Just say no to Mosquito Joe

It’s that season again—time for my annual screed against mosquito sprays. This morning I passed a truck in front of a house in my neighborhood and walked through a perfumed cloud that made my lips burn and left an unpleasant taste in my mouth that still lingers. If you’re thinking about using one of these services, please reconsider.

Hummingbirds eat mosquitoes

The problems associated with mosquito sprays are well documented. This post from the National Wildlife Foundation gives thorough description. Mosquito sprays don’t just kill mosquitoes. They kill all insects, including butterflies, bees, caterpillars, and ladybugs. They harm birds, since birds eat insects. The chemicals leach into our waterways and poison fish. They can make pets sick and have negative effects on human reproductive, skeletal, cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems. The EPA has classified permethrin, an ingredient in Mosquito Joe’s traditional treatment, as “likely to be carcinogenic in humans.”

Mosquito sprays are bad

Mosquito Joe bothers me in particular because they minimize and even lie about the harm they cause. This is a tactic known as greenwashing or greenscamming. Not only do they claim their product isn’t harmful, they say it’s beneficial. They have a “Pollinator Protection Program” and use a “natural” repellent made of essential oils like rosemary, lemongrass, peppermint, and garlic. (Why not just spray those on your yard then and save yourself three hundred dollars?) They claim their technicians are “mosquito control experts” trained to consider wind direction and to avoid flowering plants and insects. This has not been my experience. But don’t take my word for it. In this article, Are backyard mosquito sprays safe and effective?,” an entomologist and an organic lawn care professional cover all the main points: How effective are these sprays? Are they worth the money? What else can I do about mosquitoes?

What else you can do

You can do a lot, it turns out. We have many safe, effective ways to protect against mosquitoes that don’t involve spraying and don’t cost much money. I outlined some of these—repellent, coils, and traps—in this post from 2022, A deep dive into the subject of mosquito sprays (My all-time most popular post).  I’m learning about more methods all the time. For instance, the My Green Montgomery article links to instructions for how to build a 50-cent pesticide-free trap, also known as an Ovitrap.

Mosquitoes are a nuisance. We can all agree on that. But we don’t need to douse toxic chemicals on the outdoors to enjoy it. Exterminators are part of a 26-billion-dollar industry, and I doubt reducing pesticide use is a priority for them. It can be for us, though. I hope you’ll want to read up about this and will help spread the word. Thanks for reading!

Mosquitoes are pollinators! The Blunt-Leaf Bog Orchid (Platanthera obtusata) is pollinated by several species of mosquitoes


What You Need to Know Before Spraying for Mosquitoes (2022)

What You Need to Know Before Spraying for Mosquitoes

Current Research on the Safety of Pyrethroids Used as Insecticides (2018)

An interview with experts: Are backyard mosquito sprays safe and effective? (Dated 2023 but originally published in 2020. Check out the comments!)

An interview with experts: Are backyard mosquito sprays safe and effective?

Make your own 50-cent, pesticide-free Mosquito trap! (2020)

Make your own 50-cent, pesticide-free Mosquito Trap!

DDT is good for me advertisement
“The great expectations held for DDT have been realized.” Detail of Penn Salt chemicals advertisement in Time magazine June 30, 1947.


Simple past, present progressive: What I did and am doing

Built a planter box out of an old crate and volunteering at the Deep Roots Habitat Gardens Tour

I haven’t posted in a while because not much was going on, but now so much is happening I’m having trouble selecting what to tell you about. I’ve decided to focus on two events, one in the past and one in the future.

Building a planter box out of an old crate

I turned some crates I found at an estate sale into planters. I waste a lot of time going to estate sales, but this one was special. For years I’ve passed this house, called Westvue, on the corner of 55th and State Line, and wondered what it was like inside.

Almost every window has a view of the spectacular, park-like grounds, designed by Hare and Hare. I wish I’d taken pictures, but I’ve linked to the description from the National Register of Historic Places, which contains several.

Image of the C.C. Peters Residence, from Missouri Valley Special Collections

The house is currently for sale, so all this could be yours for just six million dollars.

The previous owner ran an event-planning company, and had multiple everythings—trays of glassware, table decorations and, curiously, scissors, hundreds of pairs. These plywood boxes, twenty-inch cubes, were used to transport punch bowls.

I envisioned them transformed into something along the lines of these planter boxes at Versailles.

Château de Versailles Planter from Jardins du Roi de Soleil

I love this green color. However, my husband persuaded me to paint them the same brown as our house’s trim.

We’re one of those couples whose taste doesn’t align exactly, but I think this was a good idea,—even though the photo isn’t very dramatic. This was a fun project for someone with little carpentry skill. I added some castors, painted the boxes, and drilled holes in the bottom for drainage. We’re still going to add some metal trim on the corners, and I need to waterproof the inside. One idea is to paint the interior with a waterproofing sealant like Liquid Rubber. This could be an easy solution, depending on what plants will go inside. Waterproofing planters is a suggested use on the product’s website—but for inedible plants. However, I may use these to grow vegetables.

