Skip the raking and bagging

This fall, one thing I will not be doing is raking and bagging.

Leave the leaves!

I’m glad to see this practice catching on. This week Dennis Patton writes in the Star about the benefit of mowing fall leaves and leaving them on the ground: Put the rake and bag down: Here’s why fallen leaves are pure gold for the garden.

I’m an enthusiastic leaf leaver. When I bought my first house in Kansas City, I spent a chilly day raking leaves and cleaning up the yard, leaving a neat row of stuffed paper bags standing by the curb. I was so proud. When I bragged to a friend, he said, “Mary, go put those leaves back on the ground where God wants them.” I laughed, of course. What did he know? Raking away those brown leaves to reveal the vibrant green grass growing beneath can be such a pleasure.

My friend knew a lot, it turns out, although it’s taken me years to catch on. While we lived in Missouri, I paid Lawn Corps to haul away our debris. Now we live on the Kansas side, where one of our favorite events in our neighborhood has been the annual leaf cleanup. We rake our leaves into long, snaky piles by the curb, and a big truck comes by and vacuums them up. It’s so exciting—and very loud. All the neighbors come out in the morning to rake, or else we do it the night before in the dark, because the truck starts very early. We might be asleep and hear it coming down thea next block, and run out to finish raking.

As I became more interested in gardening and ecologically-minded practices, I discovered Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden. Again, Diblik is the nurseryman and designer whose many projects include providing the plants for the Piet Oudolf-designed Lurie Garden in Chicago. The book includes garden plans and lush photos that make my heart thrum—but the comments in the introduction got me really excited: “Here is the default American planting look: word-chip mulch with plants spaced wistfully apart, eliminating the beauty of intimate plant relationships. America the Beautiful is now just the land of the neat and tidy.”

Familiar sights

To discourage weeds, Diblik places plants closer together than is customary. He advocates selecting plants that thrive in the type of soil you have instead of buying expensive amendments. He mulches beds with shredded leaves, but only during the first year or two. After that he mows his perennials in the spring and leaves the debris on the beds. Plants are their own best mulch, he says.

I found this very exciting and started right away. Now I rake my shredded leaves into the flower beds, not out of them. (I should mention that it’s important not to leave leaves in the street, where they can clog the sewers.) I never have enough leaves, and have been known to steal bags from the curb on trash day. (I know other gardeners who admit to doing this too.) I have no idea if they’re improving my soil, but I don’t think my soil is a problem. I mean, my garden certainly has problems, but I don’t think the quality of the soil is one of them.

At first the leaves in the beds resemble the bark mulch effect, like sprinkled-on corn flakes, uniform and tidy, but I have to admit, they look less fresh with time. Last summer in a fit of neatness I blew them all out, but the beds soon filled up with them again, and why fight it?

In addition to adding nutrients to the soil, conserving moisture, and suppressing weeds, I understand that leaf litter sustains many types of helpful bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. I fell asleep watching a program on PBS, My Garden of a Thousand Bees, that had lots of footage of bees nesting in fallen leaves. I suspect many readers will have the same reaction when they hear me touting the benefits of leaf litter, but even if someone can’t get behind slugs, snails, worms, and bees, they might get excited about not having to pick up leaves. Free mulch! Free fertilizer! Basically, that’s what we’re talking about.

Our fondness for green lawns probably has an evolutionary basis. I first learned about this from Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Claudia West and Thomas Ranier. Here’s a link to an interview with West where she mentions the appeal of archetypal landscapes, among other topics.

Evolutionary psychologists have observed that the “preference for savanna landscapes is universal in human species.”

A contemporary analog to African savanna is probably a golf course. And who doesn’t like seeing those green lawns unfolding in the distance beneath the trees? Lawns are ubiquitous, and the problems they represent are well documented. Nevertheless, their appeal is probably inherent, and not just an expression of unimaginative desire for conformity. People naturally prefer what they’re familiar with, whether it’s food, architecture, landscapes, music, you name it. This tendency has a name, exposure effect, and perhaps explains why I sometimes eat at McDonald’s when I’m traveling.

If exposing ourselves to more diversity increases our opportunities for enjoyment of life, this seems to me to be another good argument for planting pollinator garden in the front yard with a little sign. That helps make them, and the principles they represent, more familiar to people — without them having to exert any effort. Incorporating some familiar elements into the unfamiliar helps increase the likelihood people will like something new—so a neat edge to those native perennial plantings or a Monarch Waystation sign can help make them legible and understandable, as with this bed in my neighborhood.

Today these neighbors are adding a new, second garden bed. After solarizing their soil over the summer, they are outside planting new perennials as I write.

Roy Diblik has posted a series of short videos on YouTube about his approach to garden design and plant combinations. The title of today’s post comes from the first one. He says: “The love and joy of gardening is the doing, not the having.” Isn’t that wonderful? Although honestly, the having part is not bad. Even though my beds are full of dried stems and seed heads, they still smell good, like being out in the country.

