Monday, December 28, 2015

A good day to stay inside

The weather has been just crazy lately. During a normal winter, the temperature in the garage stays just above freezing, good for storing potatoes, onions, and garlic, and keeping perennial herb plants like rosemary, oregano, and thyme. This winter is not normal. The garlic is showing signs of sprouting and the rosemary is blooming. It has been too warm.

On the nicer days, I have been wheeling the wagon full of herbs out to the driveway, where they can get some light. Today is not a nice day at all - freezing rain is pelting the windows, blown about by gusty winds. I am so happy there is nowhere I need to go. Hopefully, the power will not fail.

The seed catalogs have been trickling in, but I have not paid them much attention yet. Instead, I'm contemplating reducing the vegetable garden a bit. One crop that is on the chopping block is tomatoes, which sounds sacrilegious to this backyard gardener. But hear me out. Tomatoes usually produce more fruit than I or mine can consume. Since I have cut back on carbs (and consequently pasta), I rarely have reason to make marinara or tomato sauce. I'd like to sample more varieties, like heirlooms, which is easily done by visiting local farmers markets. So I think I can forego growing my own.

I have also been staring out at the backyard, wondering how I can make it more charming. I'm not very creative, nor am I artistic. I don't have an eye for design or for color. I know what I like when I see it - native plants, lots of color - but how to translate ideas into something that will work in my backyard is something that eludes me. Currently, my efforts look more experimental than I would like. Fortunately, I have tolerant neighbors.

Some days I have even contemplated giving up the yard and moving into an apartment, but I'm not quite ready for that.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Let it snow

Today we received the first snowfall of autumn 2015. Usually, some kind of snow falls by Halloween, but the weather is late this year. Climate change? El Nino? Who knows.

Yesterday I did manage to water the new prairie plants on the south side of the house and top dress them in straw. The strawberry bed is protected as well. Today I put away the hoses and cleared the front porch of soggy Jack O' Lantern and dead coleus.

The flamingos are garaged and the driveway markers are set, so bring it on.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

End of the musts, more or less

Last week I replaced the DOA cherry tree with another (Grandpa's Orchard gives great customer service), then my SO and I hauled in three loads of horse manure, and last Monday I planted the garlic. That marks the end of the must-do items on the yardening list. Of course, there is always more that can be done, but nothing that can't wait.

Look what the manure brought

Oh. Except strawing the strawberries and the newbies on the south side of the house. It's really windy today, and wet, so maybe tomorrow.

Pinetree Garden Seeds again wins the award for earliest seed catalog of the season. I haven't looked at it yet - it's just too soon, still recovering from this past year, although I am making plans for next (always).

The birds finally showed an interest in the homemade birdfeed thingies. A squirrel stripped the toilet paper rolls - must have been the peanut butter.

Taken through a wet-with-rain window

Monday, November 09, 2015

You can give the birds some feed but...

The g'daughter and I gooped together some homemade bird feeding thingies, made with a seed mix that included all kinds of goodies one would think the birds would like. But no. Not even the sparrows have shown any interest in our creations.

One recipe we used was from Alpha Mom and included gelatin as a binder. Most of it went into cookie cutters, which didn't work as well as I had hoped - too crumbly. I put some of the leftovers into orange halves, some into muffin liners. I have yet to see any evidence that the birds find this mixture palatable.

I have higher hopes for the peanut-butter-on-toilet-paper-rolls-rolled-in-bird-feed objects, although there is the risk that squirrels may tear these to shreds. So far, no takers there, either.

My observation is birds favor different foods in different seasons, so hopefully they will become interested in our offerings someday, before they rot.

Sunday, November 08, 2015


If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would not have known that it is sparrows (or at least one sparrow) stripping bark from this branch on my tulip poplar tree. Has anyone else witnessed this kind of thing?

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Last mow?

