This is a gardening blog by a guy who dared to veer off the beaten path and discovered plants and gardening along the way. Join me as I write about my processes and inspirations from my “Midwest” point of view.

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  • Private Paradise: Contemporary American Gardens
    Private Paradise: Contemporary American Gardens
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    Landscaping with Trees in the Midwest: A Guide for Residential and Commercial Properties
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Waiting for Wonderland

The weather forecasters have predicted our first significant snowfall tonight. But outside, the cadence of the falling rain beats on as the drops splash against the earth. The falling rain is sinking deeper into the soil, as does the old year into memory. What will tomorrow bring? A winter wonderland? I hope so.

A wonderland. I like the sound of that. That makes me hopeful and full of anticipation. It’s fun to dream of wonderful things to come. We all do it, right? Despite the fact that life will pepper us with moments that sting and events that stop us in our tracks. But that’s part of it. Best to focus on the good stuff and make the most of it.

Happy New Year. Here’s to all the good stuff coming our way.



Oh, Spring is surely coming,
Her couriers fill the air;
Each morn are new arrivals,
Each night her ways prepare;
I scent her fragrant garments,
Her foot is on the stair.
~John Burroughs, “A March Glee”


Wordless Wednesday


Wedded Bliss. A Project by Sundown Gardens.

A client calls in says their daughter is getting married at their home “in 3 weeks” and would like to know if we can come by and spruce things up a bit. Truth be told, the client wanted little more than this, but I proposed (no pun intended) more. And they went for it! 

I think “my thing” at work has become “making it happen.” Consequently, I’m called in to whip things up in situations like these. Sure there are moments of panic, like when you think the project is dead, then you get the call saying please proceed– a week later!! Then there are those moments when you need 70 white mums in fall but all the growers are out of white and nearly every other color for that matter. This is when I dig down deep inside and remind myself to breathe. Then I formulate plan B, and C, but never lose hope for A.

Our job begins with a fall cleanup, which consists of weeding, removing or cutting back spent plant material, pruning (where necessary), mulching, and of course hauling away all the debris. Not shown, myself and 3 other team members furiously working away. 

While the cleanup is in progress, I undo the urns where old summer annuals were past their prime. The pink dots mark where new mums will be planted. It’s rainy, but the show must go on. The wedding is in 4 days.

As I planned for this transformation, I kept hearing in my head “Something old, something new. Something borrowed, something blue”. The symbolism of this Old English rhyme became integral to my plan.

I selected Snapdragons and Pansies in bright hues with a touch of white Sweet Alyssum. These annuals feel old fashioned to me and that felt right for the “something old” concrete planters. The result was no less splendid than a lovely bridal bouquet.

To enhance the fall theme, mini Cabbages and Heuchera with Swiss Chards were added as foliage accents. Grasses and Variegated Liriope echo the existing Liripoe in the beds. A cute pumpkin tucked here and there reminds us that this is the gathering season.

I was surprised to find two tall plastic pots deep in the garden beds. Except for one white geranium, all was practically dead in the neglected pots. This became my “something borrowed” moment. I gathered the old Geraniums and silvery Dusty Miller plants from another container and planted them together with new cabbages and kales. I just love how this came together. 

The edges of the beds near the walkway were also planted with Cabbages and Sweet Alyssum. Repeating plants in various areas formulates visual cohesion and that creates a calming effect for the eye.

This is the view from the front porch. One side of the walkway was planted in a mass of pansies. This was my “something blue”. The enormous mum pots with grasses in the center reach 4 1/2 feet tall and are wonderfully impactful. Just cracking open, these four pots will bloom in white. Eight other matching mum pots in every color but white are placed throughout the outdoor reception area.

And last but not least, “something new”. The home is flanked by 70 white mums. This is a wedding afterall. As luck would have it, I was able to procure the mums at the perfect bloom stage– 4 days till showtime. I just love how they look against the golden hues of the hostas. I love pulling it all together and seeing it come to fruition.

