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The following article, part of a series called "Musings of an Everyday Gardener," appeared in the Chicago Tribune in May 2004.  It received a Bronze award for newspaper writing from the national Garden Writers Association. 

 

Call of the garden center brings wild, bleary-eyed gardeners -- by Nina A. Koziol 

It's 5:16 a.m and spring migration is in full swing.  A male robin, hopped up on hormones, sits on a branch near the bedroom window whinnying like a loose stallion.  In the woods across the road, thousands of other birds--mostly males--slowly join in the non-stop series of twittering, cackling, pleading, wailing, cascading calls. 

A fox sparrow repeatedly croons what sounds like, "All I have is what's here dear, will-you-will-you take-it?"  And there's a house wren trilling from the top of his newly discovered birdhouse--and his lungs--also too close to the house.  Wrens have been clocked warbling the same melody more than 600 times.  Each morning.  Over and over.

The sun is nowhere to be seen when the performers begin their warm up. 

Ornithologists have a word for this early cacophony: dawn song.  There's another word for it: not printable. (Just kidding, all you ornithologists armed with your big honkin' binoculars, spotting scopes, bird calls, sunscreen, notepads, digital cameras, pencils and 3-pound field guides.)

I like the bird alarm clock.  It's early and I can chug back some coffee and peruse seed catalogs before heading out to the garden center to get my post-winter fix.  It's a sickness.  I have enough plants.  I even wrote in my garden journal: Don't Buy Any More Plants. Less is More. Mass things. Get rid of one-sies.  Simplify.

And, to scare myself into a plant austerity program, I recently penned a three-page list of garden chores that must be done this spring: Move the dawn redwoods. Move the katsura. Give away the pagoda dogwood and the deer-chewed paperbark maple.

These trees are small--5 feet or so--and easy to move if you get them dug and transplanted before they leaf out. They were impulse buys from springs past. Schlepping the plants to the car, I decided that they'd grow in my yard whether they liked it or not. When I saw them all bloomy and green, I wanted them. It was spring and I was overtaken with Plant Lust.

I'm turning over a new leaf this year--impulse plant purchases must stop. Besides, there are 328 packets of seeds that I snapped up for only a dime each last fall.  They were arranged alphabetically in the garden center's sale aisle.I couldn't believe my luck, everything from African basil and Aconitum to Cinderella pumpkins and coral-colored cactus-flowered Zinnias.

It was November and the cashier was a bored, gum-popping high school kid who asked if it wasn't too late to plant zinnias so close to Thanksgiving. Oh, no, I said, waving several packets of hollyhocks, cosmos and ornamental chard under her nose.  These are next year's garden--they'll be great. 

I practically skipped out of the store with my Beautiful New Garden, all for a measly $32.80 plus tax.The seeds are stored in several boxes next to my desk. I suppose I could plant some of them but I'm too busy looking for Really Big Plants. Big bloomers like cherry-red ‘Knockout' roses and that new ‘Endless Summer' blue hydrangea.There's something about spring that sends a gardener's hormones into a raging imbalance that says Buy Plants, Buy Lots of Plants. 

Perhaps it's the lengthening days. Or the smell of the earth after a rain.Most likely it's the sight of fresh new trees and shrubs waiting for a home.  They represent my Ideal Garden, filled with hope and possibilities. 

Creeping Charlie is staging a spectacular takeover of my beds and borders. It's recently hooked up with another insurgent--crab grass.  They are closing ranks to form an impenetrable ground cover.  But who cares?  Those little irritations disappear with a trip to the local garden center where forsythia and roses are blooming alongside pots of magnolias, honeysuckle, serviceberry and pansies.

By early March, I'd already stopped at Frank's Nursery and bought a few tree-peonies-in-a-box, six elephant ear bulbs, some bare root purple asparagus, sets of red and white onions, white tuberous begonias and seeds of heirloom lettuce. Tree peonies are great. Their softball-size flowers look like crumpled crepe paper.  Every gardener needs one. Or three.

And at last month's Chicago Flower & Garden Show at Navy Pier I just had to buy some tiny chartreuse-needled conifers from Rich's Foxwillow Pines--evergreens.  And a few new coral bells, a golden-tipped hemlock and a hosta. 

There are plenty of fancy places where you can buy plants you don't need. I check out all the garden centers from Craig Bergmann's in Winthrop Harbor to Possibility Place Nursery down in Monee to Planter's Palette in Winfield and all points in between.  I'll brake for plants a Kmart, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Menard's, Lowe's and Jewel.

I found a lovely bald cypress on my sister's driveway last week.  She bought it (on impulse--it's in our genes) and I convinced her it would perform much better in the wet spot in my yard. So home it came. I'm trading the paperbark maple for it if I can get it out of the ground.

