Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best Wishes

Chicago Neighborhood Lights

Best Wishes for the Holiday Season


Sunday, December 2, 2012

That's a Wrap!

     Friday marked the last gasp of my veggie garden. (Well, almost). We still had freshly-picked snow peas and broccoli for Thanksgiving dinner, and I picked another three pounds of Brussels sprouts over the weekend. But by early this week the thermometer was showing 20 degrees. Time to quit while we were ahead.

     I don't try to re-cycle all my yard waste at this time of year either. My plants did a pretty good job at keeping bugs and diseases at bay all season. I don't want to give the critters a head start for next year. The exceptions are my snow peas. Besides being legumes and binding nitrogen into the soil they have seldom brought unwanted problems into the garden. I chop them up and till them right in.

     Meanwhile, the composter to which I had stopped adding a few weeks ago has now done part of its job and is ready to contribute to the winter garden as well.

     So the compost, the snow peas and a nice layer of oak leaves have been tilled into the soil as the garden surface loses its raised beds and reverts to a flat surface.

     ...Or most of it has. My parsley bed for some reason still looks gorgeous, so it is sitting there as a 3 foot by 5 foot emerald patch in a chocolate-brown bed. And we are once more experiencing a "heat" wave of highs in the 60's. This time our patch's lease on life will depend on what we can still fit in the freezer. We fixed a bunch of tabbouleh last week and will make some more tomorrow. We are also freezing some more parsley pesto sauce for winter pasta. And this year I finally realized that we can also freeze Argentine chimichurri sauce for all the meat we will be grilling this winter.

     Fortunately, our freezer is not that big, so the garden really will be put to bed this week. By now some of you must be sighing with relief. So am I. Time to give some of my tools a rest.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Green Christmas

    For some years now artificial trees
have outnumbered real trees in the
US during the holiday season. There
are many reasons to get an artificial tree, but helping the environment is not one of them.

     Our natural inclination is to think
that by going artificial we are
preventing a tree from being cut
down. Not true. The trees are not
being cut from a forest preserve or a
national forest. They are cut from
farms just like any other crop. And
like any other crop they are replaced
as soon as they are cut. In between
they grow for up to seven years and
do what trees are supposed to do --pull carbon dioxide from the air.

     Christmas trees are usually
planted on more marginal land --
land that is not suitable for corn,
soybeans, or other crops. There is a
financial advantage to planting near
urban centers where most tree
buyers are. This provides additional
income for farmers and eases the
pressure to sell the land to

     And after the season is over living
trees can be completely recycled -- depending on how enlightened the local government is.

     In contrast, all the components of
plastic trees end up in land fills --
including the PVC's that compose the
needles of most artificial trees.

     The only ecological argument for artificial trees is that they are reused.

But studies have shown that the
trees need to be used from 10-20
years to begin to match the carbon
footprint of real trees. The average
American moves every 7 years, to say
nothing of all the other family
changes that might inspire purchase
of a new tree.

     There is nothing wrong with
buying an artificial tree because it is
easy to set up and take down. We all
make compromises. But ecologically
and aesthetically natural is the way to

Whether you use an artificial or
real tree you really should invest in
the new LED decorative lights. We

spend an enormous amount on
holiday lighting. LED lighting will
require ten times times less
electricity and last 10 times longer.
And because it generates far less
heat, it also reduces fire hazards
significantly. Who could object to

     Meanwhile, I have a crew available for those who need help with their outdoor holiday decorations. Just email or call.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


     I awoke last Tuesday morning to discover that frost had sneaked into my garden  while I slept. The last weather report I saw predicted a low of 33 degrees, which was good enough to give me an excuse not to do anything. And, of course I paid the price. My Thai basil and tomatoes and chili peppers had bitten the dust while I was still loafing in bed. I am glad now I had harvested most of the riper ones. I still have a hoard of all three in the kitchen. But they are dwindling fast.

     The rest of the garden, though, is doing fine. We just harvested some chard, spinach and snow peas for a stir- fry yesterday. The broccoli and Brussels sprouts are still producing as well.

     I had hoped for a late frost this year, but it turns out that November 6 is close to the average frost date for my Beverly neighborhood in Chicago. We city folks -- even those of us on the edge of town, benefit from our proximity to the lake and to the "heat island" produced by all the exhaust downtown and all the concrete storing it up.

     Now that the first frost has arrived, there are new things to do. I have suspended my composter operation for the season. I want to give my barrel a few weeks to work on what it has, rather than adding raw material, because I plan to till it back into the garden before the first really hard frost.

     It is now time to cut down my hostas and other perennials. I use my mulching mower for much of this task. The machine chops everything up and scatters it over the grass to add some spring fertilizer.

     It is raining now, but we are heading into a fairly long dry spell, so I am continuing my watering, especially for newly planted trees and shrubs. I leave my soakers out all winter and leave my regular hoses out, but disconnected until the ground starts to freeze.

     I am too lazy to drain and bring in my three rain barrels. The first year I had one I was caught napping by a really hard freeze. My barrel was full, and when it froze it burst apart at the seams. Please don't follow my example. Use your water stockpile quickly, keep the water levels fairly low, watch the weather, and drain the barrels if you expect a hard freeze. If you have the room and the energy, you can stick your barrels in your garage instead and then rest easy until you have to drag them out again next year.

     Two things I am not doing yet: planting bulbs and spreading mulch. The soil temperature is still too high. This is still a good time to plant trees and shrubs, though. Their roots will stay active underground and will get a head start on getting ready for their first scorching summer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Veggies in Autumn

Parsley in front with snow peas behind.
     I am repeatedly surprised by the huge number of people who give up on their vegetable gardens a couple of weeks after Labor Day. Our season at this latitude is short enough without chopping off the hind end of it. Today is November 1, so I thought it would be a good time to give a "state of my garden" report.

