Green on Black Friday

So while a zillion people are engaging in the rituals of Black Friday, I’m sitting at my laptop, thinking about Green on Black Friday, which is my horticultural take on what’s happening outside in my front garden. Of course most plants have already retreated underground of their own accord (bulbs, herbaceous perennials), have been cut down to neaten the landscape (again, lots of perennials and of course frost-blackened annuals), have not been cut down because I’m hoping they’ll look good with a mantle of snow (especially the volunteer coneflower, which every winter wears perky little snow caps perched on the dark brown, pointy flowerheads), or have been allowed to remain because I haven’t felt like making the effort to remove the remains (most notably the big sweeps of lady’s mantle – Alchemilla mollis – and catmint – Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ – which would take more than a little time to trim back, and does it really need to be done now?).

But not all is dead and gloomy in my late-November garden. Yes, I have included a few evergreen conifers – such as the undemanding, patiently spreading mat of Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata, sometimes amusingly but aptly called “shade juniper”), a pleasant pancake of bird’s-nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’), and the imposing arborvitae or white cedar, as it’s more commonly called in these parts (Thuja occidentalis) that towers over and dominates its part of the garden. However, they can wait to be included in another post, because right now I want to share some pictures of and thoughts on three of the green survivors out there.

I use the word “green” loosely: a gardener’s palette offers shades of green-green, those more yellow than green (chartreuse), purplish/bluish/reddish green, and more gray than green. So given it’s the day after Thanksgiving, let’s start with a frequent companion of a Thanksgiving turkey, namely gray-green culinary sage (Salvia officinalis).


For many years I’ve grown various culinary sages strictly for their earthy scent and appealing foliage colors, especially the neutral gray provided quietly by the common selections. The colors of many garden elements are complemented by their grayish tones, including but not limited to the foliage of companion plants, their flowers, and garden features (especially gray stone and weathered wood, including cedar mulch). You can determine your favorite combinations by cutting off a sprig of sage (or any plant, to make this a broader lesson in garden design) and holding it against other plants and features. If the match looks good to you, make a note of it, then perhaps next year you’ll plant some sage next to a late-blooming, luscious violet-blue selection of aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Raydon’s Favorite’), to borrow an example from my garden. After you’ve completed your sage color-observation exercise, take the sprig into your kitchen, gently macerate the leaves in some melted butter, and then drizzle it over some cheese-, cheese-spinach- or cheese-mushroom-filled ravioli. Skip the tomato sauce for once: the sagey butter allows the flavors of the ravioli filling to shine through.


I must confess that I wasn’t expecting the green fronds of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’) to hold up this late into November, given that all of the other ferns (except for the marginal fern, to be described on another day) have vanished from the scene. Perhaps back in a dusty corner of my memory lies the fact that this fern is evergreen or nearly so in other climates; nonetheless, I have been pleasantly noting the freshness of the fern in that part of the garden for weeks now. This fern is probably most widely appreciated for the red tones of its expanding fronds, and does it in fact take on red shades in autumn in those other climates referenced above? Also, will it still be green after winter finally departs, providing the garden receives enough snow cover to protect the fronds from below-zero temperatures as well as the desiccating effects of high winds and sun? Time will tell. Note the sad-looking lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) foliage accompanying the autumn fern. Yes, it will more than likely stay in place until new leaves emerge, at which time I will frantically cut away the dingy, winter-worn foliage and haul it to the pile behind the garage. Spring cleaning in the garden will just have to wait.


Speaking of semi-questionable evergreen-ness, here’s a treat for your eyes if perhaps not your nose. I planted three good-sized pots of Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ about a month before this summer’s much anticipated Sheboygan Area Garden Walk, mainly because I gave into the seductive appearance it presented at a local nursery that I frequented during the runup to SAGW. I value the contrast that variegated plants can offer when used in the landscape in reasonable quantities, and I’ve always been intrigued by the unconventional “flowers” (technically referred to as “cyathia”) borne by the members of this enormous genus (2,000 species or so, I’m told. Why haven’t the botanical splitters blown this genus up as they have done with Chrysanthemum and the lily family? More on that topic inevitably later). So yes, this euphorbia is eyecatching, and it grew without making too many demands on me (other than frequently expressing its thirst until it rooted in and/or the air temperature grew cooler). However, sight is not the only sense with which this plant interacts: during the first couple of weeks after planting this seductive beauty, I would catch a strong but evasive scent in the air, reminding me of the distinctive odor of Fritillaria bulbs and foliage . . .  and of skunks. Then during a notably warm afternoon, after having earlier neatened up the succulent euphorbias in my greenhouse, I put 2 and 2 together: that scent is the same as that of the smelly, sticky, irritating, fairly toxic white sap that oozes from the cut ends of euphorbia stems and leaves. Not a nauseating deal-breaker, but not roses and lilacs, either. However, since not a single garden visitor asked about the funny smell in the front garden (were they being polite? maybe they had not noticed the scent?), I turned the other nostril for the remainder of the season and enjoyed the visual delights of this plant, which continue to this Green on Black Friday. It’s marginally hardy, but if my plants perish over winter, I have a feeling I can get more at that nearby nursery. Or listen to another Siren’s call.