With winter approaching, I’ll be doing less in the garden, although I hope to keep learning more about things to do in the coming year. Each week I’ve soaked up information from BBC’s Gardener’s World, but last week the final episode of the season aired. They’re taking a break, although they’ll host a few special episodes this winter, and I plan to do the same.

Happy gardening and thanks for reading.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about how enthusiasm for lawns took hold in the twentieth century, this blog post from Scientific American offers a good survey.

What looks good = what’s blooming now

My wild garden had a couple visitors recently, good friends whose opinions about it differed. One thinks my garden is a disaster. The other finds it lovely. Who is right?

Looking over the shagginess, I think they both are. The rudbeckia that bloomed all summer, delighting us with its insect visitors and wonderful scent, is now a stand of scraggly weeds. The milkweed have flopped over. The switchgrass engulfed a blueberry and crowded out some Russian sage. One of my friends works as a professional gardener, and if her clients’ gardens looked like this, she’d be fired. The gist of her criticism, if I understand it correctly, is that the plants I’ve chosen are the wrong scale for my yard. They’re all back-of-the-garden plants, way too big. Not only that, they’re aggressive. Next year they’ll naturalize all over the place.  I can tell she’s right. Rudbeckia is already sprouting in unlikely spots. This means my fantasy of moving them to back-of-the-garden locations is probably just that, a fantasy.

She thinks I should yank it all out and start over.

Could she be wrong? Is she like a jeweler obsessing about tiny flaws that no one else can see? Or could we just have different taste? She likes things tidy, sans weeds.

I think it’s unlikely she’s wrong. She is very knowledgeable. Just following her around the yard, watching while she pinches stalks and plunges her hands into dirt, I learn things. The fact is, once I get over feeling amazed that the little three-inch plugs I planted just five months ago have grown to be six feet tall, I’m dissatisfied too. I love these plants, but I might be happier with plants that are similar to these, but smaller.

Two things I’ll definitely take away from this experience. (I’m writing this down so I won’t forget.) Right now I’m so overwhelmed with plants I can’t imagine ever buying another one, but if I do I’ll probably get them from a local or regional nursery instead of ordering online. I just like being able to see what I’m buying. Plus their selections will be tailored to our region. Also, even though I pored over the pages of Tracy DiSabato Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden that describe pinching and pruning, I was afraid to cut too much. Next year, I won’t be.

And I promise to read the tags.

My other friend reacted to the garden with a sharp intake of breath and a long, “Ohhh.” I suspect she was influenced by the presence of blooms. The asters are misty clouds of purple and white, and in my newly-cleared bed on the east side by the fence I have salvia—red and black-and-blue—and yellow solidago.

Wait until next year!

But most of all, she admired the dahlias. I have two kinds: these symmetric, perfect mandalas, and ones with flowers like Phyllis Diller’s wig.

This is my first year growing dahlias. Some were a gift and others I grew from tubers. Although I tried my best to kill them, drowning one plant in a pot without a drainage hole, they persisted, and although the plants have contorted stems and aren’t going to win any awards, the flowers are amazing.

I understand that dahlias inspire cult-like devotion, and I can see why. They’re not native to our area, they originated in Mexican highlands, but they’re still popular with pollinators, especially big bees. I think they’re carpenter bees. Often I find one motionless in the petals, passed-out in bliss.

What do I know about dahlias that I didn’t at the start of the summer? They need to be staked. I was too tentative and slow doing this, and I lost a bunch of stalks in a big windstorm. They need lots of water—fill until the pot begins to drain out the bottom, my gardener friend says. I suspect they need feeding. At a couple times their leaves started looking pale so I added compost to the pot. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do but they darkened and perked back up.

I’ve found dogs very easy to grow.

The dahlias are great to have this time of year, when most of the prairie flowers have finished blooming. Usually when we talk about plants looking good, we mean flowering, and the dahlias are blooming now. The plant that got submerged is just getting started. I hope to store the tubers over the winter following these instructions. Next year I’ll try planting them in the ground instead of pots, although I liked being able to move them around. I’ll also try pinching and cutting back, like the experts say to do.

My feelings about the cooler weather are mixed. Yesterday I put on a jacket, and I felt like I’d run into an old work colleague, someone I used to see every day and know well but never really liked that much. I haven’t started preparing to bring plants inside, but I’ve started thinking about preparing. This gardenia will need pruning before I can fit it through the door.

When I was growing up in Houston we had a gardenia growing outside our front door, a spindly, weak-looking thing with just a couple stems, but each year it managed to produce a few spectacular flowers. The fragrance greeted us every time we walked inside. I bought this gardenia at a grocery store about twenty years ago. It’s a tree now.

It needs drastic cutting back, but I don’t want to prune while it’s blooming, so I’m waiting until the last minute. I’m also concerned about bringing in whiteflies. They vanished for a while but seem to have returned.

It’s the stock-taking time of year, good for planning ahead and looking back. Even though I don’t love their shagginess, the truth is, I’ve loved these prairie plants and have gotten so much enjoyment out of them this year. I’m even thrilled by how tall they’ve grown. Look! The asters are shoulder-high.  The switchgrass is a tawny gold and as tall as the fence. I can see why they called it the tallgrass prairie. The leaves on the river birch are turning yellow one by one. They drip down onto the patio, reminding me of the snowflakes that are coming.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Did you see this?