     My cukes and zucchinis made it into the first week in October before giving up the ghost, along with their last fruits. Our Italian basil gave up about ten days ago, but it appears that Thai basil is made of sterner stuff. The leaves are small and sparse, but still healthy, and a little bit goes a long way.

     We ate our last green beans last night after we added all their leaves and stems to the composter.

     We had a frost scare last night, so we picked any tomato or pepper that was turning red, while leaving the green ones alone. Years ago when I had more time and energy, I would have rushed out to throw a tarp over these plants. Now I am too lazy. I just hedge my bets and go to sleep soundly. Sure enough, it was a false alarm. The tomatoes and peppers are fine.

     These are the "tender" veggies and will be lucky to go another two weeks. But there is a lot more out there. The parsley is luxuriant, and the broccoli must be working on its 12th harvest by now. Our Swiss chard is going to give us harvest number 5.

     We pulled one Brussels sprout plant too early just for fun, but we have the real harvest here ahead of us. The spinach seeds we planted germinated only spottily, but what we have is doing well and will probably be added to the chard when the time comes.

Flowering Snow Peas
     But the star of the fall show is our patch of snow peas. You may recall that our spring crop ran out of gas in mid-July. We waited about three weeks, then planted a new crop in August. This is what they looked like yesterday. The 30" plants on the right have already given us one crop and are still flowering like mad.

     The plants on the left were a big surprise. They are over 5 feet tall and everything else about them is over-  sized as well. They only began to flower last week and are in a real race to produce before the cold gets them. For these guys I might actually get out with a tarp just once. 

     All of these plants will survive a series of light frosts -- the kind we get frequently in late fall. Their speed of growth slows down but they do continue growing and producing. I hope to be harvesting some of these crops over Thanksgiving weekend.

     So why rush out and end everything? Yes, it is true: when you finally do your garden clean-up, it will be colder. But you don't have to do anything now and you get rewarded with more food as well. A genuinely lazy gardener like me cannot pass this up.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Back Side of Storm Sandy in Chicago

     A very busy spell followed by a major computer meltdown kept me away far longer than I expected. In penance I offer a few photos of Lake Michigan as it caught the back end  of Sandy.

     This guy got soaked. He was one of six people I saw who were foolish enough to come to the lake despite official warnings.

     This was one of the views from Promontory Point near the University of Chicago. Weather reports claimed wind gusts of up to 50 MPH and waves up to 25 feet on the lake yesterday. The lake looked a bit like the Atlantic ocean.

     Across the waves one can see the downtown Chicago skyline. The walk is wet from spray I carefully avoided. The temperature was in the '40's, so the fierce winds made the lakeside bone-chilling. I was dressed warmly enough , but I needed bare hands to use the camera. When my fingers refused to move I beat a hasty retreat. No body surfing today, thank you.

       To my friends on the real Atlantic, I hope all is well.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012


     That is my answer to clients who have been calling to ask about putting mulch down for the winter. It is still good planting weather out there. We can't even plant bulbs for another month because it is too warm -- and it is supposed to hit 80 one day next week. So let us not be in too big a hurry to welcome winter back.

     Many people put down mulch way too early because they don't really understand what it does. It's job is not to keep plants warm like a sweater. Rather its main job is to keep the temperature around plant roots from fluctuating wildly.

     Most of us in Chicago are aware of the lake's effect on temperature. Since the denser water changes temperature more slowly than the air, the shore area tends to stay cooler during the day and warmer at night. Similarly, lake shore temperatures tend to be cooler during spring and summer and warmer during fall and winter.

     The land acts the same way. It changes temperature more slowly than the air above it, and the deeper down you go the less affected it is by air temperature.

     By adding an extra layer on top, your mulch is in effect pushing your plant roots further down and making them less subject, not so much to cold weather per se, but to the variations in temperature that those of us above ground love so much.  Those variations may include a -30 degree cold snap that lasts a day or two. But they also include those January thaw days, and the cycles of freezing and thawing that cause frost heave in our plants and even kill them.

     Plants respond to the shorter days and lower temperatures of fall by beginning to shut more and more processes down and going dormant. When we put down mulch too early, we are fooling our plants into staying active longer than they should. So lets not get into too big a rush. Let your plants go through several hard freezes when your thermometer breaks 20 degrees before you reach for the mulching shovel.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


     It is mid-September and no longer summer mainly in the sense that our weeks in the 90's are probably over and we can stray from our AC units. The average first frost date here is supposed to be October 15, but I am betting we get at least two weeks to a month longer. My fall crop of snow peas planted the second half of August are doing well, and the spinach seeds that I procrastinated planting popped up last week. Along with my parsley, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, they should continue to thrive through the first several frosts.

     September is one of the best months to plant trees, shrubs and perennials. The soil is still warm. The early, energy-consuming spurts of growth are over, and the roots can comfortably establish themselves before winter. You can plant perennials as long as there is enough foliage left to determine that the plant is healthy. If I cannot tell, I prefer to wait. Trees and shrubs can be planted as long as you can get a shovel in the ground.  We have plenty of time left to figure out what to do with them, although you should keep in mind that nurseries want to run out of stock before winter, so your selection will become more and more limited.

     The same thing is true of bulbs. Moreover, the best way to buy bulbs is mail-order, so you need a little lead time for that. Most nurseries will keep your babies safe in a controlled environment until they think it is time for you to plant in late October or November, but you will have them reserved and don't have to fear  that they will no longer be available. We can talk more about planting when the time comes closer. For now you need to begin deciding what you want. For more about bulbs you can see my entries last November.

