Early May

This is a sampling of what’s actually blooming now: Mount Tacoma, Angelique and Blue Diamond tulips, pulmonaria (Raspberry Splash, I think), jacob’s ladder, and Jack Frost brunnera, which really brightens up a shady corner. The Mount Tacoma white double tulip is an heirloom, pre-1924; I like to think that it’s happy to be here, with my 1885 house. Two old things that go great together.


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These are from a few weeks ago; it got a bit hectic here! Viburnum, first in bud and then in bloom, peach blooms and apple (I think? maybe cherry?) buds, checkered fritillary with Ollioules tulips. The viburnum had a lovely scent; the peach buds are just a ridiculously pretty color.

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Serendib garden journal: topiary

Our local garden club had a topiary workshop last week — super fun. You start with a form, stuff it with damp moss, wrap more damp moss around the frame and tie it on with fishing line, which disappears into the moss. Then you use a dibbler (bulb planter – you can get them and all other garden tools and supplies on bestofmachinery.com) to poke holes in the moss, pull apart a small pot of ivy into separate smaller plants, plug them into the holes, and use garden wire shaped into little u-shaped pins to secure the strands of ivy where you want them. That’s it! Soak every two weeks or so, either in the sink or with a hose, give it a trim as needed, and your topiary should last for years (the moss will dry, contract, and darken over time). I’m a little teapot…

There are lots of pre-made forms out there, but they’re pretty expensive. But I know how to bend wire and using a soldering iron, and I admit, I’m a little tempted to make a dragon topiary for my garden. Or an alien. Too busy right now, but maybe someday… 🙂

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Serendib garden journal: Panorama

It’s usually difficult to get a full pic of the house and garden because there are cars in the way of where you’d want to stand, but yesterday, a space actually opened up. So here’s about the best moment of the year in my garden — it was just a little better a few days ago, because now the Thalia daffodils are starting to go. But still, splendid. I think my spring garden is pretty well established at this point, a strong weekly progression from March through May; time to start working more seriously on summer effects.

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Serendib garden journal: Time for the seasonal shift

This morning, I took the tropicals outside — it’s a lovely feeling. The house now feels less crowded (it’s a Victorian, so the rooms are small, and seem even smaller when crowded with my tropical plants over the winter), and the back deck is full of inviting greenery now. (Also some party detritus, which I need to clear away, so ignore that bit, please.) Bougainvillea, curry leaf plant, mandevilla, fig, hibiscus. There are a few more upstairs that need to come out, but I have to catch my breath first!

Later today or tomorrow, I’ll run over to Luurs, our local garden store, and pick up herbs and flowers for the window box planters and hanging baskets. I’m hopeful that this year, I can really get my drip lines and timers set up properly so that I don’t lose plants due to my inadequate watering; I’m honestly TERRIBLE at remembering to water such things, but we put in drip lines in the front baskets last year (using the snip-and-drip system from Gardener’s Supply), and I just have to make sure all the hoses have survived the winter and are working properly. Fingers crossed. If I could do drip lines and a timer for the back deck too, that would be amazing — we’ll see how ambitious we get!


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Two nice neighbors

Two nice neighbors this morning — one of them apologetically explained to me that the hyacinth she was picking from my garden was one that a dog had knocked over and broken (totally fine, of course, but it was a funny moment), and then said, “You know your house is our favorite.” And then another, just walking by now with her dog, called out to me (as I sat on the porch with my dog), “You make the whole neighborhood happy.”

The power of flowers. 🙂  And a colorful house for backdrop.  Pictured below:  Redbud tree in bloom with Mt. Hood daffodils on left, checkered fritillary and white Thalia daffodils, redbud with Ollioules tulips and blue scilla, and oh, one more tulip whose name I’m forgetting. Oops.

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Serendib Garden Journal: Transplanting

I feel like I’m finally moving from a beginner gardener to an intermediate one, along with my garden, which is five years old this May and started to look not entirely spotty. A lot of what I’m doing these days isn’t adding new plants, but moving and tending the ones I have — pruning back shrubs to better shapes, rearranging plants that are in not-ideal locations.

Today I dug up and divided one of my Walker’s Low nepeta, a low shrubby plant with lots of blue flowers that last forever, which I like a lot, but I planted it too close to the walk and also it’s gotten big enough that I think I can get two healthy plants out of it now. I haven’t done this before (dividing perennials), and I was clumsy with my cuts and ended up sort of dividing it into a third and two-thirds, instead of in half, but I think that’s okay. Have now plopped it back in the ground, and hope it survives in both places. Free plant, whee!

Also moved two hellebores, which I’d planted too close to the first hellebore I put in the ground; I hadn’t realized how big they’d get, and the first one is now a solid two feet across and was totally shading the other two out. Hopefully they’ll be happier and flourish in their new homes.

Planted three groundcover veronica (Tidal Pool), feeling virtuous because I have been such a slacker about planting groundcover up until now. Also nine (!) groundcover lamium: Red Dragon, Pink Pewter, and White Nancy. Their silvery leaves should nicely light up a shady path leading to the backyard. Also planting three May Night salvia in the hellstrip — it’s a rarely watered spot, but salvia is hopefully drought-resistant enough to survive in that location. The periwinkle is doing fine there.