Okay, these aren’t vegetables, but you get the idea – from

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my fantasy is to have lush, symmetric borders, like at a British estate. My goal for this year is to make our backyard gardens more artful and pleasing—using plants we already have. As part of this re-design, I rehomed some non-natives and dismantled our rotting raised bed. I still like growing salad, though, and thought I could use these planters for that. That means Liquid Rubber is out. Instead, I’ll probably staple in some heavy-duty plastic as a liner.  

Lush, symmetric borders at Bramdean House, Alresford, Hampshire. Image from the National Garden Scheme:

Deep Roots Habitat Garden Tour

Reconfiguring my borders amounts to a lot of work. Ideally I’d dig up everything and move it all around at once, putting things in their new places, just like I would new plants. I won’t be digging this coming Saturday, however, because I’m volunteering at April’s Deep Roots Habitat Garden Tour. Last week I was able to preview the three gardens featured this month, wonderful woodland gardens with so many special plants. Many were unfamiliar to me, like Uvularia grandiflora (Yellow Bellwort) and Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot).

These exquisite flowers are growing among the daffodils and bluebells beneath the shady canopy.

When we bring home a tiny plug in its box of dirt, new-ish gardeners like me may struggle to envision how the plant will look when it matures. These tours are a fabulous opportunity to see many special plants, shrubs, and trees in a residential setting. Since my own garden is mostly sunny, I’m excited to expand my plant knowledge beyond Rudbeckia and Echinacea purpurea. Native plants are more than prairie plants!

The tours will feature three gardens every month on the second Saturday. The first one is this weekend, Saturday, April 13, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. I hope to see you. Thanks for reading!


Jardins du Roi Soleil Château de Versailles planter

Natural Cedar Planter Box with L-trellis

National Register of Historic Places Registration Form

Postcard of C.C. PETERS RESIDENCE / Missouri Valley Special Collections

Image of Bramdean House

Deep Roots Habitat Garden Tour

Remembering Eleanor Perényi, who was more than a garden writer

Why then presume to write a book about gardening? The simplest answer is that a writer who gardens is sooner or later going to write a book about the subject—I take that as inevitable. One acquires one’s opinions and prejudices, picks up a trick or two, learns to question supposedly expert judgments, reads, saves clippings, and is eventually overtaken by the desire to pass it all on.

from Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

Almost every list of classic gardening books includes Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. The third of the reissued Modern Library Gardening series I read last fall (in addition to The Gardener’s Year and We Made a Garden), it was my favorite. Originally published in 1981, Green Thoughts consists of 72 alphabetically arranged essays about random topics close to the author’s heart. She lavishes praise on compost, dahlias, perennials, and toads, and condemns annuals and pesticides. Labeled “tart” and “opinionated,” Perényi is definitely all that, as well as erudite (her references include Theophrastus and Pliny) and culturally sophisticated. Her entry about J.I. Rodale is so exhaustive, I thought she must have researched him for a magazine profile—which she did, “Apostle of the Compost Heap,” which appeared in the July 30, 1966 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

The writer in her garden circa 1981. From an article in the Westerly Sun.

Who was this person? Eleanor Perényi was accomplished enough to merit a New York Times obituary when she died in 2006—she lived to be 91, despite being an unrepentant smoker. She earned an award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982, and counted poets J.D. McClatchy and James Merril among her friends. In addition to a decades-long career writing and working at magazines, she published four books: The Bright Sword (1955), a romance set during the Civil War; a biography, Listz: The Artist As Romantic Hero (1974); Green Thoughts; and a memoir, More Was Lost (1946). She may be best remembered for Green Thoughts, which I enjoyed enough to seek out her other titles. However, for me, More Was Lost is her masterpiece.

It tells about her marriage to a Hungarian count during the days leading up to World War II. In 1937, then-Eleanor Spencer Stone marries Baron Zsigmond (Zsiga) Perényi, an impoverished Hungarian aristocrat. He was 37. She was 19. They move together to his derelict estate, “on the edge of the Carpathians,” in Ruthenia. I had to Google Ruthenia to visualize where it is. Its drama is written on the map. The estate straddles the borders of Ukraine, Slovakia, and Hungary. Some place names are written in the Roman alphabet. Others are in Cyrillic. You know what’s coming, and it isn’t good.  

Eleanor Perenyii

More Was Lost leaves deep impressions. It offers a fascinating glimpse of little-known part of world and lost civilization through the eyes of an astute observer. After the couple arrives at their estate, Eleanor describes the touring the castle rooms, delighting in the books and furniture.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace.

Image from the book

She claims she never wanted to create a home from scratch but preferred to move into an already furnished one, as if it were waiting for her.