At This Renowned English Garden, Getting Your Hands Dirty Is the Point

Meadows. Soil composition. Propagation. Staking and composting. Attending the weeklong horticulture class at Great Dixter is like getting a Ph.D. in gardening.

The Barn Garden at Great Dixter House & Gardens in East Sussex, England. Credit…Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Magnificent micro-gardens beautify New York streets

I’ve been traveling this week so I haven’t had a chance to work in the garden, but this turned up in my Facebook feed and I have to share. In New York City, empty tree pits along Sixth Avenue were collecting trash and growing weeds. “Tree pits” is what the city calls the square openings in the pavement where trees grow…sometimes.  Instead of being discouraged, lighting designer David Kass stepped up and began planting mini gardens in the pits.

What a great project! It combines two of my passions: picking up trash and putting in plants. (I love New York, too.) Kass planted his first garden in 2017. Now he tends 22—using his own money, time, and talent. His work delights passers-by and has attracted the attention of the the local CBS affiliate and the Today show.

As he says, “Where else can you have a hobby that so many people can appreciate?”

Most of the tree pit gardens I see in the section of Manhattan where I’m staying have English ivy and begonias. They’re nice, but Kass’ plantings exhibit more variety. I spy cannas, ornamental grass, even boxwood: tough plants than can survive in harsh conditions. If a tree pit along Sixth Avenue isn’t harsh, I don’t know what is.

From the Just One Person Facebook page, October 17, 2020

Kass has a Facebook page called Just One Person that tells more about his project. He has also set up a GoFundMe to help with the expense. Each garden costs about $125.

From Just One Person’s Facebook Page, October 17, 2020

Apparently, tree pit gardens are a thing, according to this article from New York magazine.  While the pits belong to city, anyone can plant whatever they want in them as long as they don’t hurt the tree (if there is one). All these little plantings in the city are the work of motivated individuals.  

If you look hard enough, you might find vegetables or herbs, or even a small fruit tree.

Diana Budds, “New York City’s Tree Pit Gardens”

Kass’ pits along Sixth Avenue didn’t have trees, just trash  

New York has a great tradition of guerilla gardening, I learned when a good friend took me on a tour of a community garden flourishing in empty lots in the East Village. This was in the nineties, but the mature trees showed that the garden had been there for many years.  

6BC Garden

After battling the city and developers for decades, Green Thumb, New York’s homegrown community garden program, is now considered the largest in the country. Read what the New York Parks Department has to say about this community garden movement here.

Many of New York’s parks and green spaces—the rooftop terraces and backyard courtyards—are oases, but private ones, accessible only to a privileged few. Most of us can only admire them from outside the gates. David Kass’s tree pit gardens appeal to me because they’re democratic: anyone can enjoy them. I also like that he takes the initiative and does what’s required himself. Liz Christy of Green Guerillas is considered the founder of the community garden movement. Maybe David Kass will inspire a movement, too.

Wonderful duty: being on the river

This week I’m taking a break from writing about gardening to tell about an experience I had recently picking up trash along the Missouri River. The title of this post comes from Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry:

“The river and the garden have been the foundations of my economy here. Of the two I have liked the river best. It is wonderful to have the duty of being on the river the first and last thing every day. I have loved it even in the rain. Sometimes I have loved it most in the rain.”

If you’re like me and spend a lot of time outdoors walking or running, no doubt you see trash everywhere. Even beautiful neighborhoods like mine have an appalling amount of litter. I make it a point to throw away at least one piece every time I go for a walk. I’ll pick a plastic bag out of some bushes or drop a water bottle into the garbage. Where does it come from? It blows out of the beds of pickups and drops off strollers, falls out of trash bins when the trucks lift them up, and—I hate to admit this but it’s true—gets thrown out of the windows of passing cars. I don’t like thinking that my fellow Americans would do this, but they do. Eventually it all makes its way to our rivers. In 2019 we were walking in Weston Bend State Park after the floodwaters receded and were shocked to see the banks blanketed with plastic bottles.  Before that I knew, but didn’t really know, how immense the problem is. But usually I feel powerless to do much about it.

On Friday I happened to see a guest essay in the Star about Missouri River Relief, a group sponsoring a cleanup of the Missouri River. The cleanup was taking place the next morning. Although registration was closed, I showed up at the River Front Park boat ramp (which I never knew existed before) at the civilized start time of 9 AM to help out.

Since 2001, this group has removed tons of junk from the banks of the Missouri River through organized cleanups. I signed in, received a complimentary water bottle and t-shirt, and headed over to orientation, where a conservation agent was finishing up by saying a tangle of fishing line would take 600 years to decompose.  At the next station, Steve Schnarr, River Relief’s Director, went over some safety rules and prepared us for what we could expect to encounter—how to handle syringes and potentially hazardous chemicals, how to recognize poison ivy. “If you take a step and sink in mud, don’t step in with your other foot,” he said.  Made sense. He warned that river carp are sometimes irritated by the boat motors and may leap out of the water and land in the boat.

