Friday, February 26, 2010

And the Oscar goes to ...

The Academy Awards presentation is a show I always look forward to watching. I guess I'm a little starstruck, because I enjoy seeing all the stars in their designer gowns and waiting for the opening of the envelopes to find out which actors and actresses are chosen as the "best" for this year. The irony is that most years I'm lucky if I have seen even one of the nominated movies.

Oscar Night is still a week away, but gardeners don't have to wait that long to find out who the new stars in the garden will be this year. Several organizations have already announced their winners.

'Zahara Starlight Rose' zinnia has been named as a bedding plant award winner by All-American Selections. When I first saw this photo in a seed catalog, I knew I had to have these zinnias, even before I knew they had been chosen as an AAS winner. You know I love zinnias, and this new rose and white bicolored flower has captured my heart. Some of its other winning characteristics, according to AAS:

  • proven resistence to fungal leaf spot and powdery mildew
  • heat and drought tolerant
  • "a perfect plant for the novice or experienced gardener because it is so undemanding with a maximum number of blooms." (AAS)
  • Height and width: 12-14 inches

  • Another AAS winner is this Gaillardia F1 'Mesa Yellow.' It's touted as the first hybrid blanket flower with a "controlled plant habit and prolific flowering." In other words, it does not get "tall, loose and floppy." Other traits:

    attracts butterflies
  • has a neat, mounded growing habit, but can also cascade down the sides of containers
  • wind and rain resistant
  • blooms earlier than other cultivars
  • Height: 16-18 inches
  • Width: 20-22 inches
I don't usually plant snapdragons but the new 'Twinny Peach' may change that habit this year. The AAS called it "a snapdragon without the snap." The double flower form also ensures lots of blooms in unique pastel shades. Other winning traits:

  • easy to grow
  • heat tolerant
  • flowers all season
  • flower color: pastel shades of peach, yellow, and light orange
  • Height: 11.75 inches
  • Width: 7.75 inches

In the Cool Season Plant category, this viola took the top award. 'Endurio Sky Blue Martien' is described as having "sky-blue" blooms, though the photo looks lavender to me. Characteristics:

  • flowers throughout the winter in the South; provides two-season color in the North
  • spreading, mounding habit
  • Height: 6 inches
  • Width: 12 inches

For more information on these four plants as well as the complete list of winners, check out the AAS website. I am starstruck, for sure--I've already ordered seeds for the first three flowers, and I'll be looking for these lovely little violas in the garden center in a few weeks.

And now for the grand finale, the most coveted prize of all--the 2010 Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year. The envelope, please . . .

And the winner is . . . Baptisia australis! No award ceremony was necessary to convince me of this plant's winning ways. As soon as I saw masses of these at the Lurie Garden during last year's Spring Fling, I had to have this native plant in my garden. Luckily, I found one last summer at a local nursery, and although it will be awhile before it looks as full as this one at the Lurie, I'm looking forward to seeing those striking violet-blue blossoms this spring.

What do judges look for in choosing the Plant of the Year? Its beauty is important, of course, but also "its durability, suitability to a wide range of climate types, low maintenance, multiple season interest, and easy growing nature."* Baptisia, also known as false blue indigo, has all that and more:

  • besides blue, other cultivars are available that produce yellow flowers or white (the native Illinois wild indigo, Baptisia alba)
  • takes a few years to reach a 4 x 4 size, but is long-lived
  • spring bloomer, good companion with spring bulbs
  • after blooming, produces decorative seed pods suitable for dried arrangements
  • hardy in zones 3-9
  • "Once established, baptisia is one tough cookie with its drought tolerance and adaptability."*

    My garden certainly won't win any awards; in fact, as I've admitted before, it's quite a modest garden compared to so many others I've seen on other gardening blogs. But I hope by summer's end to have some of these award-winners taking the spotlight in my garden this year.

    * Images (other than the baptisia) and information taken from AAS website. Quotes taken from the gardening column published in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and written by Sandra Mason, the horticulture educator with our local Extension Office and a lively, knowledgeable instructor for several of the Master Gardener classes I'm currently taking.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A New Perspective on Weeds

Old Man Winter isn't done yet. A little more snow has fallen, then rain, and a chance for more snow mid-week, all creating one big mess. While I enjoy seeing the magical wintry scenes of bloggers in the South, where snow is a novelty, I have become jaded about winter's beauty in my own backyard. Venturing outside is limited to necessities such as walking Sophie, and trudging through 2-3 foot frozen snowbanks with a 70-pound dog in tow--make that a dog with me in tow--is not very conducive to taking photos anyway.

