Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We Was Robbed!

     Winter arrived three weeks early this year -- much to my dismay. The temperatures in Chicago in mid November are the coldest they have been in 20 years. This is grist for the mill of my North Carolina friends, who are offering to mail me some of their tomato plants. I hope they get plastered by the big storm heading their way.

     I got caught in the middle of putting my yard to bed. The essentials were accomplished. I drained my rain barrels and brought my pump indoors. With a heavy heart I harvested all of my Brussels sprouts. They do fine in temperatures in the '20's, but I was not sure about 14 degrees and did not want to find out. So we now have enough Brussels sprouts to skip the turkey tomorrow.

     I also managed to dump my compost tumbler into the garden. The partially composted material is still sitting there in a heap, but at least it is not frozen in the drum for the rest of the winter. My snow peas -- a great source of nitrogen -- are lying about on top of the soil as well. I usually till both the peas and my compost into the soil to decompose over the winter.

     I did not have time to get in my hoses, but I at least took the various nozzles off so that any water inside that expanded as it froze would have a place to go.

     This year I found myself with a dozen or more shrubs that I did not have a chance to plant. They would be doomed to an early demise if exposed to the winter winds. Fortunately, I did have time to plant them, pot and all, in what had been my pole bean bed. The top of the pots are even with the soil surface and I have a layer of mulch spread over all. So far they are doing well. I just need to find them a home before the beans need to be planted next spring.

     I still have hopes for a winter thaw. I can then bring in all the hoses and till in all the compost scattered over the garden. I might even be able to plant a few shrubs, though I suspect that is the Utopian in me speaking. Meanwhile we can dream of an early spring, and a spring that is not too wet, and .... Hope springs eternal.

     I wish all a happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


     A few weeks ago I mentioned some of the limitations of rain barrels, mainly limited capacity,  limited water pressure, and, frequently, ugliness. We discussed how you can increase your capacity by hooking up more than one barrel in series and how you can increase your water pressure noticeably by raising the height of the barrels. You are also less likely to be disappointed if you keep any hose from the barrel short.

     I am too lazy to fill watering cans over and over if I don't have to, so I like to use soaker hoses. In the picture above my front rain barrel is attached to a soaker that runs along 4 Catawba Rhododendron in front of the house. Since my eaves are quite wide, the plants get less water than they should. In this case I keep the valve at the bottom of the barrel open, and all the water from the downspout leaks out the soaker to the back half of the shrubs.The barrel never has a chance to fill completely.


     My vegetable garden is behind the house, and for that I could use more water. For this I used two barrels and added a small submersible pump inside the barrel on the left. Buy a pump designed to power small pond waterfall -- at least 500 gallons per hour.  If you really want to use your rain barrel a pump makes all the difference. I irrigate my tomatoes using these two barrels and a soaker hose.

     For the "ugly" issue there are many alternatives. The simplest is to paint the barrels to match your house color and hide them in plain sight. Many barrels have built-in planters that can distract the eye. Or you could add a small fence or screen to hide them.

    Or you could unleash the artist hidden within you and come up with a barrel like this.

     Given the current weather it behooves me to mention one last thing about barrels:

     Do NOT do what I did the first year I had one. I forgot and let my barrel stay completely full going into our first hard frost. It's sides were soon splitting, and not from laughter. I keep the water level fairly low this time of year and drain the barrels completely after Thanksgiving. Then I remove the pump and leave both the faucet and bottom drains open for the rest of the winter.

     Finally, a reminder that my crew is available for anyone who would like help getting their holiday lights and decorations up.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


All that is left of our poor impatiens.

          Last year frost left us alone until November 6 -- a little on the good side of average. No breaks this year. After a warmer than average first half of October, the frost descended on our tender annuals like a guillotine on October 16 -- about two weeks early.

Our very frost-bitten basil.

     In previous years we have rushed to throw tarps over all our tender plants when the frost comes early. It can be worth the effort, depending on how many times you have to do it, but this year we could not be bothered. The afternoon before the icy execution we picked the last of our cucumbers and green beans and filled a 5 gallon bucket with basil for freezing.

     In earlier times when I had more conventional tomato cages, I used to pull up my plants entirely and hang them upside down from the joists in the basement. A surprising number of fruits matured over time -- as long as I didn't forget they were down there. Now I am too lazy. I just pick all the fruits -- no matter how green -- and put them in a single layer in a cardboard box away from the sun. We eat some of the larger green ones and then use the others as they begin to turn. Our simple box can extend the season several weeks.