     If you want to throw your money away on tulips that last only a few years, be my guest. But be sure to include in addition some  perennial workhorses that naturalize in your garden and provide those wonderful harbingers of spring year after year. I am talking about spring bulbs like Crocus, Muscari (grape hyacinths). Narcissi (daffodils), and Galanthus (snowdrops).

     The smaller and earlier-blooming Crocus and Snowdrops can be planted directly in the lawn if you wish. Their bloom will be over before the grass begins to grow and they can be mowed right along with the rest. I like to tuck my larger bulbs behind perennials. There they can shine while your other plants are barely noticeable, but as they fade the later plants grow up to conceal them.

     But above all, think big. Don't plant some spindly little row  of 20 bulbs that will barely be noticed. Follow the instructions for your plant and pack as many bulbs in each square foot as you can. If you want to experiment first or have a small budget, pack all the bulbs you can into one square foot and then add more next fall. I know neighbors with small to medium yards who have 6000 bulbs planted and the yard is not crowded. Just make sure you can still see your perennials when you plant so you can plant all around them.

   Bulbs are one of the most under-utilized elements in the garden palette. Planted with enthusiasm they can be spectacular -- and add weeks to our spring flowering season. So go wild!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sweet Autumn Clematis

Clematis paniculata

     Sweet Autumn  Clematis is a controversial plant. Botanists cannot even agree on what its Latin name is. Besides C. paniculata, other candidates for the plant include C. terniflora and C. maximowicziana (seriously!).

     This vine has many champions for many good reasons. It is a robust grower; it seems to thrive on neglect (for us lazy gardeners); and it even blooms in the shade. Best of all, you can train it to climb over any ugly spot you have in the yard. And it has a lovely perfume in bloom. There are few plants in the garden as spectacularly beautiful in September.

     Alas, our Sweet Autumn has her detractors as well. For one thing, she arrived here from Japan in 1864. That is well before many of us arrived here, but it still does not make her a native. Most of us plant people have nothing against "foreign" plants -- as long as they don't escape the garden and begin competing with our native species in the wild. Sweet Autumn is not on Chicago Botanic Garden's invasive list. It is, however, a "robust" grower. One expert describes it as "extremely vigorous to the point of

     I have worked with one of these vines for 10 years or more, and I had to dig it up and relocate it about 5 years ago. It was easy to transplant and, after a tenuous first year, re-established itself in new territory. In all that time I found it both pretty and well behaved. This year, however, it really took off and began scrambling all over the ruin of an old wooden play set. This is exactly what my client wanted to happen. Vigorous growth does not seem to be a problem so long as you know that you have to train the plant, prune ruthlessly in late winter and then chop away over the season. Planting in partial shade will also slow it down and give us lazy people time to react when it grows where we don't want it.

     The other new development this year, however, was the appearance of new seedlings in various parts of the yard -- including some that were trying to climb up the AC units. So much for the lazy gardener. This year, at least, I will have to be on the alert to remove these uninvited guests before they get established. Still, one year of aggravation out of ten is not so bad, and my client's "ruin" looks gorgeous.

     But don't say that I didn't warn you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


     Does this look familiar? Besides a plague of powdery mildew and other diseases,  our plants this year are suffering from a plague of hungry insects like this Japanese beetle. In part this is payback for our wonderfully warm winter. During that second week in February when we are asking ourselves why on earth we live in Chicago and dreaming of a home in Zone 7, we are not considering the advantages of a nice, cold winter.

     Both fungal spores and insect larvae have to hide out somewhere during the winter. The Japanese beetle lays eggs in the soil, where they become grubs the following year. Eggs and spores that cannot survive a typical winter here mean that those species cannot plague us here.They plague our friends further south instead. But within our zone the harsher the winter the lower the survival rate for any organism exposed to it.  From that point of view, our motto should be, "Let it freeze, let it freeze, let it freeze." There is no free lunch -- except for the beetles chewing on our roses.

     So what to do about these unwelcome guests? Our options for getting rid of adult beetles are fairly limited. They are clumsy fliers and some people try to knock them off into a liquid. There are lots of beetle traps available, which I think are more trouble than they are worth. If you are feeling more adventurous than I, there is a wasp called Tiphia vernalis that preys on adult beetles. It is more available to the east of us than it is here, but it is effective. Otherwise you are stuck with some of the standard poisons like Malathion and Carbaryl. The plant based insecticide, Rotenone, can also be tried although it is rated less effective than the first two.

     Prospects look much better when it comes to attacking the grubs. My lawn clients have been using Milky Spore -- a bacterium that eventually kills off the grubs that become Japanese beetles. Like most organic methods, however, it takes a while to become fully effective - in this case 2-4 years. For more immediate results you can use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

     Any of these methods will help you get your insects under control. but it will not get rid of them. Just like digging up all your dandelions will not prevent seeds from next door from drifting over, your efforts here will not stop Japanese beetles from flying in from the next block the following day and settling down again. Sigh. The real benefit of gardening is that it teaches us patience.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


     We have experienced more plagues this summer than just drought. One of them has been an explosion of powdery mildew. A traditional enemy of common  lilacs, this fungus attacks many shrubs, perennials, fruits and vegetables. The nursery industry has devoted many years to developing mildew-resistant strains of your favorite plants, and this has been a big help. Proper housekeeping and clean-up by home-owners, especially at the end of the season, also helps. For most people powdery mildew has been only an occasional problem on some plants.

     Not this year. There is now powdery mildew in almost every yard. Peonies and phlox have been particularly hard-hit. The problem started, I believe, during the monsoons of last summer, when all our rainfall and humidity allowed the disease to gain new foot-holds. By the time we began to notice problems, the season was drawing to a close, so most of us did not do much about it. The mildew had a chance to create its spores, and they  in turn had a wonderfully easy time surviving our mild winter. The result is the minor epidemic we see now. And all the recent watering we have done with sprinklers has spread the fungus even more. One of the first things you can do to resist powdery mildew is to replace your sprinklers with soaker hoses in your shrub and perennial beds.