In a few weeks, migrating whippoorwills will stop in nearby trees, their haunting calls heard long after dark, long past the 9 o'clock news.  As I unload the car, neighbors sometimes hear the sad, plaintive call of My Mate as he chirps: "What? Another plant? What? Another plant?"

It's usually followed by the more insistent melody: "I'm not moving any more trees. No more trees.  What, another tree?"

The spring equinox has passed and gardeners must yield to the siren call for more plants. After all, gardening is a Hobby. An Art Form. An Obsession.

I'm going to make a real effort at restraint the rest of the year.

There's a new product called Sucker Stopper. It's used on crab apple suckers to prevent them from sprouting once they're cut. It's too bad they don't make a Sucker Stopper for Gardeners. I'd keep a bottle in the car and spray it on myself each time I got close to the garden center.

# # #

Inspiration washes away seemingly endless winter

Small flocks of robins and blackbirds braved a heavy snowfall in February to stake out their breeding territory or at least find a bite to eat on their journey north. The thick blanket of snow lingered for two weeks in our suburban garden leaving little food for the deer herd that passes through each day.

When they couldn't graze grass, they resorted to chomping dried butterfly bushes and rose canes. One brazen bambi stepped onto the front stoop to sample bouquets of dried lady's mantle piled in a basket. The unpalatable stalks were tossed across the snow.

Bambi and her friends also chewed just about every needle off of Vanderwolf's Pyramid, a 5-foot-tall limber pine with blue-green needles and red cones. The top leader is all that's left so the pine now wears a topiary Mohawk. If it doesn't leaf out by June, it will move to the compost pile, the graveyard for plants gone bad.

Dig and learn

Some 18 years ago, the property held a dozen or so spruces, jack pines, junipers and white pines. They were quite large and most gradually succumbed to disease or pests. Three sickly spruces gave up after I dug holes for more than a thousand daffodil bulbs around them.

Spruce roots grow in the top 2 feet or so of soil. Damaging the delicate feeder roots was the kiss of death. The needles began dropping the next spring. Out came the trees and in went perennials. Now 15 years later, the labor-intensive perennials are giving way, once again, to evergreens--tall, wide, short, narrow and ground-hugging varieties.  It has been trial and tribulation this winter. The deer pulled two small evergreen shrubs, Microbiota decussata, completely out of their planting holes and left them sitting on the soil I planted them last fall for their delicate lacy green sprays that turn a beautiful bronze-purple over winter. The fibrous root balls were exposed to icy blasts. It was a struggle to work them back into the frozen ground. The leaves still look healthy and the shrubs hail from Siberia so perhaps they will survive.

After surveying the garden detritus left in winter's wake, I toyed with the idea of removing sprawling perennials and invasive apple mint in the island bed and replacing them with (gasp!) sod.

That's because spring is overwhelming. So much to do.  Where to start? In dire need of inspiration, a trip to the Chicago Flower & Garden Show at Navy Pier was in order.

An eye for new stuff

This year's Flower&Garden Show, called "An Eye for Color," packed plenty of ideas. The exhibits were breathtaking. Formal but not stuffy. Elegant and whimsical. And saturated with color. Red bamboo stakes stood over red-flowering hibiscus in front of a taxi-cab yellow wall.

Tumbled cobalt blue glass mulched a river of golden-leaved lamium. A fabulous pergola that would look great somewhere in our yard. And four chartreuse pillars topped with a plum-colored beam that  matches our front door (courtesy of designer Patti Kirkpatrick). 

I needed that.  March has been miserably cold and damp. Until the days are mild and warm enough to work outdoors, old gardening books are another source of inspiration.

There is a passage in John Burrough's book from 1876 " A Year in the Fields" (out of print) that I turn to each autumn and spring:

"Spring is the inspiration fall the expiration. Both seasons have their equinoxes, both their filmy, hazy air, their ruddy forest tints, their old rains, their drenching fogs, their mystic moons; both have the same solar light and warmth, the same rays of the sun; yet, after all, how different the feelings they inspire! One is morning, the other the evening; one is youth, the other is age."

- (c) 2017 Nina A. Koziol and Chicago Tribune  First Published in the Chicago Tribune,  March 20, 2005

Dusk in the Garden
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Just one last thing.  Gardening is less about sitting at the computer and more about getting outdoors.  Paying attention to what's happening in your own garden. Observing the birds, insects, the blossoms, the direction and feel of the wind, the quality of the light.  The sounds of insects and birds that are so very different at dusk and at dawn, in spring and in fall.  And, it's about observing the sky.  Lifting your eyes from the ground plane and looking toward the heavens...

Questions or Comments?  Email info@thisgardencooks.com

Observe. Reflect. Bloom!
(c) 2017 Nina A. Koziol