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Garden Tool Maintenance

Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg

A Clean Tool is a Safe Tool

In the garden, everything has its season. Fall is the season for cleaning and preparing tools for spring. Dirt and rust are harmful to just about everything, but especially to garden tools that are often wet and dirty. We depend on our tools to be safe and effective. Dirt and rust make our tools less safe and make us work harder. Water may be great for the garden, but it is the enemy of our tools.

Oil to the Rescue

Water on metal promotes rust, and on wood it promotes mold and mildew. A thin coat of oil on wood or metal will protect them from moisture in the air.

Back in my grandfather’s time, garden shovels and rakes were often stored in buckets of oily sand. Used motor oil needed to be disposed of by the mechanics of that time period. Used oil was poured into the bucket of sand. The shovels were cleaned of any dirt and then pushed into the bucket several times to polish the metal with the sand and to coat the metal with oil.

Few of us have used motor oil on hand anymore. Even if we did, recycling it would probably make more sense. Also back in the day, steel wool was used to scrub the shovel, but now we just use a green kitchen scrub pad. If there is a thick patch of rust on a tool, steel wool or a wire brush may be needed.

Another thing that every garage workbench used to have was an oil can. It had a long spout that could reach into hard to reach squeaky spots. I doubt that your house has a working oil can, but I would bet it has at least one can of WD-40.

WD-40 was invented by chemists trying to prevent rust on rocket parts. WD-40 literally stands for Water Displacement, 40th attempt. I don’t know if it will do the 2,000 household hacks as seen on the internet, but it will do exactly what we want it to do on our garden tools – stop water. It can be sprayed on the metal or wood of any tool, although don’t get it into the electrical components of a power tool. Even though WD-40 is petroleum based, it doesn’t take the place of oil. If you need to ‘oil’ a squeaky hinge on a pruning tool or ‘oil’ a slow wheel on the wheelbarrow, you should use actual oil, not a water displacement product.

Keep it Sterile

Even plastic tools need to be clean. Are your tools used in more than one garden location? Do you help friends or neighbors with their garden? Are the tools used in a community garden plot and in your landscape? If you answered yes to any of these questions, what do you do to prevent soil-borne insect and disease organisms from spreading from one garden to the next? After the tools are cleaned of any dirt, you can sterilize the tool with a solution of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water. I find this solution damages the metal on some of my tools if I don’t thoroughly rinse it off and quickly oil the tool. I prefer to use rubbing alcohol straight from the bottle to sterilize the tools.

Types of Tools

Hand Tools

Wood is long lasting and durable when it is properly cared for. Tool and wheelbarrow handles dry out if not oiled occasionally. Dry wood cracks, creating splinters. Sliding your hand down a rake or shovel handle and hitting a splinter will ruin your day.

First, do a light sanding to get rid of any nicks or splinters. Wipe the wood down with oil, let dry and oil it again. Linseed or Tung oil are two popular oils for tool handles as they are designed for outdoor use. I prefer not to use paint or varnish on handles as they can wear off, and the chips can lift up like splinters.

Garden tools are made from several metals, including iron, steel and aluminum. All of them benefit from cleaning and oiling, but especially iron tools that rust quickly if not cleaned and oiled. Wash them with soap and water and then wipe them dry. Wipe or spray them with oil and lightly dry them so the oil won’t drip off.

As a young Boy Scout, I learned that sharper knives and axes are safer. For instance, a dull ax can bounce off of the wood and strike your leg. A sharp pruner or saw cuts with less effort. If you are struggling to make a cut, you can break the tool or push too hard and injure yourself. If you don’t sharpen the cutting tools before each use, do it at least once each year. Since you are cleaning dirt and sap from the blades before storing them, go ahead and sharpen them now. And then coat them with oil. Some pruners have replaceable blades.

Power Tools

Every power tool comes with a set of instructions on how to maintain it. If you are like me, you don’t remember reading them and don’t know where they are now. They may be online at the manufacturer’s website.

Every power tool will benefit from being wiped clean and having its blades sharpened. Check the cord for damage and replace it or the whole tool if it is damaged. As you are cleaning the tools, gently fold any hoses or belts backward. Do they show a lot of cracks? They may need to be replaced.

If the tool is powered by gasoline, you have two choices for winter storage. Run the tool until it is out of gas or store it with gas in the tank. Which way does the instruction manual say is best? Running the engine until empty can allow water, dust and debris into the engine, gas tank and fuel lines. Nothing good can happen here. At the same time, if the manufacturer says to store it dry, then that is best.

If you are going to leave gas in the tank or in the gas can, water can contaminate the gasoline over the winter. Old fuel in the gas tank can go stale. Who knew? Adding a fuel stabilizer to the gas and running the engine to get the stable fuel throughout the system will prevent the fuel from going bad over the winter.

Most gas-powered tools have an air filter and maybe a gas line filter. Both should be cleaned or replaced.

If you can’t do this power tool work, then take the summer power tools in winter to a good small engine mechanic who can clean, repair and tune up the tools when there is no rush to get them back. Even though a slightly handy person can sharpen a lawn mower blade or replace the spark plug on a lawn mower, a professional will probably do a better job. Prices can vary, so do a little calling around or ask your neighbors where they take their tools. Next spring when you pick up your mower, drop off the snow blower.

Watering Tools

Many people neglect their garden hose, but it is a very useful garden tool that will last longer if properly stored over the winter. After you finish washing the other tools, straighten it out and make sure water runs out as you coil it up. Water left in the hose can expand into ice and create weak spots in the hose. Store it out of sunlight. UV rays from the sun will ruin the plastic or vinyl if it is left in the sun. Don’t hang it on a single nail where it will kink over the winter. Make sure all of the nozzles and sprinklers are dry so water can’t rust and ice can’t damage them.m

Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois certified nurseryman and a registered landscape architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture. jrugg@sbsmags.com

Issues - 2018 - MarApr

From the Editor - MarApr 2018

I often worry that my neighbors think I’m lazy. Yes, they may see me on my hands and knees, covered with dirt, and they may see me mowing the lawn and dumping out bags of grass clippings, but more often they’re likely to see me just standing in front of my plants. Looking. Staring.

This begins around the middle of March when I venture forth daily to check if anything has broken dormancy. Rummage around the clump of lady’s mantle and there, by golly gee whiz, is a half-inch folded pale green leaf. Yes! The plant’s alive and already on its way to blooming in a couple months. And here’s a crocus. That shoot wasn’t here yesterday, but now it’s up at least an inch. Tomorrow, will there be a flower?

In summer you may catch me staring at the Home Run Red rose. This is a super hardy plant with flowers whose color changes ever so slightly after 24 hours. To see it in its full glory, you have to catch the blossoms on the first day they’re open. And then you hang around for a second (and third) look, mesmerized.

This November the best autumn color came from my blueberry bush with its red leaves that virtually glowed in the setting sun. Such a color. Unique really. So how could I do something mundane like go inside for dinner when there was such beauty still to be appreciated in the great outdoors? Stand and stare. Food could wait.

As the blueberry finally faded away, the ‘Gold Pillar’ barberries came into their own. They had been yellow throughout the growing season but the last week of November, their leaves turned a majestic flame red. I had no idea barberries could be so beautiful. Every plant has its 15 minutes of fame.

Your mother may have told you not to stare, but there are exceptions. A while back there was an article in the Sunday New York Times that included a passage about the Impressionist painters. “They were people who spent time staring, though the world tapped them on the shoulder with all the distractions of life,” wrote Taffy Brodesser-Akner (“Travel”, Nov. 26, 2017). “They stared and stared at a singular scene or object until they knew it well enough to interpret it. They stared until they understood it.”

In other words, the Impressionist painters were people who knew how to look. Can the same be said of us?

A new gardening year is beginning, and we will soon be surrounded by beauty, some of it even of our own making.

Of course we need to make a point of slowing down to smell the roses, but let’s also remember to give our eyes a workout. Look at what’s around you, then stop, and look again.

Who’s A Good Little Garden?

I am a snow thief. There, I said it. I have been known to pilfer snow from my neighbors’ sidewalks. I know that many of you fight the dark urge, upon finishing your own walks, to move on to your neighbors’ slabs of concrete and shovel those, too. Let’s face it, we all covet our neighbor’s snow.

Why? Don’t make me state the painfully obvious! Too late. Because it makes excellent mulch for our winter garden beds, that’s why! (Ouch, that was painful.) I can admit it now because … well, because the evidence has melted and the local gendarmes will not be taking snow samples and storing them in a freezer until they can be examined as the basis of an upcoming episode of CSI: Oslo.

It’s the same reason we covet our neighbors’ leaves in the fall. And, yes, I am also a leaf looter. Who’s going to notice? Do you think everybody on your block counts the leaves on their parkways and front lawns and categorizes them according to species to make sure that nobody poaches them? It’s more difficult to hack into a backyard, though you can often sneak in there during working hours if your neighbors have day jobs. Or at night if you practice stealth raking. (“Be vewy, vewy, quiet … I’m steawing weaves!”)

I have even been known to drag reluctant and sometimes wailing Christmas trees down the alley and into my yard, where they are dismembered to create – all together now – garden mulch. I do draw the line at breaking into people’s homes to appropriate their trees … but only because it’s too much work to remove the ornaments, wrap them in tissue paper to put in boxes, and neatly coil the light strings.

Let’s face it: a lot of folks will do anything to make their spouses, their kids, their parents, their dogs, their kitties or their clownfish happy.

For other people, and I guess that includes me, it’s all about the gardens. (“Who’s a good little garden? You are! Yes, you are! Yes, you are!”) Which means that some of us abdicate our ability to be rational when it comes to our tiny plots of vegetation. We want only the best for our babies, which is why we try to shield them from the harsh world beyond the fence – whether made of chain link, planks or half-dead arborvitaes.

For instance, I never let my garden play with asphalt parking lots. Some people think I’m prejudiced against asphalt, but I don’t let my gardens associate with concrete parking lots, either. Or dirt parking lots. Or grass parking lots. I guess the operative phrase here is “parking lots.” As I tell my garden, “You’ll never get anywhere in life if you let people run all over you.”

I will also brook no criticism of my garden within earshot of my plants. If you want to comment about why the hydrangea looks a little droopy (and the answer is because it wants to), kindly take that remark across the street and tell me there. Better yet, send me a text, which I will open while I’m on another block and away from prying peony eyes, if you catch my drift. And don’t you evah ask me if my Virginia bluebells are “a little slow to open” this year. None of my plants are “slow.” They are “deliberate.”

And, no, my garden did not infest your lawn with Creeping Charlie. My garden would never do that! And how dare you accuse my garden of sending “nasty seeds” into your yard, regardless of how many cup plant seedlings are springing up along your fence … and next to your garage … and in your containers … and in your gutters. Why don’t you slap a lawsuit on that scruffy native plant garden down the block, huh?

Anyway, it’s about time for the garden therapist

to get here. Don’t worry, nothing serious. Just a couple of minor insecurity issues, like early spring compaction and a little embarrassment about doggie and birdie poop. My garden will get over it. Won’t you, mon chou, mon bijou, mon joujou? Yes, you will! Yes, you will!

Do you mind? I’m talking to my garden.

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist, environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

Calendar - 2018 - Wisconsin

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Calendar - 2018 - Chicago

Wake Up and Smell the Science!

I’m not always the sharpest trowel in the garden bucket, but even I have noticed a recent trend in horticulture. Suddenly, gardening experts are getting all “sciencey” and stuff about growing things, and they’re debunking conventional wisdom left and right. If you do a search on the Intertubes for “garden myths,” you will see that there are more debunked myths about gardening than there are actual facts. And, as we all know, the Intertubes are the place you go for Science! and The Truth. And cat videos.

So, while I was sitting here waiting for spring to arrive – which should happen any decade now – I went on the Intertubes and did some research on the Science! of some of the most conventional wisdom in the gardening playbook to determine its veracity … and you’re going to be ASTOUNDED at what I discovered! (I borrowed that line directly from a headline below a very interesting story about how to make cat videos.)

The grass is always greener on the other side.

TRUE. We all knew this in our hearts but it wasn’t until satellite imagery revealed lawn hues from space that researchers were able to quantify this effect. They note that from our vantage point on the ground, the phenomenon is more difficult to assess, hence, the erroneous belief that the grass can’t possibly always be greener on the other side.
But, as Science! now shows us, it is. Incidentally, scientists fear that should this technology fall into the wrong
hands – particularly realtors – we will all pay dearly. Literally.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

TRUE. A noted and somewhat reputable university strapped microscopic-sized cameras to an army of biting midges (no-see-ums) that were trained to cling to smooth stones. These stones were then rolled across a bed of moss in an enclosed area. When researchers stopped scratching, they were able to check the videos. Sure enough, while the surviving and extremely annoyed midges were covered in moss, none of that stuff attached itself to the stones. Researchers are still seeking a practical application for this knowledge.

Everything’s coming up roses.

FALSE. Scientists planted seeds, bulbs and fibrous root systems of hundreds of different genuses and species in test plots all over the United States, Canada and Luxembourg (really, I have no idea). Unremarkably, the only planted material that came up roses was from the Rosa genus. It should be noted that researchers were able to cultivate some rosemary, rose campion, rose of Sharon and several other anomalies, but even with the inclusion of these plants, roses were far from everything that came up. The estate of Ethel Merman issued a statement in which it expressed its disappointment in the findings and noted that “it makes no sense to sing ‘Roses are coming up roses.’’’ I concur, but Science! is Science!, folks.

A weed is no more than a flower in disguise.

FALSE. Was American poet James Russell Lowell onto something when he penned the phrase, “A weed is no more than a flower in disguise, Which is seen through at once, if love give a man eyes”? Or, as scientists now suspect, was he simply under the spell of a powerful drug, produced by the “weed” of which he seemed so enamored? Describing his time at Harvard College, he wrote, “During Freshman year, I did nothing, during Sophomore year I did nothing, during Junior year I did nothing, and during Senior year I have thus far done nothing in the way of college studies.” Today, he would be called “a stoner.” I rest my scientific case.

Cool as a cucumber.

FALSE. Who died and made cucumbers cool, huh? Now, an artichoke, that’s a cool vegetable. Or kohlrabi. Or fiddleheads. Or dinosaur kale. Or a pumpkin. Heck, you can make a jack-o’-lantern out of that! Do you want to get really cool? How about the Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato? Or Romanescu broccoli? Huh??
Wait … wait a minute … I just got a text from the Science! Police. Seems I’ve strayed out of the scientific realm and into Intertubes Opinionland. Sorry. Just one more cat video and I’ll get back to my research. Really. I promise. Okay, maybe two more.

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist, environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

From the Editor - JanFeb 2018

Gardening may be good for the soul, but this summer it was good for larceny.

That’s right. Plants were stolen from my garden this year. Three times. I am still reeling from the shock.

Two of the plants were new — an Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ that was supposed to mature into a bushy 3-foot tall yellow-leaved perennial in a shady part of the backyard, and a small cluster of ‘Cherry Berry’ hens and chicks (Sempervivum) that looked in a catalog photo as though they might be as red as those I had once seen at England’s Sissinghurst Garden. I’ve been seeking something equally red for 20 years.

Hey, it’s just money. However, the cluster of sempervivums that I discovered missing last week really broke my heart. This was a clump that had started many years ago as a single plant growing in the dry sandy soil between my front fence and the sidewalk, and it had then multiplied (slowly) over the years to perhaps 15 little silver-green “chicks.” Getting smothered by leaves and snow didn’t bother them. They never died back. In spring they popped their heads out unscathed. I had an emotional attachment to those little guys.

To the thief (thieves) I say, the cure to your problem is right at hand. Literally. If you read this issue of Chicagoland Gardening, for example, you will find two helpful stories on how you can get plants free! Nina Koziol has a story on easy ways to propagate houseplants. Then there’s a story on collecting seeds – and this is legit. Nobody except a professional nursery is going to need all the seeds that are produced each year by the hundreds (thousands) of easy-to-harvest annuals and perennials that are out there. Reach over my fence and pick what you want.

This issue has many other stories that will help you lead a virtuous gardening life. It’s January, so we have our regular review of the year’s new plants, seen in the trial gardens at Ball Horticultural in West Chicago. We visit the bountiful cottage garden of Janice Miller in Hinsdale and then the fabulous conifer garden of Rich and Susan Eyre in Woodstock, the latest entry in our Gardens of the Pros series. Diana Stoll offers recommendations in our New Gardener column for plants that rank beginners will be able to grow successfully, and we chat with horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg at the Chicago Botanic Garden about the performance of recent All-America Selections vegetable winners.

For those who are wondering which trees will stand up to a warming climate, Susan Crawford passes along the recommendations of Guy Sternberg of Starhill Forest Arboretum in downstate Illinois and Paul Meyer from the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania. Hint: natives are on the list, but so are some imports.

So here’s a word of advice to all you real and potential thieves out there: The delights of gardening are many and varied. Some are even free. And next summer, stay out of my yard.

Issues - 2018 - JanFeb

Criminy, It’s Crinums

Article Photo Article Photo Article Photo

Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg

My favorite plants have to meet a few important criteria. They must survive on their own because I can be a lazy gardener. Insects and diseases must be rare, so there will be no need to spray. I want plants that can grow in the water along the shoreline of my water garden; the hot, dry side yard; as well as indoors. They must have big, showy flowers to please the eyes, fragrance to please the nose, tasty would be nice, and if I could get them to make a noise, I would like that too.

Most plants in the lily family fit some of these criteria and I have many in my house and yard: amaryllis, daffodils, daylily, Easter lily, garlic, onion, tulip, trillium, yucca and many others. Of all the lilies, I prefer the crinums (pronounce “cry num”), probably because like many gardeners, I lust after tropical plants I can’t have. These warm-climate bulbs can grow as large as a football and weigh over 10 pounds, easily dwarfing a merely grapefruit-sized amaryllis bulb.

Crinums are naturally tough. Native to warm areas of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, they can survive elephants, kangaroos and hurricanes. I have seen crinums growing in islands between traffic lanes in Dallas and Orlando. They get no irrigation; yet they thrive. Some tropical crinums are used as privacy hedges, but most are only waist high.

The Crinum americanum is native to swamps all around the Gulf of Mexico and the Everglades where I have seen them blooming as far as the eye can see. I have grown one in a pot in my pond for more than 15 years. I bring it indoors every winter as a houseplant that I can’t overwater. It has a starburst of 6-inch-long petals that are less than 1/2 inch wide. Linnaeus himself is supposed to have been looking at specimens of the American crinum when he gave the genus the Crinum name after the Greek word “Krinos,” meaning comet tail.

Most crinum flowers look like an Easter lily or amaryllis, and there may be 20 or more on a single stalk. A single bulb may send out half a dozen flower stalks at once. Like an Easter lily, many crinums are very fragrant. Most have white or pink flowers, and a few have wine-colored leaves. The foliage of most crinums is sword-shaped and long. Many of these are striped and are frequently called milk and wine lilies. I was surprised to find a milk and wine crinum bulb at a Menards a couple of summers ago, and it has bloomed twice so far.

I have plants of the only crinum variety that may be hardy outdoors in the Chicagoland region. Crinum ‘Sangria’ is a tough hybrid between Crinum procerum ‘Splendens’ and Crinum bulbispermum. This 3- to 5-foot-tall plant hasn’t bloomed yet, but it will have large pink flowers held at the end of a long bloom spike. If I get around to planting it outdoors, it will go on the south side of the house near the foundation where it can be mulched heavily for the winter.

You can order your own crinums from marcellescinums.com or jenksfarmer.com. For a great indoor crinum, try C. ‘Menehune’, which has red leaves, pink flowers similar to C. americanum, but only grows 18 inches tall. It grows in water, tolerating drought, shade and full sun.

Some crinums are supposedly edible, but I haven’t found any recipes. The plants don’t make sounds on their own, but since they attract hummingbirds that do make sweet twittering noises, I can live with that.

Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois Certified Nurseryman and a Registered Landscape Architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture.

ATGP - Jan/Feb 2018 - Best Sellers for 2018


’Twas the Night Before Solstice

(with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, Major Henry Livingston, Jr., Dr. Seuss and anybody else who thinks they wrote this first)

‘Twas the night before solstice, and all through the yard
Not a species was stirring, not hosta, nor chard
The zapper was hung by the back door with wire
In hopes that some bugs might fly in and expire

The seedlings were planted in rows in their beds
While organic composting acted like meds
And I with my ballgame, adorned with my cap
Had just settled in with my ‘lectronic app

When right in the middle of watching the batter
I heard a loud noise and I dropped my shrimp platter
Away to the screen door I ran like The Flash
But tripped in the dark and fell over the trash

I cursed as I stood up and wiped off my jeans
My only clean pair, smeared with yesterday’s beans
When, what to my middle-aged eyes should appear
But a gang in the yard – they sure looked like deer

With minimal hubbub, they got in there quick
I knew in a moment their leader was slick
But my jaw hit the ground when I heard her declaim
She called out the critters and called them by name

Now, rabbits! Now, raccoons! Now, chipmunks and moles!
On, woodchucks! On, possums! On squirrels and voles!
To the heart of the garden! To the sound of my call!
Now munch away! Munch away! Munch away all!

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each scary hoof
And before I could move or could utter a sound
Down the chimney the critters then came with a bound

They were dressed all in fur, from their heads to their tails
(Except for the possums – those might have been scales)
And to my surprise, I could see on their backs
Some fabric that looked mighty like tiny sacks

They raided my freezer! They ate every cherry!
They scattered my Skittles! They drank all my sherry!
They filled up each sack and each round furry belly
That shook with delight as they finished my jelly

They spoke not a word (though I did see them smirk)
They filled all their backpacks; I felt like a jerk
They picked up my cell phone and stopped for a pose
Then waving goodbye, up the chimney they rose

I looked out the door and I gave a low whistle
They’d eaten it all, every plant, every thistle
But I heard them exclaim, as they popped ope a beer
“Hey, dude, thanks for the grub!
And we’ll see you next year!”

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist, environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

From the Editor - NovDec 2017

In the world of fashion, styles change rapidly. All of a sudden this summer, women started walking down the street with their shoulders peeking out from their sleeves. Where did that come from anyway?

In the gardening world, styles change more slowly. But change they do. During the summer as I was driving down 55th Street, I passed the new high-rise dormitory complex Jeanne Gang designed at the University of Chicago. The architecture is striking, but what caught my eye as I whizzed past that day was the mixed plantings in front with tall goldenrods dancing in the breeze, along with grasses and hydrangeas. You wouldn’t have seen anything like this 20, or even 10 years ago. There would have been lines of red geraniums and yellow marigolds for summer and more lines of mounded chrysanthemums for fall. Public garden design and landscaping have now become so much more interesting. The aesthetic has changed.

This is an American development, not something we learned from pilgrimages to England, and we should feel justly proud of ourselves.

Part of this new aesthetic can surely be traced back to the “discovery” of native plants, particularly those of the Midwestern prairie. More than just rah-rah enthusiasm and cheerleading for the beauty of, say, goldenrod and golden alexander, this has developed side by side with new scientific understandings of how ecosystems in different parts of the country function and their value to the wider environment. We have learned that grasses can be part of a garden, that seed pods can be pretty and our gardens will be better if we include some of both along with traditional beauties such as roses and petunias.

Examples of the new style abound. Chicago’s Michigan Avenue planters, which evolved from the sidewalk plantings in front of Crate & Barrel, were an important inspiration. Then Lurie Garden arrived in Millennium Park and made a skyscraper-dominant downtown a haven for pollinators. This garden mixing native plants and imports has spawned spinoffs everywhere, including the front of that dormitory on 55th Street.

So as this year edges to its close, it’s an opportune moment to pause for a look back at where we are. In Chicagoland Gardening we have addressed multiple ways that local gardeners have moved forward into a new aesthetic along with the designers and tastemakers who have led the way. That is our job and we love doing it.

In 2018 we will continue to showcase many examples of the splendid gardens that abound in the region. We will continue spotlighting our excellent professionals in Gardens of the Pros, point out examples of their fine work in Design Tips, visit terrific gardens created by homeowners and continue with our regular columns on native plants, indoor and edible gardens and make a few tweaks here and there. One column will get a name change — New Gardener. Have some friends who think they’d like to join the fun? The holidays are coming. Think gift subscription.

Issues - 2017 - NovDec

What do the bees do in October?

What do the bees do in October?

If you have New England aster in your garden, they keep foraging like mad.

In my garden the bees were all over my ‘Hella Lacy’ aster this morning, and I was very glad to see them. My shorter asters have now stopped blooming and are going to seed, but ‘Hella Lacy’ is a late bloomer and I’ve seen it feeding monarchs in October fueling up for their trip to Mexico.

‘Hella Lacy’ is a vibrant dark purple, about 4 feet tall, that was named for the wife of Allen Lacy, a philosophy professor, garden columnist and author of many garden books. The purple aster appeared out of the blue in his garden and was thought to be a new plant, so Lacy introduced it officially. Later some experts from England told him it wasn’t new after all, so you may also see it on the market as ‘Treasurer’. Whatever the name, it’s a good plant.

The English call asters Michaelmas daisies because they bloom around the time of Michaelmas Day, September 29, which honors St. Michael the Archangel. They are, however, American natives. New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) grow up to 4 feet tall and can flop, so it helps to cut them back by half two or three times early in the summer. That also helps a bit with the tendency of aster foliage to brown out at the bottom. It’s always a good idea to put tall asters at the back of the border and place other plants in front of them. A second, shorter aster species is New York aster (A. novae-belgii). The nomenclature wizards have lately decreed that asters are henceforth to be known as Symphyotrichon, but if that’s too much bother, just keep calling them asters.

Bon Voyage

Article Photo

Fall is upon us but there’s no reason to put your garden to bed just yet. That’s because the show goes on with birds, thousands of which are migrating and stopping daily in local gardens for a bite to eat or a drink of water. And the activity doesn’t stop there. Monarch butterflies will be looking for nectar – a rich source of energy during their long commute to Mexico. Bees remain active and there’s an assortment of insects – praying mantis and other “beneficials” – that are present until the first fall frost about mid-October. There’s plenty to observe and enjoy.

Birds of a Feather

Many migrating birds fly at night. At dawn, they will stop in any green space they can find to feed and rest. Warblers search trees and shrubs for tiny insects, spiders and caterpillars, while other birds scratch the ground looking for food.

A source of water is critical, especially during dry autumn weather. Water can attract a crowd of winged wonders. In her garden in Downers Grove, landscape designer Vicki Nowicki places several shallow basins on the ground and others on pedestals. While visiting her garden one September, I was delighted to see large numbers of different types of birds drinking, bathing, splashing about and preening their feathers. (If you don’t have a birdbath, choose one that’s not more than two inches deep – birds prefer shallow water.)

Now is a good time to get out your bird feeders, too. Dark-eyed juncos are small gray-and-white birds that are returning from the boreal forests of the northern United States and Canada. Some will overwinter in the area while others travel farther south. They are easily attracted to feeders filled with sunflower seeds, millet or unsalted peanuts. Cardinals, nuthatches, blue jays and red-winged blackbirds also enjoy sunflower seeds while goldfinches prefer thistle and shelled sunflower pieces. But goldfinches will also eat the seeds of cosmos, coneflower, sunflowers and rudbeckia, so don’t be in a big hurry to clean up your flower beds.

Suet cakes, compressed blocks of melted suet with peanuts or other bird seed, can be placed in hanging cages to attract woodpeckers, nuthatches and black-capped chickadees. If you have mountain ash (Sorbus Americana), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) or sumac in your garden, cedar waxwings and robins will enjoy the fruits.

Another migrant – the ruby-throated hummingbird – comes through the Chicago area in great numbers during September and early October. It’s the only common hummingbird east of the Mississippi. Although they are regular summer visitors, many more are coming from Canada, stopping in our gardens in search of nectar. Hummingbirds are typically attracted to red flowers, but one of their favorite plants is the blue-flowered Salvia guarantica, especially the cultivar ‘Indigo Spires’. They’ll also grab spiders and other small insects. (For information on sugar-water feeders that hummers are known to like, see sidebar on the oppposite page.)

Annuals and late-flowering perennials provide nectar for many of the smaller common butterflies that are still active in early fall. Asters, zinnias, salvia, marigolds, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, cosmos, lantana, ageratum and helenium and are just a few of the flowers that attract the last of the swallowtails, skippers, checkerspots and other butterflies.