Some projects are a year in the making, others just a few days. No matter the timeline, I strive to give all projects, and clients, my very best. Oh, about that swanky car. It’s a vintage Cadillac which will be used for phots ops at the wedding.


Seeing Red. (My comeback post)

This post is dedicated to Lee May, author of Lee May’s Gardening Life blog. In my life, Lee was a blogging buddy, writing mentor, and fearless gardener. I was never so proud as when I appeared on his blogroll. He is greatly missed. Eddie Lee May, 1941-2014.

I once read that one was never to use red in the landscape because it interrupted the visual flow too much. For that reason, I’ve refused red blooms for years and still observe this rule today. That goes for annuals too- not in my pots. It is indeed a powerful color which has an interesting set of associations –heated emotions, passion, violence, communism, a sign of warning (traffic lights etc), and of course blood. I’m just not a fan, but admittedly have purchased a few red geraniums in my day. Other than that, I easily ignore the other red flowers at the garden centers… until this year.

My personal container designs have become a testing and trial exercise on how to exploit the virtues of a particular color. For several years, I have chosen a specific color theme to adhere to. The intent of this self-imposed constraint is to force myself to use new colors and new plants that would otherwise go ignored due to my finicky color prejudices which I developed some time ago. New plants mean new plant combinations, and new combinations mean better design savvy (hopefully). So this is where my stance on red takes a turn. This year I would work in red.

It took a while to amass enough plant material to begin. Many of the reds are just too fiery and off-putting. If I were to commit to red, it would have to meet me half way. I needed lovely sumptuous reds that would pull you in instead of agitate the eye and make you want to look away. I’m pleased with most of the results. Would I ever enter the red zone again? Not by choice, but the point of my exercise is simply to expand my knowledge of plants and use of color. Armed with this year’s experience, I’m confident I can create something beautiful with reds if I am ever called upon to do so. As I reflect on the past year, I am reminded that life is short. Try everything. Even red.

Please enjoy this visual survey and notes from my containers. Click on an image to activate the slide show.

Seeing Red > Red Annuals


Spring's Rollercoaster Ride

I’m back after a little break from posting to Hortus 5. Truth is, I’ve been savoring winter’s slow motion and luxuriating in its quite stillness. Now Spring is finally here and the last couple of days have been damp and chilly. Inbetween sunrise and sunset, one can still see their breath. I think most everyone in the Midwest is yearning for a warm and sunny Spring. No such luck, yet.

As winter loosens its grip, I am once again experiencing the multiple forces of the season which tend to make me more frustrated than anything. Exciting as it may be, I also find it a bit torturous. Spring’s hills and valleys are much like a rollercoaster’s, constantly changing, pulling you in all directions. Cold one day, wet another. And what to wear– base layer, rain coat, or both? My inertia climbs toward the sunny peak but Spring’s coaster car has other ideas. Down we go again. Let’s hope this ride doesn’t plunge through a frosty tunnel or two. Ready or not, Spring is here and as always, it’s gonna be a scenic and bumpy ride.

Above: Magnolia buds trying to break open.


Sneak Preview: Piet Oudolf Documentary

I’ve been following the work of Piet Oudolf for some time now. He has been called the master of site-specific design in the contemporary naturalistic planting style. Although I’ve only seen his work in photographs, the scale and scope is awesome, thoughtful, and to me, inspiring. I’m so excited to share this preview of a piece being done to feature and document his work and process.

There has been much dialogue and debate as to whether or not this style of naturalistic planting design will take root here in the US, and to what degree. Reserved for public spaces? Will it creep into mainstream residential design? Time will tell, but this I know for sure. Mr. Oudolf’s body of work is and will continue to be looked upon for generations to come as an artistic triumph of self-expression in planting design.


Oh my stars!

