Category Archives: gardening

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.


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.

Coveted Fruits

I run with two fellow gardeners some mornings.  It’s a treat for us to point out plants to each other as we trot, and today there was a wealth of pointing as we adventured on an 8-mile run into new urban terrain.  One of our walk and water breaks was at Kilbourn Park’s organic greenhouse and garden, where an orchard was planted a few years ago.  They had at least two cherries, a few pears, and some apple trees, one of which was marked as a Golden Delicious.  Kilbourn Park does an excellent job and their commitment to growing organic fruit is admirable, but unfortunately none of the trees looked especially healthy or productive.  My own experience growing organic fruit trees in a small urban space has taught me just how frustrating the endeavor can be.  Apple maggots infest my sweet and sour cherry trees every season.  I salvage what I can but spend far more time cleaning up fallen and infected fruit than I do actually storing edible fruit away for use.  My Bartlett pear, which I just put in last year, decided not to flower or fruit at all this season.  The tree looks healthy and did yield about 10 marginally edible pears last fall, but this year, without explanation, it has done nothing.  I know other urban gardeners who have had similar trouble.  My friend Katy had a few fruits on her pear tree this year, but the squirrels had already beaten her to them before they ripened.  At least somebody ate them.  One of my running friends, Gin, has battled apple scab and apple maggots in her backyard apple tree to the point where she can no longer harvest any of its fruit for home use.  It makes you wonder if it’s fruitless to try and grow fruit in the small home garden.  Or at least the kind of fruit that grows on trees.

On the return leg of our run, we came upon some blackberry canes growing very tidily up the front of a little brick house.  The color of the fruit, both the bright red of the unripe fruits and the rich black of the ripe ones, beckoned us over.  Each berry was about three or four times the size of a common raspberry.  They were perfectly plump, oval-shaped, adorable.  Forgive me, for I could not resist reaching beyond the fence for three fruits, a sample for each of us in sneakers.  The fruit’s juicy sweetness remains me with hours later, and my brain is busily plotting where I might be able to sneak a blackberry plant into our already crowded backyard.  As I have learned from growing raspberries, brambles do need space, but if you can give it to them, they will provide abundantly with little fuss.  Our raspberry patch is about 9ft.long and 4 ft. wide and yields enough for a family of four to feast on delicious raspberries at breakfast-time for about three weeks every fall.  (We get a spring crop too, but it pales in comparison to the fall one, both in quantity and quality.)  The raspberries could use more space, admittedly, as they tend to flop over on our sidewalk and generally get in the way of things, but we have all adapted to the arrangement.

The gooseberry, which can also be somewhat droopy in habit, is the most space-efficient bramble I know.  My mature gooseberry takes up only about 4 square feet of earth.  Gooseberries can be pruned and staked to keep the foliage and fruit off the ground, and good pruning can contribute to their ability to fruit heavily on few shoots.  Last year I harvested about 10 cups of gooseberries from one plant.  Gooseberries, like blackberries apparently, can tolerate partial shade, but the more sun they get, the sweeter their fruit.

Red gooseberry, yum

I find most gooseberries to be too sour to pop straight from the bush into my mouth, although if you can wait around for the very ripest, they are in fact sweet.  But it’s no sweetness like that of the blackberry I had this morning.  Gooseberries make a terrific, gorgeous-hued jam and are also good in a funny-sounding dessert called a “fool”:  essentially equal parts pureed fruit and whipped cream, with only a small amount of added sugar.

My initial research into the possibility of adding a Blackberry to the yard reveals that there’s a particular breed of blackberry called ‘Marion’ which is said to yield more fruit on fewer canes.  These are also called marionberries, after Marion County in Oregon.  Whatever the origin, I figure they are worth trying if I can taste that super juicy late summer fruit again without having to reach my hand over someone else’s fence.

marionberry fruits, yummer

Something Different in Yellow

There’s lots of yellow in the garden right now — black-eyed susan, sunflowers, cupplant, a little coreopsis still hanging on, my friend Gin’s early goldenrod.  The thing is that yellow can get mundane, so I try to keep my eye out for yellows that are particularly cool or different.  I don’t have the space to provide for a whole swath of yellow like that provided by five or seven fireworks Goldenrod, so my one Solidago rugosa just kind of sits there:  it ain’t too exciting, truth be told.  I figure if you only have room for yellows by the individual plant, those plants you do put in should knock ’em dead.  If I haven’t seen the plant much around the city, that’ll often knock me dead. And if I find out that it’s native, I’ll want to plant it myself.  A lot of times with these uncommon yellow-blooming plants, you can’t find them in local garden centers.  There’s only one thing to do: you’ve got to start those yellow babies yourself.  I get psyched up about this prospect.  Start my own rosinweed!  Start my own wild senna since the one (I thought) I had turned out to be fleabane.

