Chesterton Tribune

April: Time to get a preview of the butterflies to come

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April is for ..... welcoming spring on butterfly wings.

The weather is finally getting seasonal, but the garden is taking longer than usual to awaken from its long winter’s nap. Desperate to see some eye-popping color and vitality?

Head to Grand Rapids, MI and take a walk with thousands of butterflies.

Foremost’s Butterflies are Blooming continues through April 30 at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. It’s a treat for adults, especially for children, and for the child in all of us. More than 40 species of butterflies await you in the five-story 15,000 square-foot Lena Meijer Conservatory, home to tropical plants from around the world.

On our recent visit I was awed by the orchid display in the 80-degree conservatory. People were oohing and aahing over the butterflies but I took more photos of orchids although the gorgeous Emerald Swallowtail posed obligingly on a leaf.

Butterflies from Central and South America, Asia and Africa come from butterfly farms as widely varied chrysalises placed in the Butterfly Bungalow; you can see the butterflies struggle to emerge, gain strength and then be released into the conservatory where feeding stations abound.

The most popular feeding plant seemed to be pentas, an annual here usually widely available.

Meijer’s eight-week butterfly bash begins every March and is said to be the largest seasonal butterfly exhibit in the United States. Interesting info about butterflies in general can be found at

Garden visitors get a brochure with detailed photos of the butterfly Who’s Who. The fun is seeing how many of them you can spot as they dart, whirl and flutter around. (And yes, those are birds in the tree tops and scurrying along the ground.)

Although you’re not supposed to try to catch them, butterflies do land on passers-by.

Jim McGee of Burns Harbor had that experience when he visited recently with his wife Rita. He enthusiastically recommends the easy 2 1/2-hour trip to Meijer Gardens.

A big part of making his experience more enjoyable was the knowledgeable staff and volunteers available to answer questions, said Jim, who toured the conservatory four times.

On the way to the conservatory there’s an Arid House with plants from the desert Southwest, and a big board with colorful butterfly wings where the kids can place their heads for a fun photo. Appropriately, the gift shop has gone butterfly crazy as well.

Meijer Gardens emphasizes the arts as well as plants with huge sculptures outdoors, some kinetic, and May 30 through Aug. 31 one of the world’s only four complete sets of the acclaimed A.A. Hebrard bronze castings of 73 Edgar Degas sculptures will be on display indoors. Also during that period Monet: The Gardener will be celebrated as a horticultural exhibition in seven outdoor gardens.

Jim said his Meijer Gardens visit was “very relaxing to me. It’s on our list to go back in June or July.”  May 9-10 the Great Gardens Plant Sale offers more than 900 varieties of perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs.

For hours, driving directions and admission prices go to or call toll-free 888-957-1580.

Grand Rapids is a neat city, in no small part because our oldest granddaughter Melanie lives there. On a March visit to see her play indoor softball, six of us later had dinner at the new downtown JW Marriott hotel’s 616 restaurant that features ingredients locally grown in that area code. It was a fantastic meal.

Compared to the stately Amway Grand across the street, the soaring JW has a younger, more contemporary urban feel. Think dark wood, steel, glass.

I especially noted the unusual plant treatments in JW’s public areas like long, low metal trays with interesting fleshy-leaved succulents surrounded by gravel. The funkiest thing looked like giant, floating individual peace lily (spathiphyllum) flowers secured by each stem end with clear fishing line in narrow nearly 5 foot-tall tanks of water.

Try THAT for your next dinner party.

Back at home, I hope I’ve helped my lovely crimson ‘Cardinal Wyszynski’ clematis described as “magnificent” on the Donahue’s Clematis Specialists website.  I grow it on an old iron fence gate that’s latticed with braided wire.

This Polish-bred beauty usually blooms its head off, but I failed last spring to prune it back at all; with fewer flowers  the top growth was dead later in the year. Catalogs and books tend to freak gardeners out over whether a clematis is Type I, II or III depending on the appropriate time to prune it.

I have bigger things to agonize over. I address that problem by looking where new buds are sprouting and whack off the dead stuff above it. Dilemma solved, but one day I’ll take time to decipher the I-II-III technique.

The ‘Cardinal’ is just breaking bud so I gave it a good haircut and although it may be set back a bit, it’s got to look better than it did last year.

Also in great need of TLC were my two oldest tree peonies  here more than six years. These special peonies bloom as huge, ruffled flowers before the die-back herbaceous ones do, but unlike them they often mature into bowl-shaped open woody shrubs.

Now is a perfect time to take a really good look at tree peonies because dead branches are likely hiding there; the thin dead flower stems from last year can be removed also. Generally pruning a spring-flowering shrub now is frowned upon but after a tree peony leafs out it’s hard to negotiate around the sometimes-brittle branches.

The past few years I’ve tried slightly trimming back the ends of the longest tree peony branches after flowering. Good news: new shoots are sprouting from the empty center of both shrubs.

You’d never know it’s spring by the too-few gardening shows on Home and Garden Television (HGTV). I believe winter is when more gardening shows should be on so we can take notes, get inspired and then be working in the yard when it’s nice, not sitting by the television.

What makes a specific show click with an individual gardener is different for every person.

I prefer “Garden Smart” to “Smart Gardening” on PBS’s Create channel (Comcast 242) where P. Allen Smith’s “Garden Home” thinks everyone has unlimited funds, and I love Erica Glasener’s “A Gardener’s Diary” which last I caught on HGTV but at 6 a.m.!

Some shows have an annoying premise like Discovery Home Channel’s “Garden Police” who cite property owners for bad landscaping or lack thereof, then redesign and install the new plan in apparently California because you can’t grow all those palm trees in Minneapolis.

Badge-toting hosts Michael and Shirley make a big production of tearing up the “ticket” at the end of the show.

An informative show on DIY Network is “Desperate Landscapes”. Hunky landscaper Jason Cameron revamps the yards of lazy/busy homeowners turned in by themselves or their neighbors.

This show, while at times too silly, nevertheless gives solid design advice, plant selection help and even the names and prices of the specimens being used. I give Jason credit; he often works in the rain.

Recently I stumbled into a garden forum lamenting how much the posters hated the new since 2007 “Victory Garden” host Jamie Durie of Australia, lifestyle host Sissy Biggers and chef Michel Nischan. Rather than tours of exotic locales, posters wanted the down-to-earth approach and useful info  previous hosts James Crockett, Bob Thomson and Roger Swain used to dispense.

I myself never warmed up to Michael Weishan who followed them before Durie.

I was overjoyed to read one forum comment praising Alan Titchmarsh of England’s “How to be a Gardener” series, supposedly available on Google video. Alan is my hero after watching his wonderful “Ground Force” show for many years on BBC America.

I am probably one of the few people in the United States who bought “The Best of Ground Force Garden Rescues” DVD.

Watching the DVD was like a reunion with old friends Alan, female water gardening expert Charlie Dimmock and contractor Tommy Walsh. This smiling trio is my computer screensaver, which is why everyone always asks, “Who ARE these people?”

Some day when I have time I’m going to try finding Alan on Google video, watch his “Gardener” series, take notes and get inspired all over again.

But I’ll make sure to do it in the winter.



Posted 4/16/2008