Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Grand Day Out at Ball Horticultural Co.

Last month I enjoyed touring the gardens at Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, Illinois, with Mr. Brown Thumb and Garden Girl.

Ball was started in 1905 by George J. Ball and remains a family company today. Ball breeds and distributes ornamental plants to wholesalers. The Wave® petunia is one of its many plant introductions. Through its Burpee Home Gardens arm, it also offers vegetable seeds and plants.

The grounds showcase new and recently introduced varieties of annuals, perennials, herbs, and vegetables. 

I was dazzled by the colors...


water features...

plant structures... (also check out the tomatoes in the foreground!)


and abundance of insects! The bee looks so happy on the Gaillardia 'Mesa Yellow'. I also love the seed heads!

I took way too many photos, so I'm just going to share plants or colors that make me think of fall. The rows of Coleus in an earlier photo really set the mood!

I love the leaf margins, color, and texture of this Begonia 'Fannie Moser.'

I love black plants and this ornamental pepper 'Black Pearl' is so dark the photo almost looks black and white.

I love the colors of these cute little Calibrachoa Minifamous™ 'Apricot Red Eye Evol.'

The flower color of this striking Celosia 'Intenz' screams hot summer, but the purple tinge in the foliage makes me think of fall.

This vibrant Echinacea 'Sombrero Hot Coral' makes my heart sing.

I love the orange tones of this Gaillardia 'Arizona Apricot.'

On the outer edge of the gardens, Ball and ComEd are restoring a prairie habitat. (If you're interested in prairies, check out the restoration of Shanghai Prairie in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

Many thanks to Katie Rotella of Ball for giving us a guided tour of the gardens, providing us with a free lunch, and hooking me up with a behind-the-scenes tour of Ball's seed processing facility (I'll do a separate post about that). Thanks also to Mr. Brown Thumb for arranging the tour!

Friday, September 16, 2011

A romp through Shanghai Prairie (part 1)

Monday was bright, sunny, and unseasonably warm — a perfect day to romp around in a prairie. My friend Aunita Erskine took me on a tour of Shanghai Prairie in Ann Arbor near St. Joe's Hospital and Washtenaw Community College. She has been spearheading a restoration effort of this prairie for several years. Volunteers have been removing invasive species like buckthorn and autumn olive, and building boardwalks over wet areas.

The prairie covers about 35 acres between railroad tracks and the bend in the Huron River. It's considered a disturbed prairie remnant, with part dry to mesic soil conditions. The wetter part of the ecosystem is a prairie fen.

The prairie is in an area formerly inhabited by the Potawatomi, who called the area the Burnt River District. They regularly burned the area to create open spaces for the animals they hunted to graze. After the federal government bought the land, it was strip-mined for gravel. After that project was abandoned, vegetation returned, but many non-native and aggressive trees and shrubs filled in the space, outcompeting the grasses and prairie flowers. Later, sparks from the railway started little fires that killed the trees, and prairie plants again started to take a foothold.

Everything growing the the prairie today was in the prairie hundreds of years ago. Nothing has been reintroduced. Many prairie plants also make great garden plants.You can integrate native plants into your existing garden or create a new bed just for them.

Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) is sometimes called turkey foot. It reaches about 8 feet, prefers full sun, and does well in most soil conditions, except sand. It gets red in fall and is named for its green-blue color in spring. The seed head gets tiny yellow flowers which are quite striking in the fall landscape.

The prairie has several glacial erratics of varying sizes, which were washed in with the melting glaciers. Michigan is, by the way, the only state that was 100% covered in glaciers. It also means our soils are very random, from sand to clay to gravel in very short distances, sometimes in one yard.

Little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) gets about 3 feet tall and is ideal for the home garden. It gets gorgeous reddish fall color, but is named for its green-blue color in spring. It prefers full sun, and can deal with most soils. It's not wild about clay, but it does OK in my very clay-y soil.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) looked so gorgeous covered in dew and swaying slightly in the breeze. It can reach 8 feet, but I've generally seen it top out at 6. Later in fall, its foliage turns dark orange/purpley. It is great for the home garden because it grows well in full sun to shade, and it can handle dry ot moist soil conditions.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) is eaten by dear in the prairie and only the leaves remain. It normally gets 2 to 3-inch yellow flowers on very tall (up to 8 feet) stalks. It needs full sun and can handle moist to dry soil conditions. Give it a bit of space, as the leaves are huge.

Rough blazingstar (Liatris aspera). This grows well in the home garden, prefers full sun, and can handle most soil conditions except sand. It attracts birds and butterflies, and has the coolest looking pink-hued buds (the non-open flowers here are wilted flowers, not buds.)

There's just something about these gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seed heads! The plant gets about 4 feet tall, has yellow flowers with brown centers, prefers full sun, and likes most soil conditions, except sand. 

My absolute favorite things in the entire prairie were these gorgeous spent flowers of round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata). It gets about 4 feet tall and prefers full sun, and mesic (average moisture) to dry soil conditions. The bloom is white.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) gets about 3 feet tall and is a nice companion plant to Joe Pye weed. It attracts bees and butterflies, can handle full to part sun, and prefers moist soil. The leaves were used to treat dengue fever.

Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is just starting to bloom. It's a wetland indicator species (meaning if you see one in the wild, it means you're in a wetland ecosystem) that gets about 2 feet tall and can also tolerate drier soils. It is resistant to deer browsing. Native Americans used heath asters to bind the structure of sweat lodges and on hot rocks to create herbal steam. This plant is threatened in Tennessee.

Sneezeweed or Helen's flower (Helenium autumnale) is one of my favorite fall flowers. Cultivars are available in burgundy ('Ruby Tuesday'), orange ('Orange Beauty'), and orange and yellow ('Mardi Gras'), but I also love the native yellow flowers. It grows to 4-5 feet tall and prefers full sun and moist soil; it flowers just as well in drier soils, but won't get as tall. Incidentally, it's called sneezeweed not because it causes allergies, but because Native Americans used it as snuff.

I can tell you're getting tired, so we'll break up our jaunt. Next time I'll show more prairie flowers, including a ladies' tresses orchid, as well as Virginia snakeroot, a threatened species growing in the nearby woodland.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Everything's comin' up marigolds

I have cottonwood leaves all over my garden and we've had some deliciously cool nights, so fall is definitely in the air. (We'll just ignore the fact that it's 95°F and super humid today.) I do an awful lot of transplanting in fall and am looking forward to the busy 6-8 weeks ahead of me! It's been so hot this summer that I haven't been in the garden nearly as much as normal.

The beginning of September also means it's time for the monthly SeedGROW post.

I'm really liking the 'Summer Splash' marigolds. The photo on the seed packet shows them as a solid lemon yellow, but in all honesty, I prefer this color.

The plants are super bushy and nearly 2 feet tall, and I only watered them regularly after I first planted them. I really like them along the edge of my veggie bed, and they have helped me fall in love with marigolds again.

My basil 'Italian Cameo' did absolutely marvelously, considering how often I forgot to water it--and it was in a container! I harvested it to make pesto (using this recipe, only I roasted the pine nuts first and added twice the amount of garlic they listed), so it now looks like this. If you would like to see the actual plant and its beautiful leaves, go here.

I hadn't thinned out my lettuce 'Garden Babies' and it was growing too closely together. It's doing much better now with more room.

I'm growing with the SeedGROW project. Thanks to Renee's Garden for the seeds.