Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fall is for Grasses

Perennial grasses are a wonderful addition to any perennial bed. They provide a nice backdrop, or canvass if you will, for a perennial bed, give some structure to a landscape design and provide some winter interest in the garden when little else is going on.

As you drive around McHenry County you can see grasses used in a variety of ways and with a variety of other plants. For example, by the Noodles on Rt 14 in Crystal Lake, there is a great display of switch grass planted with Russian Sage, day lilies and what I believe to be a type of vibernum shrub. I thought there was a planting of Knockout roses and feather reed grasses in Woodstock on Rt 47, but the other day I went looking for it and couldn't find it. Well, I am getting old and forgetful, but the combination of roses, grasses and russian sage is a good combination none the less.

Grasses come in many shapes, heights, and seed types. There are even some that will take some shade, but those tend to be shorter. Most grasses are clumping varieties, rather than runners, meaning the clumps will widen over time but you won't find them all over your garden.

Some of the shorter varieties that are good candidates for borders are the fescues and prairie dropseed. I found this example of prairie dropseed over by Countryclub Road in Ridgefield. Here it is planted in front of some rudbekias. This is a shorter, spherical shaped grass with airy seed heads that smell of buttered popcorn when touched.
Other varieties you might consider include the Japanese blood grass and the Japanese forest grass or
hakonechloa. This grass is almost chartruese in color and takes part sun to part shade. Its floppy nature gives it almost a water-like quality and would look good in a dry stream to give the illusion of flowing water. I do have to give credit where credit is due: I saw this at Craig Bergman's garden center many years ago and now work with Kim Hartmann who used to work there. What a small world!
Here are some examples of grasses at different times of the year. These are varieties of miscanthus, the one on the left is in my garden during winter. (I did fix the fence this past spring.) The one on the lower right was taken during the fall. The blades have turned golden with a tinge of purple. There are grasses that turn a more purple color during the fall. The Japanese blood grass, a shorter grass, has streaks of purple all summer.
And speaking of purple grasses, here at C'side, we often get questions about a purple grass that did not come back the following year. After a few questions we determine that the grass the customer bought was the Purple Fountain grass. This is a great grass to use in containers or even in the landscape, but it is not hardy in our area. Many plants that are sold in garden centers are grown by national companies and the tags reflect that. The tag for purple fountain grass does say perennial, but if you read closely it is only perennial in zones 8-11.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

water Gardening

I have written about my pond before, so you know how much I love it. I have about 8 frogs living in it now. I don't know how they find it but they do. They are not very vocal. It is fun to watch them sun themselves on the flagstone that surrounds the pond. My taro and cannas have really grown and I just love the cypress I added earlier this year.

If you have thought about adding a pond to your garden but decided it was too much work and/or too expensive how about adding a water feature instead? A water feature can range from a bird bath to a water-based container garden. Water features are available as kits or you can do it yourself with a few commonly found items. They can be above ground or even in the ground.

These two pictures are examples of birdbaths. The first one is a purchased recirculating bird bath. The pump is in the pedestal of the bird bath and the water is pumped up to a "spitter" that is mounted on the side of the bird bath. The second picture is a home-made in ground bird bath made with pond liner and lined with rocks. Although it is hard to see in the picture, there is a small pump that recirculates the water. Birds are attracted to moving water.

Water gardens are easily adapted to smaller spaces with containers. You can use either plastic or ceramic containers. If using a ceramic container you can fill the drainage holes with plumber's epoxy. A small pump can be added to circulate the water and provide the relaxing sound of splashing water. There are a variety of plants that can be used in the container water garden, ranging from dwarf lilies, lotus (quite impressive used alone), canna, taro, cyperess, water lettuce and water hyacinth. All of these will need to be wintered over inside. If the container is big enough (over 5 gallons) you can even add a fish.
I will be giving a seminar on container water gardening this spring at the McHenry County Master Gardeners Garden Fest. Be sure to attend this great day of gardening seminars. If you have any questions you need answered now about water gardening, stop by the store and see me, Steve or Kerry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rain, Rain Rain

I don't know if this is the rainiest August we've ever had, but it must be close. On the upside, it's nice not to have to water and this is the first year in a long time my lawn hasn't looked like shredded wheat. Also, it is easier to weed with the ground so wet. I hope you all take advantage of this opportunity to pull weeds and get the entire root. On the down side, the mosquitos are awful and last Tuesday I awoke to a very wet basement.

We've had calls at the store about plants, container plants especially, not looking too good. The roots of all plants need to have oxygen. If they are water logged from either overwatering or too much rain, they will die. Make sure your containers and window boxes have adequate drainage and if your soils are very clay-ey add organic matter, such as a good compost, to the soil the next time you plant.

Those Summer Time Blues
I would have to say my garden is not looking at its best right at the moment. Lots of my perennials have finished blooming and the fall plants are just starting. There seems to be a little lull in the action. This is good time to consider what I like to call "garden tchotchke." I suppose when I say this the first thing that might come to mind is pink flamingoes and gnomes. And there is nothing wrong with a little whimsy in the garden. But I am really refering to garden statuary, which has a long history in garden design.

