Friday, December 19, 2014

Best Wishes

     Best wishes to you and yours in this holiday season. We will  talk again in the new year.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014


All the remaining veggies, cages, and paths are gone.
All that remains is re-tilling  when the soil is dry enough.

     Nature can be cruel, but she  also sometimes gives us a second  chance if we are ready for it. After weeks of freezing  temperatures, she gave us  highs close to 50 degrees on both Saturday and Sunday.

     While many of you were fighting through Black  Friday, I was trying  to take advantage of a surprise "Green Weekend."

     I have hundreds of feet of hoses,  all of which froze during the early polar temperatures.  Now I was able to drain them, coil them  all up, and put them in our old playhouse.

     I had made sure my rain barrels were only half full, but what was there was frozen solid, and this thaw gave me a chance to drain them. A full barrel will split open during a freeze. If you do not bring them into the garage, you should keep them drained and even cover them. I will have  more to say about rain barrels in the new year.

     Another chore last weekend was removing the landscape cloth in the aisles  of my veggie garden. This cloth is only marginally effective against weeds, so I do not recommend it to most clients. In a vegetable garden, however, it helps both to suppress weeds and to provide an un-muddy surface between rows.
Those of us who dash for one more tomato in the rain appreciate it.

     In the winter, however, the fabric adheres to the ice. The Thanksgiving thaw was just what I needed to remove it all. Then I spread all the remaining results of my composters. Normally I would till this into the soil while breaking down my raised beds. Now the soil  is too  wet, so that chore will have to  wait till next spring.

    I would also  like to  report my garden's last gasp of the season. Even after all the cold weather I was able to harvest my Brussels sprouts just before Thanksgiving. More important for many of you, I harvested green tomatoes on Halloween and put them in a shallow cardboard box in the pantry. I used the last of these on the day after Thanksgiving in a salad. My pantry tomatoes were not as good as those directly off the vine, but they were still much better than those in the supermarket.

     There is more to do. I have to cut down all  our perennials. But I have done some of this already and can do more on sunny days this winter.

     A little patience goes a long way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


One of my North Carolina friends can't resist sending me
 cheery maps like this one from last week.

     We are still a month away from the winter solstice and I am already overflowing with discontent. The Midwest seldom gets a long and luxurious spring, but it usually enjoys a leisurely autumn. Chicago stays pleasant until our first light frost about Halloween.

     Then we usually have a few weeks to get ready for winter. Our roses still look good and we can still harvest broccoli and parsley, but it is time to begin cleaning up our perennials as well as our tree leaves and putting our stuff way. In a good year our trees will lose leaves at a steady pace that allows us to keep up.

And now this one from the weekend.

     This year, though, we are once more being hit early and hard by record-breaking low temperatures, and, even worse, a record number of days during which the highs never break the freezing mark.

     I, for one, was caught completely unprepared. My trees simply dumped their leaves, which, despite several mulchings, are still heaped up; my hostas are not cut down; I still have three potted shrubs that have not been planted and my rain barrels are frozen up, as well as my composter and my hoses.

Tasks  ahead.

     I will have to do something about all this while the temperatures are in the 20's because next weekend it will finally get warm enough to allow a nice mix of rain and snow to make a big mess of everything.

     Discontent indeed.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fall Ends with a Bang, not a Whimper

31st  St. takes  it  on the chin.
     Season change in Chicago does not have  a "stealth mode." We know exactly when Autumn ended -- Halloween. Winds gusting to almost 70 MPH blew  away any trick-or-treaters under 100 pounds and whipped up  lake waves to  more than 20 feet. And then there was the more routine stuff like rain, sleet, snow and a bit of hail. This let up for the sole purpose of allowing the temperature to plunge below freezing for the first time.

     I was amazed that the sleet did not destroy my roses and hydrangea, but the wind did bring down one of my bean trellises. When the freeze followed the storm both beans and tomatoes decided it was time for early retirement. Fortunately, Wan and I had just held a final picking party for them, so they are leaving the scene fulfilled.

Halloween winds find a knot in my treated  lumber.

     Our cool weather crops like snow peas and Swiss chard are still  doing fine.... And I am still planting trees and shrubs for my clients. The soil is still relatively warm and as the plants shut down they demand less of their roots, giving them a chance to re-establish themselves with less transplant shock.

