Chesterton Tribune

April brings warmer weather, longer days and life is good

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April is for ..... answered prayers and hidden treasures.

Aren’t we the same people who recently were whining about the pitiful weather we’ve had? Our patience has been rewarded. And we get an extra hour of daylight in which to garden, too. Can life be any better or what?

Checking my garden journal, April is a very fickle month. The first week of April, 1999 I moved four roses in 60 and 70-degree temperatures. When I inspected the flower beds this year on April 6, the ground well beyond the north side of the garage was still frozen.

The second week of 1997 I wrote, “Really cold, snow” yet it was a lovely 68 degrees April 15, 2000 when our son Tony and his bride Jeanine were married (Happy anniversary, kids!) In 1996 it was in the 70’s on the 18th but by the 26th near-record cold hit at 29 degrees with snow showers.

Soil is very fragile this time of year and you don’t want to get in the beds and compact it even more. When possible, it’s best to establish paths through the flowers and stay on those rather than stepping too near a plant’s crown, especially when clearing away the dead left-over leaves and stalks that need to be removed as soon as possible. If we wait, new growth gets too big and might be damaged in the clean-up process.

The old plant debris from last year sometimes will pull away with a gentle tug, like daylilies, but yanking too hard on other plants, like mums, can rip them right out of the ground. When in doubt, cut it out.

A tip for those who have ornamental grass clumps that are hard to cut down: my friend Donna uses a chain saw.

I’m pleasantly surprised how much is already blooming, the pulmonarias, primroses and some magnolias among them. A few things are still dormant, but if everything in the plant world did its thing at the same time, it would be pretty boring the rest of the growing season.

The tri-color beech tree I carefully moved last fall hasn’t leafed out yet, but I gently scratched the trunk and the layer beneath was bright green so I’m not worried. It’s under the beech I planted tulips in the bottom of a hole and dwarf bulb iris above them, both at the appropriate depth. The iris were darling, their miniature deep blue blooms flecked white hugging the ground. As the iris fade, the tulips are poking up between them.

These are the bulbs I planted in a chicken wire cage to deter some kind of critters who have holes in the adjacent bed. The iris were unaffected by the chicken wire, but I’ve yet to tell if the larger tulips will be.

I’m a little concerned that the Campanula (bellflower) hybrid ‘Elizabeth’ multiplied like crazy in just seven months. I planted it last summer and it never flowered, making roots instead of blooms, but the plant tag dubs it a “must-have for every gardener” so I may let it go one season and see what it does. One source said the plant forms “colonies.” I hope it’s a little colony.

At the recent Friends of Indiana Dunes’ plant sale I purchased two really cool goodyera pubescens or rattlesnake plantain. I was intrigued because hostas are referred to as plantain lily and I wanted to see if there were any similarities between the two.

The Friends’ info accompanying the new plant says its dark blue-green, white-veined leaves are highly decorative and most unusual resembling a snake’s skin, hence the rattlesnake reference, and once suggested the plant’s use as a snakebite remedy. Blooming from May to September, the plant prefers moist shade to part shade. Its white flowers, clustered atop a leafless wooly stalk, seem to resemble a hosta flower.

The description said height to 18 inches, but it was unclear if that included the flower stalk. I checked my usual garden books and the Sierra CD garden encyclopedia to no avail. Surprisingly, when I got on the Royal Horticultural Society website to check out the upcoming Chelsea Flower Show, I did a plant finder search and came up with seven different common names for goodyera pubescens and three mailorder sources but no cultural information.

The scoop on next month’s Chelsea show is at , which appears to be quite a good website for general browsing.

Speaking of flower shows, the Chicago Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier last month was the boost we needed to carry us over to spring. I was only able to catch one seminar, but presenter Amy Reynolds of Planter’s Palette gave us a great idea.

Dormant spots where spring poppies and bleeding heart flower and then disappear can be reclaimed for summer use by placing two bricks on either side of the plant’s crown (so air can continue to reach it) and putting a container of annuals on the bricks. In the fall, the container would be moved when poppies start a growth spurt.

Just don’t try this with magic lilies (lycoris squamigera or hardy amaryllis), whose rounded green strap-like leaves are up now and will disappear only to have delicate, perfumed iridescent rose-lilac or pink trumpets shoot up like magic overnight in July and bloom.

I again was amazed by the University of Illinois Extension Service’s flower show exhibit, this year blending the textures and forms of trendy ornamental grasses with the brilliance of coleus; these are shade-loving and some sun-tolerant plants known for their often wild color combinations and names like ‘Religious Radish’ and ‘Inky Fingers.’

I asked the U of I master gardener on duty where I could get some of these fantastic coleus. He said try a wholesale coleus grower, as if we all have one in our neighborhoods. Luckily, I spied a limp, broken piece of ‘Flirtin’ Skirts’ with deeply serrated green leaves and a hot pink stripe down the center. The rescued two-inch treasure has rooted in a glass of water on the kitchen windowsill.

For eye-catching bed and container plantings and even bold additions to a cut-flower arrangement, ask for the new coleus at local garden centers. Or at your neighborhood wholesale coleus grower.

Ever on the lookout for garden art that can add personality to my yard, last month I bought a really unusual distressed iron planter. All 10 pounds of it. At the flower show. In a cab. On the South Shore. I better love this pot a lot.

A great area day-trip is to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich., just over two hours away. This month we visited our granddaughter Melanie there and took her to Meijer’s seventh annual butterfly exhibit. Thousands of individual butterflies of more than 35 gorgeous species are released into the conservatory’s tropical house where you can walk among them or watch them feed on decaying fruit.

Also very interesting was a collection of different butterfly chrysalis, the casing from which the butterfly emerges. Some chrysalis were so golden they looked like gleaming metal.

Meijer Gardens is a super place even without the butterflies. It has a desert greenhouse, a library, a book store, gift shops, impressive art exhibits and a café in addition to multi-media and hands-on displays. And let’s not forget the outdoor gardens in bloom and the many sculptures that abound inside and out. Get the facts and directions at or 616-957-5792.

Meijer Gardens is having a plant sale May 10 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and May 11 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. More than 1,000 varieties of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, many of them unique and hard-to-find selections, will be offered.

Closer to home, the Duneland Garden Club is having its spring plant sale May 18 in downtown Chesterton. This month Cindy Stevers and I represented the club when we talked to Miss Collins’ 5th Graders at Westchester Intermediate School. The kids were attentive and asked great questions.

Several Duneland residents have visited Acorn Ridge Gardens in LaCrosse where owners Arlene and Larry Dunn this year have decided to change their horticultural focus and get out of the retail garden-center business. An inventory close-out sale is in progress every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through June 1.

The Dunns will re-open the gardens by appointment in July and be producing an even wider variety of more interesting plants to be available on a limited basis. Monitor for updates.

The Dunns’ last newsletter contained a fine tribute to their friend Bill Brincka of Furnessville, a multi-talented man who enjoyed gardening and hybridizing and passed away in September. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Brincka but have heard others speak warmly of his many accomplishments, generosity and dedication.

We all need mentors in our lives, and even though gardening will at times be a solitary pursuit, it also can be a very rewarding experience for those open to sharing with and caring about others.


Posted 4/15/2002