Garden Triage

I hobbled out to the deck this afternoon to get my hands in a little dirt. While husband was firing up the grill to make burgers for dinner, I decided it was high time to do something about our long suffering false spiria. It was in the window box planter with the two dwarf junipers, and all them were worse for wear because of it. They were just not compatible in the same growing space for some reason.

I’m a little short on planters at this point in the season, so the only thing I had available was a small milk glass planter, that was previously corralling electronic gear in the living room. I trimmed all the dead stuff off of the plant, and trimmed it’s roots back by about half. This will either kill it, or encourage it to rebound.  This is what it looks like post surgery –

If it survives and makes it through the winter, we’ll need to repot it into a planter at least twice as large in the spring, so that it’s got the best shot at survival and producing more of those gorgeous pink-purple flowers it has. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, the dwarf junipers are also displaying some dying back, mostly in the undergrowth. The are still a decently vibrant green overall, with a bit of new growth at the tips. Now that they’re back to themselves in the planter, I hope they rebound all the way. I trimmed off as much of the brown branches as I could get at –

Now we have a big ugly empty spot. We’re thinking the sensible thing to do is just get another dwarf juniper to plop in there. We know we can grow them with reasonable success in this setup, and we don’t have to worry about whether other plants will be compatible with them. It’s nice to have a decorative shot of natural green out there anyway, especially over the winter months. And it’s super easy to dress this planter up over the holidays with some red winterberry stems and white lights, which is the plan for this year.

And in related news, the tomatoes are on the rebound too. We lost one plant out of four. The remaining three are green and growing once more. They all have a least a few flowers on them, and one even has a small green tomato! But shhh, we’re not going to talk about that anymore. I don’t want to jinx it!

Spring Cleaning

At long last – a gorgeous spring day in Chicago! It’s supposed to get up to 80 today. Nevermind that we’re supposed to have severe thunderstorms starting this evening, there’s plenty of beautiful day ahead between now and then. We started the morning by taking the patio furniture back outside and having breakfast on the deck. Scrambled eggs and bacon never tasted so good.

After breakfast, I tackled the winter clean up. First, I swept the deck and stairs. Then I pulled the dead plants out of both window boxes and cultivated the soil. We lost two of the dwarf firs over the winter in the free-standing window box. The two junipers on the end survived and I just had to clip one dead branch of one of them. Now we have a giant space in the middle of the planter that needs to be filled. I have no idea what will go there, except that it won’t be dwarf firs again.

I also cleaned up the etagere and swept the patio – the landscape rock we have back there freely migrated during the winter storms so that had to be put back into it’s rightful place. I also pulled out some weeds and dead plants from the inch-wide strip of soil on our side of the back fence, and cultivated the soil there. I’m going to plant morning glories on our side in a few weeks when we’re past the frost free date (about April 20th here).

The only things left to do are to hang some brackets for hanging planters, hang the lanterns and actually get things planted in all the pots and boxes. I know the chilly weather probably isn’t completely done yet since this is Chicago, after all – but it’s closer than ever and outdoor space is that much closer for a long summer season of tons of use. Finally!

Garden Dreams Versus Garden Reality

Oddly enough, the first snowfall usually gets me to thinking about spring’s garden plans. I like to start my seeds early, and March always comes around more quickly than I think. Plus, I’m a born planner, and making lists is a specialty of mine. And what better list than one for the garden?

Unfortunately, having a deck has really gone to my head. I sat down recently to make my garden wish list, and ended up with a whopping thirty-one items on it –


Blueberry Bushes

Bok Choi


Brussels Sprouts



Cherry Bushes

Columnar Apple Trees


Drying Beans



Green Beans


Hot Peppers





Onions Peas






Sweet Corn

Sweet Peppers



I know, right? I’ve got some pretty wild stuff on there. Clearly I can’t expect to plant all of that! It also doesn’t take into account that I’d like to plant several varieties of a lot of it. But so far, I can only narrow the list down by half! These are the ones I can’t seem to eliminate (along with my justification on how I can include them) –

Basil – This is easy. I can put a pot of basil on the wrought iron etagere, no problem.

