The grassland, er... parking lot

There are a couple of wonderful patches of ornamental grasses in suburban Chicago. No, I'm not talking about some expansive prairie restoration project, or some botanical garden display (although they probably have nice grass plantings too).

The patches I found were in the parking lot of a hotel I spent a night in.


Big cold trees

One of my favorite things about winter is being able to see the structure of all of the deciduous trees. I love trees when at all times of the year, but seeing their dark, naked branches against the bright winter sky (or sunrise, or sunset) has always been special to me.

On Christmas day I visited a "Forest Preserve" (aka "park") in suburban Chicago near my mother's house. I haven't been to this particular park in probably 20 years, and the trees that I remember as being quite large back then were even bigger now.


Christmas gift survives

A few years ago for Christmas I gave my mother a small container of mixed succulents. These weren't plants that I grew myself, but I had seen them at the local garden center and thought they would look nice in her window -- unlike mine, her house has a nice big south-facing window that gets a decent amount of sunlight in the winter.

My mother has always had mixed luck with houseplants -- some of them thrive, but others struggle. I suspect that overwatering is often the issue there (as it is one of the main causes of houseplant death I've read), but it could also be light levels, humidity, lack of nutrients, goofy water chemistry... but I'm getting off topic. The point is I gave her these small plants not knowing how they'd do in her care.


Vines come down

I know I keep mentioning the mild start to our winter, but it's been making a big difference in my garden. One benefit is that I've been able to clean up the yard at a more leisurely pace -- which is great because I was concerned how exactly I'd be able to get it all done this fall. Something I tackled last week was cleaning up some of the annual vine remnants.

In previous years this was something I might have left until later in the winter -- something to do in the garden on those mild days that seem to pop up every year in January or February before the normal cold temperatures return. This year though I figured I'd pull them down now so I don't have to look at them all winter.



I never would have thought that at the end of December I would find a plant that was so green in the garden.

This parsley was decimated by swallowtail butterfly caterpillars earlier this year, but has come back strong and should do so again in the spring (before setting seed). ***

I'm on a train back to St. Louis today, so short post. Back tomorrow with more!



Christmas Kale

The day after Christmas, and there is one plant in the miserable failure that was my vegetable garden this year that is still going strong: kale.

Earlier this year it was a constant battle with the caterpillars, who won by chewing so many holes in the leaves I had given up on these plants.


Merry Christmas!

To those of you who celebrate this holiday season, I wish you a wonderful one!

Thank you for reading my blog, and enjoy the holiday! ***



green and gold

This mild start to winter has given me a longer than usual taste of green.

I noticed the other day that there are a few plants that have mixed their greens with some gold, to nice effect.


A first for me, cactus surprise

I've had minimal gardening experience with cactus. I inherited what was once a 2" (5cm) tall potted cactus at least a decade ago and have watched it grow to over 2' (60cm) tall over the years, and have seen a patch of prickly pears in a nearby neighbor's front garden, and I grew some cactus from seed last year... and there was also the small cactus that I was quite allergic to -- if it touched me I would break out in a very itchy rash almost immediately -- but I let that one die outside one winter. That's the extent of my dealings with cactus though. Compared to some people like this, and this, I know nothing.

So a few months ago when I got some Optunia pads as part of a plant trade, I didn't know what to expect. I stored two of the three pads on a shelf in the garage for planting in the spring, but potted the third up and brought it inside under my grow lights. I wanted to see how long it would take before it rooted and showed signs of growing.


Bring out your dead!

Some posts are pretty, involving interesting plants with colorful blooms and lush foliage. This is not one of those posts, because it came about from my attempts to clear off my driveway. Yes, the driveway that this year became essentially a garden center, covered in pots of all sorts of plants.

I've gotten at least 80% of the pots removed, and there are just a few sad specimens left. Even though they're just stems, it's easy to know what each of them contains right now -- there are a few small dappled willows, some river birch saplings, some butterfly bush seedlings, and then there are the hyssops.


When all through the house...

Not a creature was stirring... that's because they're not in the house. They're in the garage. One of my annual struggles is to only overwinter plants, not animals. Especially the rodent types.

So I end up catching a lot of mice in the garage as winter kicks in. Before I realized this was something I needed to stay on top of, there was a year where the little critters didn't stay in the garage -- they came into the basement and forced me to "knock it up a notch. Bam!" That was years ago though, and I have a pretty good system now.


