Sunday, May 29, 2011

What's New in Gardening at the Oak Lawn Parks...

Photos by Nicole Walsh

Some of you you may know me, but if you don't... My name is Dolly Foster and I am the Horticulturist at the Oak Lawn Park District. I have been working here for four years. In that time I have worked toward making the landscapes and parks more beautiful and more sustainable. Sustainable, seems to be the buzz word in Landscaping and Hort for this decade. Everyone wants to know what it is and how to create it. The definition of a Sustainable Landscape is one that reduces or prevents pollution, conserves natural resources, maximizes ecological function and looks attractive.

What does this mean to the Oak Lawn Park District? It means that we strive to follow all of these tenets within the means of our budget. We try to use alternative methods that are less harmful to the ecology around us. My part is landscaping and weed abatement. One of the programs I run is the Adopt-a-Flowerbed program. When I started at the OLPD, there were 25 beds that could be adopted. I have increased this number to 33. What is it? People who adopt a flowerbed are usually condo residents, community organizations, scout troops (mostly Daisys), school groups, families and not-for-profits. I think of it as a really sweet deal for anyone who wants to participate. I prepare the flowerbeds in the spring, we supply the annuals and perennials, you plant, we water, you weed, we clean it all up in fall. After their planting is finished, I take back all the pots and trays so the volunteers don't have to deal with disposing or recycling them. I reuse everything in the greenhouse.
This spring I really wanted try something different with the soil amendments. In the past I would amend each bed with peat moss, perlite and fertilizer. Rototilling it all in to the soil. Peat moss is not a sustainable product, it forms at a rate of about 1 mm a year. It is also expensive and hydrophobic, meaning once it drys out it takes a lot of water to make it wet again. Perlite has its problems too. It is volcanic rock granules that hold water and aid in drainage. The problem is the application process, it is very dusty and you don't want to breathe in that dust. It also rises too the surface of soil and floats away.
So in the spirit of my job being part experiment, (I like to change things up and try new methods) and after speaking to a number of my suppliers I decided that the soil in these flower gardens need more organic matter to grow large, healthy garden plants that might not need as much water in the summer as in the past. I settled on COIR. Coir is shredded coconut fiber. A completely renewable resource because coconuts are processed all over the world. It holds 6x it's weight in water, a real plus for gardens out in the parks and along roads where there may be a lot of wind.
I also needed a product that was going to add the organic matter the beds need to attract worms and add some long needed natural fertilizer, if you know what I mean. I was told about a person who could help me obtain a lot of coffee grounds from a local coffee company. At first I was skeptical until I realized that by adding the coffee grounds to the garden beds I would be loosening tough soil and attracting beneficial soil organisms. She was nice enough to supply me with as much coffee grounds and chaff as my truck could hold. And since this is waste product for the company, this is all free. Recycling at its best. Thanks!
Ok well that's all good but what does it really mean? It means that by adding organic matter in the soil, worms will come to process it and with worms comes a whole host of microorganisms. These tiny soil inhabitants keep soil healthy and balanced. When a plant is growing in such an environment, they can put out more roots and deeper roots, a critical part of being drought tolerant. Healthy plants can also fight off disease and insect infestations (more widely seen in trees but garden plants can do it on a smaller scale). So if you are out enjoying our parks and you smell the sweet scent of coffee..... stop and smell the flowers too!
WEEDS in the parks. The past two years we have had a particularly rampant inundation of thistle in a few places in the landscaping. Particularly near our buildings. I have tried a few different ways to try to beat back this terrible weed but I have had no luck. I recently spoke with one of my volunteers who heard from another gardener... well you know where this is going. Word of mouth seems to be one of the best ways to learn new gardening practices because someone else tried it first! This weed prevention method reminded me of Lasagna Gardening, an old method of layering newspaper and organic matter to make a new flowerbed. Well I plan on using just the newspaper part to help smother these weeds. It is a simple concept, save a big stack of just black and white newsprint, no slick paper, please. Weed your garden, lay out the paper around your existing plants in layers of 7-10 sheets of news print and overlap them a little. Get your garden hose out and wet the paper down and mulch heavy. If your bed has many plants close together, this may not be the best choice for you. You may want to gradually transform your garden to a "Know Maintenance" garden. This method follows the theory that more plants and less exposed soil along with plants that are suited to grow together equals minimal weed growth. I wish I had before pictures of this landscape, it was full of thistle! I have attached a few pictures of the process. I you have any questions you can email me at the park district. All I can say is I will try it and if it doesn't work, I will try something else. Anything to keep me from spraying herbicides and anything to keep my crew from having to weed.

