Chesterton Tribune

Clocks and compost: April a great month for gardening

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Of Wonders and Weeds


April is for .... two of my favorite days of the gardening season.

The first was April 6 when we returned to daylight saving time. Aside from the SAD (seasonal adjustment disorder, a real medical condition) moodiness of a gloomy winter, it’s just plain impossible to do much gardening after work when it gets dark at 4:30 p.m. But ah, the glory days of July, when we can garden until almost 9 p.m. in the fading twilight of a summer’s day.

My second favorite April benchmark is when the Porter County compost site in Crocker opens, this year April 26. It’s located at the north end of Tower Street north of County Road 1050N just east of Indiana 149.

New for 2003 are expanded Saturday hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in addition to Tuesday and Thursday from noon to 5 p.m. At Crocker, organic yard waste including leaves, garden clippings, garden and household plants, grass, brush, limbs and even logs under 6 feet in length and 12 inches in diameter can be left there.

Bagged material must be emptied and the bags taken away, but my bags don’t usually leave empty.

You can load them up with great compost made from last year’s yard waste deposited there, and with as much shredded mulch as you could ever want. The mulch could be more finely shredded, but it’s all free.

The attendants at the Crocker site are helpful and friendly, and I’ve seen the ultimate in recycling occur: people taking home some of the yard waste like large tree branches and logs, presumably for fire wood. I plan to start composting at home on a small scale this year, but I’ll still need somewhere to take at least two pick-up truckloads of plant scraps throughout the season.

Last year I cut up and took to Crocker about 25 percent of our Washington Hawthorne tree that broke off during a late summer storm. Some dislike the tree because of its large thorns, but it flowers in late spring, gets red berries that persist into winter, and its delicate leaves just BLOW AWAY --- not to mention it shades a hosta border and companion plants.

The tree looked so lopsided this spring I had Dave Hodge of Dave Hodge Tree Service shape it. Rather than just top it, he used a drop crotch technique that takes out inside weight and some height without butchering the tree.

Dave recently started his own business from the one his Dad started 55 years ago. Dave recommended I give the stressed Hawthorne (which has a split trunk that he cabled together years ago) a shot of fertilizer applied by making a series of holes one foot deep about one foot inside the tree’s drip line and pouring 12-12-12 time-release fertilizer pellets in the holes.

Most trees feed out of the top eight inches of soil, said Dave, the same soil usually disturbed during new home construction. He also said poor drainage, lack of sun and too much wind can cause problems for trees, which generally should be planted at least 20 feet from a house.

Dave has a fondness for the hardy Crimson King maple, a brilliant maroon-leaved tree that commands attention in the landscape. He has one he found as a stub in a plant nursery cast-off pile that he coaxed into growing.

That was my nod to Arbor Day. Back to recycling. Why can’t someone fill those potholes in front of the recycling boxes in the parking lot across from the Chesterton town hall and WiseWay? One hole is especially deep. If we’re encouraged to recycle, we shouldn’t have to risk muffler or rim damage to do it.

Friends and I disagreed about last month’s Chicago Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier. I was a little disappointed; they were not. I did have fun meeting Steve Thomas, the perky host of “This Old House” on PBS who was a spokesman for flower show sponsor Ace Hardware. After 14 years Steve is leaving TOH to pursue new opportunities, although he’s not sure yet what they’ll be.

Steve lives in a centuries-old, two-story colonial in the Salem, Mass. historic district. He has renovator’s disease, as he calls it, sometimes in remission and other times in the acute stage. An accomplished renovator, sailor and author before joining TOH, Steve studied for two years how to navigate using stars, waves and birds. No global positioning satellite. Not even a compass.

Steve told me the No. 1 mistake home gardeners make is not having a master plan, which can be implemented in phases. Curb appeal is important, he said, because it aesthetically anchors the house to the site like it belongs there. Having separate outdoor areas or rooms also extend the apparent size of the house, Steve noted. He replaced a screen porch at his house with a deck and hot tub.

Outdoor rooms in our garden home is the theme of designer P. Allen Smith’s new show on PBS, seen here Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. on Channel 11. Using the more is more theory, apparently, the first episode was crammed with short snipets on a variety of subjects. At least Smith didn’t make stupid jokes like Paul James on HGTV’s interesting but annoying “Gardening by the Yard.”

Say, wasn’t I commenting on the flower show?

I especially wanted to see the Abbey Ruins Garden by two award-winning British plantsmen, but all we could do is walk around its perimeter, not through it, and the plant labels weren’t very large. However, the Best of Show winner, The Enchanted Folly, was fantastic. Craig Bergmann’s Country Garden of Winthrop Harbor was responsible for the display, and we plan to stop there this year on our way back from a family trip to Wisconsin.

Bergmann used thousands of clay pots, crushed ones lining the plant-covered display floor and whole ones over metal supports to create animals, garden art and a large, whimsical Carmen Miranda-like woman folly made of plants, pots, an urn and a basket. A true original.

The Ralph Lauren Home garden was lush and lovely, perfect specimens of magnolia trees lining the path. One exhibit touted the beauty of vegetables; I’ll admit the purple-veined ‘Red Xpress’ cabbage was a stunner. And All the World’s a Stage by Ted’s Greenhouse was a hoot with hundreds of cacti “dressed” with eyes, jewelry, hats and clothes for the theater. (I think I just heard my prickly pear cactus snicker.)

Rich Eyre’s Foxwillow Pines again had a standout display of hosta, and rare and beautiful dwarf conifers; the color and texture were subtle yet a pleasing contrast befitting the Ying/Yang theme of harmony and high drama in the garden.

The commercial exhibit booths were a letdown, but I finally was suckered in at three for $5 by a supposedly new flower hybrid from Holland. The tubers, which are sprouting indoors in peat pots, are touted to be a cross between a hardy plant that grows on Mt. Fuji and four o’clocks, impatiens, nicotiana and petunia. I’ll have to see this to believe it. It better not be invasive!

I’m so glad the first week in April I went to Marshall Field’s State Street store to see their spring flower show. Small, it still packed a lot of punch and the famed store windows were done in gorgeous depictions of fairies and flowers in literature. The indoor displays soared with castles made of moss linked by brightly colored sheer banners.

The flower displays were color blocked in yellow; orange/red; pink/purple, etc. The white/silver grouping was especially creative using white orchids, maidenhair and asparagus ferns. With its concentrated heady aroma and overall flower power, I was more energized here than at Navy Pier (and Field’s has much better food, too).

I’ve already begun writing the May garden column so be prepared for plant overload, garden advice and insights from several generous professionals, a book review, and the dates of upcoming local gardening events.

I’ll even share with you what I consider the two most indispensable gardening “tools” I use.


Posted 4/22/2003