A conversation withTalis Bergmanis

Have you ever passed a private garden whose interesting street edge told you it was hiding something special? I knew about Talis Bergmanis’s garden long before I met him and was able to see it in person. The plantings along the street are so striking, almost other-worldly, with chartreuse ‘Tiger Eye’ sumac standing out against a backdrop of silvery spruce and dark pines. Rising above them are some unusual river birches, Betula nigra ‘Little king.’ He prunes them to a single trunk so the new growth is a green tassel at the top, like a Dr. Seuss tree.  We can see between the thin trunks, but they still form a border, like a widely spaced picket fence.

This is where I found Bergmanis last Friday morning, wearing a faded orange t-shirt and standing on a four-foot stepstool. I’d invited myself over to see his peonies, which are especially lush and vigorous this year, but there was much more to see.

The shrubs and trees lining the street embrace a wide bed planted with sun-loving plants that like good drainage. Ice-blue amsonia and irises were blooming when I visited, with butterfly milkweed powering up for later in the season. In the front of the bed grow variegated irises, big patches of silvery Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina), and bright yellow sedum. To make the bed, Bergmanis dug out two feet of clay and replaced it with a mix of topsoil, gravel, and sand. Bordering the garden in every direction are interesting small trees and shrubs, like shrub Japanese maple, blooming bottlebrush buckeye, and purple beech.

Photo by Han Mellenbruch

The pea-like flowers of a Kentucky Yellowwood brightened a dark corner. (I found this tree so unusual I bought one at a plant sale the next day.) A dwarf gingko, intended to be two feet high, is so happy in this spot, it tops out at almost ten feet tall.

Around the corner of the house, the backyard spreads beneath dappled shade provided by an enormous ginkgo tree. A wide bed along the western edge of the 1.3-acre property is devoted to peonies, all in bloom in different shades of pink, coral, and magenta. It’s a spectacular show if you love peonies, which I do. Bergmanis is an aficionado, a collector who grows many different varieties, often identified by metal markers.

Bergmanis joined the Heartland Peony Society at a member’s suggestion, and served as its president for several years. He estimates he has over 100 peony plants, and is so knowledgeable about them, I imagine he could fill in all the details about each one’s appearance and habit and tell stories about how he acquired them.

“Peonies are not only beautiful, they’re tough,” he said. “Pass any old homesite in Kansas, and two things will mark the spot where the house once stood: a clump of orange day lilies and a blooming peony.”

Two types he recommends for our area are Peony Coral Charm and a tree peony named Hana kisoi—which means Floral Rivalry.

Bergmanis’ background is in photography. For many years he worked for the Star, and accompanied columnist Marty Ross for the newspaper’s weekly gardening section. “The other photographers weren’t crazy about photographing flowers,” he laughed, “But I liked it. That made everybody happy.” 

The people Ross interviewed and introduced him to were all distinctive. “If she was doing a story about someone, it was because they were doing something noteworthy. They were all knowledgeable and experienced. It was a good education.”

His interest ignited, he began gardening in this location twenty-three years ago, which makes this a relatively new garden compared to, say, great gardens in England, where he loves to visit. He pointed out that some royal gardens in Japan are tended through generations, the position of head gardener passed on from father to son. But compared to most in our area, Bergmanis’s garden is mature. Conifers and evergreens give the garden structure. Every view has depth and complexity. One plant will have another rising up behind it, and another, taller one behind that. The effect is rich and layered. The sinuous curves of the beds are an argument to never again plant anything in rows.

Bergmanis says the beds get larger every year, and the strips of grass between them get narrower.

When asked if he’d noticed any new trends since he began gardening, he mentioned the last six-to-eight years’ emphasis on native plants and helping pollinators.  “Like Doug Tallamy says, if you want to have birds, you have to have insects. That really stood out to me.”

This marks a shift in focus for many people like him who love exotic or unusual plants that are “beautiful, but not useful,” as Bergmanis said. While he isn’t pulling anything out, most of what he’s adding now is native, drought-tolerant, and beneficial to insects. He is still on the lookout for new and unusual plants, however, like a new Haas Halo Hydrangea , developed at Mt. Cuba, “a knockout that offers the perfect combination of horticultural excellence and pollinator value.”

Bergmanis is generous with his garden, frequently opening it up for tours, like one for members of Gardeners Connect in 2022 commemorated in this Facebook slideshow, and to registered attendees of the American Conifer Society’s Central Region Conference in June.

A visit to this garden is an extraordinary opportunity not to be missed. I feel honored to have visited and to have met Talis.

Thank you for reading!

Photo by Han Mellenbruch

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Still waiting…(It’s spring, but doesn’t feel like it yet)

Yes, spring has sprung—yesterday marked the vernal equinox, when day and night are almost equal in length—but the pace of change has slowed.  Sure, we have green tufts of foliage sprouting (these remind me of Patrick Mahomes’ hair), and I find more new growth at the base of last year’s stalks each day. Nevertheless, this progress feels undramatic. Many days are still cold. Most of what I see is brown. I waited all winter for March. Now it’s here and all I want is for it to be April.  

What have I been doing since I last posted?

Battling rabbits, a huge part of gardening here. When I was growing up in Houston, I do not ever recall seeing a rabbit. Here, they’re an infestation. This year, instead of littering my flower beds with Irish Spring and encircling them with unsightly wire, I created this frame.  

Rabbit repelling fence

I am very pleased with the result of my little building project. I like the way they impose a little order on the chaos. I also like not worrying if the tulips are being gnawed to stubs.  

