Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Salvia River

The Salvia River

The Salvia River is flowing once again in the Lurie Garden.

The crocuses and grape hyacinths of spring have given way to an undulating sea of several different salvia varieties. It stretches for about two-thirds the length of the garden, which lies between the downtown Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan.

This was probably the most photographed garden in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, with many families, friends and lovers out for a short cruise. The cool blues and purples somehow seemed to make the high heat and humidity a bit more manageable for a time.  Some also enjoyed the water feature that divides the garden in two lengthwise.

Salvia blooming Lurie Garden

There are still bulbs floating here and there although they are now alliums or ornamental onions.  The Star of Persia (allium christophii) is an explosion of purple while the allium atropurpureum provides violet purple dots of color. The dark green leaves of allium 'Summer Beauty' are coming up nicely, with their flowers content to wait for the next wave.
Several other plants have already joined the flood of color. There's Blue Star (amsonia), which provides some light blue. A touch of white, not unlike like the crest of a wave, comes from False Indigo (baptisia), Bowman's root (gillenia trifoliata), Beardtongue (penstamon) and the Great White Fleece Flower (persicaria polymorpha).

To accent all that, there's the pink in Jerusalem sage (phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’), Bradbury's bee balm (monarda bradburiana) and Great Masterwort (astrantia major).

Salvia River Lurie Garden
Salvia Lurie Garden Art Institute

The ornamental grasses are just setting sail, although prairie dropseed (sporobolus heterolepsis) is already providing some nice ripples in the landscape.  These grasses will eventually anchor the garden, which was designed by Piet Oudolf, throughout the fall and winter.
For now, though, the Salvia River just keeps rolling along.

To see more pictures of the Lurie Garden in other seasons, see spring and winter.

Salvia at Lurie Garden southwest
The Lurie Garden, looking southwest

Star of Persia allium Lurie Garden
Allium christophii 'Star of Persia'

Allium atropurpureum at Lurie Garden
Allium atropurpureum

Bradbury monarda at Lurie Garden
Monarda bradburiana

Prairie smoke baptisia Lurie Garden
Geum 'Prairie Smoke' in the foreground, white baptisia in the right middle ground
 and the part of the salvia river in the very back.
By Karen Geisler

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Weeds in the garden
Dandelions and other weeds in the garden

It’s said that Nature abhors a vacuum. No where is that more apparent this year than in my garden. Every vacant spot has been filled with weeds.

Last year’s long warm fall and this spring’s early arrival helped not only my plants but the weeds as well. A late frost damaged the foliage on several of my shrubs and trees. But the dandelions? Hah! They just laughed and just kept on growing.

I was already behind in my weeding from last year when a job-change and a stretch of 100+ degree days made it impossible to keep up. This year hasn’t been much better. I’ve been diligently weeding for seven straight weekends and I'm just now starting to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. (Or is that another dandelion?) 

Like many gardeners in this economy, I have the added burden of a vacant house next door. While the lawn is mowed, nothing is done about the weeds. And all the dandelions had just gone to seed the last time it was mowed.  As my house is the first one downwind, I’m expecting another bumper crop later this summer. Any dandelion aficionados out there willing to come and take them away? They’re free to a good home....

Below are my tips for beginning gardeners. Remember, weeds are every gardener’s dirty little secret. We all have ‘em. So let's get out there and fight the good fight!

Tap root from a weed
This is what happens when you don't get
the entire taproot. The weed just regrows.
-- Weed early and weed often. Get out there as soon as the ground is safe to walk on. Leave no stone…er, plant, unturned. Weeds will hide in crevices, under bushes and in dying bulb foliage.

Don’t stop weeding in the fall until everything, and I mean everything in the garden is dead. Weeds can keep growing for a surprisingly long time. Remember, a weed pulled in the fall is one less weed in the spring.

-- Don't let weeds go to seed. If you can’t immediately remove the weed, at least remove the seed pods. Do not left it go to seed. You will regret it. Maybe not today, but soon and for the rest of your garden’s life.