If you have a birdhouse or two in your garden, now is the time to wash them and remove the nests. Once they’re cleaned, I like to put them back in place. When the weather turns cold, many birds use the houses for protection at night.

In spring, gardeners typically are faced with a frenzy of activity: soil preparation, planting, weeding, watering and so on. We rarely take time to sit and enjoy our handiwork. Now is that time. Pull up a chair, pour some lemonade and watch the activity unfold. The quality of the air and the light is changing, and it’s something to enjoy. One of my favorite writings sums it up. It was penned by the American naturalist John Burroughs in his book, A Year in the Fields (1876).

“Spring is the inspiration, fall the expiration. Both seasons have their equinoxes, both their filmy, hazy air, their ruddy forest tints, their cold rains, their drenching fogs, their mystic moons; both have the same solar light and warmth, the same rays of the sun; yet, after all, how different the feelings they inspire! One is the morning, the other the evening; one is youth, the other is age.”

Hummingbird Feeders

Make hummingbird “food” with a mixture of sugar and water. The ratio is 4 parts of water to 1 part of sugar. For every cup of water, you need ¼ cup of sugar. Boil the sugar-water mixture for a few minutes and let it cool. Fill the feeders with just a few inches of the mixture. Refrigerate the rest for up to two weeks. Clean and refill the feeders every 4 days or so, more often if it’s 80 degrees or higher. Hummingbirds typically are gone from the Chicago area by about the second week in October.

Expand your Garden Experience

Good Reads: Get a field guide to learn more about birds or butterflies. There’s Kaufman’s Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (Houghton Mifflin), and The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards (Storey Books). Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin) can help you identify winged visitors.

Get Certified: The Illinois Audubon Society website at illinoisaudubon.org has information on field trips and events and explains how to have your garden certified as an Illinois Audubon Society Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary.

Take a Class: Check the websites of the Chicago Botanic Garden (chicagobotanic.org) and The Morton Arboretum (mortonarb.org) for classes on fall gardening and birding.

A Note About the Photography

Ellen Hodges was an extraordinary photographer. For the past seven years, she spent many mornings in my garden from spring through fall, taking photos of birds, butterflies, flowers, fawns, foxes and insects. She was not a gardener, but captured the garden experience through her lens. Whether it was the first daffodil in bloom or frost on a marigold, Ellen marveled at what nature has to offer. She died unexpectedly this past April and is sorely missed by her family and friends and especially by me.

Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science.

Bringing in the Bees

Article Photo

I pay close attention to the plants in my garden that attract a lot of bees. I don’t know the names of all the bees in my yard, but I do know that bees hatch with the first crocus and no longer has the first species crocus opened than I see a bee hovering over it. That happens as early as late March and April.

It’s not until May that I start to see quantities of bees, and this time they’re buzzing around the catmint. I have three Nepeta ‘Blue Wonder’ and one N. ‘Six Hills Giant’. I would say that Blue Wonder is the bigger draw and it pulls in the bees all summer long. Cutting it back mid-summer encourages more bloom.

Then comes June and the blooming of my white lacecap smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). This plant is 30 years old and breaks all the rules by being fragrant and covered with pollen. Suddenly masses of bees descend and feast away until all the pollen is gone. This shrub is probably 10 feet in diameter although I haven’t actually gone out with a yardstick to measure.

In July I noted that the stiff goldenrod (Soidago rigida) I bought last year was budding. It was slow about opening up, but when it did, in August, the bees were immediately right on top of it as well as some insects I couldn’t identify. This plant is a treasure. I bought it in 2016 and had no expectation that it would bloom that year, but in 2017 it burst through the ground and got seriously to work. I now have seven 5-foot flower stalks, each topped with upside-down pyramids of bright yellow blooms.

When the asters get around to blooming later this month, I’m sure the bees will descend on them as well. And all along, bees have been feeding on other plants in the garden – coneflower, prairie verbenas (Verbena hastata and V. stricta), culver’s root, Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed. But the catmint, smooth hydrangea, goldenrod are the big draws.

Be sure to add them to your garden, and go downtown to see the Lurie Garden this month. The bees are swarming all over the calamintha and the hoary mountain mint (Pycnanthemum incanum). We all need to grow these plants as well.

White for Fall

Article Photo

They used to say you’re not supposed to wear white shoes after the first of September but in the garden, white is the great new fall color, and at my house it’s absolutely au courant.

Almost overnight, the sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) that my neighbor planted on her side of the fence (but which has decided it likes my side better) burst into bloom. A few flowers arrived on the first of September, and a thrilling foamy white cascade of blossoms just one day later.

I first noted a few clematis flowers last year and wondered where they’d come from. Had seed blown in? Had birds “planted” them? So I emailed my neighbor to find out. Yes, they were her plants but why they decided they like my side of the fence better is a mystery. Clematis terniflora likes shade and there’s shade on both sides of the fence. In any case, these are fast movers, and by this fall they had totally filled in the space between them. All fine by me.

Sweet autumn clematis, from east Asia, is easily confused with the native virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana). Look at the leaves to distinguish which is which. The sweet autumn clematis leaves are smooth edged while those of virgin’s bower are dentate (notched, suggestive of teeth). Some people will warn you off both plants because they can be invasive. Pruning down to the ground in spring will help with control.

Also confusing are the various scientific names for sweet autumn clematis that you may find when you go shopping. Thecorrect name is C. terniflora, according to the Missouri Botanic Garden, not C. maximowicziana, C. paniculata and C. dioscoreifolia. In fact, C. paniculata is a separate species native to New Zealand.

The other autumn white now blooming in my garden is seven son flower (Heptacodium miconioides) — actually a 15- to 25-foot tree. It started opening a couple days after I first noted the blossoms on the clematis. Its flowers are tiny multi-petaled clusters while the clematis flowers are 4-petaled singles. Seven son flower starts blooming in September but then returns for what some gardeners call a second bloom as its calyces turn salmon-pink. (A calyx is the ring of little leaves that encase a flower bud.) This tree is very cold hardy. The Chicago Botanic Garden reports it has survived at minus 30 F. Bees seem to like it, which is another good reason to put it in your garden if you can.

Gardening Session

Thank you, doctor, for agreeing to see me on such short notice.”

“Not at all. My pleasure. I had a cancellation and it worked out well.”

“Good. So. Where do I start? Do you want to ask me questions?”

“No, I’d rather have you say whatever is on your mind and we’ll go from there. It’s possible we’ll need more sessions and it’s possible we won’t.”

“Okay … I’m concerned because things are disappearing. Or they never happen. Or they die.”


“Well, plants.”


“In my yard, yes.”

“Do you like to garden?”

“I thought I did. Now I’m not so sure.”


“What did you mean by that?”

“I meant ‘ah.’”

“Not ‘aha?’ Just ‘ah?’”



“Continue, please.”

“People probably tell you this exact story twenty times a day, but here goes. If I try to grow a plant from seed, the seed will disappear. If I buy it a plant from a garden center, something will dig it up or eat it to the nub or lop it off or mow it down or electrocute it.”


“Or it will starve or drown or just up and die. Does that seem strange to you?”

“Well, many people claim they’re not good at – ”

“If somebody gives me a plant and I put it in my yard, it gets up and moves back into the yard it came from – and sometimes it talks other plants into going along with it.”

“You’re speaking metaphorically?”

“How do you face your kids after something like that happens?”

“I’m not sure I quite – ”

“The birds are definitely in on this. They sit on the phone wires, look down into the yard, shake their little bird heads and say, ‘Unh-uh.’ Then they poop into my iced tea.

“When you say ‘in on this’...”

“They’re amazingly accurate.”

“Have you been able to … ”

“I think the raccoons are in on it, too.”

“You’re using that phrase again.”

“And the squirrels and chipmunks and moles and voles and beetles and spiders and centipedes and millipedes and feral cats and slugs and rats and fungus and slime molds. A couple of stray skunks and maybe a honey badger. And bricks and ball bearings. Definitely the chickens down the block. And kids on bikes. And, I don’t exactly know how, but I think my neighbors are in on it, too. And the president.”

“The president? Of. The. United – ”

“Oh, boy, yes. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“All right. I won’t pretend that.”

“At the risk of sounding paranoid – ”

“no risk at all.”

“I think there’s some kind of conspiracy going on.”

“You don’t say.”

“Nobody could possibly be this unsuccessful as a gardener unless – now pay attention here – unless somebody else or a bunch of somebody elses wanted that to happen. What do you think about that?”

“I think we’re out of time. And I think you should stop and see Sally on the way out and schedule another appointment.”

“I knew you’d get it. By the way, that’s a lovely lucky bamboo you’ve got there.”

“Thank you. Please don’t touch it. At least not until I get honey badger insurance.”

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist, environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

From the Editor - SeptOct 2017

There are people who say that autumn is their favorite time of year. I’m not one of them, although God knows I’ve tried. Yes, I sometimes wax ecstatic over the way colors change from day to day (orange yesterday, red today – “like magic!” I exclaim), but deep down my comments are suffused with whiffs of wistfulness. Yes, there are days when I observe that October is a fabulous month in Chicagoland – clear blue skies, low pollution, temps in the 80s – what’s not to like? But then I remember that all around me these plants are dying, never mind that they are coloring up the world with their last fleeting gasps.

This is the moment when I repair to my bookshelf and seek inspiration from the garden scriptures that never fail to shift my perspective – The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek – for my money one of the best garden books ever written. (No relation, alas, to our equally wonderful photographer Ron Capek.) Karel Capek was an author who lived and gardened in Czechoslovakia. He wrote his diminutive jewel of a book in 1929 with hilarious line drawings by his brother Josef (who perished in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp). He follows the chronology of the year and offers insights about each month, and his comments about autumn never fail to reassure me.

Plants are not dying in autumn, he asserts. Rather they are growing, growing, growing underground, making fall actually the beginning of spring. Life is happening everywhere, he enthuses. We just don’t see it.

“You ought to know that October is the first spring month,” he writes, “the month of underground germination and sproutings, of hidden growth, of swelling buds … While we only look at Nature it is fairly true to say that autumn is the end of the year but still more true it is that autumn is the beginning of the year … I assert only that in a certain deeper sense autumn is the time when in fact the leaves bud … It is an optical illusion that trees and bushes are naked in autumn; they are, in fact, sprinkled over with everything that will unpack and unroll in spring. It is only an optical illusion that my flowers die in autumn; for in reality they are born. We say that Nature rests, yet she is working like mad. She has only shut up shop and pulled the shutters down; but behind them, she is unpacking new goods, and the shelves are becoming so full that they bend under the load. This is the real spring; what is not done now will not be done in April.”

So let’s toss out the conventional wisdom about autumn.

With these reassuring words, I can again face the oncoming season with equanimity. And for the final word, let’s turn again to Karel Capek:

“I tell you, there is no death; not even sleep. We only pass from one season to another. We must be patient with life, for it is eternal.”

Issues - 2017 - SeptOct

Perk Up with Pots

Article Photo
By Cathy Jean Maloney
Photography By Ron Capek

In our family, my sister Chris hosts Christmas and I host Easter. Among her many talents, Chris pulls out the stops when it comes to holiday decorating. Even in the dead of winter, her house brims with festive greenery, twinkling lights and potted poinsettias.

Then comes early spring and Easter. How can I compete? The ground is muddy at best or still snow-sodden at worst. No buds have popped yet, and any early bloomers have, more often than not, petrified pitifully in a late freeze. Being a gardener, I consider it a point of pride to find a way to jumpstart the season in time for the spring holidays.

Containers are a great solution since they can be moved to protect against volatile spring weather. But what plants might work well in early spring – I’m talking late March or early April – and where do we get our hands on them?

Gina Lange, a landscape designer with Hinsdale Nurseries, is charged with creating attractive spring container displays. By mixing some of the usual suspects like pansies with unexpected plantings, her containers brighten the winter-weary landscape even in late March and April. Here are some ideas:

Evergreen framework: The winter workhorses, evergreen shrubs and ground covers, can offer the same structure for your container. Lange employs variegated ivy and boxwood in many of her designs. If you can’t dig up ivy from your yard, it is easily grown indoors from cuttings throughout the winter. Shrubs such as boxwood are often available in early spring at nurseries. You can leave it in the container and swap out the filler plants, or transplant the evergreens into your garden in early summer.

Cool season veggies: Get more bang for your buck with edibles that start sprouting in early April. Plant veggies such as green or red leaf lettuce or kale in your pots. Arugula, parsley and spinach are other possibilities. They may need some protection on especially cool nights. Harvest and replace with summer annuals (but leave the parsley since it’s a biennial).

Decorative branches: We all know the ornamental uses of redtwig dogwood in winter containers. Don’t overlook the possibilities of interesting branches while pruning. Lange uses different types of willow branches, but consider any interesting branch from your prunings. Why not clip some forsythia or redbud stems? Even if they don’t bud out, you can use their color and shape for upright structure. Some enterprising gardeners weave together thin stems of forsythia and insert them into the container to make a basket handle.

Sunbeam switcheroo: “You don’t have to worry about sun and shade in the spring,” Lange explains. Yes, we need to consider right plant, right place, but as she notes, plants are more forgiving with sun conditions in spring. That’s because summer sun is much hotter than spring, so shade seekers can often withstand brighter conditions. Similarly, plants that need sun can thrive in spring containers because they’re not yet shaded by overhanging trees.

Beyond pansies: Some newer varieties of pansies promise spring flowers and a repeat bloom in the chillier days of fall. In my experience, they get pretty leggy over the summer and the fall bloom is somewhat underwhelming. I suppose, however, if I weren’t so lackadaisical about cutting them back in the summer, I might get better results. Nonetheless, even if only for their reliable cold-tolerant bloom in spring, pansies are readily available and reliable bloomers.

Consider some other plants as well. Lange often employs ranunculus in designs for their rose-like petals and shape. Ostrich fern gives dramatic height in containers and can be planted later in the garden. Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) is a good trailer plant with yellow flowers. These plants and annuals such as alyssum, snapdragon, forget-me-nots and stock can often be found in independent garden centers.

Bulb Boosters

Bulbs can work wonders in containers, and you have the advantage of planting them in winter for spring bloom. It’s too late now to plant bulbs for spring, but here are some ideas for next year.

Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens reminds us, “Pots are a highly artificial environment.” Whereas the ground acts as an insulator, bulbs in a container can react as if they’re several zones colder. Nonetheless, with a little trial and error, it’s possible to plant bulbs in containers for an early spring display.

The key to bulb planting is providing a cool – not cold – shelter like an attached garage. Water weekly during the winter to keep the soil moist but not soggy to help the roots grow. Kunst sinks plastic nursery pots of bulbs in his vegetable garden during the winter.

Choose early blooming bulbs. The Old House Gardens website, oldhousegardens.com, features sortable charts showing bloom times and planting depths by species. Among the very early spring bloomers are varieties of crocus, daffodils, snowdrops, winter aconite and even a few tulips.

Kunst is a fan of planting a single type of bulbs (for example crocus only or daffodils only) in a plastic pot, and then placing the containers in more decorative pots. This helps match the best growing condition for each bulb, yet offers flexibility in display.

What if you completely forgot to plant bulbs last fall and are now stuck with forlorn empty pots? Kunst has had some success relocating excess bulbs from his landscape by digging up blooming snowdrops and transplanting them into a tabletop garden. Sometimes there’s too much of a good thing in a naturalized bulb garden and you can cull the herd by moving some to containers.

Whether you’re scouting for bulbs or spring beauties, careful plant selection and a willingness to hunt the garden centers may bring you lively containers for this early spring.

Senior editor Cathy Jean Maloney has authored several books including the recent award-winning Chicago Gardens - the Early History and World’s Fair Gardens - Shaping American Landscapes.

Best Bulbs for Early Blooms

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s online plant finder lists many bulbs that bloom in early spring. Most are varieties of crocus, daffodils, winter aconite, and tulips. Now is a good time to explore the Garden’s Graham Bulb Garden to see the succession of bloom.

Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com) has detailed instructions on bulb planting in containers – look under “Bulb Planting and Care – Planting Bulbs in Pots.” Their “very early” varieties include:

Crocus: Cloth of Gold, Jeanne d’Arc, King of the Striped, Mammoth Yellow, Roseus Snowbunting, tommies, Vanguard

Daffodils: Golden Spur, Minor Monarque, Princeps, Rip Van Winkle, The Tenby Daffodil, Van Scion

Snowdrops: Elwes or giant snowdrop

Tulips: Duc van Tol Red and Yellow Duc van Tol Violet

A Driveway Garden

Article Photo Article Photo

George and Theresa Rebersky enjoy growing an assortment of colorful annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs and gigantic pumpkins in their suburban Worth backyard. But along the driveway leading to their detached garage was a triangle of lawn that separated the drive from the sidewalk. It ran 13 feet on two sides and another 6 feet wide along the patio. There was no connection to the rest of the garden, which has a large arbor, raised beds and a spectacular collection of dahlia flowers and hanging baskets. “The triangle was a dead spot,” George says.

Inspiration for a change took hold while the couple was on vacation a few years ago. “We stayed at a hotel in Petoskey, Mich. and saw that they had dug out an area and made a great triangle of flowers,” Theresa said.

When they got back home, George removed the grass in their triangle and made a raised bed with cedar boards. “You want a good bed; otherwise the plant roots have nowhere to go. You want to add as much organic material as you can and get your hands down 5 inches or so into the soil.” He mixed in mushroom compost, peat moss and topsoil to build up the raised bed.

The new triangle is a focal point as visitors approach the backyard. “The cannas and cockscombs in the center are very eye-catching,” Theresa says. “I think George does a good job with the colors. We fill in the outside borders with marigolds – they’re like neon – and other brightly colored flowers.”

“The number of plants in the space is minimal,” George says. Five rose-colored canna lilies tower over 16 ‘Safari Yellow’ marigolds, 16 ‘Victoria Blue’ salvias, a sprinkling of cockscomb (Celosia cristata), 12 blue ageratum and three SunPatiens (Impatiens hawkeri), a New Guinea impatiens that thrives in sun or shade. All of the planting beds, including this one, receive drip irrigation. “Having the irrigation saves us about 100 hours of hand-watering during the summer,” Theresa says.

Some of the plants are purchased and transplanted, while others, like the cockscomb are grown from seed. “I just scatter the seeds after the last spring frost (usually in mid-May) when the soil is at least 55 F.”

Before planting, George adds a granular systemic product that promotes blooms and protects the plants against several types of insects and diseases. “Japanese beetles will chew holes in the rolled up canna leaves before they open up. Right off the bat I put the product down and it takes care of them.”

A few cannas reached 10 feet tall last summer but his canna care is simple. “I dig a hole, put (the tuber) in the ground, water it and walk away. Cannas love water. Add water and fertilizer and they just go nuts,” he says. He also uses a water-soluble fertilizer (marked 15-30-15 on the label), which helps promote flowering. “Pretty much any brand of water-soluble fertilizer works just fine,” he says. “I usually use it at least once a month.”

A canna seed sprouted in a space between the driveway and patio, so he dug it up and wintered it over as a plant along with elephant ears (Colocasia), which he grows indoors all winter and brings outside come May. Some of the elephant ears are 6 to 7 feet tall.

“It’s been a work in progress,” George said. “I thought it was spectacular last year and I’ll probably plant the same things. The new space gives us a place to grow up instead of out.” He credits his father, George Sr., a dahlia specialist, for his good fortune with flowers. “I obtained my knowledge from my dad who gardened for 75 years.”

He keeps detailed notes each year of all of the plants and how they performed. After a fall frost, he digs up the canna lilies and dahlias and stores the tubers. “That one clump of canna tubers filled up a bushel basket and weighed 40 pounds. I’m going to grow them as long as I can pick them up.”
The couple spends as much time enjoying the garden as possible. “It’s relaxing and you don’t get frustrated. It all lasts until about mid-October,” George says. “It’s not work if you love what you’re doing. It’s better than golf.”

Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science. nkoziol@sbsmags.com

Issues - 2017 - JulyAug

Naming Rights

Brace yourself. I’m going to smack you across the kisser with a cold, wet herring of truth: Gardening ain’t easy.

There. I said it. You may now wipe that fish oil from your cheek.

One of the reasons that gardening is harder than it looks is that the people who make the rules keep changing them. I’m talking about the keepers of the binomial nomenclature. (Note: If you enjoy reading this column because it’s fact-free, just close your eyes for the next couple of sentences, while I get the serious stuff out of the way.)

Binomial nomenclature is the rule that every living thing – like a plant – has an unpronounceable scientific name that was created to confuse the bejesus out of people who are not scientists. For instance, you think you’re growing a pansy but it might really be a Viola × wittrockiana Gams ex Nauenb. & Buttler. I’m not making this up! As Randy Shakespeare always said, before he was unceremoniously expunged from the history books, “Google it!”

But, periodically, the Binomial Nomenclature Naming Committee (BNNC, sometimes pronounced “bunk”) gets all itchy and decides that it’s not enough just to confuse ordinary people – they need to confuse scientists, too! So they’ll take a perfectly good genus name like Aster and they change it to Symphyotrichum. I swear I’m not making this up!

The genus Chrysanthemum, which, despite its resistance to correct spelling, was at least well known, has been split into things like Arctanthemum, Argyranthemum and Leucanthemopsis.

I say it’s time to fight back. From time immemorial (going back at least to the days of black and white TV), people have given common names to plants – foxglove, bee balm, lamb’s ears, coneflower, little bluestem, etc. And if the BNNC is going to mess with us, we’re going to mess with them.

I’m in favor of starting the People’s Nomenclature Naming Committee (PNNC, pronounced “punk”), that will focus on randomly changing common plant names. Here are some examples to get us started.

The plant that you had never seen before your neighbor introduced it into his garden. It didn’t survive there, but now it’s strangling everything in sight in your yard.

Blackout Rose
One whiff and you wake up on the ground a couple of hours later.

Lovely, delicate specimen that contracts pneumonia in the rain.

Brown-Nose Susan
Sucks up to gardeners by being relentlessly colorful and cheery.

Never Blooms
The only flower it produces is the one on the garden center tag.

It will grow through cracks on concrete or in the middle of an oil slick, but put it in good soil within sight of a human being and it shrivels to nothing.

Blooms so late in the day that you’ll never stay awake to see it.

Dog’s Breath
Plant this in a container near where your in-laws will be sitting and they’ll leave the gathering early.

You regret having bought it the moment you bring it home.

Weeping sucker
Person who purchases a Bitterbuy.

Tree featuring wood with density and strength of your crew socks.

Some plants have been believed to have curative properties concerning the named parts. Hence, lungwort was thought to cure pulmonary problems
and liverwort … well, you get it. So here are members of my own “wort family.”

Rub it on your head and see if you grow hair. Go on, I dare you.

This plant is useless.

Toe Jam Wort
You don’t want to know.

I have tons more but I need rip out some neighborweed and get to the PNNC meeting. Unfortunately, in the spirit of our organization, it’s at a random location. That could be a problem.

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist, environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

From the Editor - JulyAug 2017

If all has gone according to plan, our gardens are looking fabulous right about now. Yes, I still hanker after the bold and the beautiful, envisioning arbors draped with 15-foot sprays of fragrant roses and clematis like those I’ve seen in England. But I have no place for an arbor and many of those Anglo behemoths aren’t hardy here, so I’ve chosen a non-fragrant behemoth that is: ‘William Baffin’. If you want an ubermensch rose, this is it.

And while I’ve nearly stopped dreaming about Clematis montana ‘Rubens’, which regularly clambers to the rooftops and transforms even the most nondescript English house into a thing of beauty, I have high hopes this year for Clematis ‘Pendragon’, the 10-foot tall rosy-purple marvel that our Associate Publisher Ann Sanders says blooms non-stop in her Bolingbrook garden. Having a covetous nature, I ordered one for myself as soon as I heard her singing its praises. I’m giving it marching orders to climb to the top of my ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae.

Thus it’s only fitting that our July/August issue showcases gardens in the region that are high on the fabulosity scale.

In our cover story Heather Blackmore visits a garden in south suburban Thornton where daylilies reign supreme and we get an update on what’s new in this floral world – a realm where even the most amateur gardener can have brilliant success.

At the other end of town, Lee Randhava pays a call on Marco Zerega and Eric Janssen whose amazing shade garden and thoughtfully sited woody plants frame a thrilling view of Lake Michigan and the universe turns magical at twilight.

While the colors are muted at this Evanston extravaganza, the opposite holds true at chef Rick Bayless’s two-lot vegetable garden in the city. You may have glimpsed snippets of this tour de force on Bayless’s Mexican-inspired PBS cooking show, but now you will get to linger and learn how he and head gardener Bill Shores have laid out the growing beds, keeping them attractive through multiple harvests. It’s a masterpiece of management.

Once you’ve stopped being dazzled, time to move on to some practicalities. Hydrangeas are coming into bloom now and Diana Stoll surveys the four basic types and how to grow them. Are you a little unsure about how to deal with herbs? Nina Koziol tells you when and how to harvest. She also discovered a driveway with an inconvenient open space and explains how George and Theresa Rebersky turn it into a towering blast of flamboyant annuals every year. And for those who don’t mind taking the long view, there’s Tom Sisulak who loves to grow oak trees from acorns. Cathy Jean Maloney explains the hows and whys of this obsession.

Lest we forget … the key words in this little essay are “If all has gone according to plan.” When we’re talking about gardening in Chicagoland, that is always a big “if.” We know that what’s inside these pages is fabulous. As for our gardens? That remains to be seen.

How to be a Mother to a Butterfly, Yes, You!

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By Kay MacNeil, Garden Clubs of Illinois Milkweed For Monarchs Chairman

If you are reading this article, you are probably already aware that monarch butterfly numbers in Illinois are way down. Worse yet, it is our State Insect! But guess what! We can all help increase monarch numbers by finding butterfly eggs and raising caterpillars and releasing newly hatched butterflies. What??? Yes, YOU!!

To Attract and Find Monarch Eggs and Caterpillars: You’ll need milkweed plants, the only plants monarchs lay their 200 plus eggs on. Go to a garden center. You know you have milkweed when you rip off a plant leaf and it has white sap. Buy any kind of milkweed. Monarch caterpillars love them all equally. Remember common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the invasive one that travels by runners.

How to Look for Eggs: The female takes her rear end and attaches a whitish egg the size of a period on this page under the leaf. You can see the egg and see her doing this. Several days later it hatches and the caterpillar will be the size of a comma on a page. Usually there are just one or two eggs per plant.

Egg: 4-6 days. Caterpillar stage: 2-3 weeks. Chrysalis: 5-15 days The monarch chrysalis is a beautiful green surrounded by a gold dotted horizontal line. It will eventually turn dark and you can see the orange and black wings the days before it will hatch.

So let’s say you’ve found a nice yellow and black striped monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Bring it in and put it in a big container, an old terrarium or a big snack container. You need a flat bottom and plenty of space. Cover the top with screening held
in place securely. We don’t want escapees.

Next you need food. Cut milkweed leaves, bring them in and wipe them down or rinse with water and dry. Put the milkweed in a flower tube used for roses and stand it in a short glass or in a glass of water with tin foil over the top. The caterpillar will eat down to open water and drown, so keep the water covered.

Each time you add new leaves, clean the frass (caterpillar poop) out of the bottom of your container. Caterpillars love to eat at night, so keep adding new leaves. The caterpillar will be as fat as your little finger when it is ready to change to a chrysalis.
The “cat” will hang for a day in a “J” from the top of your container. The next day it will be a chrysalis.

Butterflies usually emerge early in the morning. It will pump liquid into its wings and probably look like a normal butterfly by noon and start to flutter. By midday when it is warmest outside, it is ready for release. Take the jar out, put your bare arm into the jar. (Be sure there’s no bug spray on your arm.) The butterfly will climb up, perhaps pause, and away it goes. Look for black dots on the hind wings that denote a male. Aren’t You PROUD!?!?!

Wash out your container with soap and water and Go Find More Eggs.

Other Caterpillars You Can Raise: black swallowtails-To attract black swallowtails, plant fennel, curly parsley, dill, or Queen Anne’s lace. Just watch for a yellow dot (egg) the size of a period on this page anywhere on the plants. Use the same techniques described for monarchs for bringing in and raising swallowtails. Always remember, your caterpillar needs the correct food or it will not eat and will die.