Speaking of tulips, for the most part I’ve given up on them and switched to planting daffodils, which rabbits don’t care for. However, I did plant some in this pot, following Monty Don’s suggestion, and look what’s happening. 

Future tulips

Speaking again of rabbits, once again some enterprising expectant mother rabbit burrowed a softball-sized hole at the base of this tree, planning to plant her baby there.  

Rabbit nest

The same thing happened last year in the same spot. As I talked about in this post from 2022, Rabbits 101, rabbits dig shallow depressions and line them with fur from their bellies. Then they hide their babies in them.  

This particular location is not good. The dog was very excited about last year’s kit, and killed it with curiosity. This year I filled the hole with dirt and surrounded it with wire fencing. Later I found this in the front yard. 

Another rabbit nest. Mother rabbits pull fur from their bellies to line these shallow depressions where they hide their newborns.

What is this rabbit thinking? This is a horrible place to hide. It’s a miracle any survive. 

How are my plants doing?

As planned, I drove out to Burr Oak Nature Center in Independence on March 11 to pick up my order from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.  

Many of my plants are still dormant. I may have bought boxes of dirt—but I remember last year I worried the same thing. Tiny wine-colored knobs on the base of some of the stems could be new growth. I run outside every hour or so to check on them. 

The native wildflower seeds I planted in January are still out there and—big news—the Rudbeckia hirta has sprouted. I almost need a microscope to see the tiny leaves so I’ll wait to share a picture, but I’m encouraged. The rest, alas, show no signs of life yet. 

My seed starting setup

I planted seeds indoors, too: violas, pansies, forget-me-nots, and lavender. Look how great they look!  

Being the penny-pincher I am, I added up the price of the seeds and seed-starting mix and calculate that the cost of each plant to be thirty-one cents.  

Why do I need so many plants?

Once again, I was inspired to emulate this photograph, this from a TV show.  


Le voilà. Here is our new bed. We’re trying to smother the existing turf using the cardboard method. (I described this in an earlier post Dig, till, smother: How to remove sod for a new bed.)


So far all we’ve accomplished is irritating our neighbors when the cardboard blows into their yards. I have a feeling I will end up doing a lot of digging before I next post.

In the meantime, Remain in Light! 

Wintry mix: first signs of spring

Welcome 2023! For so long winter has felt like it just wouldn’t budge. Then, all of a sudden, it budged. Birds are back. Finches are at the feeder. Yesterday I saw a dove. The first green spikes of daffodils have poked through some brown oak leaves.

Today is dreary and cold, but the sky is lightening in the morning when I get up, and graying in evening when I drive home, and the effect is energizing. We gain two-to-three minutes of light each day. That’s right, the rate is not steady. It picks up in February and drops off again in May, according to Almanac:

  • By mid-January, the increase jumps to about two minutes a day.
  • By the 20th of February, daylight speeds up to three minutes per day! On the 20th, daylength is 10 hours, 53 minutes and on the 21st, it’s 10 hours, 56 minutes.

Here’s a link to a cool tool that calculates sunrise and sunset times, based on your zip code.

What have I been doing since I last posted in December?

To be honest, not much. For most of January I battled a cold and was happy to do nothing. On MLK Day I roused myself to perform a one-woman service project and picked up garbage from the banks of Brush Creek on the corner of State Line and Shawnee Mission Parkway. I don’t know why, but something about that corner inspires drivers to chuck their trash out the window—but for one day, there was none. I went down the banks and filled two big trash sacks with plastic bottles, food wrappers, and Styrofoam cups. I saw ducks swimming in the water and tree trunks that had been gnawed by beavers.

Gnawed by a beaver?

The next day, I spotted plastic bottles in the gutter, just as if I’d never been there.

(In case any of you are inspired to do something similar, I don’t recommend doing this alone.)

A few days later, a gardening friend told me she had sowed some native wildflower seeds. Suddenly jealous, I ordered some for myself from Missouri Wildflower Nursery. I read Margaret Roach’s “winter sowing of native plants, with heather mccargo of wild seed project” and tried to follow their advice. I used old plastic plug containers and built a frame covered with netting to deter birds, like the one pictured in the article.

Future native wildflowers

Everyone says the best time to plant native seeds is the fall, but the package said they need three-to-four weeks of freezing temperatures, and I think they’ll have that. Did you know Kansas City has a 185-day growing season? Our last frost date is usually around April 15.

It looks good, doesn’t it? Just like Margaret Roach’s, except her seeds had sprouted. Mine have not. Yet.

What am I doing now?

Besides walking around the neighborhood, snapping pictures of green daffodil foliage spearing through brown leaves? Very little. I’ve begun some of the cleanup I avoided doing in the fall. The recent snow flattened the grasses and toppled the stalks, so I’ve started cutting these back to about a foot. There are a lot to cut. Everybody says to leave them standing over winter to serve as habitat for insects, but that it’s okay to remove flopping ones. Roy Diblik recommends cutting back perennials by mowing them in the spring and I love that idea, but I’m going at them with clippers and will let the debris lay around the plants.

How does my garden grow in winter? With bamboo poles and wire netting. The moment I remove them, the rabbits munch every greenish thing down to the ground. The other day I noticed this picture in a garden design book I picked up last fall at an estate sale.

Wow! I was so excited. This is what I need—a more permanent and less unsightly rabbit barrier. I started building my version out of scrap wood and screws.

It’s still a work in progress. The ground is frozen so I haven’t been able to put it in place, but I’m optimistic that my garden will look as lovely as the one in the photo come August.

What do I plan to do next?

It’s time to order plants, but I’m still working on designing some new beds (although it’s generous to call what I’m doing designing).

