Chesterton Tribune

November: Adjusting to life without gardening

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November is for ...... gardening on borrowed time.

It isn’t always we’ve been able do so much this late in the season in the garden. This first taste of winter has me mentally beginning to adjust to life without active gardening and trying to look on the bright side: I will have more free time to do other fun things like paint the bathroom.

Nov. 13, 1997 we had that year’s first snow after 10 days of temperatures in the 30s and the ground was already freezing. Two days later we had four inches of snow and then 15 degrees! The third week of November, 2000 was equally as cold.

Of course we’ve had warm spells, too, like 69 degrees Dec. 5, 2001 and in the 60’s December’s second week in 1998. The point is now our weather can turn drastically different overnight and we might get hit with a 12-inch snowfall like we did Dec. 11, 2000 followed by below-zero temps.

My last bloomers were perennial and annual snapdragons and the rose/lavender clematis “Cardinal Wysznski’ showing smaller flowers yet loads of buds coming on. One of three hardy phlox ‘Natascha’ kept blooming as did knautia macedonia’s deep reddish fringed button flowers on wiry stems, the latter plant native to Romania.

One great thing about our good weather was it allowed me to enjoy the ‘Single Apricot’ Korean chrysanthemum, a knee-high late bloomer that usually opens one week in late fall and is frost-killed the next. This cultivar resembles a large fringed daisy and still looks fine despite the snow.

Given the extra working days in the garden I was able to plant the expanded east border; this is a difficult area because it gets alternately early morning sun, shade, sun at midday, shade and sunset sun in the summer. I transplanted larger shrubs (a juniper, rhododendron and ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangea) there to anchor the bed along with new or recycled plants from other parts of the yard such as tricyrtis, cimicifugia, pulmonaria, filipendula, daylilies, tulips and, of course, hostas.

It will be so exciting in the spring to see how I’ve done with the border. “Designing” is never a word I use for how I plant, although I do pay great attention to mature size and height. I know we’re told to plan on paper first but thinking long-term is something I associate with life insurance.

I agree with Jim Scott of Alabama, one of the gardeners showcased on the fine HGTV show “Gardener’s Diary” televised weekdays at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. He said gardens should have a sense of mystery and make you wonder, “What was he thinking about?” Jim also said it gives you great pleasure to execute what you see in the mind’s eye; in my case, that execution is a process of trial and error.

This is why I share British horticulturalist Alan Titchmarsh’s philosophy that if a plant doesn’t work, just move it with no guilt involved. A weed, he believes, is merely a plant in the wrong place.

Perhaps the most important thing to do this time of year is mulch any recently planted/transplanted specimens or spring bulbs to lengthen the time the roots have to get settled in their new home. A good three or four inches of mulch is recommended. It’s the alternating cold/thaw that can heave these plants right out of the soil so it’s necessary to keep an eye on them in the coming months and tamp them back down if needed.

I am able to share the local weather history with you because after a four-month search I finally found my gardening journal, a gift from my niece Cindy for Christmas in 1995. I also misplaced with it nearly all our property-tax records in a separate folder but I figured those I could replace; the garden journal most certainly I never could reconstruct.

Both were found in a place that, if I had just looked a little closer, I would have found them there sooner. My last 2004 garden-journal entry was the third week of July when I complained about more than three inches of rain. It was fun to read that in 1998 my future garden goals were to “clean behind the garage, make a rose garden and widen the south borders.” All this I have done with the newly reclaimed garage area still a work in progress.

I did not make the berm I planned in 1998 for the front yard; our experience shows things like this will make the snow drift in our long, looping driveway. The few days a year that snow is a serious problem gives me pause about what to plant near the back door, prime real estate that in a bad snowfall gets drifted and/or heaped with snow from the plow.

Right now there’s a very average ‘Anthony Waterer’ spirea planted there that doesn’t give enough bang for the buck and is an aphid magnet in the spring. A choice dwarf conifer, my preference, likely would be damaged in the winter. Maybe the solution is to make the spot a dahlia bed, planted in spring and the tubers removed over winter.

Last week I dug up my two dahlia clumps after their tops turned a nasty but mandatory black/green, the sign the tubers can be taken out and dried in a protected area before being packed away for the winter. These are the dahlia plants that had a second growth spurt after a woodchuck ate them early in the season, which makes me wonder if they recovered sufficiently to survive winter storage and have enough energy to perform well next year.

Two of this year’s last yard projects were planting hyacinth bulbs from Dick Bolinger and spraying the rhododendrons, azaleas and hollies with an anti-transpirant like Wilt-Pruf that helps minimize moisture loss. You can even use this stuff to prolong the life of indoor Christmas trees.

I did not know you also can spray or dip tubers and bulbs in the solution at a diluted rate for winter storage, or use it any time during the growing season, also diluted, when transplanting. I learned recently that it’s not only the biting winter wind that damages plants but also the hot, dry summer wind as much as the heat.

One thing I did this time last year that served me well in early 2004 was getting the soil ready in areas where I know I will be planting next spring.

I am a regular at the Porter County compost site in Crocker loading over and over again all my empty 40-pound tough plastic bags, about 24 now, saved from previous purchases like topsoil. This last trip to Crocker, where the compost was compacted rock-hard from the rain, I started at the top of the mound and loosened it back into crumbled gardener’s gold with a narrow-tined pitchfork making the job sooo much easier than trying to dig it straight out with a shovel like I usually do.

The Crocker site closes Dec. 4 and I plan to load up all my bags one last time so I can have the compost here when I need it in February and March before the site opens again in April for 2005.

Area gardeners are buzzing about the 6:30 p.m. program Monday, Jan. 31 in Merrillville to be given by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of the popular “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” and her most recent book “The Well-Designed Mixed Garden,” a primer on building borders with trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs.

Sponsored by Lake County’s Gardens on the Prairie nursery, tickets are $25 and include refreshments and a book sale and signing. Seating is limited. For more information, contact 219-690-0911. I’ll see you there. Let’s hope we don’t have a blizzard.

Tucked in my garden journal were all sorts of goofy things I’ve saved (like a list of all Fred Astaire’s movies and a ticket to a 1985 Buzztones dance), and several scraps of paper on which I had written things. I am a great one for jotting stuff down; perhaps it’s a holdover from my years of newspaper reporting. My place at the kitchen table usually has at least one to-do list for the next day.

I recently found a cryptic note I know I wrote this year because of its distinctive blue ink from a pen Bernie brought home from a NASCAR race sponsored by Sharpie. The small piece of paper simply said, “leave it between the bricks.”

If anyone has a clue what this means, please let me know. I sure don’t.


Posted 11/26/2004