A little over a year ago, I moved into an apartment with a small garden plot at my disposal. Up to that point, I had enjoyed three years of abundant success with houseplants (preceded by as many years of abysmal failure with them) and felt ready for prime time. Plunging a big, grown-up shovel into the Chicago clay was at once invigorating and meditative. Over the course of the summer, my fledgling garden became a quiet sanctuary, where I would go to order my thoughts like rows of kale, work out my uncertainties and frustrations with a pitchfork and admire new growth with parental pride. Now that the air is growing crisper and the days shorter, Iím happy to learn the yearís yard work isn't over just yet.
Autumn is not only the harvest season, when the trees are resplendent, the farmers markets bountiful and the entire plant kingdom gives a final, glorious blaze of color; itís also time to prepare the ground for the following spring. Many perennials (plants that return each year of their own accord) like to spend the late autumn and winter establishing roots in the ground, so fall is an ideal time to rearrange or even start a garden. I wanted to make some changes in my little plot for next yearómore colorful flowers and more native plants that flourish without babysittingóbut Iím not keen on blindly picking up whichever pots are for sale outside of Dominickís. As a novice gardener, I've discovered two invaluable sources of horticultural wisdom: my mother and the Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Information Hotline. I recently called the latter (just this once, Mom!) for some professional tips on autumn planting and readying my tiny urban garden for the long, cold winter.
Mariel, the charming (and, yes, motherly) CBG hotline operator, and I chatted for a half hour about low-maintenance perennials, attractive native ground cover and our personal struggles to keep basil alive. Here are a few easy-to-care-for perennials to put in your bed now and enjoy all next year.
Bulbs: Tulips, irises, lilies and hyacinth are among the most popular bulbs. Plant them now, and youíll have brilliant flowers come spring. Mariel recommends planting them in tight clumps for dense fields of color, particularly if your garden space is small. If you already have bulbs in the ground and wish to rearrange or split them, now is the time to do it. My irises seemed to double in number over the summer, so I dug up a bunch to share with a friend.
Columbine: These blue or white blossoms will take over when spring bulbs fade and persist well into the summer. There are over 70 varieties, so the hardest part of growing them may be deciding which spurred, five-petal flower you like best.
Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susan: These native prairie flowers grow tall, proud and reedy, blooming throughout the summer and into early fall. They require little care and re-seed themselves, returning in greater numbers the following year.
Ornamental Grasses: Some people prefer to plant, wash their hands and let nature take its course. For the laissez-faire gardener, indigenous grasses are the way to go. Grass is the most successful plant species on the planet, and the most commonplace foliage can be amongst the most beautiful; not only do prairie grasses help control storm water in floods and stay hardy in times of draught, they also softly rustle in the wind, making you feel a bit like Laura Ingalls Wilder when you close your eyes.
Once youíve finished your autumn planting, topping the soil with a layer of wood chips helps keep the ground moist and insulated through the winter and will discourage weeds come spring. Be careful not to mulch directly over what youíve planted; trapping moisture at the base of young plants can invite insects and disease. Fall is also a great time to start a compost pileóall those fallen leaves and decaying flora make an excellent base for nitrogen-rich, all-natural fertilizer that will be ready to use when the first signs of your labor poke their green heads through the ground next year.
Have questions about your own botanical pursuits? Call the Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Info Hotline at (847) 835-0972. (My motherís number is unavailable.