Corydalis temulifolia ‘Chocolate stars’

Gardens Illustrated magazine describes it this way: “Wonderful crinkle-edged, rust-coloured foliage in winter becomes almost orange in March. By April, lavender flowers deck the now bronze leaves. The whole plant gradually fades to olive green by June and sits unobtrusively in the garden until November when the first frost knocks back the green leaves and reveals the new rusty leaves emerging from below. It is a sight for sore eyes in February.”

I think that sounds just divine.

Image Source: John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary

Rehab for a Gardener?

“In January the most important thing a gardener can cultivate is themself.” So says Jojo Tulloh in the Gardens Illustrated articled titled Respect Yourself. I couldn’t agree more and liken it to nursing a nasty hangover after binging on gardening for months on end. I do my best to sleep it off and find that a little ibuprofen helps too. But what’s the use? It won’t be long before I fall off the wagon again. I always do.

Debauchery lies ahead, beneath the current pages of the calendar. Soon I’ll be drunk again with flowers and foliage. Is rehab in order? I don’t think so. I just need some time to rest, to plan, and even dream a little. Perhaps I’ll set a goal or challenge of learning a new skill over the coming party *ahem* growing season. The next drunken stupor is inevitable, but it’ll will have to wait at least until March.

No one says it better than the late Amy Winehouse (below). Happy New Year!


Too late to plant bulbs? We shall see.

I’ve been bad. I was given some bulbs this past autumn but for one reason or another, never got them in the ground. The ideal time to plant bulbs is about six weeks before the ground freezes in your area. This gives the bulbs time to root and establish themselves. We’ve already experienced one ground freeze about four weeks ago. Recently the snow melted and temps were in the 50s. I got busy and buried 75 tulip bulbs before the predicted rains began. But am I too late?

I’ve seen gardeners plant daffodils in the snow and they were beautiful the following spring. Below left: An images from a Master Gardener project I documented. The gardeners were planting daffodil bulbs in January snow. Below right: Great results despite the late planting.

This is my first time ever planting bulbs. It’s easy, but tedious if you have several bulbs to plant. It’s the digging that gets you. I don’t own one of those fancy bulb dibbles. I did all my digging with a trowel and fortunately have nice tillable soil to work with.

So, what is the best time to plant bulbs?

When the average nighttime temperature in your area is 40-to 50-degree range. For northern climates, plant in September or October, in warmer climates, you may need to plant in December or later.

If you plant too early, they might come up before the weather gets colds then die once frost comes. Planting too early can also lead to fungus or disease problems.

What if you miss the ideal time?

Let’s be honest. This happens, but don’t wait for spring or the next fall because bulbs do not survive above the ground indefinitely. If you find that you have bulbs that need to get in the ground, take your chances by planting them as soon as you can.

Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: I arranged the bulbs where I wanted them above ground. This helped me visualize the spacing and layout. Hard as you may try, it’s difficult to remember your layout once they’re underground. That’s why you start with everything layed out above ground.

Step 2: One by one, I dug a hole for each bulb. All bulbs should come with specific planting instructions. Generally speaking, tulip bulb holes should be 8 inches deep. Refer to the chart below for other bulb depth guidelines. Some bulbs will look nice planted in clumps rather than individually.


Step 3: With the hole prepared, I placed the bulb in the hole with the pointy-side up. I gently pressed the bulb into the bottom of the hole just to ensure that it did not roll or tip over. 

Step 4: Next, I gently sprinkled soil back in the hole being careful not let the bulb tip over as I filled in the soil. Once covered, I patted it down with my hands.

Step 5: You can lightly water the bulbs after planting to help begin the process of growing, but do not soak them or they may decay and die. I did not water as the soil was moist and rain was predicted for later that day.

So now I wait. The bulbs will lie dormant for the remainder of winter. I think it’s gonna work despite my procrastination. I did not add any bulb food or fertilizer as I figured these bulbs were already well fed and programmed for next spring. Hey, they’re lucky they even got in the ground!! Stay tuned for a progress report.