All the snow we've had recently brought many more birds to the feeders outside our kitchen window. A lone starling was joined by sparrows, house finches, downy woodpeckers, seven cardinals, goldfinches (which are beginning to show faint yellow feathers as they lose their winter plumage), mourning doves and the occasional Cooper's hawk (which sends the small birds scattering). It's a good time to be indoors cooking and sowing seeds of tomato and pepper plants. As soon as the snow melts, I'll get my soil thermometer and when the top inch of soil reaches to 52 F or so, I'll begin sowing kale seeds. Kale is the current darling of foodies and cooks. It's rich in nutrients, it provides fiber and it's tasty. 'Red Russian' has smooth red leaves and you can harvest them in about 25 days. I like the curly varieties such as 'Redbor', 'Toscano' (the "dinosaur" type) and curly 'Scotch' or 'Dwarf Blue Curled Vates' with their blue leaves. Kale is a member of the Brassica (cabbage) family, but even if you don't like cabbage, you may enjoy this leafy green, which can be steamed, sauteed, used in omelets and in soup.
Here's a winter kale recipe that's easy to make.
Kale with Cannellini Beans
2 pounds of curly kale (2-3 large bunches)*
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, diced
1 1/2 T olive oil (I like basil-infused oil, but you can use any good olive oil)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup dry white wine
15 oz can of cooked cannellini beans, rinsed well
Freshly grated Parmesan or Parmigiano reggiano cheese
*4 cups of finely chopped raw kale will wilt in cooking to about 1 cup.
Mature curly leaved kales have tough ribs and stems. Fold the leaves in half and remove the entire stem/rib before cooking. Baby-size kale leaves can be cooked stem and all.
Put a quart of water in a deep pan and add 1 tsp salt. Bring to a simmer and add the kale. Simmer for about 10 minutes until tender. Drain the kale and reserve the water for another use — you can drink it or add it to soup. Heat the oil in a large skillet and add the onion, garlic, red pepper flakes and rosemary and saute for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the wine and continue cooking for another 4 minutes. Chop the kale into small pieces. Add the beans and kale and cook a few more minutes to heat. Place in a bowl and sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top. Good as a side dish or enjoy as a warm salad with some fresh French or pumpernickel bread.
No one wants to think about gardening when the temperatures hover in the single digits and the wind is howling, but before you know it, you’ll be able to get outside and start planting those lettuce and beet seeds.
At least I’ll be doing that because my soil thermometer and seed packets are ready to go. Once the snow melts and the top inch of soil reaches 45 F, I’ll sow a variety of lettuce — such as ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Speckled Trout’ and ‘Merlot’ — and four types of radishes. And they’ll be ready to harvest in about 28 days. You can do this, too.
Organic vegetable gardening continues to draw more gardeners, even those who have only dabbled in a few tomato and basil plants or in perennials. To address this growing interest, The Morton Arboretum in Lisle kicks off the first of its five EdibleGardening Workshops on Saturday, March 8 from 9:30 to noon.
“These workshops can help gardeners create fresh, new meal ideas from edibles growing right in their own backyard,” says Megan Dunning, the Arboretum’s manager of community education and outreach. “The instructors will offer new tips and techniques on how to make the most of a garden space or landscape by adding both beauty and function with edible plants.”
On March 8, horticulturist Katrina Chipman and I will show participants how to put some fun into their vegetables and their meals when we look at how to grow organic edibletheme gardens. We’ll explain how to grow a pizza/salsa garden, a purple edible garden, a salad garden, an Asian stir-fry garden, a Brassica (think kale) garden, and an herbal beverage garden (think herbal wine or tea drinks).
The classes take place on Saturdays through April. See complete details here. And think spring.
—Nina A. Koziol
The weather outside is still a tad frightful, but the sunshine and the longer daylight this past week seem to have triggered Mother Nature. A pair of bluebirds showed up Saturday morning in our backyard where they explored one of our birdhouses. More bluebirds on Sunday morning flying from another nest box in our front garden, into the woods across the street. But indoors, spring has already arrived. Since my last post, Hope Springs Eternal, where you saw the bulbs in a window box, those daffodils emerged very quickly. Once the plants finish blooming, I'll let the leaves turn yellow but will keep them barely moist. And when the ground thaws, they'll go into one of the garden beds.