Dutchman’s Pipe Vine Swallowtails -These caterpillars (solid black) will be found on Dutchman’s pipe vine. (It’s a little invasive.)

Spicebush Swallowtails should be found on a spice bush.

Tiger (yellow) Swallowtails are found on tulip trees.

Zebra Swallowtails should be on pawpaw trees. I have yet to see a zebra swallowtail in Illinois but that doesn’t stop me from checking my pawpaw trees.

To ask questions, Kay MacNeil, your favorite Monarch Butterfly Fanatic, can be reached at kaymac60423@yahoo.com. A website with lots of info is gardenclubsofillinois.org. Also check our K’s youtube.com video.

Cooking Up a Great Garden

Article Photo Article Photo Article Photo Article Photo Article Photo

By Carolyn Ulrich

Photography By Russell Jenkins

When David Van Zelst comes home after a busy day running his landscaping business, he likes to cook. No surprise there, since the owner and principal designer at Van Zelst, Inc. in Wadsworth once considered becoming a chef, with architecture the other serious possibility. Both interests continue to play a commanding role in the life that he and his wife Cindy have built for themselves on the North Shore.

It was just four years ago that the pair designed the expansive Italian-style house and garden they now enjoy on their wooded 2-acre lot. “I’ve had the privilege of developing landscapes and gardens for world class homes since 1979,” Van Zelst says, “so all along I’ve collected ideas.” Those stored ideas came to the fore when it was time to design what he clearly sees as the family dream home.

The house and its garden were “designed for how we live,” he continues, which means lots of entertaining as well as regular family dinners with their four children. “We always have family dinner,” he adds. To that end, there is a large gracious kitchen, “since whenever there are guests, people always gather in the kitchen,” but there’s no separate dining room. “The great room is where the table is,” he says, and it’s large enough to accommodate those special meals with extended family and friends that can end up lasting as long as three hours.

The house presents a handsome façade to the street, but its life is focused inward with views of the garden carefully calibrated for maximum impact from each of the downstairs rooms. Sit at the desk in Van Zelst’s office, for example, and the eye is led straight out to a circular limestone fire pit at the far end of the lot. The view from the popular screened porch takes in the patio brimming with containers of colorful annuals, the swimming pool with its adjacent hot tub and a greenhouse, left by a previous owner and soon to be redesigned. A winter visit found the greenhouse harboring flowering orchids. By spring, it would be given over to newly sprouted seeds for the garden. As a matter of policy, Van Zelst, Inc. grows most of the plants that are used in its installations, and Dave is emphatic about using organic practices. He’s particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of vermicompost – a “wonder drug,” he calls it.

The comforting privacy of the house is enhanced by a perimeter of mature trees surrounding the lot – multiple types of maple and oak, white pines, ornamental pears, hackberries, ginkgoes – and Van Zelst refuses to pick favorites; he loves them all. A microburst felled 20 of the property’s trees eight years ago, but one would never know.

The approach to the front entry is also wooded, relatively simple, with oaks and hackberries thoughtfully placed to frame a “gate-like” opening to the central door, which is flanked by a stately pair of columnar English oaks and carefully clipped boxwood hedges. Nearby, hemlocks have been underplanted with ferns for a natural look, and western cedars, thus far untouched by deer, line the street side. A three-tiered fountain presides over a clearing, one of several on the property that echo the home’s Italian style and help to muffle the sounds of passing traffic. Masses of daffodils enliven this area in spring, but not tulips. “We tried them in front but they just became a high-priced salad for rabbits,” says Van Zelst.

The sunny center of the property is the rear yard where all the outdoor living takes place. An expansive bluestone patio with circular tables and comfortable upholstered furniture draws all and sundry to enjoy al fresco dining or loll away the hours. The patio then transitions into a less defined space underlaid with bluestone chips where additional conversational groupings can accommodate large crowds when necessary. A curving bed of colorful flowering shrubs and annuals, many in containers, outlines the area, accented by multiple giant puffs of miscanthus grass. Recently planted trees will one day turn this area shady.

Walk up close to the house’s gold stucco walls and you will see how the surface has been gently roughened in places to suggest age, a look surely inspired by a family trip to Tuscany where a day spent tooling around the countryside on rented Vespas was one of the highlights. “One of our goals was to give the house an aged character so it might looks old, as if it had been built in the 1920s,” Van Zelst comments. “So we gave it a mottled surface to catch the dust.” Climbing hydrangea vines still in the early stages of clambering up the wall will add to the ambience as they mature.

Another Italian influence can be seen in the nearby formal vegetable garden that is an exemplary demonstration of how beauty and utility can co-exist. As you enter the garden from the back gate, you find yourself flanked by two long narrow rectangular beds with a stone fountain at the far end. Within the beds are a mix of vegetables and flowers, notably kale, lettuce, many different herbs and tall towers of caged tomatoes. Within the bluestone paving are two long narrow beds, one planted exclusively with bright orange marigolds and the other filled with a red-tipped sedum ground cover. The colors relate to the overall color scheme of the property – a gold-colored house with coral-orange upholstery on all the outdoor furniture.

Designing and building a house that will meet the needs and wishes of a large family takes meticulous planning, and Van Zelst is pleased that it all seems to have worked out. While it’s the views from all over that he’s proudest of, he also acknowledges great pleasure in little plant details – the contrast of ostrich fern underplanted with pachysandra, for example, or the way ajuga and creeping thyme grow between stones in the patio. But above all, it’s a family-oriented home and after the day’s work is over, it always comes down to basics. “Cindy bakes, and I cook.”

Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association. culrich@sbsmags.com


1. Share one of your big gardening mistakes.
I think the greatest mistake, and something that I would change, would be the timing of when we installed our first garden. The scenario of the cobbler’s children having no shoes certainly applied to our first home. My wife and I purchased and finished a home that had absolutely no landscaping. We initially put in only sod in the front and back yards to allow us to move in. Things got busy, and it was a good 2½ to 3 seasons before we installed the landscape. This was a great mistake since our family loves the outdoors, gardens, color and flowers and we simply did not make the time for the design and/or installation. We lost a lot of enjoyment during the time we were creating gardens for others and not our own.

2. What is your most beloved gardening book?
The best gardening book is an easy one for me: Crockett’s Victory Garden. It was published back in the early 80s and I still have my original copy. My interest in gardening began with my grandfather when I was a kid. He was always outside in the garden doing something: watering, raking or just enjoying the elements. I started growing vegetables and houseplants in my room. Then I had a small vegetable garden in our yard and I was given Crockett’s Victory Garden. My parents alerted me to James Crockett’s show on PBS, and I watched religiously every week. I continue to reference the book.

3. Is there a public garden that everyone should see if they can?
This is easy. With my Dutch heritage and interest in flowers and color, my first choice is Keukenhof, the bulb garden in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I haven’t been there yet. It is on my list, but spring is our busiest season.

4. What do you dislike about gardening?
I don’t think there is much that I don’t like about gardening. I love being outside in heat, cold, rain or snow, whether in my garden or those of my clients. I don’t like not having enough time to stop and enjoy all the details within my home garden.

5. How has your gardening/design style evolved through the years?
My gardening and design skills have improved over the years by watching what works and what doesn’t. The more you see and the more time you spend in the garden, the more details and new ideas come about. When I first started working with perennials in my career, very few growers had quality selections. Now everybody is utilizing perennials. We have also become innovative in our approach to design, using more organic materials, looking to get away from pesticides and synthetic materials.

6. If you could invite one famous gardener (living or dead) to dinner, whom would you choose?
If I were to invite one famous gardener, it would be Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture. I would like to discuss how he designed, how he worked with clients and how he expressed his love and passion for landscape design. It is clear that his vision and influence continue to be enjoyed in many public and private spaces to this day.

7. If you were to write a gardening book, what would be your topic?
My book topic would be the natural landscape. It would include ideas that allow a home landscape to recreate what Mother Nature has provided – beauty, a place for family, privacy, habitat for wildlife and even food. It would also address the organic practices we use at our own home and those of as our clients.

10 Simple Ideas to Improve Your Garden Photography

Story and Photography By Ron Capek

The first time I taught an adult photography class, I asked the participants to list what they hoped to gain. A novice photographer said, “I only have one question. Why, when I take a picture, it never looks like what I saw?”

I was speechless for a moment. Then I realized that this is what photographers spend their life trying to accomplish.

The human eye and brain are an incredible team for seeing the world. The eye can change focus on near and far objects so rapidly that we think we see everything in focus at one time, but the camera records only a frozen moment in time and focuses on only one element layer in each image. The rest is out of focus.

When we look at objects in changing light, the brain makes these color shifts seem normal, but the camera records only the color of the light as it affects the film or chip in the back of the camera.

If we turn our heads to follow the action at a sporting event or watch the wind blow through the grass, everything seems sharp, but the camera may produce blurred images because the camera or the subject were moving too fast for the shutter to stop the action.
We look at a cluttered garden scene and automatically isolate the beauty in our mind, but the camera records everything the lens sees, both beauty and blemishes.

The garden looks beautiful on a bright sunny day. The highlights and shadows make the scene dazzling to our eye. But the camera functions within a limited range of contrast. It cannot record details in the dark shadows and extreme highlights in the same picture.

The camera has many limitations. The problem is that we have to learn how the camera “sees” and use it to our advantage.

Here are 10 basic tips for improving your garden photography with any kind of camera and skill level. In today’s busy life style, very few people read their manual unless the camera stops working. While there is no substitute for the knowledge of the inner workings of the camera and how the settings will affect your images, you can greatly improve your photography without opening your camera manual. Remember: there are photo geeks who know how every part in the camera works, but still have problems taking pictures with impact.

1. Lighting is Everything

Bright sun is a very difficult light source in photography. It may look wonderful to you but it will not flatter your garden or people in your photos. On sunny days, take pictures early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Avoid high noon. If you must shoot in bright sun, look for shady spots or create your own localized shade by holding up a sheet of cardboard or fabric over flowers to be photographed. Cloudy days solve your photographic problems. Garden photographers pursue a bright cloudy day like the Holy Grail.

2. Vary the Zoom Ratio on the Same Scene

You zoom in to get closer to the subject and zoom back to take in a larger area, but that’s only the beginning. Telephoto settings will seem to compress things while wide-angle settings give you a feeling of separation.

3. Try Different Camera Angles for Impact

Stand on a ladder, shoot from a window or lie on the ground. Don’t take all your pictures standing in a normal upright fashion.

4. Fill the Frame With the Important Parts of the Picture and Crop out the Distractions

Painters have the luxury of deciding what they want in their paintings. Photographers have to decide what to include and also what to leave out. Fill the frame with what you think is important. Look around the frame of the viewfinder. If you find empty space or a distracting background, get closer to the subject or zoom in with your telephoto. If something does not improve your picture, crop it out.

5. Composition Tells the Story

Don’t always place the center of interest in the center of the picture. Change the composition by physically moving elements in or out of the picture frame. Your feet are valuable tools. Move around and hold the camera at different angles. Experiment with different zoom ratios. See how the composition changes.

6. Focus on the Point of Interest, Not Necessarily the Center of the Picture

Look through the viewfinder or at the screen and frame your picture for maximum impact. In the center of the screen there is usually a focusing area. After choosing the desired position, move the camera so the focus area is over your main subject. Press the shutter release halfway down to lock the focus. Then move the camera back to the desired position while continuing to hold the shutter release halfway down so that the picture is framed correctly. Hold the camera very steady and squeeze the shutter release button. This approach you will allow you to have a well framed image with the point of interest in focus.

7. Hold the Camera Steady

If you want razor sharp pictures, you must hold the camera steady when you press the shutter release. Experiment by watching yourself in the mirror while you take a picture or test yourself by taking one picture hand-held and another resting the camera on a firm flat surface. Compare the results. Most professional photographers use a tripod to reduce camera movement.

8. Take More than One Picture

Try varying the position of the camera, the zoom ratio, the composition and the lighting angle of the same scene. By changing each variable, you create a series of nuanced photos, one of which will capture that perfect moment. Professionals take hundreds of pictures to increase their odds of success.

9. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Close-ups

They can make a poor garden look good. Most digital cameras allow the camera to focus very closely to the subject. Take advantage of it. Flowers can become powerful abstractions and even the blurs can be beautiful. If you have a macro setting on your camera, it makes it even easier to get close.

10. The Garbage Can is Your Best Friend

The best way to improve your photos is to edit. In the darkroom it was the garbage can. Today, it’s the delete button. Do not show your weak photos. The beauty of digital is that you can experiment at no extra cost if you don’t print the photos.

Smell This

Article Photo

Story & Photography By Jean Starr

How many times have you thrust your nose into a bouquet or a flower and come up empty? Or worse yet, been knocked back by an unexpected fragrance that was surprising in such a beautiful blossom? Peony scents, for example, have been classified into five categories: rose, honey, lemon, yeasty but also bitter and medicinal.

Scent has often been sacrificed for larger, longer-lasting, more colorful blooms that dazzle on first glance and hold up on the long journey to the florist. Producing fragrance draws on the plant’s resources and takes energy, which is why fragrant plants don’t last as long in bloom as the non-fragrant varieties. The breeder may thus decide that the plant’s energy can be better spent on producing larger flowers. When it comes to roses and faced with the choice between hardiness and fragrance, commercial breeders have often chosen in favor of hardiness.

Roses & Coneflowers

The widespread loss of fragrance in roses isn’t as recent as we might think. American garden designer Louise Beebe Wilder wrote about it in her 1932 book, The Fragrant Path. She laments, “It is hard to believe that a scentless rose could have great vogue, but there is that chill and soulless beauty, ‘Frau Karl Druschki’, to the contrary notwithstanding.” She referred to the hybrid perpetual rose, introduced in 1901, which for many years was the most popular white rose in existence despite its lack of scent.

There are still fragrant roses, although most would be a disappointment to Wilder’s sensibilities. Modern hybridizers have managed to keep a bit of fragrance in plants that are disease-resistant and hardy, including ‘Gourmet Popcorn’, and Oso Easy ‘Paprika’ and ‘Peachy Cream’. A vase of any of these might not perfume a room, but they’re worth growing. Some rugosa roses are very fragrant.

When so many new coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) started hitting the runway like a herd of hungry models, some were fragrant. One with a scent reminiscent of roses is ‘Solar Flare’, bred by Richard Saul of Itsaul Plants. It has also been one of the strongest growers in my garden.


The divas of mid-summer make a big impact, reaching heights of up to 4 feet and more, with waxy blooms emitting exotic perfume. Lily hybrids have intrigued even the most casual gardeners with colors that range from vivid to pastel and fragrances from delicate to downright off-putting. Some of the best-behaved scents come from the OTs, or Orienpets, a name that refers to their Oriental/trumpet lily parentage. One of the best is ‘Conca d’Or’, a sturdy 4-footer with a sweet fragrance that perfumes its surroundings outside but isn’t too strong to bring indoors in a vase. ‘Silk Road’ is another very fragrant Orienpet.


Alicia Green, coordinator at the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, uses plants with fragrant leaves or flowers for their therapeutic properties. “If a plant has an aromatic property, it encourages people to interact with it,” she explains. “People are curious about it.”

Plants with a dual purpose are especially valuable in horticultural therapy. “Scented geraniums (Pelargonium) are great for therapy projects, especially those with fuzzy leaves,” she says. “Buddleia and salvia are not only fragrant; they attract butterflies and hummingbirds as well.” Green will whip up a floral dessert this summer with chocolate cosmos, coconut-scented nemesia and cherry pie plant (Heliotrope). And both the leaves and blossoms of lavender have a distinctive scent.


For long-term color, annuals are key. But adding scent to the equation often changes their constitution from durable to delicate. Three of the most fragrant flowers for late spring struggle mightily when summer starts to sizzle.

Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) should be started from seed as soon as the soil dries out enough to be worked, or in a pot indoors a month before the last frost.

Stock (Matthiola incana) is usually offered as a mixed seed strain in flats, so they’re inexpensive enough to plant plenty, although the white-flowered doubles seem to have the best scent.

Nemesia fruticans ‘Opal Innocence’ has a fragrance described as sweetly fruity with vanilla grace notes. According to Proven Winners, flowering can slow when evening temps reach into the 70s or above. They recommend pruning nemesia back when it loses its blooms so that it branches and comes into flower again when the weather cools later in the season.

Other Fragrant Annuals

Heat-loving annuals such as flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) are best started from seed and don’t do much until the soil warms up. But as a hot afternoon turns to a warm evening, the petals take on more substance and emit a jasmine-like fragrance that can stop you in your tracks. There are several species of nicotiana, but the most commonly found is Nicotiana x sanderae, a hybrid of N. alata and N. forgetiana. N. alata and the towering N. sylvestris are very fragrant as well. The short hybrid nicotianas sold as bedding plants usually have no scent.

Chocolate-scented cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) sends out its scent on warm, still days. I was struck by the unmistakable fragrance of chocolate as I roamed around Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisc. one September afternoon. When I began to look around for the source, I noticed another woman doing the same thing. “There is a cosmos that smells like chocolate … ,” I mumbled as much to myself as to the woman. And then I saw it – just one unassuming deep red flower of a size that belied the strength of its fragrance.

Tropical or nearly-tropical flowering plants can take most of the summer to bloom. I had a ginger (Hedychium) that grew to the point where it burst its pot, but it didn’t fully open its flowers until mid-October. I kept it in the garage for the winter, and it sprouted when I brought it inside in March. But even starting it early didn’t help. Most tropical plants need long-term heat, and in some summers, we just don’t have it.
One of the easiest tropical plants to grow, and even to overwinter in a sunny window, is Brunfelsia jamaicensis, or “lady of the night.” I’ve had the same plant in the same pot for at least three years, bringing it outside to thrive in the heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer. Brunfelsia australis, also known as “yesterday, today and tomorrow,” has fragrant purple flowers that fade to light blue and then white – hence the name.

Whether you prefer to buy plants at garden center, start them from seed, or order them online from specialty growers, it’s really not that hard to create a fragrant garden of your own. Here are a few to start with.

Fragrant Peonies: These herbaceous peonies are cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora.

‘Big Ben’
‘Chestine Gowdy’
‘Edulis Superba’
‘Laura Dessert’
‘Madame Ducel’
‘Myrtle Gentry’
‘Pink Derby’
‘Port Royal’
‘White Cap’
‘Festiva Maxima’

Fragrant Annuals and Tropical Plants:

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
Chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus)
Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
Stock (Matthiola incana)
Cherry pie plant (Heliotropium)
Orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata)
Ginger lily (Hedychium)
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia)
Lady of the night (Brunfelsia)

Fragrant Perennials, Shrubs and Trees:

Astilbe (some varieties)
Bugbane (Actaea racemosa)
Coneflowers (some Echinacea hybrids and species)
Fragrant snowball or Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum x carlcephalum or V. carlesii).
Hardy carnation (Dianthus)
Hummingbird mint (Agastache aurantiaca)
Lilium (usually Orientals, Trumpets and their hybrids)
Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii)
Phlox paniculata
Roses (some varieties)

Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications. She’s the editor and secretary of the Midwest Peony Society, a former columnist in the Times of Northwest Indiana for nine years and currently writes a blog, Petal Talk. jstarr@sbsmags.com

Issues - 2017 - MayJune

From the Editor - MayJune 2017

The day began with signs of gloom and doom. A new report from the National Wildlife Foundation said that monarch butterfly populations continue to decrease. Then a friend emailed a link to a New York Times story about the travails of a bee-keeping family I remember from my childhood.(1)

The Adee family lived in north central Kansas at the time, not far from my parents’ farm, but their business operated in many states. Today Adee Honey Farms is the largest in the country and the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has been killing bees here and abroad is also affecting them. Last year 44 percent of the bees in the U.S. died, and the Adees lost half of their 90,000 hives.

This is serious. Ninety percent of the food in the world comes from 100 crops, and 71 of those crops depend on bees for pollination, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. No pollination – no crop. No almonds, avocados, apples or cherries. If you like to eat, this affects you.

Honeybees get most of the attention, but the world has many different bees. Illinois has 500 bee species, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden. That includes the bumblebee. The rusty patched bumblebee, whose numbers have declined 87 percent in recent years, was just recently added to the federal list of endangered species, so it is now a crime to harm or kill it.

What can we do? We can write to the EPA. We can write to our state and national legislators. We can write to the President. We can grow plants that nourish bees. Liz Holmberg discussed plants for early pollinators in our March/April issue, and a story in the January/February issue reported on research whether non-native plants are also beneficial to pollinators.

We can also follow the example of Candide in the eponymous 18th century classic by Voltaire. “Je sais aussi qu’il faut cultivar notre jardin,” Candide says in the last line of the book. “We must cultivate our gardens.”

By the time Candide utters these words, the characters have endured unspeakable horrors and seen countless examples of misery throughout the world. One character, Pangloss, persists in believing that everything always works out for the best and keeps repeating that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Candide is having none of that. He is world weary but not about to give up. We carry on, he seems to be saying; we do what we can with our little plot of earth to make it productive and beautiful. We don’t ignore the gloom and doom – it’s still there – but we persevere and do our best to make this a better world for bees and butterflies, ourselves, and the rest of the planet.

A worthy message as we begin another gardening year.

(1) Feb.16, 2017, “A Bee Mogul Confronts the Crisis in His Field” by Stephanie Strom”

Dear Ms. and/or Mr. MacArthur Genius Grant Person

My name is Mike Nowak and, as you can see, I write a column for this very, very, very esteemed magazine. It’s full color and it’s glossy! As you can also see, my column is in a place of honor, on the very, very, very back page, just in front of a big fertilizer ad or something else of great importance to the horticultural community (they change it up every issue, just to keep me guessing).

I have personally spoken to your people in the past, before the restraining order was issued, so you might have a file on me somewhere in your office. No need to wade through all of those pages. Really. Just toss them in the recycling bin (I’m big on recycling). Even better, just burn them, which isn’t as environmentally sound as recycling but is ever so much more effective.

Allow me to get to the point.

You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it.

Perhaps it was the thought of being called a genius. Perhaps it was the $625,000.00 prize. Perhaps I just like the idea of being one of the “fellows” – camaraderie and all. “Rah! Rah! Go MacArthur! Yay!!” You choose.

But as I approached a long-delayed mid-life crisis, which I believe was caused by pursuing a career in horticultural and environmental radio, I began to understand that I have a unique and under-appreciated gift: I. Can. Kill. Any. Plant.

You might scoff at a statement like that. You might note that, anecdotally, many people think the same thing. Is it possible that if a scientific study were done, the anecdotal might become scientific reality? I see your ears perking up, much like on Mr. Spock after an egregiously ignorant pronouncement by Captain Kirk. You might also call my personal skill a kind of mad genius, because nobody can kill every plant!

Aha! I believe I have your full ears…er, attention. I shall continue.

Picture if you will, a tree that has miraculously survived for several hundred million years on a notoriously unstable planet. Its name: Ginkgo biloba, the only living species in the phylum Ginkgophyta. In the 21st Century, this tree is widely used in the urban environment. Why? Because it can handle pollution and survive being put in a hole in the middle of a sidewalk outside of a box store, that’s why! Insects seem to leave it alone, as do pathogens, perhaps because they’re terrified of being on the wrong end of karma, where they might return in a second life as human beings.

Now imagine this tree in the backyard of somebody who has the super power to be able to kill anything green. Have you seen any of the Avenger movies? The Hulk would be a goner against me.

When I receive my ginkgo as a gift, it is no more than a foot tall, perhaps less, in a one gallon pot. I have no idea where to site it in my yard, so I slam it into the soil. A few months later, I move it to another position. A few months after that, I move it again. Regardless of my attempts to kill it or just set it back, it simply adapts to the new site and continues to grow.

I become aware that radical tactics are in order. Step 1) I decide that the best place for it is under the high power lines that come into my home (you can’t make this stuff up), where it thrives and reaches into untold megawatts of potential danger. Step 2) I place a benign, lovely plant called sweet woodruff around its base as a ground cover.

Watch, now, my genius in action. You’re thinking that Step 1) was the issue, but you would be mistaken. The sweet woodruff forms a matt that could strangle a raccoon. Long story short, the tree begins to decline, and when I pull the ground cover away from the trunk, I see that the moist, impermeable environment of the sweet woodruff has caused rot to spread around the entire trunk, killing what is otherwise an indestructible plant.


Sorry. Don’t know where that maniacal laugh came from. It doesn’t happen very often. Anyway, please consider my request.


Mike “Ultimate Green Killer” Nowak
(the super hero name I will be sending to Marvel Comics)

Butterfly Heaven

Article Photo

Driving through the neighborhood with its tidy monoculture of neatly trimmed turf grass, you would never imagine that a butterfly haven lies farther down the block. But then you park your car and catch a glimpse of a giant white butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and a Kentucky wisteria (W. macrostachya) towering over the small city lot that’s jam-packed with a motley array of tall Phlox, Monarda, Salvia, dill (Anthum graveolens), Cleome, Helianthus and Echinacea.

And not a blade of turfgrass anywhere.

For those who might not get the point, a sign by the fence announces to passersby that this garden of Dennis and June Finnegan on the far South Side of Chicago is an official Monarch Waystation, a space where plants have been selected to feed, nourish, shelter and help preserve the beloved but increasingly threatened native monarch butterfly.

Along the way, the Finnegans are also providing a haven for tiger swallowtails, black swallowtails, red-spotted purples, admirals, commas, question marks, sulfurs, painted ladies, mourning cloaks and silver-spotted skippers. June Finnegan has photographed them all.

This is what biodiversity in the garden gets you.

But there’s more. Adjacent to the front fence, you will notice the asphalt driveway that long ago crowded out the family car and relegated it to second-class status on the street. Some of the plants here feed the butterflies; some feed the people. Giant circular containers and rectangular Earth Boxes bursting with vegetables now line up chockablock on either side of the 6-by-8-foot greenhouse that’s currently Mission Central for Dennis Finnegan’s hydroponically grown vegetables. He bought the greenhouse as a kit and has been as happy as a kid in a toy store installing it and devising paraphernalia as he embarks on his hydroponics adventure.

The Finnegans have lived on this 29-foot-wide lot for 20 years, with June the primary gardener in the early days. She hails from a distinguished garden background with a father who tended vegetables on four city lots and was once a finalist in the annual Victory Garden contest on PBS. When Dennis started gardening, he too was drawn to vegetables and now regularly starts seeds indoors under grow-lights during the winter.

June is the one who first got interested in butterflies. “I read an article about butterfly gardening, so I began purchasing flowering plants,” she recalls. “Then I read about dill as a plant to attract swallowtails. By adding dill, I got lots of swallowtails but also lots of dill [since it seeds itself all over]. So I started growing the dill in pots to keep it from taking over the yard. I also grow parsley and fennel for the swallowtails.”

An interest in monarchs soon followed, which led her to start adding different kinds of milkweed. A standard monarch favorite is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), usually available at local garden centers, but the Finnegans also grow less common species such as horsetail (a.k.a. whorled) milkweed (A. verticillata), the rosy-flowering swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and a white-flowering cultivar of swamp milkweed called ‘Ice Ballet’. All four are perennials and winter hardy – the A. verticillata to Zone 4 and the others to Zone 3. They also grow the tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) that’s an annual for us but easy to start from seed. It’s also possible to find it as a transplant in local garden centers.

Holding pride of place in the front yard is butterfly bush, a shrub that’s a must-have for anyone who wants to attract all kinds of butterflies. The plant is massive, around 8 feet tall, with white flowers, but there are varieties with dark purple, lavender and pink flowers as well. “In July it’s covered with pollinators,” marvels June. Recent breeding has led to the introduction of dwarf varieties that can be grown in containers. Buddleias often die back to the ground in winter but usually grow back from their roots come spring.

“There’s lots of nectar for butterflies in this garden,” notes June. “It’s a condensed area, a little island, and things start flowering early.” Still, she was puzzled this past April when she saw a mourning cloak flitting about. What could it feed on at that point in the year, she wondered? Unlike the monarchs, which migrate to Mexico to spend the winter, mourning cloaks and swallowtails overwinter here. Swallowtails overwinter as chrysalises and emerge as adult butterflies in spring; mourning cloaks overwinter as adult butterflies.