My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

I find it unusual for nineteen-year-old to hold such thoughts. The ones I know are determined to reject tradition as limiting.

The estate as it looks today. Its story is fascinating, too.

Reviving the production parts of the estate, the fields, forest, and vineyards, would be Zsiga’s responsibility. The grounds, the ten-acre garden, and the orchard, would be hers. There is gardening in More Was Lost, as she describes getting to know the local traditions and tradespeople.

A flagged path led from the gardener’s house down to the vegetable garden. A white fence along the length of it shut off the chicken houses and the pigsty. I liked the chicken houses because of the Hungarian names for poultry, “little beef,” or better still, “the winged.”

There was a pretty white cottage in the vegetable garden, covered with grapevines, where the gardener kept his tools, little packages of seeds, and the oddments that collect around a gardener. There was also a greenhouse… There were oleander, papaya, and datura trees in big tubs and cactus and pals. There were hundreds of pots of little laurel bushes, fuschia plats, chrysanthemums, and begonias, and I found that all this in the spring would be stacked on wooden stands around the house—except for the trees, which were arranged artistically on the lawn.

She faces all challenges with aplomb. The idyll proves short-lived, however. Perényi is out planting tulip bulbs with her sheepdogs in 1939, when she hears distant gunfire. The war has arrived. Czechoslovakia was no more.

You know the rest. There is no one moment when everything changes. Instead, they listen to the radio and make daily adjustments as the area passes from Czech to Ukrainian to Hungarian control. She describes management styles of each. For instance, she says the Hungarians had no managers. They were aristocrats who disdained work, or peasants unaccustomed to making decisions. The manager types, the bourgeoisie, were nonexistent. When the Hungarians took over, it was chaos. 

Before that, in the summer of 1940, she travels to Paris, where her parents were living, and is there when the Maginot line collapses and the Nazi occupation begins. She goes back to the estate, but leaves again later that year at Zsiga’s urging—“as if I expected to be back the following week.” She never returns.

Eventually Perényi settled in Stonington, Connecticut, where she gardened on a 10-acre property purchased by her mother, Grace Zaring Stone, who was popular writer in the thirties and forties. Stone’s novel The Bitter Tea of General Yen was made into a film starring Barbara Stanwyck. She was also known for an anti-Nazi thriller, Escape, published in 1939 under the pseudonym Ethel Vance to protect Eleanor, who was living in occupied lands. The two lived together until Stone’s death in 1991. As of 2022, the property continues to be occupied Perényi’s son Peter, although he is in his eighties now.

Eleanor Perényi may not be well known today, but many of her most ardent fans appear to be bloggers. I gleaned almost all this information from blog posts, piecing scraps together to make a story. I must have read at least fifty posts. Most target gardeners by focusing on Green Thoughts. Posts about More Was Lost are usually on book blogs, and aim to resurrect interest in this neglected writer—although they could be considered gardening adjacent, like this post.

Some of the appreciations are very good, like this on a blog titled Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau. More Was Lost was reissued by New York Review Books in 2016. An excerpt appeared on LitHub in February of that year.

Much of Perényi’s magazine work is available on the internet or through college libraries. To be honest, her “tart” and “opinionated” work is sometimes strident and prejudiced (although one writer says, “she was deeply sympathetic to the growing civil rights struggle, and chose not to list the novel [The Bright Sword]—with a southern general as its hero—on her subsequent book jackets”).

If someone were to establish an Eleanor Perényi fan club, I would join. This versatile writer would make a fascinating topic for a critical biography, dissertation, or something. (Her mother would, too.) Perényi’s papers are archived at Yale.

Eleanor Perényi’s house and garden in Stonington, CT today.

Now that it’s warming up outside and the sun is shining, I’m eager to get out and do some actual gardening of my own instead of just reading about it. My ambition this spring is a massive redo of my backyard beds, but using the plants I already have, just moving them around—tall in back, shorter in front, no singletons, that sort of thing. It sounds like a lot of digging. We’ll see how I do.

I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for reading.


“Eleanor Perenyi, Writer and Gardener, Dies at 91.” May 6, 2009.

“Our Story.” Rodale Institute.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen.


Eiger, Monch & Jungfrauényis-more-was-lost/

More Was Lost excerpt, LitHub,

Stonington Revisited: Eleanor Perényi and Grace Zaring Stone by Richard Teleky.

Eleanor Perényi papers, Archives at Yale.

Reviewing The Gardener’s Year, by Karel Čapek

Let no one think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation. It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart.

The second book from the Modern Library Gardening series that I read last fall was The Gardener’s Year, by Karel Čapek. This little book follows the gardener’s progress, month by month—although often this amounts to little progress, or no progress. Like Marjory Fish’s We Made a Garden, The Gardener’s Year is no place to turn for practical advice. It recommends no chores or jobs. Instead, Čapek pokes fun at the gardener’s hubris, which may help us laugh at our own obsessiveness and make us feel less alone.