We put on life jackets and climbed into a low-floating metal boat, which ferried us upstream to a spot on the bank. Most of the volunteers came from area companies. I tagged along with a group from Bass Pro World. River Relief crew members had scouted the cleanup sites earlier to make sure they were accessible to the boats, weren’t near homeless encampments, and had lots of trash. No problem there. The water seems full of it. Red plastic cups and clear plastic bottles cruised by, carried by the current.

The river was busy with a flotilla of boats. I got out on the north bank just east of the I-29 bridge. Outfitted with a pair of gloves and a blue plastic trash sack, I climbed the bank and got busy. In almost no time, my bag was full. I found chunks of white Styrofoam and white drink cups, plastic water bottles, a piece of an old tarp. Most of the litter was regular household stuff—cough syrup bottles, a full gallon of Arizona iced tea. How did these make their way to the bank of the Missouri river? (See explanation above.)

What I did not find: aluminum cans, cigarette packets, plastic bags. I imagine we’d find millions of those if we picked up later in the year, when the foliage dies back for winter.

The bank was heavily shaded, and I did note some native plants flourishing in the dim light. These sedges resemble liriope and are unpalatable to rabbits.

This was what it looked like beneath the trees with the river in the background.

Notice how beavers have gnawed on this cottonwood trunk.

The banks were brushy with Horseweed and Queen Anne’s Lace. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any milkweed, although I spotted some solidago blooming.

No milkweed and no butterflies. I didn’t see any animals, either. Now home, I see at least three monarchs flitting around my yard every time I look out the window. They remind me of a litter of puppies rolling around, playing. I am constantly surprised by how much more wildlife activity I see in our yard compared to out in the forests. (We live about a mile west of the Plaza.) We have butterflies, bees, wasps, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, opossum, raccoons, and all kinds of birds. There’s always something twitching around out there, but when we go out to the woods, they’re often still.

Whenever I thought I’d finished, that I’d removed all the trash from a section of the bank, all I had to do was stand back and look at it for a minute and I’d see more.  The surface of the water was bumpy from all the debris floating by: new trash is being deposited constantly. I imagine for the fish, the water is an obstacle course of floating plastic.

I only spent about an hour picking up trash before the boat came back to pick us up. (I’d expected to spend longer.) It always feels great to be on water, and the Missouri River is so powerful and mysterious. Now I’ve been out in it on a boat, which I’ve never done before. As the woman operating the boat slowed when we approached the shore, sure enough, an enormous carp leaped out of the water.  I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture, but this photo from flickr shows what it was like. It looked like shot from a movie.

Back on shore, I nibbled some fried chicken and a biscuit from RC’s Fried Chicken, served up by some Rotary Club members in cardboard containers with no utensils.  I inspected some of the items entered in the Trash Collecting Contest, whose categories included most weird, most likely to be used as a weapon, and most useful—won by an MU fleece blanket.

We’ve only been producing plastic for sixty years, and according to a 2017 article in Science Daily,  “Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years.” For our purposes, plastic is forever: a plastic water bottle could take 450 years to decompose. As I drove home through downtown, watching people walking to lunch and coming home from the farmer’s market, I thought that if I could say anything to them it would be to throw their away their garbage.  Recycling is great but the main thing is to get trash into the trash and off the street. My next thought was that we need more cleanups like these. If every scout troop, church youth group, stroller-pushing parent, jogger, person who strolls along Indian Creek on Saturday morning, if all of us spent an hour picking up trash, sadly it wouldn’t make much difference—but it would get us all thinking about the problem. Problems don’t go away on their own usually. The first step in solving them is understanding that one exists.

For the next two months, Missouri River Relief is celebrating their twentieth anniversary by holding cleanups on the stretch of river between Kansas City to Columbia. The next one will be on August 28 in Sibley, MO, with another in Lexington on September 1, 2021.

Mid-August: what looks good now

Mid-August is a tricky time for gardens. The heat-scorched ground, baked grass, and shriveled foliage make this a good time to go on vacation: even Monty Don, host of BBC’s Gardener’s World, is off this week on holiday. Nevertheless, despite the harsh conditions, August is a time of abundance for many gardeners, especially ones who planted zucchini. For others, the faded flowers and dry, brown stems are discouraging reminders of time passing. Hatch chiles are already on sale at Price Chopper. School starts next week. Winter is just ahead.

Lots of summer still remains before the first frost arrives near the end of October—seventy-or-so days away. How can we make the most of the remaining time? I drove around looking to see what looks good now, and here’s what I found.

Light in August: the pollinator garden at KU Med continues to delight

Prairie plants: rudbeckia, milkweed, asters, etc.

The rudbeckia is blazing, the milkweed is alive with bees, asters are starting to unfurl. In fact, my wild garden is at its Monarch-supporting peak—which is great if you like the look of an unmowed vacant lot. I don’t particularly.  But having some things bloom at this time of year, when we’re always home, was part of why we went for natives in the first place.