It has been warm but dry here, unusual weather for us this time of year. While the grass growing has been slow, it didn't stop altogether. I think it is done now, so I mowed for what I hope is the last time this season. I also trimmed and weeded a bit out front; the backyard needs more attention, but then that is always the case.

I took these pix a couple of weeks ago.

Dwarf Fountain Grass 'Hameln', from the front

Dwarf Fountain Grass 'Hameln', from behind, with cotoneaster

, Pampas Grass, Northern Sea Oats, Switchgrass

Little Bluestem

Tulip Poplar

Blueberry ('Patriot' I think)

Hydrangea 'Limelight'

The garden mid clean-up

Viburnum 'Blue Muffin'


I have been calling the grass pictured below Big Bluestem, but BB does not get such a plume-like seed head. So now I have no idea what this is.

The little squirrel came by for a closer photo op. I can't decide if he is a small species of squirrel or just a young one. I have seen a couple of black squirrels here and there, in other neighborhoods.

And I spotted the albino robin; he is hard to miss.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Indian summer

We had a hard frost the other night, hard enough to do in the zinnia and marigold but not the bee's friend. I threw a sheet over the coleus on the front porch (which didn't help much) and the herbs on the deck (they survived). Now we are back to more moderate nightly temps as the trees turn and the yard and garden work winds down.

The plants from Prairie Nursery are in place on the south side of the house, and most appear to be doing fine. (Since this is the time of year when they go dormant, I'm hoping root growth is making up for the lack of vigor above ground.) It has been unusually dry, so I water them every two days.

Thanks to Mr. (or Ms.) Woodchuck, the sweet potato harvest was disappointing, especially considering all the trouble of raising them in black felt grow bags. Besides continuing to make my garden less accessible to wildlife, next year I may actually try (once again) growing sweet potatoes in the garden proper, as my SO has doubled the height of some of the raised beds.

I don't feed the birds during the summer, as they seem more interested in dining on fresh foods. While it is too soon to plug in the bird bath, the cool temps and calling jays remind me to fill the feeders. The spilled seed attracts the non-avian clean up crew, including this young squirrel.

Its appearance drove the indoor cat nuts.

Sometimes by fall, I'm a little sick of the yard and garden, but this year I am trying to be more diligent about cleaning out the vegetable beds. Also, anything that can be done now may (hopefully) ease the hectic pace of spring. And in the back of my mind are changes I want to wreak upon the yard going forward.

What plans do you have in mind for your yard and garden next year?

Monday, October 12, 2015

In a pinch

After reading a review of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden at the gardeninacity blog, I picked up the book from our local library. Then I took it back. Tracy DiSabato-Aust's techniques looked like too much work. But unhappy with the way my yard looks, I took the book out again late this summer. Perennial maintenance still looks like a lot of work, but now I feel more willing to make the effort. Not that I have yet, but my interest and motivation are growing.

Last week, I installed 32 transplants from Prairie Nursery on the south side of the house. They didn't quite fill the space available, so to plug the holes I moved some of my established plants, including the New England Aster 'Purple Dome'. I've never pinched this plant back, but a volunteer specimen growing next to the rhubarb bed received a whacking or two from my grass trimmer before I let it go.

"Pinched" New England Aster 'Purple Dome'

As you can see, the "pinched" plant is not only shorter and less straggly looking, the blossoms appear denser. The one left to its own devices needs a makeover. (Truth be known, it was also competing with a clump of yarrow gone wild, which I'm sure did not help.)

"Unpinched" New England Aster 'Purple Dome'

My yard will always look unkempt to the fans of "meatball" shrubbery, but I am becoming a convert to controlled chaos. As the newbies in this bed become established, the more mature plants will need to be held in check. Guess what book is going on my xmas list.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Better late than never

The first year I grew Black Eyed Susan Vine, it did great. Since then, not so much. A combination of factors has worked against it - critters disturbing the directly sown seed, poor germination rates, etc. This year the problem was a mighty wind that severed the vines. I assumed that was that, but a few surviving plants regrew and climbed the trellis on the front porch and actually produced a handful of blooms.

