Friday, March 25, 2011

Rain Gardens and Wildflowers

During a rainy season, does part of your garden turn into an old-fashioned swimming hole?  Do you live on a street where you need a rowboat to get to your house after a heavy rainstorm?  Even if conditions are not quite this extreme at your home but you do have a wet basement or mud puddles in your lawn after prolonged rainfall, you might consider installing a rain garden in your landscape.

Last week Beckie and I attended a workshop on rain gardens sponsored by the Prairie Rivers Network, a not-for-profit organization concerned with conservation and protecting our rivers, and a state affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation.  I've been wanting to learn more about rain gardens for some time and to see if one would be feasible in my own yard.  We live in a low-lying area where flooding is common in the spring time when the combination of melting snow and spring rains fill up creeks and drainage ditches to overflowing in a short time.  Flooded front yards in one section of town are a common sight, and residents of one subdivision have indeed had to resort to rowboats some years to reach their homes.

Local scene after heavy rains in June '08

Last fall a group of volunteers planted several rain gardens in the front yards of some residential areas in nearby Champaign-Urbana that experience frequent flooding problems.  It will be interesting to see what effects they might have during the next rainy season.

Basically, a rain garden is a shallow depression in the landscape that is specifically designed to capture rainwater and melted snow and filter it into the soil.  Downspouts can be diverted towards the rain garden, eliminating runoff onto sidewalks and driveways or seeping into basements. The garden absorbs more water than traditional lawns, which means flooding and water damage are reduced.  The plants also filter contaminants from the water, thereby reducing the number of pollutants deposited into ground water and overflowing storm drains.   Another extra benefit is that most of the plants recommended for these types of gardens are attractive to wildlife, including birds and beneficial insects.

Rain gardens are relatively easy to create, but several factors should be considered before deciding on a location, such as avoiding ultility lines or septic fields.  Do a little research before you dig in an unsuitable place or in soil that is not permeable enough.

One of the questions I had before the workshop was what happens to a rain garden during a drought?  Last June was very rainy, and my roadside garden turned into a bog garden for a week or more.  But from July through October it became more like a desert.  What plants can survive both conditions?  The answer is an obvious one--and one I should have known before the class---native plants.  Native plants, with their deep roots, are already adapted to local conditions and thus are the best choice for a rain garden.

Virginia bluebells Mertensia virginica,  Blue flag iris Iris virginica, and Cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis are just a few of the many native plant choices suitable for a rain garden.

Familiar natives like purple coneflowers and Joe Pye Weed are not only beautiful,
but also work well in a rain garden.

Native grasses and sedges also are good additions, like this Prairie dropseed grass
I admired last fall at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

A rain garden can be created at minimal cost, especially if you already have a self-seeder like the pretty Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, and can transplant some of the seedlings.

Or the hardy and prolific Obedient plant, Physotegia virginiana.

The workshop covered the basics of a rain garden and certainly piqued my interest.  A second workshop will be held here in April where participants will receive individual help in actually designing their own rain gardens, but I won't be able to attend that session.  My plate is pretty full already for this year, but I intend to consider creating a rain garden here sometime in the near future.  A rain garden is a great way to combine beauty with functionality and good environmental practices.

If you would like to know more about rain gardens, you can check out the Prairie Rivers Networks website or go to the Rain Garden Network for general information to get you started.

I'm a few days late, but I'm also linking this post to Wildflower Wednesday, a monthly posting hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone, since almost all the plants recommended for a rain garden are wildflowers or natives.  Check out other entries on wildflowers at Gail's for some excellent recommendations for your area.  Even if you have no need for a rain garden, native plants have so many other advantages, not the least of which is attracting all those helpful pollinators.

Mr. Bumble and his friends will thank you for planting more natives!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Garden Team Welcomes Spring

As if on cue, the first hellebore opened this week.  More crocuses and primroses are blooming each day, and I spotted the first daffodil bud yesterday.  Yes, at long last spring has arrived!  Although the calendar's marking of spring doesn't automatically mean warm and sunny days here in central Illinois, there were several beautiful days this past week--even reaching to 70 degrees on Thursday!--that put me into a happy spring mood.  I cleaned up most of the flowerbeds, and now I'm anxious to start spring planting, although I know it's much too soon. 

