Chesterton Tribune

November is the month for crushed leaves

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November is for .... Billy O’Deen.

Without this man, many of my plants would go naked into the winter, their crowns unprotected and exposed. But because of Billy, they are safely nestled in the finest mulch I know.

This generous guy brings me huge bags of choice mixed leaves. So far this year about 30 with more to come, he promises. The first few years he brought the leaves, which blow into his Griffith yard from a nearby church, Bernie and I would run them through the chipper ourselves. But now Billy has gotten a chipper and he brings me the leaves already crushed.

There is a God.

This mulch is wonderful; light yet stable, nourishing yet not smothering. I lay it five inches deep between the plants and a two-inch dusting closest to their crowns. After two years the leaves decompose into the soil, enriching it immensely, and the beds need to be remulched.

It’s a challenge to get the mulch down fast enough once Billy drops off several bags, which often appear unexpectedly in the grass like huge green mushrooms. If the leaves were damp, if it rains on the bags or if they stay closed too long, the mulch can get slimey or even moldy, so don’t be surprised if you see me running around the yard in the rain like some crazed nymph tossing handfuls of mulch downwind.

Someday Billy, who is retired, will be unwilling or unable to bring the leaves, and I will understand. But until then, I and my plants are eternally grateful.

Speaking of people who donate their time to benefit others, I recently heard native Texas artist Chapman Kelley at Purdue University-North Central, whose non-profit Wildflower Works attempts to deliver man from his own madness.

Kelley believes valuable water, one of our most precious resources, is being wasted on lawns and hybrid plants when drought-tolerant wildflowers can replace them and save money on mowing, maintenance and chemicals. In 1976, Kelley seeded wildflowers to replace miles of lawn between runways at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, and in 1984 he planted 1 1/2 million Midwest wildflowers at the north end of Chicago’s Grant Park.

Kelley currently is developing a Jens Jensen-inspired wildflower ellipse at Wisconsin and North Clark streets in Chicago’s Old Town area.

Lobelia, allium, liatris, coneflower, yarrow, aster, monarda, rudbeckia. A wildflower palette is ever-changing, said Kelley, and the more aggressive plants need to be kept in check. “We’re finding ways to exercise influence but we never can control it. It’s a partnership with Mother Nature. She has 99 percent of the stock; we have 1 percent.”

Kelley urges the public to accept a new vision of landscape. We hear about the mind’s eye. What about the eye’s mind? he asks. “Some things we can communicate only by seeing.”

Design, whether of a garden or a transportation system, is the most important thing to human beings, said Kelley. Without it, things fail. Wildflower plantings are self-sustaining and require specialized rather than no maintenance. Wildflowers also have a place in the trend toward septic treatment using constructed wetlands, he believes.

Painterly in summer, sculptural in winter, wildflower gardens are our horticultural future, said Kelley, who vehemently opposes periodic controlled burns to renew larger wildflower plantings.

Winter arrived early last year and held us in its icy clutch unabated until spring. Because of this we need to prioritize our remaining garden tasks so the most important won’t go undone if history repeats itself. Translation: it’s easier to drive posts into thawed ground than frozen ground, even if we don’t attach the burlap windbreaks until December.

I dug the new hole for the soon-to-be transplanted tricolor beech tree and, as usual, it was more of a job than anticipated. One time I had to dig through a brick foundation to plant a tree. The joys of living on a former farm.

This time the area apparently was where people used to dump cinders from the coal furnace; I sifted out a full five-gallon bucket of irregular metal chunks in a four-foot diameter circle. I also found an intact doorknob set.

One month I will share with you some of the treasures -- trash? -- I have dug up here, unearthing 117 years of history one shovel at a time. Remind me to mention the teeth.

October 28’s heavy frost finally did in the dahlias. I will dig them, trying to leave the entire clump intact, shake off any loose dirt, let them dry a few days in the garage, then pack them in Billy’s crushed leaves in cardboard boxes that will be covered with newspaper and wintered on the insulated but not heated front porch, which hovers around 45 degrees during the coldest months. If the leaves feel dry in February, I’ll dribble a little water on them.

I have yet another use for Billy’s mulch.

After raking away all debris from under the hybrid-tea roses, at month’s end if it’s not unusually warm I’ll cover each plant’s base with a mound of good compost, then a generous topdressing of crushed leaves. I put large, metal peony rings around each rose at planting time; to this I will attach with plastic clothespins a 15-inch tall collar of heavy plastic sheeting to hold in the leaves. Chicken wire also could be used.

I tried something new I saw in a magazine this month. We’ll see if it works.

I wanted to plant tulips in an area where mole or vole runs appeared. I overlapped and tied chicken wire so its holes would be only half as big and made a large basket, attaching a bottom of the same double layer. I set the basket in the hole and planted the larger tulips at seven inches deep and above them a small bulb iris histrioides at four inches deep. On top I secured a single layer of chicken wire. Wish me luck.

In the New Age of Anthrax, this note on my bulb order shipping statement caught my eye: “During storage green penicillin mold may grow on the surface of lily bulbs. The mold dies when you plant the bulb. If the bulb is firm, you can plant with confidence.”

With the onset of cold weather, gardening can be especially hard on our hands as well as our joints. A soothing body scrub by Origins, available at L. S. Ayres, to the rescue.

Sea salt chunks oozing in macadamia, soybean and almond oils laced with mint massage and lubricate the skin. A light rinse and pat dry and skin is renewed and supple. The scent is very odd, but the stuff works.

Didn’t the hostas turn a lovely shade of gold this fall? Sunday, nationally recognized hosta hybridizer Olga Petryszyn of Furnessville will present a public talk at 1:30 p.m. at the Lake County Public Library on U.S. 30 in Merrillville as a guest of the Hosta and Friends Garden Club.

I’ll be the one there whose hands are really soft but smell a little strange.



Posted 11/2/2001