     Dormant plants are easy to deal with, but they are not care-free. All your trees and shrubs, but especially your new ones, could use a good dose of water before the ground freezes. Keep your hose  running while you are out raking leaves.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


     While my crew was planting shrubs in a client's back yard, a crew of interlopers showed up to install their own landscape  plan in the front. Imagine my dismay!

     Using a unique business plan, these landscape pirates did not charge for installing their plan. Instead, they demanded a "donation" to remove their work, and you get to pick the next victim.

     The rapscallions responsible turned out  to be kids from the Beverly Unitarian Church on a fund drive. My attorney cautioned me against a lawsuit. He told  me this meant issues of church and state and I would  probably be in litigation for 10 years or more. He advised me to do nothing -- and to avoid mentioning my address.

     I wish them luck -- in yards other than my own.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Early Crocus

     Now is the time to buy and plant spring-flowering bulbs. There are thousands of bulbs blooming at all times of the year. I am referring to the ones we know best -- those  hardy bulbs that need a dormant period in cold weather to prepare for flowering.

     Bulbs can provide some of the earliest signs of  spring. After an endless and dreary February, there is nothing more heartening than the the first appearance of a snowdrop or crocus -- even when it is popping out of the snow.

     For  many, "bulb" conjures up an image of tulips. Tulips have been called  "the king of flowers," and they are  spectacular. But they are not necessarily the best pick for home gardeners. For one thing, squirrels love tulip bulbs. Many a tulip bed  I have known was lovingly planted only to disappear overnight. Some of us over-lay the beds with staked-down mesh and then take it up in the spring. This can be effective but can also be a lot of extra work.

Gorgeous, but a lot of work.

     Tulips demand regular fertilization and even then tend to become  less productive over time until they stop flowering altogether. Many large institutions that plant tulip beds have given up on maintaining them and simply treat  them as annuals, planting anew  every fall.

     I prefer the bulb that requires as little of my labor as possible. Most of my favorites "naturalize," meaning they survive and reproduce naturally without any effort on my part. Plant them once and you are done.


     The first bulbs to appear around here are Galanthus, or Snowdrops. Every spring these stubborn little  plants pop up early, get  buried in snow,  and then pop  up again. A real morale booster.

     They are  followed  by Crocus and Scilla in April. Like Galanthus, they "naturalize" and the small size of the leaves allows  them to be planted directly in the lawn. Their flowers are done by the time you need to get  out your mower. And if you mow  as high  as you should anyway, there will be enough leaf left  to restore the bulb.

Crocus sieberiTricolor

That haunting blue color up and down Longwood
 in spring comes  from naturalized Scilla. 

     Also blooming in April are naturalizers Muscari (or Grape Hyacinth) and Narcissus. These grow too tall for the lawn but do wonders in beds or other un-cut areas of the yard.  Narcissus come in a variety of names, including "Daffodils" and "Jonquils," and many different sizes and shapes. They give you a thousand varieties of white and yellow blossoms.

Muscari aucheri

    Bulbs are best purchased from mail order companies that specialize in bulbs. The time to order is about now. You will  still  get your bulbs in time to plant them. Don't be bashful. Indoors, a single flower  can make a statement on your dining table. Outdoors the same flower is utterly lost and beneath notice. Don't even think about buying less than 100 bulbs.

     Follow the instructions that come with your order as to depth and spacing. The soil temperature should be below 55 degrees but above 32 -- refrigerator temperature. Bulbs like well drained soil with a neutral PH. If you need to, you can do a little soil preparation while your bulbs are in the tender clutches of UPS.

Narcissus mix

     When you plant do not add fertilizer, but do water thoroughly.  After the ground surface freezes you can add a layer  of mulch.

     Finally, keep in mind that after the flowers are spent next spring, larger bulbs will leave a tangle of unsightly foliage. Resist the temptation to cut this down. The leaves collect the sun's energy to restock the bulb for next year's bloom. It is best to plan your bulb patch  to be just behind some perennials. The perennials will be barely visible when the bulbs are in their glory, but will grow to screen the scraggly foliage once the flowers are gone.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

October Planting

     The first leaves began to fall last week and we had about a week to enjoy them before our first rain. Heavily wooded Beverly is a lovely Chicago neighborhood in fall, and I try to find time to walk about in it watching the leaves change one species at a time. This is a time when delayed gratification does not work. If you wait, it will  rain again, so enjoy today's leaves before you worry about disposing of yesterday's.

