How Our (Late Summer) Garden Grows

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As a part of our whole backyard overhaul last year, we built in DIY raised planter beds. Although we were sure to insulate them (before filling them with a literal ton of soil and compost), we were a bit nervous that all our effort would be wasted on our cold Chicago winters. We’re still learning how to properly care for plants, and this house has really helped to show us the way; the front and back yards, the heaps of natural daylight and our endless persistence has us getting better with time. After years of soggy, or on the contrary, crispy plants, we’ve found our groove (here’s a roundup of our tried and true favorite houseplants), but still, we were crossing all our fingers that our research and prep would allow our outdoor beds to return and thrive this season.

So! You can imagine our relief when at the first signs of spring, we saw life! As a bit of back story, we paid for an hour of a nursery consultant’s time to steer us in the right direction towards Chicago-weather-loving plants, and although we had to replace a few (and fill in a small empty pocket or two) at the start of summer, all in all, we were jumping for joy that our hard work had paid off! Remember how our beds looked in May? Here they are as we transition into fall:

When we were in the initial planning stages, we told the consultant that as the plants mature each year, our goal was for them to look like a ‘big, tangled mess.’ Although that sounds, well, messy, our idea was to have overflowing beds where one flower blended into the next. We wanted to see leafy greens amongst a palette of mostly pinks, purples and white, and one year after planting, I think we finally got that look!

The clematis has been happily climbing up our DIY modern trellis, and although I admitted to not loving the look of this plant immediately, it’s beginning to grow – ha! – on me. The leaves look a little weed-like to me, but it’s a fast grower, and it’s at this time of year that they’ll start to pop with mini white flowers! Over the course of the season, we’ve wrapped the unruly limbs around the trellis to help it stay on course, and it only got stronger (we watched as the green stems turned to brown branches!) and more full with every passing week.

We’ve learned that the ceratostigma is slow to break through the soil, as it wasn’t until well into June that we saw a substantial amount of buds breaking through. Once they found their way, they haven’t stopped! It’s a lower ground cover, and below, you can see the ceratostigma filling in around the base of our pencil holly tree. In the last couple of weeks, we began to see its purple-y-blue flowers bloom, too:

The pinky winky hydrangea we planted in the corner has already started to yellow, but it has easily tripled – quadrupled? – in size since last year! At the start of the season, we added blue rug junipers to the base of the hydrangea to visually break up all the dark stain of the boxes. You can see it creeping down the boxes in the photo below, and although it has only grown a small amount, we’re hoping it’s taking this time to establish its little roots.

One of the first plants to make a comeback this spring were the stonecrops we have scattered throughout all of the boxes. It’s my personal favorite (the hearty leaves are strong and thick!), and we’ve enjoyed watching the flowers turn from fresh green to deep pink to golden:

The echinacea (coneflowers) have made their appearance, although they aren’t as abundant as we would have thought. Perhaps the ceratostigma is choking them out? Even still, they’re tall and lean, and we’ve always loved their vibrant yellow and orange centers:

Some of the ornamental onions (the wispy ball-shaped plants below) peaked early, showing off their purple Dr. Suess-like flowers in July. They’ve stuck around, but the purple has faded to a dull brown, which is a bit of a bummer. (Plant lovers, do we leave them be, or should we dead head them?) The lavender – just to the right of the onions – that we thought wouldn’t make it has come on strong in the last month, which was a pleasant surprise.

On the other side of the garden, the baptisia has been a champion! In our May update post, we were certain that we lost this guy. And then suddenly, small buds of green and purple stems began to skyrocket! Over the course of the season, we’ve had to cut it back twice, and we’ll bring the leafy cuttings inside to display in a vase on the dining table.

Scott and I like to enjoy as many meals as we can al fresco, and we’ll still marvel at how far this patio has come from one year ago. Every morning, Jack and CC enjoy a morning nap at the top of the staircase, and if the sun is too warm, they’ll mosey around the patio until they find the just-right sliver of shade. It’s so sweet – almost as sweet as CC on her porch swing – although their absolute favorite activity is to squeeze onto the big fireplace chairs with our friends.

Our plan is to allow the plants to die down as the warm weather turns to frost. Last winter, we didn’t cut them back into the first buds of spring, which seemed to work out great. But for anyone with a much greener thumb than us, how do you prepare your perennials for colder weather?