     Meanwhile a full half of the garden is continuing to produce. Now that our beans are gone (many of them into the freezer) we particularly enjoy the peas that are still thriving. Wan plans to harvest our very  first Brussels sprouts tomorrow.

     While many of the early bloomers are a bit bedraggled, we still have eye candy in the yard as well -- even before the peak of the fall color season.

The blooms on this hydrangea are just now turning a pale pink.

     One of the reasons I like Knock-Out roses is that they just keep blooming.

     Meanwhile, there are many things we can do for next season. You still have time to buy and plant bulbs for next spring. And the coming month is an ideal time to plant trees and shrubs -- even when they are leafless.

One of my staging areas for shrubs to be planted in the next few weeks.

     Finally, this is not the time to stop watering -- especially if you planted this season. You want your garden soil nice and moist before the first hard freeze locks things up.

      A bit more on rain barrels next time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


A "wood look" plastic barrel.

     The City of Chicago and many suburbs are marketing rain barrels as an almost painless step we can take to contribute to the ecology while saving on our water bills at the same time. Many homes are still connected to over-loaded city storm sewers. Installing a barrel also cuts you off from the municiple system and hopefully can help prevent future installments of the massive and expensive deep tunnel system that protects the city from flooding and the lake from pollution.

     The barrel boosters are a little less frank when it comes to the costs and  benefits for homeowners. Many homeowners have become frustrated as a result. Rain barrels can save on your water bill, for example, but you will not notice much of a change. Barrels cannnot be used in the winter and are frequently dry in summer. A 55 gallon drum is equivalent to the water in one old-fashioned shower -- or two showers in a brand new bathroom.

Most of us would prefer something smaller.

     So don't expect miracles. We don't get paid to recycle either. The city does, however, provide serviceable rain barrels in a choice of four colors for about $60.

Genuine paintable (but not yet painted) Chicago rain barrels.

The first thing you notice after hooking up your rainbarrel is that gravity water pressure is nothing like your faucet. The pressure is very low and the flow stops altogether if you lift your hose too high. It is a good idea to raise your barrel as far off the ground as seems reasonable. Even then you are never going to put a nozzle on the end of your hose. You can, however, at least make sure it is easy to fill your watering can, and I like to use mine with soaker hoses. More on that later.

   A good rain can quickly overfill your barrel, and most barrels now come with overflow tubes that can direct excess water away from the house. A better solution where you have space is to use two or more barrels hooked together. 

This set up both provides height and doubles capacity.

     More on rain barrel tricks in my next post.



Friday, October 4, 2013

The Butterfly Bush

     Buddleja davidii, or the butterfly-bush, is a shrub I have planted many times for clients but have never had in my own yard. It's biggest virtue is that it attracts butterflies. But to me that was not enough to make up for  its rather awkward look, its odd fragrance, and the fact that it has no fall color and has sometimes died to the ground after harsh winters.

     This shrub's status has been improving lately, however. There are new cultivars out now that are smaller and have smaller leaves and daintier habits. I suppose we can also thank global warming for the fact that die-back is a far less frequent problem than it once was here. Buddleja is essentially a Zone 6 plant, and we have moved from Zone 5 to Zone 6. The mountain has indeed come to Mohammed. The shrub is still quite late getting started, however, so do not worry prematurely. You do want to cut the shrub down to less than a foot high before growth begins in early spring.

     I experienced a change of heart concerning Buddleja this summer. A friend gave me two of her plants this spring. The two shrubs did indeed attract more butterflies to the yard. But the big treat for us came this August when we found a hummingbird stealing nectar from the flowers. (Thanks, Pauline.) Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate here from Central America in the summer to mate. This was probably a juvenile fattening up for the flight home.

     We tried a number of times to catch our thief in the act but he was too fast for us. I had to make do with a file photo.

     Butterfly bushes like full sun and don't care for heavy wet clay. The stems are easily broken The blooms last almost as long as a Knock Out rose if you dead-head them regularly.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Autumn -- Endings and Beginnings

September sugar snack peas

     Today is the first day of fall, and, step by step, our outdoor season for 2013 will be coming to an end. But just as we tend to get a bit over-anxious to get started in spring, we tend to give up on our yards earlier than we have to.

     Many of our flowers are gone, but others, like my Limelight Hydrangea, are going strong and others are just coming into bloom. If you have nothing blooming in your yard today you should consider a trip to the nursery.