With so many nourishing plants, adult butterflies regularly lay their eggs in the Finnegan garden, and June has even caught a female monarch in the act. Since there are preying mantids (a mixed blessing since they will eat beneficial as well as pernicious critters), June often moves eggs and caterpillars into screened indoor cages for protection.

Once the eggs hatch, monarch caterpillars are fed with a regular diet of milkweed leaves. Swallowtail caterpillars eat dill, parsley and fennel. After a couple of weeks the monarch caterpillars move to the top of their cage and begin hanging upside down. In 10 to 14 days, they metamorphose into chrysalises that look like pale green capsules sporting a delicate gold “necklace.” Ten days after that, they emerge as butterflies.

The chrysalises of swallowtails look more like a ragged piece of bark – a very useful camouflage since the ones that overwinter outdoors sometimes attach themselves to trees. This past winter, the Finnegans overwintered 20 swallowtails in screened cages and by the end of May, six had eclosed (opened and been sent on their way into the world).

When it comes to butterflies, it truly is a case of “build it and they will come.”

How Do You Get to Be a Monarch Waystation?

Go to the Monarch Watch website (monarchwatch.org), which has a comprehensive listing of information about monarch butterflies. Click on the link to the Monarch Waystation Program (monarchwatch.org/waystations), and fill out the registration form that asks you to provide information about the numbers and kinds of plants you grow that are beneficial to monarchs.

Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, says, “Monarch butterfly populations are declining due to loss of habitat. To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds need to be a priority.”

Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association.

Conference Call


Contact: The Guy in Charge

MiNoSoRALaS Announces Best Gardening Conference Ever Anywhere

CHICAGO - Today, The Mike Nowak School of Really Awesome Learning and Stuff (MiNoSoRALaS) announced that in anticipation of the 2017 gardening season, it would be presenting its inaugural “Best Gardening Conference Ever Anywhere 2017.” Some people insist on calling it the “first annual” but Mike thinks that’s putting the compost before the wheel barrow. And he should know.

What makes this the Best Gardening Conference Ever Anywhere? We’re glad you asked. MiNoSoRALaS features seminars never contemplated, let alone seen, on this planet or any other. Titles like “Gardening for the Truly Clueless, Like My Neighbor,” “How To Know if You’re Asking a Stupid Gardening Question,” “How To Stop Asking Stupid Gardening Questions,” “Sharp Tools: Fact or Fiction?” (which is presented back to back with “21 Easy Ways to Lose a Finger”), “You Just Inhaled a Wasp: Now What?” and a perennial favorite, “Perennial Favorites and Other Execrable Puns for Which Garden Writers Should Be Arrested, if not Drawn and Quartered.”

In presentations forged from twenty-five almost unbearable years of trial and error in his own garden, Mike steps out of the light and into the darkness to examine why it is that so often plants, pathogens, creepy crawly things and even seemingly inanimate tools win and gardeners lose. Along the way, he regales his audience with tales of the misery of the human condition, most often displayed in the horticultural aisles of giant box stores on Saturday afternoons. Who should attend the “Best Gardening Conference Ever Anywhere 2017?” We’re glad you asked that question, too!

This conference is open to any cash-carrying member of the public who wants to garden but is turned off by stale, dusty, dumb old books and is frankly befuddled by that crazy, goofy stuff on the Intertubes. C’mon! If you read those books, you’re going to get ink all over your fingers! And if you start some silly video on your computer, are you sure you will know how to turn it off when it’s finished? Are you sure? What if a Jonas Brothers video pops up right afterwards? Will you be able to turn it off in time before your brain turns to mush?

You’re just the kind of person we’re looking for! The smart, trendy, upwardly-mobile, cash-carrying people who are interested in transforming their yards from a couple of sad yews and a scraggly lawn to a couple of happy yews and a recuperating lawn.

Look at yourself in the mirror. Really, go on. It’s okay. What do you see? No, not that. The tweezers can take care of that. Do you see that future gardener? YOU’RE the kind of person we want to show up to Mike’s garage on a Saturday morning and walk away with that very, very official certificate that says that you attended the “Best Gardening Conference Ever Anywhere 2017.”

You know what? When you show that certificate to your neighbors, they are going to be gobsmacked. They won’t know what to think of you!

And isn’t that what you want? To keep them guessing? To have them wondering exactly what you’re capable of doing? So get to the bank RIGHT NOW, grab that cash and get ready for the gardening experience of your life!

The reviews say it all. “Unbelievable,” writes Horticultural Harangue. “Seriously. I didn’t believe a word of it.” Dicot Digest applauds Mike’s “unprecedented gall,” while Monocot Monthly praises Mikes “brazenly fraudulent artifice.” The attorney general’s office simply says, “We can’t wait to see him in person.”

From the Editor - MarApr 2017

I once knew a woman who vacuumed her rock garden. Seems a revered expert from the East Coast was coming on an inspection tour and she wanted everything perfect with nary a weed or fallen leaf in sight.

I was thinking about her as I pulled out my spent tomatoes and put away the cages this past fall. I had a reasonably successful garden in 2016, but I’m sure she would have looked askance at no end of horticultural errors and mishaps had she descended for a visit chez moi. Fortunately, she wasn’t invited.

I like an orderly flower bed and a well-edged lawn as much as the next person, but nowadays, when it comes to sallying forth with that half-moon edger and knees that are developing suspicious symptoms of arthritis, I often end up thinking, “Well, maybe tomorrow.”

It’s important to remember as we start gardening in 2017 that we do it for pleasure, not pain, and we need to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Thus, if you have to yank the lawn mower cord 15 times before it starts and you end up tearing your rotator cuff, then maybe it’s time to hire out this task so that you can save your shoulder for the fun stuff, however you define fun. Like designing and planting containers, perhaps, the topic for this issue’s cover story (page 42). Or growing a gazillion food crops like city gardener Gloria Ciaccio, our focus in Gardens of the Pros (page 53). Another feature story highlights the garden of Irwin Goldman, a funeral director who counterbalances his daily occupation by nurturing living plants to create beauty and solace at his suburban home (page 48).

Other stories in this issue have a more practical bent. We recently heard about a major onion-growing operation in northern Indiana and nursery co-owner Julie Oudman-Perkins tells us home gardeners how to grow them. Then Jeff Rugg reviews the pros and cons of clover in the lawn – or what about a lawn planted exclusively with clover? As we become increasingly aware of clover’s benefits to soil and the environment (those flowers are good for bees), it’s something to seriously consider. Aesthetic ideals change over time and reflect the contemporary culture. Men no longer wear powdered wigs. Maybe Kentucky bluegrass is equally old-fashioned.

The soil around Lake Michigan is sand-based rather than clay, and those of you with homes in Indiana and Michigan have soils that are seriously sandy. What grows there? Garden designer John Eskandari offers suggestions based on his experience.

We also have a story about early pollinators by greenhouse owner Liz Holmberg and design tips drawn from a project by Mariani Landscape.

If you don’t want to do even a modicum of work in a garden, then it would probably be better not to have one. Lay out pavers, buy a pot of red geraniums and be done with it. But if you aspire to something between an overgrown weed patch and a super perfect garden swept bare by a vacuum cleaner, turn the page. We have lots of suggestions for you.

Issues - 2017 - MarApr

Moss: Rescuing Its Reputation

Article Photo

Story By Susan Crawford, Photography By Dale Sievert

I’m pretty sure that in the pre-Google era most everyone who spoke of or asked about moss was trying to get rid of it. Even now googling “moss in the garden” produces five “how to kill” results before the first “how to grow.” But I recently attended a lecture at the Chicago Botanic Garden given by Dale Sievert, whose passion for and expertise about mosses made me question how anyone could contemplate mayhem against such a beautiful, ancient and eco-friendly organism. Since mosses have slowly, over the past few years, begun to colonize the damper, shadier parts of my tiny urban forest (i.e. my front yard), I was happy to be urged to encourage the process rather than fight it.

Sievert grows more than 50 species of moss in his garden in Waukesha, Wisc. and has visited gardens featuring the plant in countries all over the globe. His slide show left his listeners with mouths agape and acquisitive juices flowing. More than 300 mosses in containers. More than 600 mosses blanketing rocks. Moss growing among shade-loving perennials. Moss thriving in sunlight. The artistry involved in showcasing these tiny plants is extraordinary.

The Japanese have valued mosses for centuries for the many ways in which they can be grown and for their velvety textures that contrast so elegantly with leafy, spiky, shiny and oh, so many other characteristics of the plant world. Having started growing mosses around 2000, Sievert was inspired to visit Kyoto, Japan in 2014. His stunning photos of Kyoto and Waukesha have inspired me to go beyond letting my moss do its own thing amongst the ferns and bleeding hearts. I’d like to try covering a rock or two for a starter. If only I had a flowing stream like his, I’d let my mossy rocks sit in it as he does.

Sievert provided generous advice on how to begin a moss project.

A Bit of Basic Knowledge
All mosses are in Bryosida, a phylum originating between 400 and 500 million years ago. True mosses belong to the class Bryopsida with 660 genera and 12,000 to 15,000 species. They reproduce both sexually (from spores) and asexually (for example, from pieces that have broken off). They have no vascular system and get all of their moisture and nutrients through their leaves, none through their roots or rhizoids that only anchor them to the soil.

Finding Plants
I am the proud possessor of some Plagiomnium cuspidatum and one or more of the many species of the genus Brachythecium (Sievert kindly identified these for me from a photo), so I have a start. Sievert gets many of his mosses from woodlots to which he has access. Those without such a resource will need to purchase plants. He recommends Mountain Moss Enterprises of Pisgah Forest, North Carolina and Moss Acres of Honesdale, Penn. as reliable suppliers.

How to Choose
Identify your conditions (moisture, dappled sun, shade, climate zone, etc.) and find out what different mosses need. There is some disagreement about whether pH levels should be considered. Sievert thinks they may have some influence even though mosses get nutrients through their leaves. Suppliers should provide information about conditions that their plants require. We lucky ones with volunteer mosses know they have chosen a spot by themselves.

Trays of Moss Can Be Pricey
A way to stretch the budget requires some faith, but Sievert has heard reports of success with putting moss and an equal amount of buttermilk in a blender and liquefying them until the mixture resembles a thick milkshake. This can then be painted on any rough surface – rocks, wood, concrete or the outside of a container. Keep the object in the shade and mist it with water several times a week. Moss should begin to appear in a few weeks. Annie Martin of Mountain Moss pooh-poohs this idea so caveat emptor.

Sievert Suggests
To grow on rocks: Hedwigia ciliata, Anomodon attenuates. For containers: Anomodon rostratus (hard to find, maybe impossible in Illinois), Plagiomnium cuspidatum (easily found in the Midwest). For damp, shady areas: Thuidium delicatulum, Climacium americanum (both can be found if you look enough). For sunny areas: Bryum caespiticium, B. argenteum, Ceratodon purpureus (all found in Illinois in many places, the first two on sidewalks and concrete areas, the last on gravel drives, etc.)

How to Plant
This really got my attention. Sievert glues sheets of moss to his limestone rocks with silicone caulk. Planting in the ground or in containers is more straightforward. He cautions, “I am quite sure that it is important to mimic the original soil substrate as closely as possible. My first effort at moss gardening was a complete failure as I took moss off a cedar shake roof and tried to grow it on the ground.” He uses the same technique for growing on the ground or in containers. After transplanting, he waters the moss one time, then presses it down in order to make good contact so new rhizoids (attachments sent into the substrate) grow. He advises patience. “It probably varies with the species, but my favorite, Anomodon rostratus, takes from one to three months to attach itself fairly tightly.” Annie Martin claims that mosses must be kept moist with daily watering for at least two months after planting. Sievert says, “I don’t and it works just fine. I’m afraid of fungus and mildew with frequent watering.” In essence, don’t let new moss go completely dry.

Care After Planting
Sievert is a hands-off gardener. He never fertilizes his mosses. He has so many containers and so much moss growing on rocks and in the ground that he doesn’t water. He’s fine with letting his mosses go dormant when they get dry. These clever plants can go dormant for long periods and bounce back into lush life at the first shower. To prevent dormancy and its attendant brown appearance, water often in dry periods. Sievert doesn’t protect his mosses in the winter. Not even the ones in containers. “These guys are tough as nails,” he says. “They can survive the worst winters.” Asked about the problem of cracking containers in winter, he conceded that the plants were not a worry but their housing might be. Look for winter-tolerant pots.

Mosses have no insect problems, and there is only one disease problem, caused by a Phthium fungus. Occasionally birds or animals may disturb them. The only time-consuming requirement in growing mosses is the removal of weeds and debris. Not so very demanding for casual moss growers. A considerable headache for Sievert.

Listening to Sievert wax lyrical about the moss gardens he has tended and visited, I made sure that he keeps his own garden maintenance simple in order to have the time to enjoy the tiny glories of the plants themselves. He gets down on his knees to appreciate their structure. “Looking down on them from full height is like seeing something from an airplane window,” he says. He talks about his objective in creating a moss garden: “Inspiration from nature but not copying nature.”

The best time to view a moss garden, he suggests, is early on a sunny morning after a rain when everything is fully hydrated. I’m hoping to find one of those mornings this year. Me in my pajamas with a cup of coffee and maybe my magnifying glass. On my knees in the front yard. Hope the neighbors aren’t watching.

Susan Crawford writes freelance travel and garden stories as well as fiction. She has published in The New York Times and a number of other journals. She is finishing up her first novel.

A Bit about Bees

Article Photo

Story & Photography By Jean Starr

For Denise Johnston, it started at the county fair. As a child, she’d make a “beeline” to the hive observation frame in the agriculture building, where she would become mesmerized by the bees’ activity. Then, about ten years ago, she met Bob Engle, the man behind the hives, at an antique tractor show.

He asked if she was interested in a class he was teaching. Johnston signed on to a series of five 3-hour classes detailing how to start your own hives. After attending all 15 hours, she ordered her first batch of bees. Now Johnston is secretary/treasurer/newsletter editor of the Northwest Indiana Beekeepers Association, sells her own honey and teaches classes. (nwibeekeepers.com)

“When I joined, we had about 20 people at the first session and ended up with five who completed the entire class,” Johnston says. “Now we have 70 people sign up, and it usually dwindles down to around 20.”

The NWIBA now boasts 190 members, and Johnston credits the increased interest to an awareness of colony collapse disorder, disappearing bee disease and the importance of pollinators. Her first recommendation for bee newbies: get involved with a local club.

Beekeeping associations are treasure troves of knowledge and great networking resources. It’s an ancient art after all, and many members have been keeping honeybees for decades. Beekeepers love to share, and NWIBA classes are free. The association also orders bees for its membership.

Providing bees for cold climate beekeepers is big business. Before capture, the bees have already been pollinating California almonds, Georgia pecans or Florida cucumbers. Bee suppliers package them up with a queen and a can of food. “A 3-pound package of bees with a queen cost around $110 last year,” Johnston says. “They used to cost $8.”

Other changes to beekeeping can be found in the mechanics of the process, but the product hasn’t changed a bit.

The Mechanics

You’ve never smelled honey until you’ve been to a clover hive that has just been harvested. On a clear sunny day in early October, Jim Crawford had just finished harvesting nearly 100 pounds of honey.

For someone new to beekeeping, Crawford moves with deliberate confidence. It’s a good manner to adopt when surrounded by hundreds of flying insects with stingers. After pulling out the honey-laden frames, he quickly stashes them in his truck. “You don’t want to leave honey out this time of year,” he explains. “It will attract all kinds of bees and even yellow jackets.”

The bees are possessive of their honey in the fall. They need to have enough to live on through the winter months. It’s Crawford’s second year, and he’s been successful due in large part to his mentor George Manning who has kept bees for 65 years.

“I hit the jackpot by making the acquaintance of a local beekeeper in my hometown, Chesterton, Ind. George has been a huge influence and a wealth of knowledge for me,” Crawford says. “Like anything, you can learn so much with hands-on experience.”

After harvesting what will turn out to be nearly 100 pounds of honey, Crawford inspects the hives. The brood frame, where baby bees mature, is a mix of eggs, larvae, pupae, capped brood and baby bees emerging from their cells. The frame contains cells with honey for feeding the baby bees and the worker bees. It is only when the brood frames become full of brood and stored honey that the worker bees begin storing excess honey in the upper “honey super” boxes.

Crawford makes use of a screen called a queen excluder to prevent the queen from laying eggs in the portion of the hive where the honey is stored. “The screen has openings large enough for the worker bees to pass through and store honey but too small for the queen,” he says. “You don’t want the queen laying eggs where you will be harvesting honey.”

Materials Cost

Hives themselves range in materials and prices. Crawford has two hives – one he purchased, assembled and painted for around $400 and another that he had to assemble and paint himself for $350. He’s glad he had to put it together as it gave him insight into how a hive is built.


Timing the honey harvest helps assure the bees aren’t overly aggravated. “It should be at least 50 F but ideally 70 F and sunny,” Crawford says. “You want the bees to be out foraging, and when it’s cloudy, cool, and wet, they’ll stay in the hive and get kind of grumpy if you try to take the honey while they’re inside.”

Hive Location

Crawford recommends a spot with maximum sun exposure and minimum north and west wind exposure due to our harsh winters with winds from the north. Honeybees don’t migrate but stay in the hives through the winter, eat lots of honey and generate heat by clustering and beating their wings.

The Bees

For buying bees, Crawford recommends contacting a local certified apiary in order to start off with healthy bees.

King Nuc Bee Hives is where many local hobbyists, clubs and commercial beekeepers buy their bees in the spring. The Berrien Springs, Mich. company was started by Paul DePeal, who still refers to the operation as a hobby. His day job is in the insurance industry.

King Nuc hosts a bee weekend when beekeepers drive in from surrounding states to pick up their bees. The date is driven by the weather but is usually sometime after May 15. Bees can overheat and shouldn’t be transported long distances, and they shouldn’t be left in a car trunk for long periods.

Although DePeal gets his bees from Honey Bee Genetics, a California company that specializes in raising disease-resistant stock, he maintains there is no such thing as disease-proof bees. “Everyone’s looking for a line of bees that is indestructible,” he says, but aspiring beekeepers need to take the time to learn about bees and their most serious foe – mites. “All bees have mites. Novices don’t realize the bees have to be treated for mites. If they don’t do that, they’ll be starting over in a year or two.”

Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications. She’s the editor and secretary of the Midwest Peony Society, a former columnist in the Times of Northwest Indiana for nine years and currently writes a blog, Petal Talk. jstarr@sbsmags.com

A Little Background

According to Purdue University Extension Service, all honeybees belong to the genus Apis and bees in this genus are the only species to store large amounts of honey and exhibit a perennial life cycle. Honeybees represent only a small fraction of the roughly 20,000 known species of bees. Some other types of related bees produce and store honey, but only members of the genus Apis, are true honeybees.

The western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is native to Europe and has since been raised all over the globe. It is the primary honeybee of western civilization, while the eastern honeybee (Apis cerana) is the counterpoint in eastern civilization.

Among the commonly recognized species of Apis, only A. cerana and A. mellifera are kept commercially by man.

What’s in a Starter Kit?

DePeal, Crawford and Johnston all recommend joining a local bee organization or finding a mentor to offer support and guidance. Attend a meeting or two before investing in a starter kit that includes the basics, including the following:

  • Brood chamber or hive body, which is a large box containing eight to 10 removable frames that the bees cover with a wax honeycomb. Each individual cell in the honeycomb is occupied by new bees or filled with honey for the bees’ consumption.
  • Honey supers are additional boxes, usually shorter in depth than the hive body, that are used to store surplus honey that the beekeeper will harvest. The supers also have moveable frames for honeycomb.
  • Frames, usually made of pine, hold a beeswax-coated foundation on a molded plastic raised cell sheet to help the bees start drawing the cells.
  • Hive tool for opening hives that might be sealed by the bees with a product called propolis, which they manufacture from tree gums, saps and resins.
  • Smoker – a metal container with bellows, plus smoker fuel.
  • Bee veil is worn to protect the face and neck from stings.
  • Gloves are worn to improve grip and protect from stings.

Where to Learn

Illinois State Beekeepers Association: ilsba.com

Fox Valley Beekeepers Association: 630-584-6149, Contact: Kim Luppino, foxvalleybeekeepers@gmail.com

Northern Illinois Beekeepers Association: nibainfo.org, Contact: Kevin Keyfauver, keyfauver@gmail.com

Lake County Beekeepers: lakecountybeekeepers.org, Contact: Perry Plescia: 847-778-1121, p.plescia@sbcglobal.net

Indiana State Beekeepers Association: indianastatebeekeepers.org

Indiana Beekeepers Association: indianabeekeepers.com

Indiana Beekeeping School: indianabeekeepingschool.com

Northern Indiana Local Associations

North Eastern Indiana Beekeepers Association: Fort Wayne/ Allen Co. and surrounding counties, Contact: Harry Jones, 260-637-1453. neiba.info

Michiana Beekeepers Association: North Central Indiana/ South Central Michigan, Contact: Bob Baughman, 574-276-3959. michianabees.org

Northwest Indiana Beekeepers Association: Crown Point / Lake Co. and surrounding counties, Contact: Ed Rice, 219-781-8526. nwibeekeeeprs.com

Lake Shore Beekeepers Association: Northwest Indiana/ Southwest Michigan, Contact: Dave Laney, 574-656-8701, davelaney@kconline.com

Mississinewa Valley Beekeepers Association: Fairmount/ Grant Co. and surrounding counties, Contact: Steve Deal, 765-661-1025, sdeal57@netzero.net

Up in the Air

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Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg

You may have seen an air plant hanging in an open-faced glass vase or hanging from a seashell at your local garden center. They are becoming popular. Air plants are easy to grow if you follow a few rules – and easy to kill if you don’t. Air plants may be sold with the hype that they live on nothing but air, but this is not the case.

First, what is an air plant? Air plants are in the bromeliad family. The air plant genus Tillandsia (tih-LAND-zee-ah) is the largest in the bromeliad family. The names tillandsia and air plant are often used synonymously and many affectionately call them Tillys. There are a couple of major differences between tillandsias and the other bromeliads. Most bromeliads have tightly fitting leaves that hold water in a reservoir at the center of the plant. Many tillandsias also have this “rosette” shape, but care must be taken because if water is retained too long in the center of the plant, it can cause the plant to rot and die.

Most bromeliads grow as “normal” plants with water-absorbing roots in the ground or on a host. Tillys use their holdfast roots to anchor themselves in place, water is absorbed: through their leaves, not their roots, with few exceptions.

Air plants are epiphytes like many bromeliads, tropical ferns, orchids and Christmas cacti. An epiphyte is a plant that is anchored to another plant or object that is called the host. The host only supplies a perch, but no nutrients. Spanish moss is a tillandsia that is common in the Southern states and is often seen hanging from host trees, telephone wires, fences and the occasional light pole.

You can successfully grow air plants in your house without roots. They can be attached to bark, rocks or other household decorations with wire, glue or Velcro. Or you can set one down in a sunny place where you think it looks best.

Tillandsias are native to the warm and temperate areas from the southeastern United States through Mexico and down through all of South America. There are different species that are native from coastal areas all the way up to mountainous elevations more than 9,000 feet high. Some are native to forests, and many grow among cacti and on rocks or on sand in deserts.

The air plant leaf is covered in scales or hairs called trichomes that act as sponges to quickly absorb water when it becomes available. For the species exposed to more sunlight, the trichomes also reflect up to 70 percent of the sunlight that strikes the leaves. Tillandsias that are native to drier xeric climates have larger, denser and often feathery trichomes covering the leaves. Tilly leaves in wetter mesic climates are often smooth and look transparent, but they are still covered with trichomes.

Most tillandsias follow the same basic form, having leaves that emanate from a central axis and then gradually tapering to a point. However, some leaves can be short and spikey while others can be long and curly. Some are bright green while others are covered with the white, fuzzy trichomes. Many look a lot like the leafy top of a pineapple plant, which is no surprise when you know that both air plants and pineapples are types of bromeliads. They range in mature size from just 1 inch to more than 3 feet across.

When many tillandsias bloom, the leaves turn red or pink to attract hummingbirds, their natural pollinators. They send out a flower stalk that can be two to three times the length of the leaves. The stalk is usually brightly colored. The tube-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds. Some tillandsia flowers are very fragrant and attract moths or butterflies. The colored leaves and inflorescences can last for weeks. Each flower generally lasts for a day but a number of tillandsia inflorescences produce many flowers over a month or two.

Tillandsias are easy to hybridize. Rainforest Flora, Inc. from Southern California has created several hundred over the years. But the main way they reproduce for most of us is by producing offsets, or pups, after blooming. As the pups reach about half the size of the mother plant, they can be separated. However, by leaving them together, they will eventually grow into a gorgeous clump that will have multiple inflorescences at the same time.

How to Grow Tillandsias

Paul Isley III, president of Rainforest Flora, says, “Indoors, place them close to a sunny window, but make sure that they only get direct light for an hour or two at a time. Southern exposure is great, but watch the amount of direct sunlight they get. Xeric (drier growing) tillandsias that usually have stiffer, harder leaves and a more pronounced covering of white trichomes will do better with more sun than the softer, greener leaved tillandsias.”

Outdoors in the summer, bright shade is best. A little direct sunlight is usually fine. When the weather begins to turn, bring your air plants indoors. The best times are those few weeks when you don’t have to use either the air conditioner or the furnace.

Indoor watering is normally easy, according to Isley. “Using a container that has a lid, collect rain water. Submerge the air plant every week for several seconds, take it out and turn it upside down for a few seconds so water can’t collect in the base, which can cause the plant to rot, and put it back. If the tilly is getting good light, that should be enough unless the air is unusually dry, as it often is when central heating or air conditioning is used. In this case, try to have some other plants or other water source around to add a bit to the humidity. If the leaf edges ever begin to curl up toward each other more than normal, this is a sign of dehydration – the plants wasn’t receiving enough water frequently enough. The solution is to submerge the plant in the “good” water overnight. This will cause it to completely rehydrate if it hasn’t dried out too much.”

Keep water for your tillys in a tub with a lid to prevent it from getting dusty and evaporating. You can use this same water until it runs out. I like using a gallon plastic ice cream container for my smaller tillandsias and a 15-gallon storage containerfor the bigger plants that are mounted on large pieces of wood or bark. I collect snow in the winter but, of course, I don’t use it until the water has warmed to room temperature. If the plant is blooming, don’t dunk the flowers under water.

Outdoors, tillandsias just need a quick spray from the hose. Once the leaf is wet, more water isn’t needed. Just be careful not to water the xeric tillandsias too often since they don’t need it.


Isley says, “Fertilizing tillandsias is also easy. In fact, if you put a quarter teaspoon/gallon ratio of Epiphytes Delight or Miracle Gro in your dipping/soaking tub, your fertilizing task is done! You can use other fertilizers but the key is to make sure that the nitrogen component has ammoniacal and nitrate nitrogen. The urea-based nitrogen in most commercial fertilizers needs bacteria in soil to break it down so that plants can use it. Tillandsias don’t have soil, so the urea nitrogen isn’t broken down and is wasted.”


Tillandsias make beautiful architectural accents anywhere in the house. No matter where they are normally placed for best growth, they can be easily moved to a new location for decorating purposes. “In normal conditions, you can put a tillandsia pretty much wherever you want for a month or so with no permanent harm to the plant, but eventually they want to receive bright light and sufficient water,” Isley says. “Many people rotate their plants on a monthly basis so that they can have them where they will look the best but not necessarily grow the best.”

Additional Resources

The most definitive book on tillandsias is Tillandsia II by Paul T. Isley III. This coffee table-sized book is filled with hundreds of color photos and covers the biographical history of how tillandsias were discovered and propagated.

Also from Paul T. Isley III, “The Genus Tillandsia” is a fact-filled 28-page booklet with many gorgeous color photos for those who would like an introduction to these remarkable plants.

Air Plants by Zenaida Sengo is not just a book about growing tillandsias. It covers many beautiful ways to incorporate them into the design of your indoor landscape, including several craft ideas, such as Christmas wreaths.

Many Chicagoland garden centers carry tillandsias propagated by Rainforest Flora, Inc., which is owned and operated by Paul Isley III and Jerrold Robinson.

Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois Certified Nurseryman and a Registered Landscape Architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture. jrugg@sbsmags.com

Tough Questions for the Pros

Here we are again, folks, recovering from yet another catastrophic (pick one or more):


New Year’s Eve celebration.