     Powdery mildew is easy to spot, as you can tell from the photograph. It harms fruit and vegetable production. For most plants it is disabling, but not fatal. It is, of course, disfiguring. Some of us have lived with our old mildewed lilacs for years, but other plants can be too ugly to look at.

     The first step in controlling this pest is pruning. You should prune out as much diseased foliage as is practical, and, while you are at it, prune the area to thin and to increase air circulation as well. The leaves should not be composted. They are covered with spores that can spread the disease elsewhere. For badly infected perennials that have already bloomed (like peonies), it is probably better to cut the entire plant to the ground and wait for next year. Clean the ground around the plants thoroughly as well and remove any mulch you have in the immediate area. Again, remember those spores.

     As for treatment, organic methods, are, as usual, more work and less effective than others, but still worth trying first. The easiest is to mix 1/2 tsp. of baking soda with a quart of water and spray regularly. This increases the leaves' PH and makes them more inhospitable to the fungus. Neets  oil is also recommended by some. Sulfur is one of the most effective  treatments for garden diseases. You can make  your own sulfur solution  with a garlic press, a strainer and a quart of water. Garlic has a high sulfur content.

     If you are discouraged by this, you can always "nuke 'em" by using a commercial fungicide that contains sulfur or triforine. Read the label carefully. While toxic in liquid form, many are much less so once they have dried. It is worth mentioning that even these products don't "cure"what is already damaged; they just prevent new damage. And they are most effective when the fungus is first evident.

     In short there are no miracles here. To have a better season next year you need first to clean up thoroughly this fall. Then look for disease resistant cultivars when you buy new plants next spring. Use soaker hoses. And thin your plants to get plenty of air circulating. After all, how much garlic do you want to crush when you can not even eat it?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Zucchini and Brussels sprouts in front of a trellis of cukes and beans

     One consolation for the brutally hot weather is that summer vegetables are rushing to fruition. My spinach is by now ancient history, but my snow peas -- also a spring crop -- are still producing even as the vines begin to wither. In another week I will have to pull them up, chop them up, and toss them into my compost drum. My drum, by the way, is now empty.

     The only place I voluntarily use landscape cloth is on pathways in my vegetable garden between raised beds. At the end of the season I roll the pieces up and put them in our 1915 playhouse for the winter. I use them over and over until they develop too many holes to function.

Neighborhood cat finds shade between
rows of 6 foot tomato cages on newly replaced
landscape cloth.
    Because of weeding and rain run-off,  the paths slowly develop their own layer of silt on top that then generates more weeds. About this time of year I pull the landscape cloth up, dump out my compost, and spread it along the pathways. Then I put the cloth strips back down on top. My early batch of compost can now decompose in peace while I start a new batch.

     I harvested my big broccoli stalks long ago, but the plants keep producing smaller heads and I keep harvesting. And now, at last, the heat has begun to produce our first cukes and tomatoes. The grape and cherry tomatoes started to redden first, followed by some plum and now my first Early Girls. I always plant a number of varieties to extend the harvest time and to guard against disease and the  weather vagaries of each season. I also move both the tomatoes and the nitrogen-rich snow peas around in the garden from one year to the next.

     Parsley and basil are waiting  to mix with the cukes and tomatoes. We have already made a huge batch of pesto sauce to divide into one-dinner portions and put into the freezer. We have also used the parsley to make several batches of tabbouleh and chimichurri sauce.

     Bringing up the rear, as usual, are our beans. they will take the place of the snow peas on our table or the rest of the summer.

Broccoli with hot peppers and tomato cages behind.
     Removing my snow peas will leave an entire row in the garden empty. But I plan to remedy that in a couple of weeks, when I will plant a fall crop. Snow peas are a "cool weather" crop, but my spring crop lasted until mid-July, so I am hoping to keep an August seeding alive for a few scorching weeks in order to get a second crop before the first hard freeze.  This is always a bit of a gamble, but I only gamble with relatively cheap seeds, or, even better, left-overs from the spring planting. I may also stagger my planting  by planting a second batch of seeds two weeks after the first to even out the risk of an August Hades or an early freeze. This year I am betting on a late freeze and lots of snow peas, as well as more spinach.

     These, along with the parsley, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, should keep the garden cooking past the first light snow.

Our Romano bean tee-pee.

Monday, July 9, 2012


     I took  a quick inspection tour of some of my clients' yards today and discovered that we are all a bit slow to recognize just how dry we have been this year....and our plants are showing it.

     You will remember our wimpy winter when we were enjoying our lowest heating bills in years and saw cobwebs on our snow shovels. No snow! And remember the bulbs that started to pop up in December?

     Our winter was followed by the warmest spring in 142 years. Warm and sunny. We have had a rain deficit every month of the year. The worst deficit so far came in June, when our precipitation was only 40% of normal.

     And now we have had a heat wave worse than the last big one in 1995. Today's forecast says that once more "Sunny Days Are Here Again"  for at least the next week.

     We are used to having to water the lawn and our annuals in summer. But this time around we should be devoting a lot of attention to the trees and shrubs we usually take for granted. Most of them are in trouble. Don't bother to use a sprinkler. Just run the hose up near a tree and turn it on to a good trickle. then leave it there for a few hours before moving to the next one. A long, deep watering should be good for at least a week.

