By PAULENE POPARAD
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
The stems of lythrum can be used this way also. Yes, I said purple
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
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
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
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."