The Impatient Gardener: February 2012

24 February 2012

Four-star perennials

Last Saturday I attended a garden seminar (I just love going to garden seminars and shows in late winter; it is so fun to dream) where Richard Hawke, the plant evaluation manager for the Chicago Botanic Garden was the keynote speaker. I've gone to a lot of seminars, speeches, talks, etc. for work and pleasure, and Hawke was one of the better presenters I've heard. And best of all he gave the kind of gardening presentation I like best.

See, mostly I just want people to tell me what to plant and why and then show me pictures of how pretty it is. And that's what Hawke did.

Hawke, whose name you might recognize if you're a Fine Gardening magazine reader because he's been writing a few stories for them about the plants he likes best from the botanic garden trials, shared a list of "four-star" plants that have done particularly well in trials.

Originally the Chicago Botantic Garden tested plants for winter hardiness and nothing else, but these days they are looking for four things: cultural adaptability to the soil and environment of the test site, winter hardiness, disease and pest resistance, and ornamental and habit traits. They allow a minimum of four years for evaluation and offer almost no care other than watering as needed and mulching (for water conservation as Hawke says he is convinced that mulch provides no protection from weeds). They don't fertilize, stake or protect from critters (in most cases). They deadhead only to see how plants respond to it.

The idea is that they are testing plants for the average homeowner, not the average gardener, because so many people stick plants in the ground and never touch them again other than to water them on occasion. So gardeners who are more attentive to their plants might find even better results.

So that's how the trials work. And here's part of the list of plants Hawke considers to be "four-star" plants (it's quite long, so I'm picking some of the plants I found to be most interesting). Remember, these trials were done in Chicago so it generally applies to zone 5 or so and climate such as you'd find in the Midwest. I'll put my comments on each plant in italics.

Northcreek Nurseries photo
Agastache 'Black Adder' (hyssop) Zone 5-8; Full sun
Lavender flowers with purple blue calyces give the 7-inch long inflorescence a darker appearance; 48" tall and wide; robust, bushy habit and long-blooming. This Agastache does not produce seedlings so it is easier to manage than many others that seed like crazy.

Plainview Farm photo
Aruncus 'Misty Lace' (Goat's beard) Zone 3-7; Full sun to partial shade
White flowers, in plumes to 14" long, blooms in late May to mid-June. 25" tall by 30" wide. The flowers on this goat's beard make up half the height of the plant which is why I'm intrigued by it even though I already have another goat's beard in my garden. It kind of looks like a giant astilbe, but with sparser plumes.

Chicagoland Grows photo
Baptisia 'Midnight' Midnight Prairieblues (false indigo) Zone 4-8; Full sun
Deep blue violet flowers to 24" long, blooms in late spring to early summer and reblooms on secondary branches. 42-48" tall by 54" wide. This was introduced in conjunction with the CBG and I grow it in my own garden. It is so much nicer than the regular Baptisia and it's one of those plants that lasts forever. As with all Baptisias, pick a spot carefully and keep it there because they don't like to be moved.

Plants Nouveau photo
Echinacea 'Milkshake' (coneflower) Zone 5-8; Full sun
Double creamy white flowers, 3" wide flowers blooming in mid-June to September. 30" tall by 24" wide; stiff stems and a bushy habit. I love all the new Echinaceas, but I've had horrible luck with them. None have lasted more than a couple years. I'm sure I've spent hundreds of dollars in Echinaceas that are now nowhere to be found my garden. Hawke says that while originally people were breeding for color, now they are looking for longevity, so I'm going to try 'Milkshake.' The general rule of thumb that the CBG has found is that if a coneflower goes into winter without basal growth (leaf growth from low on the stem), it's probably not going to be around come spring. If it does have basal growth, it will probably be fine. 

Eupatorium 'Phantom' (Joe pye weed) Zones 4-8; Full sun
Pale purple pink flowers, clusters to 7" wide, in late July to mid-August; 48" tall and wide with dark red/purple stems. Small bushy habit but taller than the promoted 36" inches tall. Mildew resistant. I have both 'Phantom' and 'Little Joe' starred on my list from Hawke and it's really a horse apiece as to which I liked better. This one is less well known than 'Little Joe' but they are both lovely.

Northcreek Nurseries photo
Nepeta racemosa 'Joanna Reed' (catmint) Zones 4-8; Full sun
Lavender blue flowers from mid-May to October, 24" tall by 48" wide. I love nepetas and Hawke says this one is "always in bloom." It is very rounded in a habit, like a blue-flecked meatball. That's my analogy, not Hawke's. That's probably why he gets paid to do this stuff and I don't.

