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.