     Meanwhile, let's hear it for the climate-change deniers. I was born in North Carolina and have an old friend who lives near the shore. Walking barefoot on a North Carolina beach has long been one of my retirement fantasies. But I recently discovered an alarming fact:

     Most coastal states, seeing the glaciers melting, have begun studies and contingency plans for what they will face as the sea level rises. Not so my fellow Tar Heels, however. The same citizens who brought us Jesse Helms have also produced a remarkable state legislature. Like King Canute of old, it has decreed that the seas will not rise -- and has prohibited any steps to prepare for the consequences.

     Chicago is looking better and better. Let's keep our trees and shrubs alive and well.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


     Books have been written on the art and science of composting: correct mixture of wet and dry ingredients, how to get the optimum temperature, worms vs no worms -- the number of topics and debates is endless. I will probably get back to this down the road. Today, however, I am writing only for lazy people like me. We want to contribute to the environment, but not if it saddles us with a second job.

     Most of us have heard the basic rules of composting: don't put any animal material in your compost and do not add any weeds. Compost needs air, but not too much air; it needs to be damp, but not wet, and it needs to be stirred around regularly. To this I would add a major rule: make it easy on yourself. Make composting easy enough and convenient enough that you might be able to convince a teenager to do it. You can always get more ambitious later. At the beginning the key thing is consistency and the formation of habitual practices.

     The first way to make things easy is to limit the material available for your compost pile. If you have a lawn, the use of a self-mulching mower is a must. It is senseless to throw lawn clippings into a compost bin when they can go directly back into the ground. I also use my mower to mulch up all my fall leaves. I blow them out of my beds into the yard where the mower can reach them. then I blow most of  the shreds back into the beds. This works even on the tough old oak leaves I have-- eventually. Meanwhile I have shredded leaves available to add to my compost whenever it gets soggy.

     Once you mulch your grass and tree leaves, most of your potential compost material is gone. What is left is mainly from perennials you have pruned and kitchen scraps. We use our garbage disposal in the sink only during the winter. The rest of the year we compost every vegetable and fruit that is peeled, trimmed or squeezed. We have a kitchen composter next to the sink to make this easy. It is just a crock large enough to fit a lunch bag. It has a lid with holes in the top and a removable handle. When it is full, I take it out the back door and add it to my compost. The bag helps everything slip right out. If it is still in good shape it gets re-used. If not, it gets dumped into the compost with everything else, and I put in a new bag.

     If my kitchen composter breaks I will try to get a new one. But any ceramic pot that holds about 1/2 gallon will do. A lid is not really necessary other than for aesthetic reasons.

     I am also partial to compost barrels with a crank for rotation like the one in the picture. These cost more than other compost devices, but for me convenience trumps all. What good does a cheap compost device do you if you have given up using it after two weeks? The barrel does not create a blight in your yard either, so it does not have to be banished to some Siberia in the far corner of your back yard. I keep mine close to the back door so that my trips with the kitchen composter will be as short as possible. When you are working in the yard already the composter can be used anywhere. To really use all your kitchen waste, however, you better make that trip easy and keep your barrel close.

     My crock fills up every two or three days. It is simple to get it to my compost drum all of ten feet from the bottom step of my back porch. I open the hatch, dump the crock, replace the hatch, and turn the crank a couple of times and head back in. I can even brave the 95 degree heat for the five minutes it takes to do this and run back inside. AND by making regular trips with my kitchen scraps I also make sure that the compost is turned regularly -- something all of us are prone to forget.

     To keep things easy do not worry about all the science stuff that I mentioned at the beginning, like the temperature of the pile. These questions are fun, but they are all about making the composting process more efficient. I don't make my living delivering compost, so I don't care how efficient my compost barrel is, as long as it works. I DO care about how efficient I am as I compost on the fly. Without grass clippings to fill it up, my composter seems to be a bottomless pit. I keep tossing stuff in, but it never fills up. "What never?"  "Well, hardly ever." I dump my barrel into my vegetable garden twice a year -- the last time just before the first hard freeze. And I dump everything out -- even the things put in two days ago. It will be tilled into the soil as soon as I get around to it -- maybe not until next spring.

     If after a year or so you decide you are more ambitious than I am, the first step would be to buy another drum just like the first one. This doubles your capacity, but it does something better as well. It allows you to reserve one composter for finishing off the composting process while you add new material to the other. If you are still going after two years, you will be telling me how to improve. My only claim to virtue is that I have kept at it for 10 years. So it can't be that hard, right?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

More Soil Amendments

     My apologies. I have been AWOL for some time now. At the end of April my father died after a long illness. As his oldest son and de facto guardian in recent years, it fell to me to organize his departure, and I was absent for almost 10 days. Many joined together to celebrate his life. Now it is time to return to ours.

     I left in the middle of talking about soil amendments and the importance of adding organic matter to the soil. Today I want to focus on PH. In addition to being heavy clay, our local soil is also naturally alkaline. For the prairie plants native to this area, this is no problem. For many others, however, including many ordinary vegetables, a less alkaline soil would be welcome.

     For many evergreens and for plants that like shade, alkaline soil is inhospitable. They are used to a shady spot in a forest rich in organic matter - especially the acidic droppings of pines and other trees.

     This means that we gardeners should skew our soil amendments toward the acid side. We want our vegetable gardens to have a neutral PH -- about 7.0. If we are planting hollies, rhododendron, or many hydrangea, we want our soil on the acid side of neutral. If you have evergreens or hydrangea whose leaves seem to be abnormally yellow, that is an indication of chlorosis -- an affliction caused by soil that is too alkaline.

     In the city our naturally alkaline soil is accentuated by things like tuck pointing that add yet more lime to the soil and thus increase the alkalinity.

     For those who have established beds, you should use whatever is available to increase the acidity of your soil. The simplest of these is to throw your coffee grounds into your plant beds. A simple crock in the kitchen can store up several days worth of coffee grounds until you have the energy to take them outside.

