Being a gardener is a year by year experience. Here in the north, we judge our results in the fall after growing for only 5 months. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my plants and seeds into the ground until Memorial Day weekend, as it was incredibly rainy and cool in May. Being that I don’t have the space nor materials to grow seeds indoors late winter, I sow late in spring, and usually don’t have any issues. I thought posting some information here might help other midwestern gardeners or at least show that gardening isn’t always as easy as sticking a seed in the ground.
So here are a few reflections on my 2016 garden, in Zone 5b, (the northwestern Chicago suburbs), with photos:
- A wet spring is optimal for a beautiful display of spring bulbs – Mild temperatures and ample rain created a vivid show of color in the garden in April and May. Crocus, tulips, and daffodils were especially healthy with the heavy spring rains.
- Stick with tried and true perennials that are hardy to your zone – In Zone 5b, Shasta daisies, daylilies, and Indian blanket flowers create dazzling displays, even with neglect. Hostas, sedums, peonies, coneflowers, and even poppies do well with little care. I never water these and they continue to delight me each year.
- Never try to grow anything from seed in my yard – I have way too many squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, and rabbits (I even had an opossum and a broad-winged hawk in my yard!) to have any kind of success. I planted Zinnia seeds in pots this year that had to be completely surrounded by chicken wire to keep the animals out. (This didn’t always work!) Squirrels dug up corn seeds and sunflower seeds, rabbits ate all the growth from sprouting seedlings, and chipmunks dug in pots planted with seeds. Some fights are not worth fighting. I won a few battles in the garden, but overall, the animals won. I was simply left frustrated.
- Skip growing trailing vegetables in containers – This year, I ran out of space in my garden so I opted to grow cucumbers in large pots on my patio. Due to the chipmunks and squirrels finding unprotected places in the dirt to dig, the seedlings had a rough start due to injury. However, I was surprised how few cucumbers I yielded. The plants seemed to lose life after producing one, maybe two vegetables. In any case, cucumbers need much more room to grow if they are going to provide numerous, delicious veggies.
- Sometimes no matter where you put a plant, it will never be in the right spot – I have a very large 50+ year old tree in my backyard that has a huge garden around it. Ever since I removed all of the creeping ground cover for a cleaner, more polished look, some of my new additions don’t want to grow. When a plant is put near a giant tree, there is going to be a lot of competition for water and nutrients. My bee balm and endless summer hydragenas that are planted near the tree refuse to grow. In fact, one hydragena died last year. Some plants do well around the tree, and others don’t. Despite proper planting, proper light, nutrition and hydration, sometimes trial and error is the only thing that you can count on.
- Don’t get too caught up in the spring Burpee catalog after a long winter – Every year, I ‘window shop’ the Burpee seed and plant catalog. I pick out everything I want, wait a few days, and then toss the catalog without buying anything. “I don’t need it,” I say. Well, this year I decided to spend $20 on some seeds (big mistake, see above) – vegetables, Coreopsis (perennial), Alyssum, and Zinnia seeds (both annuals). Well, after battling the animals digging in the pots, I eventually yielded a successful pea harvest, a failed Coreopsis, halfway decent Alyssum, and late-blooming yet beautiful Zinnias. My broccoli was faring pretty well also, but after finding cabbage worms within the florets (just before eating them!) I gave up. I didn’t want to fight an infestation of this magnitude so late in the season (September).
- Try planting herbs – This was my first year potting herbs. I stuck with sweet basil and rosemary, as they are the ones I use most in the kitchen. My basil did quite well all season. I used fresh leaves for cooking, froze some, and dried more for later use. I was even more pleased with the rosemary plant. Cutting fresh sprigs from the plant and immediately cooking with them was so rewarding. My family even now prefers fresh rosemary over dried, which is more like pine needles. So instead of letting the colder temperatures end my rosemary’s gifts of deliciousness, I decided to repot it and bring it inside. Now I have fresh rosemary all the time. I love it!
- Petunias are pretty, but they never last too long – Every year, I’m captivated by the beautiful blooms of the Petunia. Soft, velvet-like petals bursting with color ensnare eager gardeners. However, Petunias often get leggy and long as they grow. Despite deadheading and pruning to achieve a more bushy (rather than leggy look), sometimes the plant still gets too long. I should stick with Begonias, Impatiens, and Geraniums. They have grown the best in our environment and haven’t been eaten or disturbed by wildlife.
- In order to grow sweet corn, you need a lot of space and a yard without squirrels – I tried. I desperately tried to grow sweet corn after being given commercial seeds from a farmer. I planted once, but squirrels dug in the dirt and found the seeds. I planted a second time, weeks later, and covered the dirt with chicken wire. This seemed to work. As I did not have a lot of room for the corn, I tried to plant two long rows next to our fence in two different places. The corn started growing and was thriving. I was thrilled! I even hand pollinated the corn as I knew that small plantings of corn have less success with wind pollination. So the corn was tall and small cobs were developing; then our new fence was finally installed. Being that the corn was growing next to the fence, several plants were victim to the installers walking all over the bed. The few stalks that remained were eventually destroyed by squirrels; I caught squirrels jumping from the fence, onto the corn stalk to knock it over, and then grab the cob off of the bent plant.
After all of the work and effort I put into trying to produce corn, I was greatly disappointed. This has happened before with sunflowers as well. Being that we live in a very woody area, chipmunks and squirrels are bound to be around. And if they’re hungry, there’s no stopping them in your garden. I even tried tying brown paper bags around the developing ears to protect them. That didn’t even phase the squirrels. This was all the corn I managed to get. Pretty sad, isn’t it?
Besides the corn, I’m pretty pleased with how gardening went this year. We had enough rain and didn’t slide into our usual August drought. I still actually have some Geraniums, Calibrachoa, Begonias, Impatiens, and Zinnias still blooming nicely, even though it’s almost Halloween. I will likely to continue to plant these annuals in my garden because they still look good here after 5 months of growing.
Are you a midwest gardener? What are your tried and true annuals? Let me know in the comments!