Line drawing of a gardener bent over his plants with his rear in the air
Gardeners bending over to inspect their seedlings, “presenting their rumps to the splendid azure sky.”

The comical, Thurber-esque line drawings that accompany the text are by the writer’s brother and frequent collaborator Josef. I returned my library copy, and lifted these images from a post on the UK Garden’s Trust blog–which also has a good post with great photos about Marjory Fish’s We Made a Garden.

Much of the humor comes from how the gardener’s grand vision compares to reality. The vision is big. Reality is small. The gardener is an amnesiac or madman, forgetting what failed last time. (This is a trend in garden writing, I’m learning.) Čapek’s gardener is male. In spring, he emerges, like ephemerals. In summer, he mows. Always, he waters. In autumn he spreads manure, “Czechoslovakia’s most important agricultural crop.”

Here is Čapek ’s description of the ritual of bulb planting.

One goes about it like this: you buy the relevant bulbs and a bag of nice compost from the nearest garden centre; after which you look out all your old flower pots in the cellar or attic and put a bulb in each one. Towards the end you find you have still got some bulbs but no flowerpots. So you buy some more flowerpots, whereupon you discover you have not got any bulbs left now but you do have a surfeit of flowerpots and soil. Then you buy a few more bulbs, but because you have not got enough soil you buy a new bag of compost. Then you have got soil left over, which of course you do not want to throw away, and instead buy more flower pots and bulbs. You carry on like this until the people at home forbid you any longer. Then you fill the windows, tables, cabinets, pantry, cellar and loft with them and look forward to the approaching winter with confidence.

One of the gardener’s principal antagonists is the hose:

One would think that watering a little garden is quite a simple thing, especially if one has a hose. It will soon be clear that until it has been tamed a hose is an extraordinarily evasive and dangerous beast, for it contorts itself, it jumps, it wriggles, it makes puddles of water, and dives with delight into the mess it has made; then it goes for the man who is going to use it and coils itself round his legs; you must hold it down with your foot, and then it rears and twists round your waist and neck, and while you are fighting with it as with a cobra, the monster turns up its brass mouth and projects a mighty stream of water through the windows on to the curtains which have been recently hung. which have been recently hung… If you do this every day, in a fortnight weeds will spring up instead of grass.

And who among us has not been there? The gardener is always frustrated, but never enough to quit. His experiences merely whet his appetite for more gardening!

Čapek with his dog Dashenka

Čapek (pronounced Chupek), was a novelist, playwright, essayist, and journalist prominent in Prague’s cultural scene between the wars. In addition to writing a beloved Czech children’s book called Dashenka the Puppy, Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (in English, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is famous for introducing the term robot. A New York Times reviewer describes another noteworthy title, the novel War with the Newts, as “a funny, bizarre, dystopian masterpiece.”

I haven’t read either R.U.R. or War with the Newts, but I understand that both deal with enslaved and exploited populations acquiring knowledge and rebelling. Some see these as criticizing the Nazis. While Čapek certainly abhorred them, I also see some resemblance to his preoccupations in the gardening book. Nature resists subjugation.

Increasingly anti-fascist, throughout the thirties Čapek hosted weekly salon-type meetings on Friday afternoons in his garden. Attendees, known as Friday men, were influential Czech intellectual and political figures—journalists, critics, and elected officials. The house itself is a “double house,” or duplex. Each brother occupied a side.

Karel and Josef Čapek’s house

Designed by Czech modernist architect Ladislav Machon, the house is now a museum. Reportedly it’s a time capsule, with furnishings and artifacts exactly they were as during the Čapek brothers’ time. I haven’t been, but the photos on this website offer a glimpse, including the garden and greenhouse: ČAPEK BROTHERS HOUSE. Also, this item from 2020, PHOTO REPORT from Capko Villa: A derelict house awaits reconstruction, shows the condition of the house and garden before restoration.

Both of the brothers Čapek were vocal critics of fascism. Immediately after the Nazis invaded, on September 1, 1939, the Gestapo came to the house to arrest Karel—only to discover that he had died the previous December (of pneumonia, at age 48). They arrested his wife and brother instead. Karel’s wife survived; Josef died in Bergen-Belsen.

Karel (left) and Josef Čapek 

In his introduction to the series, Michael Pollan says Karel Capek “relished the human comedy he found in the garden.” Truth. Next I’ll talk about my favorite of the three, Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts. Thanks for reading!