Source List:

Pavers: Lowe’s | DIY table | metal stacking chairs | wicker chairs | oval Morocco lounge chairs | pouf | thick outdoor rug | jute dog cushion | Sunbrella pillows | jute pillows w/ black piping | crochet pillow | large white table umbrella | cobalt gooseneck light | black farmhouse light | DIY planters | fireplace | outdoor speakers | sliding kitchen door | DIY Trellis | staircase paint and stain: Extra White railings, Flagstone opaque stain by Sherwin Williams

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  • Katie - September 6, 2017 - 9:15 AM

    I use to leave my stone crop (or Autumn sedum) alone cause I read that winter birds like the flower clusters (or maybe the bugs that hide in them?)
    They become dried straw by the winter and can easily be cleaned upin spring when you get your beds ready. While I’ve never seen birds around my plants they are very hearty. In 4 years time I was able to divide the plant once and have 2 very hearty happy huge plants. I love that plant, it’s probably my favorite perennial.
    Also, I think coneflower should be left to dry out and reseed itself.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 9:58 AM

      It’s definitely my favorite that we’ve had experience with, too. Now dividing plants… that’s something we’ll have to warm up to eventually!ReplyCancel

    • Ryan - September 6, 2017 - 4:16 PM

      I also wait until spring to cut back the sedum. It’s one of those “winter interest” plants in the yard. If you’re looking for more of the echinacea leave it to re-seed. I have more than enough after doing that for a few years and just pull it up and compost or give it away if it’s growing where I don’t want it. I didn’t find the white coneflower to be as hardy or prolific as the purple though. It’s great to see everything going together so well. I have a big overflowing mess but I think it’s time to start being more selective about which plants are allowed to stay and which might need a new home.ReplyCancel

  • Jaclyn - September 6, 2017 - 9:28 AM

    Love the patio garden! I have a sweet spot for Sedum and Echinacea, so pretty and hardy! I don’t really have a green thumb but my mother does and she is my consultant. She recommends cutting back perennials in early spring :) BTW, we just visited Logan Square and did check out Lula’s on your recommendation after which we went to the farmers market, we tried to go to Parsons but it was a two hour wait and didn’t get a chance to go to Scofflaw. We loved our visit and will definitely visit Logan Square again!ReplyCancel

  • Jaclyn Michniak - September 6, 2017 - 9:34 AM

    Love the patio garden! I have a sweet spot for Sedum and Echinacea, so pretty and hardy! I don’t really have a green thumb but my mother does and she is my consultant. She recommends cutting back some perennials in early spring :) I do agree with Katie that the Echinacea should not be cut, and I don’t usually cut back my Sedum either, definitely cut back the Clematis though! BTW, we just visited Logan Square and did check out Lula’s on your recommendation after which we went to the farmers market, we tried to go to Parsons but it was a two hour wait and didn’t get a chance to go to Scofflaw. We loved our visit and will definitely visit Logan Square again!ReplyCancel

    • Jaclyn - September 6, 2017 - 9:38 AM

      Did think my first draft posted (said error), sorry for the duplicate!ReplyCancel

      • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 9:57 AM

        I’m so happy you loved our neighborhood! Parsons can get CRAZY unless you’re there on a rainy day or an off-hour, but even then on the weekends, it’s typically packed. So fun though!ReplyCancel

  • Lori - September 6, 2017 - 9:38 AM

    You can spray paint your allium seed heads with spray paint! I’ve seen even botanical gardens do that, and depending on the color you choose, it can blend in or make a really funky statement. Here’s an example I found online: http://www.beautifulbotany.com/Story%20Archives/Plants/Annuals,%20Perennials,%20Bulbs%20&%20Houseplants/Bulb%20-%20Graffiti%20Gardening%20-%20Turning%20Alliums%20Into%20Art.htm

    I’d wait to cut things back til spring, personally, especially the stuff that looks good during the winter, like dried flower heads.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 11:18 AM

      Interesting! As soon as you mentioned it, I remembered seeing something similar. I don’t know if I’m brave or funky enough to do that to ours, but it’s still a neat option!ReplyCancel

      • Carswell - September 6, 2017 - 11:51 AM

        I would deadhead those alliums.