But looking at some photos taken in the last few weeks of weeds and stubborn wild vines encased in ice has inspired me. Instead of dwelling on winter, I've taken Gail's suggestion and done some browsing through the photo archives, finding the photos for a post I never got around to publishing. Instead of dwelling on winter, let's think about August, shall we?

Several times this past summer I visited one of my favorite nearby places, Meadowbrook Park. Walking around the Prairie Restoration area, whether alone or with Beckie or Sophie, I stopped to admire the native wildflowers, such as the gray coneflowers pictured above.

Over time, and with the help of the book Illinois Wildflowers by Dan Kurz, I was able to identify more of the wildflowers each time, such as this ironweed. The book was initially checked out of the library, renewed, returned, then checked out and renewed again until I finally broke down and bought my own copy this winter. A handy reference like this that is specific to my area is well worth the money spent.

No book or internet search was necessary, however, to identify wild carrot, more poetically known as Queen Anne's Lace. This wildflower, or weed depending on your point of view, grows everywhere here and is a common sight along roadsides during the summer.

Inspired by the natives at Meadowbrook, I decided to take a look around my own yard for wildflowers. The past summer was an ideal one for the garden, with cooler than normal temperatures and a regular supply of rainfall. Perennials that don't like our hot and humid Illinois summers thrived, and watering the garden was seldom necessary, other than the containers and new plants. But it also meant it was an ideal summer for weeds as well!

Daily walks with Sophie around the farm made me stop and notice for the first time some of the weeds--er, wildflowers--growing around the outbuildings, and I decided to try to identify them. Photo breaks provided the perfect opportunities to practice Sophie's "halt/sit" commands for puppy classes. Besides the Queen Anne's Lace, the chicory in this and the previous photo is an easy one to identify. Farmers would definitely call this a weed, but Sophie and I like the delicate blue flowers.

The next weed I really took notice of was this thistle. Thistle is a common sight in any true prairie planting, but it's not welcome on a farm. Canadian thistle, brought to this area in an experiment that went wrong, is considered a noxious weed. I'm not sure if this is field thistle or tall thistle; they are all members of the Asteraceae family.

The thistle is a favorite of bees and later in the season of goldfinches. Sorry about the blurry photo, but it's the only one I had of a bee on the bloom; I never managed to get one of a goldfinch, but just imagine the color combination of a bright yellow bird atop this pink seedhead.

No wonder the finch feeder didn't need to be refilled that often; with all the available seeds au naturelle here, there was plenty to keep them all happy. Note the wispy thistledown which means there will be even more of these plants here next year--not a good thing, unfortunately.

Even with a reference book and several good websites, identifying these weeds is not easy, especially when you are looking at six-month old photos. This plant appeared to be another kind of thistle, because of the prickles on its leaves, but I couldn't find any reference showing a thistle that looked like this, with its yellow blooms.

Another mystery behind the barn--perhaps a wild parsnip? My husband would be appalled if he knew I were posting photos of all these weeds. But in his defense, it was hard to keep up with everything around the place this summer. Mowing is an all-day job here with over five acres of lawn, and frequent rains made it even more difficult. Although I trim around the house and the garden areas, the back areas are Husband's domain. To make matters worse, the heavy-duty gas-powered trimmer spent much of the summer in the repair shop.

So, if you can't beat 'em, you might as well enjoy them, right? Especially this weed that surprised me one day by producing delicate yellow blooms. This one really has me puzzled--I have nothing in any source that resembles this weed.

Even the beetles liked it.

Not nearly as attractive is this weed, which might be pigweed. An interesting bit of trivia is that many of the common names for these weeds have animal names in them--pigweed, chickweed, horseweed, horsenettle, lambs' quarters, and dogbane, just to name a few. I have no idea why; just thought it was interesting.

Grasses are even harder for me to distinguish. While this grass made an interesting photo, it's definitely not the kind you would want to cultivate in your garden.

But no book of photos is needed to identify some weeds. Summers spent as a teenager helping my father "walk beans," that is, pulling out all the weeds in acres and acres of soybeans, not only taught me the names of some of these weeds but also taught me to hate them as well. Smartweeds, like those above, can be prolific.

Even worse are buttonweeds, also known as velvetleaf.

