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A Letter From the Garden Abyss


To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to reach out to humanity, if there is anyone left as of May 1. If you find this note, please take it to the editors of Chicagoland Gardening. They will know what to do with it. No, on second thought, don’t take it to them, because I think I know what they will do with it.

As I write, it is the end of March, and perhaps the end of civilized gardening. It started with “The Winter That Never Was.” Oh, we were happy in our ignorance then. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. It was as if somebody up there ran out of quarters and couldn’t feed the cold/snow/ice machine. (Obviously, that machine is so old that it doesn’t take credit cards.)

Yes, we had a few chilly, dreary days, and a few local TV news reporters were told to stand out on location waiting for the major snowstorms that never came. Some of those reporters are still out there because nobody told them to come home. And you wonder why the media are going to heck in a handbag.

Not only did cold-hardy plants like pansies survive, but some of the garden vegetables that didn’t get pulled managed to hang on, too. We all thought it was interesting. “Oh, look, my Brussels sprouts are still growing. Anybody want some Brussels sprouts? No? You sure? No? Really, I have lots. No? Oh, okay. How about some kale? No?”

We didn’t even manage to get to spring before scientists began warning us of impending doom: your cold hardiness zone is changing from 5b to 6a. Outrageous! Whose brainstorm was this? I demand to see Oprah! I won’t stand for it! My zone has always been 5a and I intend to keep it that way! You take your silly map ideas and try them out on France!

Except that the USDA made it official in January with the first change to the Plant Hardiness Zone Map in 22 years. You know how much it pains me to give out factual information in this column, but if you want to see the new map, here’s the website: www.planthardiness.ars.usda.gov. I also want to know where I can find a job that requires me to make a report once every 22 years. But I digress.

Then Congress, which can’t agree on which direction the sun sets, nonetheless came together to outlaw March… because it never happened! I think they decided that the third month of the year will be June and the sixth month will be June, too. The local TV reporters, still standing outside at strategic locations waiting for a snowstorm, missed the story completely.

Suddenly, we were breaking 5,000-year-old weather records every hour. Meteorologists were running out of smiling suns to post on their TV and website graphics. The phrases “climate change” and “global warming” became more popular on political pundit programs than “at the end of the day” and “think outside the box.”

Plant tomatoes at the end of May? Ha! That’s when you’re going to get your first harvest! Get ‘em in the ground now! Of course, very few of the garden centers had tomato plants available. Those stores were overrun immediately and burnt to the ground. People took to the streets with pitchforks and garden gloves, chanting, “To-MAY-toes! To-MAY-toes! To-MAY-toes!” Of course, in some areas, the cry was “To-MAH-toes! To-MAH-toes!” It’s a regional thing.

That was just the beginning. I was planting some mangoes, sugar cane and coconut trees in the community garden with some of the kids, when one of them pulled me over to where he was digging and had discovered something. It was white, segmented and curled into a “C” shape. And it was about the size of an NFL football. It took me a minute to figure out what he had discovered. Then it hit me.

“Run!” I yelled to the kids, who took off down the block screaming. Wait. I think I was the one who did the screaming. Anyway, they had stumbled upon a grub that had not only survived the winter, but had been feeding voraciously for months.

Now, as we wait for the mangoes to ripen, we keep an eye on the ground, waiting for the beetles to emerge. Won’t that be fun?

Meanwhile, if you see a confused-looking local TV reporter standing on a street corner, bundled up for a snow storm and fighting off mosquitoes as large as swallows, wish him a happy spring.

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questions

Do the ants on my peony flowers help buds to open, or is this an old wives’ tale? What are the extremely tiny, microscopic yellow wormy looking bugs crawling on my pink peony flowers? My peonies are beautiful, but I don’t want all these bugs.

My split-leaf Japanese maple tree is 15 to 20 years old, about 7 feet high and about 10 feet wide. It is overtaking the corner of the yard. Can I trim it, and at what time of the year?

What does it take to make a climbing hydrangea flower? Ours was planted 3 years ago and is growing energetically. It’s in a protected nook near the patio and gets very little direct sunlight, but doesn’t act sun starved. We gave it a shot of slow release fertilizer on planting, and once since. Somewhat inadvertently it gets plenty of water, since the hose spigot is nearby and leaks, but drainage does not seem to be the problem. It now fully occupies an 8-foot trellis but shows no interest in flowering. Is it youth, lack of sun, too much or too little fertilizer, bugs, lack of pruning or what? When do these plants bloom and what conditions do they like?

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