Images from the Garden Trust blog

The Gardener’s Year

“In Praise of Karel Capek” by Ben Dolnick (August 16, 2018)

Tour of Čapek brothers’ house (Richard Hodonicky)

PHOTO REPORT: A derelict house awaits reconstruction

Wikipedia’s Brothers Čapek entry

# #

Paper gardening: a look at a garden writing classic

Beginning in the early 2000’s, Michael Pollan began editing a paperback series of reissued garden classics for Modern Library. The success of Pollan’s first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991), prompted him to go deeper into garden writing, which he calls a “literary ghetto.” His immersion in “the minorness of a minor literature” enhanced his appreciation and whetted his desire for better books, ones “written in the sort of voice that is the literary equivalent of a chat over the back fence.” One of these is We Made a Garden, by Margery Fish, which I read last fall in anticipation of this day, when snow is falling and we’re all stuck inside, unable to do anything in our gardens except stare at them through windows. Perhaps you’re looking for something more interesting to read than seed catalogs? If so, read on.

My wire fencing collection, covered with snow

As I read it, I took careful notes and saved photos, none of which I can find now, but here is what I remember.

Margery Fish was an English garden writer and columnist active in the nineteen-fifties and sixties who is credited with popularizing the cottage garden style. First published in 1956, We Made a Garden was her first book. She was 64 years old. She went on to public seven more. Her Gardening in the Shade (1964) is still considered a classic.

In the nineteen thirties, in addition to contributing articles to various publications, Margery worked as a secretary to editors of the Daily Mail. In 1933, she married her former boss, Walter Fish, a widower eighteen years her senior. With war looming, Walter decided they needed a place outside of London, so they bought a two-acre former farm in Somerset called East Lambrook Manor and set to work cleaning it up. When the war started, Walter returned to London to work in the Ministry of Information, so they split their time between the country and city.

Walter had created a garden in a different part of England with his first wife, and he imposes his ideas on Margery, who is a complete novice. Their styles clash. Walter enforces his opinions with gusto. Margery resents him—even though he is more knowledgeable than she is, at least at first. Walter loves big blooms, obvious colors, and tidy, weed-free beds of summer flowers. Her taste tends toward the sprawling, mounding, dripping, and self-seeding. She also likes extending the garden’s interest beyond summer, and later wrote a book called A Flower for Every Day. She describes what he likes, and then what she likes, and how she goes about trying to shape things to her liking despite him. He sabotages a couple plants. No doubt she does the same. Then he dies and she gets to have things the way she wants, eventually becoming an expert plants person and influential garden writer. Take that, Walter!

East Lambrook Manor – Somerset (22nd May 2015)

In addition to the drama, Fish does give practical tips (and occasionally devolves into lengthy lists of plants I am not knowledgeable enough to picture). One suggestion interested me. She says never to plant nepeta in the center of a bed. I have several mops of nepeta sprawling in prime spots, and this advice inspired me to divide them and plant them on the top of a retaining wall in hopes that they will spill over the rocks picturesquely. She also describes hiring a youth to roll their paths, presumably to smooth them out. I’d never heard of this before. She and Walter differ in their opinions about paths, no surprise. She wants little plants to grow between the stones, a look I love. Guess what Walter thinks of that.

The book is no longer listed on the Modern Library Garden Series website, but will be reissued by Rizzoli in June 2024. That’s good news if you want to read it, because it’s a little hard to find. I had to request a copy through interlibrary loan. Apparently, Margery’s East Lambrook Manor garden survives largely unchanged, and during the season it’s open to the public. Even more interesting, the property and its stone cottage are now for sale for a cool £2.2 million.

cover of book We Made a Garden by Margery Fish with colorful flowers and picture of a house
New edition coming summer 2024

In our gardens, we express our ideas about nature and ourselves, our ideas about what’s good, and what we think is important. These ideas are always changing, and Fish was writing during a time when attitudes changed dramatically, not just about aesthetics and gardening, but about many things, including marriage, and men and women. Her championing an informal style accessible to average people can be seen as a reaction against conformity and uniformity, and as a criticism of conspicuous displays of wealth. She doesn’t talk about class or wealth, but we know how expensive those kinds of gardens are to maintain. As we read, her confidence increases and her store of knowledge grows. We Made a Garden is a story of female empowerment.

I’ll be back next week with thoughts about the other two books I read from the series, The Gardener’s Year, by Karel Capek, and Eleanor Perényi’s tart, opinionated Green Thoughts, which was my favorite of the three. Do you have a favorite garden book? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for reading.


Image of East Lambrook Manor Garden from Mansion Global, August 21, 2023

Quote from “Gardening” by Michael Pollan, Dec. 8, 1996

Image of Margery Fish from East Lambrook Manor Gardens website

Image of Margery Fish’s garden

Cover of We Made a Garden


Assigning grades: the best native perennials for a front yard

The garden has peaked. The milkweed has faded, the rudbeckia is shriveling, and while a few flowers power on, the climactic moment has passed. The big show is about over. This is a good time of year for taking stock, as people do. Did projects go as planned? Did I get the results I wanted? The answer is probably yes, and no. I’m taking a moment to review and remember, hoping to inform my decisions as I approach fall planting. September starts tomorrow.