     While everyone knows about clean-up in autumn, surprisingly few take advantage of the season to plant. Fall is actually a better time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials than is spring. The soil is warmer in the first part of autumn than it is in April, and as the top of the plant begins to go dormant, its energy can focus on its roots. Seasonal rains and lower temperatures also assure the new plant of a decent water supply. Spring plantings, in contrast, try to put on shoot and leaf growth before roots have had a chance to get going. The plant can easily confront hot temperatures  and dry weather before its roots are established.

     The only real disadvantage of autumn is that nurseries let their stock dwindle away. They don't want to have to over-winter their excess stock. So choices tend to  be more  limited while prices tend to drop.

     My rule of thumb is that you can plant perennials as long as you can recognize what is in the pot, and you can plant trees and shrubs as long as you can get your shovel in the ground. In this case, delayed gratification is definitely the right course to take.

     If Autumn is a good time to plant shrubs and perennials, it is the essential time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. They have to go through a dormant period before they can flower. That means they have to be planted just before winter arrives. And that means you should order and plant 2015's bulbs in the next month. More on this next time.

Crocus bulbs

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fall is Here

     The fall equinox arrived a little after 9 PM Monday night -- and our weather began to improve.

     The summer of 2014 was the wettest on record in Chicago and one of the coolest. The temperature broke 90 degrees all of three times this summer, as opposed to an average of 17 times and a whopping 40 times just two years ago.

     Beach goers gave the season a big thumbs down, but I loved it. Lots of good working weather and a little  relief from all those bills for air conditioning and watering.

     Reactions also  vary among my plants. The cukes are starting to lose steam already, and both the yield  and the size of my tomatoes are smaller than usual. Their taste is as good as ever, however.

One  of our  beans hiding in the  vine.

     The Romano pole beans took a while to get going,  but they have been both productive and delicious for more  than a month. And our hot  peppers surprised us.  They have been producing faster than we can harvest them.

Lemon Grass  is flanked by a Tobasco pepper.

     We tried two new additions to the garden this year. Lemon grass is a  Southeast Asian herb that is a delicious addition to soups and other hot dishes. The second was fingerling potatoes. We tried these because they are so expensive in stores. They turned our to be easy to plant, quick to harvest, and delicious!

Fall sugar snack  peas.

     The fall crop of snow and sugar snack  peas we planted at the end of July have begun to produce pods now. Southern gardeners do this double-cropping all  the time, but I always feel like I am getting away with something when I harvest  a  fall crop right before a frost in Chicago.

     We can do more than harvest, though. September and October are also a great time to plant.  More on that next time.

Coral Bells awaiting fall planting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

More Late Bloomers

Hibiscus syriacus

     As we pass from summer into Autumn, we can also move from our Bottlebrush Buckeye to the hibiscus family, who tend to bloom from late summer until first frost. The hibiscus family contains under one roof a confusing variety of plants and an even greater variety of names. It's members range from 12 foot woody shrubs to knee-high perennials and have many aliases: Althea, Mallow, Rose  Mallow, Swamp Rose and Rose of Sharon.

     The largest of these, Hibiscus syriacus, is usually known as Rose of Sharon or Althea. Once thought of as old fashioned, Rose  of Sharon are actually appropriate for many houses in our area of Chicago and have experienced a revival in popularity. Although they can get to be 12 feet tall, they bloom on new wood, so you can prune them ferociously in late winter and  still have a substantial and floriferous shrub by summer.

Texas Star Hibiscus

     The other cultivars of hibiscus are far less common  in Chicago yards and we are missing out. Ranging from three to seven feet tall, many die down to the ground every winter. In their prime they produce huge disks in vibrant colors that  can give our yards a tropical flavor.

Hibiscus moscheutos

A PS on the Bottlebrush Buckeye:  The owner of the shrub in my last posting pointed out that his Buckeye also  attracts exotic butterflies. Yet another virtue possessed  by one of my favorite plants.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Aesculus to the right.
     Periodically I make an effort to encourage biodiversity by highlighting an underused native plant. Since native plants seldom get the respect they deserve, I gussied this one up with its Latin title. "Aesculus"  even sounds vaguely like  the ancient Greek playwright. Much more elegant than "bottlebrush buckeye." Or how about horse chestnut? Or the British "conkers?"

    An impressive and elegant plant, the bottlebrush buckeye can get 8 feet high and wide in Chicago.  Generally a slow grower, it also produces new shoots from the ground that can grow a few feet in a single year. If you like the location of a shoot, let it grow. If you don't, cut it off at the ground. No rush. This is a very low maintenance plant. No serious diseases or insect problems; adapts to different soils; at home in both sun and shade. The established stems do not need pruning, but can easily be trimmed to stay at the size you want.

