Monday, June 25, 2012

Requiem for a Hoe

It’s been a sad week in the garden -- not because of the near-drought conditions or the number of weeds that remain.  It’s because I’ve lost my constant gardening companion for the past 15 years – my Dutch hand hoe.

This was the first good garden tool I ever bought  --  a splurge at the time, but one that proved to be worth it. This hoe lasted through three gardens in three different cities. Sun, shade, you name it, this little tool was great for tackling whatever needed doing.

Sure, I had lost it more times than I’d care to admit – in piles of weeds or fallen leaves, behind some empty plastic nursery pots in the garage. I had even left it out in the rain. Somehow I always managed to find it. Every spring, I would use a steel brush to remove the rust and debris from the previous season. Then I’d sharpen the blade and oil it, making it almost good as new.

By now, of course, the metal blade was pitted and I could no longer read the name on the handle. But it had gotten to the point where it felt like a natural extension on my hand, sort of like the way an old shoe feels. Give me this tool, a pruners and a shovel and I was ready to take on any garden task.

My hoe died with its boots on, so to speak. I had just used it to remove grass that was too close to my yellowwood tree. I was chopping up the heavy clay soil left behind when the blade bounced off a clod and bent inward. I nudged it back as I had a hundred times before. On the next stroke, the blade broke off completely.

I was in denial at first. This couldn’t be! It had always survived before. Maybe I could find someone to weld it back together. I laid the pieces on the ground and went inside for a break. My husband found them and threw them away.

Life goes on and the garden needs to be weeded so I’m looking for another hand hoe. I’ll buy a new one, but it will never totally replace the original. You never really forget a good garden tool.

By Karen Geisler

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hats Off to 'Hummelo'

Hummelo betony
Stachys monieri 'Hummelo'

Mention the word “stachys” and many people think of Lamb’s Ears with its soft, fuzzy silver leaves and odd-looking flowers.

For me, though, the word brings to mind not Stachys byzantina, the botanic name of Lamb's Ears, but one of its green-leafed cousins, Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo.’

This plant, common name betony, is one of the longest-blooming perennials in my garden. It's right up there with the Blue Star False Aster (Kalimeris incisa‘Blue Star’) and the Rozanne geranium.

Hummelo anchors my garden in the summer months, with groupings of three, five and even seven. This is definitely one plant where more is better. Thankfully that isn't hard as you can easily divide it.

The foliage of Hummelo betony
The foliage of Stachys m. 'Hummelo'
I love Hummelo's vibrant rosy-purple spikes that bloom from mid-June until sometime in August. Even when it’s not in bloom, the scalloped leaves with their crinkly texture provide a lot of interest.

That's one reason I have it along the sidewalk to my front door, where the leaves can be appreciated close up.

Hummelo thrives in my clay soil, whether full sun or light shade, and gets about 1 ½ to 2 feet tall, with a similar spread. It has never been bothered by deer or rabbits.

The plant also goes well with several others in my garden, including ornamental grasses, cone flowers (Echinacea), day lilies (Hemerocallis), bee balm (Monarda) and Walker's Low cat mint Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low').

As with Kalimeris, I discovered this plant while doing a class report on Piet Oudolf, the Dutch “New Wave” designer who worked on the Lurie Garden in Chicago, the Gardens of Remembrance in New York City's Battery and numerous other public gardens.

He introduced the plant, which is named for the town where he lives in the Netherlands. I've always figured that any plant named after a hometown or spouse has to be good so I did more research.

I found that Hummelo had a good track record, topping the list of 22 Stachys varieties evaluated by the Chicago Botanic Garden from 1998 through 2004.

Richard Hawke, the CBG’s Plant Evaluation Manager, cited Hummelo for its “consistently heavy flower production, healthy foliage and a uniform habit” in his report. The plant also is reliably hardy in the Chicago area, being listed as Zone 4 to 8. That sealed the deal and Hummelo has been in my garden ever since.

I admit I'm intrigued by another recent introduction, Stachys officinalis ‘Pink Cotton Candy,’ which was found by the CBG as a seedling during the evaluation mentioned above. Its blooms are similar to those of Hummelo but in a much softer pink.

For now, though, I'm sticking with Hummelo. It's a true workhorse and a very pretty one at that.

By Karen Geisler

Hummelo betony has a compact growth habit.
Stachys m. 'Hummelo' has a nice compact habit

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Gardener's Fantasy Island

Heliconia pendula

I must have dozed off in the hammock Sunday after spending one too many hours weeding in the 90-degree heat.

When I woke up, I was in an island paradise surrounded by tropical plants. There were no weeds in sight. All the beds were immaculately edged and mulched. The smell of gardenias and jasmine perfumed the air.

It was heavenly! I immediately had to take a closer look.

“This is better than Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island,” I thought as I got up and went for a short stroll, “although they do serve afternoon tea at Butchart.”

Suddenly, a very short man in a white suit was there, offering me a tall glass of ice cold lemonade. He left before I could thank him, saying something about a plane.

Then, over to my left, I saw a bright red and yellow flower that looked like a lobster claw. As I walked toward it, I suddenly knew what it was.

Heliconia pendula, better known as lobster-claw. Named after Mount Helicon, the seat of the Muses in Greek mythology. Spreads by rhizomes. “Flowers” are actually bracts. Likes at least 6 hours of sun although the pendulous version prefers shadier areas. Needs to be watered at least twice a day.

