Thursday, April 28, 2011

RIP - Dianthus 'Neon Star'

I have been shuffling through old photos of the garden (4 years), and it's nice to see how much has changed. I got this dianthus (common name: pinks) from Home Depot in 2008. It was supposed to be a hardy perennial that could tolerate poor soil, and was said to be fine in our zone (zone 5). I believe it is dianthus 'Neon Star.'

As you can see, it did well that summer.

I just now realized it never came back. So what happened? For one thing, it might be more of a zone 6 plant really. Or perhaps it just needed more care with mulching. In any case, it's a curious feeling to stumble across this pretty little ghost plant. It's like finding $20 in my coat pocket that I'd forgotten I had. Only I don't have it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Early Risers

While many gardens have had blooms for weeks, I have had to be satisfied with short sprigs of green (for which I am very grateful) due to brief, afternoon-only sun. After an impatient March, I am usually half in love with anything that pops up quickly. So this post will showcase plants that do just that, with less than perfect light, and no help from me.

I know this is an ugly picture. I have been trying for a few years to get this patch fixed up with cheap, self-seeding wildflowers, but most have refused the offer of a permanent pad. This columbine, however, shows bright green foliage that, despite looking very delicate, withstands the worst spring weather.

If I didn't love variety, I would plant a whole bank of it here. There used to be a sea of lily-of-the-valley, which was magical in spring. But the leaves always turned a wretched orange in early July, and got something like black spot (on a grand scale!). Then it looked like the plague.

Unknown rose, left; 'Handel' rose, right

Roses are among the first plants to leaf out here. The one on the left is an old, established pale pink one that I have done my best, it seems, to kill. Every year it has gotten smaller and more pathetic, probably thanks to my "care." So this year I'm leaving it alone as much as possible. I barely cut it back at all.

The one on the right is "Handel," which I got a few years ago from .  It doesn't get much light, or much water, back along this wall. I thought it was doing poorly, but with the long, warm fall last year it finally took off.

I use the 'Handel' rose for my "About" pic at the right of this blog.

"Outhouse Hollyhocks"

Monster Hollyhocks, in early spring. Hollyhocks are widely known as "outhouse hollyhocks," though I can't find a proper historical source for that phrase. Apparently, ladies used to ask "where are the hollyhocks?" instead of asking where the toilet was. And my mother, who grew up in Chicago, knew of them as "dumpster flowers"--as they easily reach 7 or 8 feet, hiding the trash, and thriving in tough, dry conditions.

I've always liked their large, colorful blooms, though Jenny Uglow tells us that a 19th century critic once said "a lady would as soon think of having a pig in a parlour as a ramping spike of Hollyhock in a bouquet."*  I am not fond of their messy, tatty quality in mid-summer, nor of the swarming (but innocuous) "hollyhock weevil"; but their spring exuberance wins me over every April.

*p. 199 in Jenny Uglow's A Little History of British Gardening (2005).


Catnip. If you have cats, or even if you don't, it's very cheering to see the soft, crinkled green leaves looking like May--well before May.

I haven't had much success starting catnip indoors though. This one started as a potted Christmas present for my cats. It was nipped back to the bare roots when I threw it outside one April. Now I have to hack it away several times a year.

Well, if you could see the rest of my garden, you'd know that I really need to find more "early risers." That first pic accurately portrays the numerous bald, muddy patches in this relatively small space. ...Crocuses, tulips, daffodils--I have them. I love them. But they are too obvious to mention here. And anyway, mine are just beginning to bloom!

Monday, April 25, 2011

That Grow Light System

The Huntington Botanical Gardens

Recently, I went out to the Huntington Library in California to do research. They take away your manuscripts for an hour at lunch, and force you out into the garish sunlight to walk through their hideous botanic gardens. You have to eat at these strange little tables in the open air (in mid April!) next to camellias and roses and hummingbirds before they finally let you back into the windowless reading room.

As you can see, it's an appalling state of affairs over there.

Whereas here in Chicago, especially on a day like today, no one would dare suggest that you spend any time in the garden. Which is why I bought a grow light...

This is my Hydrofarm Jump Start T5 Grow Light System. I got it from Amazon for about $55. It was far less expensive than the Aerogarden units, or any other grow light system. The lamp was defective, but I wrote directly to Hydrofarm and they replaced it immediately. It features a T-5 24 watt 64000K full daylight spectrum fluorescent tube.

In other words, it's nothing too special, but it seems to be working.

I think this contraption would work even better, and perhaps throughout the year, if I had better window light.

Here you can see the parsly, basil, zinnias, and some sort of lettuce doing okay. They are cute, but very leggy and delicate...I have my doubts as to how they'll take to the outdoors.

HP Produce is selling a lot of plants now. Some are quite large and it's hard not to notice the difference. But then, they've never (yet) sold live cilantro, parsley, chives, etc.

Plus, there's the joy factor--of watching things grow! And knowing that if you wreck them, no one will care!

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Welcome to my new blog about plants, trees, and green things in and around Hyde Park, Chicago!

Clematis, just beginning to leaf out
I have a tiny garden with a chain link fence and problematic sun conditions. Yet I seem to spend a lot of time out there, messing about, trying new things. I am no expert at gardening. Despite several years of experience, I could horrify you with stories of vegetal abuse and neglect. You'll see some evidence of this, I'm sure. But I hope also to share my various successes--perhaps some of it due to your help!

I'll start with a comparison of my indoor and outdoor seedlings. I didn't start anything until April 1st this year. I only have afternoon sun in the garden, and indoors I lack any south-facing windows. But I did buy a grow light...

This is supposed to be cilantro, although the red shoots to the left and right look a lot like my Swiss Chard seedlings. As you can see, sown outdoors in a flower pot, it's not doing great. Yesterday, I put a plastic dome over it. I don't know anything about 'cold frame' gardening, but I guess I'll learn. First problem: where to get supplies, or how to make them...

You can see the cilantro in the back there...It really did well. But perhaps the fluorescent lamp was hung too high above it, so the seedling got very leggy and fell over. I'm going to go with it though!

In front, you can see the morning glory. Morning glory grows into a great privacy screen on chain-link fences. It is quite invasive. However, my garden is small enough that it gives me something to do every day, whether plucking off excess seedlings in the spring or nipping off excess seed pods in the fall.

My biggest problem: they do not grow up high enough until mid-July in my garden, probably because I have limited afternoon sun. So this year, with a head start indoors, I hope I'll get some coverage a bit earlier than that. By the way, those are chives there too. They're doing pretty well indoors.