Sandy's Plants photo
Pulmonaria 'Diana Clare' (lungwort) Zone 4-8; Shade to partial sun
Violet blue flowers open rosy pink in mid-April to late May; 12" tall by 26" wide, silver green leaves. I love pulmonarias too, and this one looks good all year. Honest. Well, so Hawke says anyway, and I'm buying it.

Fine Gardening photo
Rodgersia aesculifolia (fingerleaf rodgersia) Zones 5-7; Light to full shade
Palmate leaves with 5 to 9 leaflets; creamy white flowrs in large clusters to 24" long in late spring to midsummer; 36-72" tall and 48-72" wide, rhizomatous habit. Why am I not growing this plant? I need to be growing this plant. It has enormous leaves that offer that tropical look that is so hard to find lower than zone 8 or 9.

Syneilesis acontifolia (shredded umbrella plant) Zone 5-8; Light to full shade
Pale pink disk florets on stems to 42" tall in midsummer. Foliage mound is 18-24" tall by 24" wide. Dissected leaves to 12" wide, slowly spreads by rhizomes; moist soils best but adaptable to dry soils. This is another great foliage plant and a "must have" for my garden.

Native backyard photo
Vernonia lettermannii 'Iron Butterfly' (slimleaf ironwood) Zone 4-9 Full sun
Purple flowers, half-inch wide, bloom in late August to early October; 30" tall by 45" wide; foliage reminiscent of Amsonia hubrichtii; tolerant of dry conditions but not overly wet soils; more compact than the species. I love that this plant blooms late. So hard to keep the garden going at that time of year.

For more on the Chicago Botanic Garden's plant trials including reports on many of their trials, go to

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20 February 2012

More spray paint magic: This time on hinges

Having successfully spray painted a handful of odd things including a lamp (including the shade) and our wall-mounted stereo speakers, I'm far more inclined to at least give spray paint a chance to improve a situation before buying something new. And once again, spray paint has come through!

As I've said from the beginning, it was crucial to keep the office renovation on a shoestring budget. There are some great deals to be found on cabinet hardware (the handles I got from Ikea were incredibly well priced, I thought) but hinges are a whole other thing. And there are 32 hinges on the small wall of cabinets in my office. Even if, by some miracle, I found hinges for $2 each, I'd already be at $64. No way, José.

All that shiny brass hardware HAD to go!
I had nothing to lose by trying to spray paint them. And thankfully, after all that pain of staining the counters and painting the cabinets, this was an incredibly easy project.

I took them all off when I was painting the cabinet doors and plunged them in a bucket of my favorite pre-paint cleaner Dirtex and gave them a really good scrub with a stiff-bristle brush. I'm not sure what was on them, but they were really dirty.

I pulled out one of the many old bedsheets I save for projects like this as well as for moving, protecting plants from an early or late-season frost and covering up the dog bed and just laid them out in the driveway on that. Lest anyone forget how long ago I started this project, just take a look at these pictures. It was fall!

I picked up Rust-Oleum Universal in Titanium Silver, only because it was the only silver-toned metallic spray paint available at the hardware store that day (I would have gone for a satin nickel if it had been available). I've really gotten the hang of spray painting and like everyone says, the key is to do several very light coats. So light that the first few don't really look like much paint has been applied. It's not really until the third time I go over it that it is a different color and I usually do at least one more coat. This all happens in the span of about 15 minutes. When you're doing super thin coats, it doesn't take long for them to dry. I did give them a good hour or so to dry before I flipped them over and did the other side.

Sidenote: When on earth are those Viburnums that I planted to screen the neighbor's shed and never-used boat going to grow enough to do some actual screening? Speaking of which, does anyone want to buy my neighbor's house? Supposedly it's quietly for sale. If you buy it and move that godforsaken boat off the property line, I promise I will offer you first choice of any plants I dig up, divide or don't have room for.

Then I brought in spray paint drying supervisor Hudson to guard them while they dried. OK, I didn't really. He apparently thought that we should have bedsheets in the driveway all the time and why on earth wouldn't you sit on it if someone laid it out all nice like that.

I did have to buy new screws because I figured painting the old ones would be either a big pain or a massive failure or both.
Ack! I wish I had fixed that screw to turn it north-south before taking this picture. I hate when slotted screws aren't lined up.

I've been really impressed with how well the hinges have held up. I'm not seeing any wear on them at all. Granted, these cabinets aren't constantly being opened like they would be in a kitchen situation, but we are rifling through there at least once a day looking for something or other.

So that's the easiest project in this office renovation. Certainly much easier than painting the cabinets, dealing with that crazy counter and even the fabric-covered bulletin board "backsplash."

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17 February 2012

Painting the office cabinets

Hey it's me. Remember me? Gosh I've been a bad blogger lately. I had a rough couple of weeks at work and then a cold and some trip planning and blah, blah, blah. Who cares right? Life sucks sometimes; get your crap together and write a blog post why don't 'cha?

So I now take you back to yet another of my projects that I expected would take a few weeks and stretched into months. It's still not finished, but it's down to finishing touches and it's time to get in depth about some of the projects involved with it.

And that would the office. Here's what it's looking like now.

And you might remember, this is what it used to look like.

Even if it's not finished, you gotta admit that is SO much better. I feel so much more productive in this space. Seriously. I'm using more file folders. I'm making to-do lists that are getting done. My e-mail inbox went from more than 2,000 messages to no more than 200. I make it my goal to get it down to 200 every day before I leave. I get about 100 messages a day so it's a lot of time on e-mail, but it helps me feel much more in control about this.

I started by painting the trim and the walls. The trim went to BM Cloud White (so much fresher!) and the walls were painted BM Hudson Bay. I am absolutely loving this navy blue. Because I had to content with moving very heavy file cabinets around, I painted the wall in sections, which is not really the way you're supposed to paint rooms but it turned out fine.

Then I moved onto the cabinets. This was a job I completely underestimated the amount of work on, but I am so happy I did it. I'm happy because I've sort of been planning on repainting our kitchen cabinets at home myself and after having done this, I now know I will absolutely NOT be doing that. Too much work and frankly, I'm not happy enough with the results.

These are el cheapo cabinets. They are half-inch plywood with oak veneer. This was a heavily grained oak and I didn't want to be able to see the grain through the paint so I knew I'd have to do something to help fill in that grain.

Because I had limited space to work in the basement, I did the upper and lower cabinet doors separately, starting with the uppers. I took them all off, making sure to number them, and first cleaned them with Dirtex, which is my go-to pre-paint cleaner.

Then I sanded them with the random orbital sander. I went through more sandpaper on this job than you can imagine. I started with 80-grit and worked my way up to 220-grit, but I think I actually could have stuck with the course-grit paper longer to help knock down that grain. But no amount of sanding will eliminate grain entirely, so I turned to a product I'd not tried before: Fine Paints of Europe's Brushing Putty.

I used a cheap brush with stiff bristles to apply the brushing putty thinned with Penetrol. 

This product is quite expensive ($45 for .75 liters) and honestly, it's not easy to work with. Fortunately one of the reasons I love Fine Paints of Europe is that they have incredible customer service, so I called to get some help in using it and they talked me through the process. The first thing to do is add a little bit of Penetrol (a thinner available at the hardware store) to some brushing putty pour in a container. I did no more than 5% Penetrol and mixed it throughly. Then I used a cheap stiff-bristle brush (you WILL be throwing this brush away when you're finished with a coat of brushing putty so the cheaper the better so long as it's not losing bristles in  your finish), to apply an even coat. But that's not so easy. In fact, brushing even thinned brushing putty is a little bit like frosting a cake. There is no self leveling happening with this product, so it's up to you to apply it where you want it. Because my basement was pretty cold I had to wait a full 48 hours before it was dry enough to sand lightly with 120-grit paper. The idea is to smooth it out, not to take a lot off, because you could easily sand right through all the brushing putty you just put on.

Then I applied a second coat the same way. And honestly, I probably should have applied a third coat, but I just couldn't justify the cost for this project. I sanded it again, but the places where I didn't apply it too smoothly really dogged me at this point. Overall, I found it hard to find a balance between oversanding and sanding enough. After thoroughly cleaning the dust off (the brushing putty creates a really find powdery dust that was everywhere), I primed with an oil primer (as is necessary when covering the brushing putty).

This is where the process got really tedious. Painting both sides of cabinets requires a lot of drying time in between, so I'd paint for 40 minutes every night, which leads to a lot of clean up and set up time for little progress.

I used a different paint than usual on the cabinets. Fine Paints of Europe Eco satin is my top tier paint for woodwork, but it is a huge budget breaker and if you recall, the whole idea of this office makeover (done on my dime) was to keep it cheap. My next choice is BM Aura. But this time I used BM Advance, which I'd read great things about and claims to be formulate for woodwork. Even though lots of people (including John and Sherry at Young House Love who just used it to paint their kitchen cabinets) love it, I have to say I'm not a fan. It just didn't level nicely for me. Granted, by this point in the project, my basement was a horrible place to be painting. Residual dust was hounding me and the temperature was just too chilly for quick curing so all the dust that was around had even more opportunity to stick to the paint.

