Early Spring Planting-Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar Snap Peas

All vegetable gardeners are eager for spring planting in the garden.  After planning new gardens and features in January, cleaning up, starting seeds and pruning in February and March, we are ready for planting as soon as possible.  The real fun begins in our area in the end of March, when, if the ground is workable and warm enough (see the link to the soil germination temperature chart), we will be planting cool season vegetables  in the ground including:

  • carrots
  • beets
  • leaf lettuce
  • spinach
  • green onions
  • spinach
  • peas

We take the soil temperature and sow seeds when it is at least 60 degrees F.   It’s easy to take the soil temperature and works well for getting to know what’s going on in your garden.  Raised beds will warm up more quickly.  So, unless we’re having a super warm spring (and we did just a a few years ago) wait beyond the traditional St. Patrick’s Day date to plant peas.    Seeds planted when the soil is too cold and wet may rot if it’s too wet and at worst will just sit and “sulk”.

I was reading about peas in an email I received about heirloom vegetables from John Scheeper’s Kitchen Garden Seeds.   The sugar snap peas we plant these days are so tender they can be eaten right off the vine or lightly steamed/sautéed with a little butter and salt for a very few minutes.  Apparently that wasn’t always the case.  Peas are also great because they provide provide the additional benefit of “fixing” nitrogen in the soil (converting nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form plants).

What will you be planting in your spring vegetable garden this year?



Mardi Gras Season 2016

Mardi Gras masks

Mardi Gras masks

A couple of Saturdays ago in the midst of the deep freeze we were honored to have a group of our gardening friends join us for a Mardi Gras-themed gathering. The Carnival season begins on 12th night–Epiphany–and ends on Mardi Gras Day which is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar.) In 2016, the season is early and short, beginning on January 6 and ending on February 9.
Entertaining with a theme is fun for me at any time. It helps tie together a menu, invitations, decorations and entertainment. For this party we had New Orleans-style-comfort food.



Fried Okra
Shrimp Remoulade
Old Fashioneds

Chicken and Andouille Gumbo w/White Rice
Fresh Salads brought by our lovely guests
French Bread

King Cakes (both New Orleans and Pithivier)
Homemade Linzer Torte made by a guest
Cafe Noir

Decorations were easy.   Since purple, green and gold are the official colors of Mardi Gras, I used spring flowering bulbs (yellow daffodils and purple hyacinths).  Of course, we had beads everywhere. Guests adorned themselves upon arrival and took their beads home as favors when they left.

I’m thinking we might make this an annual tradition!  Happy Mardi Gras to you!

Bayberry Candles for the Holidays

northern bayberry bush with berries

Northern bayberry bush with berries

Every Christmas when I was growing up my one of the grandparent presents was a package of gifts from the Vermont Country Store.  These were mostly things that reminded them of their younger Christmases that they wanted to share with us.*  Among these were bayberry candles.


Bayberry candles are made from the wax covering the berries of the northern bayberry bush, Myrica pensylvanica. images-3

Northern bayberry is a suckering shrub that is semi-evergreen here in the Chicagoland area.  It prefers acid soils, but will survive in clay soils although it will develop chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves) in high pH soils.  The berries are high in fat, attractive to birds, and when boiled, the wax can be skimmed and dipped to be made into candles.  Traditionally, they were burned on Christmas and New Year’s Eve for good luck.  They smell heavenly!  I’m looking forward to mine this year.

*another was horehound cough drops.  Not a favorite! The maple sugar candies were popular.


Christmas Memories

Natural fruit and greens wreath

Natural fruit and greens wreath

While preparing our house for the holidays I’ve been having Christmas memories about gifts my mother made for her friends when we were kids. My mother was an artist and majored in art history. After college she worked for Shell Oil as a graphic artist until she had all these kids that needed her at home. Even then she continued with her painting and did calligraphy. One year she prepared an illuminated version of the poem, Desiderata, that was trending at the time. I was thinking about that today and found the text on the internet. I thought you might like it as much as I do. So from my past with best wishes for your holiday peace, here it is…(unfortunately, without my mother’s original artwork and calligraphy.)

