Category Archives: Native Plants

Seeking Tolerant Landscaping Suggestions

Today my neighbor enlisted me to help her find landscaping plants for the street adjacent to our property. So I’m enlisting help from my readers. I’ve been mostly a gardener of edibles and indoor potted plants, so ornamentals aren’t by strong suit. Here are the criteria and I’d appreciate any suggestions:

The length of the strip we have to work with is of less importance than the width. I’d estimate with width to be about 3 ft. max. This is alongside a busy road, so plants can’t have much horizontal ground spread. There are about 4 juvenile slow growing trees planted in the area already, so we’d want something below them.

The plants will be on the north side of a retaining wall, so there’s not going to be afternoon sun but strong morning sun & summer heat. There’s no irrigation, so they need to be midwest hearty plants. Plenty of spring and summer rain, but drought tolerant in late summer and fall. Snow & cold tolerant of course.

Okay, have I eliminated everything but dwarf hosta? We’re mostly looking at perennials,  ground cover, small shrubs or dwarf ornamental trees.

4 Surprising “Green” Chicago Websites

1. The above picture isn’t a mockup of some lofty futuristic eco-architecture. It is now and it’s Chicago’s City Hall. If you’ve never explored Chicago’s Green Roofs project, you’re in for some surprises. For instance, did you know that nestled in that photo above are beehives that produce salable honey? If you’re curious about which city rooftops are green (or where to buy some of that honey) check out the city’s Green Roofs page or take your binoculars up to the Skydeck of Willis Tower and see for yourself.

2. A little more visible from our vantage point are the city’s Green Alleys projects. Chicago’s Department of Transportation began the green alleys pilot project in 2006 and renovated more than 100 alleys by 2010. What is a green alley? Check out the city’s comprehensive and well-illustrated Green Alley Handbook. Who knew your back alley could be a marvel of modern eco engineering. By the way, there’s a lot more to these alleys than just pretty landscaping. Take a look.

3. Being a relative newcomer to Chicago, I was very pleasantly surprised by the city’s incredibly progressive Sustainable Backyard Program. Residents can get cash rebates from the city for buying rain barrels, compost bins, native plants and trees from local retailers. A great way to help the environment while supporting local business and spending more time outdoors. Unless extended, the rebate program runs until 12/31/2012 so make this your year for creating a more sustainable backyard. Oh, and if you’re a retailer wanting to learn more about getting involved with the rebate program, consider attending the upcoming workshop on March 1st.

4. Finally, to learn more about any green & growing topic imaginable, check out the list of free and low-fee workshops offered by the Chicago Center for Green Technology. Learn about anything from how to install green countertops to finding out how the city uses vegetable oil from local restaurants to produce biofuel. Their building also contains a staffed resource center and free exhibits throughout the year.

July 18th Harvest: Before and After

We were in the Carolinas last week when we heard about the heatwave headed towards Chicago. About 80% of my containers were connected to irrigation, so I figured I’d suffer a few casualties. Arrived back home to find the garden doing surprisingly well and recovering nicely from the recent storms. Never expected to be eating an entire meal from the garden today. Sometimes gardens like to be ignored (ignored plus irrigation and fertilizer).                                                      (Above) Bush cucumbers, Blue LakeBeans, Red Potatoes, Squash Blossoms, Tomatoes (Opalka and Stupice)

An hour later and voila! Lightly breaded fried squash blossoms and two salads: 1) an Indian-street-food-inspired salad of tomatoes, cucumber and cilantro in a sweet lemon cumin vinaigrette. 2) A red skin potato and green bean salad tossed in a dressing of veganaise, vegan sour cream, mustard, celery seed, salt & pepper:

The foliage (above) has grown in so quickly you can’t even see the storm damage. I’m not getting any pollination on the zucchini or yellow sqash- hence eating their blossoms for lunch. Blossoms taste better than a boring zucchini anyway. With only that single pot of Blue Lake beans pictured on the right, we’ve already had 2 meals and there are plenty more beans on the way. Tons of green tomatoes have recently popped out and check out this baby eggplant that’s about 1/2″ long:

I nearly forgot about a few spindly seedlings that I was sure would die off. I put them in a windowsill greenhouse just to see what would happen. Well, as luck would have it, the little greenhouse got destroyed in the storm but not before it nurtured this Shishito pepper and a few tomatoes seedlings to hardiness. Not sure how prolific these plants will be, but I’ll enjoy every inch of these two peppers that have appeared:

A few random flowers currently in bloom 4 flights up:

And finally a few glimpses of the not-so-edible things thriving on the rooftop. One mantis is green and the other is brown. I don’t know if that indicates gender, but I guess I could just wait to see who eats whom. Ladies first!