When the Victorians (both the English and moneyed Americans) did their grand tour of Europe in the 1700 and 1800s, they went to Greece and Rome and were awed by the ruins of the Acropolis and the Coliseum and other "classical" statuary. They went back home and recreated what they had seen in their own gardens. Overturned Greek columns and the like are known as "follies," since no one really expects to find actual Greek columns in someone's garden back in England.

Today statuary serves several purposes in garden design. It provides some interest at times when little else might, and it provides some structure for the garden, similar to a well placed shrub or tree. Some statuary can be whimsical or it can be "classic." And there are more choices besides just cast stone (a nice way of saying "concrete"). Ironwork comes in a variety of designs. I have an armillary (a type of sun dial) in the middle of my rose garden that has a Jackmanii clematis growing around it. Even in a perennial bed there is a place for an urn planted up with annuals to bring some color closer to your eye. Behind my pond, which is mostly planted with foliage plants I have a cool newel post that is painted bright colors and adds a bit of "pop" to the bed.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

What's In Bloom?

Gardening with perennials can be a little problematic as most perennials have a limited bloom time, usually 4-6 weeks. Some, like the salvias, can be cut back to force a second, later blooming, but most perennials get one shot, then that's it til next year. To get color all season in the perennial bed requires a large enough space to plant different plants with different bloom times to keep the color going. Local author, Pam Duthie, has written several books on perennial gardening for continuous bloom.

Late summer brings with it more blooms but with more subtle colors. Gone are the vibrant colors of spring and early summer, with a few exceptions. Now we move to mauves and purples. And the grasses are now beginning to show their blooms as well.

The other afternoon while I was working in the perennial lot I took some pictures of what was blooming. Late summer is the time for the hardy hibiscus to bloom. This is a plant that is slow to come out of dormancy in spring. After we potted them up last spring, they looked just like sticks for the longest time. But it was worth the wait, because their dinner plate-sized blooms are gorgeous.

Echinceas, or coneflowers, are also blooming. Plant breeders have developed quite a number of different varieties since the major breakthrough with the Orange Meadowbright of a few years ago. These also appear to be hardier than the original Meadowbright, as well. One of the newer varieties has a "mophead" flower.

Eupatorium, or Joe-Pye Weed is a great plant for fall with the added benefit of being attractive to butterflys. There are varieties available that have either green or dark purple leaves, and while most varieties are tall, "Phantom" is one that is shorter at 12"-24". The flowers range from wine red to pink/red.

To add a little pop to the garden this time of year, consider either the rudbekias, Black Eyed Susans, or the Gallardia, with its yellow and orange flowers.

There are several different varieties available suitable for our area, differing mostly in size. The variety "Herbstsonne" can get 4' to 9' tall, while the popular "Goldsturm" is a more manageble 24"-30".
Gallardia, or Blanket Flower, has orange and red flowers. Some varieties have a daisy like flower, while "Fanfare" has a daisy like flower with tubular petals. The plants range in size between 12" to 24"-30" depending on the variety. The newest introduction is "Oranges and Lemons," which has a more subtle orange color.
Staff member Kim Hartmann spent last week at the Perennial Plant Association meetings in Ohio. I am sure she brought back many great ideas for our perennial offerings for next year. Be sure to stop in and ask her how the meetings were.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Hoffie Perennial Plants

Here at C'Side we are very proud of the fact that we grow a lot of the plants we sell. Earlier this year I kept you posted of the progress we made getting ready for spring. However, we couldn't possibly grow all of the plants we sell and we do buy in perennials in order to meet demand. That is one reason our plants always look so good; they are usually fresh off the delivery truck. We are fortunate here in northern Illinois to have several local perennial plant suppliers.

One of our perennial plant suppliers is Hoffie Nursery located in Union, IL. Hoffie's is owned by Carsten Hoffmeyer and if you went on the Garden Walk sponsored by the Master Gardener's of McHenry County you went to Carsten's house. Hoffie's is strictly a wholesaler, but they have developed a new web site that I thought might be of interest. Their website is and I have added a link at the bottom of the blog. The website features descriptions of new plants as well as plants from their general catalog. The descriptions include flower and foliage highlights as well as companion plants. Home gardeners can make a list of the plants they want and print it to take to their local nursery (hopefully Countryside).

The Luggage Returns

Well, if you followed my adventures to Spain this summer you know that my luggage had an extended stay in Madrid. I finally had to pay DHL to pick it up, which they did gladly, tho I have yet to see the bill. Although by the end of the trip my back pack felt like it weighed a ton, especially with the addition of the Moroccan rug, apparently they both only weighed about 10 kilos combined, near as I can tell from the air bill, so it might not be as expensive as I thought. I did get my pictures back and as I sort through them I will post a few to the blog. Here are a couple from a garden in Cordoba.