     For problem areas, or for new beds you should include, in addition to compost, lots of peat moss ( which is acidic) and a teaspoon of soil sulfur for each plant. The sulfur should be mixed into the area below the plant. You do not want to let the plant roots be burned by direct contact with the sulfur.

     The Beverly area in Chicago is particularly shady. For those of us who live there, these recommendations are especially relevent. If you are going to plant a new bed, you have a wonderful opportunity to provide an environment that your plants will love for years. If you already have established beds, bit by bit amendments will also help. Scatch in a bit of soil sulfur around your hollies or hydrangeas every spring. Use some peat moss a a mulch, and make use of your coffee grounds.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


     I think I have huffed and puffed about pruning long enough for one season. Besides, it is now that time of year where I am too busy to think, let alone opine in public.

     We have now passed the average last frost date in our area, and that means all but the most tender stuff can be planted without a lot of worry. It is like playing the black at roulette now, without any of the anxiety involved with playing a number. So all of us with cabin fever want to get out there and start new life in the plant kingdom.

     Part of my job is to try to convince you to put off that exciting planting day and do boring stuff instead. Especially if you are planting an entire bed, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to improve your soil without tearing up all your plant roots.

     The soil around Chicago, at least on the Illinois side, is some of the best anywhere, provided some construction crew has not destroyed it. But is has two features that make it less than perfect: it is a heavy clay and it tends to be alkaline. Native plants have no problem with this, but many other plants do, including vegetables.

     The first and central amendment that everyone can use is compost. It is almost impossible to put too much compost in your yard. In fact, if you ever have to fill a low spot, please do not ever add "topsoil." Most commercial topsoil has been sifted through a screen to remove rocks and twigs and to make it soft and crumbly. But it only takes a couple of rains and a few footsteps for it to turn into that same old clay we know and love. Instead, get a blend of topsoil and compost...and then add more compost on top. With all that organic matter, you should expect the soil to settle a bit over time, so spread it slightly higher than you want it to end up.

     Compost breaks down over time and adds nutrients to the planting zone, as well as providing a good environment for all sorts of beneficial organisms in the soil. With enough compost added, you will not have to use commercial fertilizer at all.

     Moreover, all those bits and pieces create little voids around them that allow air and water to penetrate the clay and improves drainage as well as allowing more nutrients to reach plant roots.

     I can pontificate on this subject as much as on pruning. But if the clients now waiting  for me  caught me spending too much time scribbling,  their patience would evaporate, and I would be in big trouble.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Now you can see that the pruning here is more elaborate than simply cutting stems off at the ground.
    To pick up where we left off, if you cut 1/4 of your stems to the ground each spring, four years from now you will end up with a shrub whose effective age is 4 years, rather than 40. If I could figure out a way to do that for people I would have my own full-time gardener and condos on at least three continents.

     For those of us with over-sized shrubs, however, more may be needed. In addition to cutting older stems to the ground, you need to down-size the stems you keep. For trees and single stem shrubs, that is your only route.

     Before I wax mystical on you, we can start with a few guidelines:

     First, decide how low you want the shrub to become and cut everything off that is higher than, say, six feet. Then trim off  the sides where they hang over the sidewalk or run into other plants. This is your "butcher's cut." Or, if you want to be more artsy, it is the first block cut of a sculptor -- who may see a masterpiece within, but the rest of us just see a rough cube of stone. The practical thing here is that you have removed enough to see how the plant has been growing and what you will need to do.

     Second, start second and third cuts. As a rough way to start, make your second cuts 6" lower than your block cut and your third cut 12" lower. You end up with a shrub that has one third of its branches at three different levels. And you have punctured that dense shell at the top that prevents sun from reaching lower leaves.

     Third, with your second cut I hope you will start noticing how your plant grows. It is time to start looking seriously at what you are doing. Many shrubs, for example, tend to send up 4-5 branchlets where they were cut before. Some shrubs, like burning bushes and many viburnums, have enlarged nodes from which these branchlets protrude. So alter the 6", 12" scheme to fit the node. Make one of your cuts a cut that cuts below these nodes. Instant thinning. It does not matter where it is the first, second, or third cut, as long as you get the size you want.

     Now for the more mystical part.The 0, 6,12 rule and the cut below the node rule are just a rough start. Part of what they do is get you close enough to your plant to begin to understand it. As you are snipping you should also be looking at how it has grown. To the extent you understand the growth, you can begin to intervene in a way that helps the plant do what it wants to do, rather than imposing your will on it.

     The key thing here is to look at how branches form and how buds grow. Your general rules need to be modified to cut, where possible, to an already existing branch. If that is not possible, go for a bud. But not any bud. Look for one that seem to be going in the direction you want  - not straight up, not straight down, not back to the center, but angled in the direction you hope it will go.

     If this all sounds a bit intimidating, I apologize. Gardening is supposed to be relaxing, right? So do the 1/4 thinning from the ground first and follow the 0,6,12 rule. That is enough for the first year. Next year you can look at the results and come up with a more sophisticated approach. And if you make a mistake, don't worry about it. Plants face far worse enemies than you and they will survive your errors. And eventually they will be glad you are around.

     One of my favorite clients told me that pruning is now one of her best therapies for purging the frustrations of a trying day. Soon you will be able to join her.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Thinning Shrubs vs. Shearing

Many experts advocate removing 1/3 of the stems. I will jump for joy if you remove 1/4.

     Those who have been using hedge clippers for a number of years may have noticed something: no matter what you do, your shrubs keep getting larger. And while the outer shell stays nice and green, there is less and less below and inside. This is a result of unrelieved shearing without thinning.

     When you cut off the end of a branch most plants will grow two or more new tips to replace the old one, and the leaves become more dense. Within limits this is a good thing -- especially in shady areas where plants tend to open up.