But the worst of all are these innocuous-looking pink buds. If you don't recognize this weed, it's a cockleburr; trust me, this is a weed you don't want anywhere. Brush up against the dried seedheads, and you'll find burrs embedded in your clothes, your gardening gloves, and in dog's fur. The only upside I can find to this weed is that it supposedly was the inspiration for Velcro, although according to Wikipedia, it was a relative, burdock, that was the actual origin.

The adage about a weed being "a plant in the wrong place" is certainly true. For any of you who have spent considerable money on a nice cultivar of goldenrod, notice this one--this goldenrod is growing through a crack in concrete!

Morning Glories live up to their name, with this illuminated blossom showing up just after dawn last summer. But it's not such a welcome sight to the farmer when it's winding its way up the cornstalks in the field as this one was doing.

Weeds or wildflowers? It's all in your perspective and their placement, I guess. While these interesting specimens may not survive for long this summer, if Mr. P has his way, I do hope these unnamed daisies manage to stay for awhile. Growing at will next to a shed, they make me smile, even if they are weeds.

"A weed is but an unloved flower." Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Update: Thank you to all of you who expressed concern over my father's recent stroke and surgery. He was finally able to come home from the hospital this past week and is recovering slowly, but surely.

Monday, February 15, 2010

February GBBD: Deja Vu

If you have a feeling of deja vu seeing this amaryllis bud once again on Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, don't worry. This is not the same amaryllis I featured on last month's GBBD post, but rather a new one I potted up in December. I was hoping this one might bloom in time for February's showcase of blooms, and it didn't disappoint me.

This "Appleblossom" showed such promise, its leaves standing straight and tall, unlike the first one whose leaves flopped all over the place. Four or five buds suggested, too, it would outdo its predecessor in bloom production.

However, in my effort to move it to get a better photo without background clutter, it met with an unfortunate accident. When I sat it on a stool in front of the bare white wall, Sophie suddenly got excited at something outside the window and bounded forward, knocking over the plant. The result: the stalk was broken, though not detached, and at least one bud fell off. All that waiting, and now a quick death seemed certain! What to do? I thought about using duct tape to dress its wound, but I thought that might be too hard on it, so I found the next best available alternative.

Some painter's masking tape kept the tear from losing all the plant nutrients, but didn't keep the stalk upright, so I tied the stem to my sideboard with a piece of yarn. My poor bandaged amaryllis has bravely given out three blooms, but its injuries have kept it from achieving its star potential. I hope this never happens again, but if anyone has a better solution for stem injuries, I'd love to hear them.

Miss Rosemary is not in bloom, but with so little greenery in my house (Houseplant Census: a measly 10), she deserves her photo featured on this Bloom Day. Besides, I'm so thrilled to have managed to keep her alive this winter--notice the leaves straining toward the window to get every sunny ray they can.

Rosemary's roommates include five geraniums also overwintering here. Again, I'm happy to have kept them alive thus far, even if these two little blooms are the only signs of color among them.

Another survivor, the Begonia "Dusty Rose," has one solitary bloom that has finally opened. I love this delicate little blossom, but even more so when this is the extent of all the blooms in February here at the Prairie.

Needless to say, there is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, blooming outside right now. These last two photos are for Gail, who recently posted about studying mosaics and thinking about an art project for her garden. I don't have an artistic bone in my body, unfortunately, but we do have an artist-in-residence here . . . Jacques Frost:)

Of all his work, I particularly like his ice scupltures. I'm sure the art terminology is not correct, but I've titled this piece "Clematis Frieze."

For other Bloom Day posts, be sure to visit our hostess, the plant guru Carol at May Dreams Gardens. And the best part about this February Bloom Day?--It's only 28 days until March GBBD!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No Time for Slugs

Sometimes life goes along so smoothly that you are lulled into thinking it will always be that way. No weeds are threatening to take over your garden. No deadlines loom ahead. Winter's snow and cold keeps you housebound. Cleaning projects are abandoned in favor of afternoon naps and a good book. Soon you find yourself turning into a slug. Then you hit a bump in the road . . .

The big "bump" occurred over two weeks ago when my father suffered a mild stroke. He was rushed to the hospital and after several days of rehab was recovering quite well, fortunately. However, because this was his second stroke in less than a year, the doctor recommended surgery to clean out the blockage causing the stroke. The surgery was not without risk, but Dad resigned himself to it, preferring that to the alternative of living in fear that another stroke might occur, one with much worse effects than the first two. The surgery went well last Friday, but recovery has been very slow, understandable for someone in his 80's, but slower than Dad had anticipated. He is still in the hospital, and I have been going back and forth nearly every day to visit him for awhile. That is not to say I spend all day at the hospital; no, it's my mother who is there in constant attention. She is truly an amazing woman!

