Chesterton Tribune

August: The sounds of summer

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Wonders and Weeds


August is for ..... the sounds of a summer night.

If you are reading this in the evening, step outside and just listen. The din is amazing. A chorus of nocturnal creatures is serenading us, many singing in their own unique voice, just as individual people each have a different sound or tone when they talk.

This summer more than ever I have really appreciated the richness, depth and beauty of an evening’s summer sounds. Trying to distinguish which animal is vocalizing what is not easy for my untrained ear; music was never my strong point other than listening to it loudly (just ask my neighbors) and often.

Indiana Dunes State Park naturalist Celeste Lewis said she grew up in the woods and as a child thought the persistent buzzing sound she heard at night was from electrical power lines. “Now I know they’re insects,” she explained.

Male cicadas emit a steady hum through an organ on their thorax. Katydids hear each other through “ears” in their legs. Crickets rub their forewings together and in Asia were kept as caged pets. Frogs are said to sound like a plucked banjo string three or four times in succession, said Lewis, while toads sing in a long musical trill.

Other animals also get into the act. The whip-poor-will and night hawk join the chorus as do the screech, great-horned, barn and barred owls, all looking for their evening’s meal. Lewis said the great-horned owl is a silent stalker and can see the equivalent of a birthday candle in a football stadium.

More so these last few years than in the past, many in the Duneland area are hearing coyotes in the night as well, their plaintive howl both exciting and eerie.

All these animals are communicating, some with a greater sense of urgency than others: looking for a mate, warning an interloper to stay away, or trying to lure the unsuspecting into a fatal trap.

It would be fun to eavesdrop on the animal world and their nocturnal exchanges (“Hey, baby, my pad is cool and moist and this frog ain’t no dog,” or something like that.) But paybacks are hell and I don’t want some fly blabbing all over the insect neighborhood what my friend Donna and I were gabbing about on the phone, so it’s probably better to leave well enough alone.

Let’s talk gardening. This summer I and fellow members of the Hosta and Friends Garden Club were fortunate to visit two great places well worth the trip, Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio and the Wade & Gatton Nurseries in nearby Bellville. For gardeners, especially hostaphiles, Wade & Gatton is heaven on earth.

Their 509-page mail order catalog (available at 419-883-3191) is mind-boggling in itself, but the actual nursery --- in addition to perennials and unusual trees, conifers and shrubs --- boasts well over 1,000 varieties of potted hostas for sale. In all on site there are over 2,000 different varieties to buy or see. Where else can you find the hosta ‘Bud is Wiser,’ a white-centered blue?

W & G also has nearly 2,000 different daylilies, a large percentage for sale. A quick aside about the daylilies: I looked and looked along row after row and finally found a gorgeous iridescent melon/peach that opened in an unusual shape, but there was no tag. When I went to check out the salesgirl found it --- the daylily was ‘Dance Ballerina Dance’ and I’ve had it here for years. What are the chances of that?

W & G owners Van and Shirley Wade have surrounded their home with acres of display gardens so you can see a mature form of many of the plants, especially hostas, they sell. All day long there are people walking around their house, through their yard, down their sidewalks and past their doors. This is how strong the Wades’ commitment to horticulture is.

According to local amateur hosta hybridizer Dave Stegeman, “If you could diagram people you’d want to meet and God made them, it’d be Van and Shirley Wade.”

The first time I saw Van was at a Winter Scientific Hosta Meeting in Schaumburg two years ago. People were so respectful of him I thought someone was going to kneel and kiss his ring.

At this year’s scientific meeting I was in line for the buffet lunch and turned around and Van and Shirley were in front of me. We chatted briefly, but when at W & G last month I purposely sat at Van’s table as he joined our tour group for box lunches at a picnic shelter on his nursery grounds.

We talked about his getting bids to paint their historic 1890 home with five porches, and how the economy is down and the large commercial developments nationwide for which his nursery supplies huge trees (some over 3,000 pounds each) are now few and far between. We also talked about the future of horticulture.