Once I’ve decided, I’ll place my orders. The dates for Deep Roots’ native plant sales are online now, and it looks like there’s an early one at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center on March 11 that isn’t on their list.  

I wholeheartedly support these local nurseries and organizations; however, I will also order a tray of six species for $159 from Prairie Moon Nursery in Wisconsin. It includes 38 plants, which comes to about $4.20 a plant.

Then the real work begins, bed prepping.

I guess I’m like a plant, breaking dormancy in response to warmer temperatures and increased light. Wise folks say to appreciate winter as time for recuperation, but this gardener will be really, really glad when winter is over. Dogs, however, don’t seem to mind it at all. Thanks for reading!


Saving pollinators, one yard at a time

Welcome to what will be my final post of 2022. Now that I’ve been at this a while, the pace of my revelations has slowed somewhat, but I’m still learning new things all the time. Sometimes I think might skip posting for a month, but then I happen upon something that interests me and I want to share. This happened recently with a couple articles from the New York Times. One, “They Fought the Law. And the Lawn Lost,” describes a Maryland couple’s fight against their homeowners’ association over their pollinator garden. Guess what happened? The second, “The Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood, Mapped,” isn’t about gardening at all, but is germane to my interests, and possibly yours too.

Because you might not be able to read the article without a subscription, here’s a quick summary. Janet and Jeffrey Crouch began planting a pollinator garden in their suburban front yard in the early 2000’s.  They live in Beech Creek, outside of Columbia, Maryland.  In 2012, their next-door neighbor began complaining. He couldn’t “enjoy his own property, he wrote, due to the ‘mess of a jungle’ next door.”  Nancy Lawson, who blogs as the Humane Gardener and is Janet Crouch’s sister, says the HOA’s letter criticized the “plantings which grow back every year.” The HOA demanded the Crouches yank out their garden and plant grass, so they sued. The HOA countersued. Ultimately, this led to the passage of a state law prohibiting Maryland HOAs from restricting “low-impact landscaping”: rain gardens, pollinator gardens, xeriscaping, and the like. Yay!

Text of the bill:

Read Lawson’s play-by-play about the fight here.

Photo of the Crouches’ garden from the Humane Gardener website. Used by permission.

One thought. Pollinator gardens are not going to appeal to everyone, as the Crouches’ experience shows. As this image of their delightful yard shows, they’ve incorporated many cues to care: clearly delineated beds, layered plantings, mowed paths. I continue to hope that the best way to persuade people to stop using chemicals is by showing them alternatives they find attractive, but most people like what they’re familiar with. The passage of this bill is an important step, and gives gardeners arguments to build on if they need to step things up.

How many states have passed laws like these? Sixteen, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Pollinator Health page.

Dozens of states have passed legislation to promote the health of pollinators, which include bees, wasps, bats and butterflies.

Are Kansas and Missouri included among these dozens? No. States that have “enacted legislation or adopted resolutions related to pollinator health” include California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington. “Legislation related to pollinator health” can include anything from banning pesticides to naming an official state pollinator (Texas), or creating special pollinator license plates.

States with Laws Addresing Pollinator Health 2019 © National Conference of State Legislatures

Would you look at this image? A white band of apathy spreads across the Midwest, where we find the largest concentration of neonicotinoids, a particularly harmful insecticide widely used in field crops (soybean, cotton, canola, wheat, sunflower, potato, and many vegetables). Neonics may also be found in ornamentals sold by retailers, although this article says large stores like Walmart, True Value, Lowe’s, and Home Depot began phasing out their use in 2017. This article from a Salem, Oregon newspaper does a good job explaining the impact of neonicotinoids, and how to avoid using them.

Neonics have been banned in the EU, Canada, and some states, and in the US a nation-wide ban has been proposed. That seems more significant than having special license plates, but like signs in yards, these can help raise awareness. I imagine that many people who are inclined to feel positively about pollinators still spread Bug Blaster on their lawns.  They just haven’t thought about it. Although we have lots of specialty license plates in Kansas and Missouri, I don’t see one advocating for pollinators. Maybe some of you will be inspired to write your legislator.

The second article of interest, sobering but interesting, concerns the Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood.

Above is a screenshot of Kansas City’s map. Can you see where you live? Visit the New York Times to experience its interactive features.

Researchers have discovered that dense inner-city neighborhoods have the lowest emissions per household. They’re green on the map.

“Households in denser neighborhoods close to city centers tend to be responsible for fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases, on average, than households in the rest of the country. Residents in these areas typically drive less because jobs and stores are nearby and they can more easily walk, bike or take public transit. And they’re more likely to live in smaller homes or apartments that require less energy to heat and cool.

Emission rates are much higher in the suburbs. Bigger houses require more energy to heat and cool. Residents drive longer distances, and have more of everything—electronics, appliances, vehicles.

The maps aren’t based on emissions but consumption, a combination of electricity use, driving, income levels, and more. It’s one measurement where we don’t want to be above average, but we are. If you look at the map, you can tell exactly where your neighborhood fits on this scale. This information may Influence individual choices to recycle, walk or ride bikes, things like that. It may also influence policy makers.

With that thought, I’ll conclude this final post of year I’ll be back in mid-January. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays, and thanks for reading!


Certifiable:Why you should get a sign for your garden

Here’s a headline from my internet feed: “How do I tell the new neighbors their lawn maintenance is unsuitable?” My neighbors could be saying this about me—or about the St. Peters, Missouri man fined $400 for violating his town’s turf-to flower-ratio, or about Dennis Moriarty, the Kansas City man cited for violating the weed ordinance. People often perceive native plantings as messy—gardening with weeds, a good friend calls it—but we can’t dismiss this opinion easily. If I put in a native plant garden and everybody hates it, nobody wins—not insects, not birds, not me.  

