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  • Just Grow 'Em

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    Tags: native plants, black-eyed susans, purple coneflower, native gardening, Gardening, horticulture

    Created: 3/19/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    For all you tweethearts out there who prefer knowledge disseminated in 140 character quanta,  I will be participating in a Twitter discussion (follow me @HorticulturSeth) on #NativeGardening tomorrow, 3/20, at 12:00 pm CST.  No surprise, preparing for this event has turned my thoughts away from the tropical plants I was perusing just last week in Florida*, and back to local flora.

    Thoughts are really all I have at this point – interactions are limited by the fact that most plants ‘round here are still hitting the snooze button awaiting more favorable weather.

    Some of you may remember my “bottom ten” lists (to which I still owe a promised conclusion.) I must say, it’s fun writing those. I mean, who doesn’t love making fun of terrible, terrible things? Especially plants, which have a limited capacity for retaliation? So hopefully you will not think less of me for admitting the temptation to combine my love of cruel mockery with my current focus on native plants in order to generate a bottom ten native plant list. (I’m looking at you, Hackelia virginiana.)

    But alas, I don’t have the heart. Native plants are underused, underappreciated, and under assault from development, climate change, and invasive species. So instead of following my baser instincts, I’m just  gonna drop some sweet, sweet native plant knowledge. To wit –

    Six native plants Chicago area gardeners really have no excuse for not growing:

    1. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – It’s attractive.  It’s available. It’s a potent pollinator magnet. And it’s easier than shooting fish in a barrel, assuming the fish are relatively large and not similarly armed. Seriously, all you need is sun and sorta decent dirt. You have that, right?
    2. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – Also easy to grow, though maybe a little harder to find in the garden center. Needs decently draining soil. The best thing about butterflyweed is that whole “butterfly” part. Monarchs feed on this plant from cradle to grave.**
    3. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) – You may be asking yourself, who is Joe Pye? Well, the answer is twofold: I don’t know and I don’t care. This is one of my favorite plants, and it wouldn’t change my opinion if I found out Joe Pye had invented spam email, parking meters, and the word “irregardless.” It should be noted that this plant’s kinda big. And it needs consistent moisture. But when in full bloom, there’re few plants that can rival its beauty and raw butterfly magnetism.
    4. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – Sun and dirt that’s not soggy - got that? You can grow this.  When you do, you’ll enjoy masses of colorful flowers over a long season, starting in early summer. You’ll also draw bees and butterflies like…flies.
    5. Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) – Whether their eyes are black or brown, the Susans really hit the spot for daisy lovers. There’s a place for a Susan in every garden, assuming she’s relatively sedentary. Also, I really needed something yellow on this list.

      Black-Eyed Susan
      Black-Eyed Susan
    6. Swamp Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) – Got a wet spot in your yard? As long as it’s sunny and the soil’s reasonably rich, you can grow flowers the size of your face.

    Swamp Mallow obscuring child's face
    Swamp Mallow

    *mic drop*

    *I travel to the Sunshine State once a year to purchase plants for the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Can I be frank with you a moment? I have strong opinions about Florida, and they are not congenial.  I hope you’re happy, butterflies.

    **I use “grave” metaphorically, as very little is known about lepidopteran death rituals.

    Seth Harper, horticulturist

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  • Horticultural Bottom Ten – Chicago Edition (1st Installment)

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    Tags: horticulture, plants, Gardening, bottom ten, norway maple, rose of sharon, siberian elm

    Created: 7/15/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Gardening has, for many years, been America’s most popular hobby, so it should come as no surprise that numerous people have attempted to make a buck or two dispensing horticultural information to the masses. Gardeners clamor endlessly for the advice of experts, and so your average bookstore is absolutely lousy with flower books, to say nothing of the countless gardening websites available for the perusal of the plant-addled. Most of these resources focus on what to grow and why. As I considered topics for a blog post today, it occurred to me that I should avoid contributing to this information overload.  There is an eminently more useful service I can offer to the horticulturally inclined. And so, calling upon my years of training and experience, I've come up a with a list of plants that should never ever be planted by anyone, ever. Witness the first installment of the soon-to-be-indispensable Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten!*

    Norway Maple tree

    Norway Maple – Acer platanoides.