“We are on the leading edge of technology,” said Van. “We need to encourage what’s going on.” Regulated gene splicing in the plant world is yielding encouraging results, he said, like putting herbicide resistance into soybeans. The younger generation should be encouraged to study the biological sciences and join this important work, he added, and local garden clubs can help by donating money for scholarships and research.

While it may seem a minor victory to increase the number of chromosomes in daylilies (from diploids to tetraploids) to achieve better color and substance, markings and form, much can be learned by improving the process of how this is done so the science can be applied to other areas of horticulture to improve our quality of life, like healthier more-productive fruit trees.

Hosta hybridizers are starting to convert hostas to tetraploids, said Van, to produce heavier leaves and bigger, better flowers. An example of the ongoing work is ‘American Sweetheart,’ which I purchased to help the cause; its leaves, white streaks on green, are thick, waxy and lovely despite our current heat and dry spell.

Van praised the efforts of amateur hybridizers “Indiana” Bob Balitewicz of Jackson Township, and Brian and Virginia Skaggs of Lake County for helping push the hosta envelope to improve the genus.

Some purists question whether it’s nice to fool Mother Nature. The day we were at W & G there was quite a buzz over the ‘Hart’s Tongue’ hosta that Van sells, its long narrow leaves looking more like its true fern namesake than a hosta. On the opposite ends of the spectrum, visitors were talking about ‘Blue Mouse Ears,’ a new mini-hosta, and the giant ‘T Rex’.

Van is known for growing hostas unusually large. He shared with us the likely secret why his ‘Sum and Substance’ swelled to 130 inches wide one year --- he buried a ground hog near it. Thanks, but I’ll stick with Miracle Grow.

I’ve never dabbled at hosta hybridizing, but I’m watching a “sport” or natural mutation of my gold hosta ‘August Moon,’ one individual clump or crown of which has a bold deep green streak on each leaf. I’ll dig and separate the crown from the rest, replant it and cross my fingers. Next year, the streak could be gone. Then again ....

I burned rolls of borrowed film (thanks to Kelly Miller) at W & G, but the best pictures were taken along the side of the Wades’ home where a collection of trial hostas, some one-of-a-kind, are held for evaluation. “Plants on these walks and patio are under close evaluation and are not for sale yet. Many are new!” a sign reads.

Especially eye-catching was a lily-of-the-valley with white-striped leaves, and what appeared to be a dark curly spinach-looking hosta ‘Whipper Snapper’ with a narrow white stripe down its midrib.

At Kingwood Center, the look was manicured and marvelous. Acres of gorgeous gardens surround a pioneer Mansfield industrialist’s house, which now serves as an information center and gift shop; a few of the rooms are historically furnished and on view. There’s also a large greenhouse conservatory, a pond, statuary, an arbor structure, hidden garden rooms and a plant sale area.

Coincidentally, in March I heard Kingwood Center horticultural director Chuck Gleaves speak at the LaPorte County Master Gardeners’ symposium. His remarks mirrored his work at Kingwood, where ducks, guinea hens and peacocks are an unexpected bonus.

“One thing I want from a garden is feeling I’m enclosed, immersed in the garden,” he said. Arbors and tall plants along a path convey this sense. Gleaves also advocated locating tables and benches within the garden, not outside looking in. “The garden is for you, not just your neighbors or for you to look at from the house.”

Perennials give a garden a sense of fluidity annual beds lack, said Gleaves. Although they need more attention, as each perennial variety flourishes, then ebbs, motion in the garden is realized. It may take years to perfect fluidity, but the effort is worth it, he said. “It a craft to know your plants well enough to know what will work in coordination with each other.”

A successful garden also has presence, according to Gleaves. Big plants in a small space make it dynamic and exciting. “You should be an extrovert, outrageous with your garden. Have fun. Do something people will gasp at.” Planting pockets along one Kingwood brick path are filled with huge standard hibiscus with bold green and white leaves, so eye-catching the coral flowers are almost incidental.

“Go ahead and do it,” urged Gleaves, whose staff plants 40,000 tulip bulbs each year. “Don’t be cautious. Being overly-cautious prevents you from doing things.”

Like buying a $25 hosta named ‘Bud is Wiser,’ perhaps?


Posted 8/27/2003