Blueberry Bushes – This sounds insane, considering I still don’t have a yard. But I came across a container-friendly variety called Top Hat a few years back, and if I can still get a couple they can live in a few five-gallon pots on the concrete below the deck.

Columnar Apple Trees – This also sounds insane, since I just fessed up to not having a yard and all. But columnar apple trees, as the name indicates, do not branch – the apples grow off spurs on the main stem. If I get two half whiskey barrels, they can live on the concrete, flanking our steps. I think they’d look quite lovely there.



Hot Peppers



The above “crops” I can grow in a Self Watering Planting Bed that I want to get from Gardener’s Supply Company. It’s a $170, but it’s a self-contained nine foot planting bed with a water reservoir and can easily live on the concrete below the deck. Actually, that might be a lot for nine square feet, so maybe the hot peppers will have to live in a few pots, and the leeks… maybe I’ll cut the leeks this year. If I have to choose between kale and leeks, I’d have to go with kale. I think.

Peas – I have a tiny variety of pea called Tom Thumb that can grow in small pots, which I can find a home for on the etagere with the herbs or just placed around the deck.

Potatoes – I intend to grow some fingerlings in a metal trash can (a nice looking one!). It can sit on the concrete with the blueberries. 

Scallions – I can squeeze these onto the perimeter of the planting beds, or in with the pots of tomatoes.

Strawberries – I have a terra cotta strawberry pot that has been vacant for two seasons now. What better home for strawberries than a whole strawberry pot?

Sweet Corn – This is the problem child of the garden this year. The earth box failed to produce anything real (and now houses a few creeping junipers and dwarf spruces anyway). It only accommodates about a dozen plants, which isn’t enough for good pollination. From my reading on the subject, sweet corn in small plantings does the best in a stand of at least four rows deep. I really want to see how my Blue Jade can perform outdoors, because I really think it would be tasty and look great in the garden. If I get a second self-watering planting bed, I can do a whole stand of corn, but since these beds aren’t cheap, if might have to wait until next season. And for those of you that are wondering why I don’t just build my own planting beds, I need something self-contained and really good looking since I plan to plunk it down on what is technically common space on a concrete pad in our apartment complex.

Sweet Peppers – I’m thinking about putting some in the window box that hangs from the deck railing. I could do small bushy ones in the back, and some put some vines and short flowers in the front – decorative, yet half edible (or all the way edible, if I choose the right flower). But if I decide to use that window box for more decorative purposes, I do have room to add another two hanging baskets to our real estate; more if I ask our neighbor to the east if I can use his deck railing, since he doesn’t put plants out – wait! See how quickly I get out of control!? I cannot take over Bill’s deck too. One deck at a time, here…

Thyme – Easy enough to find some small pots for a few different varieties to live on the etagere with the basil.

Tomatoes – I have four hanging baskets that will hang from the deck – I already have the brackets; we just need to install them.

So out of all that, leeks and sweet corn might not make the cut. And I already have a pot of chives, rosemary and a bay tree that will want to live outdoors when the weather gets warm. Fourteen to sixteen new things should be no problem, right? And I’ve certainly got time to agonize over which varieties to settle on, as well as see if I can find some more good deals on planting pots, and watch for a sale on the self watering planting bed.

Christmas is Coming!

I love Christmas. It’s glittery, sparkly, and warm. You get to spend time indoors with tea or cocoa or spiced wine and tasty baked goods and share it all with the people you love. And it’s so fun to make or choose the perfect gift for people that deserve something special.

As per our usual tradition, we got our Christmas tree from Gethsemane Garden Center on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, we had Grandpa Olsen join us. The day was crisp and cold and sunny – a perfect winter day. Gethsemane was bustling with other families on their Christmas tree mission, but it wasn’t so swamped that it was impossible to get around. After much deliberation, we chose a five foot Fraser fir. I think this is the second year in a row we’ve gotten a Fraser Fir. In my opinion, you just can’t beat the color, fragrance and lasting ability of them.