Happy Plantings! Dolly

Mid Spring 2011 Update

Hello Friends! Mid Spring is upon us. I love this time in my garden. It is one of the only times in the year when you can be outside without mosquitoes! They are around but they are not too hungry yet. I also love all the plants blooming right now. My Oriental poppies are beginning to bloom now, at the same time as the allium and columbine. I have located all of my milkweed too, I have 18 swamp milkweed plants and the common mw has spread in places I would never had expected. In one case it is about 20 feet from the original plant. This is the reason why I discourage common mw in the home garden. Out around your neighborhoods in ditches or vacant lots, that's ok. My theory is, the more mw around to attract the monarchs to your area, the better chance you have of them finding your garden. So my plan last year was to take a few seed pods of the common mw and make seed bombs for those spots around my neighborhood that can grow mw. Alas, not all of my time is my own and I did not get it done. I will try again this summer. If you want to make seed bombs and learn a little about guerrilla gardening, follow this link.

I have noticed that this year in my garden plants just seem bigger. I suppose having a unnatural amount of rain makes plants more lush but I could do with a few more bright days. Other than preparing for the monarchs I have started cutting new edges in the garden and I finally started on replanting the front border of the house. I got a hold of 6 'Vanilla Strawberry' Hydrangeas and I bought some Hakonechloa macra aureola grass to round out the update of the front border. I don't just mean that I bought these grasses, it was fate. I rarely buy plants from the big box stores, I have worked in independent garden centers and I know how tough it is for them to be successful so I am pretty loyal. But yesterday HD was calling me. I NEEDED those grasses and I hadn't seen any in my regular haunts. As I drove up in the parking lot, a man was wheeling one entire rack of Hakonachloa macra aureola off a truck. It was fate.

I can't wait to see these new hydrangeas bloom too. Last year I was so excited about the new trend in pink smooth hydrangea (H. aborescens) that I tore out my beloved white 'Annabelle' hydrangeas that have faithfully bloomed big for me for six years. I thought the pink blooms against my yellow house would look charming. So I got on the pink ribbon bandwagon and bought six 'Invincebelle Spirit' hydrangeas. Well maybe I was just impatiens (get it??) but they just sat there and did nothing all last summer. Oh I know what you are saying to yourself, "Dolly shame on you! You know you never see the true potential of a plant until year three!" Actually, I felt like the lady in the Best Buy comerrcial that says "What the...." when she sees the new cell phone she bought is obsolete! hahahaha! I was lucky enough to be at a lecture last summer at the Bonk/ Bailey Nursery facility in Onarga, Il. I met the man who was directly responsible for bringing the 'Vanilla Strawberry' hydrangea to the US from France. He even tested that hydrangea in Minnesota for 5 or 6 years! Once I saw it I was in love and I lusted after that hydrangea all winter. When I got them, I have my ways- oh yes, I have ways of getting plants before official release, I came home one terrible cold Friday night and ripped out the old 'Invinceabelle' hydrangeas. I was in a foul mood because of lack of sunshine, I think so it did not take long. Now I await my beloved 'Vanilla Strawberry' blooms. I hope, not in vain. They are all in bud so I will update you later.

I have not seen any monarchs in my neighborhood yet, This has happened in years past also. Last year I didn't see any until the last week of June and I started finding eggs right away. So I am not worried. I almost have everything ready for the caterpillars.

Good Bye for Now! Happy Plantings! Dolly

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Monarchs are Here!

Monarchs arrived in the area about the 12th of May. Almost the same week as last year. My friend Bob has already collected almost 100 eggs. Since I work full time I am a little limited in my time. I will start collecting this coming week.
I have been preparing the garden all month. I have 18 swamp milkweed plants in the garden now. I planted 6 this spring. I have been purging the garden of over abundant plants and replacing with more butterfly-friendly plants, i.e. milkweed, coneflower, liatris, salvia... The images above are a group of planters all filled with milkweed, just for the caterpillars. I paired them up with tidal wave petunias to feed the hummingbirds. Two planters are filled with dill and parsley. I also planted bronze fennel to the garden. These three plants all attract eastern swallowtail b-fly attractors.
I have 7 swamp milkweed in pots for the cat. house for the caterpillars to munch on. I will put them in and they will get eaten and then I will pull it out and put a new one in. The mw plants will re-leaf and then I can put them back in. So the mw will be rotating. Now I just need to clean the cat. house and the 2 aquariums that were passed on to me by a couple of friends. If you choose to use an aquarium instead of a cat. house or plastic storage container, you will want to put in a piece of 2" foam to cover the bottom. When the cats. make their chrysalis' they will , on occasion fall down. This protects them from being damaged.

The next time I check in, I hope to have caterpillars!
Let me know what you are doing and if you need help or advice. I am coaching anyone who wants to raise cats this summer! Later!