Monday, October 31, 2011

Scary Story Time

Okay, everyone, please take a seat. In honor of All Hallow's Eve, it's scary story time! Cross-legged on the story rug, please. Quiet, now.

Today, we have a story from Farm Tales.

It's called "Two Little Gardeners."

It's about two little gardeners, who, at the first signs of spring, go outside to plant their garden. They prepared the garden beds, and planted radish, lettuce, peas, pumpkin, squash, get the idea.

The rain came, and the sun shone, and soon their seeds sprouted. Their friends the bees came and pollinated the plants, and their vegetables grew...

...and grew. And all was right with the world.

Until, the bugs came. Potato bugs, June bugs and little green worms.

Here's where it get's scary. (You may want to ask your young children to leave the room.) The two little gardeners came with their spray guns.

And you can guess what happened to the potato bugs, June bugs and little green worms.

Yep, that's them, laying there feet up. Remember their "friends" the bees? Well, they'd be dead too. To make a long story short, they went on to have a successful harvest, and preserved all their (pesticide-laden) food for the winter.

Scary story, huh? I was a little shocked to see this illustration when reading this story to my four-year-old. But then again, it was originally copyrighted in 1951, an era that was known as The Golden Age of Pesticides. They just didn't conduct studies at that time to determine if pesticides were safe. All people saw was that they killed the bugs, and the crops grew.

Organic vegetable gardening is a major movement in the U.S., now that we know the harmful side effects of pesticides. Many people still don't realize, though, that pesticides (like backyard mosquito foggers) don't only kill the bad bugs, they kill the beneficial ones too.

So, what to do? Take time now to plan your chemical-free mosquito abatement stragegy for next summer. Plant native plants around and inside the vegetable garden. These plants will attract beneficial insects and birds, who often feed on the baddies. You can also build a purple martin house. They are the happiest mosquito-eating birds around! And while you're at it, build a bat house. And as you've probably heard before, make sure you don't have any standing water around - in buckets, childrens toys, or birdbaths. Keep the chemicals out, and your body will thank you!

Happy Halloween!

Two Little Gardeners by Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd. Illustrated by Gertrude Elliot. Copyright 1951, renewed 1979 by Random House, Inc.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gardens of the Grand Geneva Resort

On a September trip to Lake Geneva, we made a stop at the Grand Geneva Resort to check out the stylized prairie gardens designed by Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm. The plants selected for this landscape were chosen for their drought tolerance, hardiness, and ability to live in a perennial plant community. And, of course, because they look amazing together.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Growing Hamamelis Virginiana (Witchhazel)

This year, I've been so enchanted by Hamamelis, both H. vernalis and H. virginiana (witchhazel). One of the earliest blooming shrubs (late winter/early spring), the scent of H. vernalis hits you at a time when you're craving the fresh smells of nature. H. virginiana sends out it's ribbon-like blooms in the fall (it's blooming right now) just when the garden is putting itself to bed for the season.

Both species are native to the Chicago area. I picked up my H. virginiana at a native plant sale earlier this year, and only caught a couple of blooms on it. Luckily, I saw this one at Midwest Groundcovers' Garden Writer's Day, and snapped a pic that I love. Don't the blooms look like little firecrackers?

Hamamelis virginiana (Witchhazel)

Hamamelis is an easy to grow, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub growing anywhere from 10-15 feet to 25-30 feet in optimal conditions. It prefers moist sites and partial shade in zones 4-8. As you probably already know, the leaves and bark are an astringent, so the plant is used for a variety of skin treatments from acne to insect bites, as it reduces itchiness and swelling.

H. virginiana's ribbon-like flowers

While the flowers open in October in our area, the fruit does not ripen until the next fall. The Hamamelis fruit is a woody four-sided capsule that is said to pop open and "explosively" release the 2-4 seeds inside a few yards from the parent plant. Watch out! Hamamelis is propegated by seed, with little dispersal by birds.

