ripen. And now that there are ripe cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) seeds, they are all over the yard. They also like Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium sp.) seeds, I  notice. In the near future, there will be anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and sunflower (Helianthus mollis) seeds added to the menu.

Every time we open the door, a small flock of startled goldfinches bursts out from the tall pink and yellow flowers in the front yard. They fly in their odd, loopy way (which looks like they keep forgetting to maintain sufficient altitude) to safety in the nearby trees, singing their high-pitched, wistful-sounding song. I enjoy having them around.

Bringing out the Heavy Artillery. I’ve written before about the challenge of keeping my 4XL-size perennials relatively upright. It’s not that I’m a neatnik or control freak, it’s just that seeing 6-10′ flower stalks leaning at a 45 degree angle gives me an itchy feeling. At the same time, it’s become obvious that mere  6′ bamboo poles just can’t get the job done.

Tough enough to straighten out any perennial.

So I’ve taken the advice of Scott at Rhone Street Gardens and gotten the right tool for the job, namely 10′ lengths of rebar. So far, I am pleased. Stuck 2-3′ in the ground, they compel a clump of cup plant to stand up (mostly) straight. Not quite as inconspicuous as I’d like, they give a kind of rust belt aura to the perennial border. Maybe I’ll paint them green for next spring.

Another view of my front yard. I should have asked if it was American-made rebar, if there is any.

The Right Plant in the Wrong Place. I confess that I am sometimes an impulse gardener. That’s why I have downy sunflower, which likes drier soil, growing alongside Ironweed and Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’, both of which like a lot of moisture. I got ‘Gateway’ when I had to remove some diseased purple coneflower and suddenly had a big hole to fill in my front raised bed. I’d been wanting to grow ‘Gateway’ but hadn’t figured where to put it. Plus there was a sale at the Garden Center, so … it was meant to be!

The very first downy sunflower bloom, with many more to come. Can you see the rebar?

That was last year. This year, the  ‘Gateway’ seems happy, as does the downy sunflower. I’d say the soil they’re in is very well-drained but still normally moist (I’ve been watering during the drought). I could come to regret putting together these guys who normally prefer different habitats, but so far I haven’t suffered for flouting this particular rule. Could be the soil is at the moist end of tolerable for the sunflower (which has grown to 8′ though it’s supposed to be 4-6′), and at the dry end of tolerable for the Joe Pye Weed.

Miracle-Gro or Miracle-PAC?

OK, I have deliberately stayed away from politics on this blog, and I intend to continue doing that. However, I just want to take note of the news that Scott’s Miracle-Gro has given $200,000 to the Restore Our Future super PAC, which is supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. We are all free to draw our own conclusions.

My Favorite Gardening Catalogues for Mail Order Plants

I cannot live without gardening catalogues. In fact, I divide my mail order plants among many retailers not just to access maximum variety and good price, but also to assure a diverse array of catalogues for bedtime perusal.  By now I know some of these catalogues almost by heart. Nevertheless, I get the same comfort from going over and over even the most familiar pages that some people get from re-reading the Bible or their favorite poems.

I was reminded of this the other day when the fall issue of the Bluestone Perennials catalogue arrived. People think of fall as the time to plant bulbs, but it is also an excellent time to plant most perennials and many shrubs and trees. And now is the time to start thinking about those orders for fall planting. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite catalogues – favorites both for the plants on offer and the viewing pleasure they provide. Links to the websites are provided (I also love looking at websites for mail order nurseries.)

Bluestone Perennials (Ohio). This is my go-to catalogue for non-native perennial favorites (though they carry many natives as well). Nice pictures, good descriptions. This retailer deserves extra credit for being one of the first to use biodegradable pots – no plastic to throw away and make you feel guilty.

Prairie Nursery (Wisconsin). These folks have downsized their catalogue, but it’s still a pleasure to read and an excellent source of Midwest natives. Plants are helpfully organized based on the environmental conditions to which they are adapted. Twice a year they have an open house and tour. My brother and I went a couple years ago, and got to meet the owner and native plant authority Neil Diboll. And how’s this for local color: the nursery is near the federal prison in Oxford, Wisconsin. The B&B we stayed at was also used by relatives of Chicago political legend (and my former Congressman) Dan Rostenkowski when they visited him in the hoosegow. 

Oakes Daylilies (Tennessee). Daylily specialists, Oakes stands out both for their wide selection and the size and quality of the plants when they arrive.