This year there is some added stress to the spring ritual of gardening: my daughter and son-in-law-to-be decided they wanted to hold their wedding reception on our front lawn.  While we've been busy reserving a tent, hiring a DJ, and checking out caterers, to me this also means I want my garden to be perfect by the first of June.   While waiting for the weather to become more cooperative, I've been busy making lists of chores to be done and plants to buy this spring.  I've also talked to the garden staff, making sure that each understands his/her duties and the importance of getting everything done early this year.

"What garden staff?" you may ask.  That is a valid question, since I am always complaining explaining that I do all the garden work myself and that my efforts are limited by my time and stamina. However, I do have some full-time garden team members, and actually, some of you may have met them before, but perhaps didn't realize their valuable roles here at the Prairie.   Since I am depending on their assistance more than ever this year, I think it's time to properly introduce them and describe each one's important position on the staff:

Sophie:  Head of Excavation

Duties: Digging holes, assisting in soil prep and in weed pulling.

Sophie is eager to help in any way in the garden, but she excels in digging deep holes and pulling out stubborn weeds and debris when given some direction.

She is also the keeper of the garden gloves.  When she is let out of the house, she finds the gloves in my garden tote by the back door and takes one with her to let me know that she is ready for some garden time.  Unfortunately, by the time she hands them back to me, they may be missing a fingertip or two, but we are willing to overlook this minor flaw because of her overall work ethic and enthusiasm.

Other than myself, no one is happier to spend time in the garden than Sophie. When she's not busy digging or assessing the fragrance of new plants, she enjoys spending time bird-watching or chasing the occasional squirrel or rabbit away from the garden.

Marmalade: Head of Wildlife Management

Duties: Patrolling the garden and the surrounding area for small rodents and other pests. 

Quiet and rather shy, Marmalade is a true outdoorswoman.  Although her sleeping quarters are in the garage, particularly on cold winter nights, she will not enter the house and prefers to spend most of her time outside.  Her quiet demeanor helps her to excel in this position--not a mouse has been seen near the house in years. 

Although Marmalade is the head of this department, she is assisted by all the other staff members.  An incident last summer illustrates the cooperative effort of the staff:  Sophie discovered a vole near the front garden bed and unearthed it, then, when it ran up on to the porch, Toby and Tarzan (not pictured) kept a watchful eye on it until it eventually disappeared.  I'm not sure of the actual fate of the vole, which is probably just as well.

Sasha: Head of Quality Control

Duties: Collecting data on plant varieties; assisting in garden design

Sasha would rather work alone and prefers the heated/air-conditioned office to being outdoors in the middle of the day.  Because of this, her forays into the garden are limited to short periods of time (between naps) and used for general inspection.  She is particularly interested in aromatic plants, such as catmint, and offers her expert opinion on their quality.  Various vantage points in the garden also give her a different perspective on the overall design.

She is also the resident "plant sitter" if I am away, though her technique leaves something to be desired.

Tarzan: Vice President of Employee Relations and Head of Arbitration

Duties:  Providing encouragement and support to all staff members, including the head gardener; resolving any employee disputes.

If Tarzan attended kindergarten, he would bring home report cards with high marks in "plays well with others."  Sometimes living and working together twenty-four hours a day can cause team members' tempers to flare.  But Tarzan always keeps his cool disposition and is ready to offer a calming gesture.  He was the first of the feline contingent to embrace Sophie when she arrived. and he displays a remarkably open mind to all species, be they human, feline, or canine.  Besides Sophie, Tarzan is also the one most likely to accompany me as I garden, offering me encouragement and occasionally lightening my mood with his silliness.

And after a long day in the garden, Tarzan doesn't quit--to help Sophie unwind,
he even gives kitty massages!

Toby: Garden CEO

Duties: Whatever Toby wants to do . . .

Whether it is his aristocratic lineage or the fact he spent his formative years entirely indoors, Toby has less interest in the garden than in the creatures that inhabit the yard and trees.  (If you would like to know more about Toby's background, you can read earlier posts about him  here  or here  .)  As the senior member of the staff, Toby finds manual labor distasteful and prefers to oversee garden work from a comfortable perch.   Make no mistake about it, though, he is the lord of the manor and our little fiefdom.