While many things have been put on hold here until he is able to return home, I have managed to keep up with a few activities, including a new venture. A month ago I posted my last ABC post and stated that I wouldn't participate in this weekly meme this time around because I would be too busy on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to post. I didn't mean to create an aura of mystery about my plans, but at the time I was afraid I might find an excuse to chicken out of my plans. A new session of Tai Chi started last week, which means Wednesdays are full with Tai Chi class, lunch with my friend and fellow exerciser, and errands. But the real time commitment is on Tuesdays--I am now enrolled in the Master Gardener program sponsored by our local County Extension.

We have had two classes so far, and already I have learned so much! As a teacher, I was used to taking graduate classes frequently during my career, but this is a whole new ballgame. Our first class was a crash course in Botany, and by the end of the day, my head was spinning with all the new terms I had encountered. However, I can now look at my amaryllis blossom pictured above, and instead of referring to the long "thingies" coming out of its center, I can accurately call them the pistil (the longer all-white "thingy") and the anthers (the yellow tip-thingies) on the ends of the filaments.

Now when someone describes a flower as monoecious (having both male and female flowers separately on the same plant) or dioecious (bearing male flowers and female flowers on separate plants), I actually know what they're talking about! Pinnately compound or palmately compound leaves are also no longer a mystery to me. But I am still a little confused about monocots and dicots . . . Last week's class was about annuals, perennials, and bulbs. I definitely felt more intelligent on this day.

I have wanted to take the Master Gardener class for a few years now, but until this year I was hesitant to make such a huge time commitment. The class meets for ten weeks, every Tuesday from 9 till 4 for a total of over 60 hours of instruction. That is more class time than the average 3-hour college course would require. And then there's the financial commitment, but I realized this was quite a bargain. At a cost of $175, which includes a $95 comprehensive manual, this computes to less than $10 a day. You won't find any college horticulture course with tuition that low!

In addition to the time involved in classwork, there is also the time commitment in volunteer work. Master Gardener trainees are required to put in at least 60 hours of volunteer work before qualifying for the title of Master Gardener. All "newbies" are assigned to a section in the Idea Garden where new annuals from Proven Winners are showcased.

In addition to this section, manned by the trainees, we can also choose to help in other areas of the Idea Garden. There are the Children's Garden, the Sensory Garden, and the Vegetable Garden, among others.

The lush plantings around the perimeter of the Idea Garden are also divided into sections--the East Border, the North Border, and so on. Who knew on my many visits over the past two summers to the Idea Garden with Beckie that I might actually be helping to plant and maintain these beautiful gardens? Although it's a little intimidating to me, we will be working with experienced Master Gardeners who have created the planting plan for each area, so it should be a great learning experience.

Besides working in the Idea Garden, pictured in all the photos above, we also have the choice of volunteering at several community gardens in the area, including a local nursing home and the Juvenile Detention Center. This is the part that concerns me--if I'm spending all this time volunteering in other gardens, will I have time to work on my own? In the end, though, I've realized that even if my garden suffers from some temporary neglect, I am going to gain invaluable experience and knowledge from working with other much more knowledgable gardeners that my own garden will be better off in the long run. And that is the whole reason I signed up for the program--to improve my own knowledge of gardening.

This week's session was supposed to be over soils/fertilizer/compost, but had to be re-scheduled due to dangerous road conditions. Like most of the Eastern half of the United States, we've had another snowstorm with blowing and drifting. I am officially tired of winter now, but the past two days of being housebound have given me a chance to get a few things done, including slowly catching up on blog-reading and preparing this post.

I wish I could get the resident digger to help me with that 10-foot long snowdrift behind my car, but she has been pre-occupied with her new favorite winter pastime . . .

. . . bird-watching. With the snowfall, dozens of birds have been at the feeders outside the living room window all day long. Maybe I'll take a break and join her . . .

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February Book Review: Revisiting an Old Friend in the Windy City

I'm running late, but I think I may be just in time for the monthly meeting of the Book Review Club hosted by Barrie. Check out her latest post for other recommendations for a good book to curl up with on these cold February nights.

