Chesterton Tribune

Good gardening weather just around the corner

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Wonders and Weeds



March is for ... anticipation beginning to build.

Our recent 60-degree flirtation with Spring ended all too abruptly, but more great gardening weather is just around the corner. It better be. An afternoon’s yard work recently reminded me just how much clean-up and even weeding many of us have yet to do.

One frigid January day when I was taking down someone else’s Christmas lights a 12-inch twig from a star magnolia tree snapped off. Ever the optimist, I put it in water in a Diet Coke can on the insulated but unheated front porch where the winter temperatures generally hover around 45 degrees. Feb. 25 the magnolia branch began blooming, its double rows of long, delicate white petals surrounding a pale yellow center.

If I’m not imagining things, a spidery root is growing out of the base of the branch. Fellow gardener Tim Miller thinks it will take off if I plant it outdoors when the soil warms. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

In addition to the weeds, another sign of how mild this winter has been -- so far -- is the ‘Forever Pink’ hydrangea by the back patio.

Although it is rated in some catalogs for our Zone 5, it rarely flowers. Occasionally it will throw one or two big, hot pink clustered flowerheads, but not often, so when it does this is cause for real celebration and to dry them for everlasting arrangements.

‘Forever Pink’s’ previous year’s bare branches that persist through the winter usually never leaf out again; instead, vigorous new branches grow from the base of the shrub in mid-spring so I end up cutting down most of last year’s branches. But this year, just like the lilacs and tree peonies, the old ‘Forever Pink’ branches are budding up under their burlap wrap.

I have asked several people why the hydrangea doesn’t reliably bloom. One theory is that I’m cutting off the old branches, which they believe eventually would bloom despite the new growth. My reply is, which century?

Another theory is that the plant is in full sun and struggling to support its glossy, red-tinged green leaves, diverting the energy needed to set flowers. Whether to move the hydrangea to a shadier location is a big decision because, even without its flowers, the three-foot shrub is always perfectly rounded, very healthy and a real showpiece.

I do plan to move a ‘Mariesii Variegata’ hydrangea in mostly sun, also on the south side of the house. It never has rewarded me with its delicate blue lacecaps, which are tight, flat clusters of tiny buds with only a few opening to full single flowers for an unusual effect. The 30-inch bush droops in the slightest drought and its white-edged leaves look dull.

Moving it presents a secondary problem. The ‘Mariesii’ screens the southwest edge of a shade planting that would suffer in more sun than it already receives. My challenge in the next few weeks (I likely can move it in April) is to find the perfect home for the ‘Mariesii’ and to find the right plant to take its place.

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL reportedly is cold-testing several varieties of spring-blooming magnolias and summer-flowering hydrangeas in hopes of expanding the selections that will perform well here.

Porter County’s own arboretum, Taltree, just south of U.S. 30 at County Roads 500W and 100N is offering a full range of spring classes March through May including wildflower and plant identification, lawn management, backyard birds, introduction to plant diversity, and birds of Northwest Indiana, the latter a three-session course with Helen Dancey.

For more information about these classes as well as monthly treks, hikes and walks through the 300 acres of restored prairie, wetlands, oak savanna, woodlands, display gardens and plant collections, contact 219-462-0025.

The Porter County Builders Assn. also is putting out the welcome mat March 7-10 at the Porter County Expo Center for its annual Home & Garden Show, this year expanded into a third building with more garden-related exhibits planned.

Getting a mailing list sold with your name on it often leads to unsolicited and unwanted junk mail, but being “sold” as an avid gardener sometimes has its benefits when it comes to receiving garden promotions.

High Country Gardens ( of Santa Fe, New Mexico has to be one of the most informative catalogs I’ve received in some time. Bernie and I once went to Santa Fe for the day while visiting friends in Albuquerque. My most vivid Santa Fe recollection: it was snowing but overly dressed tourists were lunching in outdoor cafes under huge heaters.

HCG’s catalog specializes in plants for the Western garden, but many unusual ones are rated Zone 5 or colder. Several selections are useful for xeriscaping -- plantings that require less water and less maintenance -- although the xeric varieties would need good drainage to successfully overwinter here. HCG’s detailed plant descriptions with origin and culture notes are a bonus.

Among the interesting finds for me were the four-foot everblooming shrub falugia paradoxa or Apache plume, which throws white flowers followed by long-lasting pink silky seed heads, and winter-hardy cacti and succulents. An eyecatcher is the ‘White Sands Strain’ claret cup, a Echinocereus triglochidiatus (weren’t these chasing people in Jurassic Park?) or “hedgehog” cactus variety with scarlet spring flowers.

The December, 2000 issue of Garden Gate magazine has a great article on hardy cacti including care and culture. I have a prickly pear or Opuntia cactus and its yellow late spring flowers are gorgeous, but Garden Gate describes both pink (’Pink Parfait’) and cream (‘Crystal Tide’) flowered opuntias as well.

Late this month I’ll pot up some well-draining starter soil mix and plant daylily seeds now in labeled envelopes that have wintered in the refrigerator in a Ziplock bag threatenly marked “Keep! DO NOT THROW AWAY!!".

Hybridizing hostas takes care, but the daylilies appear to be somewhat easier so I’m giving it a try. Apparently my only intentional cross to survive and produce a seed pod is the fine pink ‘Barbara Mitchell’ and what I think was ‘Red-Neck Steve,’ the tag having fallen off the flower stem I marked with twine. I also kept healthy open-pollinated pods from red ‘James Marsh’ and again ‘Steve.’

There is both an art and a science to any hybridizing, but the way I look at it, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll have to find a place to harden off and put the daylily babies for a few years until they flower -- if they survive that long.

Daylilies were always thought of as a very low-maintenance plant, but the fungal disease rust now is causing great concern in hemerocallis circles.

Daylily nurseries are noting in their catalogs if their fields are rust-free, but some have stopped importing plants and others acknowledge even though a shipped plant can appear to be rust-free, the disease is airborne and spores may be unknowingly hidden, a good reason to give our daylilies a thorough washing upon arrival at home.

We need to be alert this year if daylily leaves become pale with powdery orange spots. Sources recommend watering early in the day and not from overhead, keeping the area around the plant open to encourage air circulation, and removing and destroying any infected plant parts. Applications of sulfur and fungicide may help.

A healthy plant is less susceptible to disease, so it’s probably wise to keep them fertilized. There’s also some thought that the totally dormant varieties of daylilies are less likely to contract rust.

In closing, gardens that are truly satisfying year-round have elements of winter interest. One for me is the clump river birch (Betula nigra) from Great Oaks Nursery planted outside the window near the northeast corner of the house.

Its unique bark exfoliates or peels back in layers exposing shaggy brown, white and tan strips. The tree looks as if it weathered a fierce hurricane, but its unkempt appearance improves with age to add texture to the otherwise blank landscape. River birches, which have small green toothed leaves that turn yellow in the fall, often have their lower limbs trimmed up to expose more of the decorative bark.

I chose the river birch mainly because books said it was more tolerant of walnut-tree toxicity, but it’s turned out to be a lovely addition and, best of all, a way to create shade to plant more hostas.

And when it comes to hostas, like Coach purses and Godiva chocolates, this girl can never have too many.



Posted 3/7/2002