Chesterton Tribune

February is a time for gardeners to take it slow as first signs of spring appear

Back to Front Page





Of Wonders and Weeds


February is for .... curbing our enthusiasm.

Some of Sunday was beautiful. I anxiously toured the yard, searching for signs of spring. I easily found them: green, growing creeping thyme, creeping phlox, campanula, rose campion, columbine, hellebores, mums, and even --- to my great delight --- the new basal growth of the acanthus spinosus or spiny bearís breeches I bought last year in Ohio.

There was even my first flower bud coming on the green speckled-leaf hellebore ĎJanetí I bought in 2002. Oh, yes. And a bumper crop of some kind of mint-like weed running amuck by the garage.

But my urge to get a shovel, dig into the soil and actually do something was quickly tempered by seeing mud with the properties of quicksand, frozen ground just below the surface, some persistent snowdrifts and standing pockets of water.

Had I actually tried to dig, I would have done more damage than good. The soil in the borders is so mucky it needs to settle and drain before we really can work it; even refrain from compacting it by walking on it unless only gently to tamp down any plant thatís heaved out of the ground.

These cautions aside, if your yard is typical thereís no shortage of things we can do over the next warm spell (remember, thereís still some winter, possibly even a blizzard ahead). Clean-up is on the top of my list. Did you cut down your late-blooming perennials like mums, aster and sedum? Neither did I and they need to go, as do the fine rocks in the mailbox bed courtesy of INDOT snowplows.

Hickory nuts are half-sunken all over the south side of our yard and in the east border, so a vigorous raking (and hand-picking them out in the border) any time is in order. Last yearís mulch and any packed wind-blown leaves matted around a plantís crown can be loosened but I wonít pull it all back just yet. If at any time a mulch looks moldy, get rid of it.

The necks of young trees where they touch the ground especially shouldnít be smothered with deep mulch. Now is a great time to trim trees and shrubs that need shaping, thinning or have crossed branches unless you want to wait till after a spring-flowering variety is done blooming.

Two things caught my eye on this first 2004 garden walk. A few perennials being held in pots for the winter were totally filled with standing water because the pot bottoms were frozen in ice. I tipped the pots I could break free on an angle so they could drain.

On the northwest corner where the new sewer chewed its way through an established bed I spied tunnels; a quick peek showed my favorite daffodils were sprouting in them underground. At first I thought a vole made the tunnels but on closer inspection I found the torrent from the new gutter downspout was carving little canyons in the slight hill.

Iím hoping a surplus stepping stone at the downspoutís end laid tipped away from the tunnels solved the problem; I temporarily filled the tunnels with some nearby mucky soil and finely crushed leaves. Iíll do a permanent fix when the daffodil leaves are yellow and fading.

I was pleasantly surprised about 10 days ago to see what I learned was an Eastern Bluebird hanging around. Lately, itís gone. Mary Lipp of Wild Birds Unlimited said some bluebirds arrived early this year, while a few do stay here year-round. Because no insects were available the bluebird was eating holly berries.

Lipp suggests putting out suet cakes and raisins plumped in water for the early arrivals as a supplemental source of food.

If you need a garden fix, the Chicago Botanic Garden greenhouses in Glencoe, IL are filled with displays of vibrant color, textural interest, intense aromas and soothing warmth. The Tropical, Arid and Semi-tropical houses feature plants and shrubs specially selected from Australia, Japan, South Africa, and New Zealand.

In the nearby Gallery two exhibits are on display through April 4. Artist Ann Parker passes light through fruits, flowers and vegetables onto color sensitive paper for translucent images, and Julie Kiefer-Bellís evocative flower paintings use metallic, iridescent and pearlescent paints on textured papers embedded with bark and fibers. Kiefer-Bell will discuss her technique at the Gallery at 2 p.m. March 27.

Admission to the Gallery, which also has a retrospective on 4,000 years of garden design; to the greenhouses and the 385-acre Botanic Garden is free. Parking is $8.75. For more details and directions, visit the great website. I want to read more about its extensive perennial plant trials; in all nearly 10,000 plants of 1,400 different kinds are grown for evaluation there.

Once at a used book sale I picked up the 1947, $1.50 softcover edition of the Arboretums and Botanical Gardens of North America that was based on a survey of responding gardens. The Chicago Botanic Garden was not among them because it didnít open until 1972.

In 1947 Chicagoís Garfield Park Conservatory, established 40 years earlier, was described as one of the outstanding conservatories in the country if not the world. Friends I know still recommend it highly although Iíve never had the opportunity to visit there. The 1947 guide credits Garfield for popularizing the ďmodern viewĒ of having special plant displays, not just caring for plant collections.

Also listed for Illinois was Lisleís Morton Arboretum (1922) with at the time approximately 5,000 species and varieties of plant material, and Lilacia Park in Lombard, which had more than 300 lilacs and spent about $8,000 a year to maintain its nine acres.

Although I donít know if any still exist, Indiana was represented by the Huntington College Botanical Garden and Arboretum, the Butler University Botanical Garden in Indianapolis, and Muncieís Christy Woods (formerly Ball Arboretum), which spent $2,555 a year on 18 acres. Letís hope those kids from Ball State donated some free labor.

Locally, the new Taltree Arboretum southwest of Valparaiso is doing great things in the short time itís been open to the public.

The 1947 book distinguishes gardens in three ways: for personal enjoyment for ourselves and our friends; for public recreational purposes; and in the case of an arboretum or botanical garden, for both enjoyment and recreation yet most of all for the education of the public about plants.

The 1947 author, horticulturist Donald Wyman (I think a crabapple is named after him) of the famous Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, said labor was the most expensive aspect of any park or arboretum. Thereís no reason to believe thatís changed. He also emphasized the importance of labeling and mapping the plant collection.

In our own gardens today, donít you think itís not the actual labor but the precious time out of our busy lives it takes to tend to things that is perhaps the most costly to us?


Posted 2/23/2004