     As an added bonus,  very few weeds try to grow under the canopy of these buckeyes. The reason for this is a mystery, but welcome nonetheless.

These flowers are in the early stage of bloom.

     The leaves and leaf clusters have an almost tropical look. The mid-summer flowers are outstanding, and even the seed capsules are quite striking. (In Chicago fruiting is sparse, so there is almost no mess.) Buckeyes can be used as specimen plants or planted in masses -- under shade trees, for example.

     You are not just doing our native flora a favor when you give a home to this magnificent plant; you are doing yourself a favor as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Year of the Polar Vortex

Chicago Beachwear in July.

     First an apology for my long absence. My clients simply overwhelmed me with work. I could just see the reaction from some of them  to a post from me: "So the guy hasn't found time to do my job yet, but he has time to scribble." First things first.

     Yesterday at 3 PM my thermometer read 61 degrees -- more than 20 degrees lower than the average high for that day. This continues a trend that began with our ferociously cold winter that led to a cold and wet spring. Spring in turn spawned the coldest July on record.

    The coldest July on record sure beats the coldest January on record, and I, for one, was a happy camper -- unlike Chicago beach goers,who had to deal with frigid water temperatures as well as cool air.

     The response of our plants has been mixed. The winter created some real damage this year. Roses had to be trimmed much lower this spring and  many yews  were covered with brown tips from winter dessication. Our insect pests like Japanese beetles, declined in number. But some of the hearty fungal spores enjoyed the wet spring and attacked plants they had left alone previously -- -like my broccoli.

This year's invalid broccoli..

     I had a beautiful patch of basil this year. Just before we planned to harvest half of it to make pesto for the winter, an absurd "polar vortex" blew in and blackened most of our basil leaves-- in July! We had to cut the top  3/4 of each plant and then wait for them to re-grow.

     Fortunately, though, most  plants in the area were just held back a couple of weeks. Most  flowers and veggies are now thriving,  and we have planted seeds for a fall crop in our garden. After three cold seasons in a row, maybe we will get a break this fall.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bloom Time!

     It is now peak bloom time and also peak planting time, so I hope to be forgiven for falling behind. We have planted this near the front door and the fragrance is a joy  to experience  as we go in and out of the house.

     Those of us who love fragrance can extend our season by many weeks by picking our plants -- either other lilacs or other species. I have been waiting for some years now for a client who wants to maximize his or her olfactory experience. Any takers?

     Lilacs should be pruned as soon as the bloom fades. Prune once and prune hard. Any snipping you do later will just cut off the buds for next year.

     And now we get to the most spectacular  flower in the US, the tree peony (Paeonia suffricosa). This shrub does not flop, and unlike herbaceous peonies, does not attract ants as much as its herbaceous cousins. Its bloom is nothing short of awesome.


     The shrub form of the peony also blooms a few week earlier than the herbaceous varieties, so you can extend your season. These flowers come in an endless variety of colors  as well.

     I spend a lot of time on vegetables last year, so I am giving you a break this year. My warm weather veggies (tomatoes, cukes, peppers,etc.) were planted over Memorial Day weekend. My North Carolina friends, who are already harvesting tomatoes, are having a good laugh at my expense.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Forsythia Redux

Hi --A reader sent me this after my last post. Scott

Forsythia inspired Robert Frost to write this:

Nature’s First Gold is Green

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her first leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Forsythia: the Harbinger

     Forsythia holds a special spot for many of us because it is the first shrub to flower in spring. That was especially true this year as the cold dragged on and we began to worry that spring had been pushed off the calendar altogether.

     To be truly spectacular the shrub needs full sun, so our shady Beverly neighborhood is not the ideal environment for this plant. If you have a choice it is best to give forsythia the sunniest corner of your yard. But after months of bleak colors even partial shade will produce flowers that seem to create warmth all by themselves.

This forsythia did not bloom at all for years thanks to being
placed under a massive 5-trunk mulberry tree. Now that the
tree is down, flowers have re-appeared.

     The biggest obstacle to  a cascade of yellow blooms, however, is our pruning. Most of the older forsythia naturally grow 10 feet high and wide and are at their most beautiful when left to grow naturally. But that is a lot of real estate for one plant to occupy,  and many city-dwellers end up pruning them into hedges.  Forsythia do not object to this, but the branches you cut off this summer contain the buds for next spring's flowers. Next season you will wonder where the yellow went.

