Chesterton Tribune

April a month of possibility for gardeners

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Of Wonders and Weeds


April is for....accentuating the positive in our gardens.

Especially when we can't always eliminate the negative from our yards.

One of my biggest problems is a walnut tree. Perfectly shaped and proudly holding court in the front side yard, it's a royal pain. The big nut pods have to be picked up but worse yet, walnut roots are toxic to many plants, trees and shrubs even well beyond the walnut's drip line.

That's why the prime corner of our home facing the highway still isn't completely landscaped.

By trial and error, I'm still learning what grows well, what merely exists, and what struggles to survive. A crabapple “Red Jewel” barely grew for the five years it was planted there; after moving it three years ago it quickly recovered, now healthy once again and growing well in another location.

Ever persistent, I researched walnut toxicity and learned that river birch are somewhat resistant. Three years and counting, that tree looks healthy enough. For now. The green-and-gold euonymous fortunei “Sun Spot,” a low deciduous shrub, also are performing beautifully.

What one person sees as a positive in their yards, another might see as a negative.

My own yard is deadly dull – flat, flatter, flattest – while my cohort in gardening crime, Donna Balfe, has a steep ravine she is turning into a woodland garden walk. My challenge is to give our yard some personality and fool the eye, while hers is to minimize the grade changes and soften their impact.

When someone once was replacing a flagstone sidewalk with concrete, I rescued the stones. Then I had to decide what to do with them. I was making a new shade border and placed some of the flagstones in a six foot-long, dry-stack wall about 14 inches high curving along the middle of the border. It’s just the visual accent the bed needed.

What I did with the rest of the flagstones was a big mistake.

Somehow, whether it dropped from outer space or I bought it, what appears to be a perennial sweet pea took up residence in a long perennial bed next to the garage. The sweet pea would get so big by summer’s end my husband Bernie had to beat it back to get out of his truck.

Then the brainstorm hit: Use the rest of the flagstones like mulch between the good perennials and it will choke out the sweet pea. What it did was provide a cool root run and the sweet pea popped up everywhere! I spent a whole day this month ripping everything out; some of the sweet pea roots were 18 inches deep. I cried uncle. It’s all going back to grass.

Something landscape architects urge us to do is to provide destinations in our yard, places that draw the eye – and us -- by creating a focal point. This can be as elaborate as a gazebo or as simple as a well-placed bench.

It’s time to take the sprouting dahlia tubers out of winter storage from their boxes of crushed leaves on the unheated front porch and get them started indoors. Chuck Roth of Chesterton Feed and Garden recently made the point that people think nothing of buying expensive annual hanging baskets for the summer, yet they hesitate to buy non-hardy tubers and bulbs like dahlia and canna for just one season.

Both make strong vertical statements, can be pitched or held and replanted if desired, and the dahlias extend their many types of blooms until frost. Cannas with bold leaves in shades of white, pink, maroon, yellow or green can be pricey, but they’re popular again and a clump makes a real focal point.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things about spring clean-up is recognizing plants that have self-sowed so we don’t weed them out of existence.

Last fall the split second after I pulled a small “weed,” I recognized it was a baby butterfly bush Buddleia “Petite Indigo,” lavender with a red eye. The mother plant was purchased in Livonia, Michigan on a trip to my cousin’s wedding. Its seedling, even though quickly planted, died, but I am alert now for siblings.

I was very encouraged to see that a fine shrub-like plant for partial shade, kerria japonica Picta (I do not know the common name) is throwing new shoots near the original plant.

This delicate kerria is variegated cream and green with golden flowers. I’ll cut around the offshoots with a knife to sever any common roots, leaving the new plants for a time to develop strong ones of their own before transplanting. I might even move some in the spring and some in the fall to maximize their chances.

Barnes and Noble in Merrillville is hosting monthly gardening seminars presented by master gardeners on Wednesdays. The first is April 18 at 7 p.m. dealing with annuals, perennials and vegetables. Future topics are May 2, care of lawns; June 20, roses and container gardening; July 18, curb appeal; August 15, birds and butterflies; and Sept. 19, getting the garden ready for winter.

Speaking of master gardeners, Acorn Ridge Nursery owners Arlene and Larry Dunn of LaCrosse have established a grant program to provide seed money for master-gardener community projects throughout northwest Indiana. For more information, contact them toll free at 877-262-2662.

Did you know among the big fish catches recognized by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in 2000 was a 32-inch steelhead trout Tom Berg pulled from Salt Creek in Porter County, the same stream where Berg also caught a nearly 30-inch coho salmon? David Miller grabbed a 26-pound 8 ounce Chinook salmon, just over 38 inches long, in Lake Michigan.

What does this have to do with gardening? Fish emulsion is the preferred fertilizer for tree peonies, the queen of the spring garden. Huge, paper-like and in a wide range of hues from white to purple, the flowers vary widely in shapes, centers and petals.

Tree peony names are a hoot. Try fitting “Green Dragon Lying on a Chinese Ink Stone” on a label.

Tree peonies grow on small to medium shrubs that don’t die back like herbaceous peonies; I shelter my tree peonies with a loose burlap wrap in winter. They are best planted and transplanted in the fall. I moved a “Jade Plate White” farther away from the walnut tree in September, and so far the peony’s leafing out beautifully.

Tree peonies benefit from afternoon shade in bloom, although they tolerate full sun. A fine source is Cricket Hill Garden in Connecticut. Some of these beauties can be expensive, but this is a case where quality counts.

Poised to flower is Bloodroot, a shorter woodland gem having small, waterlily-like white flowers. The scalloped leaves are an interesting shape and make a nice showing until fall.

Those of us who took two years of Chesterton High School Latin call bloodroot Sanguinaria. If we can’t speak Latin to other people, at least we can speak it to our plants.