Thursday, August 30, 2012

Balcony and Fire Escape Gardening

My other blog on Nordic noir and Scandinavian culture has prevented me from posting here lately, but I have a huge backlog of photos to share from this summer in Hyde Park. Today I salute those who "garden with what they've got," along with a few more traditionally beautiful balconies.

Case in point, below. Perhaps that security light is a brighter red than the little flowers above it, but my heart swelled at the sight of the planter. It doesn't take much to say, "I care, and I take care"... 

...I've seen some nice stone balconies that look like a plant cemetery, so bravo to this gardener (above), who puts something up here every year--and keeps it watered. I might only suggest some trailing plants next year in addition to petunias etc.

And hats off to this scrappy gardener for using basic cinder blocks to create pedestals. By raising the plants up to chair level, the occupant can sit outside with some measure of privacy:

A tale of two balconies (below). I see this a lot. People are biased toward balconies with big cement enclosures. If they have one, they happily add plants. Yet the upper, see-through balcony would be lovely to sit on (and private!) if only it had plants.

Every year this balcony looks terrific with its oversized plants (below)....

...but I have felt some trepidation walking beneath it in a wind storm.... I googled around and read somewhere that you can secure big pots by using Velcro sticky tape. I don't know what this person's secret is, but we've had some fierce, tree-shattering storms on this street and I've never seen these pots budge.

This could almost be called a fire escape community garden... 
Fire Escape Garden Colony

...If you live in Hyde Park, you've most certainly seen these (above) since they face a very public area. The inhabitants have chosen not to sulk inside with the shades drawn, and instead have gone hog wild with hanging pots and ivy. The lowest floors have little plots of earth that are all planted up too. A great example of infectious gardening!

This is more of a stoop than a balcony...

...but I fell for the mix of fancy cement flower planters and the upscale, stained wooden green bean trellis.

Now, for some typical three story walk-up balconies, the kind you see all over the University of Chicago neighborhood. They are so conducive to picturesque balcony gardening...

I love, love, love the way this hanging circular sun catcher (below) gives focus to the plants:

Other things give focus to a balcony as well...

Anyway, if I missed you--don't worry, I'm still looking...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Morning Glory as a Privacy Screen

I've been taking photos of great balcony and fire escapes gardens in Hyde Park lately, though that post will come out a little later. For now, since many people are probably eager to start growing something up their fences, chain-link or not, I thought I'd share my thoughts on Morning Glory.

I know it isn't exciting. It's a relatively late starter (zone 5b). It collapses with the first cold snap. When it goes, it looks like rotting lettuce on the fence. Mr. Brownthumb  admits he doesn't care for the common varieties (though he mentions a few more unusual ones that he prefers).

But since I just suffered a round of clematis wilt, I'm finding more to like about Morning Glory. My greatest gripe is that in my afternoon-sun-only garden, this is what it normally amounts to by mid July.

Disappointing early growth of Morning Glory; but cute heart shaped leaves
Even with the freakishly warm spring this year, it has only grown about half that high as of mid June!

Then again, by late July, August, September (maybe October if the weather is nice)...the tables are turned:
Morning Glory grown on a short chain-link fence with a taller bamboo trellis attached

That (above) is a 3 foot tall chain-link fence with a 6 foot bamboo trellis wired securely to it. Once the Morning Glory grows up, the privacy is fantastic. When it's covered with flowers, it's enchanting.

Although it seems made for chain-link, it grows on anything. Here it is on an arbor:

Morning Glory on an arbor

You can find photos of Morning Glory blooms, and Morning Glory on fences or growing up a post, as well as a good discussion about it at .  My fellow Hyde Park garden blogger at A Modest Plot also clued me in to the fact that there are two types of Morning Glory: perennial and annual. I only know the annual kind, which seems much friendlier to work with!

In sum, my (inexpert) thoughts about morning glory on chain-link fences:

*eventually provides good dense foliage and privacy
*in 4 years, I've never seen it suffer any serious die back, nothing like clematis wilt or black spot on roses
*can cover a large, high area completely--no gaps
*gorgeous blooms, cute heart shaped leaves
*bounces back well from extreme heat
*cheap and/or self seeding
*twines/clings on its own, takes to chain-link easily
*it's often already there anyway!

*can become a 'monster weed'--needs constant, heavy cutting back by late July (no skill necessary!)
*you will have to either a) weed a lot the following spring or b) nip the seed pods off continually after each bloom dies. Or both. Mulching helps control new growth though.
*wear gloves and long sleeves when handling (I always get a light rash on my arms and hands)
*apparently the seeds contain LSD and can be poisonous to certain animals, like cats, though I can't see many cats wanting to eat or chew it on purpose
*starts pretty late in the season (zone 5B); roses, clematis and grapevine leaf out much earlier 
*can die back suddenly with the first cold snap (below 30F) and then looks terrible until it dries out
*can choke other plants
*a nuisance to remove from a chain-link fence; I believe it's easier and quicker to pull the vines out while they're still green and strong. Or you can leave it on the fence for a brambly winter look.
*the good dense foliage can limit air circulation, which I think can increase the risk of mildew, black spot, etc. on nearby roses.

