Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Cone Crazy

Echinacea paradoxa

Tennessee Coneflower

The fall gardening catalogs are arriving in my mailbox, and cultivars of Echinacea, the horticultural industry’s new darling, are blooming on the front covers. But how do these newcomers fare in the garden? Over the last two or three years, I’ve planted several species and cultivars in the Echinacea genus in my zone 5, suburban Chicago yard. Here’s how they’ve fared.

In general, the cones required little care. Because I leave seeds for birds, I don’t deadhead. They have done well without supplemental watering in July and August heat. Choose where you will grow them carefully, because they form deep taproots and do not transplant well if they must be moved later.

Species Coneflowers
I’ve had good, old-fashioned E. purpurea for years, since long before the genus became the latest fad. It’s been a consistent performer in a sunny spot next to a walkway, blooming every July. Plant heights have reached 3-4 feet (chest high) with generous amounts of purple blooms. There has been little spread or invasion of other areas, with plants well-behaved for all of the past 10 years.

E. pallida (pale-purple coneflower) is in its second year as a resident of my garden, and I’m sorry I didn’t plant it sooner. It’s grown well in both full sun and light shade, with plants getting slightly taller, about 4 feet, in full sun than in the shade. So far, I haven’t seen any invasive tendencies, but I haven’t had the plants that long. The flower petals are somewhat longer, narrower, and lighter in color than E. purpurea. They droop below the central button of the flower.

E. tennesseensis (Tennesse Coneflower) is somewhat shorter than E. purpurea. The plants have grown quickly and formed looser clumps than the other species coneflowers. As my Tennessee coneflower is only in its second season, it hasn’t spread much. It is quite a vigorous grower, however, which sometimes is an early sign that a plant will become invasive. The blooms are roughly the same size as other species coneflowers, but somewhat pinkish in color. This plant is indigenous to cedar glades in Tennessee, and was thought to be extinct in the 1960’s. Because it is endangered in its native habitat, buy only plants or seeds guaranteed to be nursery grown or propagated. I have grown these in full sun, but they should tolerate some shade.

Also growing in full sun is my E. paradoxa. This plant, also in its second year, has grown more slowly than the other species coneflowers. It produces yellow blooms, but the stems on this plant tend to flop over. It might stay more upright staked or inter-planted with other tall plants, which would provide support.

Hybrid Coneflowers
Much of the hype surrounding coneflowers has centered on “new” hybrids. These are touted in catalogs as improvements on the native species and often are a cross between two natives. They feature unnatural colors or flowers with unusual or unnatural forms. Whether some of these unusual blooms are an improvement is a matter of taste.

The popular Big Sky™ series of coneflowers includes many plants with unusual colors and is bred by ItSaul Plants.

In its second year, my E. ‘Sundown’ (photo, right) has grown to be a large plant with flowers tinted in gradations of orange and pink. It’s a cross between E. paradoxa and E. purpurea touted in some catalogs as being a more prolific bloomer. I don’t see evidence that it produces more blooms than E. purpurea, but they are a lovely color. In full sun, the plant has been vigorous, and might even spread a bit with time. So far, it’s my favorite of the hybrids I’ve tried.

I’ve seen claims that E. ‘Fatal Attraction’ produces darker, more saturated blooms. I really can’t tell the difference between the flowers on my ‘Fatal Attraction’ and those on my E. purpurea. The plants are shorter and stockier than E. purpurea, which is as promised in the catalogs.

Another Big Sky hybrid in its second year, E. ‘Harvest Moon’ has grown slowly, even in full sun. The plant is smaller than my E. ‘Sundown’ though both were planted at the same time. Blooms are deep yellow to gold. Like E. paradoxa, the stems tend to be somewhat floppy. The plant seems generally less vigorous than the species coneflowers.

Growing E. ‘Double Decker’ is like having a bearded lady in my front yard. The blooms certainly stand out, and it’s hard not to look at them. But I wouldn’t exactly call them attractive. The three-year-old, 3-foot-tall plants produce flowers that look like a deformed coneflower daisy, with a second upward-pointing ring of small petals.

If you’re thinking some Echinacea would look nice in your yard, don’t hesitate to try fall planting. My plants did just fine when planted in September. And if you’re interested in trying seeds, which are an inexpensive way to grow lots of coneflowers, the best time to sow them outdoors is in the fall. Coneflower seeds must have moisture and chilling to break dormancy, and the easiest way to meet this requirement is to take advantage of winter weather.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Can a Wild Plant Be a Status Symbol?

Nothing says, “I’m a serious gardener,” like the plant that nobody else has. That’s how imported ornamentals became so popular in the first place. Landowners displayed their wealth and status in their collections of rare plants from far-away places. Now, over half the plants listed in wholesale catalogs may be from outside North America.

The thirst for a coveted luxury item and status symbol fueled the tulip craze in Holland centuries ago. It now motivates people to order the latest hosta, daylily, coneflower, or peony from the expensive mail-order nursery of their choice, paying $30 to $50, and sometimes more, for a single plant. I’ve given in to the temptation. I have at least half a dozen different types of the now-trendy Echinacea genus on my lot.

