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.