It's still too early for that, so I suggest a great late winter fix — a trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden for the awesome Orchid Show. The show runs from February 15 through March 16. Click here for more info.
—Nina A. Koziol
Towards the end of February a startling fact was reported on the news. January, it turns out, had been the fourth warmest month in the history of the world. How can that be, everyone east of the Mississippi must have gasped?
We had been living with snow and ice up to our ears, and for weeks the thermometer hadn’t risen about 32 F. Of course, the climate change skeptics were gloating that here was the proof that climate change was a myth.
But as the article I read in the New York Times reminded us (Feb. 20, “Freezing January for Easterners Was Not Felt Round the World,” the United States is not the largest country on the planet. In fact, it occupies only 2 percent of the landmass in the world. Add in the fact that the bitter cold held sway mostly in the eastern half of the country, and we’re down to 1 percent. Australia, parts of Africa, South America and Asia were warmer than usual in January. When you’re doing averages, everybody counts.
As a French professor told me in college after I had censured the morals of Madame Bovary, “Le Kansas n’est pas le centre du monde.” Neither is the United States.
I’m spending a couple weeks in a suburb south of San Francisco, looking after the grandkids while their parents get to do things like climb to the top of the cathedral in Florence, Italy, and puzzle over how Fillipo Brunnelschi, a goldsmith with no architectural experience, devised a brick dome that wouldn’t fall down as it was being constructed, let alone last 500 years. Remember, their main construction aide was the rope.
But while I may wax jealous, I realize there are pleasures to be had here as I tool up and down the hills, chauffeuring the kids to school and ogling the flowers that are in full bloom while back home I know you’re still wallowing in snow. Saucer magnolias, flowering cherries, camellias, daffodils, plus plenty of things a Chicagoan can’t identify.
But take heart, in just one month the crocus may well be blooming chez nous, and the tulips will be starting to poke up their heads, too. When it happens in Chicago, it happens fast.Meanwhile, take heart. I’ll be back suffering with you shortly.
I actually followed my own advice this winter and refused to water my clivias all through December and January. It was hard.
In spring a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love, but in winter, a gardener is going stir crazy from nothing to do. Cut down on watering your houseplants, we’re told. Eliminate fertilizer. And in the case of the clivias, no watering at all. Nothing. Nada. Nichts.
There’s a reason, of course. Clivias come from South Africa where they have dry summers, which happen during our winter since the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. So instead of a long winter’s nap, they have a summer slumber. Then, when the rains return, they wake up and bloom.
The job of the gardener who is tending clivias as houseplants is to emulate this cycle, to make them thing they’re home. Ergo, no water.
And it really does work. Perhaps just ten days after I had resumed watering my clivias in February, I discovered that one of my four pots had already formed five — yes, five — shoots that will rise up and unfold into bright orange flower clusters 6 to 8 inches in diameter. The other pots are sure to follow suit in their own good time.
In summer I cart the pots outside where they sit in the full shade of the house next door and are clam-happy until October. Then it’s back inside for another winter where I will again have to keep slapping my fingers to refrain from giving them too much TLC.
Photo: Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
Each fall I try to grab a few bags of daffodils to pop into the planting beds that are near our front door. The deer and other critters tend to leave them alone, unlike the grape hyacinths (Muscari). I planted over 100 grape hyacinths one fall, and the next spring there was a little river of blue around the birdbath. After that, the voles apparently found the bulbs appetizing because the plants disappeared. Ditto for the fritillarias and anemones.
But that doesn't stop me from planting them. When bulbs went on sale in November, I picked up tulips, grape hyacinths and more daffodils. After a cold stint in our attached garage, I recently brought them indoors where they quickly sprouted, so into some containers they went. (I covered them with more potting mix after I snapped this photo.) I would never plant them this close to one another outside, but indoors I want an eye-catching collection of flowers. As soon as the leaves appear above the soil, into a sunny window they'll go. So, stay tuned. I'll post my progress in a few weeks. The snow will be with us for a long time before the daffodils even begin to wake up outside.