Staff orientation was held this past week, including some stern reminders about unnecessary digging and "fertilization" in the garden.  Last year's perennials have been cut back, seeds have been purchased, and garden gloves washed.  The team is anxious and ready to work--let the gardening season begin!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

GBBD: It Won't Be Long Now

For many years this day in March would have found me reminding my students to "Beware the Ides of March!"  But now that I've entered a different phase in my life, March 15 means just one thing--time for the monthly meeting of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day!

For the past few months, my Bloom Day posts have been rather pitiful as I strained to find anything at all in bloom.  Even my one amaryllis decided to wait until after the February Bloom Day to fully bloom, and now it's finished so that I don't even have an indoor bloom to show off in March.

But last week as I looked out the living room window trying to get a better photo
of the Downy woodpecker at the feeder, I noticed something.

The 'Georgia Peach' heuchera had taken on a rosy glow now that its snow cover had finally melted.  But that wasn't what really got me excited--looking beyond it to the shade garden, I spied something else . . .

 . . . tulips and daffodils were emerging from the soil! I know these didn't magically appear overnight, but it seemed that way to me. After a long winter where the ground seemed to be perpetually white, there is nothing like seeing the first spring bulbs emerging to get the heart racing.  In a state of excitement, I inspected the other garden beds and found bulbs coming up everywhere.  Inspecting the beds more carefully, I saw something else that filled me with delight . . .

. . . two tiny snowdrops blooming!  Their blooms are so small that I really need a super-macro setting to capture them, and they're hardly the large clumps I see on other blogs.  Still, I'm happy; you see, I planted them in the fall of '09 and didn't see a single bloom last year.  I'd given them up for dead, so I was so pleased to see these signs of life this year.

Not only do I have two snowdrops, but I also have the first few crocuses blooming.

Another tiny bloom that almost escapes notice, these small beauties give me hope that winter is almost over.

There's a chance of snow showers here today, but seeing the first tiny blooms and the buds on the flowering quince (above) as well as a few on the lilac are causes for joy.  It won't be long now until spring is finally here!

To see what else is blooming right now all over the world, be sure to visit our hostess and friend of the Garden Fairies, Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring Fever Cure--The Chicago Garden Show

What do you do when you have a bad case of spring fever--even though the snow is flying once again-- compounded by all the photos of spring blooms on posts from bloggers in warmer climes?  Why, jump into your car and head to Chicago, of course, for the annual Chicago Flower and Garden Show. This past weekend Beckie and I made our now-annual trek to the show, leaving on Saturday so we could do some shopping along the way and catch the early train Sunday morning into the city.  What made this year's trip extra special is that we had another traveling companion for the weekend--Lisa of Greenbow.  And on Sunday we met up with three other blogging friends, Linda, Diane, and Monica at the show itself.  Spring blooms and and garden friends to share them with--just what the doctor ordered for a spring fever cure-all!

The theme for this year's show is "The Sport of Gardening," and exhibitors interpreted this theme in many different ways from the obvious to the much more subtle tie-in to sports.

In case you missed the entrance sign, the display below made sure you understood the theme with a bust of one of Chicagoland's sports icons, Harry Caray.

This exhibit featured memorabilia from most of Chicago's professional sports teams.  The plantscape wasn't anything special, but this Cubs and Bears fan appreciated the nod to our favorite teams nonetheless.

Anyone for a game of croquet?  This year's croquet lawn seemed more suited to Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag, and the giant balls of orchids more lovely than Alice's hedgehogs.

Another obvious salute to sports was in "One Goal, One Garden," which included a water feature resembling a hockey rink.  It looked difficult to walk through, so I think I missed many of the plantings here and instead checked them out through the unusual hockey stick fence.

Water features seemed to be very popular this year with ponds and waterfalls in several of the exhibits.

This pond even featured its own blooming island, which I thought was unique.

Of course, there were all kinds of fountains, too, including this very clever mushroom grouping.  As you can see, I wasn't the only one who thought this was clever as Monica and Lisa stop to admire it, too.