Christmas greeting illuminated

Christmas greeting illuminated


“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Written by Max Ehrmann, 1927  Now in the public domain, no longer protected by copyright. 

Forsythia behaving badly

Forsythia shrub

Well-behaved forsythia shrub


Our hugely overgrown forsythia bushes (probably Forsythia xintermedia which gets to be 8-10’ high by 10-12’ wide—and ours is that large) are behaving badly and about to be entirely cut to the ground.  Forsythia are only pretty for the few weeks when they bloom in spring.  The rest of the time they have wild, messy-looking growth, stems that root when they touch the ground, coarse, uninteresting leaves and unreliable, if any fall color.  Non-bloomers are really a big disappointment.

For years our shrubs have bloomed very little or not at all. We’ve tried many techniques to get them to bloom, but they’ve not responded. Sometimes they bloom a little bit where they were covered (protected) by snow and not in the area above the snow line. Most of the time they don’t bloom at all.

According to Michael Dirr, famous professor of woody plants, this plant is “…vegetatively hardy in zone 4, however, flower buds are often killed in Zone 5…”.  If ours are cut back and come back next year and bloom beautifully, we will be delighted and keep them.  If they don’t bloom, hopefully they will just die and leave room for us to plant something else in their spot.

The best time to prune forsythia is right after they bloom so the buds formed after this year’s bloom will be retained for next year. We’ve done that. We’ve also done the renewal pruning (removing 1/3 of the oldest stems to the base of the ground every year for 3 years.) We were hoping for smaller shrubs, more controlled growth, better shape and more blooms! So after trying these different tactics for the past 5 years, we’re giving up.

Another unpleasant fact for the shrubs we have: the roots are extensive and fibrous and make it difficult for other things to grow around them. This is also the case for the mock orange shrubs that are also planted in that bed. All of these are planted under mature pine trees and are in the sight line of a big picture window. We’ve kept these as long as we have because the birds have really enjoyed using them for shelter.  At this point, though, there are lots of other prettier shrubs they can use that are also food sources, so we are willing to give these shrubs this one last try.

In the meantime, I’m going to concentrate on another part of the shrub border that is more worthwhile.  We’ll give you an update on these forsythia next year.

New additions for 2015–Hardy Bulbs

Last spring, one of the better things I did was take the Hardy Bulbs course at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The course offers wonderful detail on over 60 plants that are great choices for our area. It includes sections on daffodils and alliums (both wildlife-resistant options with unusual varieties) and a section on tulip varieties that made me decide to try a few even though they require protection from deer, squirrels and chipmunks! For this post, I’d like to share a few easy choices that are wildlife-resistant and will naturalize.

Of course, once I got to the bulb catalogs and the bulb sale at the garden, I ended up trying just about everything in small groups (which is what a designer will tell you what Not To Do).  I even added some species tulips (planted in a spot well-reinforced with wire.)  I justify all this by telling myself that I need to know how the plants will do here in the northwest suburbs with our soil, weather, critters, etc. Here are a few I planted that I am looking forward to:

Netted Iris

Iris reticulata Netted Iris

Netted Iris – Iris reticulata  Looks like irises you are used to, but the small-flower is 3″ across on a 4-6″ high stem.  Lovely shades of blue or purple.  Great planted in large drifts.  Loves dry soil.  Animal resistant.  Blooms in March and can even tolerate some snow!

Windflower Anemone Blanda Blue and White mix

Windflower – Anemone blanda  Looks like a small white or pink or deep blue daisy with yellow center that opens when it is sunny and closes at night from March into April.  Flowers are about  the size of a quarter with ferny foliage that fades away quickly.  Likes full sun to part shade, well-drained soil and is animal resistant.   Will naturalize (clumps enlarge over the years)

Fumewort Corydalis solida

Fumewort – Corydalis solida  Another pretty blue/green ferny-foliaged plant with 3/4″ long spikes of pinkish/reddish flowers that blooms in mid to late spring.  Will grow well in sun to semi-shade but needs rich soil. Will take summer drought once dormant. Nice to use under daffodils. Will naturalize and is wildlife resistant!

