Chesterton Tribune

April is a time to find great plants

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Of Wonders and Weeds


April is for .... finding something I didn’t really think I needed and now can’t live without.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But I was ecstatic recently to stumble onto a book that will save me time, but certainly not money.

At last month’s Chicago Flower and Garden Show the Chicago Botanic Garden had a huge bookstore area. After flipping through about seven different books describing “how to grow perennials in the Midwest” I almost passed up “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest” by Betty Earl and published in 2004 by Cool Springs Press.

Yawn, I thought. Another list of someone’s favorite plants. I couldn’t be more wrong. The title is deceptive. This book isn’t about how to grow great plants; it’s about how to find them at the best plant nurseries and garden centers in the Midwest, specifically, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Some gardeners, myself included, are green-blooded plantaholics. It’s an incurable affliction and we like it that way. As Betty, who lives in Naperville, Ill., explained to me when I contacted her raving about her book, “I am a plant nut -- pure and simple. There’s always something out there that I crave, so it was only natural that I search out interesting nurseries.”

In my B.B. (Before Betty) Days, I usually would hear someone recommend a great plant nursery they’d visited or heard about, or I’d search garden magazines for interesting advertisements or articles of places I could visit. Bernie, my husband, is a good sport and indulges me by letting us take side trips, even scheduling vacations, so I can seek out the elusive perfect plant that’s meant to be mine. He even saves me from myself.

Once, returning from Wisconsin, we stopped at Craig Bergmann’s out-of-the-way Country Garden plant nursery in Winthrop Harbor, Ill. I was crushed to learn it was Monday and they were closed. A man was watering the plants and I wanted to get out and throw myself on his mercy, saying something like, “I came from Indiana by way of Wisconsin and I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get back here again in my lifetime. P-l-e-a-s-e can I just look around, if not buy something!!!”

Bernie just kept driving out of the parking lot. “I won’t let you embarrass yourself,” he said, my fingers still clutching the door handle. FYI: Betty highly recommends Bergmann’s 12-acre nursery and demonstration gardens.

With her book I now know the Country Garden’s retail days, sales times and telephone/fax number; their street, email and global positioning satellite (GPS) addresses; the nursery offerings and its specialty (English delphiniums); and extra info about classes and open houses.

Some nursery descriptions in the book suggest interesting side trips like Conner Prairie in Fishers, Ind. if you visit Winton’s Iris Hill in Franklin off State Road 252. Indiana has the fewest entries in Betty’s book with 13; Illinois has 23, Michigan and Ohio 20 each, and Wisconsin 15.

The only nursery listed in the whole northwest quadrant of our state is the fine Coburg Planting Fields nursery at 573 E County Road 600N here in Porter County specializing in daylilies and hostas. Phil Brockington’s and Howard Reeve’s farm is described as “a true rural gem”, “picturesque” and “charming”. In addition to how the pair started their business and what they offer today, Betty has an extra notation about the elegant and unexpected English-reproduction library at Coburg.

It’s surprising the only other Hoosier plant nursery listed with which I was familiar is Soules of Indianapolis, now under new ownership. Did you know there really is a Munchkin Nursery and Gardens, LLC in Depauw specializing in shade and woodland plants? It’s one of several small nurseries in the book open by appointment only. Betty even lists nurseries like Song Sparrow Perennial Farm in Avalon, Wisc. that sell by catalog only.

For those who can’t get Betty’s book, a pale substitute might be the pull-out resource guide in Chicagoland Gardening’s March/ April magazine that has an interesting article on hellebores. The guide contains maps and directions to well over 100 mostly Illinois nurseries and garden centers. Garden associations also are listed.

Betty’s book is indexed making searches for ferns, groundcovers or peonies easier, and she’s already planning a next edition so more nurseries can be included. Happily, she has a great sensibility about what makes them worth visiting as evidenced by her initial choices and anecdotes about the owners. The only downside to searching out great plants today is the current price of gasoline.

Speaking of peonies, my free January gift of ‘Blitz Torte’ from Roy Klehm of Song Sparrow was planted outside late last month and appears to be adjusting well. I constructed this silly-looking but effective three-sided shelter about four feet tall made from a clear, doubled-over thin plastic drop cloth secured to posts with slip ties. I left the south side open to get air and cut holes in the plastic so it wouldn’t shred in the wind.

Initially at night it was pretty chilly so I closed the south side as needed with what has proven to be a great help this winter: old campaign signs.

I want to thank the supporters of Carolyn Ballenger, who opposed Charlie Brown for state representative, for not picking up her signs in our area. Last fall I rescued four of the 24-inch by 18-inch rigid foam core signs on metal stakes. I used them as windbreaks to help more-tender plants survive the winter.

In addition to the peony, this spring I used two of the signs to shelter a transplanted shrub weigela ‘Tango’ I purchased from the great but now-closed Acorn Ridge nursery in 2000. This burgundy dwarf variety never really got the good start it needed because I planted it too near the robust ‘Lucifer’ crocosmia that mounds up and flops over on top of the weigela as the summer progresses. ‘Lucifer’ is one of the few plants on my “Never Transplant” list so it was the weigela that had to move. So far so good.

Talk about too much of a good thing. Ensata Gardens, the Japanese/Siberian iris and daylily specialists in Galesburg, Mich. (also profiled in Betty’s book) sold out most of its Japanese iris stock last fall due to receiving thousands of new orders after being featured in the April 2004 issue of Midwest Living magazine. Ensata’s original stock plants will grow and multiply this year and orders are being taken for delivery in the fall.

My irises purchased from Ensata last year should bloom this summer. I can’t wait. If you want to see gorgeous iris, visit

Gardeners often choose to savor good food as well as good plants. While passing by we stopped at WiseWay on U.S. 30 in Valparaiso and found Dairy Crest white Stilton cheese with apricots imported from England. Yum! The $7.39 pricetag was worth the splurge. I don’t know if WiseWay in Chesterton carries this cheese. Since they moved across the bypass the new store is farther away from me, I have no reason to go that way and I’ve been there only twice since opening.

Gardening articles I’m happy to receive from Florida snowbird Chuck Burger included news of a new series of perennial astilbe dubbed ‘Color Flash’ with green spring leaves turning burgundy/ purple in summer that transition to additional fall colors. Anthony Tesselaar International is introducing the plants, which may or may not be available in our area this year. It usually takes a while for the newbies to make it to the local garden markets.

Astilbe or plume flower throw delicate, fluffy flower heads, in ‘Color Flash’s case pale pink. The

 website recommends filtered sunlight or afternoon shade for this Zone 3 perennial.

See you soon, Chuck, and it’s our turn to take you and Olie out to dinner.