Chesterton Tribune

February garden challenge: Finding midwinter inspiration

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Of Wonders and Weeds


February is for .... looking for some inspiration in a winter without end.

Sure, by the time you read this we’re probably in the midst of a sloppy thaw, but as I write this the vivid memory of our continuous whiteout is still fresh.

I’m always looking for garden inspiration that leads to an ah-ha moment. You know, when you have a problem and the most obvious solution for some unknown reason eludes you. A perfect example is behind my garage.

It’s a big box like most garages, and then we built a garden shed offset next to it projecting about 5 feet behind the garage; now I had two boxes, a sharp right angle, nothing particularly pleasing to the eye. I wrestled for some time what to do with the area.

One day I was flipping through a gardening book and behold, there it was. A picture of a lovely circle garden in the right angle formed by flat building walls that made the same L shape as mine. Ah-ha! Now I knew what I needed to do.

Fortunately, I found someone who wanted to get rid of lots of really nice bricks so I used them laid side-by-side to form the circle’s perimeter about 7 feet in diameter.

I ringed the inside of the circle garden with seven different daylily varieties and the middle with a nifty caryopteris divaricata  ‘Snow Fairy’ small perennial shrub. The strappy daylily leaves and the small spicy-scented variegated caryopteris leaves are a good contrast. Fall brings tiny purple caryopteris flowers.

Once the brick circle was done I knew I had to get from the shed to the far side of the garage so a path was in order.

On Sue Cowsert’s advice I chose trap rock --- small, angular maroon chips that pack down and make a crunching sound when you walk on them. The outside of the 24-inch wide path, which curves around 80 percent of the circle, has bendable, rigid black edging to contain the rocks.

Over the years what was once grass has been replaced around the circle garden path with plantings and garden art including an old, peeling green farmhouse door with decorative handle and hardware.

Can the area be made even better? Of course. I’m just waiting for another ah-ha moment but there’s no hurry.

I’ve been inspired and encouraged so many times when hearing other gardeners talk. So here is a list of some of the good things I’ve heard people say:

Wayne Gruber: “I don’t think in my lifetime I’ll totally do everything I’ve set out to do, but I’ll have a great time trying.”

These are reassuring words. Every year we have lots of plans, little time, too many obligations and frustration at year’s end that we didn’t accomplish more. Wayne reminds us not to sweat the small stuff and to enjoy the journey, even if we don’t always reach our destination.

Unknown: “Gardening is like good writing. You need punctuation.”

That’s what the unexpected green door is anchored against the blank garage wall: punctuation. It can be as involved or as simple as you like. Don’t get too tripped up over where something should go. Get it in the garden and move it around until the perfect spot finds you.

Mel Zalodec: “Gardening is a game of patience. If you’re impatient, try the stock market. But I guarantee you’ll feel better with gardening.”

Mel, who I heard speak six years ago, also suggested we enjoy “flower-watching” as we would birdwatching. I was disappointed last fall to see seed heads on some flowers I never saw in bloom. I was too busy to stop and look at the flowers, let alone smell them.

Gene Bush of Munchkin Nursery in Depauw said it best at last month’s wonderful Porter County Extension Service/Master Gardeners show. “Some things are fleeting. If you don’t have the time to walk through your garden, you miss so much. You need to slow down, relax, and see what there is to be seen.”

Chuck Gleaves: “Go ahead and do it. Don’t be cautious. Being overly-cautious prevents you from doing things.”

This advice has gotten me into trouble. I get something in my head and I dang well am going to do it, like moving trees, but I think Chuck was talking about less-physical courage like mixing red and purple with orange.

Chuck does make a good point. What if I did all that work on the circle garden and didn’t like it?

Would it have been a waste of time? No! Former beach rock was removed from that area, compost brought in and a big straggly Rose of Sharon bush dug out. Without the goal of the circle garden, all that wouldn’t have happened when it did.

Kris Medic: “Try not to be done in by your gardening. Fly ribbons from your tomato stakes if it makes you happy.”

If you’re dreading warmer weather because you have to go out and deadhead perennials, maybe you need to dig them up and give them away. Think fun, creativity, satisfaction, not sweat, poison ivy or chiropractor.

In 2003 Kris already was advocating sustainable gardening practices to save us time like using groundcovers instead of grass, planting shade trees to use less air conditioning and eliminating obstacles to reduce both mowing time and hydrocarbon emissions.

Scott Kunst: “Elephant ears weren’t cool. Now they’re on the cover of garden magazines. That’s garden history. If we look to the past you’ll find great plants we forgot about.”

Every new hybrid isn’t a keeper. It’s reassuring that hostas ‘Yellow River’ and ‘Jack of Diamonds’, two of the first I bought years ago, are turning up again in current garden catalogs. Some old favorites like ‘Blue Angel’ and ‘Halcyon’ still appear on the American Hosta Society annual popularity poll.

Some day I fear we’re going to have a coneflower (echinacea) rebellion and they’ll refuse to bloom after the perennial’s been forced recently by hybridizers to turn nearly every color of the rainbow except black.

Rich Eyre: “If you think good garden ideas will jump in your lap, you’re wrong.”

Now is the perfect time to head to a book store, to Thomas Library’s periodicals reading room where several garden magazines and their back issues are found, or attend a garden club meeting or the March 7-15 Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier.

Watch television. Surf the Internet. Talk to friends. Stop a stranger at a garden center. Don’t be afraid to ask. Gardeners love to share.

Kunso Kim: “Somebody has to plant trees so the next generation can appreciate them.”

Are you enjoying a tree someone else planted years ago? A century ago? Thank them by planting one in return. Kunso recommends we choose carefully, plant several varieties so no one disease or insect can wipe them out, and consider a tree’s size, cultural requirements, site and intended use.

Our perpetual snowcover has some gardeners concerned that their buried plants will suffer. Up to now the snow has done a good job insulating plants from our near-zero and  sub-zero cold.

Porter County master gardener Laura Leush says we probably shouldn’t be concerned for our plants --- yet.

“They’re getting moisture. It’s not bad now. If we have a wet spring, and our fall wasn’t too dry either, they could rot out. If we have a dry spring, we’ll be fine,” said Laura.

I’ll cross my fingers if you cross yours.


Posted 2/12/2009