Guinea hen flower Fritillaria meleagris

Guinea hen flower – Fritillaria meleagris  Purple or cream nodding flowers with checkered pattern!  10-12″ tall with lance-like leaves. Blooms in April to early May in moist rich soil and will tolerate wet soils in summer.  Wildlife resistant! I’ve had such good luck with these for years that I added some more last fall.  Plant them 4″ deep.

Do you plant any unusual hardy bulbs in your garden?

January Gardeners Have Green Hope

Don’t despair January gardeners!

Walking around the garden in the expanding hours of sunshine with snow melting I think of this time as Green Hope.

Magnolia buds swelling

Magnolia buds swelling in January

There are a few things we expect to be green in the winter. This year they are green, in good form and and looking fine. The boxwoods are green and not brown this year (fingers crossed!) the pines and spruces are not broken from heavy snows and the buds are swelling on the lilacs and magnolias.

Traditional January Gardener Green Hope includes starting seeds, planning spring and summer gardens, forcing bulbs, forcing branches and maybe even growing lettuce indoors or in a greenhouse.  But best of all to me are the almost miraculous and unexpected tender greens that are peeking out from beneath the snow.

For example, here is some of the Autumn Fern by the sunroom’s back stairs.

Autumn fern in snow

Autumn fern peeking from under the snow


These ferns have been there for at least five years, get no special treatment and there they are– delicate green fronds emerging from under the snow and ice.

The deer come to the bird feeders next to these ferns but have never bothered them, even when the feeders are empty.




I didn’t realize until the past few years (thank you, Roy Diblik) that there are many sedges that are native to our area, evergreen and work in gardens beautifully.  They are easy to use if put in the right place and thrive with little attention.  The deer don’t eat them either!  Here are some of mine that live in the fountain garden.

the carex is green under the snow

Variegated green carex emerging from the snow






Unfortunately, my walk also revealed some evil weeds–green perennial grass that that has invaded a neglected part of one of my perennial beds. I decided you wouldn’t want to see that evidence.  That brings me to another kind of January gardener green hope–the hope I can find someone to help me weed my perennial borders early in Spring!

Forcing Forsythia Branches

Forced Forsythia blossoms

Forced Forsythia blossoms

After the holidays I enjoy the bare, clean look of the house for about two weeks.  After all the dust-catching clutter of ornaments, trinkets and greens, it’s a relief to see some clear space.  But then the house starts to feel empty (of plant life, we have almost too many dogs) around here.

Houseplants* are helpful in keeping some green around, especially those that are blooming.  My eight-year-old white Mandevilla vine has stopped shedding leaves and is blooming nicely now.  The amaryllis are helpful, and the geraniums I overwintered are putting on lots of new leaves as are the stephanotis and the asparagus ferns.

Of course, there are seed catalogs and plans for the outdoor gardens, but for bringing the outdoors in, the best way I know to get through the next few weeks is with a few blooming projects and a few citrus fruit.  One of the easiest is to cut and force some blooming branches.

In the interest of being a more globally responsible green person, I try to avoid buying cut flowers unless they are locally grown.  For a great source of eco-conscious growers of flowers in the U.S., click here for access to slow flowers.com, one of my heroes, Debra Prinzing’s websites.

But let’s face it, buying flowers is not the same as growing your own and being creative with your own designs.  So I like to force blooming branches indoors.  Most of us have a forsythia shrub in our garden (or maybe your neighbor wouldn’t mind if you asked?) and a short walk, some water and patience will result in fabulous yellow blooms like these.  Even the branches that don’t bloom but just get green leaves are exciting.  Forsythia are among the easiest blooms to force, but I’ve also had good success with crabapple and quince branches.  Generally, the closer to the time the shrub would bloom naturally, the easier it will be to get it to bloom.  Just

  • cut at a natural growing point with clean, sharp clippers
  • make sure to keep your clippers sterilized (10% bleach solution with water) between cuts
  • put the cut end in lukewarm water for a few weeks
  • change the water to keep it clean every couple of days
  • cut the end of the branch every few days
  • when you start to see the buds swell
  • arrange them in an attractive container and
  • display!