Cues to care help make the unfamiliar familiar

People are more likely to appreciate native plantings if they recognize that they’re intentional. For this reason, experts recommend presenting unfamiliar plantings with familiar elements, called “cues to care.” This term was first coined by landscape ecologist Joan Iverson Nassauer in a 1995 paper, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames.” Cues to care indicate that someone is taking care of this garden, and include things like well-defined edges, mowed paths, and clipped shrubs. We like things tidy. Neatness and order are a sign of intention. People might not recognize ecological function in a landscape. “Without obvious signs of human intention,” Nassauer says, “people are likely to see native plantings as neglected.”

There are things you can do to make native plantings more tidy looking,” says Alix Daniel, native landscape specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center. “Like keeping nice clean edges.”KCUR

The nice clean edges recommendation isn’t arbitrary, in other words.

Specific cues to care depend on the region and local custom. For instance, most people expect a landscape to contain trees, but in some places—the arid west, for example—growing them may require tons of supplemental water or other resources, and could contradict an environmental and conservation ethic.

I’ll have more to say about this topic as I plan a new planting in our front yard for next year. In the meantime, one thing consistently mentioned on lists of cues to care is a sign.

Why are signs important?

I was not convinced that I needed one, but I am changing my opinion.

These signs from my neighbors’ gardens come from different organizations that certify plantings. Each has slightly different criteria for certification, but all require that the garden showcase native plants, be free of invasive species, and not use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Signs show intention. Like election signs, they convey that the homeowner espouses certain values—and that a larger community does, too. Signs may get people wondering, Why do birds need plants? What kind of wildlife lives in a suburban yard? Why are native plants important?

The small fee charged for certifying a garden provides these organizations valuable support, and the signs help publicize their work. Marketers say people need to see a message seven times before they remember it, and these signs are semi-permanent. They’ll still be here after the election is over and other yard signs have been thrown away. Maybe a Monarch Watch sign will awaken some kid’s interest in butterflies, and learning about caterpillars will motivate him or her to help save them. Maybe folks will decide not to spray for mosquitoes next year, and they’ll wear bug repellent instead!

Which certification is best?

Each of these organizations has a slightly different emphasis, but following any of their guidelines will be enough to put your garden on the Homegrown National Park map, which would be really cool.

Homegrown National Park

Perhaps you’ve heard about this initiative, co-founded by Doug Tallamy. If you’re not already a fan, you will be after viewing this video presentation, Nature’s Best Hope, about insects. I was surprised to find myself mesmerized—and it lasts an hour and a half!

This is how we were doing in my area as of yesterday.

County Name: Johnson
Land Area: 306,912 Acres
Total Planted Area: 6.266 Acres
Percent Planted: less than .01%
ZIP Code Count: 18
User Count: 37
Plantings Count: 57
County Name: Jackson
Land Area: 394,534 Acres
Total Planted Area: 1.457 Acres
Percent Planted: less than .01%
ZIP Code Count: 21
User Count: 42
Plantings Count: 76

If you like interactive maps, and who doesn’t, you’ll love seeing where these pockets of native plants are. The level of detail is amazing. The Homegrown National Park website is getting revamped as I write, but I hope to join the six people in my zip code who are on the map as soon as I can figure out how to do it. It’s easy to see how many are already on it, but not so easy to see how to add myself. I’ll keep on it and let you know.

Thanks for reading!


Dig, till, smother: How to remove sod for a new bed

Everybody loves the idea of a secret garden, but I’m not exactly sure what one is. What makes a garden secret? How is that different from private? My husband says ours is almost a secret garden because it’s in back and passers-by don’t realize we have such a profusion of flowers and wildlife back here. That’s about to change, though. My October project was digging up a new bed in front. I imagined a relatively formal border of native plants beside our driveway, something like this.

© Mt. Cuba Center

My bed ended up being…different. Shorter. I ordered plants from the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s September 17 native plant sale at the Anita Gorman Discovery Center. Here is what I ordered.

Yes, I did put them into a spreadsheet. Several vendors were selling at the sale, but this time I ordered everything from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.

After I picked up my order, I spread the plants out on my porch to get an idea of what they’d look like. They’re small now but won’t stay that way.

Here comes the how-to portion of the post. This article from Fine Gardening does a good job describing some basic ways to prepare a new bed: digging, tilling, smothering, and spraying. Basically, I’m just going to repeat what it says.

Digging (slicing and loosening) is what I did. It’s the fastest way to prepare a new bed, but it’s hard work. Before you start, water the area. (This tip proved invaluable. I wouldn’t have been able to dig up anything if I hadn’t done this, it’s been so dry.) Using a flat shovel or pitchfork, slice around the perimeter of a rectangle about 12 inches wide by 24 inches. Then slice horizontally with the shovel blade. Peel back the grass and dust off what dirt you can. Then lift out the strips of sod. You might be able to use them in another spot.

This method is fast—it took a couple hours—and it’s chemical-free. However, it is strenuous work.

I don’t know much about tilling, but the Fine Gardening article lists these pros and cons:

Pros: Retains organic matter; is quicker and easier than digging; permits immediate planting Cons: Is difficult on rocky sites and in wet or clay soils; turns up weed seeds; propagates certain weeds
4 Ways to Remove Sod

Smothering could mean soil solarization, or simply covering the area with something to block the light. Soil solarization involves covering the ground with clear plastic. This traps heat from the sun, and can kill pathogens in the soil. However, the plastic must remain in place for four to six weeks, and the process needs to happen during a hot time of year. The location must be in full sun.