 So yes, it's a real bother of a plant. But once again, somehow, I'm using it.

Future chain-link fence posts may include the following plants: Honey Suckle, Trumpet Creeper (beware), Black Eyed Susan, climbing roses, and Hyacinth Bean. Shrubs might include Buddleia (butterfly bush) and various evergreens.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beautify a Chain-Link Fence: Paint It Black, Or Partly Dismantle It

Here are two thoughts on how to alter the appearance of a basic chain-link fence. For once, this is not about growing plants on or around it. It's about the fence itself.

1. I came across this very unique approach in Hyde Park the other day.

A partly dismantled chain-link fence
Chain-link fences are a fact of life for many of us. Digging out the posts can be quite strenuous. The posts are sunk into concrete that has been poured very deep into the ground. Digging them up can cause plants or structures around it to collapse into any remaining holes. You could rent a metal-cutting power saw and just saw them off at the base...but you still wouldn't be able to plant anything where the concrete is.

This gardener shows how you can remove just the chain-link part of the fence. This works especially if you don't need a secure yard for a dog etc.. Then it might look like this (above and below):

These large sculptures take the place of the old chain-link mesh

I am really quite fond of the contrast (below) between the beautiful traditional garden on the right, with its trim white picket fence and tidy potted flowers, and the striking bohemian garden on the left. Both are eye-catching, and even more so for being right next to each other.

Add caption
So what else could you do with a chain-link fence to make it look a little less like... a chain-link fence?

2. You could paint it black (or green etc.). Purchasing an already black chain-link fence would be better. But I think black is within your reach if you want it. Just try to do it before your clinging vines are established. You could also use Rustoleum's Chain-Link Fence Paint to brighten a rusted silver fence back to its original, gleaming industrial shine. Your choice!

I would paint my own fence black now, but my clematis and a few other plants prevent me from doing so. I also think that if you really want it to look neat and clean in black, the fence needs to be pretty straight. If it is leaning here and there, that's where you should grow some plants!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cats and Songbirds in the Garden Together?

I recently stumbled across this bird safe-feeding station. At least that's what it could be with a little imagination:

A possible bird safe-feeding station discovered in Sweden

I was already aware of outdoor cat cages designed to keep cats safe and far away from bird feeding areas--an important issue given the declining songbird population. But I had never thought of erecting a cage around the bird feeders to keep cats and other critters out (or to hinder them at least). Here's a close-up:
Improvements needed, to be sure; this is too small and too low, but still...
There are many possible variations on this theme. I envision this one being much taller and wider. You'd have to plan it carefully so a cat wouldn't have anywhere to hide. Ground feeders like juncos and cardinals might then safely peck at seed dropped from above.

Though this works pretty well too:

Some wicked cats, happy and safe...with non-poisonous astilbe and nasturtiums

As with chain-link fences, I can imagine these metal structures test the aesthetic tolerance of many gardeners. I can almost hear someone whispering, "Oh dear...I wouldn't want that in my garden!" But maybe when the health of the environment is at stake, not to mention the well-being of pets, just maybe these structures should be seen in a different light. Like chain-link fences, these cages might be just plain useful, and they can be thoughtfully planted up too. I also like the idea of two kinds of cages because building them is something both cat and bird lovers can do, humanely, right now in their own back yards. No need to kidnap the neighbor's evil bird-killing cat.

Another thing you can do right now is support TNR or 'trap-neuter-return' of feral cats. TNR started in my neighborhood around the University of Chicago in 2008 (see Hyde Park Cats). Since then, the number of stray/feral roaming cats in my urban alley has dropped from about 20 a year to about 1 a year. Good thing, because some of the more lavish gardens here attract nearly two dozen different kinds of birds, not just sparrows.

For more info on the pictured cat cage (which could also be used for bird feeders) and photos of other peoples' elaborate set-ups go to: .

For info on non-poisonous plants to use around a cat cage, see the ASPCA list of toxic and non-toxic plants .

For smaller, cheaper, less permanent outdoor cat cage options go to this page at Drs. Foster and Smith.

A few links related to the debate on free roaming cats (house cats or ferals) and their effect on the songbird population:

*Audubon Magazine's notes on songbird cages endorsed
*Alley Cat Allies' Response to Smithsonian's Report on TNR (trap-neuter-return of feral cats)
*The Daily Show's not terribly funny spoof on Alley Cat Allies vs. American Bird Conservancy
*A sane response to arguments against TNR by Steve Dale at Chicago Now, which points out that light and noise pollution and habitat loss caused by humans are far more destructive to birds than cats
*NYTimes blog on climate change as threat to bird populations
*War on Cats and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom...and how birds also die by flying into buildings

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Short Chain-Link Fence

For about a year now I've had my eye on this newly revamped garden. The chain-link fence is even shorter than mine--3 feet tall at most.  It actually looks taller in this photo:

I can't remember what used to be here--I guess not much. But I remember the day I walked by and saw that little stone bench, which is probably less than two feet high itself. This makes perfect sense. You can imagine how a regular sized garden chair would pop up above the fence line, the proportions all out of whack. But with this very small, complementary stone bench, I imagine a different scene instead--maybe a child sitting there in the sun while a parent tends the tomatoes. In other words, the fence is the last thing I notice, and its height seems "about right" rather than "short."