Sticks, black sticks

With all of my winter preparations: bringing potted plants into the garage, into the house, digging up dozens and dozens of elephant ear bulbs, digging non-hardy rootballs for storage over the winter -- somehow I forgot about one plant. I seem to do this every year. (Thankfully it's not the same plant each year -- I like to spread around the neglect.)

This year the forgotten one was my large pot of Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana). Although our weather has been extremely mild so far this winter, we have had some hard freezes, including one night that got down to 14ºF (-9ºC).


outside looking in

Although it's been quite mild so far this year, once winter kicks in there won't be too much opportunity to get out into the garden, so the view of it from inside of the house is much more important. There are three main windows that look out into the back yard, and I thought it would be good to show you what I get to look at for the next few months. First though, the windows get cleaned.

My wife walked in as I was taking these photos and remarked on the beautiful, clean windows. When I told her I only cleaned them because I was composing a blog post, she asked if I would be doing any posts about the floor or bathroom anytime soon.


A little pick-me-up

By "pick-me-up" I really mean "prop-it-up". And by "it" I mean bamboo. This Phyllostachys glauca 'Yunzhu' keeps defeating my attempts to keep it more upright and out of my neighbor's yard. (The property line is between the vertical pole in the bamboo and the edge of the wooden compost bin. So although the roots are in my yard, it looks like about 50% of the plant is actually in my neighbor's yard.)

You can see that the support poles I installed earlier this year are no longer in place -- one is angling out of the right edge of the photo). I've got some ideas for a more long-term support structure that involves new poles and probably some welding, but for the near future I have a quick fix.


Learning the lingo

One thing you notice when you first get into gardening and plants is that there is a lot of terminology involved. If you've not had any exposure to Latin or Greek before, you will when you visit your local garden center and start reading plant tags. Although knowing the common names of plants may be a good starting point, that's often not enough to narrow it down to a specific plant. Try going to the nursery and asking for a "moonflower", or "daisy". Plant genus and species names are usually in latin, and asking for "Chrysanthemum maximum" is going to get you exactly the plant you wanted (Shasta daisy).

But the terminology goes further than just plant names. Have you ever tried to describe a plant to somebody when you didn't know the name? Or have you read a description of a plant somewhere (maybe in a field guide of some sort) and tried to understand what it meant? Every part of a plant: the leaf edges, the stems, the parts of the flower, even the tiny hairs that usually go unnoticed -- they all have specific names to describe them. Although it's not necessary to learn all of them, it's sometimes quite helpful. Without turning to a textbook on botany, how do you learn them? One way is on Tony Foster's excellent reference blog: Phytography.


Plant table pretty

My indoor plant table where I overwinter way too much stuff is mainly functional. I think of it like a greenhouse, sort of a production facility. A jumble of pots, different plants, indoor gardening tools, pest control products, dead mantis carcasses, spilled seeds, dried leaves that have dropped or been cut -- basically, it's not pretty.

But I realized this morning that when you look at it the right way, there is quite a bit of beauty to be found here.


The season for a little rush

Considering the time of year and the amount of holiday-related happenings that most people are involved in, you might thing that's what the title of my post means -- that I'm short on time getting this post out, or shopping, or doing something in the garden.

But no, I mean it literally, because today's post is about a little rush: Equisetum scirpoides or "dwarf horsetail".


blonde skips work

I'm not a blonde and I'm not skipping work, so you may wonder what exactly "blonde skips work" means, and what a post with that title is doing on my blog. I wondered the same thing when I saw it in the search terms that Google told me was getting people to this site.

That's right, it's time for another look at search terms! I've done this once before and have been collecting the more interesting terms since then, and it's time to review them again.


Garage or house?

One of my biggest challenges each winter is what to do with the plants that are tropical or not quite cold-hardy enough to survive the cold months here. It basically comes down to one choice: keep them in the garage, or keep them in the house.

Last year I kept several different plants in the garage for the first time, and my success there has encouraged me to try it with even more this year.


What to do about the bamboos?

Of all of the overwintering tasks I have each year, the potted bamboos are the most work. Not that overwintering bamboo is difficult, especially since most of the plants I have should be cold-hardy here, but they're in pots which reduces their cold-hardiness.

I have so many pots of it, and some of those pots are quite large. That's the difficulty. For the past two years I've created a temporary greenhouse, but I've decided not to bother this winter. Instead I'll be burying pots and will tarp over some of the plants, as I did last year.



Part of my overwintering strategy each year is to take cuttings of tender plants, root them indoors, and grow them under lights for the winter. By springtime I'll have several new plants of each variety to put into the garden.

Some plants root so easily in water -- those are my favorites not only because they're almost foolproof, but because you can watch the roots forming.


Fireplace bounty

As the temperature is predicted to plunge to about 14ºF (-9ºC) tonight -- which is quite a bit below the normal of 28ºF (-2ºC) -- I decided it would be a good night to fire up the wood stove. We had a high-efficiency wood-burning stove "insert" installed in our fireplace a few years back, and it's wonderful for cold evenings and mornings. I was looking forward to the first fire of the year, so out to the woodpile I went (thank you full moon!), carried in a couple buckets of wood, and opened the stove door for the first time for at least six months.

Not only was it full of ashes (I'm never bothered about cleaning it out in the spring), but there were a few surprises in there too.


Photo Friday

The cold that has settled into my body has left me unwilling to write more than a few words.

Fortunately the cold has also settled upon my new pond, solidifying, texturing, giving me a wonderful new subject to photograph. Photos only today.


An unexpected opportunity

The other day I noticed there were a few more potted elephant ears that I hadn't dug up yet -- I knew I had a lot of these this past year, but I didn't realized exactly how many. In any case, I noticed something else about these specific pots:

They have some other plants growing in them. "Weeds" was my first thought, but the leaves looked familiar. After a moment I realized they were volunteer Verbena bonariensis plants!


Tweets, and Followers, and other gardens

Today's post is going to be a little bit different, as I'm not going to talk about my garden at all. I'm also not going to talk about other gardens, or animals, or Nature, or building anything. I'm going to talk briefly about this blog -- or more to the point, some features of it I'd like to point out.

Although "features" may not be the right word... I'm battling a nasty cold right now and I don't have complete brain control yet this morning, so I apologize if the things I write are less clear than usual (if they ever are clear even on good days). The things I want to talk about are found in the right column of the blog, starting with the topmost item: Twitter.


Saving papyrus

Yesterday I wrote about saving some water plants, growing them inside the house under lights. Those were small plants -- today I tackle the big one: the papyrus. I actually had three large plantings of papyrus 'KingTut' this year because I was able to successfully overwinter a few plants last year. With that experience I'm going to experiment a little and should end up with lots of papyrus for next year -- plenty to share with neighbors.

The largest plant is in a large tub in the garage, and I won't do anything with it except water it once in a while -- I don't want it to grow in the garage, but I also don't want it to dry out. The plant I'll be dealing with today is the medium-sized planting -- it also was in a large container, but had a drainage hole so was drier than the other planting. Not ideal, but my goal was to see how it would do, and I think it did quite well.


Save these plants, save my nose

Even though I've only recently completed my pond and haven't done any planting around or in it, I already have several water or bog plants. In fact I've had water plants for a few years, growing them in pots or in the ground -- most water plants do fine in regular garden soil as long as they get enough water. The problem is that most of the water plants I have are not cold-hardy enough to survive our winters, so I need to overwinter them in the garage or the house.

The large plants like various elephant ears (the ones that I either have just a single plant of, or that don't form a good bulb) and papyrus will spend the winter in the garage in a semi-dormant state where they won't form any new growth, but won't die or go completely dormant either. Some plants though I want to actively grow over the winter, either because I'm not sure yet how they'll do in the garage (with low light and temps that bottom out around 40ºF/4ºC), or because I want to have extra plants in the spring. Today's post is about these plants that will stay in the house, actively growing under lights all winter.


Pots, begonias, and more -- maybe much more

My gardening friend Mike emailed me a couple of weeks ago saying that he had a lot of large nursery pots that he wanted to get rid of, and wondered if I was interested. I told him YES, but couldn't get out there right away. Yesterday morning he gave me a reminder call, asking if I'd be able to pick them up this weekend, and if so, he wanted to show me his begonia collection. He caught me between projects, so I jumped in the truck, excited to get a few big pots -- I knew I'd be needing them next year.

A couple of hours later, I had packed the truck with as many pots as I could. Mike wanted me to take more, but I think I'll be hard-pressed to use all of these next year (although I do have an alarming number of elephant ear bulbs that will need potting).


My variable cardoon

I've grown cardoon on and off for about 5 years now. The first year the one plant I put into the ground flourished, becoming huge and beautiful. It didn't survive the winter though. The next year I had two pretty nice plants in the ground, and for whatever reason they both overwintered, giving me those huge, wonderful thistle-like blooms the next year.

Other years I haven't had much success -- the plants stayed small, or just never really looked that good. This past year I planted four cardoon seedlings, and -- as expected -- had varying degrees of success.


