Rudbeckia (a.k.a. black-eyed susan)

Rudbeckias, also known as black-eyed susans and sometimes coneflowers (which is why it’s always best to use correct species names) are the star of my garden right now. I grow two species: R. subtomentosa and R. triloba. You could consider them as variations on a black-eyed-susan theme.


R. submentosa, or sweet black-eyed susan, is a tough (you might say assertive) perennial that grows up to about 6′ high and blooms from July through first frost. Individual flowers are large–about 4″–and there are gazillions of them. This plant is completely pest- and disease free and the deer and rabbits mostly leave it alone. Like all native prairie flowers, it is a magnet for pollinators, although Rudbeckias do not seem to attract butterflies except for the occasional hairstreak.


R. triloba, or brown-eyed susan, can only be described as adorable. The flowers are fairly small, about 2″ across, and a brilliant Crayola yellow-orange. This plant is smaller overall than R. submentosum, reaching about 3-4′. It does not spread underground like R. submentosum and is not truly perennial. Individual plants seem to last 3-4 years, but it self-seeds in my garden, so I always have seedlings. It is also pest- and disease-free, but it tends to be eaten by deer and rabbits. (I spread the plants around so the critters don’t find all of them.)

Members of this genus may be perennials, annuals, biennials, or triennials. The common black-eyed susan (R. hirta) is a biennial. In my experience, they take two years to bloom from seed or after being moved, as is true for most prairie plants. they need time to develop large root systems.

All Rudbeckias are native to North America., The genus belongs to the aster family (Asteraceae), and all species have flowers that botanists call composites. (Sometimes the family name Compositae is used instead.) That’s because all the plants in this family have flower heads made up of many tiny individual flowers. The brightly colored petals are actually rays, and the actual flowers make up the center disk. In all composite flowers, the individual flowers actually bloom in rows from the outside of the disk inward. You can often see pollinators working their way around the circle going from tiny flower to flower. Here’s a picture that clearly shows a flower head with the outer circle of flowers in bloom:


The Asteraceae is a huge plant family that includes many native perennials (asters, echinacea, sunflowers), many familiar, though nonnative, garden plants (yarrow, marigolds, daisies), and many important food plants (artichokes, lettuce, sunflower seeds and oil). The many native perennials in this huge, happy family help bring variety, beauty, and sustainability to the garden. Plant some for yourself, and enjoy them for many years to come.


More about growing tomatoes

Gardeners and would-be gardeners are obsessed with tomatoes, and with good reason. There’s nothing like a just-picked, vine-ripened tomato. The big tomatoes in my garden aren’t ripe yet, and yesterday a fellow gardener gave me one huge Beefmaster, so big that I could eat only half at a sitting, and it was fabulous. The kind of tomato that you eat by itself with only the tiniest sprinkle of salt. Yum.

But tomatoes are hard to grow. They are subject to all kinds of pests and diseases, they set fruit only within a narrow temperature window, the fruits crack or turn black with too much or too little water. The vines grow huge and are hard to control, and they continually put out suckers. Yet we go on year after year, buying plants or seeds, obsessing all winter and spring, enjoying those first few tomatoes but then seeing the harvest ruined by blight or overcrowding or too much rain. We’re all subject to climate and weather, but there are some things you can do to reduce the other problems that plague tomato plants.

Right now I am harvesting a dozen or so small tomatoes every day (yellow and red grapes), plus an occasional medium-size yellow tomato, and waiting impatiently for the vines with the large heirlooms to start producing (they got a late start). I’ve learned quite a bit from past mistakes–in the past, I’ve  planted too many vines too close together and haven’t been sufficiently vigilant about pruning out suckers, so the vines succumbed early to fungal diseases. Two years ago we got so much rain in the August that, after a great July harvest, the fruit cracked on the vine. Last year I overcompensated, didn’t water enough, and the fruit started to develop blossom end rot (later amended by proper watering.) Tomatoes are hard to grow. We should all stick to eggplant and zucchini, but we won’t.