In addition to the tree, we also wanted some greenery for the back deck. We selected two bunches of pine boughs for the window box, as well as some branches of wintergreen. We also got an 18 inch round boxwood wreath.

We laid the pine boughs and some of the wintergreen into the window box, securing them down with landscape pins. In the planter in front of our bedroom window where we have the dwarf creeping juniper dwarf blue spruce planted, we also laid some of the pine boughs down in front where a few gourds were previously. We also stuck a few wintergreen branches vertically in back for a little height. For the wreath, I wound a glittery red ribbon around it and we hung it on the back door. And I had intended to post pictures, but we forgot about taking them while it was still daylight and now we’ll have to wait until the next weekend since it gets dark at four o’clock. (I really do intend to start posting photos here again!)

While the tree was opening up, I put around all my Christmas tchotchkes – nutcrackers, candles, figurines and such. I hung the stockings in their place of honor on our bookcases. And then trimmed our tree with colored lights and our ever-growing collection of hand-blown and vintage Shiny Brite ornaments. The house is looking quite festive!

I also got started on some of my Christmas crafting – I’ve got fabric pieces cut for four gifts, and have to cut fabric for another four gifts in the next week, so everything is all ready to sew up at once. I also started crocheting another gift, and will be taking my crochet tote on the train this week in order to get a few things done during the commute. Let the games begin!

Winter-Proofing the Great Outdoors

We had our first storm this week. No, no snow yet, but we did have a fairly severe windstorm. Wind is almost worse than snow and cold temps because you really have to make sure things are battened down tight so they don’t get destroyed and potentially hurt anyone.

Patio Furniture – It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be dining al fresco during the winter months so if you have indoor storage space where you can stow your furniture, such as a shed, garage or basement, that’s ideal. If you have to leave it out over the winter, make sure it’s secure – we have our bistro set chained to the deck railing. Our deck is also fairly sheltered, so high winds and snow accumulation won’t be that much of an issue. If you have a cover for your set, that will certainly improve it’s lifespan from winter wear and tear.

Grills – How you’ll keep your grill depends on whether or not you’ll want to use it during cold weather. If you don’t intend to use it, just put it away along with your patio furniture after you empty it of ash and coals and clean it out. We like to grill on the milder days in the winter, so we’ll leave our grill out. It’s good to have it in a sheltered location and chained down if necessary. And since grills have lots of pieces, it’s imperative to have a cover on it. That will prevent anything from blowing away and minimize the chances that the grill will become damaged or weather-worn.

Window Boxes – If you’re like me, you’ll want to leave your window boxes and some of your planters out during the winter months. For window boxes, make sure they are securely attached to your home or deck railing. You’ll also want to make sure that you have something sturdy and hardy planted in them (such as ornamental kale). Or, if you go in for evergreen boughs and such, make sure they’re laid in well so they don’t blow away – you can use wire hooks to secure the greens horizontally into the planter. What ever you decide, as long as you’re leaving them up, you’ll need to have something covering your potting soil so it doesn’t all blow off in a strong wind.

Planters and Pots – Some planters you’ll want to bring inside. I always bring in my herb pots, so I have to get some plastic pot coasters for drainage so I can water them indoors without a giant mess. You’ll want to bring in or put away any pottery or terra cotta planters you’re using as ice can damage them fairly easily – the freeze and thaw of water that can get inside can cause the pot to crack. For planters you’re leaving outside, make sure they’re winter proofed. I have a wooden free-standing window box planter, with an earth box nested inside. I’ve got dwarf spruce and creeping juniper planted in it, so I’ll leave it outdoors. However, to protect both the planter and help out the plants, I’m going to insulate the space between the earth box and wood planter box with bubble wrap from packages that are sent into my office – I do love to reuse useless items! In the same vein, you’ll want to think of any plants that need some protection – young fruit trees, roses and some shrubs may need to be wrapped in burlap to protect them from windburn and below zero temperatures.

