Gardening entry — feel…

Gardening entry -- feel free to skip, or re-read the previous substantive entry. I have questions for the collective garden wisdom of my journal readers.

Assume the following:

  • It's June 8th in Chicago, Zone 5.
  • We'd like to have a lovely garden, full of pretty flowering things, by July 23rd, for our party, if possible.
  • The space available is a 500 sq. ft. rooftop deck (four floors up), with a 8 ft. high south wall (the building), and three 4 ft. high walls on the other sides. Extremely sunny, though the bit near the south wall does get some shade. The deck is wood, and I think reasonably well-drained.
  • I love roses, and jasmine, and other scented flowers. I love tall creeping things (like bougainvillea, which I don't think we can grow in this zone). I love rich colors.
  • We'd like to add some shade to the roof, since while it's nicely breezy up there, you bake in the sun.
  • We both adore Japanese maples.
  • We need to leave enough space in the center for now to set up 4 long tables, so any gardening should happen near the four walls.
What would you recommend for the space?

Long-term, we have ambitious plans to turn it into a serious garden, build an overhanging terrace, fill most of the space with tomatoes and peppers and flowers and an automated drip watering system and maybe even a little waterfall. (Kevin is dubious about the waterfall, but I have hope). But for right now, we'd just like it to look as pretty as possible for the party, while still leaving room for people to sit and eat and walk around.

We were tentatively thinking of covering a utility rack we currently have in our closet with pots and putting that against the tall s. wall, but the rack is black metal and kind of ugly. We're also thinking of long planter boxes, placed against the shorter walls, and a little Japanese maple in one corner.

I guess what I most need to know at this point is whether we can reasonably expect any flowers bought today to grow significantly in a month and a half. I remember the roses at the old house in Oakland growing like crazy from their little pruned stumps, but I can't remember over how much time, and I don't know how they're likely to behave at this time of year in Chicago in any case. I'd hate to put in a whole bunch of plants and then have them either die from the heat, or remain sad and stunted for months.

Supplemental question: We have west facing window boxes on the main floors, which we were tentatively thinking of filling with herbs and strawberries. Does that seem reasonable?

Supplemental question: We have north facing terraces on the main floors that get part sun; we'll probably put window boxes there; what colorful flowers would you recommend? I am a huge fan of lobelia, or anything else with super-saturated colors.

Supplemental question: Will all my green house plants die if I put them outside in 90 degree temperature? Will I have to water them every five minutes? Should I just plan to keep them inside? I have: pothos, madagascar dragon tree, christmas cacti, jasmine, bamboo, geranium, miniature rose, aloe (or something aloe-like), and the tree I can't remember the name of where the leaves tend to fall off like mad every time you make the slightest change to its environment -- oh wait, I just remembered, ficus. Also a couple more I have no idea how to describe or what they're called.

Supplemental question: Can you recommend a good gardening store in Chicago?

ANY help will be much appreciated. Also any random thoughts. Expertise not required.

7 thoughts on “Gardening entry — feel…”

  1. if your cable line-up includes HGTV, then I highly recommend the show “City Gardener” on Saturdays at 11pm (better check your listings for correct central time).

    It’s all about exactly what you’re talking about: creating a garden in an urban space. Could be good for ideas, and it’s also fun for this American because it’s filmed in British cities. It’s got a strong DIY-focus; the only downside is what seems to be enormous budgets everyone has, from my POV: $2000-6000! (and that doesn’t cover labor, since the homeowners, their friends, and the show’s host do all the work.) I keep hoping that perhaps gardening is WAY WAY WAY more expensive in Britain as I contemplate the sorry state of my semi-urban backyard…

  2. I worked for a greenhouse/garden center years ago and I do a fair amount of gardening myself, but I don’t think roses are going to grow that much in a few weeks. At least they don’t here in VA. I would suggest picking up a bunch of one-gallon annuals that will give you color and fullness now and some smaller perrenials that may not give you the growth you want by the end of July, but will come back next year. I’m in the south, so I don’t know what will do well in the midwest, but for color and relatively quick growth, I plant petunias– they come in some nicely saturated colors– pink, purple, varigated shades of the same.

    Most of your houseplants should do okay outside if you acclimate them… put them out for a few hours each day in a shady area, gradually increasing the time. Geranium, mini rose, aloe and pothos should be okay for sure– I’d check the lighting requirements on the others. I don’t think I’d move the ficus, though. They are, as you’ve discovered, very tempermental to change. Of course, you could put it out the day of your party for decoration.

    If you have any sort of wall or posts, consider hanging baskets– they bring the eye upward and create the illusion of a fuller garden space. I can’t get a visual picture of the space you’re working with, but consider building a pergola– it’ll cast some shade, looks pretty and give you something to grow vines or climbing roses up (makes for a nice seating area underneath, too.

    Buy the biggest, most colorful plants you can afford– including vegetables (you should be able to get some big, beautiful tomato plants now and they WILL grow a lot in the next few weeks)– and you’ll have a beautiful space by the end of July.

    Good luck! I’d love to see before/after pictures!

  3. I second the recommendation for The City Gardener…really great ideas for non-traditional gardens in small spaces. I would say that if you get a bunch of nice annuals now, they should fill in quite a bit in the 6 or so weeks you have, provided you care for them appropriately. Anything in pots or small planters will need to be watered pretty much every night if it’s hot and they’re in the sun. Small pots just can’t retain moisture. I think you could get a nice potted maple to put in a corner. You could definitely build some nice planters along the wall, including a slightly wider ledge to provide party seating. But in the short term, go for annuals.

  4. I agree with Kristina’s comment about using tomato plants. . . I am growing some in my backyard now (for the first time in years) and I had forgotten how attractive to the senses they are. Pleasant, viney smell, attractive leaves and flowers, cheap fast and easy-to-grow from seedlings. Did I mention cheap?

    This is also a great time of year to plant herbs outdoors. Not only are they attractive, cheap, and useful, they seem to make a garden more “real” to visitors. . . somehow they send a message to guests that the garden is really part of your life.

    I also think that small urban gardens especially benefit from *fragrant* plants (maybe lavender, or star jasmine?)


  5. By the way, have you updated the mailing address for your wish list at

    Just in case any nice friends were struck with the impulse to buy you a housewarming gift or early birthday present?

    Hint, hint.


  6. When I lived in Detroit, the sturdiest thing in my herb patch turned out to be the sage. And mint is pretty much indestructible/rampant wherever and however you plant it.

  7. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Hey, Sean — address updated, thanks for the reminder.

    And thanks to all of you for the gardening advice. Incredibly helpful! See upcoming entry for details of the garden plan. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *