Sunday, September 30, 2012

Henry Eilers

Henry Eilers rudbeckia

It was love at first sight when I met Henry Eilers. The plant, that is.

This wasn't just another Tom, Dick or Harry. Or even another Black-Eyed Susan. This was a tall, stately flower with petals that curled under to become quills, a flower that would shout a cheery "welcome home"  when I pulled up in the driveway after a hard day at work.

Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers' has now graced my front yard for two years and is the star of the late summer/early fall garden. Its flowers are just starting to fade after blooming for more than a month, despite the ongoing drought.

But then Henry Eilers, also known as the sweet coneflower, is made of pretty strong stuff.

It hails from downstate Illinois where it was found just south of Springfield along Historic Route 66. This was one of the nation's first highways and became known as the Mother Road during the Dust Bowl days as people drove from Chicago to California in search of a better life. A younger generation knows it as the road featured in the Pixar movie "Cars."

Henry Eilers
Route 66 in Illinois was originally surrounded by tallgrass prairie -- most of which has long since vanished. Henry Eilers, the plant, was found in an undisturbed 8-acre remnant of that prairie which Henry Eilers, the man, and others are now working to preserve.

A retired nurseryman, Eilers has been active in the several conservation efforts near his hometown of Litchfield for many years. His name even graces a local 250-acre nature preserve on Shoals Creek.

Henry Eilers, the plant, is every bit as hard-working as its finder. It likes full sun but does well in the slightly shady spot where I have it planted. In addition to having a long bloom period, it makes a great cut flower. The leaves also smell like vanilla if crushed or dried.

The only apparent drawback is its height. This plant supposedly gets to be about 5-6 feet tall, which might require staking. In my garden, however, it has only gotten about 3 feet tall so far. That could be because both summers have had their share of 100-degree days which may have limited growth. I know that has been the case at several local prairies.

On the other hand, it could be that my plant was mislabeled. There's now a 'Little Henry' variety that only gets about 3 feet tall. Such things do happen.

Henry Eilers rudbeckia mums asters
Henry Eilers with asters and mums at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Guess I'll have to wait for a more "normal" year -- whatever that is -- to make such a determination. If Henry ever does get that tall, it will probably have to be moved to another part of the garden.

Whatever the final verdict, though, it's definitely sticking around. Henry Eilers is a nice complement to asters and mums. And I'll never find a cheerier, harder working plant to take its place.

By Karen Geisler

Henry Eilers Chicago Botanic English Walled Garden
Henry Eilers at the Chicago Botanic Garden English Walled Garden

Sunday, September 23, 2012


'Just Peachy' by Fred Brill of Mount Prospect, IL

The dahlias were dazzling this weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Central States Dahlia Society hosted its annual show in the Regenstein Building while just outside, in the Circle Garden, dahlias mingled with zinnias, grasses and black-eyed Susans to form perfect fall vignettes.

I have to admit I've rarely grown dahlias. They tend to be high maintenance, requiring a lot of fertilizer. They also prefer to be dug up every fall and stored over the winter.

Dahlia Mingus Phillips II
Mingus Phillip II by Ed Zych of Buffalo Grove, IL.
Most Perfect AA Bloom, Section A

But after seeing the show this weekend, I may have to reconsider. I never realized there were so many different dahlia forms. Sizes range from 1 1/4 inch in diameter to a whopping 12-14". For exhibition purposes, they are divided into 12 groupings based on flower shape, number of petals and size.

Dahlias are mostly grown from tubers or fleshy roots, although they can be grown from rooted cuttings or seeds, according to a handout from the Central States Dalia Society. They love full sun, good air circulation and good drainage. Dahlias generally bloom from early August until frost.

Dahlia Honeymoon
Honeymoon by Axel and Nancy Joob of Wilmette
Dahlia Midnight Star
Midnight Star by Steve Kuiper of Goshen, IN
3 Most Perfect Orchid Type Blooms
Pom Dahlia Tiny
Tiny (close up) by Jerry and Ruth Ann Wittrig of Goshen, IN
3 Most Perfect Pom Type Blooms, Section H, Class H3
Dahlia April Heather
April Heather by Robert Williamson of Madison, WI
Dahlia Zorro
Zorro by Jerry and Ruth Ann Wittrig of Goshen, IN
Most Perfect AA Bloom, Section D

dahlia Mingus Gregory
Mingus Gregory by Tom Krewenka
Largest Bloom, Section W

Best of Show Central States Dahlia Society
The Best of Show

For those venturing out into the bright sunny afternoon, there were more dahlias waiting in the Circle Garden.

Dahlia 'Merlot' stood out beautifully again yellow foliage of Gay's Delight coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Gay's Delight').

Dahlia Prince Charming played well with Ageratum houstonianum 'Diamond Blue' and Sedum rupestre 'Lemon Coral.'

Dahlia Heartthrob mingled with Bidens ferulifolia 'Bidcontis' and Carex testacea 'Prairie Fire.'