Great black wasp on milkweed
Great black wasp on milkweed

The butterfly and bee activity has picked up, I’m happy to report. I worried Monarch numbers had dwindled this year—because of that April freeze, or perhaps because my neighbors sprayed for mosquitoes.  It’s true, overall numbers have fallen dramatically, but these days I can count on seeing a couple fluttering around whenever I glance outside. That makes the garden’s shagginess worthwhile, almost. But I’d like to keep the same amount of habitat, just have it be more shapely.

Bed of flowers in front of St. Agnes Catholic Church, Roeland Park, KS


You know what looks good this time of year? Annuals. This bed in front of St. Agnes is more my taste—less unkempt and wild. Perennials Russian Sage and Coreopsis mix with mounds of marigolds, zinnias, and lantana; Mexican heather; some low succulent; and even a hosta.  

The spiky thing is variegated iris.


Look at these cannas, seen from the window of a doctor’s office in Overland Park. I don’t know what the idea is here with them rising from the bed of begonias, but these plants must be tough to flourish beside the hot concrete.  They don’t do much for pollinators, however.


Some roses are blooming now, like these charming climbers, and this coral one on its second flowering. I believe it’s a hybrid tea. It came with the house.


Hydrangeas are having an amazing year. So many types are flowering. Some bees love, like the oak-leaf hydrangea towering over my back fence.  Others are sterile as, I suspect, are the Annabelles (Hydrangea arborescens) in our yard. I’m not too excited about them but learned last fall how easy they are to divide—so easy even I managed to do it. Now we have three.  I don’t like where they are, though, so they’re on my to-move list.

These are my plants to move as soon as the temperature cools

That list is growing long. In the meantime, enjoy these days while you can—”Summer’s lease has all too short a date.” Stay safe and thanks for reading.

Right plants, wrong place

Doesn’t that picture look fabulous? Unfortunately, that’s not my garden. It’s just one I admire. As the one-year anniversary of this blog approaches, my wild garden is looking wilder than ever. Instead of an attractive, well cared for perennial border, our plants look like what you’d growing see in a ditch.

That is not what I had in mind at all. This is what I had in mind:

Not my garden, unfortunately

Cheery clumps of rudbeckia are blooming now in every flower bed and every parking lot in town–so I know it’s possible to get this effect.

But in my ignorance I selected a variety that grows five feet tall. The same thing happened with the milkweed. The botanical gardens have pretty little knee-high sprigs that butterflies buzz around. Mine is like bamboo.

Who would have predicted all those tiny plants I bought as plugs would grow to be so huge? (I know, someone who read the descriptions more carefully.) The rudbeckia has crowded out many other lovelies, some of which are barely hanging on down in the shadows. Something’s got to give. It’s too hot now to start relocating things, but I dug up some that were in danger of dying and will replant them when the weather cools. Our table is now a plant hospital.

I run outside every few minutes to check if any new leaves have sprouted. 

Some of my purchases have been pleasant surprises, thriving where I planted them–like the Agastache I got at Family Tree on a whim. The Achillea, bought at the same time, doesn’t look like much now but has bloomed steadily all summer. And this Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye weed) is a compact variety.

A visit to the Kauffman Gardens convinces me that I have the right plants, just in the wrong places. They have some super-tall sunflowery things growing in their pollinator area, but they’re judiciously spaced among other, lower plants. The picture doesn’t do them justice, but they look great.

Before I do anything rash, I’m going to consult with a pro. (More on that later.) In the meantime, it’s hard to feel too sour in the midst of all this gloriousness. Happy summer and thanks for reading!

The pursuit of happiness

My postings are growing fewer and farther between as we sink into summer. Margaret Roach calls this throw-in-the-trowel time. Don’t do it! she says. But why not? My garden looks terrible, no two ways about it, a victim of whiteflies, Japanese beetles, and my own ignorance and bad planning.  There isn’t much I can do to correct that at the moment. This is a good time for a vacation.

Last week I was in Colorado, relaxing with family in a beloved cabin.

Colorado is where I first learned to love the outdoors. For me, growing up in Houston, Colorado was a revelation. I like to say I’d never been outside before. Don’t get me wrong, I love Houston, but the climate is brutal. When I was in college in Austin, a friend once said he disliked air conditioning, surprising me so much I almost dropped my beer. Dislike air conditioning? I’d never heard of such a thing. We Houstonians are like astronauts, completely dependent on mechanical systems that allow us to breathe.

My folks, like many of us in Texas, would pack the kids into the Buick and drive up through Wichita Falls and Amarillo, across the Panhandle and the corner of New Mexico, past Walsenburg and Pueblo with its piles of slag. The sign, “This is it! Eighter from Decatur. County seat of Wise,” was a noteworthy landmark. The cattle were white-faced Herefords. Now they’re mostly Black Angus. Abandoned gray farmhouses dotted the landscape, empty but still standing since the Great Depression. Most of those have collapsed by now.