This year things are going well, however. I have been scrupulous about removing  suckers and tying the plants to stakes every few days. Here’s a picture of my vegetable garden taken a couple of days ago:


The tall plant in the center is a single tomato vine (small yellow grape tomatoes). Because there’s plenty of room around this plant, I allowed it to have two main stems, each tied to its own stake (the two stakes in the center). These stakes are 8′ tall, and the vines have already reached the top. The other stakes in the picture are supporting eggplants.)

Based on my two and a half years’ experience growing tomatoes, plus my horticultural training, I would suggest that there are a few simple rules that will help you get a good harvest (but not ensure it):

1. Space the plants widely, at least 2-3′ apart, and be ruthless about pruning suckers.

2. Use tall, strong supports, such as 8′ stakes, and tie the plants frequently. They grow very fast.

3. Make sure the soil is loose and well drained and high in organic matter. Enrich with compost, and avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers.

4. Provide 1-2″ of water per week early in the season, 1″ per week once fruit has begun to set. Water deeply every 5-7 days rather than giving a little sprinkle every day.

5. Water early in the day, never in the evening. You want to make sure the leaves are dry before nightfall.

6. The vines will not set fruit during very hot or very cool weather, so don’t be alarmed if you see some incomplete fruit clusters.

7. Although tomatoes are subject to pests, fungal diseases such as verticillium and anthracnose are far more common. The reasons for rules #1, 2, and 5 are to  prevent fungal diseases from taking hold.

I wish you all good fruit set, not too much rain in August, and lots of delicious tomatoes throughout the summer and early fall.


How about growing this: Wild quinine

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) is an extremely tough perennial native to the entire eastern half of North America. Its preferred site has full sun and dry soil. It grows about 3′ tall, blooms from late June through fall, and is completely immune to pests and diseases. I love to mix it into my prairie gardens, because the extremely long-lasting white flowers make a wonderful contrast to the vivid yellows, pinks, and purples of most native perennials. While it’s not particularly show, it’s a useful cut flower, because the individual flowers are very long-lived.

According to the USDA Plant Guide, native Americans used the leaves of wild quinine to treat burns and the roots to treat dysentery.  This is not a plant that spreads quickly, either by seed or rhizomes, although once established it is quite carefree. It is listed as threatened in several Midwestern states. It’s available from several reputable native plant nurseries, including Prairie Nursery. When you do your garden planning for next season, consider wild quinine as part of your native perennial garden.

7/26/13: In the garden this week


The first sunflower (a perennial species, downy sunflower or Helianthus mollis) opened in my garden a day or so ago. Native perennial sunflowers are much easier to grow than the annuals that most people think of as sunflowers. The perennials are back-of-the-border plants that grow up to about 6′ tall and will bloom through October. Goldfinches and other small birds will hang from the seedheads upside down to eat the nutritious small seeds.

It’s National Moth Week! Moths are the very important class of pollinators we rarely see, because they do their thing at night. Check out some fascinating information about these vital and beautiful creatures.

It looks like moderate temperatures and rainfall will stay with us for the next week or so, so there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the garden and maybe even to get some chores done:

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. Mow with a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn, where they will serve as natural fertilizer. There is no need to fertilize or water. We had approximately 3″ of rain over the past week.

– as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. Collect seeds as they ripen throughout the season; let most remain to feed the birds next winter. I deadhead only when all seeds have ripened. For most perennials, I will not remove any growth until early next spring.

– continue to plant beans, kale, chard, and other members of the brassica clan if you have room; harvest squash and beans before they get large and tough. Pull up bean plants when they stop producing.

– continue to stake tomato plants firmly as they grow and remove all suckers. Now that plants are producing fruit, cut back on watering to prevent cracking.

– monitor the garden carefully for pests and diseases; high rainfall in June and high humidity in July are leading to fungal diseases, although most are not severe enough to threaten a plant’s health (more on that in a future post). Identify pests before taking action: most insects are harmless or even beneficial.