I need to go pick up the kids soon, but when I come back, I’ll be figuring out where to add six Caesar’s Brother irises — I have three already, and love them to death, because they’re tall and blue and elegant and make big clumps over time and their thin spiky green leaves look good for months. Also on the task list for today or tomorrow is moving some of the scilla — I dumped it in the ground somewhat randomly last fall, and now there are big clumps in some places and bare dirt in others, and I think we can do better than that. If I dig them up and move them while they’re in the green, it’s much easier to see where they’ll look good, and even if they suffer a little in the transplant process, they should come back strong (and spreading) next year. Fingers crossed!

A lot of pleasant work, a little hope, and a willingness to redo it if I get it wrong. Luckily, gardens are remarkably forgiving.

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Serendib garden journal: Snow

If you know any Chicagoans, you’ve probably heard them complaining about our recent weather. It’s not just been a long winter, which we’ve had before — it’s a weird one. For a day, we’ll think it’s spring — last week, temperatures climbed up to 70 degrees. And then it storms, or hails, or, like last night, it snows. There’s a certain terror to snow in April for a Chicago gardener — all those fragile little pink buds clinging tightly to the trees. If they freeze now, we won’t have peaches this summer. It makes you want to run around throwing blankets over the trees.


I’ve been pushing the temperature bounds in my garden since I started. Safe planting date (after the danger of frost has completely passed) in Chicago is mid-May, which is actually an improvement from the bad old days, when it was the end of May. We’ve also shifted a zone, from 5b to 6a. That’s climate change — terrible for the world overall, but with some pleasant side effects for Chicago gardener. Regardless of the date, I can never wait as long as we’re supposed to, so I start planting as soon as the ground is soft enough to work, and then I cross my fingers and hope that we don’t get a hard frost.

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Last night’s snow wasn’t too bad, thankfully. The daffodils came through unscathed, as did all the little bulbs, including the muscari that just pushed their way up. The buds on the trees are fine; the redbud is going to burst out into bloom any minute now. The only flowers that seem to have suffered are my hyacinths — many of them went prostrate with the weight of snow, and are only slowly recovering in the warmth of the sun. A few snapped their thick watery stems, and I’ve gathered them up and brought them in to stick in a glass — they’ll scent my kitchen for the next few days.


There’s only so much a gardener can do, against the big actions of nature. Tend to the little flowers, brace and mulch what you can, don’t plant *too* early, or you’ll pay the price. Nature can be coaxed along, but if you try to stand firm against her, she’ll bowl you over.


As for the big changes — well, I might enjoy a little extra warmth in Chicago, and my garden does too, but enough is enough. The careful gardener recycles her plastics (and tries not to buy too many of them to begin with), goes organic with the fertilizer, plants plenty of natives, and votes for representatives who actually pay attention to what we’re doing to the planet.  I think we’re getting close to the limits of what she can take.

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Serendib garden journal: Chionodoxa, hyacinths, forsythia

I know I said last week was the best week in my garden, but I think it’s actually this week. Or possibly the one after that. Asking a gardener to choose a favorite week is like asking a reader to name her favorite book — cruel, and unnecessary. Each week brings its own sweet glories — in this particular case, glory-of-the-snow, also known as chionodoxa. Sometimes this pale blue spring ephemeral blooms with snow on the ground, but Chicago is having a warm end-of-winter, so there’s no snow in sight. 

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There are, however, still quite a few white snowdrops, and blue scilla abounding, along with newly emerging hyacinths — this particular variety is marketed as berries-and-cream. One of my daughter’s middle names is Jacintha, after my mother, and I’ve always told her that hyacinths are *her* flower, so it’s special for us when they finally emerge in the garden. Tip: If you dig up or pick just one, and leave it closed in a powder room, it will fill the room with intoxicating scent.


The hellebores are going strong, and though I must lie prone on the garden path to photograph them, I don’t mind. This is the season for paying attention to small delights, a time to feel grateful for every drop of color brightening the grey-brown landscape.

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The periwinkle (vinca minor) is blooming, as it did in the woods outside my parent’s house in Connecticut — I have a good patch going now, a carpet of tiny purple stars, and am hoping it will continue to spread and spread. More groundcover = fewer weeds!


Also planted in part for nostalgia value, my sole forsythia bush — my parents have a row of them separating their house from their neighbors’; I can’t spare the room for so many, but I did want to have at least one. I like the pop of bright yellow against the deep blue of our garage, joining the daffodils which are just emerging.

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I am making notes for what I’d like for next year — more of everything, essentially, though we’ll see what the budget allows. I put them in the online shopping cart, but wait to actually buy. I am impatient, and though many of these will spread slowly over time, the garden still has too many large brown patches for my taste. But more snowdrops now will mean fewer hostas later. It is a dilemma.

Sweeps of color will come, eventually. For now, we’ll enjoy the little clusters, here and there, and the leaves leafing out on the roses, and the tight buds on the redbud tree. As soon as I’m over this wretched cold, it’ll be time to start preparing the vegetable beds; we’re hoping to do it properly this time, for the first time since moving in here. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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