Hamamelis virginiana seed capsule
photo credit
The plant has stunning fall color, yellow to apricot, and can be used as a screen for neighbors or unsightly views in the home landscape.

Hamamelis fall color
photo credit
Hamamelis is an important food source for winter insects, grouse, quail, butterflies, moths, squirrels, and pheasant, so it is an important part of any wildlife garden.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How To Make Your Own Red Pepper Flakes

Don't you love growing hot peppers? The plants produce so many peppers, and those bright colors look so gorgeous on the plant. Every year I plant six or eight plants with hopes of making tons of my own salsa and hot sauce. Well, once again, life got in the way, and I never got around to it. But that doesn't mean the peppers have to go to waste.

This year, for the first time, I made my own red pepper flakes. I dried the peppers on a paper towel in my kitchen for about two weeks, removed the green tops, then chopped them up tiny in the food processor. I found these Weck glass jars that are perfect for dry storage at Glen Ellyn's new kitchen store, Marcel's Culinary Experience (go if you haven't yet!).

We've already used a lot, sprinkling it on pizza and pasta dishes. And I think it tastes so much better than store-bought red pepper flakes. You get both heat and flavor.

I just ordered a dehydrator using some banking points I've accumulated, but they are cheap in the store too. That will reduce the pepper drying time to one or two days. I'll also be able to try lots of other dried food recipes, like trail mix with dried fruit, kale chips, even beef jerky.

Post Produce Day is hosted by Daniel Gasteiger at Your Small Kitchen Garden. Check out his blog to see what he and other veggie gardeners are up to!

What's your favorite fruit or vegetable to dry?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Goodbye Lawn! Part 2

I mentioned in an earlier post that I plan to eliminate our front lawn to increase the beauty of the area, attract birds, bees, and butterflies, and reduce the labor and cost of maintaining a lawn. I've gone back and forth so many times about what to replace the grass with. Low-mow grasses? Groundcovers? Prairie? There are so many options when it comes to grass replacements.

A particulary bad spot in my front lawn. Yuck!

My goal is to plant a drought-tolerant perennial garden that attracts birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects, and provides a nice view from my porch.

My current view. Not bad, but could be better!

I've taken two courses in perennial plant communities with well-known nurseryman Roy Diblik, and am a huge fan of designer Piet Oudolf, so I have decided to go with a stylized prairie look in our front yard. I'll use plants under 24" tall, so that it does not look wild.

Tell me what you think of my plant palette.

Calamintha nepeta and Eregrostis spectabilis

Sesleria autumnalis

Allium angulosum 'Summer Beauty'

Stachys officinalis 'Hummelo'

Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau'

Monarda bradburianavia

Salvia nemerosa 'May Night'

Echinacea purpurea 'Alba'

                                                      Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire'

The Monarda bradburiana, Echinacea purpurea, Deschampsia cespitosa and Eregrostis spectabilis are native or cultivars of natives, and I'd like to incorporate a couple more in the 18-24" range. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wordless Wednesday - The Beauty of...Fungus?

This fungus photo is the one I plan to submit for the October Gardening Gone Wild Picture This Photo Contest. I don't think I'll get an honorable mention like last month, but I've been busy, and I like the shot. The theme is "Fill the Frame."

My little girl pointed this out on a recent walk in the woods. Even fungus can be beautiful!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Leaf Magazine - New Design Inspiration for Outdoors

A new free electronic landscape and outdoor design magazine launches today. Leaf Magazine was created by Susan Cohan and Rochelle Greayer - landscape designers, garden writers, and bloggers at Miss Riumphus' Rules and Studio g, respectively. Leaf promises "a fresh approach to outdoor design that is both aspirational and accessible." Sounds good to me. And you can't beat the pricetag. I just might let one of my other garden design subscriptions expire.

