Chesterton Tribune

Spring comes to the gardens of Duneland

Back to Front Page




Of Wonders and Weeds


March is for ..... sure signs of spring.

Good things do come to those who wait. Just ask Elizabeth Smart’s family. In the garden, we’ve survived one of the coldest overall winters in some time, but even though the calendar says spring is here, don’t be fooled into pushing the garden envelope.

Porter County Extension educator Eric Biddinger, whose expertise is in agriculture and natural resources, said disaster can be looming. If the more tender buds begin breaking, then the temperatures plummet to below 30 degrees, frost damage could occur, especially to fruiting crops.

Amen. The late hard freeze last spring damaged many of my hostas, which looked and performed poorly the whole season. Coupled with the drought, some even died above ground, including a mature ‘Great Expectations.’ I’ll be anxious to see if any return from the roots.

Eric said to be especially mindful now of roses covered with styrofoam cones, which can roast the roses if the spring sun is intense.

Once rose buds begin to break, he advises, take off the cones even if a later frost is likely to occur. The plants can always be covered quickly with a sheet or mounded mulch if a freeze is predicted. Roses covered with mulch through the winter don’t need to be uncovered as soon, said Eric, because unlike the styrofoam, the mulch will remain cool.

It’s definitely too early to work wet soil, said Eric. Doing so will only compact it causing more problems than it’s worth. A good guide is working the soil when it crumbles after being squeezed into a ball.

Eric recommended three things that can be done now: pruning fruit trees before bud break; fertilizing indoor house plants, which are responding to warmer temps and more daylight; and making a summer to-do list. The latter can be done by carrying a notepad and pen in the yard and being observant as we give the lawn a good raking. “If you don’t write it down, you won’t remember.”

Eric and I share a fascination with fuchsia. “They amaze me,” he said. “I’ve seen one as dead as a doornail and it came back.”

The ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ bronze bush fuchsia (hardy in Zone 10) I potted up in the fall and brought indoors after it appeared to be dead is now fully leafed out and has been blooming for several weeks near a sunny south window. But my best success story apparently will be keeping a huge hanging fuchsia from last year alive and thriving in the unheated but insulated front porch, where the winter temps hover around 42 degrees but have dipped lower.

The four plants in one basket now measure 48 inches across! In “Crockett’s Flower Garden,” the late James Underwood Crockett said he kept the same fuchsia plants for several years by dividing and wintering them indoors, and taking fall cuttings to propagate new ones.

Not all my garden stories are successes. Experts recommend we do things a certain way for a reason. A perfect example is storing dahlia tubers in shredded dry peat moss or some other form of mulch.

I usually store them in the unheated porch in crushed leaves in a cardboard box, one year even in newspaper run through a shredder. But this past fall I got distracted and left the dahlias in a closed paper bag. In January I opened it and it was a white, powdery moldy mess. That gave me an opportunity to order new tubers from Swan Island Dahlias, a fine source, but you can be sure I won’t screw up storing them this year.

I’ve joined the American Hosta Society. The $25 annual dues are a bargain when you consider their fine member magazine, “The Hosta Journal,” now is published three times a year. The articles are very informative, quite thought provoking, and at times amusing. You’ll get to see color hosta pictures of the newest of the new and the best of the rest, in addition to lists of sources.

I joined the AHS at the Northern Illinois Hosta Society’s winter scientific meeting in January. Especially entertaining and informative was Ran Lydel, who 15 years ago started hybridizing hostas to improve their flowers. “We don’t know what can happen. We’re not going to produce blooms that look like orchids. We’re limited by genetics,” he told us.

Lydel said red-purple flowers are near, and true pink and blue color ranges are probably possible. He also breeds for scale, scape (stalk) color, branching, reblooming, bloom time, flower pattern, bloom density and post-blooming pod color. But nobody wants to see lovely flowers on an ugly hosta so that must be a factor, too.

Lydel mentioned the following hosta for flower impact: ‘Searing Flame,’ ‘Lake Superior,’ ‘Steady On,’ ‘Don Stevens,’ ‘Eagles Nest,’ ‘Blackberry Tart,’ ‘Breathless,’ and ‘Kermit.’ “A big ‘Blue Angel’ is a knockout,” he added.

Well-known hybridizer Mary Chastain of Tennessee, who’s responsible for numerous Lakeside hosta introductions, suggested hybridizing based on one’s individual personality, goals and environment. She keeps only about 30 of 2,000 seedling crosses for further trials. “What’s perfect to me isn’t perfect to you.” Chastain said she’s been working 17 years to get a blue hosta with ruffled white edge.

For Chastain, hybridizing is both an art and a roll of the dice. “Nothing in this thing is 100 percent of the time. The only thing to expect is the unexpected.”

She and I share one thing in common. Said Chastain, “The Egyptians could have made bricks out of my clay without even baking it.”


Posted 3/31/2003