     But repeated shearings make the outer shell too dense. The leaves on the top and sides block sun and air from the interior and the branches there die back. The effect is even worse when you have pruned in the notorious "W" shape that I mentioned earlier. Now you have an overhang that cuts even more sun from the plant's lower limbs.

     Even in formal gardens regular shearing needs to supplemented with thinning to allow sun and air to get to the interior of the plant.

     And here we come to my Number One Pruning Rule for multi-stemmed shrubs. It is simple, it is easy, and almost no one does it. Every spring you should cut up to 25% of your stems to the ground. If this sounds too scary, cut down one or two this year. When you notice in July that you can't tell the difference, you will be bolder next spring.

     You should go after the largest, oldest stems first, then stems that are going in a direction you do not like or ones that cross through the plant and rub against other branches. By doing this you accomplish four things:

     1. You open up the plant to more air and sun.

     2. You improve the shape of the plant by getting rid of stray and crossing stems.

     3. You rejuvenate the plant as old weary stems are replaced by new ones.

     4. You help control the plant's size because the oldest stems are the tallest and thickest and the most difficult to trim at the top. 

     I'll talk about pruning the the upper parts of shrubs next time.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Shearing Plants Instead of Sheep


    Let's talk about one of my pet peeves: shearing shrubs. I own a gas powered hedge clipper because I have clients who like their gardens formal. Many people, however, clip their shrubs because they are getting too big and hedge clippers are the only tools they know that will cut them down to size.

     This problem begins because some nursery or landscaper sold you a shrub that looked nice when it was planted but was destined to become three times as large in ten years . Either you notice one morning that you can no longer see out your front windows or you have to wage a constant war to keep that bush under control. Sometimes both things happen.

     So the first point to be made is that you should find out what size your new shrub will be at maturity and buy accordingly. Most plants are sold as babies and will grow substantially over time. This means that your landscape will look a little puny for a couple of years. Relax. Gardening is supposed to be relaxing, right? If you are super impatient and have to have it all now, buy mature plants and pay 8-10 times the price. You will be happy and so will the nursery. If you would rather take a trip to Europe, buy your plants small and enjoy watching them grow. Once they are full sized you will have next to nothing to do in the way of pruning.

     For those who like a formal look, keep in mind that the best shape for a sheared bush is a broad, rounded "A." This shape helps prevent damage from heavy snow and storms. It also helps provide additional sun to lower reaches of the plant. Keep in mind also that while yews, boxwoods, and privets tolerate repeat shearings, other shrubs are less forgiving. The more you cut them the uglier they get.

This "good" shape is not good enough. the top corners should be rounded as well.
     Most importantly, shearing by itself is not enough to keep your shrubs healthy and shapely. I am sure some of you have noticed that despite 4-5 prunings a season, your plants keep getting larger. Moreover, while the top stays dense, the plant starts to empty out down below. And it wants to turn into a "W" instead of a broad, rounded "A." You have all seen those shrubs that look like overgrown mushrooms, or the yews whose tops block the windows but whose legs are embarrassingly naked.

     Shearing encourages branching at the cut, so your shrub becomes more and more dense in the outer shell of the plant. Eventually the new growth blocks lower branches from the sun --and sometimes from sufficient air as well.. The interior begins to die out and the new growth that appears lower down grows away from the center of the plant in an effort to reach some sun. Your "A" is on its way to becoming a "W."

     You need to supplement your shearing with thinning. We'll talk about that next time.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Formal vs Informal

     The Gardens of Versailles are among the most beautiful in the world. They represent a pinnacle of formal style in gardening that developed in the Renaissance. Symmetrical and composed of perfectly straight lines and perfectly circular curves, gardens like this have a machine-like precision that shouts man's domination over nature.

     They also required an army of labor to build and maintain in a society in which most considered themselves lucky to have a vegetable patch and a pig pen. Formal gardens like these are above all aristocratic. Only the extremely wealthy could afford them. But they set the standard for everyone else. Those merely well-to-do did what they could to emulate this style on a smaller scale and simpler design based perhaps on the labor of one full-time gardener. Yet others made do with a gardener who came once a week. At least up until World War II many middle class families were able to afford some regular gardening help based on available and inexpensive labor.

     At this lowest level the formal garden became reduced to a well-maintained lawn, formally trimmed shrubs around the house and perhaps a formal hedge in front or along the drive. But the clean lines and man-made character remained. A walk down almost any block shows that this style is still very popular.

     By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a new style had developed -- one that was more natural and informal. In part this was an effort to escape the staggering labor costs of formal landscaping as the price of labor kept increasing. (Today's formal gardens are almost all maintained by public institutions.) But the informal trend was also a result of a growing appreciation for nature itself. Voices arose that advocated, not imposing man's will on nature, but using man's talents to help nature along.

   This trend has continued to grow, fueled by things like the growing interest in ecology and the environment. A "natural" landscape is one that has no straight lines and is asymmetrical. Grassy lawns are reduced, or even eliminated altogether. Paths wander. Shrubs and perennials escape their beds.

     Most of us are aware of some of this even if we don't pay much attention to it. What strikes me, however, is that many of those trying a more relaxed style are still pruning their shrubs the same way: they shear the plant like a sheep instead of working with it. But that subject, dear reader, we will discuss next time.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

When to Prune

     We are heading into the '60's in Chicago this week, so I am jumping ahead of myself for those impatient to DO SOMETHING. The quick answer to the question of when to prune is "now." I have been pruning since the last week in February -- behind your back.

     We are in what the gardening books call the "late dormant period." In our climate zone most of our plants simply hibernate during the winter and wait for better times. Their vascular systems are shut down. Therefore when they are cut they do not "bleed." This is one advantage of pruning in the dormant season. Another is that the absence of foliage makes it easier for you to see what you are doing. Pruning in late winter also lets you cut out any winter damage that may have occurred. 