Those of us who "Liked" Leaf Magazine on Facebook got a sneak preview to the table of contents for the first issue, Autumn 2011. Articles titled, "Easy Pieces for Fall Layers," "Three Men Went to Mow," "Seeds for Africa," and "Pick Your Own Cocktail," have me intrigued and waiting anxiously for the full issue to arrive in my inbox.

The graphic design is clean and fresh, and the images colorful and inviting. I'm looking forward to what Leaf has in store for us. Visit Leaf Magazine to subscribe so you don't miss the first issue!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fall is Sedum Time

Sedums are great plants for the home landscape. My mom calls them "never-dies" because they are so hardy and drought resistant. They also bloom when not much else is - right now! While 'Autumn Joy' is the most common sedum used in our area, there are other varieties you might want to try in your garden. All of the sedums below love full sun, are salt tolerant, deer resistant, and attract beneficial pollenators like butterflies and bees.

Sedum 'T-Rex'
Reaches 24-36" tall and wide at maturity.

Sedum 'Matrona'
Reaches 18-24" tall and wide at maturity.

Sedum spectabile "Autumn Joy"
Reaches 18-24" tall and wide at maturity.

Sedum 'Neon'
Reaches 12-18" tall and wide at maturity.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Goodbye Lawn! Part 1

For a while now, I've been in my husband's ear about getting rid of our front lawn. Planting the seed, so to speak, of the idea that there are alternatives to grass, and that we can be unique while using fewer resources. He's been resistant to the idea mainly, I think, because it's tradition - all the other homes in our area grow grass in their front lawn. But lawns can be labor-intensive and expensive. Consider all of the resources used while mowing, blowing, edging, trimming, watering, seeding, weeding, de-thatching, aerating, and fertilizing the lawn. Granted, we don't do all of these (we don't water or fertilize) but still spend about 1-1.5 hours a week on the lawn. The funny thing is, we don't even walk on the front lawn! Since we live on a semi-busy street, we do all of our outdoor living in the backyard.

So, I think I've broken him down. Between my rambling on about the labor, financial, and environmental savings, and the fact that it's looked pretty bad all summer, I think he is coming over to my side. Just last week, I brought up the great lawn debate again, and got a positive response! That is, if you consider a very defeated sounding, "I don't really care anymore," a positive response. Yippee! More room for plants!

The standard front yard is changing, and becoming more eco-friendly. And there are so many alternatives. 

A turf-free front yard is unique and sustainable. Credit

Hundreds of groundcover options are available including sedums, clovers, thyme, mint, moss, and so many other low-growing and spreading plants. Sunny front yards like mine have the most options. Lo-grow grasses such as buffalo grass, prairie smoke, or blue fescue; sedges; and many flowering groundcovers would work well. For yards with partial sun, liriope is a good option. It spreads quickly and blooms a white or purple flower.

Homeowners with shady yards have undoubtedly spent lots of money and time trying to grow grass. Groundcovers that tolerate shade are perfect for this type of yard and include pachysandra, ajuga, corydalis, or wild strawberry.

Artificial groundcovers are also interesting, and decorative rocks, a paver patio, decking, or artificial grass should be considered.

Freshly planted liriope as a lawn replacement. Credit 

Choosing Natives 
Our region’s native plants are a great option when considering what to replace your lawn with. Not only do native plants support much more wildlife and beneficial insects than grass, but their deeper root systems help water to infiltrate, relieving pressure on our already stressed sewer systems and allow recharging of our underground aquifers.

Once established, native plants are easier to care for than grass, requiring little to no watering or fertilization. Watering and weeding are necessary until the plants are established, but after that, they will thrive without if sited correctly. 

I was so excited to design a front yard potager for one of my first clients this season. The homeowner is an energetic mom of three kids and wants to grow the vegetables that her family eats, however, her backyard is shady. Your sunny front yard can be put to more use than just growing grass! We designed a square potager using brick pavers, a small seating area, updated shrubs and perennials near the foundation and sidewalk, and enclosed it all in a beautiful short fence. You can grow your own vegetables in an elegant way that complements your home and welcomes guests.