We followed a yellow line that zigged across the pages of a Trip Tik and read about the historical markers in AAA’s Tour Book. Every time we filled up, we calculated our gas mileage. After two days, we arrived in Grand Lake, where we’d stay for two weeks.

Now back in Kansas City, it looks like what we missed was rain. Before we returned, I dreamed that rabbits and insects had munched all my plants down to stems. The truth isn’t that bad, but everything is green and shaggy. It’s all the same green, too, and all the plants are the same height. The result is monotonous–but it doesn’t have to be this way, as this stunning border in front of the University of Kansas Medical Center shows.

Not my garden!

I spied dianthus, stacchys ‘Hummelo,’ a compact Rose of Sharon, day lily, rudbeckia, sedum, a fringy thing that looks like dill, white phlox, joe pye weed, and liatris.

I have a lot of these, but not in as-good places. I came home and dug up a couple plants that were barely hanging on in their current locations. I’m going to keep them in pots for a while and try relocating them in September. Now that I know how bushy and big some of these prairie plants become, I’m going to try for more variety in height and better spacing.

The other morning I visited an estate sale and bought a book that I’m convinced will change everything, The Garden Design Book by Cheryl Merser, a former editor of Garden Design magazine.

Just reading the jacket copy gives me a sense of the force of this writer’s personality, her voice is so strong. I’m sure I’d like her.

I feel drawn to the woman who owned the book, too. I wandered through her house in Coleman Highlands, admiring her collection of porcelain and Asian prints. She loved contemporary fiction, gardening, and cooking. In addition to the garden book, I brought home two favorites I’ve never owned, a paperback of Kitchen Confidential and Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells.

I met Patricia Wells while I was a stagiaire at La Varenne, and since someone recently asked to hear more about those days, I’ll share the story. Patricia asked several of us working at the school to help her with a dinner party, to do things like clear away used glasses and refill the buffet table. “Several of us” included me, Martha Holmberg, Laura Garrett, and I believe a few others.

This was my first glimpse of a certain kind of grown-up apartment. It’s hard to describe how novel that was for me, completely unfamiliar. I and my friends lived in tiny dorm rooms and chambres de bonne, which didn’t have bathrooms so we showered at public bains-douches every few days.  The apartment Patricia shared with her husband (editor of the International Herald Tribune) was as spacious as a house, with several rooms, tasteful and traditional—like Ina Garten’s place, or the Upper East Side apartment in Hannah and Her Sisters but not as cluttered. Patricia was hosting a party for a couple who were visiting from New York. The man was a psychiatrist. As I walked around, picking up crumpled bevnaps, I overheard a guest say to him, “Sometimes just I don’t like my children.”  He listened with a pained expression.

He had baked Patricia some bread, an American-style loaf, with a soft crust and even crumb, really good. The other guests, all French, left it untouched, so we Americans gobbled it down afterwards. I still remember how delicious it was, smeared with butter.  The dinner was a success, and Patricia was pleased. She said she’d love to have us back—“You too,” she said to me.  I was the least experienced of the group. My impression was that she was warm, genuine, and elegant—which I felt, and still feel, are excellent ways to be.

If I can draw conclusions about a person’s character from their possessions, the woman who owned this book was much the same. I’ve discovered post-its and slips of shopping lists tucked between the pages, signs that she actually read them. One says “4-6 leeks,” in handwriting that resembles my own.

Both the book’s owner and author have died.  Garden Design Magazine has ceased its print publication, and the International Herald Tribune has folded. So much in the world has changed since we were young in it. But Patricia Wells is alive and well and living in Paris.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Last week I helped a friend move to her new apartment. The amount of stuff she’d accumulated after living in her house for twenty-one years was mind boggling. I kept thinking what things would be like if we moved. I hold onto things far too long, always have. I still have corsages from high school dances. I’ve saved every letter, every card I’ve ever received, from grandparents long dead and camp friends whose names I don’t remember.  I can’t exactly throw them away now, after keeping them for so long. Can I?

Maybe I can’t do much about our crowded attic, but I can crack down on new nostalgia. When our wonderful little dog Coco died last summer—she was seven years old to the day—I wisely decided not to keep her ashes. (The ashes of another pet have been sitting in the living room for decades.) I’ve been looking for a way to memorialize her—which brings me to the gardening part of this post. 

I discovered a type of rose called Koko Loco. Coco Loco was what we called our dog, so I ordered one from Heirloom Roses.  They describe it as moderately fragrant Floribunda with lavender blooms with a chocolate undertone.

It arrived this week, a pale little twig in a long box. The explanatory note says they remove the leaves for shipping, and that I should see regrowth within 2-3 weeks. I saw regrowth immediately, the day after I pulled it out of the box.

A leaf!

This will be almost my first attempt at growing roses.  We did have two already here when we moved in, but one reverted to its rootstock. It’s common to graft tender roses onto hardier rootstock so they’ll survive in colder zones. I think the bottom part of mine was a Dr. Huey, a prolific spreader with dark wine blooms. It was unwieldy, so I moved it to a different location. I could have lived with it, but it got rose rosette disease. Eventually I got tired of fighting that and gave up.