—Nina A. Koziol
Late last summer, as the gardening season slowed down, I was sorely tempted by two ‘Red Haven’ peach trees that were marked down to a bargain price. I wanted to try peach trees after a gardener in Naperville told us how wonderful and hardy ‘Red Havens’ are for the Chicago area, unlike many other peach tree varieties. I planted them in very large lightweight foam-type containers. We made drainage holes in the bottom, filled one-third of the pots with shredded mulch and the rest with potting mix. I placed the pots next to our unheated greenhouse out of the west wind and watered them until December when the soil began to freeze. I admired their slender dark brown buds and imagined how they would flower in May and begin producing fruit. What I didn’t imagine was the incredible cold weather and snow.
In 1990, Dr. Gary Watson, a scientist at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, wrote a fascinating plant bulletin, “Winter Injury of Ornamentals.” I reread it one day when the temperature was below zero and the wind chill dipped to minus 31 F. I discovered that I may have made a big mistake putting my peach trees in pots. Here’s why, according to Dr. Watson:
“Root damage. Root tissues apparently do not acclimate to temperatures much below freezing and can be killed or severely injured by soil temperatures below 15 F. Fortunately, the presence of turf, leaf litter or snow cover insulates most field soils sufficiently to prevent temperatures in the vicinity of plant roots from falling much below freezing.
“Root injury does occur in containers, however, and in field plantings if unusually low temperatures occur in the absence of a mulch or snow cover. Frozen roots usually deteriorate rapidly after thawing and may provide infection courts for root-rot fungi and other organisms that may further damage weakened plants. Plants with frozen roots often wilt and decline after growth resumes in spring.”
This does not bode well for the peach trees or for two ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ hydrangeas that have grown (and produced lovely flowers) in large pots on the patio for the past two years. Spring is not far off. This could be another lesson taught by plants. Time will tell.
—Nina A. Koziol
Every time someone chops down a tree, there’s an outcry. “They’re destroying trees! Vandals! Visigoths! It’s a disgrace!”
Not necessarily, since not everything with a green leaf in the world is good. Some plants are pernicious while others are benign but useless. Placeholders, we might call them. What we need, however, are plants that do useful things for the birds, bees, butterflies, insects, mammals and fish that are native to this region.
So it’s good news that there’s an ongoing Chicago Park District project along South Lake Shore Drive to restore native habitat for migratory songbirds along a 2.2 mile strip of land sandwiched between the Metra railroad tracks and Lake Shore Drive from 31st to 47th Street. This strip of land is 41 acres, but the total project, which includes land already being restored east of Lake Shore Drive, will total 103 acres.
Birds travel great distances, and when they get to Chicago, they’re tired and much in need of R & R. With the adjacent lake, they have access to water, which is one reason Chicago is a major stop on the migration route. But they also need food — insects, caterpillars and seeds. The box elder, European buckthorn and other non-native trees that are being cut down don’t provide what the birds need.
They are being replaced with lots of oaks and other native species — a total of 125,000 trees, all being planted by volunteers. These trees are whips, which means young rees 2 to 3 years old and 1 to 3 feet tall, so don’t expect to see a new oak forest overnight. But it will come. Click here for an interesting video from WBEZ.
Thinking about the arrival of winter brings a sense of deep foreboding. But once it’s here, we begin looking around and finding moments of unexpected beauty. Driving along Chicago’s lake shore, for example. Once, on a 15-degree December afternoon I was driving south on Lake Shore Drive and the sun was out — sort of. At least enough to highlight the frozen horizon of the lake with the most exquisite shade of apricot. It was a sight that could never be captured by any camera, so it can only live on as a treasured memory. A precious moment between me and the universe.
Today it was the trees and grasses in the median strips that grabbed my attention. Some were coated in white, whether from snow or road salt, I couldn’t really tell, but the sight was pretty either way. Honey locust trees, miscanthus and calamagrostis grasses plus seed heads of sumacs all had something to offer and reminded me of how much our winter aesthetic has changed.
Years ago, “putting the garden to bed” in fall meant chopping down every annual, perennial and ornamental grass within sight to form a flat, barren carpet for the next five months. Today we leave plants standing to catch the snow, protect neighboring plants, feed the birds and give us winter views that can actually be called “landscape.” So the next time you find yourself grousing about the state of the world, think about this. Sometimes, things really do get better.
– Carolyn Ulrich - Photography by Ben Futa