Backyard Gardener: Go for the gold (and black)

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In February, during lunch at Kassab's on the South Side, I spent 45 minutes explaining why I couldn't write another book to my publisher, Paul Kelly. The head of St. Lynn's Press listened patiently to my diatribe as we scooped up tasty baba ghanoush with fresh pita bread.

When I finally ran out of gas, he reached into his bag and pulled out the cover mock-up of "The Steel City Garden." He looked at me with a grin, and I instantly said, "I'm in." We both laughed and brainstormed for another hour about what my fifth book should be. I rattled off a plant list of my favorite varieties, which were either black, yellow or both.

The list was so extensive that we didn't know if they would all fit. And as the ideas blossomed, we added things such as garden ornaments, birdhouses -- even black-and-gold flamingos. Then we thought to include gardeners who had created their own Steel City Gardens. The book was also a great excuse to showcase my favorite plants that just happened to fit the color scheme. Here are a few of them:

Corydalis lutea is the perfect perennial, blooming in April and continuing late into November. I was introduced to it by Karin Eller of Plant-It Earth Greenhouse in Homer City, and I have turned lots of other gardeners onto its half-inch-long tubular yellow flowers and greenish-gray foliage. The plant thrives in dry shade, but in full sun it grows to more than 2 feet tall.

Corydalis comes back year after year on its own and will form a nice colony after a few seasons. It spreads by throwing seeds, not underground runners, so it's not invasive. If it pops up where it's unwanted, it's easily plucked out. The flowers peak in midsummer, filling the plant with hundreds of yellow blooms. If you could find some plants, they could still be planted this late in the season.

'Klondyke' is a beautiful yellow azalea, which can be planted until the ground freezes. It offers beautiful flowers in the spring and is a fast grower, reaching nearly 8 feet tall and 6 feet across in 10 years. Azaleas love acidic soil and excel as understory, woodland plants. An application of Hollytone every spring keeps them happy.

Here are a few great annuals to put on the list for next year's garden:

'Phantom' petunia has black and gold flowers, is easy to grow and looks spectacular massed in beds. 'Phantom' is also a great choice for containers.

'Yellow Torch' Tithonia, Mexican sunflower, is a relatively unknown plant, but it's a winner every season in my garden. The 3-inch round flowers attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. I like to start seeds alongside tomatoes in late March. This late bloomer can reach 10 feet tall or more when conditions are right. This season, a couple of plants fell over in my garden, creating what I like to call a beautiful mistake. The flowers righted themselves and covered a bed in yellow from June through October but were only about 5 feet tall.

In the vegetable garden, black tomatoes have become all the rage for their delicate flavor and beauty. 'Paul Robeson,' Japanese Black Trifele' and 'Cherokee Purple' are just a few of my favorites. They are grown side by side with yellow varieties such as 'Yellow Pear' and 'Lemon Boy.'

'Tahiti' daffodil is one of many double-flowering cultivars that could be planted now. It sports large yellow blooms with reddish orange ruffles tucked in between the petals. Released in 1956, this heirloom has strong stems that will keep it standing tall even during spring storms.

There are many pansies that fit the bill for a Steel City Garden. 'Accord Black Beauty' is a small flowering variety with dark flowers and yellow centers. One of my favorites is 'Victorian Yellow Picotee,' which has ruffled flowers reminiscent of another time. Pansies love cool weather and can be planted early in spring and late into fall. They stand a better chance of overwintering if they are watered well before the ground freezes.

'Queen of the Night' tulip was blooming all over the gardens of London when I visited in May. Across from Westminster Abbey, thousands of the almost black flowers bloomed in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The bulb also could be planted now. They are the darkest purple imaginable and would pair well with other single late tulips like 'Inglescombe Yellow.'

The trick to keeping bulbs like tulips happy is to plant them in a bed where they will dry out during the summer. Many gardeners will plant something like impatiens over their bulbs to camouflage the yellowing foliage. As they water the impatiens, the tulips are drowning beneath. Tulips are also a favorite of deer.

I'm always adding more 'Yellow Mammoth' crocus to the garden. It was one of the only things my mother grew. They were planted at the front door and each spring would welcome me home from school. After my mom passed away, my brothers and I cleaned out that house together. As I stepped outside for the last time, I looked down and found those little yellow crocus blooming. I grow them now to remind me of my mom.

Whether you plant a garden to celebrate your favorite team, city, someone you love or just to have a quiet place to reflect, "The Steel City Garden" was created as way for you to have your best garden ever ... in black and gold, of course.

"The Steel City Garden" (St. Lynn's Press, $17.95) is available locally at most bookstores, some gift shops and through Signed copies are available with free shipping from


Most of the plants and seeds can be found at local nurseries.

• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: or 1-417- 924-8917 -- Mexican Sunflower 'Yellow Torch,' 'Paul Robeson,' 'Japanese Black Trifele' and 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes.

▪ White Flower Farm: or 1-800-503-9624 'Queen of the Night' tulip.

▪ Old House Gardens: or 1-734-995-1486 Tulip 'Inglescombe Yellow.'

• Brent and Becky's Bulbs: or 1-877-661-2852 -- 'Tahiti' daffodil.


Doug Oster: or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at Twitter: @dougoster1.

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