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Early winter weather brings sudden end to 2008 gardening year

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Of Wonders and Weeds


December is for ...... an abrupt end to the 2008 gardening year.

Talk about seasons changing overnight. I kept thinking that we’d get a spell of nice days in late October or November to finish the garden chores, but no such luck. I remember a few warm, late-November nights in past years where I used lanterns and even truck headlights to get some much-needed tasks done. Not this year.

My garden journal shows in 1999 the second week of November was a heat wave with 73 degrees, and in 2004 the weather was unusually warm with days in the 50s and 60s. In 2006 late November was the same again. Even in Week 2 of December, 1998 we had 50s and 60s.

Our consolation is that yo-yo temperatures in any season are harder on plants so it’s probably best that --- except for Sunday’s brief 50 degrees --- it got cold and stayed cold.

Speaking of cold, if you’re looking for a great gift for the gardener in your family they’d love “Growing Perennials in Cold Climates” by Mike Heger and John Whitman. The book, published in 1998 by Contemporary Books, is available for loan at Thomas Library.

Heger and Whitman list 50 popular perennial groups that can take minus 20 degrees or more and still thrive. Each group listing from Achillea to Veronica explains basic information like how they grow, where and how to plant, and how to care for them. A list of the best plants in each group is given as are sources to buy them.

Under the “Problems” heading for dendranthema (garden mums) I may have solved one of my garden’s mysteries.

A plant I bought years ago labeled “Late Korean single peach mum” usually blooms so late I hardly get to enjoy it. One year it bloomed in October and got nipped by a hard feeze in the same week. Heger and Whitman say mums are light-sensitive and need long nights to bloom so they shouldn’t be planted near outside lights.

My Korean mum is directly under a mercury vapor light.

Next spring I’m going to move half the plant to a darker spot and see if that makes a difference; maybe genetically it’s just “late".  Moving half a plant is a new method I’m using if it’s a plant I really don’t want to lose. Whether spring or fall division makes a big difference and moving half is a protection you’ll have some left to try again if the first attempt fails.

There’s so much to rave about in the Heger/Whitman book, but a section in each group I found so interesting was how to make more plants, usually by division, cuttings and/or seed.

Last winter I had great fun planting hosta seeds for the first time under one fixture of twin fluorescent light tubes in the basement. I used seed given to me by local hybridizers and seed I bought at auction. The anticipation was so exciting. Several times a day I’d go downstairs and see what seeds had sprouted, how much they grew, which tiny ones had spotted petioles (leaf stalks) and out of hundreds only one had variegated green and white leaves.

The hardest part was deciding which baby hostas to pot up and grow on, and which to toss. I ended up with about 20 moved in late spring outside, then planted in the partially shaded raised planter box Bernie built me for this very purpose. I put a light dusting of mulch on the seedlings but not a lot; I want to see if they’re hardy, after all.

In the spring I’ll check on the baby hostas every day --- several times a day, probably --- anxiously watching for them to break ground. They’re protected by a dome of sturdy wire hardware cloth to prevent  animals from digging.

Soon I’m going to plant this winter’s batch in the basement but they’re my own hosta seeds collected this fall. These are all open pollinated and I only know the mother plant; some probably won’t germinate. One thing I will do this year is be meticulous about labeling, which got all mixed up in my first attempt. For more information about planting hosta seeds, go to and click on Seed Growing.

Last year I gained confidence from my first hosta planting (I did three over four months) so I let a pod on my orange-flowered clivia houseplant set seed; I popped five seeds in starting medium under the fluorescent lights and sure enough they sprouted after many weeks, but they’re not growing very fast. I’m down to two good ones.

Someone told me to plant the clivia seedlings very shallowly; I might try replanting one deeper and see what happens.

Speaking of clivia, White Flower Farm’s holiday catalog offers the first peach-flowered clivia, introduced in 2002. The blooms supposedly range from light to dark peach. Are you sitting down? A 10-inch pot costs $399. That’s no typo. As more plants become available the price will come down, as has the yellow ‘Golden Dragon’ clivia from White Flower Farm now at $75 for a 6-inch pot.

