Chesterton Tribune

Time for gardeners to make some tough decisions

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March is for....making some tough decisions.

We are moving into possibly the most exciting gardening season, spring. The hope, the anticipation -- the work, the disappointment -- are just around the corner.

If Duneland were a utopian climate where punishing cold, late frosts, leaf-shredding hail, Japanese beetles and mildew never occurred, gardening would be pretty boring.

Where else can a failure, say, the inexplicable loss of my lovely Daphne "Carol Mackie" shrub last winter, be cause for celebration? Rather than pout, we can view this as an opportunity to choose a new plant, or in my case, transplant a spirea "Anthony Waterer" which had grown too large for its original spot.

But what if a vole eats only half the roots and a plant is stunted and weak? Here's where the tough decision comes into play.

I have become far less patient when babying a struggling plant, but that's not to say I don't have special plants, gifts or ones purchased at unusual locations, that I won't pamper until the last crown shrivels in the soil.

In many ways, gardening for me is a portal to see things otherwise unseen, and to listen for life's untold lessons.

The sheer willpower exhibited by a spindly six-inch geranium stalk growing in a four-inch pot on my daughter Ali's kitchen windowsill is amazing. The geranium has four leaves, each only one inch wide, yet the plant has produced hot pink flowers all winter long.

Sometime in November, I noticed a large branch, almost five feet long, had broken off one of our brittle shagbark hickory trees and was just hanging by a tiny crook at its smallest end.

Day after day, despite December's snow and January's wind, the branch swung effortlessly in a perfectly balanced ballet. It became a game -- when would the branch fall to the ground? It finally did during Feb. 24's howling ice storm.

That die-hard geranium and the stubborn branch made me appreciate perseverance and how we might find it in the most unexpected places, perhaps even in ourselves.

This month we're finally getting out and actually gardening; the weather can be quite variable (from 70 degrees to minus 12 degrees in my gardening journal) so temperatures will set our pace. March is a great time to cut back butterfly bushes to about six inches, saving the tough stems to prop up floppy peonies or other plants that could use a crutch later in the season.

The stems of lythrum can be used this way also. Yes, I said purple loosestrife.

At least three supposedly sterile, non-invasive cultivars ("Robert," "Morden Gleam" and "Morden Pink") are available that won't take over the garden like the troublesome swamp loosestrife will. People driving by our house have stopped and asked about "Robert," a four-foot tall long bloomer in vivid rose-pink who has behaved himself for six years.

Call me crazy, but I even love the gardening grunt work, which gives me a sense of accomplishment far beyond finally see the bottom of the laundry hamper.

I spent March 3 dethatching the worst areas of the lawn, especially where the biggest snow drifts had matted it down. The difference between raking and dethatching is like brushing your hair and washing it. Using a special angled thatch rake is best; I've broken any number of leaf rakes trying to wrestle dead grass from the soil line.

In addition to, alas, the many weeds still green and growing, the spring bulbs are awakening and the rose-tinged buds of helleborus (Oriental Lenten Rose, a trendy shade plant) are poised to shoot up and burst into flower.

A thorough clean-up of last year's dead leaves and stalks, especially around iris, peony and any plant plagued with mildew or black spot, is in order now. Doing so gives diseased areas time to recover; if the problem was especially bad, carefully take off and replace the first inch or so of soil using mushroom compost for roses or plain compost elsewhere for best results.

Those who lust for all thing gardening can be satiated at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show March 10-18 at Navy Pier. It's a pleasant adventure, the vendors are interesting and lots of classes are offered. Hopkins Ace Hardware has coupons for $2 off the admission price.

Closer to home, March 24 Felice Gardens at 607W 50N in rural Valparaiso hosts a seminar on ornamental grasses and companion plants. Cost is $15.

Friends of Indiana Dunes' native plant sale last year was great, even if the weather was a beast; this year's April 7 sale at Dunes State Park promises to be even better with two featured speakers and more than 100 plant species offered. Order before March 17 to assure best selection.

Hosta expert Mark Zilis' new book "The Hosta Handbook," which took 17 years to research, is pricey at $37 but the 597 pages of information and photos are invaluable. Mark says early fertilizing and a deep spring watering will yield bigger, better hostas.

Duneland Gardeners in their Own Words... Donna Beth Hammond: "My Grandmother grew the most luscious strawberries and we would pick them with the early morning dew on them and have them for breakfast. My Mother loved gardening also and let me help gather fresh carrots. lettuce and radishes out of the garden. Nothing has ever tasted so good."

Today, Donna Beth recommends, "Just enjoy your garden. It is a gift that will last you for years."