If killing turf is your main concern, not killing pathogens, try smothering the spot with cardboard, newspaper, a tarp, or even thick layer of mulch. I understand that layering on leaves or grass clippings can be helpful for areas with thin topsoil or clay. This is a long process: the turf may take six to eight weeks to die.

Spraying with glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, could be useful for large areas, but I’m determined to avoid using herbicides and so far haven’t been tempted. After spraying, the turf still needs about a week to die.

The next part of the process was the most unusual, for me.

The cleared area was a couple inches lower than the surrounding lawn. My wonderful, plant-loving neighbor Carole was moving, and gave me a wheelbarrow full of compost before she left. Composting is advanced gardening to me. I haven’t gotten the hang of it. I’ve dabbled with the idea; I have a bin full of debris that should be turning to compost, but isn’t. I’m not interested enough to investigate, plus I’m trying to follow a “know maintenance” approach, working with existing soil and conditions. And no bark mulch.

In this case, I needed a little something, so I filled the depression with my friend’s compost. It needed to be sieved, and she also warned it might have seeds and other things, but I didn’t listen carefully, I was too busy pushing clods through a piece of hardware cloth. I tossed out a few potatoes and pieces of plastic bags and spread it over my new bed.

Voilà. I made an edge out of some pavers I found lying around, put in the plants, watered once a day for a while, and it’s done. The plants are still small but I’m seeing little leaves, so I think at least some of them have taken root.  I do have lots of weeds, though, little sprouts of I don’t know what.  The seeds must have been in the compost. But it’s not too difficult to pluck them out.

And that’s the story of my October planting I predict that I will regret placing the plants so close together. Also, the area is not a border, just a plot. But it’s a start. Next year I’d like to create a bed like this post’s featured image—along the street, beneath a tree, complete with a rock—but with natives. Small ones. I will try smothering. I have plenty of time.

Can’t wait.

By the time you read this, we’ll have had our first hard freeze, and although temperatures will climb back into the eighties on Friday and Saturday, I didn’t do anything to save my plants in pots. No covering them with sheets or dragging them inside. I’m just letting them die. We’ve had a good run. It’s a shame about the dahlias because some are just getting going.  

Oh, all right. I’ll bring them in. Later in the week we’ll have a few days of warmer weather, so maybe we can coax them into final flower.


4 Ways to Remove Sod

Pollen count: ways to beat seasonal allergies

Fall planting season is underway, and I’ve ordered a passel of plants to pick up at Saturday’s Missouri Prairie Foundation plant sale–but I can barely bring myself to think about them, I’m so tired. I have seasonal allergies. Maybe you do, too? When it’s allergy season, thinking about anything else is tough. What causes allergies? Is that volunteer plant I allowed to mature a culprit? What is that plant, anyway? Is it ragweed?

Ragweed looks like this. From a drawing in ‘Bilder ur Nordens Flora’, Carl Lindman, 1901-1905.

No, no, and no, it turns out. I am not alone, according to this article in last Thursday’s Star: You’re not the only one who’s sniffly, Kansas City is hitting peak fall allergy season.” Good news: pollen counts will gradually diminish as we head deeper into fall. Bad news: our allergy season starts earlier and lasts longer each year because of climate change. Researchers report that KC’s volume of pollen has increased over the past 15 years. More CO2 in the air means bigger plants and bigger flowers that produce more pollen.

To really get obsessive about pollen levels, check Children’s Mercy’s daily pollen count page.

Today’s pollen count is high, and the mold count is very high, so no wonder I have the sniffles. I’m writing this on Wednesday, September 14, to post tomorrow, and if you head over now to check the day’s counts, you won’t find them. The person writing the daily comment will be out of town September 15-19, 2022, but will resume updating the data after that.

Children’s Mercy also gives advice about how to deal with seasonal allergies. Here’s a summary:

  • For best results, don’t wait until symptoms start to take medication
  • Stay indoors whenever possible
  • Keep windows closed and run the AC
  • Wipe pets’ feet, and maybe take off your shoes when you come in to avoid bringing allergens into your home.

I have found pretreating symptoms (over-the-counter antihistamines, in my case) to be most helpful.

Want to dig deeper into subject of Kansas City’s air quality?  This site compiles air quality measurements from cities all over the world, including ours. (Even if you don’t live in Kansas City, it may report about yours, too.) Overall, I think Kansas City’s air quality is thought to be pretty good.

Ragweed vs. goldenrod

Most people know that ragweed causes hay fever, and many know how easy it is to confuse with other plants like solidago, or goldenrod, which blooms around the same time. The internet full of good articles about how to tell the two apart, like this one from The Spruce.

My solidago is about done.

Apparently, ragweed has very fine pollen that gets carried far and wide, unlike goldenrod, which has fat pollen too heavy to be carried by the wind.

Compositae and Other Pollen

Ragweed isn’t the only problem. Children’s Mercy lists five common types of pollen that make people miserable:

Unidentified Pollen7315.34%
Compositae and Other Pollen6914.5%

Compositae refers to plants in the daisy family, like asters. Chenopods include amaranth, pigweed, waterhemp, russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, and kochia. Grass and Unidentified Pollen need no explanation. Although the weed on my patio is not ragweed (the white flowers are the giveaway. Ragweed is yellow), that doesn’t mean I’m not allergic to it. It could be boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum L. or Eupatorium serotinum), which Prairie Nursery calls a late-summer standout. Its white, furry flowers are currently delighting a bunch of bees and wasps.