I'm not giving up on Thunbergia alata. It grows fast, tolerates some shade, and looks good. Soaking the seeds may improve germination. Also, the clematis it is standing in for has had its own set of problems, so I still need something for that trellis.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Marie Kondo-ing the yard and garden

Marie Kondo's bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is hot right now. (I hate to be trendy, so let it be known I was one of the FIRST to check a copy out of the local library.) The primary Kondo rule of tidying up is, If it does not give you joy, say thank you for your service and good-bye. I've applied its techniques inside my home (more or less) and now I am turning my konmarie eye to the yard and garden. That's not quite so easy.

The seed stash is the first area to undergo scrutiny. I have a habit, good or bad (you decide), of using the seeds on hand when starting transplants for the garden, simply because I have those seeds, they are still viable, and I don't want them to go to waste. Now that I have decided the vegetable garden has reached its optimal size, I am giving closer consideration to just what to grow going forward. For example, tomatoes for fresh eating are certainly tasty, but the plants take up a lot of space and produce more fruit than I can eat or share; maybe I would rather get my tomatoes from farmers markets where there is a plethora of heirlooms. Rethinking the vegetable garden will be a pleasant winter pastime as a prelude to ordering seeds in February.

I have a similar problem with perennials - if they already exist in my yard, I feel obligated to make use of them even if they don't fit in and/or I no longer like them. Over the years, I have eliminated a clematis of the wrong color and almost all the iris and Stella d'Oro daylilies. No worries - they went to good homes. That may be the key - if I can find someone to take them, I don't feel so bad about giving them the boot. But sometimes a plant is simply in the wrong place, so I spend a certain amount of time moving things around. Since my general goal is to make my yard look less haphazard, I see a LOT of plant moving in my future, but some are already earmarked for removal.

And then there are the shrubs. I have several Viburnum that, while perfectly healthy, have been a disappointment. The blossoms of one smell like carrion, and, even though they are supposed to, most of the bushes do not produce berries for the birds, which was one of my goals in planting them. Of similar disappointment are two shrubby trees that were girdled by rabbits their first winter (mea culpa) and never really recovered; they bloom and produce fruit, but never grew much. There are also some 'Wichita Blue' junipers that I was very happy with initially but are now looking rather ratty. Apparently, this is a common problem. Sadly, I planted more during that honeymoon phase.

The bigger the change, the more important it is to have a plan. With the vegetable garden, every summer is a new beginning. Perennials are not furniture - you don't see the results right away - but mistakes can usually be easily rectified. Until I have a plan for the shrubs, though, they will stay right where they are.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The impatient yardener

After touring gardens with the North Park Village chapter of the Wild Ones, I became inspired to introduce more natives to my yard. I consequently spent a lot of time perusing the Prairie Nursery offerings. Their online catalog is very helpful in choosing plants by various characteristics, including soil type. Since my yard is mostly heavy clay, this is important to me.

But what to choose? The options seemed overwhelming. And what area of the yard to target? I do not have much of an eye for design, in anything. Most of my plantings are haphazard and not very "together". How can I improve this, and where to start?

Ironically, I decided to begin where the soil is not clay - the south side of the house. The builder backfilled the foundation with a sandy mix, and the deep eaves block much of the weather, so this bed is rather dry most of the time. It also gets full sun except at the height of summer. I started a list of possible plants, then realized Prairie Nursery offered a collection for just such a group of traits - full to partial sun, dry sandy soil - complete with a planting plan. The burden of design was lifted from my shoulders.

Of course, the planting plan is not for a bed that is 36 feet long and 3-4 feet deep. This is the side of the house with the eight-foot wide gate through which I drive the car when delivering things like mulch or horse manure to the backyard, so I need to preserve what I refer to as "the lane". But I think I can stretch the planting plan out so the general design is somewhat preserved.