Wild Senna, don't the leaves look like a sensitive plant's?

Lincoln Park Zoo has a year-old planting of about 30 acres of natives, some of them with their feet in the water or semi-submerged.  The plants are around the Zoo’s newly redesigned South Pond, and they call it the Nature Boardwalk.  I took a class there the other day and saw some unusual plants.  The Wild Senna is blooming over there right now and their Horticulture guy was nice enough to send me the above photo.  I’m even more determined to get it for myself now — there’s nothing quite like it.

There are a bunch of perennial sunflowers doing their thing right now.  I’ve got some kind of Helianthus that came with my yard when we bought a house; all my neighbors seem to have it too.  It does bloom a long time, granted, but it’s kind of floppy and a bit of a water-hog and it’s not unusual.  But over at the Nature Boardwalk, they’ve got Downy Sunflower.  It’s not blooming yet but looks super cute at its present budding stage.  It will probably be open next week and that’ll really be a good show.

Downy Sunflower, never seen one in a Chicago yard

Downy Sunflower’s  foliage is a blue-green that adds life to the same old, same old green-green garden.  Something different in yellow, something different in green.

Stiff Goldenrod, looks good before it opens too

Similar in appearance to the Downy Sunflower is Stiff Goldenrod.  I remember learning about it last year in a U of I-Extension Native Plant info session.  Solidago rigida is about the same height as other goldenrods, but its yellow flowers come in flat-topped clusters rather than plume-like ones.  They form a neat clump and don’t spread by rhizomes the way that Showy Goldenrod does.

And finally a plug for the Dumbo’s Ears Black-Eyed Susan.  This July-bloomer is goofy-looking and nowhere to be found at the Nature Boardwalk.  I don’t think it’s a native; it looks like it’s from another planet.  I got mine at Gethsemane Garden Center when I was working there unloading a delivery of perennials off a truck.  There were only about six of them and my boss warned that they wouldn’t always take in certain spots.  She wasn’t sure what made them work one place and not another but she knew that they wanted sun and she guessed that they needed space.  Old Dumbo’s Ears doesn’t bloom anywhere near as long as Rudbeckia goldstrum, which most folks in Chicago have yellowing up their yard from late July through October, but when it does bloom, people take notice.


Rudbeckia something, Dumbo's Ears

p.s. Something Different in Purple

Instead of Liatris spicata, the Prairie Blazing star we see all the time and refer to as Dense Blazing Star, there is Liatris aspera, Button Blazing star.

Prairie Blazing Star, but with buttons instead of clumpy spikes

The flowers are individualized instead of one long cat-taily clump.  The Button variety stands erect.  Admittedly, my Liatris spicata’s floppiness could be due to a scarcity of water.  The only place I’ve seen the Button is in a spot where the ground tends to be wet.  It looks terrific.  I wish I could swap it for my floppy spicata.

One Household Plants

I worry more about the sex of my plants than I ever did about the sex of my children before they were born.  With the children, whether male or female, they still had the same potential to develop into a person who could do a lot of cool things.  But with certain plants, you really only want them to do one cool thing:  yield fruit.  And if they’re not female, or don’t have a male nearby to pollinate them, they just won’t yield.  Anyone who has grown marijuana knows about this.  The male doesn’t provide buds, so unless you’re a serious grower trying to breed or cross-breed plants, there’s no reason to keep a male alive.  In fact, a male’s presence can even lower the quality of the female buds by making them seedy.