        I don’t know what kind you have but some of them are voracious self seeders – and you will find them turning up everywhere, including between your patio stones.ReplyCancel

  • Erin Frost - September 6, 2017 - 9:50 AM

    Hi, I am a horticulturist in downtown Boston, Ma (I think we have a similar zone). I also do a lot container gardening and designing. I found the liner your architect suggested to be very interesting. It looks like you have strong sun for the afternoon which is basically full sun? The hydrangea might burn out a bit because it does not like the afternoon sun but looks great so far. The sedums and plumbago (and herbs) are well suited to those conditions. You can cut the flowers off the alliums, if they suggested a good variety they should bloom in the Spring and the Fall. The echinacea will be slow to take off but should grow faster in year 3, like most perennials.
    As for winter, I generally recommend that you choose a few plants to keep for winter interest and cut back and clear out the dead leaves on the rest, add a layer of compost for moisture and fertilizer. If you don’t clean up, insects and pests will make it their winter home and then it’s hard to get rid of them. Also don’t forget to water in the winter, containers dry out in the wind and if there is no snow it can kill the plants. I replace a lot of dried out plants in the Spring for people who forget to water.
    Enjoy!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 9:59 AM

      SO helpful, thank you, Erin!ReplyCancel

  • Haley - September 6, 2017 - 10:01 AM

    It looks GREAT!!! Does your renter have an area to do a little planting? I just ask because my husband is obsessed with his little container garden and I know he would be so sad living somewhere without the same option. Just made me curious about other renters.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 10:06 AM

      While our new renters did like the backyard, they admitted they wouldn’t be using it much, if at all!ReplyCancel

  • Amy - September 6, 2017 - 10:19 AM

    Your garden looks so nice!

    Coneflowers often follow the perennial “sleep, creep, leap” rule (not much the first year, little bit more the second, then BOOM – they take off). So I would wait and see what they do next year before making any decision on them.

    Your hydrangea should be trimmed in early spring to encourage stronger branching and prevent it from getting tall and gangly then flopping over. Start by removing all sucker branches at the base of the plant. Then prune all the branches back about 3-6 inches. It also encourages blooming throughout the shrub, rather than just on the tips of branches – and who doesn’t want more blooms?

    I would probably remove the blue rug junipers you planted – they have a tendency to choke out everything around them. Yes they only get 6 in. tall, but they quickly spread to 6 to 8 ft. wide! That’s going to take out everything in both of your beds. Another trailing plant would be more desirable.

    Otherwise, great job and wonderful low maintenance garden!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 11:17 AM

      Phew, that’s just what we did with our hydrangea this past spring! And thanks for the warning on the blue rug junipers – we’ll be keeping an eye on them.ReplyCancel

  • Ryan - September 6, 2017 - 10:35 AM

    Your planters look so great, Kim! Very impressed.

    I don’t know much about most of the things you’ve planted, since a lot of it won’t survive the Austin heat, but I have a ton of Coneflowers in my yard. Mine bloom in late spring and come July the bloom stalks turn black and crispy in the summer heat. Once they’re completely dry, I snip off the seed heads and crush/scatter them around my garden where I want additional plants to grow. I don’t have to worry about winter here, so it doesn’t matter when I scatter them (they’d probably do better if I scattered them in the fall, but I have no patience). I usually compost and mulch over all the seeds in the fall and they all come up in late February when the weather starts to warm up.

    Good luck!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2017 - 11:17 AM

      Ooh, great suggestion for the coneflowers! Thanks, Ryan.ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa - September 6, 2017 - 1:37 PM

    I would remove the allium seed heads, but others might not. That is more of a visual preference than a “should.” You can try it one way one year and the opposite the next year to see what you like better.ReplyCancel

  • Mary - September 6, 2017 - 5:33 PM

    Your containers look very lush. I live in a townhouse that has a small area that allows me to plant some things. It’s mostly shaded by mature trees.
    I have come to realize that gardening is an expensive hobby. I’m not very good at it & much of it dies. But each Spring I’m buying more plants & keep plugging away at it. Your cute pups must be your good luck charms.ReplyCancel

  • Tari - September 7, 2017 - 7:08 AM

    It looks great! If you’re looking for a low, hardy plant that spills over the edge, you should try the sunsparkler dazzleberry sedum. It’s a stone crop with blue-purple stems, and hot pink flowers that bees LOVE. It’s one of my new favorites. http://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/3628/sunsparkler-dazzleberry-sedum/ReplyCancel

  • Eva Burgess - September 12, 2017 - 11:47 PM

    Great plant selection. You could think about adding some grasses and bearded irises for a different leaf texture and height.
    I can’t wait to have a garden againReplyCancel

  • Ann - September 16, 2017 - 12:02 AM

    Your garden is so lovely. We are also in Chicago, also in the city. I just had my whole garden replanted hoping to have a low maintenance perennial garden…. but the neighborhood doggies have also been enjoying it! If you find any puppy tolerant plants, please post them!ReplyCancel

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