One pond featured not only large koi, but two turtles as well.  In fact, wildlife seemed to be as popular in many of the displays as the plants and hardscapes themselves.

At least two exhibits included a chicken coop complete with live chickens.  There was also a beehive next to one of the coops.

In the kids' corner, there were all kinds of activities sponsored by Chicago Master Gardeners, including a Bug Zoo.  A few of the "kids" in our group decided to display their fearlessness by holding a tarantula, cockroach, and a giant millipede.  There's a reason this photo is so blurry--no, Diane's hands weren't shaking, mine were as I took the photo.  I backed out of this area as quickly as possible after taking a few shots; thank goodness, the millipedes I sometimes find at home don't look like this, or I probably would give up gardening!

Much more to my liking was the raptor exhibit which featured this Barred Owl, along with an American Kestrel and a Great Horned Owl.  Isn't he beautiful?  This was part of a garden exhibit, but honestly I don't remember looking at the plants at all, as I jockeyed for position to get a closer look at these magnificent birds.

There were other exhibits as well that were more than just plants, including a fantastic collection of millinery in "Hats: Wise Women Speak."  This leafy creation would make a great gardening hat, don't you think?

More high fashion, this glowing hat seemed to catch everyone's eye.  There was a description for each hat, and this one's explained what created the glow, but I'm afraid I quickly forget technical explanations.  As unique as the hat is, it probably wouldn't be a good choice to wear to the theater . . . unless there's a way to turn it off:)

We also enjoyed the photography exhibit, where we were excited to find a few entries by our own Mr. McGregor's Daughter!  This was not her ribbon-winning photo, but all of her entries were prize-worthy, in my humble opinion.

Ah, but what about the plants, you say; after all, this is a show all about gardening.  While I didn't think there were as many elaborate displays as in past years nor as many different varieties of plants, still there was enough to get any gardener excited for the season to begin.  I've never had much luck with snapdragons, but these bicolor beauties (no label, unfortunately) might change my mind.

An exhibit showing possibilities for vertical gardening along with others on harvesting rainwater and using native plants for an environmentally friendly home garden were relevant examples for today's gardener.

Of the larger exhibits, my favorite was probably "Silent Poetry: The Confluence of Stone and Plants," which combined conifers from Rich's Foxwillow Pines with a variety of other plant material and sculptures from Zimbabwe.  I have no idea how this relates to the theme of sports, but no matter.  It was a beautiful combination of materials that reminded me of elements in Japanese and Chinese gardens.

But my favorite display of all was actually rather small and simple in comparison to the others. This mass planting of tulips was the "wow" factor I was looking for and made me wish I had planted 10 times the number of tulip bulbs I did last fall.

Notes have been made for new additions here this fall--I think these were created just for me:)

I also will definitely be ordering some 'Ad Rem Beauty' tulips for next year.  My camera could not capture the true color of these tulips, but they were shades of coral, peach, pink, and a hint of yellow all in one gorgeous bloom.  

L to R: Diane, Rose, Monica, Lisa, Beckie, and Linda

The afternoon at the Flower and Garden Show went all too quickly, and I realized afterward that I had missed a few parts of the show, probably because I was talking too much.  But the company of fellow bloggers was just as enjoyable as the show itself. 

  This is the third year that Beckie and I have attended, and we've come a long way since the first year when we got lost coming out of Millenium Station and wandered some strange back alleys trying to find Michigan Avenue.  Still, there is always something new to see and something new to learn.  Among the tips I learned this year:

1. The producers of this show consider even this humble blogger worthy of an official press pass. (Thanks, Linda, for helping us with this!)

2. Sundays are probably the busiest days for the show--go on a weekday, if you can.  Still, the crowds were not that bad.

3. Taxi fare from the train station to Navy Pier is actually very reasonable and certainly beats standing out on a windy, cold corner waiting for a bus for 30 minutes!

The Chicago show runs through this Sunday, so you still have time to attend.  If you can't make it this year and are within driving distance of Chicago, I would definitely make plans for next year's show.  It's the perfect respite from a long Midwest winter.