Our Limelight Hydrangea.

      In my vegetable garden only one planting is just this week spluttering to an end after a gigantic harvest-- my pickling cucumbers. They are always the first casualty of autumn.

     September is as much about beginnings as it is about endings. Today, for example, is a perfect day to sow grass seed. We can finally expect temperatures to stay low enough for us to provide the surface dampness seeds need without watering every half hour. And if we get started this week, we will have time for the grass to get rooted before the frosts.

This grass median was sown a few weeks ago.

     Now is also a good time to plant perennials. I continue to buy them as long as I can tell they are healthy. And if they are on a good sale, I am even willing to gamble on buying what look like pots of dirt from a reputable nursery. We can plant trees and shrubs as long as we can get a shovel in the ground. And it is too early to plant bulbs.

This Brussels sprout plant is as tall as Wan. 

     Aside from the cukes, our vegetable garden is still going full blast. Our tomatoes, pole beans, and peppers are producing more than we can handle. The broccoli we planted early last spring is continuing to provide us with harvest after harvest, as are our kale and Swiss chard. We are packing the freezer with basil and parsley pesto because we have more than we can eat.

     But what is really fun is that we are just beginning to get whole new crops based on plantings we made in late July and early  August. We have new Romain lettuce and we are going to eat our first new bok choy tonight.
Recently planted bok choy with new lettuce to the right.

     And, best of all, we are getting in a whole new crop of sugar snack and snow peas that we can continue to harvest when our beans have decided it is too cold.

Two snow pea pods both on the bush and in the hand. 


Sunday, September 8, 2013


Soaker hose

          Last month was the third driest August on record in Illinois and so far September has not been much better. Once more trees and established shrubs that we can usually take for granted are in trouble. It is time once again to get out there and give our larger plants a good soaking.

     Spraying with a garden hose until the ground puddles up won't cut it. Leaving a sprinkler on all day will come closer, but most of your water will go where it is not needed.

     For individual trees and large shrubs you are better off taking the nozzle off your hose and let your water trickle out near your plant roots at a pace the ground can absorb. "Slowly, but deeply," is the rule.

     The best way to water trees, shrubs, and perennial beds, however, is to use soaker hoses. These hoses are wonderful. They allow you to water exactly where you need it without watering half the rest of the planet as well -- to say nothing of half the atmosphere like sprinklers do. This is merciful on your water bill.

One of my soakers peeks out from under ground cover.
     Soakers can become invisible easily. You can cover them with mulch or allow ground cover to creep over them.

     And best of all for lazy gardeners like me, you can simply turn on the faucet and walk away for a few hours. If you wake up one morning and realize that you forgot to shut the water off, you will not find a lake outside.

     The key to lazy-gardener watering lies in the layout of your hoses. You should buy a bunch of landscape pins -- the kind used to hold down landscape cloth that look like large staples.  The pins will help you lay the hoses exactly where you want them.

     You also want to look for hoses of different lengths. The standard is 50 feet, but if you look hard enough you can find 25 footers or even smaller lengths. With a choice of lengths, you can combine your hoses in a rational way so that they cover the plants you want without having lengths of extra hose to cope with. Similarly, you should buy different lengths of ordinary hose to get you from the faucet to where you want to start watering.

     Don't try to run more than 100 feet of soakers in series. Since the water leaks out along the entire length of the hose, the water pressure decreases toward the end and the plants there receive less water.

4-way splitter

     The key to setting up your hoses to make up watering zones is the use of splitters. They allow you to equalize your water pressure and volume right at the faucet and give you almost infinite flexibility to run soakers anywhere you want.

     At the end of the season I simply disconnect my hoses from the faucet and cover the brass ends with a baggies to keep dirt and debris out. The following spring I can be ready to water in about 10 minutes.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


A Limelight hydrangea in our front yard this week.

     These are the "Dog Days" of summer, a term that goes back to the ancient Romans. That was the period during which the world came under the spell of the "dog star," Sirius -- the brightest star in the constellation of Canus Major ("large dog", now known as the Big Dipper). The Romans made sacrifices to Sirius to appease it's rage and lessen the intense heat and humidity of the Roman August.

     The dog days have pursued us down the centuries. As late as the 19th Century someone could write that:

     "the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures grew languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies."

     Fortunately, our plants do not have phrensies. But for many gardeners this is a dead time in the year. The problem lies not in our plants, however, but in us.. There are many plants of all sorts that thrive during the "dog days."