— take advantage of the relatively cool weather to do garden chores: carry out remedial or cosmetic pruning as needed, check the compost pile to see if the compost is cooked. Because of the very hot weather, I suddenly have a large load of compost ready to screen and spread on the vegetable garden.

Get out there and enjoy the garden this weekend!

Heat stress

We were away from home for five days during last week’s extreme heat wave, so my shrubs, trees, and perennials received no watering (I do not have a sprinkler system). Yet they came through it just fine, because they are native to this area and well-adapted to my site. In other words, I don’t try to grow shade plants in the sun, or wetland plants in dry sandy soil, or tropical annuals in a temperate zone with extreme temperature changes. So once my plants are well-established, they can do without supplemental watering. Of course, if I had planted any shrubs or trees this year, I would be watering them throughout the season during dry spells. But established woody plants and perennials rarely need to be watered.

Annuals and potted plants are different. Because I knew the heat wave would continue while I was gone, I thoroughly watered both the potted herbs and the vegetable garden before I left: I watered the pots until the water ran through the bottoms, and I gave the vegetable garden about an inch and a half of water the morning I left. The vegetable garden did just fine, although I lost one pot of herbs, the smallest pot, which contained oregano and dill. Poor things.


Effects of heat stress on oregano planted in a small pot.

I did see a bit of heat stress on some woody shrubs, but it’s nothing the plants can’t survive. Both spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) lost some lower leaves, but as the pictures show, the growing tips remain healthy. They’ll both be just fine.

Effects of heat stress on spicebush (Lindera benzoin).


The perennial garden, made up of tough sun- and heat-loving native prairie plants, couldn’t be happier, no matter how hot it gets. But I certainly have to thin out some of those Rudbeckias next spring.

No effects of heat stress on prairie plants.

Planting natives is xeriscaping and sustainable gardening at its simplest.

And what about the lawn? We never water it, and it’s still quite green. We’ve had plenty of rain this season.

Plants as sculpture

I know that what my readers really want to know about is how to grow tomatoes. And I’ll get back to that in a couple of days. But I’m just back from California, and I have two posts to share about that trip before I get back to how to grow vegetables and eastern natives.

We spent an afternoon at the Norton Simon Museum, one of the best small museums I’ve ever seen. I had been there before, but I’d never seen the sculpture garden. It’s a gorgeous space, with varied and mature plantings and lots of dappled sun and shade, but what particularly struck me was the use of plants as sculpture. The garden is designed so that the plants’ three-dimensional forms are emphasized, and the actual sculptures blend into the plantings as just another element in a harmonious and but extremely visually interesting space. Here are a few photos that give the general idea. The sculptures aren’t exactly hidden, but they are certainly placed so that they are parts of a pleasing whole rather than focal points.





I don’t think I’ll ever be asked to design a sculpture garden, but I certainly learned a lot about using plants in a way that emphasizes their solidity and shape and forms. Fascinating.



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“Xeriscaping” means gardening in ways that reduce the need for supplemental water. Some of these ways include using lots of mulch, avoiding water-hungry plants like lawn grass and annuals, and, above all, choosing plants that are well adapted to the local conditions.

I’m on a brief trip to Southern California, where the climate and environment and plant life are all so different from those of the northeast that it all almost looks to me like another planet. Geraniums (Pelargoniums) and Salvias are shrubs here, and crape myrtles (Lagerstroemias) are small trees. This is a subtropical desert. Yet people persist in planting lawns composed of northern European cool-season grasses and annuals that require lots of water.

The two pictures above show two adjacent suburban front yards in Valley Glen, California. The one on the left, planted with annuals requires copious amounts of water to keep looking good. The one on the right, planted with desert plants, is an example of xeriscaping. To me, they’re are equally attractive, but one is easier and cheaper to maintain as well as much friendlier to the environment. Just a little something to think about.