This is a sign of maturity, I think.

Roses are intimidating to me, first of all, because there are so many types. Hybrid tea, grandiflora, floribunda. Studying a guide like this one reminds me of my daughter’s biology class.

Cultivation and hybridization of roses follow almost cultlike practices, it seems to me, and the plants are susceptible to diseases. But when that one remaining rose blooms once a year, wow.

The survivor

Roses do well in our area, obviously.  Millions are flowering now, and a visit to Loose Park’s rose garden is like a pilgrimage to a sacred space.  I admire the look of these, on my street: abundant flowers heaped on a stone wall.  Last week theylooked spectacular, although they’re a little past their prime now.

They make me feel like I’m in the Cotswolds.

Apparently, some roses are native to the U.S., but these tend to be the sprawling types with simple blooms. Prairie Nursery says this:

Native roses are visited by an array of pollinating insects, as they have easy access to nectar from the large-petalled landing pads. Both Rosa carolina and Rosa blanda are host plants for the Apple Sphinx Moth caterpillar. The bright red rosehips are a popular source of food for fruit-loving birds. Rosehips are high in vitamin C and can be used in teas.

The varieties with voluptuous clusters of dense blooms probably are not native, however.

I’m happy to have this addition to the garden and feel I’ve found the perfect way to remember our little friend. I love thinking about her, and I’m optimistic that the rose will thrive.

Having trouble with rabbits?

We always have rabbits, but this year they’re especially troublesome. The baby rabbits are so small, they squeeze through holes in the wire fencing I’ve used as barricades and are challenging my ingenuity. No matter what I do, they get through. I read the other day that rabbits dislike Irish Spring, and now I know why. That stuff is pungent. Now our whole house smells like Irish Spring. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do with it to discourage the bunnies, but I encircled some vulnerable plants (asters) with rings of little cubes of soap and will let you know how it goes.

They even eat chives.

My daughter’s friend said his dad surrounded desired plants with patches of clover with the idea that the rabbits would eat that instead.  I wonder if this works or if it just lures more rabbits to the area, like those Japanese Beetle traps.

Happy gardening and thanks for reading!

Watering the garden, not the plants

Isn’t this a great time of year, when everything is so lush and green? The gardens are thriving. Garden tours have returned. The peonies popped open, and then the roses.  Nevertheless, the real story is rain.

The internet tells me Kansas City’s average rainfall amount for May is 5.39”. Some of us had more than that on one day. The National Weather Service says we’ve had nine consecutive days of rain, with more coming.

Curious isn’t it that 1993, the year it rained pretty much perpetually, isn’t on this list? The rain may feel extreme while we’re going through it, but I think pretty much the same thing happens every year. Remember how Westport flooded last year, on May 28, 2020?

All this moisture has been great for plants. The short little plugs I bought last year have sprung up, thick and lush, so tall they screen whatever is growing behind them from sight.  I’m afraid the placement of most of them is all wrong. Short ones should be in front, tall in back, but they were all short when I planted them.

Even plants I divided last year are burgeoning. This hosta threatens to spill into the driveway. 

Why is rain so much better for the garden than watering?

I always assumed that it’s because rainfall uniformly soaks the ground, and misty days like the ones we’ve had water gently and over a significant period of time. Still, the plants look like they’ve been fertilized, and it turns out they have been.  Not only does rain water lack chlorine, which can harm plants, it can contain nitrogen in forms plants can absorb. Rain water also leaches away salts.

In this interview from last summer with Margaret Roach, The New York Botanical Garden’s Daryl Beyers talks about “watering the garden, not the plants.” By that he means watering the soil, which is where plants get all the water they use. He goes into detail about all the different ways plants use water and more.

Should you set a timer or stick to manual? Use drip irrigation or spray? I’ve heard all of these recommended, but when it comes to watering, no one approach works for everything.

Peony Power

All this moisture has been great for the peonies, one of the flowers that wowed me when I first moved here. We don’t have them in Texas. They’re natives of central Asia, but clearly they do well here as the many spectacular examples blooming now show.  

Our next-door neighbors had a hedge of peonies growing along the back of their property, like a big pink ruffle when they bloomed. They must have been thirty years old.  When those neighbors moved, the new ones tore them out and installed new landscaping, which seemed tragic to me. I love peonies. I and one of the workmen rescued several plants from the trash, brought them home and planted them.  This was probably six years ago. I always hear that perennials resent being moved, and that must have been the case because the plants were spindly and flowerless, and vulnerable to fungus.  Sleep, creep, then leap they say? These slept for six years. Still, they persisted, and this year, boom. The rain powered up the flowers.

I like that scarlet thread.

To thrive, peonies need a cold winter dormant season and abundant moisture during the early part of the growing season, which they apparently got this year. The best time to plant them is in fall, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.

Can you name this plant?

Finally, do you know what this is?