Wow, I thought. The only tropical plants I've ever owned have been the hibiscus on our deck. Where did that come from? Hmmmmm….

Over to my right was a palm with ruffled, fan-like leaves. As I walked over, the same thing happened.

Ruffled fan palm
Licuala grandis

Licuala grandis. Also known as the Ruffled Fan fern. Native to the Vanuata Islands off the coast of Australia. Doesn’t like direct sun. Slow grower. Prefers high humidity. Good as a houseplant. Produces red berries, each with a single seed.

This was starting to become a bit disconcerting.

Maybe I just needed to stretch my legs a bit more in order to wake up. I had walked about a quarter mile when I saw a wonderful purple flower with white edges straight ahead.

Picotee Skyflower
Duranta erecta 'Sapphire Showers'

Duranta erecta 'Sapphire Showers.' A member of the verbena family. Also known as Picotee Skyflower, Pigeonberry or Golden Dewdrop. The later name is because the flowers are succeeded by chains of orange-yellow fruit. Fruit is poisonous, so do not put where it is accessible to children. Likes average soil and full to part sun.

I’ve always wanted to know everything about every plant I see, but this was starting to become a bit much.

Jamie Durie
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a man with brown hair carrying an Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi or so my brain instantly told me). Was that Jamie Durie, the hunky Australian garden designer from HGTV? Maybe he could tell me what was going on here.

Unfortunately, he vanished before I could reach him. It was as though he had disappeared into a room of some sort.

I shrugged it off and resumed my walk. Flowers and ferns were everywhere on this island. And somehow I instantly knew exactly what they were, simply by looking at them.

There was the thyallis (galphimia glauca), Firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis), Kimberly Queen fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) and even Macho fern (N. biserrata). In no time, my poor brain was overloaded.

Firecracker fern
Russelia equisetiformis

Finally, in a shady glen just ahead, I spotted a hammock slung between two coconut trees. Maybe I could just close my eyes and take a short break, I thought as I climbed in.

When I woke up a short time later, I was in my own back yard, weeds and all. My mind was at peace, though. And my husband was standing there with some sort of potted palm in one hand and a virgin Pina Colada for me in the other.

Maybe my own little garden wasn't so bad after all. Especially if I added a touch of the tropics this summer.

HGTV's Jamie Durie will be appearing at Chalet Nursery this Thursday, June 14 from 2 to 3 p.m. and again from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The cost is $24.95 and includes a copy of his latest book, The Outdoor Room. For more information, call (847) 256-0561.

Durango Delight (TM) Thread-leaf agave
Agave schidigera 'Durango Delight'
Aloe hybrid 'Christmas Carol'
False Bird of Paradise
Heliconia species or False Bird of Paradise

Copper Leaf
Acalypha wilkesiana or Copper Leaf
Antonow's Blue Honey Bush
The foliage of Melianthus major 'Antonow's Blue'
By Karen Geisler

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Crazy 'bout Kalimeris

One of the longest blooming plants in my garden is probably one you’ve never heard of – Kalimeris incisa ‘Blue Star’ also known as the Blue Star False Aster.

This plant is already covered with 1-inch light purple daisy-like flowers. Most years, it keeps going until the first frost if I give it a good shearing after every flush of flowers.  During last summer, when we had a long stretch of 100-degree days, it was one of the few perennials that kept on pushing out flowers into the fall.

I first stumbled across this plant when researching Piet Oudolf for a garden design class. Oudolf, who helped design the Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago, lists Kalimeris incisa in two of his books, “Planting the Natural Garden” and “Dream Plants for the Natural Garden.”

The latter describes it as “an unpretentious plant which builds into a pleasant cluster of endlessly remontant, lilac-blue daisy flowers. Strong and reliable, it combines well everywhere.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. It resembles a light purple version of boltonia, only shorter and longer blooming, if you’re familiar with that plant.

Kalimeris is not fussy, although it needs watering the first year and prefers well-drained soil. It grows about 18 to 24” tall in full sun or part shade and is hardy in zones 5-9. While it can need some support, the plants seems happy in between other flowers that hold it up without staking. And it can easily be divided after a few years. 

Kalimeris incisa 'Blue Star' and Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low'

In fact, the only thing kalimeris lacks is fragrance. I’ve solved that problem by planting some “Fragrant Returns” day lilies (Hemerocallis) near my main grouping of kalimeris. I'm hoping the light yellow day lilies will complement the yellow center of the kalimeris blooms. Those perky little purple stars already look gorgeous in front of my Walker’s Low catmint (Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low'). In fact, it looks so good that I’ve put off giving the nepeta the first of its three annual shearings for a while.
Kalimeris, a native of China, Japan and Siberia, has been around a long time. It was first mentioned in 1825 and is popular in Europe. One of its cousins, Kalimeris pinnata, was a favorite of Elizabeth Lawrence, the famous southern garden writer. She was definitely a fan of pinnata, a double white False Aster, which she knew as Asteromoea mongolica or the Oxford Orphanage Flower. I would like to add that to my garden as well, but it's only hardy to zone 6.

Who knows? With global warming, I may yet be able to go kalimeris crazy with both varieties.

By Karen Geisler