     
    This plant should need no introduction. Wherever you are in the city of Chicago, statistically speaking, a well-swung dead cat will either hit the side of a Dunkin Donuts or the trunk of a Norway Maple. This tree looks like it was lifted straight from your first grade art project - you know, back when you stupidly drew trees like green lollipops on brown sticks. Puerile geometry is pretty much all Norway Maples have to offer; yet people inexplicably keep planting them. Yes, the fall color is decent, but the brilliant oranges and crimsons of our native Red and Sugar Maples make the Norway’s pale yellow look sickly by comparison.  If that’s not enough to dissuade you from planting a Norway, please, for the sake of all that’s good in the world, read on. This tree’s shade is so dense that it’s tough to grow much of anything beneath it, especially since its shallow roots crowd out other plants. Its seeds sprout everywhere, requiring you to pull multitudes of saplings lest you end up with more of these affronts to botanical decency darkening your property. Oh, did I mention it’s an invasive species? And that YOU CAN’T EVEN MAKE MAPLE SYRUP WITH IT!? Sheesh!

    Rose of Sharon

    Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus.

     
    Your grandma had one of these. She also had Pat Boone records and a crocheted cover over the Kleenex box.  Just sayin.’ The Rose of Sharon looks good on paper – a tough shrub with reliable mid to late summer color. But you see, that’s what makes it so insidious. You want to like this shrub. You think you should.  It’s got huge pink or blue flowers after all.  What’s not to like? That’s what I’m here for, gentle reader, to tell you what’s not to like. Those flowers you were so excited about have limp, fleshy petals, insipid colors, and discordant, reddish centers. They smell…weird. After they die, they continue to hang around, all floppy and messy (see photo), for several days. And the rest of the plant has nothing at all to recommend it.  Its form is sort of like an upside-down Christmas tree, until it gets older and full of heavy flowers and starts looking like an upside-down Christmas tree trodden by elephants. The seed pods are unattractive and their contents sprout readily into hard-to-pull seedlings. Oh, and the curled up flower buds are a favorite home for slugs, as well as every homeowner’s favorite, Japanese Beetles.

    Siberian Elm

    Siberian Elm - Ulmus pumila.

     
    Unscrupulous plant peddlers sometimes sell this tree as a Dutch Elm Disease resistant alternative to the majestic American Elm. Unfortunately, it lacks the impeccable vase-like form of its American cousin, leaving it with - let me do the math here - ah yes, precisely zero ornamental characteristics. With weak wood that leaves the lawn littered with broken twigs, and massive horizontal roots to impede your mower, expect to spend more time than ever on yard work after you plant one of these embarrassments of the arboreal world. Here’s how I would describe the form: Take a bunch of parsley in your fist. Smash it into the wall a few times. Tie the stems together to form the “trunk” and poke it in the dirt. Congratulations, you now have a perfect bonsai replica of a Siberian Elm. Let me leave you with a few comments from the renowned plantsman Michael Dirr: “A poor ornamental tree that does not deserve to be planted anywhere!…One of, if not the, world’s worst trees…Native to eastern Siberia, northern China, Manchuria, Korea and, unfortunately, was not left there.” I think there’s a lesson there for us all.

    To be continued - watch this blog for the next installment!

    *Someone out there is about to fire off an indignant comment pointing out that there are examples of some of these plants on the museum grounds.  Rest assured, I sure as heck didn’t put ‘em there.

      



    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • Celebrate Earth Day

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    Tags: Earth Day, family, Gardening

    Created: 4/12/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Spring is finally here and it is a busy time at the Nature Museum!  In April we hear the return of red winged blackbirds and robins, and narrowly dodge the attacks of our favorite pair of Canada geese nesting on the rooftop cactus garden. This time of year also means Earth Day is approaching!

    This will be the third year in a row that we have celebrated Earth Day with the musical talent of Joe Reilly and activities led by our program partner Urban Habitat Chicago.

    Joe Reilly with sunflowers

    Joe Reilly’s Earth Day concert is for families looking to rock out to original nature inspired tunes. Joe’s albums Children of the Earth and Let’s Go Outside are fun, energizing and are a perfect fit for The Nature Museum. Concert attendance grows each yearand we are looking forward to seeing Joe and his groupies again! Registration required.

    Urban Habitat Chicago will help visitors plant green bean seeds. Children will learn about plant care and take their seedling home to watch it grow. We hope that this activity will inspire visitors to create edible gardens at home and in their communities.Free with Nature Museum admission.

    So join us for our annual Earth Day celebration! Families can visit the museum on Saturday, April 20th to partake in all of our festivities. Please visit www.naturemuseum.org or email familyprograms@naturemuseum.org for more information.

    Glenda Gonzalez
    Public Programs Coordinator

     

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