It's grass salvage time again

I've been growing purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') for several years, and used to buy new plants each spring as it's not cold-hardy enough to survive our St. Louis (zone 6) winters. For the past few years I've been overwintering plants indoors under lights -- it's time for me to do this again now.

Actually, since we had our first hard freeze a few weeks ago, the purple fountain grass that was planted in the ground has all died. I always grow at least one of these in a pot each year though, and I pull it into the garage when the cold weather is imminent. This lets me work on the salvage project when I have time instead of rushing to get it done before the freeze.


Path, weeds, moles

Even though I've just recently done this, it's time for another collection of mini-topics.

Starting with a simple solution to a problem I've lived with for at least two years.


A simple project

Now that the pond project is finished for the year, I can "relax" a little bit and do some easy tasks. Pretty much everything I'll be doing in the yard in the next few weeks will be related to overwintering, helping plants make it through the winter. For the last two years I've had the temporary greenhouse, but I've decided not to bother with it this year. Not that it matters for today's post, so I'm not sure why I mentioned it now.

I've already brought most of my tropicals and non-hardy plants into the garage -- the ones left outside are "extras" that I just don't have room for. So today a simple project: protect my hardy banana.


Final pond update

This past weekend I finally finished building the pond -- if "building" is the right word. "Finished" is probably not the right word either, since this project -- like most parts of the garden -- will constantly be evolving, changing, and maturing. The bulk of the work is done though...

Ask me which is better: working with stones and water when it's 65ºF (18ºC) and sunny, or 35ºF (2ºC) and windy and drizzling and muddy. Actually, it's a tough call, since the colder one was the day I finished, which made the day much more pleasant despite the conditions.


I look at rocks

I've been looking at rocks quite a bit recently as I finish up my pond project. I love everything about rocks (except hauling them around): their texture, colors, forms.

I especially like looking very closely at them.


Grass on fire

There's a beacon in my garden right now. It's large, it's colorful, and it is shining so brightly -- especially on an overcast day.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' is my oldest, biggest ornamental grass, and I can't keep my eyes off of it today.


Pond progress

After almost a week of delays due to weather, the holiday, and other projects that I was involved with inside the house, I finally was able to work on the pond again yesterday. You may remember from the last pond post that I finished up in the near darkness by creating the pebbled beach, but was unable to take a photo of it. Here's what it looked like yesterday morning, which is exactly how it looked that evening of the previous post:

I started with the beach because it was the one area of which I had a well-formed idea -- the rest of the edge would have to be designed later. Well, later is here, so let's get started!


Where did you come from?

Earlier this autumn I had a late-season discovery on my parsley: another black swallowtail caterpillar! I had already rescued and raised some of these caterpillars this summer, and was surprised to see one so late in the season. Knowing that as soon as this youngster got big enough for me to spot him the raccoons would also see him, I put him into my caterpillar jar and watched him pupate.

I assumed (correctly I think) that he'd overwinter in this form, then complete his transformation and emerge in the spring once it warmed up. This happened as I expected, at least the pupating part. What I didn't expect was to find a fly in the closed jar weeks later.


Plumeria update

Two springs ago I tried growing plumeria (or Frangipani) for the first time. I bought a couple of dormant cuttings (sticks), potted them up, and watched them flourish over the summer. Then I brought them into the garage for the winter and both died and rotted instead of going dormant as I was expecting. Then late last spring I decided to give it another try, bought three more less expensive cuttings (received six!), potted them again, and waited.

One of the cuttings rooted and leafed out pretty quickly, but the others just sat there. A few of them eventually rotted, but two of the cuttings remained healthy -- but wouldn't root. I left them alone though, as I didn't have enough experience to know what to do. Into our warm fall they seemed like they were finally starting to wake up.


I did something else!

A few days ago I posted about my success in remembering to plant garlic at the right time of year for once, and titled that post "I did it!" Well, garlic wasn't the only fall-planted "bulb" that I've been wanting to plant for years and finally managed to this year. (Does that sentence make any sense?)

Every spring I look around my yard and wonder why I don't have any spring-flowering bulbs planted. Technically I shouldn't say "any" because I do have some crocus that I planted in places in the front yard, but they're slowly dying away -- there were only a dozen or so blooms this past spring. Still, why don't I have more?


Slow progress

I've been off work for the last few days, and I had expected to get the pond project pretty much wrapped up by now. Unfortunately another (indoor) project and the weather have combined to move work on the pond farther down the priority list.