To start, life handed me lemonade by killing the zoysia in our front yard. New planting requires killing what’s there, which now, fortunately, is nothing. I did a poor job digging up the bed in spring, the plants arrived and I had to hurry, and I’ll be paying the consequences for a long time. I see that now. I won’t have that problem this fall. The question is what to plant. I had more flowers in mind, but this area borders our next-door neighbor’s yard, and they spray for mosquitoes. Yesterday their exterminator sprayed clouds of insecticide on their blooming Prairie Onion, kicking up the butterflies and skippers, and I found this in the yard later that afternoon.

Dead Monarch butterfly in grass

I hope to persuade them to try other methods to eliminate mosquitoes. I’ll keep you posted.  However, instead of planting more flowers, perhaps I should plant some kind of buffer. If you have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

On a more pleasant note, the big addition to our garden this year, which we began planning last fall, is a bed across our front yard. When my husband suggested a sinuous ribbon, I knew that was exactly the right thing to do. It’s like a contour line on a topographic map. I began by digging a bed beside the driveway, spading it up and removing the turf, and then planted plugs bought from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery. The bed was bare and ugly throughout the winter.

Later, I extended it across the yard, and it was bare and ugly then too.

Since this is the front yard, everything needed to be short, under two feet tall, and I wanted to avoid a haphazard groups-of-one look. I created a spreadsheet with plant names, heights, colors, bloom times, and prices from different nurseries. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit this but I suspect some of you do the same.) I wasn’t familiar with some of these plants, I just chose them based on their catalog descriptions.

How did it go? Overall, pretty well. I give the bed a B-plus. It’s been consistently colorful, buzzing with insect activity. Each month brought surprises.

My biggest challenge was rabbits. They were prolific. Instead of a wild garden, this became a caged garden, fenced in by wire contraptions—but that didn’t matter to the rabbits, who ate many plants down to the ground, snapping stems and dropping flowers uneaten on the grass. C’était pénible.

I won’t go on and on about it, but henceforward, right plant, right place means unpalatable to rabbits.

What worked well: A+

Salvias. They’re not native but are much loved by bees, and I like purple flowers. I sowed two types of seed and grew cuttings of another. I’m afraid I’ll get the names wrong but they’re all slightly different. All are wonderful and still blooming now.

Penstemons. Pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) was lovely with white panicle flowers, but Purple beardtongue (Penstemon cobaea) was thrilling. Its big, bell-shaped, purple flowers are dramatic, and its glossy foliage is both soft and slimy, if slimy can be a positive descriptor. I love these.

Purple beardtongue or prairie penstemon (Cobaea penstemon)

Dittany (Cunila origanoides). I forgot what this was; it bored me all year, not even the rabbits liked the little dark green leaves—until suddenly, wow! They burst out with darling little light purple flowers. Note to self: buy more!

Dittany Cunila origanoides.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has been blooming since June.

What didn’t work as well: B – to C+

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolota), a.k.a. rabbit chow. No matter how big they grow, they get eaten. On the other hand, they’re so vigorous, they’re still the primary flowers blooming in the bed. I bought six of each and grew more from seed. However, I don’t need any more.

Spider Milweed (Asclepias viridis). The rabbits didn’t care for this, which is a plus, but it didn’t flower. Maybe next year.

Total failures

Some plants disappeared entirely: Yellow Wild Indigo, Southern Prairie Aster, Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteate), and Obedient Plant (Physostegia angustifolia). All vanished, eaten by rabbits. I bought three Wild Pinks (Silene caroliniana) which had sweet little flowers early on, but only two survived, I’m not sure why.

I’m not crazy about Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).

Some plants volunteered, like comfrey (I believe) pictured below, and a moonflower. The seeds may have been in the compost I used to fill the trench left by removing the grass.

Possibly my experience will help some fellow Kansas City gardener select a few natives for a visible, unforgiving, full sun location infested with rabbits and crickets. In any case, that’s all I have for this week. I’ve ordered some shrubs to pick up at the Deep Roots sale on September 9 at Anita Gorman, and I’ll be back in a week or two to tell you more about those. Thanks for reading!

Comfrey is native to Europe and Asia

What killed my lawn? How to make organic lawns look good

Michael Pollan says the garden is more an arena than a refuge, and this month finds me facing off against a killer. My grass died. I don’t know why. It’s been green and growing—not spectacularly, but well enough—for the fourteen years we’ve lived here. Then suddenly, this summer, it died. What used to be lawn is a dirt patch overrun with rabbits and twitching with crickets. What happened?

brown patch of dirt instead of lawn
Dirt patch

Replacing lawns with plants with more ecological value or transforming them into meadows is much discussed these days and I love this idea, but for many of us getting rid of our lawn entirely isn’t a realistic option. We’ll always need to have some grass, even if it’s just mowed strips between the other plantings. I would like that grass to look good.

