Chesterton Tribune

Picking the right Christmas tree for next year's garden

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December is for ..... no holiday decorating tips from me.

The decorating gene apparently skipped a generation in my house. My mother, Louise (Jankowski) Losinski, delights in decorating her home with trees, bears, dolls, candles, wreaths, lights, figurines, baskets, special linens, serving bowls and assorted ornaments; the result is a welcoming glow of seasonal warmth and color.

Its all I can do to put up a Christmas tree. Two years ago I ran out of time and didn’t even do it. I get my tree about Dec. 21 when they’re half price; it usually comes down Dec. 28 or so. I choose it not for how it will look in the living room but for how it can be cut up and laid outside atop the more tender perennials as insulation from the winter.

This year I plan to be extra critical of the Christmas tree I select because instead of whacking it mercilessly, I want to buy the straightest trunk I can find and leave 12 inches of its best branches to form the base of a bottle tree for next summer. I’ve already started collecting colorful bottles to slip over the stripped branches; son Tony brought me a nifty green one from his business trip to South Africa.

Bernie doesn’t envision the bottle tree the same way I do; he thinks it’s going to look like something out of a bad episode of “Sanford and Son.”

Please don’t think that I don’t get into the Christmas spirit. While so many of you are decorating inside and out, I’m pouring over cookbooks and magazines looking for recipes to serve the whole extended family as they hit our house for Christmas Eve dinner. While you might agonize over a wreath, I agonize over appetizers.

I try to raid the garden, or what’s left of it, for centerpieces for the Dec. 24 food tables. I usually need to purchase some specialty flowers, like English iris, for impact, but depending upon the weather there’s always something outside to round out the arrangements. If you look closely, you’ll be surprised how much is still in the garden that isn’t frozen stiff.

If you need to thin out, cut back or improve the shape of an evergreen (or like my summer storm-damaged Washington Hawthorne, reduce the weight on branches of a deciduous tree), doing it so the cuttings can be recycled as holiday arrangements is killing the proverbial two birds with one stone.

Speaking of birds, I was surprised Dec. 1 to look out the kitchen window and see a hawk. It was about seven feet from our feeder and, ugh, eating a bird. That explains the pile of feathers but nothing else I saw elsewhere in the yard, which I had attributed to a passing cat.

After speaking to a pleasant volunteer at the Indiana Dunes State Park, we believe my 15-inch-long bird was a short-winged, long-tailed Cooper’s Hawk, this one probably immature because of its brown outer feathers and caramel-striped white belly. I have not seen the hawk since. If it only could catch voles ....

My holiday centerpiece for the main table will be placed in a reproduction iron Victorian pot with scrolled handles purchased while on vacation in October at the Lodge cast iron outlet store, a real find in Kodak, TN. It pays to get off the beaten path sometimes. Like visiting JR’s outlet store in Burlington, NC. It had everything from brassieres to chandeliers; we were sucked in by their wacky billboards along the interstate.

I promised last month I’d share with you more about the gardens I saw in North Carolina, especially at Biltmore Estate in Asheville. A short walk from the magnificent house is the 4-acre English walled garden, which fronts the ornate conservatory (rebuilt in 1957 and renovated in 1999) where a retail plant nursery and gift shop share space with the propagation house and tropical, arid and orchid rooms.

A two-tier stone wall surrounds the sunken garden with large hollies and pyramidal gold-tipped evergreens standing sentry. Japanese maples and elegant grasses provide the backdrop. Marching down the garden are 236 feet of vine-covered Victorian arbors.

Biltmore propagates many of its own plants for both the main house and outdoors; in October it was thousands of colorful mum plants arranged geometrically in the walled garden’s center court. In the spring it was 50,000 tulips and in the summer, dahlias and annuals. Surrounding the walled garden’s seasonal display area are about 2,300 tea, climbing and standard roses. Mixed borders of perennials flank brick walkways, and two artists were painting there that day.

Not all the 75 acres of landscaped gardens are so structured. There’s more than 1,000 azaleas in the 20-acre azalea garden, which has one of the most extensive known collections, and the Shrub Garden is a pleasant walk among native and exotic tree and shrub specimens. I did not have time to visit the Italian Garden with its pools and statuary, or the Bass Pond and Lagoon with its waterfall and wildlife.

At Biltmore, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted got it right. In my humble opinion, at the historic Grove Park Inn, also in Asheville, someone else blew it.

The landmark Inn was built in 1913 of native boulders carried by mules to a grassy mountain slope with a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since then the Inn has been expanded with two huge replica wings and is the place to see and be seen in Asheville lodging circles.

The original Inn was furnished with commissioned Roycroft arts and crafts furniture, most of which remains. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived at the Inn for two years, and a host of luminaries including Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, George Gershwin and eight U.S. presidents have been Grove Park guests. Understandably, this joint is pricey (there’s even a dress code), but for one night it’s a real treat.

About three years ago the Inn opened a subterranean glass-domed spa (where for an additional $25 a ‘professional’ will read your photographic aura) at the foot of the slope where the 1924 Donald Ross-designed golf course begins. More boulders were brought in to build a waterfall cascading down to the spa, which to me doesn’t blend in with its historic surroundings at all.

When showing vacation pictures to someone, “Did you go to a waterpark?” they asked when seeing the waterfall area. The landscaping looked that out of place.

A little hardscaping --- rocks, paving, retaining walls, paths, stepping stones --- goes a long way, but it’s a great addition to a garden. My yard definitely needs more of it, but no boulder waterfalls, thank you.

I’m turning to books this winter for inspiration. Peter McHoy’s 1998 “The Ultimate Garden Planner” is jam packed with hundreds of garden plans and photographs of their key structural elements, as well as how-to steps for specific projects. The book’s helped me begin a design for a large weed-prone area behind the garage I want to reclaim.

Amazon, the Internet bookstore, has many of its gardening books now on sale. Even if you don’t buy one, you can read as many as 18 sample pages of a book for free.

One of the best-selling, and a great gift for any flower gardener, is “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. Those who have it in our Duneland Garden Club recommended it highly, and so do I. The biggest bonus in this book is when to prune plants for repeat bloom, to create more blooms or delayed blooms to prolong the flowering season.

For years my favorite flower resource was Rodale’s “Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials,” still a fine companion although not as detailed as Tracy’s book. Before that it was “Crockett’s Flower Garden” by the late James Underwood Crocket, the first host of PBS’s “The Victory Garden.” On page 271 I finally found what to do with a really huge hanging-basket fuchsia I brought in from outdoors and am babying on an insulated but unheated porch.

Crockett eventually was replaced on “The Victory Garden” with folksy, bearded Roger Swain, who this year retired. The new host for the 27th season is garden designer and magazine editor Michael Weishan, who films the show from his own 3-acre yard and wants to take the program in a new direction; I just hope it’s where I want to go.

Happy holidays to my faithful readers, and here’s wishing you an El Nino winter from here on out.



Posted 12/13/2002