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Look for early spring plants to begin blooming

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Wonders and Weeds


February is for …. active growth for many plants by month’s end.

Last month’s warm spell fooled Mother Nature with some of you commenting on snowdrops blooming, and lilies and other plants breaking ground. Saturday I noticed the buds of dwarf magnolia already swelling.

One of the earliest flowering perennials to bloom is helleborus or hellebore (Lenten rose), nifty 15-inch-tall plants that form clumps of shiny sometimes sawtooth leathery leaves.

Right now the flower buds are often nestled under the plant’s leaves, waiting to shoot up and open, or have already sent up their stalks. Newly hybridized hellebores can be pricey. I recently came across Plant Delights Nursery’s “Janet Starnes,” an unusual hellebore selection from Corsica with white-frosted green leaves and pale green blooms.

“Janet” likes Zone 6, slightly warmer than our Zone 5, but she might be worth a try here in the same shady, sheltered, well-drained location other hellebores love. Well situated, they self-sow.

Hellebore’s two-inch cup-shaped flowers range from white to crimson including the pink/purple hues, some flowers bi-color and others displaying contrasting speckles. The plants are said to be deer-resistant and poisonous. In mild winters the leaves remain evergreen; other years they may die back and need a spring haircut but return.

There’s a website at that includes pictures and basic cultural tips for home gardeners, although the site is more for wholesale customers. Hellebores are related to buttercups, not roses, and they love water, I learned.

I probably never would have tried hellebores (I now have three and want more) if not for a commentary about gardening I once wrote years ago. A dear woman in LaPorte named Adrianna called me and said my thoughts about gardens were similar to her husband’s and since he had passed away and she was moving, did I want some of his plants?

I was there within days, friend Carol Grott riding shotgun to help dig and share the wealth. We loaded the back of a pick-up with a mature purple-flowering hellebore clump; adorable dwarf iris, new to me; the tall-bearded iris “Beverly Sills,” a lovely peachy-pink; several unnamed variegated hostas and other various plants.

I convinced Adriana to take $25 for her generosity. I was overjoyed when she wanted to give me a section of architectural-salvage stone scrollwork removed from a building in her native Holland, but she decided to keep the “garden art” in the family instead.

The real bonus was that Adrianna also wanted to get rid of some bricks she said came from a dismantled railroad station. I had to go back a second day to get them, but Adrianna’s generous gifts were the push I needed to start the east shade border by the highway.

Speaking of bricks, I’m pleased so far to see new brick borders I installed last summer have not cracked or heaved their first winter. I laid the bricks perpendicular to the beds in a wide mowing strip on doubled landscape fabric to further discourage weeds, leveling the bricks with stone dust as necessary. I have yards and yards of border yet to finish, but so far so good.

The 2002 gardening season is kicking off in fine fashion.

I was among the 120 people attending last month’s Winter Scientific Meeting in Illinois sponsored by the Midwest Regional Hosta Society. It was my first WSM and it was so educational and motivating, I hope to make it an annual pilgrimage.

According to speakers Jim Anderson and Bob Solberg, the future of hostas is pushing the color red as far up the leaf stalk (or petiole) as possible. Anderson believes we might see some red leaves one day, but he isn’t taking any bets just yet. Solberg feels red-influenced purple leaf veining may be the closest hybridizers come in the near future.

Hostas such as “Red October” with its red-washed petioles and “Cherry Berry,” which has red flower stems, are forerunners in this quest.

Another WSM speaker, Charles Tuttle, made home tissue culture of sliced hosta meristem -- the bud in the ground at the deep base of each petiole -- sound deceptively easy. Keeping the total working environment sterile (even paper plates and napkins) is the primary challenge. From one meristem Tuttle can produce 64 leafed and rooted growing plants in 20 weeks in his basement, where 3,000 plants can be grown in glass baby food jars under light tubes.

“At what point does distinct become weird, or cool?” asked Green Hill Farm’s Solberg, a well-known hybridizer who talked about hosta identification. He questioned the need to register cultivars whose appearance, such as radiating rings, is the result of a virus. “Are we this desperate for new cultivars that we’re selling these things?”

Anderson also said the gold, white, blue and now something dubbed “butterscotch” colors we so love in hostas are actually defects in their complex light-harvesting functions. Apparently, every good leaf worth its chlorophyll should aspire to be green.

Kevin Walek explained how hosta growth is affected by the intensity of light plants receive, not merely the amount of sun or shade.

Hostas with fragrant flowers do better in sun, he added, and the secret to growing cultivars such as “Patriot” and “Sun Power” in full sun is frequent watering, in some cases a half-inch each day. You can cheat by locating the plant near a gutter downspout.

Tom Micheletti of The Hosta Patch listed as up-and-coming hosta classics “Guardian Angel,” “Center of Attention,” “Pewter,” “Thunderbolt,” “Praying Hands” and “Fire Island.” Solberg was hot on local Duneland hybridizer Olga Petryszyn’s latest, “Mississippi Delta,” whose white flowers bloom on unusual branched flower stems, called scapes.

If you’d like to learn more about hostas, the regional Hostas and Friends garden club will meet at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Lake County Library on U.S. 30 west of Broadway in Merrillville.

Next up is the Chicago Flower and Garden Show March 9-17 at Navy Pier.

This year’s theme is blossoms, brooks and shady nooks and several children’s gardens are planned, even one Harry Potter would enjoy.

March 16 plant pre-order forms, available at Chesterton Feed and Garden, are due for the April 6 Friends of Indiana Dunes annual native plant sale at Indiana Dunes State Park. According to Friends member and CFG owner Chuck Roth, there are over 100 plants from which to choose this year and an expanded list of shrubs. Steve Banovetz, a senior ecologist, is back by popular demand presenting two programs April 6 on how native plants can help prevent run-off.

If you love daylilies, Chestnut Sands Daylily Farm in York, PA is going out of business and owner Carlyle Westlund is offering his huge selection of plants at close-out prices, in some cases 50 to 70 percent off.

I’ve received some fine daylilies from Carlyle in the past. For a catalog – which doesn’t contain a single picture so you really have to use your imagination – contact 717-266-7347. If you want to look at lovely daylily pictures, log on to Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm nursery site at

 and enjoy.

As the temps warm this month, two things we need to do are cut down and remove any dead perennial foliage so diseases won’t get a foothold, and gently press down any plants which may have heaved up out of the ground. This can be sloppy work, so it’s best to wear boots. Also exercise caution if wearing gloves – sharp clippers can slice right through them, and you.

It’s also a great time to prune summer-flowering shrubs and small trees. Saturday I tackled an overgrown Rose of Sharon shrub, limbing it up so light can dapple through the trunks and selectively shaping its lopsided growth.

In closing, the sad events of Sept. 11 were even on the minds of those at the Winter Scientific Meeting. Tom Micheletti told us when he couldn’t make sense of the senseless tragedy, “I sought out my garden for solace and peace because it’s something I have control over in my life.”

Another great reason to garden, as if we needed one.


Posted 2/11/2002