With today’s perfect harvest and some critter sightings, I have renewed hope for our rooftop garden. Next year when we encounter hurricane-strength wind, marble-sized hail and 100-degree heat,  I’ll just flip back to today’s post and remember that lunch.

Pre-storm Bounty

Recent travel is really putting my mico-irrigation system to the test- so far so good. I’m using the Raindrip brand container gardening kit that uses 1/4″ feeder hoses with inline drippers. Fairly easy set-up, although I do wish it came with clearer instructions and descriptions of the various fittings. It doesn’t directly connect to EarthBoxes but I’m simply hanging the drippers into the fill tubes. Kind of mundane blog material, so feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about it.

Another intense storm this morning appears to have taken out more tomato plants. What a harsh year for gardening in Chicago. Needless to say I’ll be making a lot of adjustments and precautions next year. I’m heading to South Carolina on Wednesday, so next week I’ll take pics of whatever is left in the garden when I get back. Getting tired of just peas and pak choi!

Here’s a look at some peas and pak choy I harvested last week (still life on Tolix chair). And a bonus shot of blooming prickly pear on a Chicago beach/dune.

Update re: New Urban Grower Chicago Store

Just a quick update this morning before heading out to Taste of Chicago. I was contacted yesterday by the folks at the new Urban Grower store on North Ave. They will not be having their grand opening until mid July. If you marked June 28th on your calendar, scratch that and check their website for updates. They are only having a soft opening this week. Hey, can we get in on that?

Here’s my completely unsolicited wish list for their rooftop supply stock. Anybody care to add anything?

  • Happy Frog potting mix
  • Fox Farm granular fertilizers
  • Regional native seeds
  • Micro irrigation supplies
  • Cold frame kits
  • Vermicomposters

Hope you don’t mind that our gardening fantasies are running wild at your expense, UGC. It’s just that those of us in Wicker Park are thrilled to have an alternative to that gigantic orange store right down the road from you. Best wishes on your GRAND opening!

Leafsnap Field Identification Guide

I just downloaded the free Leafsnap app but haven’t tried it yet. It’s so foggy in Chicago right now that I wouldn’t be able to see any leaves. Apparently the app acts as a field guide to identifying plants via visual recognition software. Just take a picture of a plant leaf on your phone or iPad and Leafsnap will instantly identify it. Pretty amazing if it works. Anybody else tried it and care to comment?

Hello, from …all over the place

I try to write a “Seedlings” blog at least bi-weekly, in which I list local gardening and green events. Well, I haven’t been in Chicago enough recently to even know what’s going on much less have time to write the post. I’ll be back in town shortly and hopefully can catch up… unless anybody wants to guest blog?

Until then, I’m checking in from my hotels in Novi and Lansing, Michigan. Didn’t want you all to forget about me. Who knows what I’ll find when I get back to Chicago.  I’m pretty sure the wind and rain will have stripped away all signs of unattended life from my rooftop. I’m contemplating building a greenhouse/hothouse structure up there. Or maybe I should just give in to nature and start specializing in rooftop-hardy sun and wind-resistant plants. I’ll keep ya posted.

Worldwide Permaculture Network

The Permaculture Institute defines permaculture as: “…an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.”

Permaculture is a way of life that can be adopted by virtually anyone, anywhere. In developed cultures we certainly have access to the knowledge and the means to implement these strategies, however big or small, from the smallest apartment patio or backyard garden up to the largest corporation rooftop or agricultural production. In developing nations, permaculture design can mean new or improved sustainable ways of living that are mutually beneficial with their environment.

There are many challenges and threats to our relationship with our environment, but I believe permaculturists are optimists. And despite the dismal headline news, there is a lot of good in the world. The goal of the Worldwide Permaculture Network to map the growing network of permaculture projects so we can all visualize just how much change is occurring. And of course to teach us all how we can adopt permaculture into our own lives. This new Network was just officially launched and anybody can sign up for free – make your place on the map.

Happy Earth Day! …a celebration, a 40 year tradition and, of course, capitalism

It’s a rainy Earth Day in Chicago so our celebrations may have to get creative. What are you planning? The EarthDay.org website can give you ideas and you can sign up for their “A Billion Acts of Green” campaign.

Lots of companies are capitalizing on the Day, of course. People will be burning a little extra gas today to get to Starbucks or Caribou for free coffee. One of the more beneficial giveaways, perhaps, is the million trees that Lowe’s is giving away tomorrow 4/23. What’s even better? Buying a native tree from a local nursery, perhaps. Or, walking to a neighborhood coffee shop that serves locally roasted, fair-trade, organic coffees and teas.

Speaking of Fair Trade, May 14th is World Fair Trade day. In Chicago, World Fair Trade week will be kicked off on May 4th with a celebration in Daley Plaza.