PlantNet says it’s Amorpha fruticosa L., False indigo bush. I is wrong. This is Leadplant, Amorpha canescens. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says it can grow one-to-three feet tall, but this one is closer to five. The flowers are the most striking color combination: deep purple and orange. It’s growing in my across-the-street neighbor’s front yard, surrounded by golden groundsel.

I’m posting this too late to share to the Kansas City Gardening Facebook Group, which is where I get most of my readers. The group is going on a ten-day hiatus. I love seeing the pictures of flowers and will miss reading the members’ questions and comments. I don’t know what problem they’re having with Facebook’s algorithm, but I want to say thank you to the admins for maintaining the forum. The group has been a real treat.

Best wishes for a safe, happy Memorial Day. Thanks for reading!

Gardening with dog

Something bad-ish happened this week.

This iron trellis-thing weighs about forty pounds. It’s anchored to the fence, but apparently not securely enough. The other day, our young dog was messing around back there, chasing a squirrel running on the fence, and knocked it loose. The heavy trellis fell on top of my plants—and smushed the wild garden. 

I’ll spare you the sight of the broken stems and flattened foliage. (Here is a picture of the dog instead, looking unperturbed.)

I mourned for a minute, then hoisted the trellis back up, tied it more securely, and tidied up the debris. What else could I do? I’m disappointed, but the plants are all perennials. They’ll survive. Although some are a total loss for the year, it’s still early. Others might catch up and still bloom, just with fewer flowers. I didn’t expect many flowers anyway. These are the plugs I planted last month, so the plants are still miniature. I expect they’ll take a two-to-three years to get established.  Perennials “sleep, creep, then leap,” according to my knowledgeable friend. This year the big work will be going on beneath the ground.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the area I planted last year for signs of creep. Some of the plants are definitely taking off, like the coreopsis I worried was dead, and this monarda which, true to its reputation, is spreading. It did not bloom at all last year. Is it time to do some division?

How do you feel about allium? Me, I love all blue and purple flowers. I do recall planting some allium bulbs last year, but not this many. Star-studded globes have popped up all over the yard—in front, back, on the sides—making a visual argument against planting groups of one.  The rabbits like biting the scapes—not eating, biting. They snap them in two and leave the flower on the ground while they hop off to nibble something else, like the asters which, if I don’t protect them, they gnaw down to stems.  If I’d planted all the allium bulbs in one area, I could encircle it with a little fence.

I don’t know what I was thinking, planting that allium so randomly, but this reminds me of a story. Many years ago, I had a wonderful experience living and working in France at La Varenne, Anne Willan’s cooking school in northern Burgundy. In the fall, Anne had given her gardener, Monsieur Milbert, some daffodil bulbs to plant, and in the spring they popped up in long, single rows, like corn or something. 

“It never occurred to me to tell him to put them in a clump,” Anne said.

Château du Feÿ, former home of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine

This year, spring is trundling along, despite the cool temperatures, and now more things than I know the names of are in bloom. Each day brings us one day closer to summer. I realize I think of summer as normal, and all other times as aberrations. Maybe this is a result of growing up in Texas, which has a lot more summer than most other places. All winter long I wait to get back to normal. I’m also aware that I’ve always thought of gardening as planting, but my definition is expanding to include tasks like transplanting digging, clipping, pruning, watering, and even a few more.

Speaking of summer, watching the grape leaf out on south fence makes me wonder if taking elaborate precautions to ward off Japanese beetles, birds, and chipmunks is worthwhile. I’ve tried many things—traps, dish soap, neem, and enveloping the entire trellis in black tulle, but I can’t say that any of it worked. I’ve never tasted a grape from this vine, although it produces plenty of them. I just won’t surrender. I read a garden blog this week that recommended tying all the fruit bunches in paper lunch bags, which I’ve also done. Some enterprising creature slashed through each one and gobbled up the fruit inside.

Maybe I should make little net bags? Like I said, I’ve never tasted a grape, but this could be the year.

Having a strong interest in anything can be a boon to your family members when the time comes for them to give you a gift. Since starting this blog, I’ve received an excellent set of hand tools, two pairs of gardening gloves, some swamp milkweed plants (watch out!), and a beautiful planter. This year for my birthday, my teenage daughter, knowing about my interest in native grasses, gave me two pots of pampas grass.

They look harmless now…

This creates a dilemma for me, as pampas is not one of the grasses I like. Pampas grass is not native to this area, has razor-sharp foliage, and grows to be ten feet tall.  Where will I put it? The Writers Place had some growing in front when I worked there, and every spring I had to go out and hack at it with a machete. 

On the other hand, this was so thoughtful of my daughter.  She keeps asking if I like it.

What should I do? (After thanking her, of course, which I did immediately.)  Google “how to react when your kid gives you a gift you don’t care for?” How about “grow pampas grass in containers?

Apparently, this is possible, so I will try it.

I wonder what happened to that machete.

To finish, here are some things we have to look forward to in the coming weeks. Some blueberries survived last month’s freeze, and what a year it’s going to be for the peonies. I can’t wait!