Garden Tchotchkes – Really, I just like to find a way to use the word ‘tchotchke’ from time to time. But you know the kind of things I mean – wind chimes, lanterns, patio cushions, lawn gnomes. For the most part these types of items should be taken down and put away indoors during the window. If nothing else, getting it out of the elements will prolong it’s useful life. We have a string of white lanterns that we’ll likely take down after Halloween, though in all honesty, we should’ve taken them down prior to the windstorm this week. It was ten o’clock at night when we realized how nasty it was going to get though, and taking down lanterns didn’t seem appealing at that late hour. But we don’t want to tempt fate more than once per season, so we’ll take them down this weekend when we take down our string our of ghost lights that we also have on the back deck – and you should take your lanterns and lights down too! The exception here is outdoor-rated holiday lights – just make you’ve got them safely secured to your deck or whatever. We just staple ours onto the wood railing using hardware staples (being super careful to staple around the wires, not through them – electrocution is bad) but they also sell fancy plastic or metal clips that you can permanently affix to your dwelling, and then string the lights to those. But if you’re careful, really the staples work just fine.

And while you’re at it, you’ll want to have a can of salt or sand by the back and front doors, as well as a shovel. With a little foresight and planning, your outdoor space and garden will do just fine through the winter months.

The Fall Garden

It’s never to late to plant. This weekend the family came out for our semi-annual trip to Gethsemane Garden Center, and we loaded up with things for our little deck. And we chose a perfect weekend for it – not only was the weather warm and sunny, but Gethsemane was highly motivated to move the last of this season’s glazed pottery pots and planters.

We got some serious deals for two-thirds off the original price. We came home with two large square green-glazed planters that are perfect for the bay tree and rosemary that needed to be potted up. We also got a wire window box that Jeremy’s grandpa purchased for us. And to round out the pots on the deck, we were also given a wood planter with a shelf underneath handmade by grandpa – it’s got lovely finials on the corners and heart cutouts in the box, and the workmanship is just gorgeous.

We also loaded up on plants. We picked out a bamboo plant for the bedroom (and it ended up being the only plant we were allowed to pay for ourselves – Jeremy’s mom generously picking up the tab for the rest) which we potted into the round glazed pot that the bay tree used to live in. For the wooden planter, we got two creeping junipers and two dwarf blue spruces. We tucked the earth box right into the planter and put the junipers on either side of the spruces, with a mini pumpkin tucked in front. When winter sets in, we’re going to add some red dogwood branches and white lights.

And we went pretty crazy with the window box – there are two small burgundy mums, about ten lettuces, two baby bok chois, and three beets. We also tucked in some gourds. It’s looking full and beautiful. I also put my handkerchief ghosts in along the front, so it’s very autumnal. I’m looking forward to a few fall salads, if the blasted squirrels don’t eat them all – but that’s another story (or rather, another post). We also overzealously got two small yellow mums which we couldn’t fit in, so we planted one in a red tin bucket that I had laying around, and the other we tucked into a white planter painted with garden flowers that belonged to Jeremy’s late grandmother. We put both of those and some more mini pumpkins on the etagere. And since we bought so many lettuces, we received two chive plants for free – they’re a little worse for wear, but I plan to nurse them back to robustness in the kitchen window (partly because the neighbor cat Maybe discovered them instantly and apparently thinks chives are delicious). We planted them in the round green glazed pot that the rosemary was previously living in.

So, we’ve the full window box on the deck rail in front of the bistro set and underneath the white lantern and ghost lights. Opposite it along the brick wall of the building is the etagere and next to that in front of our bedroom window is the planter box with the evergreens. The green pots with the rosemary and bay tree are flanking the planter box, but we’ll have to bring them in before long for the season – I think they’ll just fit in the kitchen windowsill. On the other side of the etagere under the bathroom window are the two metal cans that store the potting soil and miscellaneous garden supplies. And that’s the whole deck, in a nutshell (I know, I really need to post some pictures, and I will – we ran out of daylight today to take any that would be any good).

I’m hoping the mums and things last for another month or so, but when those go we’ll lay in some evergreen boughs and holly branches and maybe some red dogwood branches. And of course I’d like to do an evergreen garland around the decking as well, but I might be getting ahead of myself a bit. At any rate, we’ve got some nice plantings out for autumn – no need to wait for spring to put in a little greenery!