Here are a few other small ideas you can do right away to celebrate Spring and Earth Day:

  • Spread some natural fibers in your yard for bird’s to build nests: try rafia, shreds of cotton, straw, small sticks, shredded paper, etc.
  • Set up your kitchen/home to be more recycling friendly and learn some convenient recycling locations. Most grocery stores now have plastic bag, light bulb and battery recycling bins. Consider composting to reduce garbage bag usage and landfill space.
  • Plant native annuals & perennials this year. They will attract native birds, bees, and butterflies. Contact your local extension office to get a list of native plants and where to get them. Don’t have a yard or garden? That’s ok, recycle a container and fill it with flowers: a coffee can, an old boot, a plastic bag, a colander, get creative- if it holds soil, it’s a planter!
  • When planting this year, choose coconut coir, now widely available in garden stores, over sphaghum/peat. Peat bogs are dwindling precious resources whereas shredded coconut is bountiful. Just add perlite to help the coir drain well and keep plant roots happy.
  • Make “seed bombs” with native plant seeds and go do some “planting” guerrilla syle! Recipes for seed bombs are plentiful online.
  • Make a small donation to an environmental cause of your choice. Use the fantastic Charity Navigator tool to locate a top rated charity so your money makes the biggest impact.
  • Do a walk-through of your house with a bag in hand- fill it up with stuff you just don’t need and donate it to a local charity store. Keeping used items in circulation will help keep newly manufactured items out.
  • Pick up trash outside. I guarantee you’ll see some, so keep a bag and gloves handy. It’s a dirty job that feels great.
  • Start using cloths/rags for cleaning rather than paper towels. Paper towels are a HUGE and expensive waste. Buy a dozen or two unbleached cloths and use them for months. Wash them in oxy-cleaner rather than bleach.
  • Teach something to kids: take them to a natural history museum, let them pick out an environmental activity book, visit a greenhouse conservatory, rent a documentary and eat organic snacks, let them pick out a reusable stainless steel water bottle, pick out a never-before-tried unusual fruit or veggie from the grocery store and then research it online- pique their curiosity about nature and growing.
  • Make a commitment to not forget Earth Day tomorrow and next month and the middle of the winter.

These are small gestures of involvement but by no means enough. We all have a responsibility to stay educated, stay active, and be personally responsible for how our choices affect the Earth.

The tropical desert Midwest?

Opuntia "Prickly Pear"

I’m a plant geek- continuously amazed by the plant world. Like when I first found out that cactus grow native to Michigan and Illinois. A few years ago I was walking past a house in Michigan that had mounds of prickly pear growing and flowering in the yard. Double-take! I expressed my amazement to the woman living there, “I had no idea cactus can live outside here!” She called hers “Michigan Prickly Pear” and broke off a few pads for me to grow. And grow they did (above pic). It would be a much larger patch, actually, were it not for a hungry critter two years ago.

More than likely this is Opuntia humifusa, or Eastern Prickly Pear, which grows native in the Midwest. Opuntia monocantha and Opuntia fragilis can apparently also found in Illinois and Michigan. Mine appears lanky in the pic because it started to grow in low-light conditions while over-wintering. I have since moved it onto the rooftop where I expect it will thrive and hopefully bloom. I can confidently say that this species can handle its fair share of neglect and abuse! It looks quite disheveled (ok, it looks dead) after a harsh winter but perks right up in the spring.

Hiking in northern Michigan a couple years ago I came across another “desert” surprise- lizards! Maybe not as much a surprise in Illinois, but for an Upper Peninsula of Michigan native, seeing a lizard seemed about as likely as seeing a zebra. Yet there it was on Marquette’s Sugarloaf Mountain, what I’ve since learned to most likely be a Five-lined Skink, a native of Michigan. Illinois has a native legless lizard, which I’ve yet to see, called the Slender Glass Lizard.

From desert to the tropics…

If you’ve spent time on Chicago’s beaches you may have seen live palm trees. I’m not going to surprise anybody by saying those are not native to the Great Lakes region. But, surprisingly, some folks are successful in growing them outdoors in Chicago (with special care). And orchids, which are normally thought of as tropical plants, are native and even abundant in the region. Even some non-native tropical orchids can thrive in Illinois home gardens. Especially if you happen to live in a micro-climate, where your growing area may be a zone ahead of your neighbors, you can try your hand at outdoor tropicals.

I try to be conscious about bringing non-native and hybridized species into a habitat, but I think it can be safely said that these particular tropicals won’t be overpopulating anytime soon. Even the cold-hardy palms require a lot of attention to over-wintering or they will die. That said, keep them at home and preferably grow them in containers. Here are some websites with tips for picking species and growing conditions of hardy outdoor tropical plants: