What to do in the garden this week

What should we be doing in the garden this week? Honestly, I have no idea. I’m new to this. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m afraid that if I dig things up and move them around, I’ll kill them. I have a long history of making ridiculous mistakes—like when I first started gardening and tried growing tomatoes from seed. I read that I needed to plant them in some medium other than soil, so I scattered the seeds in a tray of sheep manure, dampened it, and put it in my gas oven. I thought that the warmth from the pilot light would coax them into sprouting. It did not. No one who lived in my apartment building will ever forget that experiment.

For a long time, my garden had no budget and no plan—but it did have plants. Many popped up on their own and reproduced aggressively, like rose of Sharon, rose, oregano. For a while the garden’s theme was “found plants.” I have many that people threw away and I brought home and planted—like day lilies and irises from our neighborhood’s entrance plantings, and astilbe I rescued from a neighbor’s yard waste bag. When professional landscapers dug up the peonies that grew along the neighbor’s fence like a pink ruffle, I took some.

The alyssum grown from seeds planted in the bed in front of the house years ago just keep sprouting.

Sometimes they sprout in less-than desirable places but I don’t have the heart to kill them.

What a bonus, right? Mine really is a wild garden. As George Orwell says, “The pleasures of spring are available to everybody and cost nothing.” That’s true of all the seasons, and of gardening too. The value plants bring us cannot be measured in dollars. However, although I must have wanted these plants at some time, I don’t anymore. I don’t like where they are. Even plants I’ve purchased are growing in the wrong place now. My garden is a wild weed patch.

This volunteer butterfly bush is the smallest of three.

I find it hard to understand that anyone would actually buy a butterfly bush. The butterflies love them, though, so I haven’t had the heart to cut mine down.

What can I do?

I can learn to move things. I can Google. I can read. I can ask. I can risk.

I’ve got to be willing to risk failure. I don’t like killing things. It goes against my grain. I’m programmed to help things grow. But as with a lot of questions, when we surrender control, we surrender to aggressive forces we don’t want.

Like these tomatoes. Years ago I noticed a plant sprouting in a crack in the driveway, transplanted it, and look what happened. They’d take over the entire yard if I let them. Each year, more spout. Now there are a couple different varieties. Their yield is prolific, but the fruit is not especially flavorful.

I hope that as I learn more, I’ll become more confident about moving plants and cutting them back, and even killing them when necessary. When I move one plant and it dies, it feels tragic; if I move dozens, I’m bound to lose a few. It’s a lot like submitting fiction to magazines, come to think of it. Submitting in quantity can lessen failure’s inevitable sting. The stakes vary depending on the plant. Day lilies are pretty much expendable, but we’ve had a hydrangea for many years that I’m considering moving. A hydrangea this large would be expensive. I bought it and have watched it grow, so I feel some affection for it. I had a sudden idea that it would be happier underneath some juniper trees, where the conditions resemble this planting at the Kauffman Memorial Garden.

So far I’ve watched videos about transplanting hydrangeas online, read articles, asked a knowledgeable friend for advice, and taken pictures of the actual plant to Soil Service’s nursery to hear what they think. (They recommend waiting until November.) I’m doing my best to prepare for success, in other words. But eventually I’m just going to have to start digging.

I’ll let you know how it goes. My workaround for the bland tomatoes is to roast them (tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, 350-degree oven, 10-15 minutes). If you want some seedlings when they sprout next year, just let me know.

Dutch Master

If you’re like me, as you go about your day, you’re always on the lookout for plantings that are out of the ordinary.  You may have noticed these on the west side of Ward Parkway at 64th Terrace. 

Isn’t this spectacular?  This is from June.  Each month something different has bloomed:  red monarda, gold rudbeckia, magenta liatris, and now purple obedient plant—topped off by a fountain of opulent pink mandevillas in the urns.  (Google tells me a common name for these is rocktrumpet, which I love.)  At times even zinnias and marigolds have bloomed around the base. I love these plantings so much I jog to visit them twice a week.

I’m not their only fan.  I’ve seen traffic slow as people pass by, admiring these.  I mentioned them to a friend whose interest in gardening has deepened this year, like my own.  She not only knew which ones I meant, she said this:

(You can understand why we are friends.)

These plantings are the work of gardener Jacques Bredius, who lives nearby.  The Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City featured his and Danny Bowman’s lush, spectacular garden on their 2015 tour.  Their large backyard has several different areas, a mix of sun and shade, which allows them lots of variety.  Its centerpiece is a water feature surrounded by pollarded Bradford pear trees.  I’ve seen trees trimmed like this in France, but not so often here:  the foliage is cut dramatically to prevent limbs from splitting but allow for show-stopping blooms in spring.

(I’m not much of a photographer, so here is an image from the Kansas City Star’s article about the tour, taken by Tammy Ljungblad.).

Bredius says he’s been taking care of the entrance plantings for thirty-one years, fine tuning them into a satisfying mix that doesn’t change much from year to year.  He says it doesn’t change much, but I suspect that his “maintaining” would be “major renovation” for me.  This year he added marigolds, and when he didn’t like the effect, he then took out. He seems to approach gardening with a spirit of experimentation.  He’s not afraid to move stuff, cut things back, or change things around—whereas I’m always worried about making mistakes. 

How did he get interested in gardening?  He says it was in the air.  He grew up in the Netherlands, and he praises its fertile, sandy soils and mild climate that lacks the temperature extremes we have here: “Everything grows there.”  However, since he lived in an apartment, he had no opportunity to garden until his family purchased a seaside cottage when he was twelve years old.  It was two hours away, and he describes going there with his sister on Friday afternoons, riding their bikes, taking the ferry.  He began spending his allowance on plants, and says, “That’s when I began to live.”

Isn’t that wonderful?  How many people start gardening when they’re kids? I remember planting some vegetable seeds in a rocky bed behind of our house—basically tossing them on the ground and hoping they’d sprout, like the hippies in Easy Rider.  No one in Bredius’ family taught or inspired him, as they were all apartment dwellers.  He learned by trial and error, not by visiting gardens or looking at photographs.  When he travels, he prefers to visit the beach.

I like that this entrance planting uses native perennials that are well adapted to our area and beneficial to pollinators, but it doesn’t look like a prairie planting.  The style isn’t country.  Instead, it’s sumptuous and formal, like a Dutch still life.

By Jan Davidsz de Heem – © Wikimedia commons

I think the urn and mandevilla are key.  They’re an example of the unifying power of the focal point.  There’s something energizing about the tension between the upright things and the other foliage. And what are those pink flowers dripping down the side of the urn?

Last week I was feeling a little low after some sad things happened, and suddenly I felt very close to the many people around us who are suffering from sadness.  Spots of beauty like this literally give a physical feeling of relief.  I’m grateful that I got to talk to Jacques Bredius, too. Our conversation was wide-ranging, touching on travel, exercise, family, career.  I learned more about gardening and plants than I would have in months on my own.  I came away thinking, this man knows how to live. It was also the first time I’ve talked to someone new in six months.

Unexpected generosity can cast a warm glow.  You don’t really know who it will touch, or how.  Later that evening I drove by the plantings again and saw a woman get out of her parked car and move toward them, holding her camera.


In elementary school, the assignment to write about your summer vacation was always my favorite. We just got back from an impromptu trip to Wisconsin, and I planned to write about the native plants growing beside the highways, and how hanging baskets and window boxes of petunias and geraniums refute my criticisms of annuals.  Then we visited Taliesin.

Looking at Taliesin from hill crown © Wikimedia commons

While this blog focuses on me learning to garden with native plants, perhaps some of you share my interest in created environments of all kinds.  And there are some gardens there. Taliesin was a living laboratory, a place for Wright to try out his ideas, and although the gardens went through several iterations, they’ve been restored to the way they were at the time of Wright’s death in 1959.  (Why not to the way they were in 1914? In 1925? I’m always interested in what we choose to preserve.)

Visitors to Taliesin in August 2020 wearing masks and social distancing. © Norman Friedman

Visitors enter into an enclosed Japanese-feeling courtyard with koi ponds (empty) and an arbor constructed of painted drainpipes supporting a wisteria.

Homemade trellis © Wikimedia commons

What I know about Frank Lloyd Wright is about as superficial as an encyclopedia entry, but everybody knows a little about him. My husband is an architect, and we sometimes visit Wright buildings when we travel.  If there’s one around we’ll check it out:  Taliesin West, the reconstructed Bachman-Wilson house at Crystal Bridges. I think what we’ve seen is pretty cool, but I was unprepared for just how special I found Taliesin. Seeing it made me want to live a better life.  

© Wikimedia commons

Being inside this house is like being (some might say trapped) within a distinctive intelligence.  It’s an expression of Wright’s mind and imagination. The building doesn’t just shelter and house. It makes an argument about how to live.

One quality he famously emphasized was a connection to the outdoors. The house is built on hillside, and its main feature is enormous windows overlooking the valley below. Only glass separates you from trees and grass. 

Images of main rooms

This longing for a connection to the outdoors seems to me to be a recent phenomenon.  Only people who are separated from the outdoors want connection to it. Previous generations wanted to keep the outdoors out.  Their goal was to lessen discomfort. They constructed buildings to shut out the cold, wet, stinging insects, and other pests. 

Although the view from Taliesin is pastoral, the house doesn’t evoke nostalgia. Wright used contemporary materials: plate glass, steel-reinforced concrete.  The house nestles into the side of a hill, but at the same time it’s distinct from it, with straight lines and horizontal planes that don’t exist in nature. I find the tension this creates pleasing.

I loved the way it felt inside, but I think I’d feel uncomfortable living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house—as I understand most residents did since the structures famously leaked and were impossible to heat.  Taliesin is a house for extraverts.  It’s huge, for one thing, and the design seems to force inhabitants to spend all their time together in one big room. That may be fine for a family who likes to read aloud and perform music together, but I’d miss privacy.  I thrive in a study carrel or attic nook. (Actually, this preference for sequestering myself is one I’m trying to combat by starting a blog.) I’m not too concerned about Wright’s tiny kitchen—I’m a messy cook and prefer to close the doors and shut others out while I work—but are there any closets?  A Wright house forces residents to live in the present.  There’s no room for memorabilia or outgrown clothes (sentimentality and magical thinking). Perhaps this is good. They kept busy enjoying the views and basking in the glow of the natural light spilling through the plate glass windows or, when it rained, moving buckets around to catch the drips.

I think it’s customary to end blog posts with a question to encourage comments. Have you visited any houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and what did you think? What about them appealed to you, and what didn’t?

How Shaggy Is Too Shaggy?

I love this idea. These galvanized circles look like a great way to define and control a prairie planting. These are at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center.

A few years ago I attended an information session here co-sponsored by the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative (now Deep Roots) about landscaping with native plants. I was already receptive to their arguments.  Plants adapted to our climate that require little extra water or fertilizer and support birds and butterflies—who wouldn’t want to use those?  Also, I was tired of watching my plants die.  I walked out of the auditorium and have never bought another annual.

For Mother’s Day that year I received four common milkweed plants, and our story changed.

At the information session, I remember the speaker cautioned that neighbors might not “see the value” in native plantings. (When I showed a friend what was going on in my yard, she called it “gardening with weeds.”) The speaker recommended enclosing plantings with a border or edge to lend the beds definition and show intent. Logical choices could be natural materials like limestone, or split cedar rails that put one in mind of prairie farms, like these at the Shawnee Indian Mission. 

Some beds at the Gorman Center have limestone edging.