To start with, our lawn was mostly zoysia. It’s a tough turf, native to Korea, that was popular during the fifties and sixties when it was refined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA). It spreads on runners, forming a thick mat over the driveway if I don’t cut it back regularly. It turns brown in the fall and greens up late, so each spring we worry it has died, but usually it thrives during the summer heat. The slope it covered is baking hot, which is supposed to be the perfect environment for it, but not this year.

zoysia growing in a crack in the gutter instead of in the lawn
Grass grows everywhere except where I want it

Before I exert myself toward fixing this, I need to understand what happened. I headed to Soil Service. There I learned that zoysia is struggling throughout our area.  In fact, Soil Service has a handout describing a problem called Zoysia Patch Fungus, complete with a picture that resembles our yard. However, one characteristic of Zoysia Patch Fungus is orange-colored patches, which I do not see.  Nevertheless, I do think a fungus could be the killer.

A post about lawn fungus might not have broad appeal, but it is a problem many of us have ahd more will have if it keeps raining like it has been. I turned to Joe Lamp’l’s website, my go-to for information about organic gardening, where he has step-by-step instructions for how to renovate an existing lawn—which I will follow in September. The first thing he recommends is getting a soil test.

It’s always good to get more than one opinion, so I visited the Grass Pad (which, according to its website, has been selling Olathe’s best sod since 1983). It is far. But I was satisfied with the advice I received. I spoke with a guy named Dave, who had the air of someone who’s seen everything. When I ask a question, he hesitated before answering, “It depends.” I could imagine the flow chart of possibilities developing in the air over his Grass Pad cap. Do I want to reseed, or get rid of the zoysia altogether? If yes, I will need to get rid of the existing turf. If no, I can proceed to the next step.

Here is what I learned about renovating the lawn

  1. Now (August) is the time to prepare by destroying existing turf. See methods below.
  2. Renovation should begin in September. The window is September 1 – October 15, but the important thing is to avoid days with highs in the nineties. However, a few spikes into the nineties might not do much harm.
  3. Start by verticutting.
  4. Then fertilize. More on this later.
  5. Spread seed.
  6. Water one inch per week until established. Dave recommends using a sprinkler, not a hand-held wand, and that’s good for me because I’m looking at a large area.

Destroying the existing turf

The existing turf must be removed. Ways to do this include soil solarization, tilling, digging, and spraying with glyphosate, which is what most people recommend for a large area, like a lawn. I felt like a spy because I nodded while listening to Dave discuss the merits of different sprayers instead of telling him I would not do this. He prefers ones with metal nozzles.

However, whatever I’m fighting got rid of the grass for me—so I score! In some spots some grass still clings to life, but most of it is dead. In September, I can rake it away and move on to step three. I may not need to kill the fungus if I replace the zoysia with bluegrass or fescue (probably fescue for my dry, hot site).

Verticutting gives the seeds places to settle, which aids germination. The sprouts may look like a hair transplant at first, but eventually they will fill out.

This is all exactly what they told me at Soil Service, what Joe Lamp’l says, and what I already knew or suspected. I used to follow Soil Service’s Lawn Care Program and the yard looked great, but I stopped a couple years ago when I went completely organic. I took my leftover bags of Bug Blaster to the hazardous waste dropoff site and look what happened!  Now I’m eager for September to come so I can start working on the lawn. 

The bed across the front looks great, but I’m not making a compelling argument for gardening with native plants if the yard is ugly and the grass is dead.

Soil Service does have a “natural” program that uses organic products, so I guess I’ll try that next year.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Thanks for reading!

Dreams come true: visiting the chateaux of the Loire

Closing out June, I’m looking back at a great month. The tiny plants I put in last fall and spring have powered up and are looking more like a garden every day. The tour gardens for International Master Gardener Conference were amazing sources of inspiration. But without doubt, the month’s main highlight for me was our trip to France. We spent a week bicycling and visiting chateaux in the Loire Valley, something I’ve always wanted to do. Although not exactly gardening-focused, the trip could be considered gardening-adjacent, so I thought you might enjoy reading about it. After all, the Loire Valley is known as the garden of France.

Over the course of a week, we biked from Blois to Azay-le-Rideau. Our routes took us through farmland, charming villages, and on a trail beside the Loire. Here’s a typical sight.

Scene on the road

You can see some other cyclists in the photo. The Loire à vélo is popular, especially with French people of retirement age. Everything was lovely; however, France is experiencing a drought. We couldn’t walk across the Loire, as was widely reported last August, but a bare band of sand along the banks showed that the water level was lower than normal. The air was hazy and colors wan. We cycled through vineyards, yes, but also through fields of bush beans—haricots verts, although they were more haricots jaunes, it appeared to me.