Our Black-eyed Susan's today.

     Perennial lovers know this better than the rest of us. Among our native plants we can include cone flowers, black-eyed Susan's, and Shasta daisies. We can add as well Russian sage and Japanese anemone.
Japanese anemone

     Summer loving shrubs are less familiar to some. Rose of Sharon became "old fashioned"about the same time as  ranch houses became popular and deserves to be brought back. There are many hydrangea that thrive in August from the sun-loving paniculata (like "Limelight") to shade loving quercifolia (oakleaf).

     My friend Pauline gave me two butterfly bushes this spring. They are only now getting settled in their new "digs." Nevertheless,they have already brought new butterflies. And we now have hummingbirds in our yard for the first time.Thanks, Pauline.

     More on"Dog Days" at another time. I am growing "languid."


Saturday, August 10, 2013


     There is an entire group of flowering perennials out there that I call "floppers." they are not genetically related and their flowers range from attractive to spectacular. They share only one trait: they do not have what it takes to stand up straight.
The blooms on this Chinese trumpet lily are dazzling.

     There are many cultivars in this unfortunate category, but I will restrict myself to two of the most common: Asiatic lilies and phlox.

     Asiatic, or Oriental, or Chinese, etc., are  true lilies of the species Lilium rather than the day lilies we see so many of. They are summer-flowering bulbs that can provide spectacular color after the spring-bloomers are long gone.

Garden phlox.
     There are 67 species of phlox. We are most familiar with creeping phlox -- used as a ground cover -- and Phlox paniculata, or garden phlox. It is the many varieties of garden phlox that we grew up with and can not part from. Coming in a multitude of colors from pinks to white to blue to lavender, garden phlox can reach to 3-5 feet tall. A patch or two of phlox can really brighten an August garden -- until it flops.

The flop is just beginning.

     There are many suggestions for curing the flops. It has long been my theory that the chaotic overcrowded look of the classic English cottage garden is the result of an effort to so pack together tall perennials that they have no room left to flop.

     There is a whole sub-set of advice based on pruning once to three times, starting in May or starting in June -- all of this aimed at shortening the eventual height of the plant or at least delaying the inevitable. My contribution to this debate was that one should do nothing until a flop occurs, then cut the offending plant down to the ground and pretend it did not happen. This method works quite well until you run out of plants.

These lilies had been tied to the fence, but, as you can see,
 they are now tipping perilously to the left.

     Then there are the tie-er and staker schools. Tieing a sturdy 8 foot stake to each plant at three different points is an almost foolproof method of keeping your floppers upright. Its only disadvantages are that it takes about as much time as building a new deck and in the end you have a bed full of stakes as much as of flowers.

     For those who insist on planting floppers I suggest making use of the garage or fence you already have and building a permanent structure that the plants can grow through. The structure would have to be tailored to your site and the species you want, so you don't want to change your mind the following year. But in my book a lot of work that is good for 10 years or more beats a lot of work every year.

     But the real answer lies in plant selection. If we do not want floppers we should stop planting the spindly 3-6 foot high varieties. There are plenty of lesser known phlox and lily cultivars with equally gorgeous bloom but a height closer to 12-24". Plant a flowering shrub behind that can actually stand up straight at 4-6' and put your beloved beauties in front -- stake-less and proud.

Dwarf Asiatic lily.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Veggies Redux

     This cherry variety is my first tomato of the season. The photo was taken a few days ago, and Wan just picked it this morning. My friends in North Carolina are hooting with laughter.

      Of the warm weather crops only my hot chili peppers have become prolific.

     My cukes look great, but they are less than half way up the fence and are only now beginning to flower.

     The pole beans  look great, too -- but so far not a single flower, let alone a bean.

     I will get a ton of produce in a few weeks, but that is small comfort now.... and that is the reason I plant some of the crops I do.

     My spinach gave out several weeks ago after three decent crops. It really doesn't like full summer. But we are still harvesting broccoli, snow peas and sugar snap peas every other day. Out frig is jammed and we are stuffing our faces with Swiss chard, kale, and radicchio as well as peas.

     The broccoli will continue for the rest of the season, but both types of peas will give out soon. They still producing full blast, but you can see the first stalks beginning to yellow. Soon they will be done, and we will wait two weeks and then plant some more. We can watch them grow while living off green beans, tomatoes and cukes.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


'Soleil d'Or' hybrid tea rose.