Of course, I decided to use neither of these.  I like shaggy—but I think our plantings are too shaggy. Most of what I read say common milkwood grow to four feet, but ours grew to six.  Now there’s an error of scale.  The plants in the bed shouldn’t be taller than the bed’s width. They should be about half as tall as the bed width.

I’m going to enlarge the bed.

Suddenly Nervous

Suddenly nervous about exposing the depths of my gardening ignorance, I checked out a book.

Apparently, Bold Romantic Gardens, published in 1990 by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, “revolutionized” landscape gardening with their preference for grasses and perennials– not mixed as in a prairie but planted in masses.  Called the “New American Garden” style, their approach was the subject of a 25th anniversary retrospective project by The Cultural Landscape Foundation in 2015. 

Looking at the photographs in the book, I sense something dated about them. The high contrast between the masses of red and yellow tulips and the brown bark mulch feels like the 1980’s—like an oriental rug with a green background.

Bold Romantic Gardens

Designing for four-season interest and the preference for perennials have endured. I recognize most of the plants listed in their glossary of favorites, although I suspect that in 1990 these would have been less familiar to people. 

The authors call the traditional way we Americans plant evergreen bushes around the foundations of our houses “giving up”:  “We utterly reject foundation planting as a waste.” (They also decry planting plants in a straight line anywhere.) Instead they advocate placing tall plants nearer the street, a little ways away from the house, to create a sense of enclosure, a garden “room.”

In addition to photographs, the book includes some actual garden plans, which is helpful to me because I have a hard time imagining what you actually have to do to get these effects. It would be even more helpful if the plans included the numbers of plants used.

How much of an impact did they have? On my jog this morning I looked for examples of their approach. I live in an established, one-hundred-year-old suburb, where many of the plantings date from thirty years ago.  Van Sweden’s New York Times obituary says that “legions of designers and home gardeners embraced the firm’s style,” but I find little evidence of this in my neighborhoods. The lawn is alive and well.

Could this be an example of what Oehme and van Sweden mean by “reclaim the lawn?” (I think it might be.)

Most plantings I see that aren’t beside a house are borders that do things like screen a front walk or circle driveway.

I doubt that’s quite what they had in mind as the “New American Front Yard.” I imagine they’re thinking more along the lines of this Kansas City house, built in 1910.

With a little TLC, I could see this becoming an exquisite garden room.


Rudbeckia in bloom at the Shawnee Indian Mission
Butterfly Garden – Shawnee Indian Mission

In August when my garden is lanky, its colors fading, and some flowers have started to brown, all around I see Black-Eyed Susans powering up the blooms. 

Rudbeckia in bloom
These rudbeckia are in a neighbor’s yard.
Rudbeckia - Westwood Hills, KS

Our HOA did its best to eliminate everything but begonias and liriope from these entrance plantings.

Naturalized Rudbeckia
Still, she persisted.

The sight of these big golden beauties feels like being smiled at.  Wherever they are, Black-eyed Susans look good.

Back in March when I planned for summer I predicted I’d feel this way, so my order included five rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan). They’ve outgrown the surrounding plants and flopped over, like an adolescent whose nose grew faster than the rest of his face.

rudbeckia subtomentosa

My go-to guide, Roy Diblik’s The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, says they’ll be ten to 18 inches—in late spring. I must have overlooked the next line, which says they may reach up to 72” when in bloom.  Uh-oh. How did I make that mistake? Didn’t he say the bottom of each garden plan represents the front of the garden?  Did I have it backwards?

Everything will be okay.  As Diblik says, “As the planting matures, keep evaluating the relationships among its members.” I can always move them.

Still, I covet color. Although August isn’t the best time to plant here, and although I maxed out my garden budget months ago, I broke down and bought a couple plants at Suburban last week. These are Rudbeckia fulgida, Little Goldstar, a more compact variety. 

The rabbits munched them down to stems.

So now they’re encased in wire cages. No worries!  They’ll be back. In the meantime, the lanky plants I planted in spring have begun to flower.

The closed petals look like little yellow baskets.