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January, February and March are the great equalizers of the horticultural world. This is the time of the year when I can look at the landscapes belonging to my oh-so-serious gardening brethren and cistern and taunt, “Gee, that doesn’t look much better than my garden.” I choose to ignore the fact that, even under 20 inches of snow, their yards invariably do look better than mine.

Of course, when the weather warms up (in Chicago that happens around July 15) their gardens pass mine the way that Road Runner passes Wile E. Coyote on a desert road. To make matters worse, the expression on my face then bears a strong resemblance to the one sported by Mr. Coyote. And to add injury to insult, a huge rock usually falls on my head, sometime around July 27. I guess that’s the legacy of a misspent youth.

Knowing this, and knowing that they know this, I was a bit surprised when the owners and operators of this magazine once again turned to me for the final words in their annual “planning issue.” I liken it to putting composted sprinkles on the cupcake, if you can visualize that without reaching for the Pepto-Bismol. So, gardeners and gardenettes, get out your cupcakes and prepare to be stunned…so to speak.

Planning Tip #1 - The Soil
Your soil is a crucial part of your garden, much like wheels are a crucial part of a car. The most important thing I can tell you about the soil at this time of year is YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE YOUR SOIL PREPARATION THREE MONTHS AGO, IDIOT! Geez, in case you haven’t noticed, Sherlock, the ground is rock hard right now or covered by 20 inches of snow (see above). When we tell you that you live in Zone 5, we’re not referring to an Elvis Presley song (oh, go Google it!) If you hadn’t been so consumed by having the perfect Johnny-Depp-as-Jack-Sparrow costume for Halloween (hint: he’s a pirate — how hard can that be?), you would have spent that time out in your yard adding leaf mold and compost and other amendments that you stole from your neighbor, who actually plans for these kinds of things.

Planning Tip #2 - Spring Bulbs
Nothing says spring more than the riot of color produced by the almost limitless variety of allium, crocuses, snow- drops, daffodils, tulips, chionodoxa, ipheion, eranthis, hyacinthoides, Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica and other plants that few people can identify let alone pronounce. Here’s the trick for growing these beauties successfully: START IN THE FALL, NOT NOW, GENIUS! Sheesh. This is another one you missed, probably because you thought it was important to watch the World Series AND every college football game on TV throughout the whole season. Go ahead. Try to plant them now, if you can even find the 3,000 bulbs you purchased in September. Go on. I dare you. And don’t come crying to me when you’re frantically trying to remove the trowel that has become frozen to your hand. Think of it as a permanent spoon attachment.

Planning Tip #3 - Tools
The good thing about tools is that, unlike plants, you can’t kill them, even if you abuse them terribly. Thus, a shovel that hasn’t been sharpened since the Carter Administration still looks more or less like a shovel, which makes it easy to identify when you’re assembling your weapons of mass disruption in the spring. But that will be a lot more difficult IF YOU DIDN’T REMEMBER TO BRING YOUR TOOLS INSIDE BEFORE THE GREAT BLIZZARD HIT, EINSTEIN! Doesn’t anybody reading this column get things done in a timely fashion? Or is that just me? The good news is that, like I said, chances are that you won’t actually kill your tools if you leave them strewn about the yard all winter. However, they are likely to sulk for much of the gardening season. Believe me, you don’t want to deal with a weed puller that is willing to remove only half of a dandelion weed. Know what I’m saying?

Planning Tip #4 - Huge Looney Tune-like Rocks that Fall on Your Head
Look up. But not too late.

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questions

I have a nicely sheltered, rounded 7-foot tall Japanese red maple on the southeast corner of my backyard. Half of the tree has lost its leaves, the formerly red bark is turning gray, and a good-sized square of bark has been stripped off on the side that faces the yard. I sprayed the exposed bark with black pruning spray to close any entry for insects. I have not cut off any of the branches.

Does the winter have any effect on the tree? Should I look for some insect infestation? What should I do now?

Can you tell me if the African daisy Osteospermum ‘Springstar Aurora’ can be winterized here? It is a healthy plant?

I have a dampish area with poor grass and moss that I would like to change to ground cover, but if I have only one plant, won’t it be boring? Can I get rid of the grass in winter or early spring?

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