Ragweed may have peaked, but for those of us sensitive to mold, problems will continue, apparently because mold spores thrive on decaying vegetation (fallen leaves). The dew that wets the grass and soaks our socks also encourages Oomycetes (downy mildews).

Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan)

My Wild Garden: How the garden grew

I still have quite a few flowers. The Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan) and zinnias are late-season brighteners, and I have rose verbena is on its second bloom.

The milkweed was fantastic this year. The recent rain made it flop, but we had at least a month of pink flowers and unbelievable wildlife activity–monarchs, swallowtails, wasps, bees. We loved watching them. I found three monarch caterpillars and hoped to write about their transformation, but I lost them. I don’t know if they survived.

Last year I was discouraged because so many of the tall natives needed staking, but this year I like them better. I relocated some, but realize they support one another when planted thickly.

Some neighbors stopped by the other day and were surprised to see so many plants and flowers in the backyard. Not much is going on in front, and most passers-by don’t realize we’ve got all this great stuff growing back here. (Is that like writing blog posts but not sending a newsletter to let people know about them?) That’s going to change after Saturday, when I pick up my plants.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Until then, thanks for reading!


Missouri Prairie Foundation Native Plant Sale 9/17/22

You’re not the only one who’s sniffly, Kansas City is hitting peak fall allergy season (KC Star)

Children’s Mercy’s daily pollen count page

It’s not your imagination; allergy season gets worse every year (Vox)

Kids and springtime allergies:  6 mistakes you might be making (Children’s Mercy)–springtime-allergies/

Air Pollution in Kansas City: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map

How to Identify and Avoid Ragweed (The Spruce)

Road Trips: Visiting Three Great Gardens Open to the Public

I haven’t written much this summer, but I’ve been thinking about gardening the whole time. Our travels took us north, to cooler weather, and gave us the opportunity to visit some wonderful gardens that are open to the public.

The first of these was the Allen Centennial Garden, a smallish “teaching” garden on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This garden surrounds a house, the Queen Anne-style (sometimes called Victorian or Gothic) Agricultural Dean’s Residence.

Although this is a public garden, the presence of the house gives it a residential feel, and helped me envisage how the plantings could work in a yard. The garden has six areas. Some emphasize different design styles, and “trace the origins of modern garden design, from the formal and romantic to the whimsical, exuberant, and ecological.” These include Japanese, New American, French and Italian, and English gardens. Other areas emphasize plant adaptations that allow them to survive in unusual conditions: Rock Garden, Pond Garden, Gravel Garden, and Dwarf Conifer Garden. If you’re curious, this video from a 2012 episode of The Wisconsin Gardener shows more.

Something about this segment seems dated to me, I’m not sure what exactly—although they talk about some then-trends that are now familiar, like square foot gardening. I wonder which of the practices we’re excited about now will seem dated in ten years.

Someone posted this wonderful image on Facebook in the Kansas City Area Gardening Group. Where did it come from originally? I searched Google Images but couldn’t discover the source.

Next our travels us took us to Denver, where we visited the Denver Botanic Gardens’ York Street Location. These twenty-four acres feature many themed gardens, countless collections, and millions of plants.

There’s also a tropical conservatory, worth visiting any time of year. 

Denver Botanic was my favorite of the gardens I visited this summer, but strangely, I don’t have much to say about it. It’s a mature organization, as we say about nonprofits, operating at a high level and involved in many horticultural and ecological initiatives. With so much to look at, I stopped taking notes just took pictures.

One of my favorite sights was of three friends, gray-haired women in their seventies, celebrating one’s birthday at a spot overlooking the Monet Pool. They decorated their picnic table with a Pierre Deux tablecloth, silver cutlery, and floral centerpiece, and they toasted their celebrant with rosé in Reidel glasses. Charmed, I thought of Karen Blixen arriving in Kenya with her china.

Monet Pool

Here’s a tip: If you’re thinking of visiting, be sure to reserve tickets in advance. As of this writing, tickets are not available at the door.

When we were in Vail a few days later, we stopped at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. At 8,200 feet, these bill themselves as the highest botanical gardens in the world, with 19 areas showcasing plants from alpine regions including the Eastern Himalayas, Patagonia, and the Scottish Highlands. However, the focus is primarily on the Rocky Mountain West. A gravel trail takes visitors up, down, and through the different areas, over man-made waterfalls and bridges.

I give this garden extra credit for their excellent signs, which give the plant’s Latin botanical name, popular name, and place of origin.

While we were there, the Ford Amphitheater next door hosted an “exclusive donor event,” a brunch, for patrons of the Vail Dance Festival, which took place while we were there. Former First Lady Betty Ford was passionate about dance, even serving as an understudy for Martha Graham, who called her a “very great gift to us in America.” 

A walk through this garden mimics the feeling of being on a hike above treeline, but takes less exertion. I prefer taking the hike, but appreciate the help identifying the many tiny plants that survive in those inhospitable conditions. I have a great wildflower handbook but seldom stop to consult it when hiking.

The prospect of gardening in poor soil without supplemental water is something more of us will have to face in the future. Did you seen Margaret Roach’s recent column about Crevice Gardening? It features many images from the Denver Botanic Gardens. I wonder if she took the same trip I did.

Why You Should Try Crevice Gardening: ‘This Is the Future’

Now we’re back home, and fortunately not too many plants died in the heat, although some did. This is a good time of year for my wild garden, with the rudbeckia blooming, and blue wasps, bees, and butterflies buzzing around the milkweed. I can report that Rabbit Scram did not work, but fencing off the beds did. Next up, I have big plans for fall planting season. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed) in my yard!

