Chesterton Tribune

Real gardeners do not need lawns

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May is for …. seeing the garden through Felder Rushing’s eyes.

An award-winning garden author, radio personality and lecturer, Rushing is a Mississippi state turf specialist yet he doesn’t have any grass in his yard. Instead, it’s jam-packed with plants, funky yard art, a sitting area, pond and fire pit.

“If a brain surgeon doesn’t need a tumor, I don’t need a lawn,” he explains.

Rushing is imaginative, entertaining, practical, whimsical and, at times, even serious. But he doesn’t stay serious for long, which is why his philosophy of gardening is so refreshing.

Stupid rules take the fun out of gardening; start small and feel good about it, Rushing told 300 of his disciples at last month’s LaPorte County Master Gardeners’ spring symposium. “If the neighbors don’t get it, they can shut up,” he added.

A few Felder-isms:

Gaudy is doing something people may not like but you think you know what you’re doing so it’s OK. Tacky is when you don’t know any better and bless your heart do it anyway.

There are only two rules for composting: stop throwing that stuff away and pile it up somewhere.

Paying someone to mow your grass is out-sourcing your pleasure.

Native plants are the Helen and Thelma Lou of Mayberry; they fit right in and are dependable. Hybrids and exotics are the Party Girls from Mt. Pilot who come and go.

Lightening up doesn’t mean lowering your standards.

Rushing believes gardeners fall into three categories: prissy silver people (“I don’t want them setting the standard for me”) who prefer formal plantings and know all The Rules; blue people who are basically crazy and tend to over-accessorize (like creating a giant beetle sculpture out of a rusted Volkswagen shell); and the red people who use the best of both approaches in their yards.

Rushing was spoofed on the April Fool’s Day episode of Martha Stewart Living, and the current Plant Delights catalog cover is dedicated to the wacky ways he recycles used tires in his yard (a rubber Christmas tree?) Rushing also popularized the bottle tree made by sliding large, colorful bottles (think cobalt blue milk of magnesia, etc.) over the bare branches of a small dead tree or large limb for a jewel-like effect.

An extension agent by profession, Rushing encourages gardeners to try new plants and see on which side of the rhubarb/okra hardiness-zone line they thrive. If it grows, share the plant with others, he advised.

Studying your yard will make one alert to new possibilities, says Rushing. A damp area is a great place to build a pond, and if you add a waterfall, you won’t hear the highway traffic or a passerby questioning your sanity.

People miss the point if they think shoveling snow and spreading fertilizer is “being outdoors.” Sitting around a campfire with your children and studying the habits of fireflies is, according to Rushing.

When his Grandmother died, other relatives were dividing up her furniture and dishes, but Rushing took a weathered concrete chicken, the featherless fowl a fixture of her garden. “The color gray on the chicken was an echo of the powdery mildew on her zinnias,” recalled Rushing fondly.

What I took away from his talk, which was punctuated by hilarious slides of gardening gone awry, is that our gardens are us. The us we secretly want to be, the us we are and don’t know it, or the us we want others to believe we are. In either case, we make a statement through our gardens, whether through a whisper or a shout.

Also speaking at the symposium prior to Rushing, who would have been a hard act to follow, was author Carolyn Harstad of Indianapolis, who has carved out a wildflower haven only seven miles from downtown.

Harstad is a firm believer “you can’t know what a garden feels like until you get into it – you don’t just peek in.” Put some paths and benches along the plantings to encourage a closer look.

Ponds are like a skylight on the ground, reflecting beauty back at you, said Harstad. Water, food and shelter are needed to make our yards a backyard wildlife habitat, and she encouraged us to provide them.

Native plants have history and myth, said Harstad, not a label on a test tube. Legend has it the serviceberry was so named because it blooms when the ground improves enough for a funeral service, or for people to travel for a wedding service.

Harstad and Rushing garden very differently, but neither way is right or wrong. I purchased Rushing’s book “Passalong Plants” co-authored by Steve Bender. It’s delightful, even if it does dwell on plants that do well in the south. When Rushing signed my book, he wrote, “Have fun. Pass it along!”

Who could argue with that?

May 10 Girl Scout Troop 358 from Flint Lake Elementary School will help plant a Children’s Sunflower Village at Taltree Arboretum and Gardens just south of U.S. 30 at 100 N. 450 West. The village is for all children to enjoy and eventually will consist of seven staked sunflower houses with morning-glory roofs, a flowering tunnel made of vines, a hummingbird garden, tree stumps for climbing and benches for sitting.

The hummingbird garden will be planted with pink turtlehead (chelone oblique), native Joe Pye (eupatorium fistulosum), cardinal flower (lobelia cardinalis), royal catchfly (silene regia), columbine (aquilegia canadensis), new jersey tea (ceanothus Americana), little blue stem (schizachyrium scoparius), and beard tongue (penstemon).

Donations are being accepted to maintain the sunflower village.

May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Valparaiso University’s student union Great Hall, Taltree invites the public to Douglas Roth’s lecture and slide show on the nature-inspired gardens of Japan.

Roth, who lived in Japan for 10 years and became the first foreigner licensed to practice gardening there, publishes a bi-monthly journal about classic Japanese garden design, construction and maintenance techniques. He will discuss various ways to evoke natural Japanese patterns in small spaces in addition to other topics. For more information on this or Japanese stone-setting and aesthetic pruning workshops, contact 462-0025.