Forest Farm (Oregon).  This catalogue is substantial, almost like a phone book for a small city. Unfortunately, there are very few pictures. Forest Farm makes up for the lack of photos with an incredibly broad selection of plants. Also, the introduction from the owners makes you feel like these are folks who really love plants AND people. I’ve had good experience using Forest Farm as a source for shrubs and small trees.

Prairie Moon (Minnesota). These people are SERIOUS about Midwest natives, and they have an incredibly wide selection. Prairie Moon sells mostly bare root plants. Bare root plants have lots of advantages – they’re cheaper to ship, they’re dormant so no transplant shock, plus you often get more plant for your money. On the other hand, there’s something unsatisfying about opening a box and finding plastic bags full of what looks like dried squids and octopus. Prairie Moon does sell potted plants, but only in bulk. The catalogue features tables with key plant characteristics, but no narrative descriptions, making for a more clinical reading experience. On the other hand, there is some beautiful photography.

John Scheeper’s Beauty from Bulbs (Connecticut). My favorite bulb catalogue. Huge selection, pretty good prices, very good quality bulbs. I especially like  the selection of species tulips.

Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm (Illinois). These folks sell lots of different plants, but this is where I go for peonies. They have an outstanding reputation for developing new varieties of both peonies and daylilies, and are also well-known for their arboretum.

So what are your favorite plant catalogues? Or do you prefer to buy only from garden centers?

 

Weekend Notes: Disappearing Berries, We’re Jammin’, and Flop Goes the Perennial

Disappearing Berries. As they are ripening very early, the birds are consuming the berries of fall and late summer much earlier than normal. The black currants continue to ripen, as they do throughout the summer. In addition, grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa) berries are eaten as soon as they turn greenish white, so you almost never see the white ripe berries. The books say that the pedicel turn bright red, but my C. rasemosas haven’t read the books, apparently. Some of the pedicels show some good color, but most are just plain green. On the plus side, some of my gray dogwoods are yielding berries this year after I had almost despaired that they would ever do so.

Unripe gray dogwood berries with red pedecils.

The black elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are almost half gone.

Wild black elderberries.

The cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) berries are mostly gone. This is unexpected because V. trilobum are often uneaten until after the winter freeze, and many write that their berries remain untouched through the winter.

Cranberrybush viburnum berries

What will the birds eat when these berries are gone? There is a bumper crop of crabapples this year, they’re just turning orange now. There are also snowberries and coralberries; these will not be ripe for weeks. Still, you have to wonder if the food supply and the timing of the bird migrations may be getting out of sync. At least for  now the cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, and other fruit eaters have plenty to choose from at the Garden in a City.

We’re Jammin’. Our son Danny, his girlfriend Caitlin, and their friend Megan came over to make blackberry and peach jam with Judy. They had purchased a large supply of beautiful fruit at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, some of which ended up frozen. Making jam seems deceptively simple: you just need the fruit, sugar, and pectin. The blackberries have to be crushed, and the peaches scalded and peeled. I asked Judy if I could include the recipes on my post, and she pointed out that it was the recipe on the box of Sure-Jell pectin, which can also be found on-line.

Our share of the loot.

Their efforts yielded six half-pint jars of blackberry jam and five of peach jam. Afterwards, they rewarded themselves with blackberry gin fizzes, just as our pioneer ancestors would have. I stayed out of the way, my role was limited to going out to get the bottle of gin.

Flop Goes the Perennial. Since the rains have returned, it seems that my gardening tasks these days consist almost entirely of the following: 1) keeping plants from flopping; 2) mowing the lawn; 3) keeping the grass from sneaking into the flower beds; and 4) picking tomatoes. Of these, it is the anti-flopping duty that seems to be the most time-consuming and exasperating, though I think I have made a substantial contribution to the profits of the bamboo stake industry. (Weeding has not been a big problem because at this point there’s no bare ground left.)

In the land of the giant flopping perennials (my front yard).

A partial list of my floppers includes the following: cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis); Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum and ‘Gateway’); anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium); New England aster (Aster novae-angliae); and – oh, hell, it seems like just about everything, and that’s after I’ve cut a lot of stuff back in May.

Now, you may say this is only to be expected when you grow so many plants in the 4X Big and Tall size. To this I say, dream no little dreams, and plant no little perennials.

Reach for the skies! This cup plant wanted to lean so badly that it pulled masonry nails out of a brick wall.

I think part of the problem is that my soil may be too rich, causing excessive growth and floppiness. I’m going to have to swear off of compost for my perennial beds and see if that helps. In the meantime, do you know where I can find a supply of 10′ bamboo poles?

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