Do you force any blooming shrubs or trees for winter bloom?  Which ones?  What are your successes?

*I define a houseplant as a plant that lives in the house for at least a few months of the year.  Some live in the house in the winter, some in the summer and some all year round.  My mother said only those that lived indoors during the winter were really houseplants!  But she came from the deep South.  Another interesting topic for discussion.

Purple Beautyberries in the garden

Fall color that is deer resistant

Purple berries on the stem

It’s been two years since I planted a pair of American Beautyberries (Callicarpa Americana) in the peony beds. I wanted to add something that would give interest later in the season in these two raised, full-sun beds. There are a few geraniums and other perennials in the beds now, but we wanted a bigger show with less weeding, so I am trying various types of flowering shrubs in the garden. These are especially nice for this time of year with the berries that ripen along the stem (sessile to the stem) where the flowers were a few weeks ago. The color is wonderful for this time of year.

Last year there were skimpy flowers and berries, but I guess the plants settled in because this year we have had loads of flowers and berries. These are facing north, and we just suffered through the winter of -30 temps, but they came back from the roots and look better than ever. We don’t water those beds much, so the plants have to be pretty self-reliant. Most of what I plant is a test in the first place to see how well something will grow and whether it will be worthwhile to add it to my favorite list (and/or recommend it to clients.) This seems to be a winner.

In mid-October, the foliage is turning from a yellowish-green to brownish-burgundy and is falling off. The berries stay on the stems after the foliage is gone (until the birds eat them) and you can see from the photo they still look fine in spite of the two frosts we’ve had by now. (no hard freeze yet). The deer leave them alone so far, so that’s a positive for us in that part of the garden.

Replacing winter-damaged yews and boxwoods

May herb blooms

May herb blooms

With the delayed Spring this year, we’ve had the advantage of extended bloom times on spring-blooming bulbs while enjoying the regular festival of blooms at this time of year.  Unfortunately, many of the bulbs in my front gardens were only visible next to completely windburned boxwood bushes (an ugly beige color) and horrible orange winter-damaged yews.  I know yews will come back from old wood–I renew-pruned these 14 years ago–when I bought the property–from 5′-6′ to 3′.  (During that first summer I also removed the 7′ tall juniper bushes by the front door.)  The yews took two years to look good and lately they were looking overgrown again.  Plus, they were so boring! There was no room to grow anything among them.  So, in spite of the expense, I was happy to remove the 13 fully (over-grown) orange yews in front of the garage and wellhead and replace them with more attractive options.  That was the good news.  The bad news is that I also had to remove the 7 perfect boxwood spheres I have so carefully developed in these same 14 years.  I am replacing most of the boxwood since 1) I have a colonial-style house that seems to call for boxwood, and 2) I have boxwood in other areas that I want to repeat for unity in the overall garden design and 3) DEER DON’T eat them and 4) they are evergreen in a soft way.


In the meantime, I am enjoying May deer-resistant stalwarts while I redesign the front gardens.  Deer-resistant May bloomers include globemaster alliums and chives. We also have a tree peony that is blooming, along with false indigo, bearded iris, ladies’ mantle, marsh spurge, Virginia bluebells (mertensia), Spanish bluebells, ajuga, columbine and candytuft. All this while the crabapples, pears and horsechestnut trees are blooming with the lilacs, spirea and honeysuckle! Almost as exciting to me at this time of year are ferns that have come back, new leaves on late-to-emerge friends like the autumn clematis and the purple smokebush. May is my favorite because the weeds are still small, the green growth is still fresh and juicy and the insects haven’t put so much damage on leaves that things look tattered.

Winter-damaged shrubs

Winter-damaged shrubs