Chesterton Tribune

Winter is coming: Gardeners make every minute count

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November is for ..... making every gardening minute count.

I wasn’t the only person taking advantage of unseasonably warm weather by doing yard work in the dark at 8 p.m. Saturday night. My neighbor, Jim, was mowing his lawn by the headlights of his tractor. I was raking up (for the third time) those %&! hickory nuts under the ample illumination of our security light.

The advent of The Weather Channel has really enhanced my ability to garden. Sunday, I knew when I went out the cold front was marching this way in the form of a green band of rain, then positioned near Rockford. Each hour a quick peek at TWC showed approximately how much longer I had to garden before getting soaking wet. As usual, the rain arrived all too soon.

One year the ground froze the first week in December here and didn’t thaw until February, yet other years the ground’s never frozen solid. Until that happens I still may plant and mulch some potted nursery stock, but it’s too late to transplant something you don’t want to take a chance on losing.

Last year at this time I transplanted a variegated hydrangea with white-edged green leaves to a shadier spot. I mulched it well and it responded this year with one purple flower, something it never did in the five years in its previous sunnier location. The hydrangea is on the north side of the garage where two special green ferns are planted and doing well.

The first, now one year old, is Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’ or Victoria Lady Fern. How do I describe this? Each individual branch has long thin fingers growing from it, a small spreading puff of tiny leaves at the end of each finger. The effect is very delicate.

Bought this spring is “Frizelliae’ or the Tatting Fern. I hope this makes it through the winter. So popular, it was sold out the first year I tried to buy it. Attached directly to each branch are individual tiny leaves, very un-fernlike in character.

The Lady Fern group is a large one and new hybrids like ‘Lady in Red’ with red stems show its diversity. The group also includes the lovely athyrium niponicum or Japanese Painted Fern, a new stunner among them the very pale ‘Silver Falls’. Plant Delights Nursery catalog is one source for the ferns I’ve mentioned.

I want to thank all the kind readers who’ve asked how I’m coming on restoring my borders decimated by our recent sanitary sewer connection. The truth is I’ve barely done anything there, working instead elsewhere in the yard. My problem is, I don’t have a firm plan for replanting the borders and I only want to do it once; a plan is something I can work on this winter.

I’m sorry to say (although I find other avid gardeners often find themselves in the same situation) some plants I bought or potted up in 2002 are still in their original pots, never planted because I just couldn’t find the right spot, or had to move something first (and didn’t) that was in the right spot.

Anything that is pot-bound (slip it out and judge how overgrown the root mass is) will get planted up in a larger pot with a good shot of compost to overwinter and be buried at a 45 degree angle up to its neck in dirt, then loosely mulched. And remember to label everything. I guarantee you won’t remember hosta ‘Guacamole’ is the third from the left in four months.

I used to dislike fall because it signaled the end of the summer, but this fall I had a new appreciation for the season. A pleasant surprise were the new semi-shade loving ‘Sunspot’ Heucherella or foamy bells, a cross between the heuchera and tiarella plants that will get 7 inches tall and 14 inches wide. They were not the “electric gold” foliage as advertised, but they did have nice red central veins and the fall leaf color was stunning, fading to a pale wheat making the veins even more prominent.

I recently had fun helping my niece Courtney landscape the front of the new home in rural LaPorte she, husband Kalon and baby Anna share. In two long afternoons we planted about 13 shrubs Courtney and I selected, as well as my pick-up truck bed full of potted perennials I’d been buying or dividing for her since last year.

Some plants, like the clematis vine ‘Anna Louise’ were specially chosen; Louise is Anna’s great-grandmother. Other plants were divisions of peonies and tall summer phlox Courtney’s godmother, my sister Nancy, had given me years ago.

A surprise was that Courtney doesn’t like evergreens and didn’t want any. I have heard other people say this as well.

Today’s numerous varieties, textures and colors of evergreens and conifers provide enjoyment and interest in the winter garden, and cover for the birds. But hey, if you truly don’t like them, then don’t buy them. As for me, my garden wouldn’t be without them.

Last week, Curtis Remus of Remus Farms on U.S. 6 made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. All landscape stock was half price there but I still hesitated buying the true dwarf Black Mondo Grass that was originally $25 each. Why, he asked? Because it isn’t for our Zone 5 and I bought it one year and it died, I replied.

I looked around more and found the eye-catching green and gold $10 Acorus gramineus ‘Variegatus’ or striped sweet flag, a 12-inch tall slowly spreading grass-like groundcover. Again I hesitated because last year I bought golden Acorus minimus aureus at another nursery and it didn’t survive.

Curtis said both his plants should grow here and suggested I take one of each, plant and mulch them well and report back in the spring how they do. If they die, I don’t owe him anything. If they live, I owe him $17.50.

I am curious because one printed label on the Black Mondo Grass (which is truly black) says it is othiopoigan rather than ophiopogon as my references describe.

An internet search wasn’t much help on cold tolerance. Two sources listed the plant as Zone 5, most others the warmer Zone 6 and some even Zones 7 and 8.

Forecasters predict a warmer than normal winter. Will the sweet flag and Mondo Grass survive and I’ll owe Curtis his money?

I wouldn’t walk across the street to go to a casino boat, but this is the kind of gamble I’ll take any time.


Posted 11/26/2003