Christmas, when you hinted and hinted that all you needed to make you truly happy was a cherry red Tesla Model S under your Christmas Tree. But did Santa come through for you? Ha! Only in those annoying car commercials does that ever happen.

So you’re probably still tearfully sweeping up bits of New Year’s confetti, using the back page of this very magazine to collect it because you were unable to locate a dust pan. That’s okay, sweep it right onto my face. I’m here for you.

I’m also here to remind you that this is January, probably the most depressing month of the year. Naturally, that’s when my birthday occurs. Nevertheless, I don’t actually believe it, but I have been told that, for gardeners, January is a time to look forward to starting over (which is necessary because everything from last year is dead), to new challenges (because the old ones beat you like a drum and left you gasping on the side of the road), and to renewing your spirit (if you think that growing radishes is as satisfying as owning a cherry red Tesla Model S.)

You might have noticed that there’s a new feature in Chicagoland Gardening for 2017, something called Gardens of the Pros (page 56). I have a couple of observations. First, I’m still waiting for the invitation to talk about my garden. You know, as a pro. Hey! Stop laughing! Second observation: I didn’t get asked to submit any questions to the Advice from the Pros sidebar.

Ya know, I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I don’t mean just killing plants. Some of them survive, too (emotionally damaged and resentful, of course, but alive!) The point is that I expect the editorial staff to come crawling to me eventually, when they run out of questions like “Do you like butterflies?” and “What’s your favorite kind of gardening hat?”

At that point, they will turn to me for some real gardening questions for the pros. Questions like these:

Q. What’s the last garden tool you threw in a fit of rage?

Q. Did it break anything or hurt a neighbor? If not, will you throw it again?

Q. What recent cultivar made you reach for the liquor cabinet?

Q. Have you ever sniffed a plastic flower, just because you weren’t 100 percent sure?

Q. If you were a tree, would you fall on an ugly house just for spite? (I have a couple in my neighborhood that I’d like you to consider.)

Q. How many stupid tools do you own? I mean the really stupid ones – you bought them and they don’t work but you refuse to admit that?

Q. A follow up question, please: why didn’t you return them?

Q. Have you ever deliberately withheld water from a plant to show who’s boss?

Q. How many times have you pruned a rose bush without gloves and said, “Ow! I should have used my gloves!”

Q. How many times have you said that out loud and then looked around to see who was listening?

Q. Do you talk to your plants? What do they say? Do you realize that you need therapy?

Q. Which author of a recent gardening book you’ve read seriously needs a time-out? (Go sit in the corner of the garage!)

Q. What recent advice from a fellow garden “pro” made you reach for the liquor cabinet?

Q. Do you harbor a secret desire to ride a lawn mower through your neighbor’s impatiens?

Q. When is the last time you dug a big hole and not only did you lose all feeling in your hands, but every light on the block went out?

Believe me, I have thousands and thousands of questions that I’m willing to share with the editorial department. If you need me, I’ll be sitting by the phone, waiting for an apology from Santa. It’s coming any minute now. I can feel it. Really I can. Here it comes. Santa? Santa? No, no, don’t go away, this will just take a second … Santa? …

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist, environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

From the Editor - JanFeb 2017

At Chicagoland Gardening we duly make our resolutions, chief among them our determination that 2017 will be the magazine’s best year ever. And then we get down to business.

As in years past, we begin with a cover story on the year’s new plants. Since the number of new varieties is legion, we limit ourselves to varieties that have passed the trial by fire in the well-named trial gardens at Ball Horticultural in West Chicago. Each summer we take a day to reconnoiter the grounds with Jim Nau and his aide-de-camp Katie Rotella, note the high performers, and then commission our trusty photographer Ron Capek to turn them into art.

Just as we love plants (some of us have been accused of being “plant geeks”), we also love design, and this issue offers three design-based stories. The first inaugurates a new series of features that will look at the home gardens of area professionals. For January/February we visit the garden of Jeff Epping, director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wis. (Gardens of the Pros, page 54).
The second new series is Design Tips in which we take a photograph of an expertly designed garden and pull out 5 to 10 ideas that you can apply to your own spaces. In this issue we showcase a vegetable garden created by Craig Bergmann (page 18).

For the third, we reprise the clever display garden presented by Aquascape at last year’s Chicago Flower & Garden Show. Here construction manager Brian Helfrich and his staff played a game of “variations on a theme” by designing a large circle, dividing it into six equal pie-shaped segments and then showing a different design solution for each of them. One segment was left blank with just a lawn. The other five were turned into diminutive gardens, each with a water feature.

In our January/February issue we always provide charts and what-to-do outlines that will serve you through the year. Liz Holmberg, owner of Lizzie’s Garden in Naperville, for example, has compiled a blooming houseplant chart for all of you indoor gardeners. Another chart will take you through the growing season according to the needs of different layers of the garden (lawn, ground covers, edibles, shrubs, perennials and bulbs).

Think you can’t grow food in the city? Just look at the Hyde Park garden of Ron Grzywinski who grows so many vegetables that he invites the neighbors to come in and forage at will. He has grown 107 different tomatoes over the years. What’s more, he has kept notes.

What else? Bob Coultrip cultivates 250 conifers in Naperville. Landscape architect Scott Mehaffey selects 10 noteworthy garden trends, and Michelle Byrne Walsh enjoys a visit to a craft club in the western suburbs that does something nifty every month, this time demonstrating how to turn old silverware into durable plant tags. What a great winter project!

How’s that for keeping our resolutions? We believe 2017 is off to a great start.

Issues - 2017 - JanFeb

Winter Reds

Article Photo

Story By Deb Terrill Photography By Ron Capek

In a Chicagoland winter, we may or may not have snow. With snow, any garden can look good. Without it, we must pull out a few garden decorating tricks to provide relief from a palette of sepia and stone. Adding a splash of red here and there is a fine way of generating excitement, and when the garden gods do bless us with snow, those winter reds glow and create real garden art.

Evergreen Hollies
Holly berries, a symbol of the holidays as old as time, can find a comfy home in most gardens. It is true that they like a slightly acidic soil and ample moisture, but siting them carefully, perhaps near a downspout in well-amended soil, will allow most gardeners to possess them.

For big clusters of bright red berries in winter, a little understanding of the holly is helpful. There are male and female holly plants, and to produce berries, you will need at least one male. When purchasing hollies, ask for assistance to make sure you get one male for every three to seven females. This selection process has been made easier for us by the naming of varieties. ‘Blue Prince’ is clearly a boy while ‘Blue Princess’ is its girly counterpart.

Most of the evergreen hollies sold in our region are meservae hybrids of the blue holly group. These are mostly crosses of two extra hardy hollies, Ilex rugosa and Ilex aquafolium. ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ are popular selections, but newer hybrids within this group are introduced frequently. Among these are the German introductions, ‘Castle Wall’, ‘Castle Spire’ and ‘The Honeymooners’, which is said to be self-pollinating. ‘Casanova’, a stunning male selection that also hails from Germany, has painterly variegated leaves.

Some gardeners consider evergreen hollies only marginally hardy, but cold hardiness is seldom the problem with Meserve holly culture. In his “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” Michael Dirr cites numerous instances of Meserve hollies surviving sub-zero winters with varying degrees of leaf damage, from none to moderate, but no deadly woody tissue damage. If the plants have an Achilles heel, it is the same sensitivity to heat and drying winds that challenges all broadleaf evergreens in northern Illinois.

Protection is the key word for evergreen hollies — siting them away from wind, in full sun to part shade and with adequate soil moisture in summer and fall. Hot season soil moisture is of paramount importance. (‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ are said to be more heat-tolerant.) Our tendency to situate them next to foundations, where roof overhangs prevent rain from penetrating the soil and lime leaches from the foundation, is often our most grievous error in handling these lovely shrubs.
You will know if your hollies are suffering from too much alkalinity in the soil because they will develop pale green leaves or yellow leaves that are only green along the veins. It is difficult to change the pH of your soil, but you can sometimes make a noticeable difference by adding oak leaf and pine needle mulch and using a fertilizer formulated for broadleaf evergreens, such as Espoma’s Holly-tone®.

Deciduous Hollies
In addition to the shiny evergreen hollies, we are blessed with a native holly, Ilex verticillata, which loses its leaves but bears clusters of bright red fruit that persist in the winter. One of the most popular cultivars is ‘Winter Red’, which develops arching branches of heavy fruit clusters. It is best pollinated by ‘Southern Gentleman’, a good male pollinator for most Ilex verticillatas.

‘Red Sprite’ enjoys huge popularity as a compact form, growing to 4 by 4 feet instead of the usual 6 by 6 feet. Another popular selection is a hybrid of I. verticillata and I. serrata called ‘Sparkleberry’. This a big girl, capable of reaching 15 feet tall, and best used in massed naturalistic plantings. ‘Apollo’, an equally big boy, was specially bred as a pollinator for ‘Sparkleberry’.

Deciduous hollies prefer wet soils, doing very well in ditches, streamside and near ponds. But that doesn’t mean the average gardener can’t grow them. Once they are established, which means a couple of years of extra watering and some topdressing with organic soil amendments, they do very well in ordinary garden settings. They respond well to heavy pruning in which a third of the older stems are cut to the ground each year.

Red-Stemmed Dogwoods
The most obvious choice for red winter stem color is the red-stemmed dogwood group. Cornus sericea (sometimes called C. stolonifera) is a valued native whose contribution to the landscape reaches beyond its coveted red stems. This suckering plant is adaptable but really thrives in wet soils where it provides food for songbirds, ground-dwelling birds, ducks and geese. It is the preferred nesting site of the American goldfinch.

There are also blood-red-stemmed varieties in the Asian species Cornus alba. It and C. sericea are often confused in the trade, along with their cultivars. Although both prefer moist or wet, slightly acidic soil, the red-stemmed dogwoods can be very tolerant of most soils once established.

A Minnesota variety of C. sericea called ‘Cardinal’ is said to be reliably red in winter, as are ‘Baileyii’, ‘Brilliantissima’ and the newish ‘Arctic Fire’, which is bright red and compact in height. The native Cornus sericea is considered to be the true red-stemmed dogwood. Even the common species has red stems, whereas C. alba’s stems are barely reddish. However, two C. alba cultivars, ‘Siberia’ and ‘Bloodgood’, are said to rival C. sericea, as well as being a bit less apt to sucker freely.

Don’t be alarmed when your red-stemmed dogwoods display greenish stems in the warm months. They may also look less than red in the nursery when you select them. It takes cold weather and leaf drop to bring out the color.

Some gardeners may be put off by the notion of selectively pruning these suckering plants. It couldn’t be easier, though, since the stems provide us with a convenient color-coded pruning guide. When the older stems turn gray, simply cut them off, all the way back to the ground. The new, young stems will all be brightly colored and the shrub will stay within bounds size wise as well.

Washington Hawthorn
I have always been a big fan of the Washington hawthorn tree, especially when it is grown in a clump form. The bright red berries stay hard, which may account for the fact that the birds seem to leave plenty of them on the trees over the winter. I have seen many cardinals and cedar waxwings eating the fruit in the fall, but the bright berries that persist over the winter are highly decorative. Whenever you see a wonderful photo of a winter cardinal nibbling a bright berry or an ice-encased cluster of ruby fruit, it is likely that you are looking at a cluster of Washington hawthorn berries.

Five Hundred Years and Counting

By Jean Starr

Ever wonder where the plants at garden centers come from? Even the typical nursery features a depth of products resembling a virtual League of Nations. In addition to the plants native to North America, many originated in Asia, Europe and even Africa. How they got here is a very long story that dates back to the days of pharaohs, kings and queens who directed explorers to bring plants back from distant continents. They sought new varieties that ranged from purely ornamental to edible to medicinal.

In his book, The Plant Hunter’s Garden: The New Explorers and their Discoveries, Bobby J. Ward tells about Marco Polo’s 13th and 14th century encounters with plants of commercial significance such as paper mulberry and hemp. Ward explains mid-twentieth century tensions that shut the door on botanical explorations throughout Asia, including World War II, the Korean conflict, the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. Doors to China creaked open slowly following improvements in U.S. diplomatic relations in the early 1970s.

Successful explorations into South Korea in the decades following the Korean War led to collaborative expeditions with American and Korean botanical institutions. Discoveries made included increased diversity in Kousa dogwood and improved hardiness in camellias.

Kris Bachtell, The Morton Arboretum’s vice president of collections, was in South Korea in 1997 when his group found itself near a river border between the North and South. The first thing they noticed was the contrast between the two sides, with the southern forest intact and the North Korean side heavily deforested for firewood and lumber production. As they sat in the van, a logging truck began to pass them when one of its logs shifted and rolled right into their vehicle. “It almost killed us,” Bachtell recalls. “But we managed to collect seed from it.”

The collecting success in Korea set the stage for Chinese explorations. In 1991 the North American China Plant Exploration Consortium or NACPEC was formed, comprising botanical and forestry institutions in China plus seven North American gardens.
Stricter permission requirements and geographical exclusions brought about by an international treaty signed during the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 has had an effect on plant collecting trips.

Bachtell ran head-on into a dicey situation in China’s Shanxi province. He, along with three other Westerners and their interpreter had a hard time finding a hotel in a town that, unbeknownst to them, did not allow foreigners. They eventually found lodgings and, as is common practice in China, handed over their passports to the hotel clerk.

Bachtell decided to take a stroll through town, which is what he was doing when a vehicle screeched to a halt next to him. It held several incredibly displeased individuals whom he could not understand. Somehow Bachtell was able to lead the menacing group to the hotel and, through their interpreter, learned they were being evicted, not only from the hotel, but from the town.

“We were kicked out and escorted to the border at 9 p.m.,” says Bachtell. “We drove through the night until we reached the next town around midnight and finally were able to check into a hotel.”

Even domestic plant collecting trips can be challenging. Andrew Bunting, assistant director and director of plant collections for the Chicago Botanic Garden, recently returned from a collecting trip through the American south in search of the rare Magnolia fraseri var. pyramidata. With him was the Arboretum’s head of collections and curator Matt Lobdell. “We were faced with daily downpours, excessive heat and humidity, a copperhead [snake], and serious encounters with chiggers,” said Bunting. It was worth it, though, as the group discovered some new and undocumented sites for Magnolia fraseri var. pyramidata while in the Taladega National Forest.

“It’s useful to visit some of these species in their natural habitat and learn about the conditions they are dealing with,” Lobdell says. “From understanding that it becomes easier to determine how they’ll perform in cultivation.”

According to the Global Trees Campaign, 48 percent of magnolias are threatened with extinction. Some of the goals for magnolia collection trips include finding plants with increased climate tolerance, disease and pest resistance, and larger, better blooms. Bunting’s book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias (Timber Press: 2016) features 146 of his top choices of magnolias and their hybrids.

Throughout the plant discovery process, consideration must be given to invasiveness. The Chicago Botanic Garden has a Weed Assessment protocol that involves research followed by a detailed assessment to help determine a plant’s invasive potential. The Garden is looking at a new program that will do an even more critical assessment. “New species to the garden are evaluated in our Plant Evaluation Garden for four years where we can study their seeding patterns,” explains Bunting. “Additionally, once a plant is planted in the Garden we continue to evaluate all plants for invasiveness. If any plant exhibits the characteristic to ‘seed around,’ then without hesitation it is removed from our collections.”

On occasion, explorers from temperate climates find themselves in the tropics. Bunting recalled a collecting trip to northwestern Vietnam that put them in the Five Fingers Mountain Range, chopping through tall bamboo and cardamom. “The weather was stormy and the climb was very difficult,” Bunting says. “We had a local guide, but we soon got lost and ended up spending two extra days in the jungle with no water and very little food.”

A step or two beyond the wild is where Tim Wood can be found. The product development manager for Proven Winners Shrubs does some wild plant collecting trips, but typically, he hunts for plant people. “I figure they know the plants in their country a lot better than I ever could in a two-week trip,” he says. “They may know a particular genera of plants much better than I do.”

Wood boils it down to seeking out plant people who collect, study and breed plants that could be interesting to North American gardeners and landscapers. This goal has taken him to the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, France, Canada and the USA.

Proven Winners has developed a checklist for potential introductions:
• Flowering shrubs because that is their focus
• Plants that can root from cuttings
• Plants that are easy to cultivate for growers and gardeners
• Plants with multiple seasons of interest
• Dwarf and compact plants that require less room, pruning and care
• Plants with colorful or attractive foliage that look good in a garden beyond the flowering period
• Plants that have a new use
• Plants with increased disease resistance.

No matter the purpose or the funding, plant explorers are a breed of their own. According to Wood, the biggest lesson is that plant people all across the world are special. They have a profound appreciation for plants, people and nature. They see the world differently than most, noticing and appreciating the beauty and wonder of plants of all types and species.

Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications. She’s the editor and secretary of the Midwest Peony Society, a former columnist in the Times of Northwest Indiana for nine years and currently writes a blog, Petal Talk. jstarr@sbsmags.com

ATGP - Nov/Dec 2016 - Favorite Forgotten Perennials

Mike’s Very, Very, Last, Absolutely Final and Never EVER to Be Repeated Holiday Hort Singalong!

Well, folks, you knew you were living on borrowed time. I didn’t realize it, but so was I. But when the FBI and Walt Disney (hisself!) showed up on my doorstep to ask about certain musical themes “borrowed” for a certain slightly over-the-hill garden writer at a particular Midwest horticulture magazine, I told them to go next door.

However, they came back. And after we all had a chuckle over my subterfuge and ol’ Walt told me the back story of the creation of Mickey Mouse (and I’ll bet you never thought that guy could work blue!) over a heaping glass of Ovaltine, the FBI guys agreed to remove my handcuffs with the promise that this would be the very, very, very last time that I subjected people to this cruel and unusual punishment.

So get out your pitch pipes, your hankies and your best liquor, ‘cause here we go:

I Wonder As I Squander

(Sung to “I Wonder As I Wander”)

I wonder as I squander my last twenty bucks
Why all of my purchases turn into yucks.
I’m poor as a church mouse, my bank account sucks.
I wonder as I squander my last twenty bucks

I stood in the nursery and looked at my haul
And handed my credit card over to Paul.
He smiled as he swiped it. I started to bawl.
The promise of beauty I then did recall.

If my garden wanted for any wee thing.
A truckload of mulch or a fountain I’d bring.
The splendors of nature from compost would spring,
My friends and my fam’ly would say “You’re the king!”

I wonder as I squander the last of my pay
How all that I dreamed ever turned out this way.
And wasn’t I here only just yesterday?
I wonder as I squander the last of my pay.

I Don’t Mow

(Sung to “Let It Go” from the film “Frozen”. If you don’t know it, ask any six-year-old girl.)

The lawn looks sad in the garden tonight
Only crabgrass to be seen
A kingdom of desolation and it looks like I’m James Dean
The turf is browning like some chicken over-fried
Couldn’t keep it green Heaven knows I tried

Don’t let them in
don’t let them see
Be the neighbor you always tried to be
Conceal the deal,
don’t let them know
You let it go

I don’t mow! I don’t mow!
Took the Toro back to the store
I don’t mow! I don’t mow!
Couldn’t take it any more
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let my mom rage on.
The weeds never bothered me anyway

All I Want for Christmas is New

(sung to “All I Want for Christmas is You,” with sincerest apologies to Mariah Carey. Remember last year when I said I didn’t know this song? Hah! Gotcha!)

I don’t want a lot for Christmas
I don’t need that love and mush
I don’t care about the feelings
All that sappy goo and gush
I just want to fill my home Pruners, plants and one big gnome
Make my wish come true
All I want for Christmas is NEW

I don’t want a lot for Christmas
Just some random garden things,
and I Don’t care about the wrapping
Throw ‘em in a pile of bling
You can give me planters, loppers,
Fertilizers, it’s all good
Shiny trowels, goofy towels
Sure to brighten up my mood

I just want stuff for my own
Tchotchkes, trinkets to display
Who cares how it grew?
All I want for Christmas is NEWWWWWW!

I Wish I Had a Manual

(Sung to “O Come, O Come, Emanuel”)

I wish I had a manual
My pruning skills are really not so swell
I mourn the hack job I started here
Until the tree guys and their saws appear
Re-cut, re-cut with massive decibel
I should have found a manual.

Mike Nowak is an author, speaker, humorist,environmentalist, show host and entertainer. You can follow his exploits at mikenowak.net

From the Editor - NovDec 2016

The most memorable Christmas of my Chicago life was the year the temperature plummeted to 25 below zero and the pipes froze all over the house. Still, the car miraculously started and the family managed to get to the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel for the annual pageant, surrounded by neighbors bundled up for the duration in scarves, parkas and boots. Every year one lucky middle school girl would be selected to be Mary and ride down the aisle on Mabel, a real live Sicilian donkey brought in from the suburbs. A sight not to be missed.

Compare that to an account in a book by the late English garden designer and author Rosemary Verey where she writes about going out into her Cotswold garden on Christmas Day and picking a few flowers to adorn the altar at church.

I read that and sobbed into my tea (English Breakfast, of course).

Yes, the winters are different here, but it is interesting to pause and think a bit about the plants in Chicagoland that seem to survive – if not actually revel – in our cold temperatures. If the snow melts in January, I may well see some inch-tall larkspur seedlings in my front yard, and they will remain through subsequent snowstorms to bloom in June. The ground cover snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) as well as the old standards (ajuga, vinca, etc.) are actually evergreen. So this gave us the idea of doing a story on plants that love cold weather. They may not bloom on Christmas Day but their flowers sometimes persist into December and start blooming during the chilly days of March. Ben Futa, who directs the Allen Centennial Garden at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, seemed the perfect denizen of the north to write this.

For those of you who actually enjoy working outdoors in the cold, we offer stories about several options – eradicating buckthorn, leaf composting, planting a pot of layered bulbs. If you prefer to while away the winter hours indoors, we have stories on growing salads, fig trees and carnivorous plants.

In this issue you will learn that the Christmas Tree Ship still sails into Chicago every December and that the era of plant hunting is not over. Local professionals still voyage to lands far, far away to discover species that could be hardy here or offer resistance to the pests and diseases that ail our plants. And like the explorers in days of yore, they even risk life and limb.

Finally, for the gardeners who want to snuggle up and dream about various ways to re-do their spaces in 2017, we offer features on two very different gardens: one a water garden in Elmhurst and the other a fun-filled color extravaganza in Valparaiso. Whether you’re a worker bee or a dreamer, there’s something here for you all.

Issues - 2016 - NovDec

Saving Dahlias

Article Photo

Big beefy dahlias with their dinner-plate-sized flowers are darlings of the garden from summer through the first autumn frosts. Although many gardeners treat dahlias as disposable annuals, it’s easy to store them over winter – and save money – for another display the following year. It’s simply a matter of digging up the tubers and roots after the first fall frost.

George Rebersky, Jr., of Worth, Ill., grows dozens of dahlias, which he replants each year. “You want to keep your dahlia flowers on the plants as long as possible,” he says. But after the first fall frost hits, you cut the stalk of the plant just a few inches above the soil. “You must retain part of the main stalk when you are cutting and dividing the tubers,” he says. Dahlia tubers are like potatoes; They should have “eyes” that will sprout new shoots come spring. He carefully digs up the tuber clumps and washes off the soil. Alternatively, place them in a cardboard box to allow the soil to dry so that it can be brushed off.

After his tuber clumps are thoroughly dry, Rebersky dusts them with powdered sulfur, which is available at garden centers. “The sulfur wards off bacteria and mold and gives you a higher success rate for a good tuber in spring,” he says. He places the tubers in small plastic storage bags with a handful of wood shavings, which you can buy in small bags in a pet department or pet store. “The bags can be layered in a large storage container with wood shavings between the layers to keep moisture away from the bags.”

Some gardeners also have luck simply placing the dried tubers in vermiculite. They check the roots periodically and sprinkle or mist water on them to keep the vermiculite barely moist if the tubers show any signs of shriveling. To identify the hundreds of dahlias that he grows each year, Corny Morgan of Palos Heights uses a permanent ink marker to write the name on each dried tuber.

Chicagoland Gardening editor Carolyn Ulrich has had luck overwintering container-grown dahlias that she stores in her basement. “The ones that have come back for me when kept in soil are ‘Bishop of Llandalf’, ‘Andries’ Orange’ and ‘Prince Noir’,” Ulrich says. This past winter, however, she stored dahlia tubers in bags in the basement but only ‘Prince Noir’ survived. “I sprinkled the tubers several times, and they appear to have rotted.”

From October through late April, store the tubers in an area such as a crawl space, attic or the inside corner of an attached garage that stays between 38 to 50 F from October through late April. A cool temperature is critical to maintaining dormancy. “When I’ve grown and overwintered container-grown plants in the basement, the ‘Andries’ Orange’ sometimes broke dormancy in February, and that was a problem,” Ulrich explains. “That meant I ended up with a 2-foot plant in my living room by mid-April and didn’t know what to do with it while it was waiting to go outside. I just kept it close to the window and hoped for the best. It survived, and with such a head start it was blooming outdoors in June.”

Liz Omura of Cantigny Gardens in Wheaton overwinters dahlia tubers in open-sided plastic crates that offer air circulation. “We store them loose – no soil – and the crates are typically stacked 10 to 12 high.” The crates are kept in a hoop house that stays about 40 F all winter. “We pull them out as the tubers begin to sprout and then plant them directly in the garden.” Although some tubers don’t make it, Omura says that she has had great success overwintering ‘Mystic Illusion Yellow’ using this method for several years.

When spring rolls around, you’ll be ready for another dahlia display. “May 15 is the golden day when the frost is typically gone and it’s time to plant the tubers in the ground,” Rebersky says.

Bottom Line:
• Use a fork to carefully dig the tubers out of the ground after the first fall frost has withered the leaves.
• Discard any tubers that do not have “eyes.”
• Leave the roots and tubers in a dry cool place for several days.
• Brush off the dried soil.
• Store tubers in bags with or without vermiculite or wood shavings.
• Check periodically that tubers haven’t dried out. Mist shriveled tubers lightly with water and return them to storage.
• Plant tubers in pots or in the ground in mid-May.

Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science. nkoziol@sbsmags.com

Container Plants for Fall

A Clear and Present Danger

I was recently interviewing a well-known garden writer about the benefits of an outdoor space in which to contemplate and enjoy your plants, your sense of aesthetics and nature in general. (Ah. Just writing that sentence lowered my blood pressure by ten points.) Among the things I learned:

• Plastic flowers have little in common with nature
• Bamboo sticks are not an optimum construction material for a pergola
• An arborvitae fence works only if the plants don’t die

That kind of advice stays with you for awhile, much like a chocolate corn dog washed down with 32 ounces of pink lemonade.

But it caused me to look in the mirror – never a pretty sight – and think about my own connection with the world outside my back door. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that if I’m not Public Enemy #1, I probably rate at least honorable mention.

Let’s start with cup plant, or Silphium perfoliatum, which is native to about half of the United States and much of eastern Canada. I’m told on one website that it prefers moist, loamy soil. Tell that to the cup plants growing out of the cracks in my asphalt alley, or the ones that have sprung up on my parkway, which receives about two inches of rain per decade. (Don’t ask me how that is possible. I’m just reporting the facts. If you want science, there are a bunch of other pages in this magazine that will make you happy. Now keep reading!)

And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m the guy who planted this stuff a number of years ago. Well, it spread … a little bit. To the alley, as I mentioned, into a few yards, some swimming pools, a couple of abandoned cooking grills, the top of a few cell phone microwave towers. The cup plants on the corner of the block look pretty with their daisy-like blooms and opposite leaves that can hold water where they join the stem. Hence the name “cup plant.” But this particular group is tough. They keep cheap booze in their leaf-stem cups, they smoke cigarettes and they take the lunch money from the feral cats in the neighborhood. Like I said, those are tough plants.

Did you see the photos that the NASA space probe New Horizons sent back from the dwarf planet Pluto? (And don’t even get me started on why Pluto got demoted. Thanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson and the rest of you Pluto haters for invalidating my entire childhood!) The resolution of the cameras was outstanding – so good, in fact, that I’m pretty sure you can see cup plants on the surface. And, more than likely, those plants escaped from my yard!

