Too Hot for Tomatoes?

This was the first year I didn’t start many tomato plants .  In the past, I’ve started all kinds — cherokee purple, green zebra, juliet, beefsteak, early girl, orange sunset, garden peach — in my basement in February, kept them under grow lights, hardened them off as the days got longer and had them all in the ground by Mother’s Day.  I’d start getting ripe tomatoes by August 1st and have 2-3 months of bounty, but also many, many green ones still hanging on the vine by the time the first killing frost hit.  So even though it’s easier to grow tomatoes in Chicago than it is in, say, Portland, Oregon, where I’ve heard the summers aren’t hot enough for the average home gardener to get a good crop of tomatoes, it’s still a short season, and the tomato-growing ain’t perfect.

But what’s happening this season is something I’ve never experienced before.   Due to the time constraints of a new job, I only started one variety of tomato this year, Cherokee purple, and did it straight outdoors sometime in April.  Aside from two Cherokees, I also have three volunteer tomato plants which came up from last year’s dropped seeds and four plants given to me by a friend.  The three volunteers are cherry tomatoes — an orange variety that’s super sweet and tasty.  I ate my first one on July 1st, a full month earlier than what’s customary in these parts.  But the other six plants have yielded exactly nothing.  In fact, only one plant has any tomatoes at all hanging from it.  And even that plant has just one.  One green tomato.  Six huge plants.

one green tomato

Solamente uno.

The soil is good and I’ve watered during the drought-like conditions we’ve had most of the spring and summer.  The plants look healthy; they’ve all had a fair amount of flowers, but they just aren’t fruiting.  Even though my ambitious neighbor on one side of me has some green zebra tomatoes coming in and my overachieving neighbor on the other side has some juliets, I know that I’m not the only one getting a pitiful crop from the bigger tomato varieties.  It makes me think that even the tomato — a stereotypically heat-loving vegetable — has its limits.  The plants are too stressed by a string of 100-degree days to do anything more than hang on.  Do Chicagoans need to start planting heat-tolerant varieties, like they must do in Florida and Georgia?  Has it just been too darn hot for tomatoes?  Is it time to move to Portland?

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on Not Eating your Veggies

Last night I grabbed about 10 of bags of leaves from alongside my neighbor’s trash cans.  My friend and I couldn’t decide if they’d end up in a landfill or be composted.  Concerned that it’d be the former, I dragged them over to my back yard and emptied them willy nilly around the raspberries, some shrubs and our coldframe.  One bag was super heavy and clearly not leaves — funny the contents didn’t surprise me more; it was a bunch of swiss chard that looked like it had been pulled a day or two ago.  The chard leaves were not yet wilty but they were large enough so as not to be tender.  There were beet greens, too, and some still attached to their beets.  The tubers were old but still edible.  I’m roasting them now in the oven.  Aside from the beet bottoms, the contents of the bag didn’t cause me to raise a brow; I’ve thrown my share of fresh-grown garden greens in the trash too.  In my case, I throw it in the compost, but the idea is the same:  my neighbor and I, we’re growing more greens than we’re willing to eat.

swiss chard in trash

I threw two or three enormous collard green plants into the compost pile a few weeks ago.  I’ve also been foisting fresh kale off on my neighbor’s chickens since mid-September.  The truth is I tire of eating collards and kale myself.  I feel guilty about letting nutritious produce go to relative waste, but I haven’t found a good alternative.  The pattern’s been similar every growing season:  I start kale from seed in early March, relish eating it for a couple of weeks in June and lose all interest in it by July.  I try my darndest to revive some life into my repertoire of kale recipes for a brief spurt at summer’s end, but I ultimately neglect harvesting cooking greens in favor of fall lettuces, brussels sprouts, and tomatoes.

I might have considered saving some of the chard from the big brown leaf bag except that the gardener two doors down laid a heaping bag of swiss chard on my doorstep a few days ago, and I’m doing my part to cook that for dinner.  The freeze is upon us in Chicago and it’s time to clean up what will otherwise die out there in the earth.  It’s time to plant onions and garlic, too, which might just be the answer to this dilemma of the greens gone to waste.  Who ever tires of an onion in their kitchen?  Who would compost a perfectly usable head of garlic?  And who’s going to fill up a brown bag of either of those pantry staples and throw them out alongside their garbage cans?  Because that would surprise me.