But some plants are monoecious; they have both male and female flowers on the same plant.  The term monoecious comes from the Greek and translates as “one household.”  I knew that certain squash were like this but wasn’t quite sure what that meant for someone who wanted to grow squash for their fruit and maybe an occasional squash blossom fried in butter.  Then my neighbor Andy came over last year and saw my Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkin plant teeming with flowers.  “Why don’t you pick some of these and eat them?” he asked.  I confessed that I wasn’t sure which flowers I could safely eat without disturbing the plant’s fruit production.  “Simple,” he explained, “the males have no bulge behind them; that’s how you know they’re not going to fruit.  Pick them and eat them.”  The female flowers have an ovary at their base.  They need to be left alone if you want fruit to form.  Of course, the females also need some male flowers for pollination, so you don’t want to fry up every single male squash blossom in butter either.

That was last summer.  We ate a fair amount of male flowers from that Rouge pumpkin plant and it still yielded three of the most gorgeous fruit I’ve ever seen:

daughter Louisa with Rouge Vif d'Etampes pumpkins

Five years ago, I got the idea to plant Corylus americana, the American hazelnut.  I wanted to plant something nut-bearing but didn’t have the space for a massive tree like a walnut or chestnut.  The hazelnut seemed like a good option because it is more of a shrub than a tree and supposedly gets to be no bigger than 12 feet (this is holding true so far).  In my search for growers of Corylus Americana, I found a groovy place in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that specializes in edible plants.  At the time, Oikos Tree Crops had a special where if you bought more than 25 hazelnuts, you would pay something like $2.50 per shrub.  Of course these were itty bitty plants, but I had a planting party in my neighborhood and we popped all but three of them in the public way.  The rest went home to me.  Two years ago, I noticed catkins on the hazelnuts and began to worry.  Two of them were taking up prime real estate in my city yard, and if catkins were a sign of their maleness and thus, their inability to fruit, I didn’t want them around.  Then I heard a talk from a grower down in southern Illinois.  He praised the American hazelnut for its fruiting power.  He said once the nuts started to ripen, he could approach that shrub with a shotgun and still the squirrels wouldn’t leave it.  “Go ahead,” the squirrels would say to him.  “Kill us if you like; we’re not giving up the nuts.”  I went home dreaming of the day when my city squirrels would say the same to me, yet remained uneducated as to how a female shrub could have catkins and whether my hazelnuts would ever bear fruit.  Surely Oikos Tree Crops knew how to keep a customer ordering 25 of the same shrubs happy?

It wasn’t until this season that the hazelnut’s monoeciousness finally dawned on me.  The catkins are the male flowers while the nuts come from the females.  They live on the same plant in perfect male and female harmony, and the result is a plant with more amazing features.  The largest of my hazelnut shrubs now has beautiful fruits, encased in a fuzzy, fibrous, light-green husk.  They are not yet ripe, so the squirrels haven’t started their stake-out, but I’m anticipating some fun adventures this fall surrounding this “one household” shrub and the fuzzy-tailed creatures who share our home garden and our taste for nuts.

fruits forming on five year-old shrub

Plants that ain’t what they’re supposed to be

I started some cool perennials from seed last year – a yellow foxglove (digitalis), Verbena hastata, swamp milkweed, and a lupine who limps along rather unhappily in my hot and dry Chicago yard.  I’ve also started some other cool perennials but couldn’t keep track of them.  Purple prairie clover, that Sporobolus grass that smells like cotton candy when it blooms, and wild blue indigo all started out healthy but grew so slowly I eventually couldn’t keep track of them (to water or weed around).  Every once in a while, someone proudly parents a perennial, nurturing it through thick and thin, only to find out that it wasn’t the plant they thought after all.  My friend Chal, an adept seed-starter, once had fancy clematis coming up nicely.  She generously shared one with me and I felt fancy about it, too, until it turned out to be morning glory.  This year I bought a Wild Senna from my friends at Paseo Prairie Garden here in Logan Square.  They ordered it from Midwest Groundcovers, who recently bought little Natural Gardens in St. Charles.  I knew Natural Gardens because they had some rare perennials; when the Wild Senna was available, I felt compelled to try it out.  My own yard is full so I planted in the parkway three houses west of me.  It’s even hotter and dryer in that parkway than around my house, and the directions for the Senna said to give it “extra summer water.”  I’ve been lugging 5 gallon buckets of water over there for a month, only to find out yesterday that the plant wasn’t Wild Senna at all.  It’s something called fleabane, a weed that pollinators like but many gardeners pull up at will.  I doubt that anyone would go out of their way to water fleabane, if they knew what it was anyway.

Wild Senna looks like this:

What I’ve been watering in the parkway, and just now started to bloom, is Fleabane: