Surpise in the Garden


Planted next to my antique garden gate and a struggling Empress Wu Hosta. 

I like surprises – something new, something different, something that catches your imagination.

"Close Up - Red Lion"

Both flower stalks blooming at the same time.

In early May as I was getting ready to plant my elephant ear bulbs, I found amaryllis bulbs that I had intended to plant this winter.  I wasn’t sure if the bulbs would’ve been too dried out or not, but I thought – what the heck!  And I planted the bulbs.

One bulb just shot up leaves – no flowers this time around.  But lo and behold – look at this eye catching surprise in my garden! Red Lion Amaryllis in mid-June outdoors rather than mid-winter indoors.



I like surprises in the garden – that is if they are pleasing.  Guests are somewhat taken aback when their eyes  find my “truffle” pig nibbling at my carpet rose and lavender.

Nibbling on lavender and carpet rose

I also find my Nikko Blue Hydrangea to be an eye-opening wonder – pink, blue, white – all on one bush.  Isn’t the Lady’s Mantle a pleasing edger?  Water catches on the leaves creating rain drop “pearls”.  If you click on the photos below, you will be able to see the Red Lion next to the gate in the distance.    That red sure makes a statement!

The Elusive Oregon Grape Holly

Now I finally know what serious bird watchers feel like – you are on the look-out for that bird rarely sighted in your area.  Early off when you first started bird watching, this bird was on your list – but over the years, you resigned yourself to the bird being rare.  Yet in the background your antenna is always up.  And wow – there it is after years of not spotting it – can you believe it?  You weren’t even seeking it. Well that is how I feel about finally stumbling into Oregon Grape Holly or Mahonia aquifolium..

Mahonia aquiflorium 'Orange Flame'

(Photo: Mahonia aquiflorium 'Orange Flame'/MyShadyGarden)

Mahonia aquiflorium is neither a grape nor a holly but a member of the barberry family. The specific variety I purchased is ‘Orange Flame’. The leaves are about 2 inches long and ringed with spiny teeth making them rabbit and deer unfriendly. New leaves are orange-bronze and stand out against the deep green mature foliage.  They bear clusters of fragrant yellow blooms followed by powder-blue to black grape-like fruit.

‘Orange Flame’ does best in light shade, but will tolerate full sun if kept well watered. It will grow to become 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It also has a wide pH tolerance unlike holly that requires acid soil and in my garden means amending the soil.  Oregon Grape Holly is also supposed to be completely immune to insect and disease problems – we shall see.  But it does seem that this shrub is easy, and easy is what I am looking for. Continue reading

Soooo Hot!

'Heat of Summer' Bouquet

(Photo: 'Heat of Summer' Bouquet/MyShadyGarden

It is a sultry afternoon and this transplanted Northwood’s girl can’t take the heat.  Mid-90’s and humid!  I’m melting.  This morning before the heat really took hold, I had to make sure the birdbaths were full, all my pots were watered and special plants taken care of.

Mid–summer.  The work of planting is done, the flowers have grown, and besides weeding and watering, much of the hard work is done.  I admit to using Preen – it prevents seeds from germinating.  Well worth the trouble and expense since I don’t particularly care for weeding – heck I really don’t like it.  I know it isn’t the most “green” thing to do, but it sure does save time.   Some weeding is still necessary, but I prefer my air-conditioned living room!

I broke into a total sweat just trying to water my Nikko Blue Hydrangeas.  As their name implies – they like being hydrated.  It is such a sad sight to see those lovely mopheads droop – I put the slow soaker on and they managed to perk up.   A sick friend received a bouquet of the blue and pink blooms along with some pink astillbe as accents.  They are special flowers and should cheer her up – at least offer a nice thing to look at while recovering.  Blue and pink are soft and soothing colors…

I picked myself a “Heat of Summer” bouquet.  Pink coneflowers, white Shasta daisies, yellow heliopsis and purple phlox.   You may wonder how does a shade gardener have these blooms?  Well we lost a boulevard tree about 8 – 9 years ago and I have a horseshoe shaped bed at the edge of our lot which gets full sun.