big beet in the garbage

Bird Food

We just spent a weekend in Dearborn, Michigan, a well-to-do suburb just west of Detroit.  Contrasted with Chicago, where we live, this place was a veritable forest:  beech, cottonwood, dogwood, majestic maples, cherries, and hawthorns abounded.  Golly, it was pretty, that’s for sure, but more than that, it provided the setting for one well-planned bird party.  With winter coming, the birds of Dearborn did not delay to fill their bellies with nature’s ample food supply.  Each morning, we watched them flit and frolic from tree to well-stocked tree, nibbling on cranberries, service berries, and holly berries with no detectable sense of urgency.   Seeing blue jays, robins, and doves high on boughs and out of harm’s way reminded me of our little sparrows back home making a meal out of the echinacea plants in our parkway.  Sure, it’s nice that they have some coneflower seeds to munch on, but somehow a bird’s magnificence is reduced when he’s only 3 feet off the ground and a stone’s throw from a line of parked cars.  I suppose it’s better that our Chicago sparrows don’t know of the bounty enjoyed by their Midwestern cousins in Michigan.  But who knows; envy doesn’t seem to know a place in a bird’s emotional repertoire.  They sing their delighted songs and make do the best they can.

A Unified Divide

Each fall, Chicago’s chapter of the environmental nonprofit group Green Corps holds a Great Perennial Divide.  They get a bunch of plant donations from nurseries and landscapers who probably wouldn’t be able to sell them off before the end of the season anyway, and hand them out to representatives from community gardens in the city.  If you’re not a member of a community garden, you can still participate in the divide by bringing plants from your own garden in exchange for Green Corps’ handouts (community gardeners needn’t do anything but register and show up).  I’ve participated in the Great Perennial Divide twice, once as a community gardener and again as a private gardener.  Though you don’t get to choose what plants you get, you do get a generous amount, and if you’re lucky, there are a few gems in the bunch.  Last year I got a Lobelia siphilitica, or great blue cardinal flower, that bears cheerful, sky blue flowers from July to early September.

As Lobelia’s blooms begin to fade, it’s time to think about dividing perennials that are outgrowing the space you’ve provided them and plant new ones in spaces that need something more or just something different.  You give the garden some sprucing up via some subtraction and addition, and you get to relish in one of the gardener’s greatest pleasures, sharing the bounty.  I’ve always shared seeds and two years ago made a great connection with a seed-saving, seed-swapping group in upstate New York that is named for its ambitiously timed, but relatively simple seed-starting technique, Winter Sowers.  For the price of passing a quiz on their website, Winter Sowers will send you a large envelope full of different seeds — many unusual, all smartly labeled with pictures.  Each fall, I collect seeds from my home garden and send them off to the good folks at Winter Sowers; they never fail to send me more excellent varieties of wildflowers and vegetables in exchange, and thus, the sharing keeps things interesting for me in the Spring.  This is a gardening relationship that I have come to cherish.

The other is the relationship I have with nearby friends who are fortunate enough to have some amount of space they can dig around in and call garden.   My friends and I informally share seedlings, gardening ideas, plant knowledge, and lack of plant knowledge all the time.  This year I decided to pool that group of friends and organize our own perennial divide — though it may not have been great on the size and scale of Green Corps’, I thought it was pretty awesome.  It didn’t hurt that we were drinking Lemon Verbena gin and tonics and cosmopolitans with garden lavender and basil as we were swapping plants either.

Katy and the variegated grass she brought to the divide.

We made no rules about how many plants you had to bring or how many with which you could go home.  Since excited urban gardeners are inclined to plant more than they realistically have room for, comments like “No, I really can’t (take that plant)” or “I just don’t have the space” were common at the divide.  What was nice was that people got to be selective about what they really wanted.  We walked around to each person’s group of donations and the person from whose garden they came talked about the virtues and vices of the specimens up for grabs.  That in itself was a nice sharing of observations and experience.

Lisa shows off her stuff.

Chal was the big provider; she brought about 70 plants.

I don’t know if we have the beginnings of a tradition going here, but I know that it was lot of fun to prepare for, and then execute, the divide party.  Of course, I haven’t put any of my new plants into the ground yet.  As one friend commented, “The pressure here to plant is much greater than if you just bought some plants at a garden center.  The person you got your plant from is bound to ask you later ‘Oh,how is that hellebore (that I dug up and that you took home) doing?’ and you don’t want to say ‘Oh sorry, I left it in its pot to die over winter.”  No,no.  We want the workings of a unified divide.  We must follow through and give those perennials a proper home for the years ahead.  Or at least until we try to pawn them off on some new gardening friend …

The Perils of City Planting

Plant a garden in the country and risk its being decimated by deer, bunnies, or other furry creatures.  Plant a garden in the city and risk having it dug up by city workers repairing a water pipe, peed on by the neighborhood’s ceaseless supply of dogs, or besotted with black dust when your neighbor has her roof redone.  The last thing just happened to me.  Parts of Chicago, mine included, got nailed by a crazy hailstorm back in June, and the damage to homes has brought all sorts of opportunistic contractors to our doorstep:  “Have you found anyone to repair your house yet?”  We were told by insurance adjustors that the damage to our roof will take 10-15 years off its lifespan, and we don’t doubt it, but we’ve been reluctant to go ahead and have the work done because of just what we’re experiencing now – a lovely fall garden saturated with black dust.

lady's mantle in my parkway, usually a green plant except when debris falls all over it

nicotiana in my front yard, you know it looks horrible

Truth be told, I know that I’ve escaped many city gardening disasters that could be much more devastating.  One of my friends used to work her behind off acquiring and planting gorgeous shrubs and perennials at a Chicago park district property only to have the roses stolen by folks in the area and the Liatris dug up by unknowing volunteers.  I know people who have had to replant their entire parkway after the city needed to dig it up to access water pipes.  They were informed in advance of this, so they were able to salvage most of the plants, but no garden enjoys being completely uprooted just as no gardener wishes to to uproot it.  And that same hailstorm that brought on the roof repair over here wreaked havoc on the annual vegetable gardens of many of my friends to the east.  Of course, hail is hardly limited to urban areas, but the close plantings required by a city gardener seem to exaggerate its ill effects.

The good thing about the recent dust is that it gives me the courage and fortitude to get our own rooftop redone.  We’ve been postponing the inevitable, but as long as the plants have this black coating now, there’s a part of me that says we may as well get it over with and subject them to being doused once again before winter covers them up with a snowy blanket.  Then in the spring I can work on keeping them clean and healthy, at least until the siding needs to be replaced.

Ode to the Cup Plant

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I bought a tiny cup plant plug six years ago from Seed Savers Exchange.  I thought that it was cool that they were selling Midwestern prairie plants in addition to their wide array of vegetable starts, so I got the cup plant, a prairie blazing star, and a purple prairie clover to plant in my then-new front yard.  The prairie blazing star blends right in with everything else; it’s fine but not spectacular.  It’s kind of floppy and looks rather shag dog by summer’s end; it’s also a dime a dozen in Chicago’s landscaped environs so doesn’t offer much in terms of rarity.  The purple prairie clover is still one of my favorite plants.  Its tutu-like purple flowers are dazzling when they bloom in July, and the plant is almost never seen around the city.  But I fear that my own purple prairie clover is forever stunted by the dry conditions in my urban front yard; the plant still takes up barely ¼ square foot of space and is therefore easily overlooked in favor of more imposing species.  Like Silphium perfoliatum, more commonly known as cup plant.

Imposing and aggressive it is.  At 10 feet tall, the cup plant easily grabs your attention over other plants.  Each spring, when cup plants crop up all over my yard and my neighbor’s yard and who knows where else, its aggressiveness kind of irks me.  I’ve given cup plant seedlings away and walked away feeling rather coy.  Will the new owner curse me in two years’ time the way that I have cursed my own endless cup plant supply?  Or will they be able to hang in there — weeding it out where it isn’t wanted — and appreciate the magic it brings to the landscape?  Even though it can be a pain in the ass, in the late summer days of the Midwest, the cup plant has no equal.

The cup plant holds water in its leaves, which form a cup where they meet the sturdy stalk.  This is an incredibly useful feature for birds and butterflies, who sometimes find water in short supply, especially water that is high up and out of their predators’ reach.   Today, for instance, is generally hot, muggy, and dry, but we did get a little rain last night.  Leave it to the cup plant to save that precious rain for our thirsty friends.  And those same water-holding leaves also provide protection from the hot mid-day sun, serving as a quasi-umbrella for small birds or bugs when the heat is too much.

cup plant

The cup plant is opportunistic.  It leaps out of the cracks between our front yard and the sidewalk and flowers prolifically even when squashed between my neighbor’s chain link fence and our gangway.  Provided it has some sun and space, the cup plant will do well.  It has deep roots and is incredibly drought tolerant.  Never has it been on my laundry list of garden chores to “water the dear old cup plant.”