Put your sunny front yard to work growing vegetables.

Important Considerations
Before choosing a lawn alternative, consider how much foot traffic the yard will endure. Some groundcovers cannot handle heavy traffic, so more durable materials should be used. Other important things to assess are the amount of sun the yard receives, soil type, climate, and slope.

In Goodbye Lawn! Part 2, you'll see the "Before" pics, and I'll tell you what plants I've chosen for my grass-free front lawn.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Join Me in The Grove

photo credit
It's October, and we are enjoying a taste of Indian Summer here in Chicagoland. The leaves on the trees changing colors paired with 75-80 degree sunny weather makes staying indoors impossible.

All talk turns to trees this time of year. The brilliant colors. The falling leaves. Fall always inspires me to plant a tree in my yard, and this year is no different. I'm focusing on native plants in my home landscape - but there are so many to choose from. Considering that any tree that I plant will most likely outlive me, I really want it to have a special meaning. That's when I looked to The Grove.

The Grove is an online community that was established in 2008 by the Georgia Urban Forestry Council, The Georgia Forestry Commission and the US Forest Service. Since then, other states have joined the community with the intent of inspiring people to plant trees in their yards and neighborhoods. You can share tree planting stories, tree and gardening resources, photos, and videos with other green-minded people.

I turned to The Grove's Tree Selector which helps with the selection of trees for the commemoration of an occasion like a birth or milestone birthday, or a memorial. I selected my state, and for the life event I selected "Family Appreciation." Not to get all mushy or anything, but over the last few months I've been feeling particularly content with life and so thankful for my family and friends. Digging in the dirt does that to you, I think.

The Tree Selector chose Celtis occidentalis (Hackberry), which surprised me because I had recently studied this tree and wanted to add it to our yard to support local wildlife. It's berries attract many different songbirds, and attracting birds is one of the reasons I want to plant native trees in the first place!

In addition to the Tree Selector at The Grove, you can also get tree advice from certified arborists and staff from state and national forestry agencies. You can find events happening in your area, and watch cool tree videos (my idea of a hot Friday night these days). You can even join your state "Grove" and connect with others in your area. C'mon, Illinois, we need more members! Click on "Groups" to find your state. So, won't you join me in The Grove?

Check out these videos from The Grove in the meantime:
Growing is Forever
One Fine Day - David Byrne and Brian Eno Tree Time Lapse
First Trees Planted at 9/11 Memorial

Monday, October 3, 2011

Roy Diblik's Northwind Perennial Farm

"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads"-painted on a building at Northwind

Garden enthusiasts will certainly think they've walked into a little piece of heaven when entering Roy Diblik's Northwind Perennial Farm (7047 Hospital Road, Burlington, WI). I've mentioned before that I'm a huge fan of Roy's since I'd taken my first perennials class with him last year, and after touring The Lurie Garden at Millennium Park with Roy earlier this summer, I knew I had to visit the farm where a majority of the plants were grown. A few college friends and I took a road trip to visit the farm late last month and were not disappointed. In fact, Roy himself drove over to the farm from home, where he was working on a design project for downtown Chicago, to hang out with us. 

Northwind is an amazing farm, complete with growing fields for over a half-million perennials, a retail nursery and gift shop, farm animals, quirky garden art, and the stylized prairie gardens. Northwind is also currently renovating an area of the property that will soon be available for weddings, dinners, and other events. Lucky is the couple who gets married at Northwind and gets to have their wedding photos taken among these amazing gardens, which were gorgeous even this late in the season.

Verbena bonariensis, a vigorous self-seeder at Northwind

Wouldn't you love to hang out in this little cottage?

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' and
Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'

The prettiest outhouse I've ever seen

Roy and I discussing Calamagrostis 'Tillie', a new introduction that you will see soon!