And it’s not just Silphium that makes me a menace to Western, and Eastern and Plutonian civilization. Ever heard of Parthenocissus quinquefolia? It’s also known as Virginia creeper. I know, I know, I KNOW – the name should have tipped me off! It was one of the first things I planted in my yard because – like cup plant – it’s native to even more U.S. states and an even larger part of Canada. Can you see how easily I’m duped by maps?

I was thrilled at how lovely my wooden fence looked when the Virginia creeper quickly covered it. Then it covered my neighbor’s shed and my neighbor’s dog and a couple of other neighbors’ cars. When, finally, it coveted my neighbor’s wife, I threatened it with a bible and my pruners and it backed off. However, when it covered the coffee table in my living room, I began to suspect that I had a problem.

The problem was me and my choice of plants.

Have I mentioned the cutleaf staghorn sumac in my yard – Rhus typhinia ‘Laciniata’? Did you know that they spread by runners and that those runners can pop up in your lawn and in your garden beds and in your shag carpeting? Yes, it’s a North American native. Yes, it shows up in a bunch of U.S. states and in Canada. Boy, do I hate maps. But, hey, it’s a native plant! What could possibly go wrong? (See Silphium perfoliatum and Parthenocissus quinquefolia.)

Hmm, my blood pressure seems to be spiking. I think it’s time to go outside, threaten a few plants and dig up the dead part of my arborvitae fence. Send me a text if the new planetary probe to Jupiter spots what looks like Virginia creeper threatening to cover the Giant Red Spot.

Issues - 2016 - SeptOct

From the Editor - SeptOct 2016

September has arrived. Sigh.

Or perhaps you say whoopee!

Whatever your response, there’s no denying the change of seasons is upon us so we might as well revel in the joys to come and limit weeping over the loss of past wonders to a minimum.

For me, one of the great marvels of living in Chicago is how the fireflies almost always hatch and start flitting around on the first day of summer. If the spring has been cold, that might be delayed, but generally they appear right on time. So, too, the robins, which I usually notice in my yard hunting worms on the first day of spring. And the late Bill Brincka marveled how the turkey vultures would return to his woods near Michigan City, Ind. on the same day every year. Yes, they’re not especially beautiful, but they’re part of the workings of nature and it’s a comfort to know that it’s ticking like clockwork.

A major worry about climate change is that the clockwork will get out of sync. Birds migrate in response to day length, but plants grow and flower in response to temperature. So as the world grows warmer and plants flower earlier, they may have no pollen or seeds available for birds to eat when they arrive from the south. Just one reason why citizen science research efforts such as Project Budburst (budburst.org) and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Trees for 2050 research are important (chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/tree_alternatives).

A person who keeps her eyes on the workings of Nature is Nina Koziol, who has written this issue’s cover story on the fall migration of birds and butterflies. Hummingbirds stop en masse in her habitat-rich garden to refuel as they leave for Central America, often flying across the Gulf of Mexico in one fell swoop – another wonder of nature. Other migrating birds, butterflies and insects fly through as well, and her article highlights what we should do to help them on their way (page 44).

Nina lives in a far south suburb. So does Mark Cramer, whose bird-friendly garden is located on a suburban golf course. Lots of trees and rolling slopes surrounding a 2-acre space whose soil he improved using organic methods (page 56).

And for something completely different in this issue, we have moss, glorious carpets of it in Wisconsin where Dale Sievert grows 50 different varieties. This summer he gave a lecture at the Chicago Botanic Garden that left our writer Susan Crawford astounded with the beauty of moss and the possibilities for using it in her own city garden (page 50). I’ve started pulling the grass out of my lawn and letting the moss stay!

The rest of the issue is a grand potpourri of topics – potatoes, how to turn pumpkins into really original decorations, invasive and non-invasive plants for your water garden, edibles to grow in your front yard, a great new houseplant and a major Frederick Law Olmsted-inspired upgrade of Jackson Park.

Fall is here. Let’s all say whoopee.

ADS-HBB-House (Enews)

Plant Identification Flow Chart

A comical plant identification flow chart from our columnist, Mike Nowak.

From the Editor - JulyAug 2016

Seen any good movies lately? One to put at the top of your list is “Greenfingers,” whose title is the English term for having a green thumb.

The film is based on a true story of prisoners from an English jail, some of them murderers, who get a second chance in life (and save their souls) by becoming gardeners.

The main character is a burnt-out shell of a man who is given a packet of viola seeds by his roommate, a cancer-ridden octogenarian. When the violas not only germinate but bloom, it’s a transformative moment.

The prisoners go on to plant a garden at their prison, and a nationally respected style maven, played by Helen Mirren wearing fabulous hats, comes to inspect. They enter a garden show, fail to win a prize, but the Queen disagrees, so the final scene has them trotting off for a meet ’n greet in which her majesty is about to give them the royal version of “you wuz robbed.” Info at the end of the movie tells us that in the future, the prisoners went on to win several prizes for their gardens at this show. So a feel-good movie. In spades, as it were.

We feel good about the stories in this issue. Our cover story takes us to Bourbonnais where Father Richard Pignihi has fashioned an enchanting two-part enclosure adjacent to the rectory of the church he serves. Then we visit a trailer park in Bridgeview where DeAnna Bialczak welcomes butterflies to a jam-packed garden that has been certified as a butterfly haven by Monarch Watch and the North American Butterfly Association. These are gardens that truly restore the soul of the individuals who created them and anyone who visits.

Both gardens are small and demonstrate yet again that it’s truly amazing what you can grow in a limited space. And if you want to save your flowers after their blooming period has passed, Jean Starr shows how to dry them so your summer joy can continue.

Looking for something completely different? Have you considered putting up a wall garden? Landscape architect Scott Mehaffey knows how to do it. Imagine a living wall on your patio providing the perfect cozy nook for summer dining and trying out Deb Terrill’s recipes for summer soups. Green grape gazpacho anyone?

We have more: herbs and summer annuals for shade containers; blue-flowering native plants; a school gardening project that gets kids excited about eating good food. Finally, we look ahead to hotter days and how heat hardiness will one day be as much a part of our vocabulary as winter hardiness. The professionals at the Chicago Botanic Garden have already done a study that indicates which trees aren’t likely to do well 35 years down the road. Prepare for a few surprises.

Issues - 2016 - JulyAug

Tulipa sylvestris

It’s probably been more than four years since a wild shade-loving tulip made its surprising appearance in a shady, grassy bed in my garden. Its color looked like the “before” shot in a commercial for women with faded blond hair. After a close examination on my knees, I determined it was actually a tulip. I know how long ago it was because my knees no longer permit close examinations.

Its inner workings looked like a tulip, so I cut off the flower with two thin attached leaves, carried it to my bulb class at the Chicago Botanic Garden and gave it to my class assistant. He returned the next week with an ID –Tulipa sylvestris, tulip of the woods. I was so excited I could have kissed him, but he escaped.

Tulip of the woods doesn’t seem to mind woodland shade, but is doing better under a redbud, which affords more light. In the winter of 2014, the bulbs showed up in my rose garden, where the soil is a little richer. The bulb spreads by seed and stolons and is native to the Mediterranean region and Central Asia. It has naturalized in central and northern Europe.

Adele Kleine

Photo courtesy of ibub.org

Bursting Forth

Photography By Ron Capek

There are many lovely plants in Ted and Gidget Nyquist’s garden in Bartlett. But it’s Ted’s collection of rhododendrons – hundreds of them – that stop visitors in their tracks when the plants bloom. “I just love it,” Ted says. “People come around the corner, and they’re not expecting to see a garden with all these rhododendrons.”

President of the Midwest Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, Ted points out that “all azaleas are rhododendrons, but not everyone is aware of that.” Rhododendrons make up a genus of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs that are not typically seen in local gardens.

“There are not many plants in our climate where I can have large blooms over a two-month period where the plants themselves are located in a high-shade environment,” he adds. “Each one is slightly different, which makes it exciting. It just makes for a huge ‘wow’ in the spring when everything starts to bloom. It’s a welcome surprise and reward after a long winter. I love teaching others how to grow these plants in our climate.

“You can find rhododendrons and azaleas in garden centers, but you don’t get much help when it comes to growing them,” Ted says. “Even landscape architects get scared of using them, but one of my passions is showing people that you can grow them here.” In the past 26 years, he has planted hundreds of them in his garden, where some are nearly 10 feet tall, proving that they can do well given the right conditions.

Rhododendrons like acidic soil, with a pH range between 4.5 and 6.0, Ted explains. Because the Chicago area has alkaline soils that are sometimes higher than 7.0, gardeners must amend the soil to lower the acidity.

Excellent drainage is crucial for rhododendrons, especially in areas with heavy clay soils. “I’m not going to lose a plant because I didn’t prepare the soil properly.” He adds that the soil amendments can often cost more than the rhododendrons, but he’s willing to spend the money to make sure they’ll thrive.

He first creates low berms by rototilling the existing soil and then adds a mixture of Black Forest Soil Conditioner, a product sold in 2-cubic-foot bags that’s used to break up and acidify clay soils, along with ¾-inch pine fines (finely ground pine bark), and peat moss, which he combines at a ratio of 4-3-3 (four parts soil conditioner, three parts pine fines and three parts peat moss) and mixes in a large wheelbarrow or a garbage can. He may also add some perlite (a lightweight silicate sold in bags). He rototils the mixture and smoothes out the berms so they are about 18-20 inches above the surrounding soil. “The porous mixtures does a great job and because it’s slightly bermed, the water runs off instead of collecting around the roots.”

The soil preparation pays off with stunning results. “It’s really a ‘wow’ in the springtime. I don’t keep a log, but depending on the weather, the plants may be blooming in late April, but sometimes it’s very late May,” he said.

Some of his favorite rhododendrons include ‘Tapestry,’ with its lavender flowers and large evergreen leaves and ‘Mandarin Lights’, a deciduous azalea that lives up to its name. “Plant a group of ‘Mandarin Lights’ and it provides a massive display of bright orange blooms before the foliage emerges,” Ted says. “It has a small mounding form that is excellent for massing in shrub borders.”

Nyquist has added countless other new plants while making subtle changes to his ever-expanding beds and borders. The perennials alongside the driveway did not meet his expectations, so he replaced them with several ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight). “I wanted something to draw the eye, and they’re big, they bloom nicely and the flowers change color.”

The garden is a destination whatever the season. Spring ushers in daffodils (Narcissus cvs.), hellebores (Helleborus cvs.), native spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) that blanket the ground under many Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cvs.), redbuds (Cercis canadensis), hickories (Carya spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.) across the gently rolling 7-acre site. Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), Korean maples (Acer pseudosieboldianum), magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana cvs. and M. stellata cvs.) and other lovely small ornamental trees grace the beds and borders that surround the couple’s mid-century modern house.

Burkwood viburnum’s (Viburnum x burkwoodii) cream-colored blossoms fill the air with an almond-vanilla fragrance not far from the lush rose garden that features Lady Elsie May, Easy Elegance series, ‘Nearly Wild’ and Knock Out roses. A stroll along the meandering path takes you through a shade garden filled with epimedium (Epimedium spp.), ferns and hostas (Hosta cvs.), including the hostas ‘Elatior’ and ‘Empress Wu’, both of which can achieve 5-foot wingspans. Stroll around the barn and you come upon a lovely meditation garden – a serene fountain set off by boxwoods and azaleas.

There’s a sweeping bed filled with unusual conifers and cacti. Elsewhere, iris (Iris cvs.), ligularia (Ligularia cvs.), weigela (Weigela cvs.), buddleia (Buddleia cvs.) and drifts of sun- and shade-loving perennials create an ever changing palette. There’a a bed planted just for cut flowers filled with brightly colored dahlias (Dahlia cvs.), zinnias (Zinnia cvs.) and sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) Chocolate vine (Akebia cvs.) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) scramble over the arbors. In late summer, the seeds of native cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) draw goldfinches. Dragonflies dart over the pond where a lone muskrat occasionally glides across the surface. “There’s always something to see, and it’s always changing,” Gidget says. m

Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science.

For more information on rhododendrons, visit the Midwest Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society’s website at midwestars.org

The Numbers Game

I was reading a gardening book the other day (yes, I occasionally do research – don’t start on me this early in the column, okay?) and I came across a tip for how to buy the right number of plants for your garden. Unfortunately, it involved unnerving words like “numbers” and “measurements” and “calculations.”

Of course, the tried and true way of figuring out how many plants are needed is to eyeball the garden, go to the garden center, roll out a couple of Radio Flyers full of plants, take ’em home, put ’em in the ground, and try to return the extra plants … for credit, of course. If you undershoot your mark, head back to the garden center. If you’re doing this via the Intertubes and mail, add a few weeks and a couple of emotional meltdowns to the process.

In the case of this otherwise excellent book, I was advised to calculate the area in square feet for my garden bed, which is usually done by multiplying (one of those words again) one side of the space by another. When your garden is 10 x 10 feet, it’s really, really simple: whip out your smartphone and use the calculator. (I think the answer is somewhere around 82 square feet. Maybe less. Frankly, my smartphone ran out of power at that critical juncture.) But when your bed is roughly the shape of the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus, as it is in my yard, it’s time to panic.

Next, I was told, inexplicably, to multiply that figure by 144, which I think is a reference to something in the Mayan calendar. At least that’s what I infer from a very big movie that I saw recently, where things were blowing up and collapsing and the world was about to end. On the other hand, that’s the description of about 90 percent of what comes out of Hollywood these days, so that might be an indication of nothing in particular. The number 144 might also have something to do with square inches, if only because that’s what was on the printed page. So I whipped out my smartphone to do the math but I got distracted by the weather app, and I never did figure out how many plants I needed for my garden.

By the way, that same book, which added twenty points to my blood pressure and subtracted ten years from my lifespan, also said, seemingly without irony, “Gardening should be fun!”
As you’ve probably surmised, if numbers, figures and calculations were on Facebook, I would have unfriended them long ago.

“You’re anti-science!” I can hear my many critics cry. Really, I can hear them right now, even though I’m in a quiet room with my laptop and my cat. My cat doesn’t seem to be able to hear them, which makes me question her powers of observation.

I’m not anti-science. I’m just anti-math. Especially when it comes to gardening. For instance, I saw this rather common question on a website: “You have a 50-lb. bag of 26-5-10 fertilizer that you want to apply to a lawn at a rate of 1.0 lb. nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. How much of the 26-5-10 fertilizer will you need to apply per 1000 sq. ft.?”

Aside from the SAT flashbacks that many of us suffer on a regular basis, this poses other questions. For instance, did you ask your lawn if it wanted 1.0 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft.? What if it said “no?” What if it said, “I prefer 1.3 lb of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft.?” What if it said, “I prefer compost?” What if it said, “Huh?” I’m not trying to be a marriage counselor here but this is the kind of thing that can create a wall between home owners and their lawns. Are you sure that’s what you want? And what the heck are you doing trying to lift a 50-lb. bag of anything? But perhaps I’m projecting.

Obviously, another way to answer the fertilizer question is to find some of the finest Scotch whisky available and add it to the equation. But, as I always say, when applying toxic chemicals to the garden or to one’s self, read and follow label directions.

Not that any of you ever listen to my advice. My cat doesn’t either. Which is why I don’t let her near the Scotch.

Issues - 2016 - MayJune

From the Editor - MayJune 2016

I always feel grumpy when people refer to gardening as a hobby, and now I know why.

This winter, garden columnist Allen Lacy died, and in The New York Times obituary there was a quote from one of his books that suddenly made clear why the hobby moniker has never sat well with me. “Gardening is not a hobby,” Lacy wrote in The Inviting Garden. “There is nothing wrong with having hobbies, but most hobbies are intellectually limited and make no reference to the larger world. By contrast, being wholeheartedly involved with gardens is involvement with life itself in the deepest sense.”

Now, before the collectors of, say, turquoise teacups made in the 1920s rise up in protest, let’s pause to reflect on what he meant.

Gardening means growing. And while it can have aspects that emulate interior decorating (“let’s put this red flower next to that purple one”), the point is that gardening connects you to Life with a capital L. Whether you buy a transplant or sow a seed, you are getting down to the nitty gritty of things and being a part of something much bigger than yourself.

No sooner have you dug a hole for your first plant than you start to become aware of The Larger World. Seasons – Time, The Need for Patience – in short, Nature. Eventually the plant does something bizarre like produce a flower or a fruit, and Beauty enters your vocabulary. Then Joy. This is ever so much more satisfying than collecting turquoise teacups (although turquoise is a beautiful color, and tea is my favorite drink).

And not just satisfying. Important. Profound.

I’ve always found it intriguing that at the end of Bernard Bertolucci’s biographical 1987 film “The Last Emperor,” the former Son of Heaven becomes a gardener. Closer to home, I recall that I once wrote a garden column in the Chicago Sun-Times and opined, “Did you ever know a mugger who gardened?” Not that I know any muggers, but the two activities are mutually exclusive. You can’t be both a person who destroys things and hurts others and also someone who nurtures life and brings beauty to the world. Ain’t gonna happen.

I love garden magazines and consider them valuable because they shine a light on people who are nurturing life and bringing beauty to the world in so many different ways.

In this issue, for example, our stories run the gamut from a play garden in an ethnic neighborhood to high end, high-rise container gardens. We also cover fragrant plants, native plants, tomatoes, palms and climbing vegetables (more high risers). And if you raise chickens (or aspire to), here’s an easy way to turn their bedding into what our writer calls “lovely silky black mulch” and improve your soil. Much variety. Much to learn.

It’s all part of Life with a capital L. And now it’s May. Time to get on with it.

Business - Monk Botanical Gardens (GG)

Business - Monches Farm LLC (GG)

Hometown Honeys

Article Photo

The bee world is populated with much more than honeybees. Prepare to be surprised.

Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg

You may have been told that bees are beneficial and that they pollinate a lot of agricultural crops. Most of the time when people talk about bees, they are talking about foreign honeybees, which were brought to North America by Europeans in the 17th century.

Honeybees are fine, but many bees that we see and call honeybees are actually native bees or flies that look like bees.

There are many other bee species native to Illinois, the Midwest and North America. While they aren’t often discussed, they do a lot of pollinating.

How Many Are There?
If you were asked to guess how many species of native bees there are in Illinois, would you guess less than 50 or more than 100? Most people are surprised that there are more than 300 species of bees native to Illinois. Worldwide, there are more species of bees than all the mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined — more than 20,000 species. Alan Molumby, professor of biology at the University of Illinois-Chicago says, “There are 60 to 70 species of native bees in just the Chicago area.”

Bees or Wasps?
He adds, “Bees are a type of wasp with good public relations. Bees are not predatory at any point in their life cycle. Bees differ from wasps in the fact that the larval stage eats pollen and the adults eat pollen and nectar. Wasps eat a carnivorous diet of insects, but the adults also drink nectar and sometimes juice from their victims. Wasps are an essential part of the Midwestern ecology, as they control the populations of many insects.”

Ed Bell, Ed.D., a Chicagoland beekeeper (www.belfrybees.com ) explains that there are several major differences between the honeybees most people are somewhat familiar with and native bees. “Honeybee queens can lay tens of thousands of eggs each summer for several years — as many as 1500 in one day,” he says. “On the other hand, many native bees have only one generation each year, and the female bee may only lay a dozen eggs.”

As for their lifespan, he adds that honeybee workers live for four to six weeks during the summer and up to four months in the winter. “The native bees you see in early spring visiting woodland wildflowers are not the same species that you see on fall asters, because most species have short adulthoods,” he adds. “Foraging workers will visit flowers from many species of plants during blooming periods. Native bee species often specialize in pollinating just one family of plants.”

Kinds of Native Bees
There are several categories of commonly found native bees; some not so common; and some impersonators that look like bees, but aren’t. The most frequently found native bees are leafcutter and mason bees, early spring digger and mining bees, long-horned bees, carpenter bees, bumblebees and sweat bees.

Some types of native bees are solitary nesters; others are communal. Among the solitary nesters, every female multitasks: she lays eggs, provides food for the larval stage and creates the enclosed cell where the larvas develop. There are no queens that lay eggs and workers that do everything else. Communal nesting species such as mason bees behave much like the solitary nesters except that they happen to nest near each other. Very few native bees are aggressive, except in self-defense.

Where They Live
The two main nesting locations for native bee species are in the ground or in tree trunks and branches. Ground-nesting species are attracted to sandy soil, which is frequently found in dune areas near Lake Michigan. Sandy soil can also be found around old sandboxes in playgrounds or in sand underlying patios and aboveground swimming pools. Carpenter bees are a wood-nesting species that drill their own holes in wood, but most native bees will use holes previously created by wood-boring insects, already hollow stems or soft, rotting logs.

Early spring digger or mining bees are the first bees you will see on woodland wildflowers in early spring. There are both solitary and communal ground-nesting species. At the other end of the season, ground-nesting long-horned bees are commonly found on asters, daisies and sunflowers.

Brightly colored sweat bees are more attracted to flowers, but some are attracted to the salt found in the sweat of people or animals. They nest in the ground and in dead or rotten wood.

Easily recognized, big, hairy bumblebees often have colonies in old chipmunk or rodent burrows. A single queen bumblebee starts a new colony each summer and a large colony may only have 400 bees. Since bumblebees are becoming rare, you can help researchers by letting them know which ones come to your flowers. Go to beespotter.mste.uiuc.edu to find identification keys and how to submit your photos.

Carpenter bees come in two sizes. Large ones are almost an inch long, while the small ones are less than ¼ inch long. They are both solitary and communal. Large carpenter bees burrow into wood, but small ones build nests in dead twigs and stems.

Damage due to leafcutter bees is often found on roses, redbuds and other garden plants. These solitary nesters cut circular pieces out of leaves. The leaf piece is used to line a small nest for an individual larva. Some species of these bees line the nest with leaf hairs, mud and resin.

How to Attract Them
“Bee species in the mason and leafcutter bee family are among the easiest to attract to your garden and can even be purchased in the larval stage,” explains Bell. “Mason bees are highly valued because they are much better pollinators of fruit trees than honeybees.” The adult mason bee, like many others, has a life span of four to six weeks. They collect pollen along the bottom of their abdomen where it contacts new flowers every time they land. Honeybees collect pollen on the hairs on their bodies and move it to storage in their “pollen basket” on their hind legs utilizing a “pollen comb.” The collected pollen may be cleaned off before the next flower.

Molumby points out that when you are trying to attract native bees, you need to consider the flowers from which the bees will be collecting pollen. “Many native and nonnative plants are good sources of pollen and bees don’t care about flower fragrance.” (To attract bees, it’s the visuals that are important — flower color, flower shape and petals that are convenient for landing.) “Colony nesting bees need larger beds of flowers since there are more of them, and they need to collect more pollen to raise more young,” he notes. “Solitary nesting bees need flower beds that are consistently available year to year.”

Nesting blocks for mason bees and leafcutter bees are easy to make. Any block of wood or a log that can have holes drilled at least 3 to 6 inches deep will work. Holes should be 5/16 of an inch in diameter and 3/4 of an inch apart. Another way to attract these bees is to bundle a group of hollow stems together. They can be pieces of small pipe, short lengths of bamboo or phragmites reed.

Many experienced mason beekeepers recommend lining each hole with a paper tube or using a stack of grooved boards. These methods allow the nesting material to be taken apart to clean out harmful mites or parasitic wasps and to clean out old mud walls for the next season.

The female bees lay eggs in the back of the holes of wood or pipe. Each egg is laid with a ball of pollen for food. The egg is walled off with a bit of mud for mason bees and a leaf piece for leaf cutter bees. The eggs closest to the open end of the tube will be males. They hatch first and are ready to mate with the females that hatch later and come from the back of the tube. After mating, the males die and the females begin searching for pollen.

Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois Certified Nurseryman and a Registered Landscape Architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture. jrugg@sbsmags.com

ATGP - Mar/Apr 2016 - 3 Good Annuals for Shade

Issues - 2016 - MarApr

Life without Gardening

There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon that pictures an old tire, a can, a bottle and a pencil on a flat, featureless landscape – save a few non-descript rocks – that stretches to dull gray clouds on the horizon. The caption reads, “Life without Mozart.” The most chilling part of this drawing (if you’re me) is that it uncannily evokes my own yard.

By the way, no matter how often I remove the tire, the can, the bottle and the pencil from my property, they reappear by the next morning. There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone” ready to be written here, or perhaps a reboot of “Groundhog Day.” I would particularly welcome the latter, since I think I was the only Chicago actor who didn’t land at least a walk-on part in that film, which is something else that I re-live over and over and over again. But I digress.

Getting back to the cartoon, it could also easily be called “Life without Gardening” for obvious reasons. Which got me to thinking, what if, instead of seeing dull gray clouds on the horizon, you see spring looming, and the thought of another year of germinating, buying, mistreating and ultimately killing plants doesn’t exactly fill your heart with joy but makes you shudder? What if you decided that you’d had enough and you were going to opt out of growing things altogether?

Could you do it?

I’m not talking about how to explain it to your neighbors, who might actually welcome the news. I mean, how would you explain it to your scraggly lawn? Your accidentally exotically-pruned foundation shrubs? Your curiously sited and consequently sickly clematis? Grandma’s apple-scab-ridden crabapple tree? They’re already not particularly fond of you. And don’t you even think about telling them via email or text. That’s just plain rude.

Oh, I know. You assume you’re off the hook because you grow just a few indoor plants. As if the pothos with 20 feet of vine between the two remaining leaves or the jade plant that you stopped watering in 1993 don’t harbor thoughts of ill will toward you. You’re the only person in the world who knows how to overwater a lucky bamboo. You know, the plant that grows in water. Yeah, I’m talking to you, too.

What makes you think that those long-suffering plants will let you walk away scot-free anyway? Have you even thought about making that long, dark journey from the back door to the alley to take out the trash late at night? Who do you think will be watching your every lonely step? And what about those faint cries of “Quitter!” and “Brown thumb!” and “Pruning saw murderer!” and “Be a real shame if somethin’ bad happened to that nice car of yours!” followed by eerie laughter in the night?

I’m not even sure that you can quit gardening without violating clauses in the fine print. Heck, I don’t even know where to find the fine print! I just know it’s there.

Then there’s the remorse and the backsliding. What happens if you change your mind? Once you’re out of the game, you’re going to try to get back in it. Hey, I’m a horticultural professional. I know what I’m talking about. Sure, you tell yourself that you’re just cutting a little lemon grass for the cat. But you’re not fooling anybody. You’re gardening with scissors! Look in the mirror! Shame on you for making the cat an enabler for your gardening addiction!

Which brings us to the conclusion that, inevitably, once you’re a gardener, there’s no getting out. There is no off switch. There is no way to unwind the clock. There is no unspeaking the spoken. There is no unthinking the thoken. (Okay, time to give the parallel construction a rest. I think you get the point).

Gardening is a racket. It takes no prisoners. Or it takes all of us as prisoners. Choose your metaphor. And now, spring is here. Fasten your seat belts, kids. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. It always is.

From the Editor - MarApr 2016

In the Merry Hall trilogy, a series that ranks high among the world’s great garden classics, the English journalist Beverley Nichols wrote, “[W]hen you are concerned with really important things, such as the dew on a spider’s web, or the first fragrance of a freesia … it is difficult to look over one’s shoulder, as it were, and remind yourself of such shadowy and transient details as the Red Army. In the scale of eternal values, a hundred military divisions are outweighed by a single pinch of thistledown.”

Nichols wrote this in the early days of the Cold War, and the shenanigans of the Red Army were much on his mind in those years. Now we are facing other threatening forces, but the point is as relevant today as it was in the late 1940s. There are passing political powers and there are eternal verities. As gardeners, we are people who are well equipped to stay “grounded” and focus on the verities.

Gardening puts us in touch with beauty – creating it, appreciating it, marveling at it, passing it on to others. It also puts us in touch with Life and Nature. By our activities we can make a contribution to the wider world, restoring and enriching the soil, providing habitat and bringing joy to others.

This is not to pat ourselves on the back but to remind us that we can be a force for good when some of the world is tinged with evil. We have a role to play, a valuable one, and it is good for the soul.

In our current issue we can find comfort by reading about a unique garden in Homer Glen developed by the homeowner, a city townhouse garden designed by the professionals at Mariani Landscape and stories that provide first-hand information from our experienced writers in growing an eclectic and interesting group of plants: lupines, rhubarb, tillandsia and daffodils. The latter story, “Daffodil Duos,” also offers ideas for plants that you can grow alongside your daffodils to make your spring garden even more delightful (page 42). Are you a container gardener? We have a story about early spring edibles to grow on your balcony or deck (page 40).