All of this is well and true, and I do so appreciate the cup plant for all of it.  But my favorite thing about the cup plant is something that makes me tear up as only a handful of things in the garden will:   winter’s first snowdrops perking their heads up beneath 18 inches of slush, strawberries ripening when the robins were busy looking the other way, hips following roses on a buxom Rugosa rose, and the unmistakable high-pitched song of goldfinches visiting the cup plant at 3 o’clock every afternoon.  I suppose it’s their early bird happy hour.  As my friend Craig once commented, “It’s their beer and peanuts,” with the beer being the stored-up water in the leaves and the peanuts, the large flower seeds.  Our cup plant has hosted a pair of goldfinch couples every late summer for years now:  two stunning gold yellow males and two subtly brown-yellow females.  Their song and their presence stops me in my tracks each afternoon and reminds me why I planted a garden in the first place, to give something to others and in so doing, to myself.

two female goldfinches in our front yard cup plant

Putting Smells to Mind

Today I walked through Chicago’s Lurie Garden after a hard rain.  Usually I love that place for its lush colors and varied textures, but today it was the smells working their magic.  Prairie Dropseed grass Sporobolus heterolepis, was the workhorse in the fragrance department.  There was also some ornamental oregano providing backup, but it was definitely the Dropseed which overwhelmed my olfactory senses.   To me, Sporobolus smells like what a natural bubblegum, if there were such a thing, might smell like:  sweet but not sugary, light and airy in the nostrils, playful in the mouth.  When I worked at Gethsemane Garden Center, one of the veterans in the perennial department described the smell as cotton candy.  There is definitely something sweet about the smell, but like she noted, it’s not fruity like the sweet of many wines.  It’s more of a candy sweet, reminiscent of the sweet smell of a Stevia plant, but somehow more pink than Stevia’s green.  Like many plants that aren’t herbs, the Sporobolus grass’ richest scent comes from its flowers.

Prairie Dropseed in bloom

One plant that doesn’t have to bloom in order to provide its smell is actually a good one for the urban gardener due to its compact size.  Comptonia peregrina, or Sweetfern, is a 2-4 foot tall plant which starts out about 18 inches wide but apparently will spread by rhizomes if it has the sun and space to do so.  My Sweetfern is only a year old so I haven’t seen it spread yet; I also haven’t seen it bloom.  But I’ve smelled its sweet fragrance many times because it is the leaves which, when disturbed, release a delicate aroma.

sweetfern, the leaves smell really good

Sweetfern is also native to the eastern United States, so we can feel doubly good about planting it here in Illinois.

In my home garden, I’ve found it somewhat difficult to plant specifically for fragrance.  For instance, I do have one happy Praire Dropseed in my front yard, but the perfume of one plant doesn’t swim over your cheekbones the way that a stand of twenty or thirty, like they have over at Lurie, does.  Admittedly, aside from the Sweetfern, I’ve been fairly remiss about planting with the sense of smell in mind.  I think I’m going to change this.  With age, my eyesight will probably wane before my olfactory senses do.   And in a city, a lovely fragrance is as much a combatant against stinky exhaust as the garden’s soft green colors are against stifling black asphalt and hard gray concrete.

Clary Sage flowers

Fortuitously, some of the stuff I’ve put in my garden for other reasons has provided great fragrance as well.  My friend Mary gave me Clary Sage, which is an annual here in Chicago but self-seeds prolifically enough that it might as well be perennial.  I let one seedling grow each spring and pull the others up.  The mature plant is fairly large, 3 feet tall and another 3ft around if you give it that.  It’s slightly floppy in habit, but its white flowers, each with a little light-blue, lipped shape cap above them, hang on almost all summer.  I originally kept the plant in my garden because it was from a friend and the flowers were cute.  I also liked that its shoddy-looking green leaves, which remind me of a fuzzy wild plantain, lay low and out of sight after the rest of the garden fills in.  The strong smell of the Clary Sage is my one of my favorite aspects of the plant now.   Some say the smell is astringent, but I’d prefer to call it “clean.”  It’s an earthy smell too, and spicier than traditional, culinary sage.  I walk the garden bed where it’s blooming and the odor greets me like an old pal.  “Thanks for keeping me around,” it seems to say; “No, thank you,” returns my nose.