The thinking behind the bed was to create an appealing view instead of having to look at the intersection.  It also helped us to claim our rightful lot.  You see we have a pie-shaped lot and most of the walkers in our neighborhood cut across the ‘tip of the pie’ on our lawn to get to the other sidewalk.  They marched right in front of our living room window!  A definite invasion of privacy.  I wanted to shout, “You’re talking a walk for exercise – no shortcuts!” But that would not have been as effective as this garden bed.

As the edges of the bed approach the sidewalk, we have very prickly Seafoam juniper shrubs and Carefree Wonder roses (with thorns) – that say very subtly (or not) – stay back on sidewalk.  Besides having burning bush shrubs that block the view of the intersection – we planted all the sunny prairie flowers that do not require much care.  It has to be a long dry spell before a hose ever reaches out there.

Cup Plant

(Photo: Cup Plant/MyShadyGarden)

I have a new flower growing in the bed this year.  It is the Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), part of the aster family and an Illinois native.  Its leaves join together around the central stem to form a cup that can hold water, hence the name.  I am told that goldfinches adore the seeds of this plant and drink water from the cups!  They have just now started to bloom.  This plant makes a statement and needs a lot of space.  It currently looms a stately 8’ tall!

And so, while I prefer shade especially in the heat of summer, the sunny horseshoe bed provides us with the colorful prairie plants of our Chicago climate, a wonderful view, and defines the boundaries of our lot!

Kindred Souls

Ivy Geranium

(Photo: Ivy Geranium/MyShadyGarden)

It has been a lovely day in Middleton, WI where I am visiting my mother.  This morning she gave me a tour of the garden by her front door.  I took some time to admire the Jackmanii clematis in its full glory, Stellla d’Oro daylilies glowing a bright gold, and the new Weeping Alaskan Arborvitae evergreen and so on.

Her enthusiasm for gardening has been instilled in me and we can spend quite a bit of time discussing various flowers and the merits of adding this or that plant to a garden bed.  However, this morning she told me about other kindred garden loving souls.

While watering her very lovely ivy geranium hanging basket about a month ago, a bird flew away.  Upon closer inspection, my mom saw that a little bird made a nest in and amongst the ivy geranium.


(Photo: Birds Nesting/MyShadyGarden)

Now a month later with the fledglings one week old, they are properly behaved rather quiet little birdies.  My mom thinks they like the hanging basket because it is like a cradle (very much like the limbs on a tree I suppose). She sings ‘Rock a Bye Baby’ with a smile on her face as she waters very gently – she can’t let her hanging pot just dry up, but is taking care not to disturb the little brood.

These well behaved polite little birds put up with my mom lifting the basket off the hook and bringing it down so the grand kids can see them.  Four little birds, with one bird a lot more precocious that the others – undoubtedly the one who gets fed first and who will probably be the first to leave the next.  Not unlike some human families you might know.

Not being an expert, we are guessing these are wrens, but that is just a guess.  Anyone know?  Mama bird flies away when she sees my mom approach rather than put up with any kind of a dousing.  But remember mama bird chose the accommodations and always does return.  We garden loving humans sure enjoy watching these kindred souls grow…

Lookin’ Good – Hydrangeas on Parade

'Snow Queen' Oakleaf Hydrangea

(Photo:'Snow Queen' Oakleaf Hydrangea/MyShadyGarden)

I happen to really like hydrangeas.  These shrubs come in all different colors and shapes and work in my shady garden.  I have the space and enjoy having several types of hydrangeas.

One of my favorite summer shrubs has just now coming into bloom – the oakleaf hydrangea.   I planted ‘Snow Queen’ Oakleaf Hydrangea (quercifolia).  It grows 4-8’ tall and is native to North America.  We planted in front of a white stucco wall and thought that the oak leaf would be able to show itself off against all that white stucco.

The oakleaf hydrangea really is a shrub for all seasons – though now is one of the most glorious. In summer it bears conical clusters of single petal white flowers that are unlike most hydrangeas.  And the leaves that give this bush its name are large and lobed like an oak.

In fall those leaves turn a beautiful blood red and are striking next to the dried and faded blooms, which become kind of a mottled tan colored.  In winter/early spring the bark is cinnamon colored and hangs loosely – kind of exfoliating to give it interest before it leafs out. Continue reading

Friendship Plants – Your Garden Legacy

Bette's Peony
(Photo: Bette’s Peony/MyShadyGarden)

I think one of the best things that results from gardening is the friendships you make.  You find others who are as into gardening as you are.  They may or may not be your age, but it doesn’t matter.

When I started my garden, I had very little in the way of desirable plants and was new to the neighborhood.  To do a garden overhaul, I needed to buy quite a lot of perennials.  I started one bed at a time (sometimes to the frustration of a neighbor who couldn’t wait for “her” side of the house to be done).

Being new to my community, I didn’t know of many folks that I could trade with and admittedly I was kind of young to be into gardening given that I was working and had small children.

Continue reading

Garden Warfare Part 2 – Little Critters You Are Next!

Besides bunnies, slugs and tiny white caterpillars are at the top of my hit list.  And I have some effective control methods that I will share with you.


The slimy, sneaky critters hide on the underside of leaves.  They eat into some of my hosta as well as other tender leafed plants.  How do I thwart them?

The Weapons

(Photo: The Weapons/MyShadyGarden)

Sluggo!  Sounds appropriate right?  Actually it is very effective and it is biodegradable and environmentally friendly.  It works using iron phosphate with bait additives.  It comes in a granular form that you shake around the plants you want to protect.

I spread this around when the plants are looking good and fully leafed out – late May and early June for the Chicagoland area.  Sluggo attracts snails and slugs and after ingesting it they begin to die within 3 to 6 days.  By the way, that is a long time for the slugs to continue to munch on your garden.  So I would advise you to spread it out early.

Sluggo controls snails and slugs yet is non-toxic to wildlife and pets and is OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved.  I personally avoid the heavy duty chemicals wherever I can because it is important to be a good steward of the earth.

Tiny Caterpillars – Creepy Crawleys

I have a lovely area of Lysmachia – a chartreuse ground cover also called the Yellow Loosestrife that brightens up some areas in my garden.  Much to my dismay I saw tiny, almost translucent caterpillars were munching their way through the ground cover.

This happened to me last year and I didn’t catch it until it was too late.  Almost the whole bed was a mass of bare stems that look unsightly for the remainder of the summer.   I don’t even know what these caterpillars are, but I know I don’t want them.

So yesterday and the day before I sprayed insecticidal soap on them.  Insecticidal soap coats the insects so that they suffocate.  But it is not harmful to the environment and you can actually make it yourself or buy it ready-made.  I have a small bottle of concentrated soap that I bought for around $6 and am able to make many gallons of the stuff very inexpensively.

I used this great new applicator tool that I picked up at the Chicago Garden Show in March at Navy Pier.  It is called Giro’s Sprayer.  It is an adjustable brass sprayer that gives you a range from a fine mist to a coarse stream of liquid and screws onto most water or soda plastic bottles.

It is versatile –especially if you need to switch solutions.  Just put the cap on the bottle that you haven’t used up, and fill your new plastic bottle with solution you need to use.  I am always sure to draw up some cleansing water before I put the applicator in the new solutions.

If you know what the tiny caterpillar is, please let me know.  And I am always interested in knowing about effective organic ways of controlling pests in the garden.  Please share your ‘secrets’ with me here.

Coral Bells – How Does Your Garden Grow?

'Peppermint Spice'

(Photo: Coral Bells 'Peppermint Spice'/My Shady Garden)

One of the most versatile shade perennials that have beautiful and interesting leaves is Coral Bells.  It is sometimes known as Alum Root or by the Latin name of Heuchera.

'Pewter Veil'

(Photo: Heucher 'Pewter Veil'/MyShadyGarden)

As a shade gardener I have learned that it isn’t just the flowers that are important to the garden.  The structure and shape of the plant, as well as the shape and color of the leaves play a very important role in plant selection. Coral Bells mounding form make them great plants for edging bed lines, as ground covers, or for use in camouflaging height transitions such as a concrete step.

These plants grow best in light or partial shade. If Coral Bells are planted in too sunny a spot, the foliage bleaches out.  If they are in too much shade, the plants become leggy.  They also prefer neutral to alkaline soil that is well-drained with good air circulation.