I also have the only bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix, formerly Hystrix patula) on the block. Its unusual flower heads and large size (up to 5 feet tall) make it quite the eye-catching plant. Thriving in the shady spots in my yard its second year, it looks as good as promised by the catalog photos.

Acquiring the bottlebrush grass plants required considerable effort, though I didn’t have to bring it back from my trip to Asia. Not finding bare-root or potted plants, I ordered seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery, which specializes in native plants. I pretreated the seeds by chilling them in the refrigerator for 2 months. They then went into peat pellets for starting indoors, followed by time in a sunny window. Finally, the seedlings went outside a few hours each day for “hardening off” and then into the ground.

Compared to the norm of hostas (from Asia) and Kentucky bluegrass (from Europe), bottlebrush grass is “exotic.” But it’s from right here in North America, growing wild in some of Chicago’s forest preserves. The Chicago Park District included the plant in its restoration of the Hurley Park Savannah.

Here’s hoping someone makes it available to the masses. It’s a great shade grass, providing lots of drama and requiring little care.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rhubarb Even Kids Will Eat

It's farmer's market season, my favorite time of year. I walked down to the one at Prudential Plaza this week, and admired all the flowers, breads, vegetables and herbs. I bought some of the wonderful Misericordia Irish soda bread we love, but I realized as I walked around the stalls that most of the herbs and vegetables were already growing in my backyard. I've been enjoying them for several weeks already.

Besides asparagus, my favorite springtime treat is rhubarb. This is a tough sell for some people. It's not available in the grocery store year-round, only in the spring. Rhubarb is unpalatably sour without sugar, and must be cooked before being eaten. It looks strange, like pink celery, and not everyone knows what to do with it.

With the rhubarb in my yard, I've been making strawberry-rhubarb muffins, an adaptation of a Cooks.com recipe. The first time I made these, my daughter begged me to cook them again. Because I'm a calorie counter, I substitute applesauce for the oil, and it works just fine. To compensate for the added sweetness, I reduce the sugar and add a little more oil.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What's Blooming Now: Prairie Shooting Star

I put these little native wildflowers in my garden for the first time last year, and I loved them so much I had to add more. They aren't big plants, perhaps 8-10 inches across and 18 inches tall when in bloom. The leaves form small rosettes similar to a primrose, which is not surprising since the plant is a member of this family.

Last spring when they bloomed, I caught bees climbing into the flowers from underneath. They emerged dizzy, apparently sated, and covered with pollen.

The flowers of the shooting star (dodecatheon meadia) are white to a light shade of pink or purple. The ones in my garden, shown in the photo, change color as the blossoms age. As you can see, the flowers hang upside-down on the stalk. Prairie shooting star grows well in full sun to part shade and has, according to Illinois Wildflowers, been found in most counties in Illinois. The plants do go dormant during the hot summer months.

My library copy of the Tallgrass Restoration Handbook classifies them as "conservative wildflowers," which means they do not typically occur outside of the highest-quality prairie remnants or restorations. So far, however, they are doing well in my garden.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lurie Garden—April 2009

About 10 days ago, on one of those warm early-spring days, I hoofed it down to the Lurie Garden to have a look at what was going on. Yes, I meant to post this much sooner, but I've been awfully busy working in my own yard lately. I spent the weekend mulching garden beds, picking asparagus, watching kids play in the backyard, and tying grapevines to a trellis, not in front of the computer.

What’s really interesting about visiting the garden before all the perennials have really leafed out is that you can see the structure of the plantings. It’s much easier to see how the plants are arranged before the leaves and flowers hide the clumps, or root crowns, in the ground. Once everything gets going, it’s nearly impossible to tell where one plant begins and another ends.

Inside the tall evergreen hedges that shield the garden from the rest of the park, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel (the garden’s designers) arrange the plants in large, naturalistic groupings. Plants are spaced much more closely than is usual in the typical suburban yard. The distance between the centers of most perennial clumps is not more than 2 feet, and often quite a bit less than that. The designers aren't interested in showing off discrete clumps or individual plants, as is common in the suburbs.

It turns out that dense plantings provide much more cover for wildlife than discrete clumps separated by neat stretches of woodchips. Consequently, Douglas Tallamy, in his book, Bringing Nature Home, recommends such denser plantings. My experience has been that dense plantings are also easier to maintain--the perennials tend to crowd out the weeds when densely planted.

A stream-like water feature and paved path divides the Lurie Garden into two sections, the “Light Plate,” with mostly colorful plants and wildflowers, and the “Dark Plate,” in which grasses and plants with more subtle coloring predominate.

On that warm day in April, prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), grape hyacinths, blue anenomes, and daffodils were in bloom. Rather than planting little clumps of each here and there, the garden’s designers placed these plants in large, naturalistic groupings that covered good-sized areas. The garden designers used flower colors on opposite sides of the color wheel, in yellow and blue, also called complementary colors.