Bright spots in a tough week: free plants and progress fighting pests

Today’s post reports on two developments: how I came into more free plants and some progress fighting pests. Regular readers of this blog know I loathe spending money on annuals, so I was excited yesterday when I visited the Kauffman Gardens (where they’ve ripped out most of the mostly native bed along the north wall, I don’t know why). I discovered a bin full of discarded annuals in the parking lot.

They were pot-bound and yellow-leaved, no doubt rejected for that reason, but other than that seemed fine. I filled a flat with zinnias, salvia, and flowering vinca and—because walking across the Plaza carrying a flat of flowers seemed eccentric, even for me—came back to get them later and helped myself to a second flat.

Why should I have all the luck? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some plan for these, some way for anyone interested to take advantage of this bounty? An announcement someplace, or a volunteer willing to provide the necessary TLC and re-home them?

I planted them in the bare patch by our front sidewalk—a spot so hard-baked even weeds don’t grow. Voilà. Instant garden! They already look happy to be freed from their little pots.

They’re not exactly the look I’m going for, but they’re better than the bare dirt. What is the look I’m going for? Right now I have the garden equivalent of a garage sale, with stuff I’ve found, stuff I’ve been given, stuff I’d just as soon throw away. I’ll have more to say about this as the fall planting season approaches.

I will say that just about everything I’ve sown from seed this year has been eaten by rabbits—which brings me to my next topic, pests. You may have read my earlier post about the reproductive cycle of rabbits. In our yard baby rabbits are like plastic balls on a trampoline, shooting in every direction. The current crop of kits are so tiny, they easily slip through the holes in the wire mesh I’ve put around everything and munch the plants down to stalks. They even ate the hyacinth bean, which was leafing out so nicely and twining around its trellis. I don’t know how they managed to get to this sunflower. They’re like Houdini.

I tried so hard to protect this from rabbits!

I’ve lost coneflowers, rudbeckia, lilies, marigolds and zinnias, phlox, larkspur, and asters. (Some of the damage may be due to chipmunks. I can’t tell.) Dousing plants with animal repellant hasn’t worked, as you can see from this photo.


Yesterday I broke down and spent $30 on Rabbit Scram.

Yes, I won’t spend $4 on full-price petunias but will fork over $30 for a bucket of Rabbit Scram.

Apparently rabbits dislike this mix of dried blood, pepper and garlic, although chipmunks, squirrels, dogs, and flies seem attracted by it.

I haven’t seen a rabbit since I put it down. They were so plentiful before, I almost miss them. Sometimes I struggle to balance my desire to welcome little creatures into the garden with my equally strong desire to see plants survive. Posts on Facebook tell me others struggle with this dilemma, too.

Last week I wrote about the misery of Japanese Beetle season, and I’ll spare you photos of ones I’ve drowned in soapy water. So far that infestation doesn’t seem as bad as in previous summers. I’m reluctant to divulge this, but I tried an experiment that may have helped. Last fall, I was dismayed by the number of grubs I was finding. Little white crescents studded every shovelful of dirt, like blueberries in a muffin. I knew what they were.

Sometimes no-pesticide resolutions can be tough to keep. This is the time of year when lawn services apply grub control, because the adult beetles feeding on our flowers are also laying eggs, and the eggs turn into grubs. I have two unopened bags of Bug Blaster sitting my garage that I don’t want to use. Looking for alternatives, I learned about Milky Spore and parasitic nematodes. I decided to try grubHALT! from Gardens Alive, which contains BTG, “a naturally occurring soil organism that is harmless to people, pets, bees and birds.” I discovered it in Joe Lamp’l’s article Japanese Beetle Prevention and Control. I am not recommending it; I’m just saying I tried it.

Did it help? I think it did. The one grub I dug up yesterday when I was planting those zinnias reminded me how plentiful they were last fall. I’m picking tens of beetles off the hibiscus, grape, and astilbe—but not hundreds. Of course, I can’t get rid of them entirely. They fly in from other places. But so far, we’re holding steady. We don’t have the turf damage we’ve had in previous years, and we still have plenty of flowers. I think trimming off any beetle-damaged foliage is a good idea because I understand that some chemical in the beetles’ saliva attracts more to the spot.

Bee on a coneflower

Wherever I’ve found beetles, I also find bees. This summer has been great for them, and for other insects. Maybe that’s a little cause for optimism? I’ve seen fireflies, hummingbird moths, cloudless sulphur butterflies, and Monarchs laying eggs. Everyone stresses the importance of accepting a few damaged plants, knowing that not-spraying saves more life in the long run. Ecology is is a long game. Evidence of changing attitudes is all around. Did you see the Rewilding Britain Landscape that won gold and the overall Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?

With a little encouragement, good ideas can spread.

I hope you all have a fun, safe Independence Day. Thanks for reading.


Missouri whine: meet the beetles

What I love best about June is nectarines and getting out on a lake, although here in the garden it’s a busy time. We’ve entered the pruning-watering-weeding time of year, with fabulous, abundant life existing alongside heartbreak and disappointment.

Someone on Facebook posted yesterday that he’d seen his first Japanese beetle of the year, and today I found mine. (I drowned it.) More are on the way. They turn up around the first week of July and devour, if not everything, then a lot of things. They’re kind of biblical. In our garden they prey on roses, hibiscus, and a grapevine.

That’s a grape growing along the back fence. We planted it around the same time the beetles first arrived in the area, 2014 according to the Star, so they’ve grown up alongside each other. Grapes grow well here. After eating dinner at a friend’s table beneath a pergola with bunches of grapes dripping down, we were entranced. Around that time, I was going through old issues of Gourmet, reading the articles I’d skipped originally while looking for chicken recipes, and discovered this exhaustive Wine Journal piece by Gerald Asher from April 1993.

