It helps to go out and look at your garden every day. After a Saturday morning spent hacking out purple violets with the dandelion weeder because 1) there doesn’t appear to be an organic herbicide on the market that deals with violets and 2) I worry about the after-effects of whatever strong chemical a licensed professional might apply, I decided to catch my breath with a leisurely stroll through the front yard. And there I discovered a treasure — a lovely pendulous apricot-colored brugmansia.
There are a few cyclical events in my life that I look forward to: the first lazy snowflakes, the emergence of a small spring bulb, the fulsome green of spring, my July birthday, and the sudden shocking pink of Aechmea fasciata leaping out of its silver urn.
A few days ago it was cool enough to go outside and see the red needles calling me. It was my fully open haemanthus, a rarely grown South African bulb whose salmon red stamens form a round ball up to 10 inches across.
Ask many skilled gardeners to name their favorite plant, and what do they reply? “The one that’s in bloom right now.”
Not what the interviewer wanted to hear, probably, but true nonetheless.
Wouldn’t life be just about perfect if roses could grow in shade? It so happens that once in a while you come across one that says it “tolerates some shade.” So when I saw those magical words attached to ‘Zépherine Drouhin’, I took them as a clear invitation to buy one and plant it by my front porch landing where it would get some morning sun although there was a 50-year-old mock orange shrub standing nearby on the right and a ‘DeGroot’s Spire’ arborvitae a few feet in front of it next to the steps. There was a pocket through which the rose would get “some” sun as it faced east in the morning, but alas, not enough.
This time last year we were heading into an awful, hot, drought-ridden summer — one that trounced the tomato plants, sent container plantings wilting if they didn’t get watered twice a day, and left gardeners exhausted and crabby. As we approach the summer solstice on Friday (yes, it’s still spring for a few more days) we’re celebrating a lush spring that’s been filled with cool days and plentiful rain. Many songbirds had a late start nesting and their melodies fill the woods across the road from our garden.
Earlier this spring, a pair of bluebirds began nesting in a box set in our mixed perennial and shrub border, but, sadly, they were chased off by sparrows. I pulled the empty nest, made of dried grasses, from the box in the hopes that they would return. And they did. They’ve rebuilt their nest, and I’ve seen them chase off curious, bullying sparrows.
I have been trying to kill Grandpa Ott, known affectionately around here as Gramps, for twenty years. We brought him here from Decorah, Iowa, having no idea that he would live so long, or be such a pain the metaphorical arse. I have tried poison, knives, my bare hands, everything shy of a gun, and if I had one of those I might consider using it. Nothing has worked and he has seriously overstayed his welcome.
The hot new thing in vegetable gardening is grafted plants. Burpee and Ball and other plant breeders have developed grafted tomatoes and eggplants in recent years, and I saw them growing in the trial beds at The Gardens at Ball in West Chicago last summer. The idea is that the vigorous rootstock will make the fruiting part of the plant grow faster and produce more fruit. The idea has been common practice with roses for decades.
If you grow vegetables, one of the most valuable tools around is a soil thermometer. That’s because many vegetable seeds germinate and grow even when the soil is only 45 degrees. On April 6, I took my trusty soil thermometer and discovered that the top three inches of soil where I grow annual herbs was still only 41 degrees. I waited two weeks and it gradually warmed up so I could sow spinach, lettuce, onions and Swiss chard without having the seeds rot in the cold, wet soil.
In a few weeks, we can start planting tomatoes and peppers as well as sowing seeds of squash, eggplant, beans and other warm-season vegetables. When you’re planning what to grow this summer, think about what you enjoy eating. There are plenty of cooking themes that can make it fun: a salad garden, an herbal tea garden, a pumpkin and squash garden, a Thai garden with lemon grass, Thai basil, hot peppers, and more.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of strolling through Cantigny Park in Wheaton, where the floral displays are always spectacular.
A comical plant identification flow chart from our columnist, Mike Nowak.
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