These preferred growing conditions make it a perfect plant for my yard that is in transition to shade.  I also know my soil runs alkaline  – probably due to residual stucco construction materials left in the dirt.

'Palace Purple'

(Photo: Heucher 'Palace Purple'/MyShadyGarden)

Coral Bells have a strange habit of pushing themselves out of the dirt so it is good to mulch these plants especially in the fall so as not to sustain winter damage.  In early January when we get rid of our Christmas tree, I cut the branches and loosely cover the Coral Bells as well to serve as further protection for this pretty plant.

Also after a few years you can divide the side clumps and plant them other places or give them away as friendship plants.  This best done in spring and fall.

I started out with ‘Palace Purple’.  It has fairly large leaves and is a brownish-purple color that blends in with the mulch.  But quite frankly, I think there are so many prettier varieties.  I have ‘Pewter Veil’ (2nd photo) by my front door softening the transition of the stoop.

'Electra' and Burgundy Coral Bells

(Photo: 'Electra' and Burgundy Coral Bells/My Shady Garden)

I like the chartreuse leaves with dark red veining ‘Electra’ and I planted them near my chartreuse ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta along with dark burgundy leafed Coral Bells. Honestly I don’t know that variety.  (I really am getting better about keeping records of my plants, but I got these a few years ago.  I think just having a container in your garage as a place to put the tags is a good thing to do.  Then if or when you want to, you can record your plantings in a journal but at least you have a place to put the tags  when you are dirty and out planting).

Last fall I was the very lucky recipient of “Peppermint Spice” Heuchera from my very accomplished gardening friend Natalie.  See the beauty of the leaves and the wiry flowers poking above the leaves (top photo).  I use these wiry flowers in bouquets throughout the growing season.  They just bring a bit of unexpected interest to a flower arrangement.

Burgundy Heuchera

(Photo: Burgundy Heuchera/MyShadyGarden)

Have fun with these plants – plant different colors next to one another.  Or pair them with plants that have different shapes such as ferns or frilly astillbes.  Let me know what your favorites are.

It’s Garden Warfare: Lessons in Effective Rabbit Control

Well it’s time to break out the proverbial combat boots and protect what is mine!  Did you hear that all you bunnies?  I am in possession of an organically safe weapon that thwarts bunnies from treating my garden like a salad bar.  And I will share that secret weapon with you because you have your own garden to defend.

Garden Enemy #1 – Bunnies

Over the years I have lost many an expensive plant and spent lots of time shoring up the damage from these four legged garden pests.   Number one on my hit list is bunnies!  Unlike most people, I don’t think little bunnies are cute – I want to send in the coyotes!


(Photo: Elroy - My Cairn Terrier/MyShadyGarden)

(Or maybe not since I have Elroy, a little Cairn terrier who I love dearly.  Coyotes would think him to be equally as tasty as a rabbit – maybe even a bit more since he has some marbling).

The Weapon of Choice

I discovered a very effective bunny deterrent a couple of years ago.  This after weeks of watching my garden get destroyed and trying various things.  And this deterrent works for deer as well.  The product is aptly named Liquid Fence Deer and Rabbit Repellant.  I like it so well I buy it in the large size.

The main ingredient is putrescent egg solids – and putrid smelling it is.  Now when you spray it, go to the farthest area you want to protect and work your way toward your door.  You do not want to backtrack where you sprayed because it is so stinky.  The good thing is that when it dries, humans don’t smell it.  But the bunnies and deer do.  It is biodegradable, environmentally safe, and even safe enough to use on your edible plants.

I use the spray because it can be used on plants 24” and taller.  This is important for taller vegetation such as shrubs or young trees.  Or when you need to protect your garden pots.  I had watched in amazement as a bunny stood on its hind legs and munched on the plants in my pots.  The nerve!  We sent Elroy out to get ‘em – though he wasn’t quite fast enough.

Continue reading

More Bouquets: Step by Step

I have included additional flower bouquets here to give you ideas.

A couple of suggestions.  If you use flowers that have a woody stem – such as lilacs or hydrangeas – make a vertical slit up the stem.  This allows more water to be hydrate the flower.  Otherwise lilacs can be quick to wilt.

Enjoy making your own flower arrangements!

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