I’ve always been a bit lackadaisical about self seeders and that has come back to haunt me – big time.

Early last year, I left a few of the Queen Anne’s lace that had blown in over the backyard fence. Now, it has seeded itself all over the place, especially in my day lilies and ornamental grasses. Queen Anne's lace may be nice in bouquets but it’s a thug in the garden! And every plant has a deep tap root that is difficult to completely remove.

-- Mulch, mulch and mulch some more. This will help keep weed seeds from getting the light they need to germinate. It also will make it easier to remove those weed seeds that blow in, at least until their roots grow through the mulch.

How much will you need? If you’re comfortable with numbers, multiply the width times the length, to get square feet. Multiply that by the depth of the mulch desired to get cubic feet. (Two to three inches is good for suppressing weeds.) Divide that by 27 to get cubic yards. You can also check out

-- Best organic solution? All of the above. Supposedly boiled vinegar works, but you need to re-apply several times, according to what I’ve found on the Web. My garden is organic but after fighting some particularly nasty weeds for years, I’m seriously considering using Roundup or another herbicide in some spots.

-- Weed after a rain or water before you weed. Those intruders will be easier to pull/pry from wet soil. That’s especially true if you have lots of weeds with tap roots and/or the heavy clay soil so prevalent in the Chicago area.

Weeding tools
My favorite weeding tools

-- Choose your weapons carefully. There are almost as many different types of weeders as there are weeds. Be sure to find one that feels comfortable in your hand. The two of you will become very close over the years.

I mostly rely on something called a Dutch hand hoe, a Hori Hori Japanese knife and a metal rod with a notch at the bottom. There are plenty of alternatives though. (Note: If you are left-handed, there are specialized weeders made for you.)

-- Know your enemy.  Everyone, of course, recognizes dandelions (taraxacum officinale). But do you know your chickweed (stellaria media) from your purslane (portulacea oleracea)? What's the best way to keep them from crowding out your precious perennials? Does it have a tap root?

There are lots of links on the Web that can help you identify and fight the various weeds you'll find in the garden. Check out these from the National Gardening Association and the Weed Science Society of America. The University of Illinois Weed Science program has an extensive database as well. And here's a good photo gallery from Michigan State University. Want to focus on just the top 10? Mother Earth News surveyed gardeners nationwide and published the results here last year.

Do you have any tips on weed control in the garden? Does vinegar actually work? Any other organic methods you would recommend? Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

By Karen Geisler

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bastard Balm

Melittis melissophyllum 'Royal Velvet Distinction'

Meet melittis melissophyllum 'Royal Velvet Distinction.’

It has small orchid-like flowers, a regal sounding name and a plant patent. So you'd expect it to have a great pedigree, right?

Nope. Its common name is Bastard Balm. Yes, you read that right. It’s a wildflower native to the U.K. and found all over central and southern Europe. Some European garden designers apparently look down on it as a result.

As an herb, it is used to treat anxiety, wounds and kidney problems. Exactly how it got its common name is (ahem) unclear.

This particular variety is more compact and has larger flowers than the species, according to a patent filed by its developer, Eleonore de Koning of the Netherlands. The violet purple and white flower color also is different from that of its parents and the leaves are a slightly darker green.

Its flowers still bloom in whorls around the upper part of the stems, though, a particularly delightful effect.

Royal Velvet Distinction in my garden
While initial listings for this plant said it was only hardy to USDA zones 6 or 7, it’s now being grown and sold in the Chicago as zones 5 - 9. That makes sense given that it’s a member of the always vigorous mint family.

Royal Velvet Distinction gets about 18" tall by 18" wide, likes full sun or light shade, and blooms from late spring to early summer.

It attracts butterflies and, as you might suspect with a botanical name from the Greek word for honey bees, it attracts them as well.

The leaves are a bit fuzzy and smell like lemon when rubbed. They supposedly remain that way even when dried.

I’m always a sucker for fragrant plants. And it looks like it would be perfect for a woodland garden. I couldn't resist buying it recently when I discovered it at my favorite nursery. I have it planted next to some Max Frei geraniums (geranium sanguineum), Tara dwarf prairie dropseed (sporobolus heterolepsis) and a Frosted Violet coral bells (heuchera).

Granted, the flowers aren't particularly big. And from what I've found on the Internet, it may take the plant a few years to settle in before it gets particularly floriferous. I'm willing to wait, though.

If nothing else, it should be one heck of a conversation starter.

By Karen Geisler

Thursday, May 10, 2012

M-O-T-H-E-R in the Garden

Callibrachoa 'Cali Pink Star'
Million bells or Calibrachoa 'Cali Star Pink''

"M" is for the million bells she gave me.

Queen of the Sea hosta
Hosta 'Queen of the Sea'

"O" means she's original and likes her foliage bold.

Hosta 'Tears of Joy'
Hosta 'Tears of Joy," a miniature

"T" is for the tears when she first saw me
Dicentra spectrabilis 'Gold Heart'
Bleeding Heart or
Dicentra spectrabilis 'Gold Heart'

"H" is for her heart of purest gold.

Lucerne blue-eyed grass
Blue-eyed grass or Sisyrinchium angustifolium 'Lucerne'

"E" is for her eyes, with love light beaming.

Wisley 2008 rose
Rosa 'Wisley 2008,'  a David Austin rose

"R" is for the rose she'll always be.

Put them all together they spell


A word that means the world -- and the garden -- to me.

(With apologies to poet Howard Johnson)
By Karen Geisler

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mother's Day Gifts for Gardeners

Mother's Day is fast approaching. Visit any garden center next Saturday and you'll be sure to see several very harried fathers with their kids in tow, shopping frantically for Mom. If you're one of these non-gardeners, you could fall back on that old standby -- a rose bush. But if you want to give something a little more special this year, here are a few suggestions.

-- A make-it-yourself garden stepping stone.

This requires a bit of advance planning/shopping but it will be worth it. I would have loved one of these when my son was growing up. Alas, now he's practically grown up and my chances of getting one of these -- well, I might as well wish to actually get the car on a Saturday night.

 -- Great garden clothing.

Who says you have to wear dowdy, grass-stained clothes when gardening? That's just so Medieval!

Boots and clogs now come in all sorts of wonderful colors and patterns. Just be sure to know Mom's shoe size before you go to the store.  And if your Mom is a hat person, well, you're in luck! There's no better way for a gardener to keep the sun off her face and neck!

-- A cool looking birdhouse. Invite the birds to join your mother in the garden. You could buy one at your favorite neighborhood garden center. There also are kits available. Just don't leave it plain. Dress it up with your own special style!

-- Garden statuary. Depending of the size of your budget, a statue, fountain or wall hanging might be something to consider. Does your Mom love frogs? There are lots of those available. Garden gnomes and decorations you can hang on a wall or gate are also awesome!

-- A colorful garden accessory. Pots, chairs, globes and other goodies for the patio come in a lot of exciting colors these days. Of course, clay pots do have their place. But if your Mom just wants to have fun, something lime green may be just the ticket.

-- Containers planted with flowers. You can buy them ready made or, if your Mom is more a do-it-yourself-er, get her a gift certificate for her favorite nursery.

-- Good hand tools.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will reiterate a suggestion I made just before Christmas. Practically every gardener would like some high-quality tools, Alas, these generally aren't something we generally buy for ourselves -- not when we need more plants for the garden.

-- The usual suspects. These include a membership to the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Morton Arboretum or another public garden near you. Gardening books, especially those on a topic near and dear to your Mom's heart. Gloves, but only if they're not too big. (Save the receipt.)

-- The best gift of all. This is spending time in the garden with your mother. Help pulling weeds or picking up the same is very, very much appreciated! It's right up there with turning the compost pile, planting annuals or hauling bags of topsoil to the back yard.

Here's hoping you all have the happiest of Mother's Day!!!
By Karen Geisler