This means that I've made very little progress since the last update, but any progress is welcome.


more color, more

Just when I think that the autumn colors are done for the year, a few of the smaller plants in my garden crank up the vibrancy.

I know I post about this barberry every fall, but I can't help it. It's not very large, but produces a fantastic array of colors, making this back corner of my garden glow for a few days.


I did it!

Every spring I lament the fact that I didn't plant any garlic in the fall. I love garlic, and it's dead-simple to grow from what I've read, and I grow lots of other herbs and vegetables, but garlic is something I've never managed. Garlic chives, yes (loads and loads of it). Actual garlic? No.

This is probably because of the planting time. It's the time of year that I'm winding things up and getting everything ready for winter, and I don't think about planting, or I think about it after it's much too late.


A bag of bamboo

If you're a regular reader, you know that I grow bamboo. In fact, like many who grow it, I'm a bit of a bamboo nut. I have plenty of bamboo plants of all sizes, both in-ground and in pots -- too many some may say. Still, when the opportunity to get some bamboo seed comes up, I can't say no!

Bamboo doesn't flower very often, with some species going 100 years or more before producing seeds, so it's not like you can just buy a packet of bamboo seeds whenever you want. When a species starts flowering though, often every plant of that species will flower (and usually die), so there may be a period of several years in which the seeds of a species are widely available. Such is the case right now, and I got some more seeds about a month ago and decided to give them a go.


Frozen hair

When I was in school there were always kids in the winter who came to the bus stop with wet hair. When it was cold enough, there'd always be somebody who said something like "your hair will break off if it freezes". I personally doubt this will actually occur, but I'm pretty sure I know who started this rumor (if it in fact is untrue).

It was a gardener, somebody who loved growing tropicals and annuals in cold climates, in a surly winter mood. Once the first freeze hits these plants suffer greatly, losing all of their "hair" (okay, leaves) and go from the lush wonders that we relish through the warm months to crispy or mushy, brown or black reminders of the long winters ahead.



As happens every so often, I take photos of things that don't merit their own post. Sometimes those photos are forgotten, or intentionally ignored, but sometimes I feel the need to combine them into a "catch up" post. This is one of those posts -- a collection of unrelated recent observations.

Starting with an early morning storm. Some mornings I get to see the sunlight painting the clouds. Sometimes it's just clouds though, and these were dramatic ones.



As we move into the colder, darker part of the year, I get to see and photograph more sunrises. The location of the sun as it peeks over the horizon, the time at which it does so, the almost-constant presence of clouds -- all of those things combine to let me see mornings like I never seem to be able to during the summer.

The other morning as I was working on a last-minute blog post, my wife came down and asked if I had seen the awesome sunrise already. Since it was still quite dark when I woke up (or should say was awakened -- stupid cats) I wasn't aware that there would even be a sunrise to view that morning. She was right -- it was a nice one!


More work on the pond

I had some time this weekend to continue working on the pond. The weather was dry, warm, and I was eager to keep this project moving forward. If you remember from the last post, I had filled the pond about 80% or so, but couldn't go higher because the retaining wall needed to be finished.

I've found that I usually have great expectations when it comes to weekend projects. My first thought was that I wanted to finish the retaining wall, backfill with soil, then start trimming and hiding the liner -- maybe get some rocks in place too. My second thought was that I have lots of other garden chores to take care of (like digging up bulbs and tubers) while the weather was nice, so I reduced my goals to just building the retaining wall and filling. Still a lot of work, but doable in the time I had.


Passion (fruit)

As you may recall, I have two passion flower vines in my garden this year. One potted that that the raccoons stripped of fruits, and one growing on my pergola which has been untouched. I've been checking those fruits every week or so, but haven't noticed them getting any riper -- although I don't have much experience with knowing a ripe fruit from an unripe one.

A few days ago with our first freeze imminent, I pulled a couple of the fruits down to sample them and see if they were as sweet and delicious as the one fruit I tried earlier.


Frosty, first time

Two mornings ago after our first hard freeze of the year I woke up to a frosty world. As the forecast was calling for pretty warm temps of 65ºF (18ºC) for the day, I had to act quickly.

So I grabbed the camera, got out my rubber mat (for kneeling), and started looking for frost-lined leaves, miniature crystalline views.


Color won't stop

For me nothing says autumn like falling tree leaves, and the often vibrant colors they take on before dropping.

In the deciduous tree world, the Japanese maples must be pretty close to the top of the list for fall color.


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