     My grandmother never would have thought of a rose as a "garden workhorse." Roses were the prima donna's of the garden -- beautiful, but temperamental and demanding. Gardeners of that generation were constantly spraying and dusting and mulching and worrying about hideous-sounding diseases like "black-spot." Rose gardeners seemed only one step below orchid growers when it came to obsessive pampering and slavish devotion.

     In the last two decades nurseries and botanic gardens have made determined strides toward breeding rose cultivars more suitable for lazy gardeners like me. The new varieties are frequently patented or trademarked and you will see names like "Carefree" and "Flower Carpet" on many pot labels.

     The most recent and popular of these are the 'Knock Out' roses. These roses are cold hardy and have much better disease and insect resistance than traditional roses. I prune mine once a year around the first of March and I give them water when they need it. Otherwise I leave them alone. My wife Wan "dead-heads" (that is, cuts off spent blooms) periodically. This encourages more new blooms, but it is not essential. Knock Outs require significant, but not full sun.

The Knock Out patch at my front steps.

    For this relatively puny effort, my Knock Outs keep blooming from May until after Thanksgiving. When you compare this to the 2-3 weeks peonies are in their glory, you can see why I call them "work horses." It is hard to get more bang for the buck.

     When they first came out, the only problem with these beauties was that they came in only one color -- a kind of dark neon pink. With each passing year, however, more varieties appear. There are now double-blooms, pinks, light pinks, yellow/creams, and coral blooms with yellow centers. Now we can be lazy and picky at the same time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


     While my back was turned we somehow ended up in the middle of peony season. Now I am in a rush to celebrate before the show is all over. Peonies are indeed some of nature's most gorgeous flowers. Their size and vibrant colors can be almost overwhelming. As cut flowers they can add fragrance to our homes in addition to visual beauty.

     But while their beauty makes us gasp, they can also make us gnash our teeth in despair. Their sins are notorious: 

     They flop -- and it is hard to admire a beauty who insists on staring at the ground.

     Second, we are not their only lovers.
Ants, too, find them irresistible. Woe to any who fail to inspect their blossoms before bringing them indoors.

     But worst of all, their lives are fleeting. We are lucky to experience more than two weeks of glory before the display is over. Sometimes not even that if a good thunderstorm comes along at the right time.

     In short, the life of a peony-lover is at best bitter-sweet.

     Nothing can make  a peony what it is not, but there are a few steps we can take to ease the pain.

     I keep the ants at bay with a combination of boiling water and cayenne pepper. 

     There are also a large variety of hoops and cages dedicated to fighting flops. My answer to this problem, however, is different. I am a passionate advocate for the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa). This shrub form of the peony has a woody stem that simply will not flop. Tree peonies are expensive and sometimes have to mature two to three years before producing their first bloom. But once they flower there is not a more spectacular bloom on the planet.

Paeonia suffruticosa

     Finally, for those of you who are really obsessed, it is possible to more than double your peony season by researching carefully. Different varieties of peony bloom at somewhat different times, so if you pick your cultivars well you can end up with a rolling cascade of flowers that lasts several weeks.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Note marsh grasses and water lilies growing in this pool.

     Back in March I wrote a bit about ponds in the home landscape. Today I thought I would mention two recent permutations on the modern pond. The first began in Austria and has spread through Europe and reached Canada and the West coast of the US. This is the environmentally correct natural swimming pool. No chlorine and other chemicals here. Instead, the pool uses a more elaborate variation of the system of physical and biological filters used by the fish ponds I described earlier. Pumps keep the water aerated and move it over and through gravel colonized by beneficial bacteria as well as through the roots of water plants that absorb nutrients that would otherwise turn to waste.

     In addition to private pools like that shown above, Europe sports large public pools that service hundreds of swimmers at a time -- all without chemicals. A similar public pool is scheduled to open in the Twin Cities next summer.

     At the other end of the spectrum is a water feature designed for those who prefer less "biology." You can have the sights and sounds of running water and a completely landscaped falls and stream without a body of standing water. Instead of a pond, the stream feeds into a mass of river pebbles and sinks out of sight. Beneath the pebbles lies a hidden reservoir and a pump that recirculates the water.

This sketch shows the secret of a "pondless" waterfall.

          I personally would never give up the joys of having fish and a full ecosystem (in which, by the way, fish eat mosquito eggs). But for those who want the sights and sounds of water without worrying about the health of other creatures, a pondless waterfall may be just the ticket.

This long stream vanishes into the rocks at the bottom of the hill.