The week after the holidays found me in an unlikely spot--at the mall, searching for after-Christmas bargains to update my winter wardrobe. Finding a few new sweaters at clearance prices, however, doesn't give me the thrill it once did. After an hour or two, I was ready to call it quits and drove over to a much more pleasant spot--Barnes and Noble. Gift certificates in hand, I happily wandered up and down the mystery aisles looking for a few of my favorite authors to keep me entertained on these long winter nights. I had a couple of titles in mind when I spotted a display of new bargain hardbacks. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a new book by Sara Paretsky. I've been waiting for what seemed like forever for another in her V.I. Warshawski series--how did I miss this one?? I snatched it up immediately, along with Patricia Cornwell's latest Scarpetta adventure, and forgot all other titles, eager to get home and see what latest mishap V.I. had gotten into this time.

Hardball is the 13th in the V.I. Warshawski series, and it may be the best one yet. Private investigator V.I., known as Vic to her friends, has been hired by two elderly African-American sisters to find their son/nephew who disappeared over 40 years earlier after a young white woman was killed during a civil rights demonstration. V.I. has little hope of solving such an old mystery, but she takes on the case as a favor to a new friend, a kind-hearted hospital chaplain.

Chicago is the setting for all of V.I.'s adventures

As usual, Warshawski encounters obstacles at every turn in her investigation. Friends of the young black man, Lamont Gadsen, are uncooperative and even hostile towards V.I. for reasons she doesn't understand until later. Her best lead is a gang leader incarcerated in Joliet's prison, who V.I. once defended during her days as a Public Defender. She reluctantly visits Johnny Merton, aka "The Hammer," but he's as insulting and frightening as he ever was and refuses to help. Even Lamont's mother lacks confidence in V.I. and treats her with hostility.

Millenium Park

But the biggest hurdle V.I. faces in finding out what happened so many years ago comes from the Chicago Police Department. V.I. always seems to get on the wrong side of the law, but this time there is good reason for it. Lamont Gadsen disappeared during the late 60's, a time of racial tension in the city of Chicago, and both the police and other government officials would like to keep this dark part of the city's history buried and forgotten. V.I. uncovers stories of police brutality at the time, but what is most disturbing to her are innuendoes that her beloved late father, known to all as one of the "good cops," somehow may have been involved. Her search for the missing Lamont soon turns into a personal quest for the truth about her father as well.

As if she doesn't have enough problems, a young cousin she's never met before suddenly appears. Petra, fresh out of college, has come to Chicago to work on a political campaign. Bubbly and naive, she's the opposite of V.I.'s jaded realism and seems to have a secret agenda in her probing of V.I.'s family history. When Petra suddenly disappears, V.I. is determined to find her and soon finds herself in danger as well.

The never-to-be-forgotten Lurie Garden

V.I. Warshawski hasn't changed much in the 27 years since she began pounding the pavement as a P.I. She still runs with her dogs each morning, she still lives in an apartment above Mr. Contreras, and she still manages to irritate most authorities she deals with. She has little patience and a quick temper. But she is determined to find the truth, no matter whose toes she steps on, and that is what makes her such a likable character.

The Bean, a good place for "reflection"

When Paretsky created V.I., she set the bar for all other fictional female detectives, and in my opinion, no one else has come close. It is not just the characterization, however, that draws the reader in. Her plots are complex and suspenseful, and she weaves a fascinating history of different parts of the city of Chicago into her stories. I remember well the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the protests that made headlines at that time. But I didn't remember the earlier marches and demonstrations that made Chicago a hotbed of racial tension. Hardball gives us a detailed background of this time period. While Warshawski may not have changed that much over the years, Paretsky's books have---they just keep getting better and better.

Disclaimer: All book reviews posted here are purely at the whim of this blogger. No remuneration of any kind was received for this review.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Garden Muse Day: Daydreaming in February

February is my least favorite month of the year. The snow has lost its novelty, and I'm tired of putting on four layers of clothes just to get some groceries. Rather than whine and complain about it, however, I'll let this offering for Garden Muse Day speak for itself.

February: Thinking of Flowers

Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.

Nothing but white--the air, the

only one brown milkweed pod
bobbing in the gully, smallest
brown boat on the immense tide.

A single green sprouting thing
would restore me. . . .

Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily.

--Jane Kenyon

Yes, this is how I'll get through February . . .

. . . looking for green sprouting things . . .

. . . and thinking of spring flowers.

How about you?

Garden Muse Day is brought to you the first of each month by our gracious hostess, Carolyn Gail. Why not stop by her blog and visit other Muse Day participants?