Here is the impatient part: I felt so excited by this improvement that I could hardly wait for spring. And then I realized, I don't have to! I ordered the collection for fall planting. It is sitting in the garage right now, rehydrating while I figure out exactly what will go where. Yee-ha!

Gotta go get started.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Chicago Botanical Garden was on the way

My SO and I scheduled a road trip to Milwaukee last weekend, and since the Chicago Botanical Garden was on the way, we decided to stop for a visit. Wowsers! We've been to other botanical gardens, but this one is my favorite (so far).

We are at (ahem) a certain age where we forget things. Consequently, even though we arrived too early for the Grand Tram Tour, by the time we made a trip back to the car (what kind of photographer forgets his camera?), ate some lunch (hint - eat before you come unless you don't mind spending a small fortune for a not very exciting meal), made an aborted trip to the gardens proper, returned to the car AGAIN for sweaters, and visited the facilities, it was time for the tour!

Some might think walking the gardens and touring the grounds is redundant, but I disagree. For one thing, on the tour, you learn all kinds of things you might otherwise not. Also, the Prairie is rather large but somewhat repetitious, at least this time of year (hello golden rod!), so the eyeful we gained from the tram was enough. And the tour was the closest we got to the Japanese Garden, as caterers were setting up for a wedding there.

There are 31 different gardens, and we probably wandered through several of them without knowing which were which. Again, a tour, either the Bright Encounters Tram or one of the walking tours, would have been helpful. We had a map but were too busy looking, looking, looking at everything. I was most interested in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, and we passed through the Crescent, the Esplanade, and the Native Plant Garden on the way. You know how landscaping books talk about mixing forms and textures, and show you photos as examples? Seeing real life displays of these principles is completely different.

The scale of the gardens is another aspect that cannot be appreciated from looking at books. When you have acres to work with, you can plant acres of landscaping. The trick is to adapt the ideas to the space available in the home gardener's own plot of ground. And add some whimsical art.

We spent most of our time among the fruits and vegetables. Having planted apple and cherry trees this year in my own yard, and trying to follow explicit directions spelled out in several books on orchards, I was particularly intrigued by the variety of methods used at CBG. (And thanks to the tram tour, I now know how to pronounce "espalier". At least, I assumed the guide was pronouncing it correctly; she was wrong about "artisanal", saying "artesian" instead.)

You can grow fruit trees on a wall.

You can grow them in a row.

You can grow them on a fence.

You can grow them on a trellis. The trees on the left side were recently replaced and still rather puny compared to their mature cousins across the archway.

With creative pruning, fruit trees can be shaped and restrained in their growth habit. The only way to tell their true age is by looking at the trunks.

In some ways, the Fruit and Vegetable Garden reflected a vision I entertain of my own yard. This berry cage would not keep out woodchucks, but is very effective at discouraging marauding birds. I don't have trouble with birds in my berries, but the sparrows do like the pea plants, to the point where I have contemplated a cage such as this. An alternative idea is to make use of mylar ribbon, which CBG also uses here and there.

I also hope to have bees some day.

And kiwi! I still have the metal pergola that used to grace the patio, and have contemplated setting it up in the yard as an arbor for hardy kiwi and grapes. CBG did both.

The fruit of the hardy kiwi is smaller than what one finds in the grocery story, but lacks fuzz, so is more palatable for eating without peeling. I'm just not sure what I would do with all that fruit.

I have never tasted hardy kiwi, but I assume it tastes like store-bought. The fruit at CBG was not yet ripe, plus there were signs posted to not pick the fruit. If everyone said, Just one taste won't hurt, there would be nothing left in no time.

The sparrows that hang around the outside dining area cannot read, though, and tried to get us to ignore the signs that said to not feed the wildlife. On the right side of this picture, there is a plaque on the railing that describes what one sees across the water. CBG is extremely good at labeling plants and trees, which we really appreciated.

