So here I am, wandering around with my nose towards the ground, scrounging for signs of spring. I’ve found a few — snowdrops 2 inches high with their white buds clearly visible, a few dark red sprouts that are surely tulips, and teeny red buds on the ‘Jens Munk’ rose, a rugosa hybrid from Canada that sneers at winter and breaks dormancy earlier than anything else around. It’s primed, ready to come roaring out of the gate as soon as it gets a good clear signal. The other roses are still snoring away.
‘Jens Munk’ rose – Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries
I expect my perennials to stand up like troopers when that time comes, but an e-newsletter today from the Ornamental Growers Association of Northern Illinois reminded me that there may be trouble in River City, mainly on our woody plants. Soon windburn and salt damage will be showing up on yews and other conifers, and there may be frost cracking on some tree trunks as well. (Remember all the sycamores in Evanston that had to be cut down earlier this winter?). On the positive side, the severe cold may have zapped some insects into an early eternal rest. (Bow heads here for a quick word of thanks.)
So even if it still feels like winter, spring is sneaking up on us, and this is nature’s last call for starting seeds indoors. I’ve got leftover ‘Milano’ and ‘Better Boy’ tomato seeds that need to be sown forthwith, along with a little-leaf basil (‘Fino Verde’) and some poblano peppers. It’s still too cold to go outside and sow greens like arugula, lettuce and a mesclun mix, but they’re coming next on the agenda. Just like spring.
For the past two weeks I’ve been charging around saying I’m willing to bet real money that when the snow melts, there will be inch-tall snowdrops and crocuses already up and just days away from blooming.
It’s still too early to start collecting my money, but today, the icicle that once cascaded a full 3 feet down from the front porch gutter has vanished, and all that’s left is a steady drip-drip from the melting roof. The front yard garden is still blanketed with 2 feet of snow.
But one plant is already getting ready to break dormancy. As I ambled back from mailing some bills at the corner mailbox, I stopped by the front fence to take a peek at my ‘Jens Munk’ rose, a rugosa hybrid that is one of the Canadian Explorer series, developed at the Morden Research Station in Manitoba. Already this gives you two clues to its hardiness — originating in Canada and part rugosa.
Although my‘Jens Munk’ rose currently looks like a collection of dead brown sticks, in June it will be bedecked with semi-double pink blossoms. (Photo by Ron Capek)And sure enough, as I bent for a closer look, I spied teeny red buds marching up and down the otherwise dead-looking brown canes. That plant is alive (!!!) I realized, and already it’s charging up for the show ahead. So courage, mes amis. Life is going to get better.
— Carolyn Ulrich
At some point in a gardener’s life, he or she will likely come across the writings and photographs of the renowned gardener and garden writer Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006). Lloyd gardened at his family’s estate, Great Dixter, in Northiam, East Sussex, in the south of England. The wonderfully atmospheric and picturesque garden surrounds a rambling fifteenth-century Tudor-style manor house that continues to draw thousands of visitors each year.
A charismatic and highly opinionated gardener, Lloyd was capable of inspiring others through his written and spoken word. His head gardener and renowned plantsman, Fergus Garrett, carries on Lloyd’s unique gardens. Garrett will be at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Monday, March 24 from 2 to 4 p.m. to discuss the thought process involved in creating vibrant plant combinations where colors are used to maximum effect. Great Dixter’s beds and borders paint a powerful, vibrant and adventurous picture, one that is sure to inspire you as you think about planting your own garden this year. After the presentation, he’ll be joined by local plantsman Roy Diblik to continue the discussion. The fee is $37 for nonmembers; (members receive 20% discount). To register, visit chicagobotanic.org/school or call 847-835-8261.
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