Someone brought to my attention the current early summer issue of Lake magazine, which caters to the “resort lifestyle on Lake Michigan” including gardening. The magazine, published six times annually, is based in LaPorte. It’s a fun read, the advertisements alone are very informative and there’s a spring calendar of events for Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, MI.

Author Denise Declue did an outstanding job writing about wild orchids native to this area. Color pictures accompany her Lake article, and the detailed culture and historical notes are a bonus.

In my own backyard, the tri-color beech finally is leafing out after a late transplant last fall. But that doesn’t mean the battle to settle gracefully into its new home is over. This first season I need to be sure it is well watered but not overly so, and given enough nourishment but not over-fertilized.

The beech still has one problem I haven’t yet addressed: the main vertical branch or leader of the tree is bent in an “S” curve from straining to find the sun in its former location. I want to be sure the sap is warm and flowing before I gently attempt to do anything.

I was happy to see I have two baby daylily plants growing from “proliferations” off the mother plant. Have you noticed that sometimes the flower scape of a daylily starts growing leaves on the stalk? This is a proliferation. “So Lovely,” a fragrant pale yellow to near white, has a tendency to throw them, according to Oakes Daylilies, and so do some of my other varieties here.

I tried cutting off a proliferation before, taking a good five inches above and below it, and planting it in a pot. No luck. Last fall I tried it again, this time planting the green proliferations (which I marked) deeper and right in the ground near its mother plant, a fine late deep coral from Coburg Farm. I doubt the baby daylilies will flower their first year, but it will be exciting when they do to see if they look just like or different from their mother. Oakes seems to imply the former is the case.

Late as usual, I cleaned up and trimmed the rose bed Sunday, thinking about some tips well-known area consulting rosarian Karl Bapst gave us at the March Home and Garden Show at the Porter County Expo Center. Bapst has 500 roses, so his is a voice that commands respect.

Karl believes the reason many people have bad experiences with roses is because they start with inferior stock. He recommends not buying pre-packaged bare root roses after May 1; instead, look for No. 1 superior grade container roses with at least three fat, healthy green canes.

Roots are what will get the plant growing so Karl says they should be as long or longer than the top growth; if not, trim the top canes accordingly. Edmunds Roses, from which I just received a “Big Purple” hybrid tea, recommends adding some sand to the soil in the planting hole to aerate it because the roots need oxygen to grow.

Karl feels the bud union, the knobby joint where the roots start and the canes begin, should be three inches below the soil line in our climate. Roses like water but not wet feet. If clay, Karl prefers to add perlite, organic fertilizer, manure and compost to the soil to improve drainage.

Another Rosenut (Karl’s nickname) tip: Roses can’t read so fertilize them with a lawn food (without weed killer, of course) that has similar ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as the three numbers on the expensive rose fertilizers. Karl favors organic fertilizers and does not recommend using systemic rose insecticides in the hopes an insect some day may nibble a leaf.

To keep rose blooms coming, Karl also suggests pruning roses at different times instead of all at once.

The many tulips planted around Duneland are rewarding us with lovely extended color. Tulips welcome the congregations at the entrances of both Porter United Methodist Church and Bethlehem Lutheran Church. There’s also a surprising number of tulips planted to brighten the graves of loved ones at Chesterton Cemetery, where workers are careful to mow around the tulips. It says so much about a community the way its cemeteries are cared for and cared about.

In the “if at first you don’t succeed” category is my second – and finally successful – attempt to grow the spring-flowering bulb fritillaria or crown imperial. The smaller checkered lily is a cousin.

The nearly three-foot crown imperial has hanging funnel-shaped flowers borne at the top in a circular cluster, mine burnt orange with a yellow center. Lovely, yes, but the real reason I planted them is because the huge bulb stinks to high heaven and is thought to repel moles. The bed where I planted the frits had tunnels made by something so I put out the unwelcome mat.

This I apparently need to do in the rose bed, too, because when removing the old mulch (a must to deter black spot) I found, you guessed it, little tunnels around the roses. Frits require good drainage, especially in winter. My first attempt with them failed in soil that contained more clay than organics. Since my main roses are planted in four groups of four, this fall I’ll try planting a frit in the center of each group.

With all the graduations coming up, don’t throw away the disposable plastic tablecloths you’ll use. I find a number of ways to recycle them in the garden, like lining a truck bed when shoveling compost, repotting plants on them, holding weeds and deadheaded plants bound for the compost pile, and as a quick cover in a rain.

The Duneland Garden Club’s spring plant sale begins May 18 at 8:30 a.m. to accommodate those who have said they must be at work for 9 a.m. and miss the sale, which takes place at the public parking lot at Third Street and Broadway in downtown Chesterton. Shoppers have until 11 a.m. to choose among many varieties of hardy perennials and even some herbs and heirloom annuals.

As Mother’s Day nears, consider making your special Mom a personalized stepping stone. Craft and home stores have several kinds of kits.

Last Christmas, granddaughters Melanie and Maggie each made me a stepping stone bearing their handprints, names and the year. The girls decorated their stones with colorful marbles, but the possibilities are endless including pressing fern fronds, pieces of broken plates and even decorative buttons or old jewelry into the cement.

When you’re given something special, it needs a special place. I have yet to find the perfect spot in the garden for my keepsakes from the girls, but I know one thing: I don’t want anybody stepping on their stepping stones.


Posted 5/13/2002