Fall is upon us but there’s no reason to put your garden to bed just yet. That’s because the show goes on with birds, thousands of which are migrating and stopping daily in local gardens for a bite to eat or a drink of water. And the activity doesn’t stop there. Monarch butterflies will be looking for nectar – a rich source of energy during their long commute to Mexico. Bees remain active and there’s an assortment of insects – praying mantis and other “beneficials” – that are present until the first fall frost about mid-October. There’s plenty to observe and enjoy.
This period of the gardening year used to be called “the bleak midwinter.” That song would long ago have been changed to “In the bleak down time between Super Bowl Sunday and NCAA March Madness,” except that it doesn’t scan particularly well. But I think you know what I’m talking about. Unless you hate sports. In which case, I’m going to unfriend you on Facebook the next time I log on. But I digress.
This is the time of year that we stand at the window contemplating the garden, understanding that what was chaos just a few months ago in October will again be chaos when we get to April. Armed with that knowledge, we long to catch the flu, which would give us an excuse to toss back yet another hot toddy. But I digress.
Sure, you love the holidays, but maybe you don’t 100 percent love red and green. Yes, they always make a dynamite pairing, but do they always have to be the go-to colors for decorating every year? You’d really like to broaden your horizons, see what else you might do to offer a festive face to the world.
Such was the challenge a customer presented to the design staff at The Growing Place, Naperville and Aurora. “The customer wanted to stay away from the traditional reds and greens that are everywhere during the holidays,” says co-owner Carol Massat. “But she loves mauve and burgundy, so we custom designed this container using a variety of evergreens and two types of eucalyptus that had been preserved and dyed – all natural materials. Then we added some lime green color to brighten it up a bit.
In a few days I will plant my first tomato seed. Planting always makes me happy, whether it’s planting bulbs in the fall, dividing and moving perennials or putting in shrubs. But nothing holds more mystery and promise than a seed. It’s so small. How can it possibly contain the wherewithal to develop into a 5-foot-tall plant? And tomato seeds are big enough to be easy. When it comes to foxglove or ‘Crystal Palace’ lobelia, I never expect the truly teeny seeds to germinate and so always plant far too many and end up discarding many seedlings (these seeds, too, are actually easy). I never learn.
A comical plant identification flow chart from our columnist, Mike Nowak.
Did I ever mention that in my childhood I was severely traumatized when I happened to discover two snowflakes that were exactly alike? I think it explains a lot of things — perhaps even my obsession with doing irreparable damage to venerable (and often inexplicably dopey) holiday songs, all in the name of horticulture.
Meanwhile, for those of you who are waiting for me to run out of parodies, it’s only fair to warn you that I’ve already written enough to get me through 2034 — when I will be 117 years old. In fact, it’s stated in my will that whoever takes over this column when I’m planted under the poison ivy patch in my backyard must continue rolling out these songs until they’re used up.
While my back was turned (okay, I was out of town), we got a little frost. I didn’t realize it until I walked around my garden yesterday and discovered that the New Guinea impatiens, coleus and zinnia had collapsed. The dahlias also had gotten zapped. The cannas, however, were still standing tall in their pots, and I’m going to leave them there until the frost makes a repeat performance.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to writing one of my columns last year. I decided to draw something instead, thereby saving myself from writing about four hundred words and, simultaneously, terrorizing approximately 93% of the people who open the magazine to this page. (How do we know? We take dozens and dozens of scientific polls about every aspect of this publication. Doesn’t everybody?)
I titled that piece “I Can’t Draw, Don’t Ask Me” and a second funny thing happened a couple of months ago. It won an award from the Garden Writers Association (of America, no less). For illustration. This is what we in the writing business call “irony.”
The most memorable Christmas of my Chicago life was the year the temperature plummeted to 25 below zero and the pipes froze all over the house. Still, the car miraculously started and the family managed to get to the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel for the annual pageant, surrounded by neighbors bundled up for the duration in scarves, parkas and boots. Every year one lucky middle school girl would be selected to be Mary and ride down the aisle on Mabel, a real live Sicilian donkey brought in from the suburbs. A sight not to be missed.
If ever there was dark side to an avocation based on goodness and light, it is the idea of a “gardening competition.”
Excuse me, I had to get a towel. My hands were suddenly very, very sweaty. It starts innocently enough. We discover that the sight of a simple daisy in bloom is soooo much cheaper than a shrink, so we carve out a plot of our own in the midst of the urban or suburban asphalt and concrete wilderness. A seed, some soil, a little water, a touch of tenderness. Excuse me, I had to get a facial tissue. I was tearing up a little there.
The hot new thing in vegetable gardening is grafted plants. Burpee and Ball and other plant breeders have developed grafted tomatoes and eggplants in recent years, and I saw them growing in the trial beds at The Gardens at Ball in West Chicago last summer. The idea is that the vigorous rootstock will make the fruiting part of the plant grow faster and produce more fruit. The idea has been common practice with roses for decades.
January (and February and December...oh, and add November to that list...and you might as well throw in March, just to complete
Last spring my sister called to say that she had found a wonderful new anemone to add to her collection in a mixed flower …
You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of soil, a dimension of blight ...
The ultimate definition of an optimist may very well be a person who looks out at a mass of brown, smushed foliage; twisted ...
So here I am, wandering around with my nose towards the ground, scrounging for signs of spring. I’ve found a few — snowdrops ...