If you want to get some select seeds locally, be sure to mark Jan. 24 on your calendar.

I am so excited that the 6th annual Porter County Gardening Show will be on that date at the Porter County Expo Center. I’ve heard wonderful things about the event, sponsored by the Porter County Master Gardeners Assoc. and previously held on the third Saturday of January. For many years that’s also been the weekend of the Midwest Scientific Meeting (WSM) of the regional hosta societies in Schaumburg, IL.

For me, hostas win out every time, but happily I now can attend both shows. Equally good news is that the Chicago Flower & Garden Show is returning in March to Navy Pier after moving inexplicably to the suburbs. Maybe the new doubledecker South Shore passenger cars will be in service by then.

The Master Gardeners’ event in Valparaiso details its offerings at including the speakers and presentations, a garden photography contest, a juried plant contest in six classes, many exhibitors and of course the popular seed and bulb exchange.

The speakers list is impressive and deals with shade gardening, bewitching witch hazels, hydrangeas, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, home vegetable gardening, growing and enjoying orchids, succulents and bromeliads, and a guide to ground covers.

“Arboreta of the Lake Michigan Region” will be discussed by panel members executive director James Hitz of Taltree Arboretum & Gardens; David Michener, assistant curator of the University of Michigan Arboretum & Gardens; and Kunso Kim of The Morton Arboretum, who serves as curator of Living Collections.

I’ll be hearing Kim at the Jan. 17 Schaumburg WSM as well, this time about “Trees and Shrubs that are Good Neighbors for Hostas". I’ve really noticed that some hostas perform well despite tree-root competition while other hostas suffer. Additional WSM presentations include “Are Red Hostas Just Round the Corner?” by Bob Solberg, and “Hostas of Distinction” by Mark Zilis. Both men are prominent in today’s hosta breeding and marketing.

New this year at WSM are three concurrent break-out sessions in the afternoon dealing with hosta sports (when an individual plant mutates showing a new leaf pattern), hosta botanical classification (true hosta nuts really get into this stuff), and leaf-show winner’s tips.

The big Schaumburg news is that the hosta conference is moving from its long-time home at the Hyatt Resort to the Marriott Hotel, and that the Midwest Regional Hosta Society has assumed sponsorship of the event. Will it be different? Better? I can’t wait to find out. Learn more about it at and register before Jan. 5.

Some years at WSM we’ve even received free live plants. Hybridizer Doug Beilstein last year talked about starting his hosta seeds using 96 fluorescent bulbs. Growing seed hostas requires patience because they can look one way in the first few years, then stabilize or change and be different in subsequent years.

It was prophetic that in 2008 Glenn Herold of Illinois Central College spoke at WSM about trees and cited a lot of squirrel damage in the Peoria area at that time. This past year at our house we’ve had the worst problem with gray squirrels we’ve ever had in 30 years.

I deterred them somewhat by laying lengths of chicken wire on the ground around some plants, then mulching over the wire. I used flagstones here and there to hold down the wire; I could have used landscape-fabric pins or made my own. Later in the spring I made cuts in the chicken wire, folding it back as the hostas, bleeding heart and carex emerged and grew; now I need to fold the wire back down.

I’ve even had to form and stake chicken-wire cages around probably 24 plants to protect them from being dug and damaged. Unfortunately, I can’t chicken wire the entire garden so I’m reduced to running outside in all seasons and yelling at the brazen squirrels, who look at me as if to say, “You got a problem, lady?”

We don’t always realize what an impression our behavior makes on children. While we were on vacation last spring we asked our daughter to stop at our house and water the hosta seedlings, still in the basement. She said when she arrived her youngest daughter, then 4, jumped out of the van and unexpectedly went running into the back yard.

“Get away from those plants you squirrels!” my granddaughter yelled.

Even in my absence, Emma’s got my back.



Posted 12/16/2008