     The best compromise you can make between size and flower is to prune your shrubs once and severely immediately after your  display begins to fade. That way you can trim back your shrub before the buds for next year have a chance to develop.

     Those not blessed with Grandma's shrubs are fortunate enough to have other choices. For a number of years our nurseries have been working to develop varieties that fit more easily into modern yards. Modern cultivars like 'Sunrise,'  'Bronxensis,' and 'Gold Tide' reach heights of only 6', 3' and 2' respectfully. At last we can have a manageable size and our flowers, too.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Struggling to Get Started

     I wrote in the April  Villager that our late planting start this spring was likely to be more because our soil was too wet  than because it was too cold. Almost correct, but not quite. It was not until April 11 that our garden patch finally dried enough to allow us to till. We built our raised beds on Friday, planted spinach, broccoli and other seedlings on Saturday, and put in our peas on Sunday just before the rain started again.

Beds are raised about 8" above pathways covered with landscape cloth.

     What I had not anticipated, however, is that the rain would turn to snow as the temperature dropped to 26 degrees. This is what farmers call a "hard frost," and it can be deadly to many tender flowers and vegetables.

My raised beds the morning after snow and hard frost.

     We noticed on Saturday that the garden centers of many of the big box stores were jammed with tomatoes, basil and other tender annuals that are totally useless for at least another month. I hope their customers did not lose their plants the very first day they bought them. People who covered their plants overnight would have kept them alive, but they will not grow until the weather gets warmer.

     Fortunately, we knew to plant only our frost hardy veggies this weekend. We could have planted violas and pansies as well. We will wait a month or so to plant the rest.

*     *     *

     One consolation during these weeks of rain, cold, and now once more snow is the appearance of spring bulbs. Crocus made their appearance a few weeks ago and daffodils are now popping up as well.

     And every spring I am asked what those little blue flowers are in people's lawns. The answer is "scilla," another hardy spring bulb that makes quite a display for a few weeks in lawns along Longwood and Prospect.

     Scilla can be ordered from most bulb catalogs. It is also, however, a bit controversial.  Like daffodils, scilla "naturalizes," that is, the bulbs multiply and spread naturally in the landscape. If you like them this is a good thing. If you don't they can be considered "invasive." They can be mowed right after bloom, but as you can see, the blades are more coarse than grass. The true aficionado of a fine lawn would find the bulbs unwelcome house guests in their yard. I mentioned scilla in the Villager a few years ago and was chastised by some for promoting an invasive weed. Good neighbors will show a little caution.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Raised Beds

     One of the easiest garden features to plan for is a raised bed for your cut flowers, vegetables or other annuals. Raised beds provide a number of benefits -- especially for the clay soil we have in Chicago:

     1. They allow the soil to warm up faster, making it possible to plant earlier in the season.

     2. They encourage better drainage. This is especially important during our soggy springs. A raised bed will dry out when all the soil around it is muddy. Again, this makes it possible to plant earlier in the season.

     3. Finally, raised beds discourage human and pet traffic from the areas in which your plants are trying to get started.

     Raised beds can be built in an infinite variety of shapes,sizes, and materials. I will deal only with the simplest and most utilitarian today.

This set of packed-earth raised beds owes its avant-garde look
 to the fact that we had a heavy rain shortly after it was built. 

     The simplest beds are made with nothing more than a shovel. You can mark out your beds and paths with string. Then you dig out on the path side of the string and dump each shovelful on the bed side of the string. Rake the paths smooth and tamp the top and sides of the beds, and you are done.

     A more permanent and attractive alternative is a bed made of wood -- preferably rot-resistant cedar or redwood. The new pressure treated pine, called AC2, claims to be suitable for raised beds, but I would prefer not to use it around fruit or vegetables.


     You should give the dimensions of your beds some thought before rushing out to buy lumber. First and foremost, you should be able to reach every part of your bed easily from "outside the box".  (That is, you should not build beds like the ones in the first photo.)  Beds can be 8-10 feet long, but should be only 3-4 feet wide, and less than that if you can only reach in from one side. Better two narrow beds than one large one. Paths between beds should be 2 to 2 1/2 feet wide --or wider than  your garden cart or wheelchair. The beds can be 8 inches to 16 inches high or higher. Higher beds require more wood and more soil, but they also provide a better barrier to pets and make the beds more accessible to those of us whose joints are getting a bit creaky.

     For now, I am going to put my creaky joints to work on the latest snow.