Dahlia Heartthrob

Surrounding the central fountain was a mix of Dahlia 'Zachary Roberts' and Zinnia elegans 'Polar Bear.' It was set off by castor bean (Ricinus communis 'Carmencita Bright Red'), red pentas (Penta lanceolata 'Starla Red') and Salvia coccinea 'Snow Nymph' with a bit of Swedish ivy (Plectranthus coleoides) thrown in for good measure.

Everything glowed in the light of autumn's first full day. It was wonderful way to spend a sunny -- if slightly chilly -- Sunday afternoon.

By Karen Geisler

Dahlia Prince Charming
Prince Charming
Dahlia Zachary Roberts
Zachary Roberts
Dahlia Merlot

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Big Miniature Elm

Yatsubusa Chinese elm in my garden
Yatsubusa Chinese elm
I’ve always wanted an elm tree, but somehow it has never worked out. Ditto for a bonsai. So what did I do last weekend? I bought a large version of a very popular elm used for bonsai –  Ulmus parvifolia Yatsubusa or the Yatsubusa Chinese elm.

It wasn't planned. At the time, I was looking for a Little Lime hydrangea to fill a spot recently vacated by some Queen Anne’s Lace. And, as long as I was at my favorite nursery, I decided to drift over to the sale area. After all, you never know what unusual bargains you might find this time of year.

Then I saw it, sitting by itself, almost overshadowed by some magnolias and dogwoods. It had tiny little leaves, barely more than three-quarters of an inch in length, with serrated edges and wonderfully corky bark.  This tree definitely needed some TLC. How could I resist? It practically whispered my name.

Or at least that’s what I told my husband when I got home. I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue as to where I was going to put it, nor if it would even look good with the mostly native flowers in my garden.

Bark Yatsubusa Chinese elm
A closeup of the bark
I guess I should have taken the Fifth. Or at least renewed my pledge to start a 12-step program for hortiholics.

Anyway, I think my husband was amused by my description of it as a big miniature elm. Guess it reminded him of the old George Carlin joke about JUMBO shrimp.

It was then and there that I decided to research my new tree. Almost every Website described its use only as a bonsai. Some said the Yatsubusha (which means "dwarf" in Japanese) is hardy to zone 6. A couple mentioned Zone 5, which I'm hoping is correct since that's where my garden is located.

Like most elms, it requires full sun. It's a slow grower -- supposedly 10’ tall and 6’ wide at maturity. One site estimated its height as 6’ after 10 years. Given that it apparently is about 4-5 years old at this point and 4 feet tall,  I probably won’t have to worry about its height anytime soon.

The perfect spot in my garden? It didn't exist. My only option was to extend an exising bed into an area of my yard that is mostly very heavy, very compacted clay. I've been avoiding this area for years.

But I was on a mission! I had to give an orphan tree a good home! So I spent much of this weekend on prep work. I dug up weeds. I stripped sod. I forked the soil. I mixed in cotton burr compost and composted manure.

At one point, I paused in the 80-degree weather and asked myself if this little elm was a "bargain" after all. But I shook it off, pruned off most of the bottom branches and planted it.

Yatsubusha Chinese elm
Of course, at this point, the tree looks like it could use some other plants around the bottom. I'm not sure exactly what to put there as the scale will have to be just right. Any suggestions?

Or maybe I should just hit some more sales?

Hmmm....If I do, this time I'll make sure I have a place to put something before I buy it.

By Karen Geisler

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Power of Rain

Dark rain clouds

Today was a good day. It rained.

Not the light drizzle we’ve had occasionally this summer but a drenching, close-all-the-windows-and-cancel-the-car-wash kind of rain. The sort that makes you want to grab an umbrella, find a lamp post and do your best Gene Kelly imitation.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Credit: MGM/The Kobal Collection
You can water and water until the nozzle of your hose seems like it has become a permanent part of your hand, but there’s nothing like a really good rain to revive your garden.

Maybe it’s the temporary drop in temperature during a storm or the higher humidity that inevitably follows. Maybe it's the lightning strikes that fix nitrogen. 

I suspect it may have something to do with the quality of the water, as rainwater doesn’t have chlorine and other chemicals added by municipalities to keep us humans healthy.

But I don’t want to rehash the old arguments about the merits of tap water versus rainwater in the garden
All I know is that I kept my plants alive through the current drought with tap water. They didn’t really start looking decent again, though, until it rained.

Granted, it's not Hurricane Isaac, whose remnants barely grazed the Chicago area. This rain and more forecast later this week, however, are enough to revive my dream that this drought may actually end some day. I guess we can only hope.

Maybe this is Mother Nature's way of teaching us a lesson -- that despite our air conditioned houses, cars and trucks, despite our fancy crop irrigation systems, she's still in control.

While the drought isn't as noisy, flashy or as sudden as a hurricane or tornado, its effects will be felt in the Midwest for a long time to come. It also should give all of us a new appreciation for what the Dust Bowl, which stemmed from an even worse drought, must have been like back in the 1930's.

Remember that old Carpenters song, "Rainy Days and Mondays"?  I used to be like that. Rain was depressing as it meant I couldn't go out in the garden.

Not any more. Rain is now a cause for celebration.

As another song noted, don't it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

By Karen Geisler

raindrops Grace smoketree
Traces of rain from a short cloudburst back in July