I realized as I was finishing this post that today is my third blogaversary!  It's been such a joy to share gardening experiences with all of you these past three years. Whether I've met you in person or just through our exchanges here in Blogland, it's been a delight to meet each and every one of you.  Thank you for visiting!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review Club--Top Picks for Mystery Lovers or Gardeners

Inspector Thomas Lynley is back!  That is good news for fans of Elizabeth George and her protagonist, the well-bred and very likable Scotland Yard detective.  On compassionate leave following a personal tragedy for the past five months (three books ago in real time), Lynley is asked to return to Scotland Yard to assist the new interim superintendent, Isabelle Ardery, in solving a puzzling murder.

The body of a young woman has been found brutally stabbed and abandoned in an old London cemetery.  Acting Superintendent Ardery, an ambitious detective with some hidden flaws, is eager to identify the victim and solve the murder as quickly as possible to prove to her superiors that she is the right person to head the department permanently.  The detectives under her command are somewhat wary of her, and in one case downright hostile, so Ardery asks Lynley to re-join the team for a few weeks to help smooth the transition and to solve the case.

The victim is soon identified, and as the team researches her background, they find no shortage of possible suspects.  Every suspect seems to have his own hidden secret, and the team must scatter throughout London  and beyond to a place called the New Forest to investigate each one.  Isabelle Ardery eventually focuses on one suspect and makes a tactical mistake, further alienating her team of detectives.  It is up to Lynley, of course, to help Ardery correct her mistakes and to discover the truth.

Elizabeth George is at the top of my list of favorite mystery writers and for good reason.  She is a master storyteller who weaves so many subplots together in This Body of Death that the reader is just as intrigued by the stories of the different characters as by the murder mystery itself.  Having read all of her novels, I was delighted when I found this newest in the series at Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon.  Opening the book on the plane ride home was like re-joining family, and I was eager for news on how they, especially Lynley, were all faring.  

Powell's Books in downtown Portland, Oregon.  The largest independent new and used bookstore in the world, it covers four stories and a whole city block.  You need a map to find the mystery section!

If there is one criticism of the book I have, it is that there wasn't enough of Sgt. Barbara Havers, Lynley's usual "sidekick."  The honest and intelligent policewoman Havers is a fashion disaster and often appears at the scene of a crime wearing red high-topped trainers and a baggy t-shirt.  (Why am I always drawn to these less-than-perfect appearing heroines??)  Havers does play a crucial role in solving the murder in The Body of Evidence, but this time she primarily works on her own rather than in her usual role at the side of Lynley, an unlikely but very capable pairing.   This is a small disappointment, however, and I'm sure that Sgt. Havers will be back at Lynley's side in the next novel.

If you've never read any novels by Elizabeth George, I suggest you begin with the early ones so that you can become acquainted with all the "family," not just Lynley and Havers.  But it's not necessary to have read the earlier books to appreciate This Body of Death.  Just don't be daunted by the length--it will keep you turning pages more quickly than a book half its length and once finished, I think you'll be as anxious for the next book in the series as I am!

And for my gardening friends . . . 

Of all the armloads of gardening books I've checked out of the library this winter, the best of the lot has to be The Perennial Gardener's Design Primer by Stephanie Cohen and Nancy Ondra.  I was looking specifically for a book to help me design a new garden bed I am planting this spring, and I found a wealth of helpful information and suggestions in Cohen and Ondra's book.  The book covers everything from choosing plants appropriate for your site to color schemes to considering the size and shape of blooms and foliage. 

Accompanied by beautiful color photos, the book has a very appealing layout; my favorite part, strangely enough, has to be the appendix with its easy to follow plant index, including bloom times.  Rose at Ramble on Rose wrote an excellent  review of the book some time back, so if you would like to know more, I suggest you read her much more thorough review here.   This book is definitely a keeper--my copy is due back at the library soon, but I think I'll be heading to the bookstore to add this one to my personal library!

For more book reviews, check out this month's entries at Barrie Summy's.

Disclaimer: No compensation of any kind was received for either of these book reviews.  I review only books I have enjoyed reading, and either purchase my own copy or borrow it from the local library.