While the new plants are growing in, the garden decor offers colorful whimsy.

One can imagine a banana scented butterfly bush in here, with real butterflies floating about.

It's amazing how that bench, some new mulch, a patio, and a few stepping stones turned the formerly nondescript urban space into a very cute, tidy garden. 

Some musings on what to do with a shorter chain-link fence:

Clearly, aim to find a focal point that is the right size!

If privacy is not an issue, and the height of the fence will not be changed, I might try extending the miniature garden theme to go with the little bench. Miniature roses, crocuses, Siberian squill, sweet woodruff...a tiny pond, or painted bird houses. Maybe a Japanese Maple somewhere, pruned accordingly.

A miniature children's garden would also be interesting. I picture vintage toys, like an old red wagon planted with ranunculus or any extremely bright flowers.

On the other hand, if privacy is wanted soon-ish and on the cheap, a shrubby border would do. Lilac or forsythia might even engulf the fence, hiding it entirely. If you use grapevine or ivy, you could eventually add in a taller trellis to increase the height. 

Really, the possibilities abound. I look forward to seeing what the gardener here decides to do. Even if he or she puts in a big wooden fence, at least I'd know it was nice inside!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Unlikely Spaces Spring 2012

Been wandering around new areas lately, and saw this. What a great way to beautify your condo or apartment building. Yet it seems like 60-70% of all such buildings have only lawns, which don't offer wildlife much food or shelter, and may be bad for the environment. It's still early spring (if crazily warm) but I can see where this patch is going, and I may return for more photos.

Being sensitive to the difficulties faced by less dominant birds, I love the different feeders and varieties of seed here. Once the vegetation grows up, it will look great. The birds are of course pleased with anything just now.

I've lived in Hyde Park for nearly a decade, and I've never noticed the fire station's garden on 55th Street.

It's not thriving just yet, but someone bothered to hang a little bird house and set up a brick border. Perhaps a donation of annuals or bulbs would be in order... I'd love to see a little trellis here too.

And here we have an example of my pet interest. There's no reason the chain-link garden should be deprived of spring blooms...

So don't be shy about throwing some seeds down, hanging a feeder, or using odd materials to create a plant stand. You never know whose day might be brightened by your effort.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dressing Up Your Chain-Link Fence

This caught my eye last summer when I was in Sweden. I was very impressed.

A cleverly disguised chain-link fence
Depending on the length of the chain-link fence, it might not be very expensive to buy the tiles. These look like plastic to me, and they're not half bad. The silvery white lamp is a nice touch at the end. The industrial gray post is complemented by the natural gray of the stones. The stones also suggest a pleasing solidity. That's something that bothers me about chain-link fences: although I know they're very strong, they tend to rattle in the wind and look flimsy. But these stones, along with the tiles, give the fence some weight while conveying a sense of cozy enclosure.

One very good question is how those tiles are stuck on. If I were to attempt this--and I'm considering it--I might start with simple kitchen and bath caulk. I think I could scrape it off if necessary. Maybe sticky-backed Velcro would work. For some reason I balk at the idea of making it more permanent. What if a tile breaks and I can't find a replacement? I also think smaller tiles might stay on more securely.

In any case, I'm charmed. I will be keeping an eye out for these tiles!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hyde Park Critters

Even in winter, in the city, with a tiny garden and a chain-link fence, there's a lot to see out there. When we get a thin layer of snow like we had a few days ago, I always go out to look for tracks...

We have some bunnies in our alley...and so do you. They're everywhere. They never steal from my garden, but they always check it out anyway.

These tracks on my frozen bird bath are the ones I dread seeing:

Though they're muddled, they look like cat tracks. But baby opossum tracks have fooled me before. Plus, a neighbor let's her cat out, so maybe it's not a stray anyway. Before Hyde Park Cats became active, I used to see these quite often. Once, on a 15˚F winter night, I followed some tracks out of my garden and down the alley, and then they disappeared in a parking lot. It was so sad. But that story had a happy ending. With HPCats' help, I trapped little Daisy and now she's a professor's cat. I rarely see cat tracks these days.

Since I have a bird feeder, I see a lot of hawks, especially in summer. They're fascinating, but they always kind of kill the party. All the other birds leave.

One time a young hawk was spotted in our courtyard. It looked stunned and someone called Animal Control. I made sure to notify Flint Creek Rehabilitation Center right away (here's an article about the center). The bird was transferred to them promptly. Apparently this is common with young hawks, and they usually pull out of it.

Of course there are always squirrels...

If I can, I'll get shots of some of the other critters in Hyde Park. The 'holy grail' would be a shot of the great 'Coonzilla'. I saw her/him in my alley once. She's HUGE.

As always, if you already have some shots to share, send them in!