Although the garden is in the middle of downtown Chicago, I did spot some wildlife, such as the robin shown in the top photo. He was hopping around in the grape hyacinths.

One of my new favorite spring-blooming perennials in the garden is the prairie smoke (bottom photo). These small plants have pink flowers that produce wispy puffs of seeds later in the spring. They require hot, dry soil, and lots of sun. I managed to start some of these plants from seed last spring, with mixed results--it remains to be seen whether my prairie smoke seedlings will thrive or fail.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This is the Illinois State Flower?

The first spring I moved into my house, the violets were thing that bloomed most prolifically in my yard. I thought they were cute. In fact, I liked them so much I transplanted them to the garden bed around the foundation of my house.

I paid for that mistake for several years afterwards. Once I found out that most people in the neighborhood consider them to be a weed, I spent several seasons trying to get rid of them.

The violets stayed firmly in the weed category until last Memorial Day weekend, when I went to the Madison, WI farmer’s market and found people selling them—at $5 for 3 plants—on Saturday morning. A sign nearby told browsers that they were the Wisconsin state flower. I wondered if I should reconsider my stance on the violets.

It turns out that they are not just the Wisconsin state flower, but the Illinois state flower as well. A group of school children anointed the violet with this honor over 100 years ago, in 1907. Who knew that was possible for a common lawn weed?

My new book, Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, lists about 2 dozen different species of violet known to grow in the Chicago area. Differentiating them is difficult, and they are apparently known to interbreed. According to Illinois Wildflowers, the common blue violet (Viola sororia) is a native perennial plant. Leaves emerge from rhizomes, that bumpy little cluster I see where the leaves meet the roots when I pull violets out of the ground. The plants like to grow in moist soil and partial shade, and they do very well in my lawn. The flowers and young leaves are apparently edible, though bland, and can be added to salads in small amounts (I’m not sure I want to try this!).

Swink and Wilhelm describe the plant as “weedy” and common in abandoned fields, lawns, and degraded prairies. Judging by how much time I spend hoeing violet seedlings out of my vegetable patch, I’m thinking that description of these little plants is an understatement.

The U of I Cooperative Extension Office has posted an amusing poem about the violet, and it sheds some light on how children may have voted it the state flower. They are, after all, kind of cute, and kids do like to pick them. I haven’t gotten a little bouquet of violets as a gift from the kids yet, but I’d be willing to bet it’s coming.

I'll be pulling the violets this year, because if I let them, they wouldn't make room for anything else.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Butterfly and Rain Garden

There's this spot near my driveway that floods every year, and it seemed like a great place to think about eliminating the lawn.

So today, between rainstorms, I installed cream wild indigo, two echinacea cultivars, baptisia ‘Twilite Prarieblues', little bluestem 'Sioux Blue', Sullivant's milkweed (also called Prairie milkweed), purple milkweed, Illinois rose, bottle gentian, cup plant, and prairie shooting star. The plants are tiny, and the garden really doesn't look like much yet, but I'm hoping by July it'll be better. The sources for these plants were the Morton Arboretum's members-only plant sale, a nursery in Saint Charles called The Natural Garden, and a mail-order nursery in Wisconsin that specializes in native plants called Prairie Nursery.

The Sullivant's milkweed (asclepias sullivanti), which likes to be wet, went in the low spot that floods every time there's a rainstorm. I'm hoping that I guessed right on my plant requirements and that it'll do well there--but not so well it becomes a nuisance. An internet search tells me that in Wisconsin, Sullivant’s milkweed is a threatened species but that seems not to be the case in Illinois.

Baptisia ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ is a cultivar from the Chicago Botanic Garden—I bought it at the Morton Arboretum plant sale yesterday. It’s supposed to give me blue-purple flowers edged in yellow, though I don’t know if it’ll bloom this year.

I'm hoping these plants will also tolerate errant baskeballs. Yes, that pole in the photo is a driveway b-ball hoop. If not, I guess I'll be putting something else there next spring. The log mysteriously appeared in the garden during the winter. I'm not really sure where it came from, but it has some interesting lichens growing on it.

It's a good thing I was able to plant at all. My order for the space from Prairie Nursery came Friday, and rained for nearly 24 hours straight this weekend. The garden was really soggy, and there's a lot of water on my and my neighbors' lawns. Finally this afternoon, the rain stopped and I gave it a go so the plants wouldn't sit for a week in my cold frame.

I've been reading Design Your Natural Midwest Garden by Pat Hill, and one statistic in it caught my eye. According to the author, there is no water runoff from areas planted with natives, such as a prairie, and water is generally absorbed into the ground. Turf grass (AKA Kentucky bluegrass) is roughly equivalent to asphalt, with about 75% of water lost as runoff. I thought this was particularly interesting, because flooding is a recurrent problem (and was a campaign issue in the recent election) in Elmhurst.