     But the biggest advantage of pruning about now is that we are performing our surgery just before our patients throw a huge amount of stored energy into a growth spurt. By doing our cutting now we make sure that our plants recover quickly and we also make sure that all the new growth is directed where we want it, not into leaves and branches that we are going to cut off later.

    Simple, right? But now, just like in grammar school, we no sooner learn a rule than we are told there are "exceptions." Wonderful! These are not as terrifying as many think, however. Most of them have to do with flowering, so if you goof up the worst thing that will happen is that you will lose your blooms for one season.

     The books make a distinction between "new wood" and "old wood." Many plants produce new flower buds at the same time they are growing new stems and leaves. These are "new wood" plants that can be pruned now because they have not started to produce their buds.

     The exceptions are those plants that produce their buds on last year's growth. The buds lie dormant during the winter and won't open until later this spring.The most popular of these "old wood" are forsythia and lilacs. If you prune these plants now, you will cut off their flower buds from last year and the new buds will not flower until 2013. This is not the end of the world, but it is pretty annoying if you planted them for their flowers. These old wood plants should be pruned once immediately after their bloom has faded and then left alone.

     You can make a good guess about which type of plant you have based on bloom time. Spring bloomers tend to be flowering on "old wood." Summer and fall bloomers are more likely to be based on "new wood." Logical, right? The tricky ones are hydrangea and clematis. Different species are either "new" or "old" wood plants, and the very-popular 'Endless Summer' hydrangea blooms on both.

     The Internet has made sorting through this confusion much easier than it used to be. If you know your plant's name, you can type in something like "pruning Mock Orange" to find out if it is a new or old wood plant. But even if you don't know what you have, you will do all right if you remember these three things: 1) Stay away from forsythia and lilacs. 2) Suspect spring bloomers to be "old wood" plants. 3) Be cautious with hydrangea and clematis if you can't find out which they are. Go ahead and make some snips but don't bet the farm on this year's pruning. You can always prune more next spring.

     Remember that all these rules are not matters of life and death. They are simply strategies for maximizing the effects of your labor. Nature "prunes" all year long via animals, falling tree limbs, hails storms and more. You can not really do serious damage to your plants by pruning at the wrong time. You can do a lot more damage by pruning in the wrong way. More on that later.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


     Volumes have been written on the art and science of pruning. Theories have been advanced, disputes have erupted and blood has flowed. My own soap box on the subject is rather large and I have even been accused of "pontificating." So this is my first effort at reform: I will attempt to keep my messages short (Well, most of the time.) and try to avoid impressing you with my Latin. Mainly I hope to make pruning a little less threatening and a good bit more fun. Next to design itself, pruning is the most enjoyable part of my job and I wish I could do a lot more of it.

     So why prune in the first place? Because you want to have a green elephant in your yard, obviously. Topiary is an extreme example of one of pruning's three main purposes: to control a plant's shape to make it more graceful and attractive in our eyes.

     Second, we prune to improve the health of the plant -- to trim away storm or winter damage, to control or contain insect or disease damage, improve air circulation, and make it easier for the plant to rejuvenate itself.

     And finally, we prune to control size. In residential landscapes plants, especially trees and shrubs become real architectural elements like the size and shape of your house or whether your garage is in front or back. Whether thought through or not, plants have assigned spots, sizes and shapes in your yard. Unfortunately, unlike your trusty tool shed, plants grow. Worse than that, they frequently do not grow the way we think they should.

     I am enthusiastic about reason number two for pruning -- plant health. This is not done nearly enough. I am not averse to reason one -- shaping -- in judicious amounts, but far too much time is wasted on it in America. But the annual battle to force plants to be smaller than they want to be is one of the great scandals of our horticulture.

     I better pause here before I slip into pontificating.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

     T.S.Eliot to the contrary, April is not the cruelest month. At least in the Chicago area it is March. March is the month in which our hopes are repeatedly dashed. We get a couple of warm days and the snow recedes. Then we get buried. Our bulbs pop up and then freeze. One year out of four our beautiful magnolia buds end up popsicles in a late March deep freeze. For gardeners March is one of those months in which it is best just to pull the covers over your head -- or visit those friends in L.A. who have an extra bedroom. Usually the best slogan for March is the same as that for ancient Hades: "Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here."

     This year, of course, things are more bizarre than usual. I think I heard that from December through February the AVERAGE daily temperature In the Chicago area has been 34 degrees, making this the warmest winter since 1934. This has given our poor plants an even better shot at sticking their necks way out. You can almost see the guillotine shimmering in the sunlight.

     On the other hand we have dodged a number of bullets. We have had two winter storm warnings in the last ten days with predictions of 6-7" of snow. Nothing happened.

     So despite knowing better, I am officially launching my gardening blog today. And what do I have to say?

     First, no matter how warm it gets outside, leave your soil alone. If you mess with it you will only compact it. Don't dig it and don't even walk on it more than you have to.

     Second, clean up your mess. I live near a high school, so I have a ton of miscellaneous trash that gets caught in my hedge: fast food wrappers and beer bottles, of course, but also homework assignments, articles of clothing that some Mom made a teenager wear and mysteriously disappeared before she got home, etc. You could write a book based on the garbage my hedge collects.

     The mess is more than trash, however. It is time to pick up tree limbs and branches that broke in winter storms. It is also time to cut down ornamental grasses and the perennial foliage that has to give way to new shoots this spring.

     Knowing that the kid's violin lessons start in 20 minutes and that there is only so much time you are willing to waste on me, I will stop for now. The good stuff is in the next post: PRUNING.