In the wider world, there’s inspiration to be found in learning about the Chicago Park District’s many natural areas, specifically the 100-acre wildlife corridor that is thriving along both sides of South Lake Shore Drive (page 28). Indigo buntings have been spotted in the bird sanctuary at 47th Street and Cornell. Who knew?

During the early dark days of the American Revolution, the pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” in an essay that so inspired George Washington that he ordered it to be read to the troops at Valley Forge (read it online here: bit.ly/1tzPmiB). The evil enemy in those days was, of course, England.

It’s time to pause and take solace in the eternal verities.

Designing Mini-gardens Using Potted Plants

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Container gardening is so enjoyable because of its possibilities for creative expression. There is an almost endless variety of ways to design and use containers. For example, in a classic design, a container is filled with a pleasing arrangement of plants with differing heights, textures and colors. This method can result in stunning arrangements; however, it does have limitations.

Why not expand on the classic container method and make a larger ensemble of plants? Something we could call a “mini-garden” made up of any number of potted plants arranged in a pleasing way. These mini-gardens offer the same creative potential as the single classic container but with added advantages: a more natural, cohesive feel, greatly increased visual impact and the option to rearrange the mini-garden as the season progresses.

Another advantage is that plants in a mini-garden have plenty of room to grow in their own container, which allows for larger and lusher growth. In addition, plants that are placed together in a cluster will create their own microclimate, protecting each other from wind and extreme heat or cold.

To make a mini-garden, start by choosing an existing feature to serve as a backdrop. Good features include a wall or corner, a large potted plant such as a tree, a column or perhaps a shelf mounted on a wall. Potted plants of different heights are arranged to form a base or backdrop. Adding potted plants around the base mimics the way that living systems build up in nature around base with features such as ponds, boulders and trees.
Choose plants with different heights, placing the larger plants towards the back with medium plants in the middle and smaller ones along the front. However, avoid rigidity in placing plants by height. Using layered plants of different types will make for a casual, naturalistic arrangement. As needed, add several containers of the same or similar plant for more cohesion and order, and to avoid an overly busy arrangement.

For a more formal look, use deliberate repetition such as a ring of potted specimens of the same plant around a larger pot. If space allows, this formal center could be flanked by more casually placed plants around the sides. Feel free to change it up, move things around or switch out plants as needed until you get the desired effect.

Pay attention to the design and colors of the containers as these will form part of the design. It can be fun to make a mini-garden using pots of the same colors. Plants that have attractive tops but long, leggy stems such as dracaena work well in mini-gardens as mid-sized plants can be placed in the arrangement to hide the bare stem. Another way to provide a pleasing layer is to place some of the mid-to-small size pots on bricks to achieve the desired height.

Be sure to pay attention to light conditions. Generally, it is best to use plants with similar light needs. For example, make a shade mini-garden using a variety of shade-tolerant plants. That said, some of the plants in the back of the mini-garden may be in partial to full shade when they’re part of larger, more complex arrangements that are ostensibly in the full sun.

Once you get started on using container designs, you will discover the many advantages and delights they provide. You may then decide to make mini-gardens a key part of your container gardening toolkit.

Let It Rain

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By Patrice Peltier

Chicagoland Gardening Editor Carolyn Ulrich swore the magazine wouldn’t run an article about rain gardens until she’d seen a beautiful one. She stood her ground staunchly – some might say stubbornly – for years. Two years ago, on a trip to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisc., she discovered not just one, but three, lovely rain gardens. So here, at last, is the rain garden article.

It’s not that Ulrich hasn’t long admired the intent of rain gardens: to create a landscaped basin where rainwater running off impervious surfaces can gently seep back into the earth instead of rushing into the storm sewer, picking up pollutants along the way. It’s just that more often than not, despite our best intentions, rain gardens end up a wild and weedy, kidney-bean-shaped mess at the end of a downspout, without any relationship to the surrounding landscape or the house itself.

Jeff Epping, Olbrich’s director of horticulture, agrees wholeheartedly. Too often, rain gardens look like “a pothole in the bluegrass,” he says. Always looking for ways that the botanical gardens can inspire and educate its visitors, Epping set out to show us how attractive rain gardens can be.

Rain gardens often include native prairie plants whose long roots help direct water deep into the ground. Epping uses native plants extensively, but that’s not his only – or even his primary – criteria. “Design a rain garden as you would any other perennial border,” he recommends. “Select plants based on their ornamental qualities – flower and foliage color, form, texture, size and seasonal interest.”
Some of his favorite ornamental rain garden plants include Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum – recently renamed Eutrochium purpureum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

In fact, rain gardens expand your plant palette, Epping says. “If you have a low spot on your property or a place that’s often wet, why not put in a rain garden and take advantage of that? There are so many cool plants that like moist soils, like astilbe, ligularia and filipendula.”

Right plant, right place takes on special importance in a rain garden. Here, plants must be able to tolerate both periodic flooding and drought. Rain gardens are depressions with gently sloping sides. Often they are bermed to help retain water. They aren’t intended to have standing water for long periods of time, but the plants at the bottom of the rain garden must be able to tolerate wet soils and even submersion.

Olbrich’s rain garden next to the herb garden occasionally fills to the top. It usually drains within three days, Epping says. The bottom of this rain garden is planted with moisture-loving plants such as dark-green bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), tufted sedge (Carex elata) as well as the more ornamental swamp milkweed, great blue lobelia and cardinal flower. Towards the top, Epping has added other plants that prefer to keep their feet drier such as blue vervain (Verbena hastata), foxglove beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) and turtlehead (Chelone glabra).

A master of the mixed border, Epping likes to add woody plants to his rain gardens. “Trees and shrubs add year-round structure as well as beauty in every season through their foliage, flowers, fruit, bark and form,” he explains. “If your garden has only perennials, when you cut them back in fall, you have nothing to look at for the rest of the year.”

Red-twig dogwood (Epping likes Cornus sanguinea ‘Cato’) and elderberry (Sambucus nigra) can handle the wetter levels of the rain garden. Higher up, Epping likes to incorporate hydrangeas, arborvitae (he likes the narrow, columnar ‘Hetz Wintergreen’) and witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) along the perimeter.

During a recent garden tour in Missouri, Epping discovered that red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) grows along streams there. Already a fan of this small tree’s showy panicles of red tubular flowers, Epping is eager to incorporate more of these into Olbrich’s rain gardens.
Epping also likes to incorporate bulbs in all his gardens – and the rain gardens are no exception. He plants camassia lower in the rain garden because it’s one of the few bulbs that can tolerate wet conditions. Near the perimeter, he plants narcissus and Anemone blanda for early-season color.

“It’s important to make a rain garden feel like it’s part of your overall landscape. It should work seamlessly with the landscape around it,” Epping suggests. For instance, one of Olbrich’s rain gardens borders the rose garden. There, Epping has repeated roses, daylilies, salvia and Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’ – all plants used in the rose garden – along the perimeter of the rain garden. In the rain garden next to the herb garden, he’s incorporated a variety of herbs.

Finally, Epping says, if you want your rain garden to be beautiful, “Remember, it is like any other garden. It needs maintenance.”
Rain gardens are a great way you can contribute to improving the water quality in your community. They can intercept much of the rainwater that pours off your roof and paved surfaces and channel it back into the ground where it helps recharge the aquifers. By capturing runoff before it reaches the storm sewer, rain gardens also help keep pollutants such as landscape chemicals and debris out of the water supply.

Rain gardens can even help manage local flooding issues.

All those benefits can make a lovely impact on our environment. Now, thanks to Olbrich, even Carolyn Ulrich has to concede rain gardens can be a thing of beauty, too.

Patrice Peltier is a freelance writer in southern Wisconsin who loves getting to visit other people’s gardens.

Poinsettia and Its Kin

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With people you can often tell at a glance who’s related. Sometimes that’s also true of plants. Look at any daisy-shaped flower, for example – rudbeckia, coneflower, aster, sunflower, Shasta daisy, silphium – and you immediately know they’re in the same family. They’re all composites, members of the Compositae. Kissing cousins, as it were.

Not so with the poinsettia and its kin. Also known as a spurge, it and other members of the Euphorbiaceae family are as diverse as you could possibly imagine. Did you know that the white-flowering Diamond Frost that started adding sparkle to our gardens, especially our container plantings, about 10 years ago is in the Euphorbia genus? Euphorbia hypericifolia ‘Inneuphe’, to be precise. Big splashy red “petals” (modified leaves called bracts) on poinsettias. Teeny glilttering white blossoms on the Diamond Frost.

Then there’s the variegated native annual snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), which I’ve seen growing wild in pastures in western Kansas. I’ve grown it from seed here in Chicago, and it graces this issue’s cover with an appropriately frosty holiday look.

If you tour the great show gardens of England, you’re likely to see another amazing plant, Euphorbia wulfennii. This one looks like a 5-foot tall fluffy shrub topped with clusters of lime green flowers. Gardeners there use it as a complement that enhances the beauty of adjacent plants, but it’s so monumental it can also stand on its own as a “sculpture” or focal point. Pity it’s not hardy here.

Closer to home, you can find the unusual, prickly crown-of-thorns (E. milii) at many garden centers. Some of you may grow it as a houseplant. Its flowers are usually red, but there’s now a cultivar on the market with creamy yellow blooms marked with orange and green highlights on the petals and a bright orange center. The name: ‘Yellow Delight’.

And when I once visited South Africa, I saw tall succulent plants that looked like cacti. I would never have imagined that they were also euphorbias and related to our bright red poinsettias.

Nature is downright strange sometimes.


In spring a young man’s fancy supposedly turns to thoughts of love, but at holiday time, young men and the rest of us start thinking about poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima). The breeders keep tweaking the colors, adding splashes and dappled dots and picotee edges along the way, but most of us are happy traditionalists who covet the brightest, richest red we can find. Put one anywhere in your home and it will immediately shout “Holiday!”

Poinsettia Primer

Here are some points worth keeping in mind when you go shopping for your poinsettia this year.

  • Poinsettias get their English name from Joel Poinsett, America’s first minister to Mexico. An amateur botanist, he began sending samples of the plant home to the United States, and by 1836 it was already becoming known as the “poinsettia.” A modest beginning from which today’s monumental floral industry began.
  • Poinsettias are not poisonous. Like all euphorbias, they exude a nasty-tasting milky sap that contains latex, but a study at Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to become seriously ill. Even my cat, who nibbled on every poinsettia I brought home, quickly lost interest after he had taken a few bites. Enough to disfigure the plant but not enough to cause an upset tummy.
  • Poinsettia flowers are not actually the big red (or pink or white) flappy things that we may think are petals. Those are actually modified leaves called bracts while the “real” flowers are the yellow clusters in the center, technically known as cyanthia.
  • Care? Use common sense. Provide moderate light, which means no blazing sunlight and no shade. Keep soil lightly moist but not soaking. No drafts or temperature extremes. Don’t place it near a forced air furnace vent, for example.
  • Also use common sense when taking your plant home from the store. Provide plenty of protection from the cold. A good garden center will wrap it in a paper cone, and surrounding it with an additional plastic bag is a good idea, too. Don’t leave it in a cold car while you go shopping elsewhere. Remember: Poinsettias originated in Mexico.
  • Forget about trying to get your plant to rebloom. The process is cumbersome, and even if you remember to put your plant in a totally dark closet from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. every night beginning at the end of September and continuing to December 15, the bracts will not turn the vibrant red that you desire. Let the greenhouse professionals do the work for you and relax. (However, if you’re a glutton for punishment, University of Illinois Extension has clear, succinct reblooming instructions. See bit.ly/1LspyKG.)

Hardy Euphorbias

Poinsettias and most of the euphorbias we encounter are not hardy in Chicagoland, but there are some that we can grow with good results.

Euphorbia polychroma or cushion spurge is a compact mounding plant a foot or so in diameter with yellow flowers. It usually blooms in May. Sometimes, when the stars aligned just right, it would bloom in a garden around the corner from me as part of an attractive trio with a lily-shaped tulip and the orange-to-yellow native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. If the weather didn’t cooperate, however, the three plants would bloom independently at three different times. Some horticulturists now call cushion spurge Euphorbia epithymoides, but I am sticking to the original name.

Worth seekling out is E. polychroma ‘Bonfire’. This new cultivar has yellow flowers that show off dramatically against dark burgundy foliage. To see it growing in Chicago, walk about the perennial garden on the east side of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. You will recognize it by the telltale dark foliage that turns bright red in fall. E. polychroma and its cultivars are best grown in full sun although the one in my neighborhood did just fine in dappled shade. They are also tolerant of poor soils.

If you prefer orange flowers to yellow, try to get your hands on Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’, which grows up to 30 inches high. It’s not easy to find here, nor are we really sure of its hardiness. I had one that overwintered but succumbed later that year. However, I can attest that a cross of ‘Fireglow’ and ‘Bonfire’ has yielded a plant that is definitely hardy in Chicagoland – Euphorbia ‘Jessie’.

‘Jessie’ is the brainchild of Barry Glick, a plant breeder in Pennsylvania who announced its arrival with great fanfare on a list serve for garden writers a few years ago (sunfarm.com/specials/euphorbiajessie.php). It could survive super cold winters and 100 F. Texas summers, he said, and it was deer resistant. I ponied up and bought one.

I’m glad I took the bait. The plant that arrived was small and spindly, it grew half-heartedly that first summer, and my expectations for its winter survival were dim. But lo and behold, as soon as it poked its nose through the ground the following spring, it was off and running. It grew tall – 2, then 3 feet – but didn’t bloom in my semi-shady site, so after three years, I moved it to full sun. Bingo. It soared 4 feet high or more, and the flowers looked just like those on Glick’s website. This year, it was one of the earliest perennials to break dormancy and I currently have around 15 tall stems. Since the soil in Hyde Park has a sandy base, a few plants in my garden need additional support. This year I provided ‘Jessie’ with a nice round tomato cage to keep all of the stems pointed in the right direction.

I still find it hard to believe that the stately, towering ‘Jessie’, the twinkling Diamond Frost and the spiky crown of thorns are all relatives of poinsettia, but it’s true. And that’s just for starters. The Euphorbia genus actually includes more than 2,000 members, ranging from tiny annuals to large and long-lived trees, which makes it one of the largest genera of flowering plants anywhere.

Whether this makes the euphorbias one big happy family, I can’t say. But for those of you who like to pluck life lessons from nature, here’s one. In nature as in real life, you can’t choose your relatives.

Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association. culrich@sbsmags.com



  • Cushion spurge (E. polychroma)
  • Cushion spurge (E. polychroma ‘Bonfire’)
  • E. griffithii ‘Fireglow’ (maybe hardy)
  • E. ‘Jessie’–cross of polychroma and griffithii

Not Hardy

  • Poinsettia (E. pulcherrima)
  • Crown of thorns (E. milii)
  • Snow on the Mountain (E. marginata)
  • Diamond Frost (E. hypericifolia ‘Inneuphe’)
  • Euphorbia wulfennii

From the Editor - JanFeb 2016

This is the time when the world waxes eloquent (or some semblance thereof) about “new beginnings.” Really? Is there such a thing as old beginnings?

Perhaps we should just call them revisions. We gardeners made a muck of many things in 2015, and now is our time to take stock and resolve to do better next time.

So this year we won’t optimistically set out the tomatoes on a warm day in May, only to see them get blasted by cold winds two weeks later, go belly up and need to be replanted. Nor will we put our new ‘Rebecca’ clematis in the shade … twice … or let the red KnockOut rose get so squished by the 8-foot wide Incrediball hydrangea that the rose actually stopped blooming for most of the summer. Who ever imagined that you could reduce the bloom on a KnockOut rose? (Solution: tell the hydrangea “you win” and donate it to the big perennial garden in Wicker Park.)

Thus we get up, dust ourselves off and try again. That’s always the goal of Chicagoland Gardening, but especially true in the January-February issue where we focus on new ideas and planning for the year. We offer this one issue in a convenient three-ring notebook format to make it a keeper for you.

We’re calling this our “Imaginations Issue,” and the pages are chock-a-block full of information and ideas to get you motivated. (Spring is coming soon.) Here’s the basic rundown:

We begin with our annual assessment of new plants from Ball Horticultural’s trial gardens in West Chicago with top picks from Garden Manager Jim Nau.

For vegetable gardeners, Jean Starr visits the Indiana home of Debby and Ken Rosenbaum who have devised a most ingenious way of growing super abundant crops.

Lost an ash tree or two? You’ll want to read Michelle Walsh’s article on suitable replacements based on her discussions with Dave Wanninger from Boerner Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee.

What else? Bill Shores joins our crew and will be writing a series of articles this year on growing plants in containers.

Betty Earl assesses ground covers.

Adele Kleine praises the red heart-shaped anthurium as the perfect house plant for February.

Mary Bolden sorts out our native roses.

And should you be wondering how to have a native plant garden with continuous flowering, we have compiled a chart that shows which plants will be in bloom each month, organized by color.

Finally, can home gardeners get helpful ideas from visiting grand public gardens? Garden designer John Algozzini says yes and shows photos of pointers he picked up by traveling to the many fine public gardens throughout the region.

All that remains is for you to settle down for a good read.

Imagine That

I was awakened recently by the sound of a pigeon rattling my bedroom window. Peeking with one cautious eye from beneath my covers, I noticed that there was a small scroll attached to its leg. I opened the window, retrieved the scroll and got a dirty look from the bird as it pooped and flew off. (Just what are the rules for tipping carrier pigeons?)

This is now how my editors communicate with me. They mutter vaguely about computer viruses and such. I’m not sure but I think I’m being punished for some grammatical faux pas.

Anyway, the note was about the theme of this first issue of the year (already? can I go back to bed?), which is … uh … “Magician Tissue.” Wait. Nope. (The print is very, very tiny on this little note.) It’s … uh … ah! I think this is the “Imagination Issue.”

Yeah, yeah, okay, I get it. That makes sense. “Brainstorm,” “brain freezing drizzle,” “creative juices,” “fermenting juices,” “thinking cap,” “thinking beanie,” think outside the box” and “think outside but don’t track in any mud” immediate pop into my head as I’m sure they do yours.

When it comes to using your imagination in the garden, I’ve boiled it down to a pretty simple set of rules. Now it might seem counterintuitive that your imagination would need to be subjected to any rules. You need to remember, though, that you’re living in my little fantasy world, not yours. So zip it and focus! I don’t want your silly wayward brains meandering all over the place. That would lead to horticultural chaos.

Feel free to affix the following list to your refrigerator with your 1996 “Floppy Discs Are the Future” calendar magnet:

Shows no imagination: well-manicured lawn
Shows imagination: well-manicured compost pile.

Shows no imagination: creating “rooms” in the garden.
Shows imagination: creating “closet space” in the garden

Shows no imagination: planting arborvitae fences to screen the view of your annoying neighbors
Shows imagination: offering “arborvitae cocktails” to your annoying neighbors to scare them into moving away

Shows no imagination: paving stones on your patio
Shows imagination: paving stones where your windows used to be

Shows no imagination: rooftop garden
Shows imagination: rooftop cranberry swamp

Shows no imagination: pruning trees with a sharpened saw
Shows imagination: pruning trees with sharpened paving stones (see how useful those things can be?)

Shows no imagination: watching HGTV
Shows imagination: coming up with new meanings for the anagram HGTV (Horticulturally Grim Television, Highly Gratuitous TV, Herbaceous Gibberish TV, Hardly Glimpse TV – try it; it’s fun!)

Shows no imagination: killing plants with herbicides
Shows imagination: boring plants to death by showing them smartphone photos of your grandkids

Shows no imagination: planting heirloom varieties
Shows imagination: burying your spouse’s heirloom knick-knacks

Don’t you feel more creative already? I sure do! In fact, I just used those wonderfully versatile and not-at-all-overused paving stones to create a ten foot high fence to keep my neighbors from spying on my creative ideas. I’m about to head over there with a brand new drink that I call the Euphorbia Margarita. Do you like yours with or without salt?

Issues - 2016 - JanFeb

Beyond Red and Green

Sure, you love the holidays, but maybe you don’t 100 percent love red and green. Yes, they always make a dynamite pairing, but do they always have to be the go-to colors for decorating every year? You’d really like to broaden your horizons, see what else you might do to offer a festive face to the world.

Such was the challenge a customer presented to the design staff at The Growing Place, Naperville and Aurora. “The customer wanted to stay away from the traditional reds and greens that are everywhere during the holidays,” says co-owner Carol Massat. “But she loves mauve and burgundy, so we custom designed this container using a variety of evergreens and two types of eucalyptus that had been preserved and dyed – all natural materials. Then we added some lime green color to brighten it up a bit.

“The key to creating a standout wreath or container is combining different colors and textures in the greens,” continues Massat. “The base for this wreath was Fraser fir because it tends to hold onto its needles better than other types of evergreens.” The designers incorporated other greens as well.

Alluding to the thriller-spiller-filler formula often cited for composing a container, Massat explains, “Incense cedar with its tiny yellow cones at the tips made a fantastic spiller plant. White pine with its soft long needles was a great filler, and the mauve/burgundy eucalyptus branches were the thrillers.”

There were two types of eucalyptus in the design: the tall spikes with small leaves around the stem and also seeded eucalyptus. “The seeded eucalyptus looks like small clusters of berries, but those are the seeds, and it has larger flat leaves that have also been preserved and dyed.”

Joining the Fraser fir and white pine in the arrangements are sprigs of boxwood, variegated cedar, juniper, preserved lemon leaves and preserved yarrow. For textural contrast the designers added shiny rounded leaves of boxwood and the larger dark green lemon leaves that had also been preserved and dyed. More textural interest was provided by tiny pinecones on the variegated cedar and clusters of blue berries on the junipers. The plant in the container that looks like a sedum is actually preserved yarrow that has been dyed a lime green. The hints of yellow in the variegated cedar also lighten up the overall look of the greens and provide some important color contrast. Large pinecones and a mauve velvet ribbon were the final touch.

Designers at The Growing Place like to use natural materials in their container designs. “We sometimes harvest from our gardens, using plants such as dried hydrangea flowers or the seed heads of Northern sea oats,” notes Massat. “But for the holidays we never want to forget the sparkles.”


Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association. culrich@sbsmags.com

Mike’s ‘Bottom of the Barrel’ Xmas Xtravaganza

If you could only see your face right now (take a selfie and after you wallow in the horror of your expression, send me a copy). You turned to this page, just knowing that I had run out of Christmas carols to parody and that – for once! – your holiday season wouldn’t be ruined by these tunes – and my insipid lyrics to them – running like an out of control Cuisinart in your brain. Well, turn on the blender, kids, ’cause here we go again.

As usual, I disavow any connection to the rest of this column. Not only was I not conscious when I wrote it (and who says I did, huh?), you can’t prove that 1) I have a computer, 2) I know how to use it, and 3) I know how to speak Christmas. That’s what I call an air tight case.

Now you’ll excuse me while I wipe my hard drive clean. Sing!

The Holly and the Ivy

(sung to “The Holly and the Ivy” … what did you think it was sung to?)

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown
Of all the plants that will give you stress, the ivy bears the crown.
O the cutting of the vine – it will reappear next year
A pox upon your merry organ, I’ll fall upon my spear

The holly never blossoms, as far as I can see
And Mary my neighbor laughs while she drinks her chablis
O I’d like to smash her stupid freakin’ lilies and then frolic in her fish pool
Who cares about your merry organ? I’m looking like a fool.

The holly and the ivy … and now let’s hear a hush
Of all the songs that we sing of plants
This one is really mush.

The First Coral Bell

(sung to “The First Noel”)

The first coral bell, the experts did say
Was a plant that would suffer in fields made of clay
In fields made of clay that goes down so deep
You will kill every last one and they’re not so cheap.

Coral bell, coral bell, coral bell, coral bell
Warn all your neighbors, they don’t do so well.

I looked it up, and saw one star
That was all it was rated, the lowest by far
And to the store, I’ll return it tonight
And replace with a hosta, perhaps out of spite.

Coral bell, coral bell, coral bell, coral bell
Gone is the failure and I think that’s swell.

All I Want for Christmas

(sung to “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” … no, not the Mariah Carey version – how hip do you think I am?)

All I want for Christmas
is a Stewart Wreath
a Stewart Wreath
Martha Stewart Wreath.

Gee, if I could scam a
Martha Stewart Wreath,
Then you can have my

The Harvest Song

(sung to “The Wassail Song”)

Here you come a-harvesting
Among my leaves so green
Here you come a-trampling
On every squash and bean
Boy oh boy, what’s with you?
And your size eleven shoe?
And I’ll mess you and send you
Into the Next Year
Yes, I’ll knock you into the Next Year.

You ruined all the broccoli,
The cantaloupe and more.
You’re like my neighbor’s children
Except they’re under four
Boy oh boy, what’s with you?
Ain’t it time you got a clue?
And I’ll mess you and send you
Into the Next Year.
Yes, I’ll knock you into the Next Year.

From the Editor - NovDec 2015

Here’s the thing about gardening: it’s never done. So now 2015 is winding down, the year in which I thought my garden would finally achieve some state of near perfection and I would ride out the rest of my golden years just watching the plants chug along on autopilot while I sat on the porch steps sipping tea and enjoying the view. As if.

This year three of my mophead Hydrangea macrophyllas didn’t bloom – probably the spots where I planted them have become too shady, although the effects of the last two nasty winters can’t be discounted.

And then a large Rosa rugosa hybrid rose started succumbing to a mysterious blight after it flowered in May. I cut it back – way back – and by mid-summer little specks of green began sprouting on its inch-thick wood canes. By late summer they had turned into blooming stems with fresh blight-free leaves. Will this last? No idea. And if that big rose has to go, I will need to replace it with … something.

Another major hole will be left after Doug Wood, fearless leader of the Wicker Park Garden Club, arrives to put his new bionic hips to work digging out my incredible Incrediball hydrangea. This 5- by 5-foot wunderkind produces one-foot diameter flowers, and trying to reduce the shrub’s size by cutting it back last April had no effect whatsoever. It’s a cultivar of Hydrangea arborescens so it blooms on new wood, and it simply regrew as big as its genes dictated. It’s a fabulous plant but you must have the right spot for it.

Then there’s the fact that my garden was almost blanketed by bright pink Phlox paniculata in August. Really colorful but probably too much of a good thing, especially as the plants started going geriatric in September. Need to remove some of them and replace with … something.

So no autopilot garden for me in 2016, and probably not for you either. Nature doesn’t stand still and neither do our gardens.

In the meantime, we have winter. A time for dreaming, but more to the point, hard thinking about how we wish to go forward in 2016.

In this issue two features posit contrasting answers to this question. Western gardens began several thousand years ago as shaded enclosures in hot arid lands, and our concept of gardens as a paradise harks back to the Persian word paradiza. Structure was the key element in those gardens and is still integral to any beautiful garden today. Our story about hedges links to that tradition.

But another aesthetic is also at work: the ideal of a naturalistic flower garden overflowing with the native plants so important to supporting pollinating insects and other wildlife. Pat Hill’s garden in Elgin illustrates how this works as we stand at one point in her corner lot and watch as the flowers come and go throughout the year.

Of course, who says a garden has to be one or the other? Smart gardeners
(like us) will combine both.

Issues - 2015 - NovDec

Suburban Subdivision Triumph

Article Photo Article Photo

How do you make a garden in the middle of Illinois cornfields?

It’s a question that puzzles many wannabe gardeners living on the outskirts of Chicago. While the land once harbored rich biodiversity in its prairies and wetlands (there’s a reason why they call it “the Prairie State”), Illinois has become a monoculture of corn and soybeans growing in what is often astonishingly heavy clay soil. Add in the temperature extremes, the frequent droughts and the fierce winds that sweep in from hundreds of miles to the west, and you have to wonder, is gardening possible here?

For an answer, look no further than the lovely Aurora garden of Laverne and Pete Bohlin. With a property that abuts a cornfield on one side and a recently built subdivision on the other, they could be considered participants in a what-to-do-in-a-cornfield case study.