The article and the purchase it inspired. Experts recommend aging Norton 8-10 years, so we should have drunk this 7 years ago.

This article, called “The Return of the Native: Missouri’s Vintage Grape,” deserves more comment. Asher visits Hermann, Missouri’s Stone Hill Winery and enthuses about the Nortons, saying, “I was astonished to find the wines so remarkably good. They were more meaty than fruity, with something of the Rhone about them.” Asher then recounts the history of viticulture in the Midwest, beginning in the early 1800s in Ohio, followed by the establishment of Hermann’s vineyards in the 1830s by German settlers fleeing “revolutionary disturbances.” A first, two kinds of grapes, Catawba and Norton, vied for predominance. Catawba was used to produce a sparkling wine, while Nortons are rich reds: “an indigenous American grape that might yet do for Missouri what Cabernet Sauvignon has done for California.” Winemakers produced sparkling wines from Catawba quickly, while Norton requires aging for four to five years—“as do most potentially great red wines”—so early growers emphasized Catawba to maximize profits. However, Catawba is vulnerable to mildew and rot, common conditions in our humid summers, while Norton is tougher, better suited to our weather extremes. Ultimately, Norton won out, and in the 1870s, wines produced in Hermann were winning gold medals in international competitions.

Missouri’s wine industry never fulfilled its early promise. Labor costs and the temperance movement chipped away until the passing of the 18th Amendment finally killed it. Plus ça change. Asher describes links between Prohibition and racial prejudice, showing how the movement exploited anti-German sentiment. Reborn in 1965, Missouri vineyards have continued to grow, although slowly. While it may not have the cachet of a tour of Napa, visiting Hermann is definitely a thing, as the drunks I sat with on the Amtrak during Oktoberfest can attest. Asher says this:

Tens of thousands of visitors come to the town every year, and, although they arrive expecting little more than a jolly picnic, a hop to a polka band, and a few bottles to take home, most leave with a greater appreciation of the state of Missouri; possibly with a broader feel for its history; and, especially at the time of the fall grape harvest festivals, with indelible memories of the Missouri River valley’s beauty.

(Read more about Missouri grape varietals on the Missouri Wine website. If you’d like to read Asher’s entire article, let me know in the comments and I’ll send you a pdf.)

So, what does all this have to do with gardening? Energized by this new knowledge, we bought this Vitis labrusca ‘Reliance’ at Soil Service. (These are table grapes, for eating, not for winemaking.) My husband built a trellis along the south end of our yard, we planted the grape, then sat back and waited for our vine to bear fruit.

The south end of the yard does not get as much sun as I’d anticipated, and the grape struggled. The west side is shaded by the neighbor’s oak leaf hydrangea, so it’s kind of spindly there. The east side is sunnier, so it grew in that direction. I don’t know why, but this year it found its moxie and has sprawled beyond the trellis onto the fence.

The vine is bare for much of the year, which isn’t great to look at, but it leafs out nicely every spring and big clusters of green grapes begin to form. The birds and I watch them carefully as they ripen. Then, all of a sudden, they vanish. In all these years, have never eaten a grape grown on this vine.

So much promise

This is happening now. The back fence has been twitching with birds lately, finches and cardinals. I thought the feeders had attracted them, but went out to take a look and found the great green bunches growing.

For the last two or three summers I’ve tented them with black tulle. Tulle is the net fabric used to make ballet tutus, and I bought a bolt for about twenty dollars. The holes are too small for the beetles to pass through, and birds can’t penetrate them, either. I tossed the fabric over the blueberries this week to protect them from the birds, so you can see what it looks like.

It’s not the toughest fabric and has deteriorated in the sun, so it’s shrinking in size as I cut off damaged sections. The blueberry looks like a ghost. Nevertheless, the tulle is pretty effective against beetles and birds, and if those were the only pests, I’d recommend it.

But those aren’t our only pests.


While birds and beetles bombard from above, chipmunks climb up and chow down on those grapes. A quick internet search turns up many suggestions for controlling chipmunks, so I suspect none work. We ran into this recently with Carpenter bees, which were tunneling into our porch roof. I was going to write a post saying I’d found the perfect pesticide-free remedy, but nothing deterred them. Squirting citrus oil just agitated them. Plugging the holes with steel wool meant cleaning clumps of steel wool off the porch every morning. I think if something really works, there will be a consensus. Everyone will mention it. That’s not the case with chipmunk strategies.

Besides, the grapes have another, more insidious problem. Black Rot is a fungal disease that mummifies the fruit, shriveling it and turning it black. Probably this is the “mildew and rot” Asher blames for destroying the early grape industry in Ohio. Apparently it is controllable with appropriate pruning and properly applied fungicide, neither of which I have done.

Let It Be

This morning I snipped off the clusters that had black spots, and tied paper bags around the ones that didn’t. I know, this will not work. I’ve tried the paper bag method before. The birds (or squirrels) just slash them open. The best thing to do, at this point, is nothing. I’m going to sit on my hands and watch the critters eat, enjoy the things that aren’t having problems, read up about pruning, and dream about next year.

Bed without serious problems (yet): hosta, brunnera, geranium, penstemon, Stachys ‘Hummelo’


“Japanese beetles have finally arrived in KC.” Kansas City Star. June 17, 2022.

Gerald Asher. “Wine Journal: The Return of the Native Missouri’s Vintage Grape.” Gourmet. April 1993. 42-48, 252-253.


Black Rot.

Ellis, Michael A. Controlling Grape Black Rot in Home Fruit Plantings. Department of Plant Pathology The Ohio State University/OARDC.