A tour before The Tour: Countdown to the Garden Walk (Part 2)

First, a commercial message: the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk occurs on Saturday, July 13, and I’m gearing up for it. Many stops are being/will be pulled (and more metaphors will be mixed) before welcoming the first visitors on that summer morning. I’d like to take you on a tour now to whet your appetite; more blog posts will follow.

This view says “Ray’s house and garden” to me. By the way, I’d like to wish a happy 100th birthday to my abode, built in 1919. I plan to do some research at the Sheboygan County Historical Society sooner than later, and I’ll include the results in a post. For now, please note that the barberries that obscured the foundation have given way to a couple of nonhardy Fatsia japonica, which I dutifully overwintered in the front room behind them. An all-new grouping of foliage-forward herbaceous plants keeps them company. Also note the two pots on either side of the steps; they contain Begonia San Fransisco (sic) on the left and Dragon Wing Pink on the right. The yellow-green beacon at the lamppost base is a Heuchera, whose cultivar name I have temporarily lost. Other dabs of yellow-green will appear as the season advances.



The very rustic stone steps on the north side of the front garden will be dressed in annuals and perennials for the Garden Walk, and I hope visitors will pause for a moment on the sitting stone (see the next picture). The steps and walk were installed October 2015 by former student Ken Schultz. I still call him Kenny, but his business stationery reads Ken, so there you are. Kenny has accepted the challenge to install a low, open fence on either side of the front garden, designed to echo the tripartite motif of many of the windows in the house. The fence will also replace the rows of slender green stakes barely visible toward the back between my mulch and the neighbor’s grass. They were installed to discourage people from walking across the front garden as they make their appointed rounds.




Here’s the sitting stone, wrangled into place by Kenny and Gus Reed, my former teaching colleague at Lakeshore Technical College. It’s the spot where I often spend a few pleasant moments on warmish summer nights, taking in the air and fragrances and sounds and light/shadow pattern cast by the lantern on the lamppost. When not bob-bob-bobbin’ in the mulch as they poke around for worms and such, robins like to use the sitting stone, too, but not always merely to sit. It happens. The plants at the base are volunteer arborvitae and spiraeas, sprung from seeds produced by the neighbor’s foundation plants. I like them there, and they’re going to remain until they outgrow their space.




The original concrete front walk hurtled its way straight out from the front door to the city sidewalk, and it was, in spite of its hulking visual insistence, boooring. Gus Reed came up with the idea to slice up the walk and re-lay it as a pleasing curve, and so it came to pass in the fall of 2013. Gus and several of the students at the time did the work as I “supervised.” Much of the mulch you see now will be obscured by plants over the ensuing weeks and seasons by – as the plan goes – catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’), Calamintha nepeta ‘Montrose White’ (both bee food), and some sort of annual(s). More than 30 lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), planted from little cell pots a few falls ago, are doing a good job making drifts on either side of the walk, and just wait until you see them in flower.



While we’re in the front garden, let’s make note of the doorstep container of Begonia San Francisco (I refuse to misspell the city’s name again) adjacent to my little slice of the North woods. Begonia ‘Bonfire’, a relative from the expanding Begonia boliviensis clan), did very nicely in this doorway spot a couple of years ago, so my hopes are high for San Fran to do well here. I’ve done very little maintenance in the North woods, other than to pull seedlings of various woody plants. Actually, I tolerate Norway maple seedlings for a year or two in the front garden, along with volunteer arborvitae, spruce, birch, buckeye, linden, and spiraea, because I think they accentuate the rustic look of the garden while small, but I have no tolerance for box elder (Acer negundo). They always look like weeds to me, much like dandelions and spindly grass. While this area adjacent to the pot of begonias represents only a few perforations on the edge of my postage-stamp garden, it’s a pleasant, satisfying spot. I don’t mind the (at least here) mildly aggressive lilies of the valley (Convallaria majalis), which are very much at home elsewhere in my garden, and they tolerate the dry shade cast by the venerable arborvitae, aka white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), that dominates the front garden along with the littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) along the street. Ostrich ferns (Matteucia struthiopteris), some sort of Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), and ubiquitous hostas likewise make a brave stand, and I’ve attempted to grow a few other ferns here. Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) has persisted since I planted it a few years ago, but it looks nothing like the yellow rapids I’ve seen in other gardens (and am attempting to re-create near the front sidewalk).


The giant arborvitae towers over the North woods, shades the front porch, and blocks the view from the street into both my dining area and upstairs bedroom.








Now let’s go out back.


The three pots in the foreground will – I hope – support big ol’ castor beans (Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’) by the end of summer. Reflected heat (well, warmth from sunny days, anyway; this is Sheboygan, and summers can be on the cool side) from the concrete pad should help speed them along. I’m thinking sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala bicornis), and night phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis) will make suitable companions at the feet of the castor beans. I also have some old-fashioned, trailing, supposedly nicely scented petunias coming along in the greenhouse, but they might go into railing boxes on the airing porch.