The Bohlins moved here 12 years ago as the property’s first owners. Although they had lived previously in Elmhurst where they had become serious about gardening, moving to Aurora brought some surprises. “I didn’t know there could be such heavy soil,” recalls Laverne. “I grew up in Ohio where the soil was sandy loam.” And because they had built a house in a new subdivision, “there wasn’t even 6 inches of topsoil.”

She was disappointed when she realized she couldn’t grow holly. But there were other plants that could grow here and grow well — roses, vegetables, many perennials and shrubs, even the sometimes cantankerous Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, which has been thriving here since 2008. It’s hard to imagine that there was nothing on the now-lush lot when the Bohlins arrived.

Their first move was a bold one. Inspired by the history of the land, the Bohlins began by creating two 10-by-10-foot beds directly next to the front sidewalk and planting them exclusively with prairie natives. One of the prairie patches features a medley of flowering forbs, such as gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and leadplant (Amorpha canescens).

More daring is the second bed, a mass planting devoted exclusively to prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). For homeowners seeking alternatives to the conventional water-thirsty Kentucky bluegrass, this little patch of dropseed suggests a new way of looking at how to design space, a challenge to the same-old, same-old. But Laverne also cites a more prosaic explanation for installing their two prairie patches out front: “I didn’t want to have to bring hoses out there to water.”

Trees in the front yard (which does include turfgrass) include a pair of bur oaks, a pink-flowering ‘Prairifire’ crabapple (Malu ‘Prairifire’) and a ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’). The bur oaks (no surprise) proved to be “the strongest growing thing we’ve ever planted,” says Pete. The crabapple is another success story. “Spectacular when it blooms, almost gaudy,” according to Laverne. The hawthorn, while healthy, has proved to be a slow grower.

The house is surrounded by mixed borders of shrubs and perennials. The east side is particularly attractive with its blend of ‘Annabelle’ (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’) and Quick Fire (H. paniculata ‘Bulk’) peonies, crocosmia (which receive no extra mulch) and roses. The latter put on a spectacular performance in 2012 despite (because of?) the heat and the drought. “My roses were the biggest ever,” marvels Laverne. “I hardly watered.” Her stars are all French-born beauties from the House of Meilland. Guy de Maupassant (Rosa ‘MEIsocrat’) and Yves Piaget (R. ‘MEIvildo’) are luscious double pinks. Tchaikovsky (R. ‘MEIchibon’) is a subtle yellow-white blend.

In the rear yard, tall grasses play multiple roles, softening the views but also providing structure and focal points. A large silver grass (Miscanthus spp.)anchors the border that frames the cornfield while others stand sentinel along the cedar picket fence surrounding the vegetable garden. Joining the grasses are several perennials, including a yellow-blooming yarrow (Achillea spp.) from the garden of Laverne’s mother, a ‘Morden Gleam’ loosestrife (Lythrum virgatum ‘Morden Gleam’)and a ‘Becky’ shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’), which Laverne deems “a great plant.”

The vegetable garden is Pete’s province. To get started, he built six 12-by-4-foot raised beds, which he filled with 10 cubic yards of Garden Mix brought in from Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles. He grows what he likes — zucchini, beans, butternut squash, eggplants, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and an entire bed devoted to broccoli, accented by three giant sunflowers. What do the Bohlins do with so much broccoli? They blanch it for a minute and a half and then freeze it. They’re not big tomato eaters, growing only two varieties: ‘Carmello’ and ‘Roma’. Perhaps Laverne was warned off by the memory of her father, retired and casting about for some thing to do, went off the deep end and grew 99 tomato plants in a single year.

The fence was a must-have, given that the garden is regularly visited by skunks, rabbits, coyotes, possums and, of course, deer; sometimes 15 to 20 at a time. To keep out the rabbits, Pete stapled chicken wire on the inside of the fence as an extra deterrent. “It’s like a prison camp on the inside,” he jokes. As for the deer, while they do eat the crabapples, they’re mainly a problem when the snow is deep in the cornfield. Sometimes they sleep in the snow.

When the Bohlins moved in, they amended the soil with mushroom compost and then set up a regimen of top-dressing with compost once a year, now reduced to mulching every other year. Soil for the vegetable beds was purchased, but the prairie area soil was never amended. Soaker hoses take care of the supplemental watering.

Not everything they’ve tried to grow has survived. Woody plants have been the biggest casualties — two viburnums, four lilacs, four caryopteris, an Endless Summer hydrangea and buddleias. The bur oaks and the prairie patches, on the other hand, have triumphed.

Laverne became interested in native plants after a visit to the restored prairie at The Morton Arboretum several years ago. “When I walked through it for the first time, I began to cry because it reminded me of how the land used to be,” she recalls. She then took horticulture classes at the College of DuPage and now teaches a “begin to plan your garden” class at the Arboretum. She also volunteers at the arboretum’s plant clinic and is a member of its Nature Artists’ Guild.

The land where the Bohlins live is no longer pure prairie, but their backyard looks out toward the Illinois Prairie Path and the adjacent woodlands and wetlands retained by the developers. A Cooper’s hawk sails by; a frequent visitor. And even the cornfield has its merits. “It’s quiet and peaceful here in the summer,” says Laverne. “It’s nice to have the openness and the long view.”

Summer-Blooming Bulbs

Last spring my sister called to say that she had found a wonderful new anemone to add to her collection in a mixed flower border. When she described the flower, the deeply saturated color and the black center, I knew she had purchased Anemone coronaria, a summer-flowering tender bulb. She was disappointed to learn that these magnificent flowers would not overwinter in her Indiana garden and that they must be lifted in the fall and replanted each spring.

She needn’t have been discouraged. While winter-hardy bulbs, such as tulips or daffodils, may be left in place, tender bulbs have their own delights. They will bloom in June and July, and they offer some intense and sometimes exotic colors and shapes. These summer-flowering bulbs need to be treated as annuals, which means you plant them after the soil warms up so they are not subjected to the vagaries of our spring weather. If you want to save them to grow another year, you must dig up the bulbs and store them in a basement or unheated garage. You may grow them in pots as well, but they must have plenty of soil, moisture and good drainage to do well. Feed them lightly every four to five weeks.
As a group, summer bulbs tend to prefer warm soil and ample moisture, but sharp drainage and full sun. Most of them benefit from soaking before planting. Plant the bulbs about 4 inches deep.

Unless you are a botanist, it doesn’t matter much that some of these summer “bulbs” are tubers, corms or rhizomes rather than true bulbs. What does matter is an understanding
of what you can expect from them and what they expect from you.

Known as the florist’s anemone, the flowers of Anemone coronaria are prized for their deep, saturated colors of red, blue and purple, often with black centers. The two most commonly sold types arethe single-flowered De Caen, Group and the double-flowered Saint Brigid Group. ‘Mister Fokker’ is a deep blue that is worth seeking out.
Plant them in April as soon as the ground can be worked. Soak the withered brown corms in warm water before planting and plant with the pointy tip up. Keep spent flowers picked clean.

Plant these romantic flowers in mid-April. Ranunculus do best when nighttime temps are around 35 F and daytime temps are around 65 F. They need well-drained soil and plenty of sun, the same kind of spot where you might plant tomatoes. The roots look like little bunches of bananas; bury them with the points of the “fingers” down. The more you cut them, the more they bloom, but expect them to taper off when it gets really hot and humid. Withhold water in the late summer and fall, and lift them in October for storage.

Crocosmia and Lycoris
When it comes to lycoris and crocosmia, success depends on which variety you choose. Although the naked or resurrection lily (Lycoris squamigera) is a winter-hardy staple in many Midwestern gardens, the bright red spider lily (Lycoris radiata) is an evergreen that makes foliage in winter and hates to be moved. Most Crocosmia are also unlikely to overwinter outdoors, except ‘Lucifer’, which is winter-hardy here and does well. I cherish it for the red-orange, firework-like blooms that open right at the Fourth of July.

As Illinois used to be the glad-growing capital of the nation, we should embrace these sturdy flowers, but unless they are planted in tight groups and staked against the wind, glads can be rather ungainly in the garden. The good news is that there are a few petite varieties that can blend quite nicely into flower gardens.

One newly popular old variety from 1946 is the diminutive cherry red ‘Atom’ whose red flowers, edged in sun-catching silver, is said to attract hummingbirds. ‘Bibi’, ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Boone’ are also worth seeking out for their small stature. Another old favorite with a new name, Gladiolus murielae, formerly called Acidanthera or Abyssinian glad, is a lovely thing with fragrant flowers.

Glads can be planted after the soil warms in May and do well in part shade or sun. Soak the corms before planting and plant in tight groupings for best effect.

These underused plants offer spectacular color for the shaded garden or deck. Water lovers, they can be planted in full sun, but only if you can keep them constantly moist. Drip irrigation is advised when planting them in the ground. In pots, they benefit from a saucer filled with water.

The largest Caladium tubers will produce the biggest, most numerous leaves. Soak the tubers and plant them with the bumps (eyes) up, but wait until it is warm to do so. Caladiums do not like cool soil. If you want to get them started early, do so indoors, in pots. Since they will be watered frequently, caladiums will need a weak, balanced fertilizer, especially those grown in pots.

Caladiums should be purchased new each year. The tubers you plant will wither and new, smaller tubers will form. These can be saved with great care, but they will not produce the large leaves produced by commercially grown tubers.

Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa) from Mexico is easy to grow, but it needs light, sandy soil and can’t tolerate too much water. Plant the tubers only 2 inches deep and water every 10 days in dry periods. Choose the largest tubers since small ones may not bloom the first year and would need to be saved over winter and grown again to achieve flowering size. The fragrant flowers will bloom in July or August. While ‘The Pearl’, a double form, is most commonly sold, the most fragrant and purest white is the single-flowered ‘Mexican Single’ variety.

If you think cannas are your grandma’s garden plant, think again. These large tropical plants have both colorful leaves and flowers, make a bold statement in the garden or container and are so easy to grow. They want only sun and plenty of water and food to be spectacular. The bonus is that you get more plants — lots more — every year since the bulbs will multiply underground during the summer.

One good-sized clump can anchor a circular bed while a single plant can serve as a focal point in a large container planting. They are perfect plants to use poolside since they add
a tropical flair and do not shed leaves.

Peruvian daffodil
If you want to grow something really exotic, try this stunning white flower (Ismene x deflexa). The plant is large, the flowers are fragrant and bulbs larger than 3 inches will yield up to ten blooms. The bulbs will grow larger each year when given decent soil, part sun and good moisture.

One of the interesting things about the Peruvian daffodil is its tendency to look toward the sun. Keep this in mind when placing it; you won’t want something this beautiful turning away from your gaze.

Most summer bulbs overwinter best in pots. If you are growing them in containers, simply withhold water in the fall, let them die back naturally and store the pots in a place where they won’t freeze. Moisten the soil once or twice over the winter.

If the bulbs have been growing in the ground, allow them to go dormant before the ground freezes. When the top growth has yellowed and withered away in the fall, dig them up, gently brush away the soil and pack them into boxes with peat moss.

Store the boxes in the basement or an attached garage. Spray the peat to moisten it once or twice during the winter. Even if you neglect the spritzing, some bulbs, such as cannas, may start sprouting on their own when spring rolls around.

Seasonal Affectation

We are rapidly approaching Corn-Phlegma-Plethora-Terminus-Ucopia and I’m sure that all of you are planning big parties for this beloved annual gardening event.

Basically, CPPTU or “C-Ptui!” (as it is popularly known) marks that time late in the year when we begin to realize that we don’t have anywhere close to enough storage space to save all of the stuff we’re about to harvest and we’re really not interested in spending the next three months chained to a cutting board inside the canning kitchen pickling Tree of Heaven root and making used-leather-sandal jerky simply because the editors of Organic Flotsam Magazine claim it can be done. Gardeners celebrate C-Ptui! by tossing green pumpkins and rock-hard tomatoes at passing cars with out-of-state license plates.

That’s just one of the iconic dates that gardeners have marked on their calendars. Interestingly, people who aren’t gardeners seem to have entirely different calendars, which contain odd, obscure holidays like Labor Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Super Bowl Sunday and Change the Dust Bag on your Vacuum Cleaner Day. Sometimes I just don’t understand the world.

Since everything I do is a public service (if it’s for the money, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong), I thought I would introduce the rest of the world to the International Gardener’s Growing Yearly (or “IGGY”, as it is popularly known) Calendar. Here are some of its more famous holidays:

Dreary Tuesday - Those of us who have birthdays in January know what an unfortunate time of the year it is to be celebrating…well … anything. From time immemorial, gardeners in temperate climes have looked to the skies in January, wondering why the sun seems to rise at 11 a.m. and set about two hours later. One of the rituals associated with this phenomenon is to shake one’s fist at the hastily departing orb of fire. Since the whole month seems to drag on interminably, gardeners can choose any week in which to observe Dreary Tuesday. For many, it’s every week of that God-forsaken month. Others celebrate every single day, often with libations.

Germination Termination - This has no set date, as it is the day on which you realize that the many, many seeds you set out in your little egg carton on the window sill are never going to sprout, regardless of how much you plead and beg and cajole and threaten them. Since this is a personal trial, for centuries people have observed it in their own, unique ways. That being said, one of the popular rituals is the flinging of the egg carton onto the compost heap.

Blumensturmen - One of the most joyous days of the year … if you’re able to see it coming. This is the day that the prize hybrid something-or-other that you ordered online from Uruguay finally blooms, after languishing for three years in your yard. Of course, you’re at the office when that happens, so you never actually see the flower open up. In fact, after this momentous occasion, the plant goes into immediate, precipitous decline and soon dies. Loosely translated, Blumensturmen means “you missed it.”

Lawnapalooza - In northern parts of the country, this festival lasts for between six and eight months. In warmer areas, it never ends! Instead of fireworks, some who celebrate this event send streams of water into the air, often at noon and in 90 degree heat, where half of it evaporates before it hits the ground. Some prefer to fling magic, toxic granules in a wild, nihilistic attack on nature. The revelers also create intense, deafening sounds with machines that they parade back and forth across their yards as the engines release noxious clouds of smoke and pollutants. It is believed that the noise is meant to scare away evil spirits … and neighbors. Some people consider this to be not so much a festival as a religion, as true believers in the holiday never question why they engage in such outrageous actions.

Anyway, I’m currently working on a photo version of the IGGY Calendar (did I mention that’s how it’s popularly known?) but I can’t seem to find any images of pickled Tree of Heaven root. How is that even possible?

From the Editor - SeptOct 2015

One fine morning this summer I looked out the second-floor window of my study and discovered a 1-foot tall tomato plant growing a few feet away in the gutter of the back porch. Just one more example, if one were needed, of the amazing, millennia-long saga of seed dispersal on the planet. Thor Hanson offers more examples in his newly published The Triumph of Seeds.

Why do plants grow where they do, puzzled Charles Darwin and other 19th century scientists? When Darwin reached the Galapagos Islands during his 3-year-long voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, he discovered numerous oddities, including cotton. How did it get there?

Since a cotton boll can float, it is now believed that “Darwin’s cotton” (Gossypium darwinii) rode the waves the 575 miles to the Galapagos from the South American mainland. And how did cotton come to South America in the first place? “American cotton species contain the genes of two distinct African ancestors…” writes Hanson.

It boggles the mind.

Seeds not only have the capacity to stay alive during monumental trans-oceanic trips, they also survive over time. Lots of time.

Hanson recounts the story of the siege of the 1,000-foot-high Masada Fortress where Jews resisting Roman rule had taken refuge in CE 72-73. The Roman contingent comprised a legion of soldiers plus thousands of slaves and camp followers, so it was inevitable that food and water supplies would eventually be exhausted and the Jews defeated. But before that could happen, the Jews moved all of their remaining possessions and food stores into a building, which they set ablaze and then committed mass suicide.

In the 1960s, archaeologists picking through the rubble found coins, olive oil, salt, wine, grain and dates with scraps of fruit clinging to the seeds. Remarkable enough, but then in 2000, a researcher in Jerusalem decided to plant one of the seeds. To her great surprise, it germinated, grew up to 10 feet tall and flowered for the first time in 2012. Now named Methuselah after the Old Testament character who lived 969 years, the date palm has its own gated garden with a watering system, burglar alarm and security camera.

In other words, seeds are pretty remarkable and deserve a closer look. As we stroll our gardens this fall lamenting the waning flowers, remember that the once-pink coneflowers have formed seed heads that can feed goldfinches, and those black seed pods of larkspurs will pop open to drop seeds that will sprout into new plants next spring. Life is continuing, just in another form. For a tantalizing sampling of what’s out there, be sure to take a good hard look at the photos by Ron Capek and Jeff Rugg in our cover story.

Issues - 2015 - SeptOct

The Dirt on … Oh Never Mind

By the time you get to this page (that is to say, if you’ve read all or most of this magazine), your brain is so crammed with horticultural knowledge that if you make one false move it will explode, spewing chloroplasts and bark and bits of binomial nomenclature and fragments of tasteful garden design all over the place. And who’s going to clean up that mess?

Fortunately, I am the firewall between too much information and its inevitable consequences. My fact-free seven hundred words are the antidote to too much book learnin’. Since you become a tiny bit dumber from reading this page (it’s been proven in scientific studies – you could look it up), my column serves as a kind of horticultural anti-inflammatory agent. It reduces the pressure in your head and allows you to slowly digest the wondrous variety of gardening plans, ideas and techniques that you have just read about and will never actually get around to implementing in your own yard.

That is to say, unless I take up a subject that is going to agitate your poor, unsuspecting gray matter even more. In which case, well, stop reading right now or else get out the mop and the cleaning vinegar.

I’m about to wander into that territory without a passport or a proper pair of mukluks. Nothing gets the average gardener worked into a muddy lather more than the question of whether you grow your plants in dirt … or soil.

I went to Boogle (a homemade version of the ubiquitous search engine that I worked up in my basement in my spare time), searched for “dirt v. soil” and came up with 19,500,000 results! Boy, did it take a long time to read all of them. And would you like to know my conclusion? I’m going to tell you anyway.

I’m as confused as ever. (Raise your hand if you were surprised by that.)

Gardeners are always talking about “dirt under their fingernails.” Some of those gardeners even clean their fingernails occasionally (which is for rookies and cowards, if you ask me). But if your gardening buddies talked about getting “soil under their fingernails,” you’d give ‘em the look you usually reserve for people who complain about somebody using their salad fork to eat their baked potato.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “get the dirt” on a person or a subject. What happens when you “get the soil” on somebody? I suspect that you apologize and offer to pay the laundry bill. The same applies to the similar phrase “dish the dirt.” If you “dish the soil,” it sounds more like a meal you’d get in one of those la-dee-da restaurants. I always prefer my soil lightly sauteed, with a drizzle of drizzle.

Ya know, using the word “soil” instead of “dirt” might be a way to finally get rid of all those articles and books that are so cleverly titled, “The Dirt on Gardening.” (Har! Who died and left that old chestnut to you? You’re killing me … literally.) Imagine the head scratching over something called
“The Soil on Gardening.” It’s practically a non sequitur.

Most of us know when something is “dirt cheap.” What about when it’s “soil cheap”? When you put it that way, it seems to be the opposite of cheap. You might let somebody know that they can buy that electric car “soil cheap.” Wink, wink.

I’ve never “hit pay dirt.” And I doubt that anybody has ever “hit pay soil.” I’m not sure anybody wants to.

Well, I didn’t set out to do this, but I think I have proven that the words dirt and soil aren’t even close to being the same thing! Who knew? It’s one of those accidental etymological discoveries. Hey, if you MacArthur Genius Grant people want to reconsider and send me that prize, I’m still at the phone number I’ve been sending you for years.

Meanwhile, the next time I speak at a garden club, I’m going to divide the group into “dirts” and “soils” (for some reason, “shirts” and “skins” has never been that popular) before the rugby scrum on the host’s lawn, which is how I wrap up all of my talks. Don’t forget your mukluks.

From the Editor - July/August 2015

The stars must have been aligned as we assembled our editorial calendar for this issue since it turns out that we have a sub-theme going on here. Water. How to use it. How to save it. How to employ it for our benefit while doing our bit to be environmentally responsible. All in all, there are six stories that have come together to reinforce the theme and offer a variety of takes on the topic. It must have been the stars. Speaking for myself, I’m not that smart.

Water is the elixir of life. Always has been, but its importance isn’t always front and center on our radar screens until we don’t have enough of it, and then the brows grow furrowed with worry. What lies in store for California? Will their four years of drought turn into five? Will we be next? Or will the future find us drenched with overwhelming rains and floods? We need to think. And prepare.

One strategy is rain gardens, and a story about a beautiful rain garden is one of the features in this issue. Having long believed that a beautiful rain garden was an oxymoron, I changed my mind as soon as I saw the lushly planted swale at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisc. Here was a collection of plants that worked together to retain water and impede runoff when the heavens opened but had the wherewithal to hold their own when the pendulum swung the other way. A second rain garden in Olbrich’s Rose Garden demonstrates the concept with a different set of plants (story by Patrice Peltier on page 53).

In Garden Basics, Melinda Myers discusses summer watering practices and offers tips for lawns, garden beds and containers. (page 20) Tip number one: choose plants that are appropriate for your growing conditions. No bog plants if your soil is dry.

That’s where you could plant a prairie, and Fermilab in Batavia offers a stellar example. Sarah Marcheschi takes us on a tour and tells how you, too, can visit and learn (Chicagoland Natives, page 29).

But should you want to grow some bog plants, Michelle Walsh explains how to make a bog garden in The Hands-On Gardener (page 24). The plants are fun-looking and rather strange. Some even eat insects.

Also strange is the fact that you can grow fabulous vegetables and herbs in water. At a senior citizens’ residence in Northbrook, this inventive energy-saving hydroponic technology enables a year-round rooftop garden. Cathy Jean Maloney gives the low-down in Good Gardens (page 27).

But maybe you only have room for a few containers and are balking at how they can demand daily (or twice daily) watering in high summer. So why not plant pots of succulents? In The Container Garden (page 40) landscape architect Scott Mehaffey puts together the lowest maintenance container garden ever.

Water. Use it (wisely) or lose it.

Issues - 2015 - JulyAug

Milkweed For Monarchs

Article Photo

By Kay MacNeil

Most of you have read many statistics about the plummeting number of monarch butterflies in the United States, Canada and Mexico, their migration site. According to a January, 2014 USA Today report, “The number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico plunged this year to its lowest level since studies began in 1993.”

Each of us can do something to help reverse monarch numbers and assure that there will be monarchs in our future. And that is … plant milkweed … the only plant on which monarchs will lay their eggs. The lack of milkweed, the monarchs’ host plant, is an important factor in their drastically declining numbers, along with urban sprawl, extreme weather, new farming practices and illegal logging in the butterflies’ winter habitat in Mexico.

As the chair of the Milkweed for Monarchs project, a new initiative of the Garden Clubs of Illinois (GCI), I am encouraging everyone to plant milkweed. Milkweed For Monarchs is a multifaceted project emphasizing the planting of three native milkweed species – swamp milkweed, (Asclepias incarnata), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), and common milkweed (A. syriaca). Working in conjunction with the Save Our Monarchs Foundation, (saveourmonarchs.org), a Minnesota-based nonprofit, the GCI has put milkweed planting as a priority.

GCI will also partner with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Department of Natural Resources to obtain milkweed seeds and incorporate them into roadside restoration or construction projects on infields, ramps and interchanges. IDOT will be doing all actual seed broadcasting on select interchanges and new road projects where they can incorporate the seed into a grass and wildflower mix.

There are many ways to distribute seed: through your garden club, local fundraisers, Earth Day and Arbor Day events, women’s clubs, church groups, Girl and Boy Scouts or the 4-H.

Individual gardeners can do their part. I envision gardeners going down the back roads, throwing fluff along Osage orange hedgerows or wild areas where there will be no complaints – not near farmers’ fields where pesticide drift can kill the milkweed.
According to GCI’s Roadsides Operation Wildflower Chair Barbara Bischoff, “Orange butterfly weed is perfect for urban and suburban gardens, a low- growing and long-lasting perennial for pots and gardens. It is easy to buy plants at your local garden center. In Wilmette, the Little Garden Club is planting “Pocket Prairies” in homes, parks and alleys: anywhere we can to rebuild to the food chain.”

How to Get Seeds

  • Collect it along roadsides and vacant lots. Milkweed pods are large and easy to handle. So are the seeds. Swamp milkweed forms pods in September; common milkweed in October and November. Place the seed in envelopes and label for your future use or mail it to me (689 Golf Club Lane, Frankfort, IL 60423). I will pass it on to IDOT or the GCI.
  • Club members who do not have access to seed but want to help may send me a Stamped Self Addressed Envelope with a dollar bill in it. I will send you a modest package of the seed of your choice with instructions. Call if you need advice (815-469-1294).
  • Apply to the Save Our Monarchs Foundation (saveourmonarchs.org). This organization will supply you with free swamp milkweed seed. Its goal is to donate 350,000 swamp milkweed seed packets by the end of 2015. Contact Ward Johnson at ward@SaveOurMonarchs.org. The GCI will also be distributing vouchers for this seed at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show.

It is vitally important to reverse monarch numbers and assure that there will be monarchs in our future. The Garden Clubs of Illinois (GCI) plans to help bring back monarchs, one milkweed plant at a time, with this project. You can help the monarchs by planting some in your own yard, too.

Kay MacNeil is the Director of the Garden Clubs of Illinois District VIII and the GCI Bee, Bird and Butterfly Chairman. Her garden contains at least five varieties of milkweed.

Dream of This

Article Photo

Story By Carolyn Ulrich, Photogrpahy By Christopher Weber

Yes, I know it’s a mouthful, but I love it even so. When I’m feeling tongue-tied, I can always refer to it by its common name: beautybush.

I received this shrub, Kolkwitzia Dream Catcher maybe 10 years ago as a trial plant from Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Michigan. Actually, there were two plants, seedlings really, just a foot or so tall on a single stem. A lovely surprise since I had read about kolkwitizia but never seen it in the flesh, let alone grown it. I decided to make room for the pair under the bay window at the corner of the house, a spot where my sunny front border transitions to the semi-shady side yard.

The two plants grew fast, shrugging their shoulders at the rigors of winter. But my delight in their carefree hardiness was tempered by a dawning awareness that they were perhaps turning into too much of a good thing and that one of them would surely be meeting an untimely end in the compost pile.

As the years passed, I started wondering about flowers. I was enjoying the grand arching stems as they formed an ever-enlarging fountain of handsome lime green leaves, but I had been hoping for something more. I consulted books and catalogs that waxed euphoric about kolkwitzia’s springtime profusions of tiny pink bells, but nary a blossom did I see. As it reached 5 feet tall and wide, my remaining plant was clearly thriving, and I knew I had at least lucked out with my choice of location.

Finally, three years ago, I saw the first scattered blossoms — a relief since it proved my plant could bloom if it set its mind to it and I just had to be patient. A respectable show ensued two years ago, and then came the fabled profusion of bloom last year. Glorious and worth waiting for. Talk about late bloomers.

But even when it’s not in bloom, Dream Catcher kolkwitzia is a stellar plant. The chartreuse-to-lime-green leaves stand out against the darker green of surrounding plants, and since I have a pair of yellow-leaved ‘Sunshine Blue’ caryopteris nearby, the three of them now form a line that draws the eye from one end of my front border to the other. There’s nothing like a few pops of yellow to give a flower border a bit of oomph. (The caryopteris may also be getting too big for their britches, but that’s a story for another day.)

Don’t be put off by the fact that my kolkwitzia took a long time to come into bloom. Remember that I was starting with a 12-inch seedling on a single stem. Plants growing in containers and purchased at a garden center will be much larger.

Kolkwitzia is native to central China where the species grows 6 to 10 feet tall and wide. Clearly the more contained Dream Catcher is a better choice. Kolkwitzia is pH adaptable but prefers well-drained soil in full sun. It is said to transplant easily, although I’ve never tried. After flowering you can prune out old stems. Also, it’s winter hardy to Zone 4. No wonder my plant just laughed at the Chicago winter.

Issues - 2015 - MayJune



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I have houseplants outside that I will need to bring indoors. What is the lowest temperature at which I can leave them outside?

Besides mums, what are a few other plants you would recommend for containers for fall color?

With all the emphasis on growing fresh vegetables, I think I should use a cold frame but I am not sure what to do or how to go about it. Any ideas?

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