Although many of the villages had signs saying they were Ville Fleurie, I don’t think this meant they were full of flowers but rather that they offer a high quality of life.

Out of the 300-something chateaux in the Loire Valley, we visited Blois, Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Villandry. I’ve heard that for some people, chateaux get similar after seeing a couple, but for me that was not the case. Each was fabulous in its own way, and each was different. The first we visited was Chambord, where we ran into a crew filming the second season of the Starz drama The Serpent Queen, about Catherine de Médicis. I saw but didn’t photograph Samantha Morton dressed in black velvet, waiting in the heat. The crew spent 45 minutes setting up for three seconds of action. Here are the horses and carriages.

Film crew at Chambord
Crew filming The Serpent Queen at Villandry

The show is mainly filmed on location. We’ve watched a few episodes and recognize many of the settings. Sometimes a scene will take place in a room we remember from Chenonceau, and then cut to an exterior from Villandry.

I’m not sure why I took these photos of Chambord’s kitchen, but I was excited when it turned up in the program.

All the chateaux (except Azay-le-Rideau) had gardens in the famous French-renaissance style: symmetric, bare of shade, with elaborate parterres enclosing lots of roses—the opposite of my wild garden. Sometimes the gardens’ most impressive quality was their size. A friend pointed out that they weren’t necessarily meant to be walked through, but to be viewed from a window.

Although visiting the chateaux wasn’t repetitive to me, this style of garden was. They were hot. We crowded into patches of shade. This photo captures the feeling of touring one after riding our bikes for twenty miles.

The Floral Workshop at Chenonceau

All these chateaux and gardens have been widely written about, so I was prepared for what I saw. However, I surprised and delighted by the flower arrangements at Chenonceau. They were incredible—amazingly varied and lush.

They’re the work of florist Jean-François Boucher, whose many awards include the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” and who has led the chateau’s floral atelier since 2015.

Boucher oversees preparation of bouquets for nineteen rooms twice weekly—about 200 bouquets each week. When possible, he sources many flowers from the chateau gardens and grounds, as you can see in this video, which also shows him working on a composition.

I like that he smiles so much.

Boucher mentions Arcimboldo as an inspiration, as well as his grandmother, who was also a florist. Formerly owner of his own shop in nearby Tours, he says he’s happy to be liberated from commercial pressures. He isn’t free of constraints, however. Each room has a predominant color scheme that influences the arrangements, like the blue velvet bed hangings in the chambre de Diane de Poitiers, the gold and wine tapestries decorating the chambre de Catherine de Médicis, and the black-and-white floor in the gallery over the River Cler.

Bouquets of flowers beneath a painting of Diane de Poitiers as Diana, goddess of the hunt

The chateau’s interiors were largely empty, with just a few pieces of period furniture, and the flower arangements brought suggestions of life and death, and intimacy into the formal rooms. The effect was astonishing. Boucher posts pictures of his creations on Instagram, a twice-weekly, and his photos are much better than my snapshots. If you’re thinking of visiting, the atelier offers workshops and master classes. I believe Christmas is a special season for them. Also, last year (2022) the chateau hosted the Grand Concours Floral Interflora, an international floral exhibit and competition.

As I’ve mentioned, I spent some time in France after college working at La Varenne, Anne Willan’s cooking school in northern Burgundy. This was a fabulous experience, but I haven’t traveled much throughout France, and I haven’t been able to return until now. I have been hearing about the Loire Valley chateaux since I started studying French in sixth grade, and have always longed to see them in person. Now I have!

Update: how my garden is growing

Here at home, our ribbon of flowers is filling out. We got our first compliment the other day when somebody walking by said he liked it.

We’re not going to win yard of the month, however. The grass has just flat-out died. The lawn is a dirt patch. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I can do anything about it until temperatures drop.

I have learned a couple things. The rabbits are delighted to find so much delicious food , and they are responsible for the gap in the middle of my idea. The ate the Rudbeckia hirta and Coreopsis lanceolata down to the down to nubs, helped by their pals the chipmunks.

At any time of day, there’s a rabbit sitting in the middle of the yard, munching.  You know the t-shirt cannon at the baseball games? I imagine one under our bushes shooting out rabbits. It’s so frustrating. I’ve doused the plants with cayenne pepper, mulched with human hair. My neighbors must think I’m growing wire cages. My dad asked, “Do those things work to keep the animals out?” Sadly, no.

If I had it to do over, I’d plant more of the things the rabbits do not like: Eastern Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), Hairy Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis), and Calamint (Clinopodium arkansanum), which had lovely, tiny lavender flowers. The salvia, although not native, doesn’t interest them and is crawling with bees.

For the most part, these are good times. So far I’ve only seen one Japanese beetle! In July I plan to concentrate on watering, pruning, and watching birds eat my grapes. I’m happy to share.

Thanks for reading!

Brilliant French idea!

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

Recent posts you may have missed:

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!