Since the Japanese Garden was off limits, we wandered about the water lilies, which were more varied than I have seen elsewhere. A major water feature is another item on my wish list, but every time I research the idea, I get discouraged by the amount of work they require.

There were very few blossoms this time of year, and I mistook what I now think were seed pods for flowers.

Don't they look other worldly?

We also visited the Bonsai Garden. This was outside, which could have been problematic for photographing, but CBG erected frosted panels behind each one, which really enhanced the viewing pleasure.

This is one area where more information could have been provided, such as the age of the trees.

It was time to go, but I kept getting distracted by this, that, and another thing. Even exiting through the visitors center stopped me on the spot, as I had to check out the planters overhead. The pergola on my deck needs something like this, but with vining plants, to provide more shade.

These coir planters were backed by metal sheets, presumably to protect the wood.

Since my SO now has family in Milwaukee, we anticipate making this trip on a regular basis, and can make the Chicago Botanical Garden a standard stop. We may even join, as membership gains us access to many other botanical gardens around the country, including the one here in Fort Wayne.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Must be September

The harvest from the vegetable garden is winding down. It was a good year for potatoes, not so much for onions (my fault, I fear, for mishandling the plants last spring), definitely not for tomatoes. There are always lessons learned: One plant provides plenty of zucchini, sweet corn needs to be harvested in a timely manner unless you like the flavor of starch over sugar, you can never have too much horse manure.

September harvest (and the last zucchini)

Another lesson: if there is a way, rabbits and woodchucks have the will. Despite the fortification of wood picket, hardware cloth, and poultry netting, there were occasional incursions by critters. Periodic inspections helped, but invariably damage occurred, even late in the season. I learned that woodchucks climb bean poles...

No beans for you!

... and favor broccoli over cabbage...

Yes to broccoli, no to cabbage

... but no one likes kale enough to justify eight plants.

Not even rabbits or woodchucks like kale

I tried pointing the finger of blame at rabbits, but they don't care for sweet potatoes, nor will they climb onto the cage supposedly protecting the plants, caving it in and nibbling the protruding leaves.

It wasn't me! (This time.)

Fortunately, the enjoyment of late summer flowers balances the frustrations of vegetable gardening. This 'Wild Romance' Aster is a long time survivor. Some years the only thing that saved it was a nearby metal plant marker.

Aster 'Wild Romance', with bee

I've become intrigued by a photo of 'Autumn Joy' Sedum grown as a low hedge that I noticed in Tracy DiSabato-Aust's book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. My cluster gets a bit leggy from not enough sun, but if I move it and pinch it back, perhaps I too can have a sorta hedge of it along the front of the house.

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' starting to blush

I mistakenly thought this Catmint was 'Walker's Low' and could not understand why each plant became so HUGE and spread so FAR. While fooling around in that bed, I found the plant tag. Now that I know its true growth habit, I have just the spot for it, around the garden shed.

Catmint 'Six Hills'

As usual, there are lots of plans for next year. I'm antsy to try them out, but FIRST. There is work to do, like weeding the area under the Hydrangea so next spring it can be populated with Bishop's Weed, aka Goutweed. Bishop's Weed can be a bit out of control, but this corner is somewhat isolated and I'm counting on Bishop's Weed's shade loving nature to help keep it in check.

Hydrangea 'Limelight', weeded

I don't quite know what to do about this problem, though. The deck builders did not follow directions to stay within the footprint of the patio slab and extended the deck over the bed with Joe Pye, Cardinal Flower, and Swamp Milkweed. I wrote those plants off, prematurely it seems. It doesn't bother me that they poke up between the boards, so maybe I will just leave them be.

Joe Pye and Cardinal Flower

My granddaughter's interest in photography is rather erratic, so I can't count on her providing me with regular pics of the yard, or much of anything else, for that matter. But then, she is not quite five and still exploring all there is to do and see in the world.

Photo op

Oh, to be young again. (NOT!)