I did two coats of paint on each side, let the doors sit for a full week to cure, and then reinstalled them and repeated that overly long process with the bottom doors. One of the longest, most boring projects I've ever done. And let me tell you, my office was looking particularly awful during that long process. We had a new person start during all of this and I can only imagine what he thought about my office when it looked like this on his first day.

But once they were hanging I started to get really annoyed with the finish. There was a serious dust issue (not to mention dog hair which is my menace) and a lot of uneven spots. So I gave them one more light sanding and recoated them with one coat of my old standby Aura paint. And the difference was amazing, not just because of the paint but also because I was out of that dirty basement (note to self: deep clean basement before taking on any more painting projects).

I replaced all the dated hardware with Ikea hardware, and did a little number on the hinges (more on that later), and I have a completely new look. The cabinets aren't perfect by any means, and I'd be annoyed if I looked at them all day, but my back faces them so that's not an issue. And the look is great, I think.

I've already shown you some of the counters (nightmare!) and the corkboard "backsplash" I made. Next I'll show you what I did with the desk and a few of the other finishing touches.


14 February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

From my (Dicentra) gold heart to yours.

08 February 2012

When plants become a collection

Creating a garden starts out as an innocent pursuit. You just want a pretty patch of flower or vegetables that flows and looks beautiful at least three seasons out of four. But there is that one plant that outshines the others. It outperforms them by looking great or by being the big, bold bright spot that everyone comments on. And you start doing a little bit of research on what it really wants, because let's be honest, you got lucky by plunking it in the right place. And the next year it is even more beautiful. And you want more. More. More. More.

You are hooked.

This is how plant collections start. At least this is how mine have started and most of them have snuck up on me. I don't set out to have a "collection" of a specific plant, I just really like them and suddenly have a whole bunch of them (and often, a lot less money in my bank account).

My first plant collection was clematis. The very first clematis I planted was Mrs. N. Thompson and I didn't plant it right. But she defied the odds and was still a looker. The second one was Ken Donson and he was like the crack dealer on the corner: gave me just enough to get me totally hooked.

Clematis 1

Mrs. N. Thompson was my first clematis.



Guernsey Cream is a favorite that does well for me in a good amount of shade (note the fern and hosta friends it has).


Ken Donson was the clematis that really sucked me in.


Once you decide you love a plant you start searching out different cultivars: the usual suspects you can find in your neighbor's garden just won't do. You search out specialty nurseries who will sell those unusual cultivars and, you hope, send you better plants than you can pick up at a local nursery. You're really in trouble when you start buying books on a specific plant and scope out plant-specific online forums.

Since Ken Donson came into my life I've added 12 more clematis. Fourteen plants is a drop in the bucket to collectors of some kinds of plants (talk to the host people who often have more than 1,000 cultivars growing in their yards) but I still think of clematis as my first real fascination. And oh yeah, I have five more ordered for delivery this spring.

The only thing that keeps me from seriously collecting Japanese maples is cost and the fact that many of them are marginally hardy here (see the sad tale of my lovely Kamagata maple). I only have two (Orangeola and Acontifolium), but that doesn't mean I don't scope them out every time I look.


Acer japonicum 'Acontifolium'


I probably have more different varieties of heucheras and heucherallas than any other plant, but that's probably more because I just really like trying new ones (and there are a lot available through the Yahoo co-op). I have a lot of hostas for the same reason, a handful of roses (which I should just give up on because I don't do roses well), and I've tried just about every new echinancea that comes on the market (with limited success, by the way; they just seem to lack longevity here).


Echinacea 'Summer Sky'


I might have gotten just a bit carried away with the hostas a few years ago when I had 50-some of them growing out in pots waiting to be planted in the garden.


I'm not sure hydrangeas qualify as a collection or fascination for me, but as you know, I do love them. Limelights are, of course, the star here, but I also love my climbing hydrangea, my new Little Limes, Incrediball and even my old-fashioned Annabelle. Oakleaf hydrangeas are stunning shrubs, but not one I've had a great deal of luck with. I also have a Nikko Blue which is a full-on zone 6 plant but she's bloomed for me in the past and I won't give up on her.


Nikko Blue hydrangea


I feel the pull of new collections, too. I've recently developed a fascination with tree peonies (again, a plant that requires a great deal of patience. What is with me?) The world of conifers is amazing, but it's one I feel I really need to study before delving into because in many cases it requires a healthy space requirement (and even on 1.3 acres space is a precious commodity). And the charming little Ginko 'Gnome' that I ordered on a whim last year got me totally excited about Gingkos as well. Plus, there's that whole toad lily thing that I learned last week I'm totally missing out on. We'll just have to wait and see where my wandering obsessions lead me to next.

Do you have any plant collections? How did you get started with them?



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