What’s an airing porch, you ask? Look above the kitchen window to see one. It’s a common second-story sight on the houses around here, ostensibly for airing laundry, but I use mine to air myself on pleasant days and to check out the night sky. Those railing boxes I mentioned earlier are big enough for smallish plants, such as the scented plants to be included in the big castor bean pots, but I might try to grow vining annuals – morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’), cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), flag of Spain (Mina lobata), hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab, or whatever it is called these days), sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus ‘Mollie Rilstone’), and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus ‘Orchid Flame’)  in them instead. Otherwise, they’ll go into three big pots on the floor, fitted out with tomato cages or stake teepees.



The prairie looks like a weedy field right now, and that’s normal for this time of year. Very soon I’ll be out there weeding around the smaller, choicer things and cutting back the welcome but vigorous asters (don’t get me started on their modern genus names), goldenrods (Solidago canadensis, S. rigida, and I suspect at least one other species), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). The prairie merits multiple blog entries all its own, so I won’t go into much detail here, other than to point out that the “after” views of the prairie will appear dramatically different from these current (or “before,” if you will) photos. And I’ll add that I tolerate the dandelions because they are an important early source of food for bees and butterflies.




Lacking a better descriptor, I call this the shady area. It’s very useful at this time of the gardening calendar, serving as a transition area from a nursery or my greenhouse to the open garden or containers. Those coleus are awaiting the right time to plant them into containers on the concrete pad (see I WILL grow coleus this year, earlier in this blog). The row of arborvitae along the fence provides protection from sun, wind, and rain, and obviously lilies of the valley think this spot is heaven sent. Scent (don’t you love homophones?) is the reason why I haven’t ripped these out along with other patches of this burly spreader. When this patch is in bloom, I can smell the unmistakable, memory-evoking fragrance from the airing porch if the breeze is headed toward the Lake (which is East, but around here, we say “the wind is coming off the Lake” or “head toward the Lake to get to the marina” and the like when others might refer to the cardinal direction of East. Lake Michigan rules our lives in many ways, especially those of us in the gardening community, which is sizable.) By the way, a barely visible mound of soil has been building up on the Lake side of the shady area, and medium-height sunflowers (Helianthus annuus ‘Snack Seed’), which, according to the seed packet, reach 5’) are slated to grow there this summer. The mound will of course make the plants appear taller than they really are, unless they stretch too much toward the light and topple over. There’s a good chance I’ll plant some of those many vining annuals from the airing porch on the mound as well, hoping they’ll climb the sunflowers and maybe thread their way into the low fence.



The greenhouse, like the prairie, will be covered in later posts, but for now, let me point out that most of my showplants (primarily succulents) summer in the greenhouse after wintering in the house. With me. Everywhere except the living room area, bathrooms, and office. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Visitors during the day of the Garden Walk will be able to peek into the greenhouse over the Dutch door.







All I’m going to say here is that there will be a brand-new, intimate patio area in this spot in time for the Big Day. The plan is to combine salvaged Cream City brick, a distinctive, locally popular, ecru-colored construction brick, with new, dark “red” pavers. As with the front fence, rustic walk, greenhouse floor, and tree pruning/stump removal, Kenny Schultz is my guy on this project. Much more to come on the patio, which will create a nice little sitting, socializing, and plant-staging area between the greenhouse and garage. In the meantime, this spot serves as the holding area for sun lovers that would be displeased in the shady area.




By the time visitors reach the patio area, they’ll be almost done with their tour. However, before exiting through the back gate, they’ll be encouraged to turn around to look back toward the house, when they will see this vista that terminates with a special focal point. Attention, class: in this example of an important garden-design feature, the focal point is a standard (tree-form) lemon-scented geranium (Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’), which emits a surprisingly strong fragrance of lemon Pledge when rubbed or casually brushed against any time of year, or unprompted on hotter days. It looks ratty now, having spent the cold months (mid October to mid May . . . yes, seven months) in the front room of the house.  I kept it barely awake by putting it in a corner in low light and watering it maybe once a month. It was repotted last Sunday, and in a couple of weeks, once the roots have begun to reach out into the medium, the head of droopy, stretched-out foliage will be cut back severely. I hope by the time of the Garden Walk I will have pinched back the new shoots into a pleasing ball of foliage. The stems removed during the first cutback will provide lots of cuttings for rooting here and at Lakeshore Technical College, where this focal point started life as a cutting made by one of my students.



Only very select visitors will be able to see this view from the airing porch on the day of the Garden Walk. By then the prairie will be grown up, the daffodils will be sleeping underground (annuals are slated to go here in a few weeks, including zinnias (Zinnia Northern Lights Blend and California Giants), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’), and spider flower (Cleome ‘Rose Queen’)), and the pile of paving stones could well be incorporated into a pathway between the prairie and the greenhouse.

Do stay tuned, and circle Saturday, July 13 on your calendars for the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk. More information can be found at