Chesterton Tribune

Nature pumps iron in May gardens

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Of Wonders and Weeds


May is for ..... Mother Nature flexing her muscles.

So far this Spring has been a really mixed bag. May 3 was a record low 30 degrees in Chicago and our thermometer registered 31. An initial freeze warning thankfully downgraded to a frost warning sent me scurrying the night before to cover emerging perennials and roses for protection. Old bedsheets, plastic tablecloths and the huge, thick plastic saved from a new mattress (waste not, want not) all were pressed into service.

I covered everything I thought would be at risk but not the one plant I should have known would suffer the most.

Some hosta leaves were frost-nipped and need to be cut off for a tidier appearance. The very top of the roses wilted and fell over, but more shoots are coming. Hardest hit was the Kirengeshoma palmata (yellow waxbells), a Japanese native that blooms in nodding clusters later in the season. It likes cool, moist shade.

I got this plant the one time I went to the Fernwood Botanic Garden plant sale several years ago; since then I have moved the struggling waxbell trying to help it reach its intended 36-inch height. This year I was delighted it was a good 12 inches tall by the night of the frost, but I did not cover it and the unusual black stems and maple-like leaves were shriveled the next day.

This was especially maddening because it’s the same thing that happened a few years ago after a frost. Why didn’t I remember?

New shoots are sprouting from the base, but I need to consider if there is a more-protected yet damp, shady spot to plant the waxbell, since I apparently can’t remember to COVER it as I should.

Thinking I was out of the woods after the frost, I was surprised to be pelted May 9 by 3/4-inch hail here in Burns Harbor from seemingly out of nowhere. There were only a few rumbles of thunder and lightning flashes in the distance before it let loose on me. Luckily I hadn’t put out the gazing ball yet; that usually gets a double-paper grocery bag over it if hail is threatening.

The hail shredded several hosta leaves but it could have been much worse; no dented cars or siding.

What really caught my attention when inspecting one hosta area is that something has been eating the tops of the leaves of the bletilla striata or hardy ground orchid. These white-striped leaves bear tiny hot pink orchid blooms in sprays that are great in flower arrangements.

We’re having a terrible time with grey squirrels from across the field digging everywhere this year. Would they eat the bletilla? I haven’t seen a rabbit here in years. Sometimes I think gardening is more questions than answers.

Speaking of flower arrangements, I had the opportunity this month to hear Dale Fadely of Portage, a well-known rose grower, share his passion for collecting frogs. His are green, but they’re also peach, blue and crystal.

These “frogs” are flower arrangers used to hold flowers upright in a vase. You’ve probably seen the World War 1-era lead frogs with dozens of tightly jammed sharp pins sticking up from a flat base, but an earlier kind from about 1900 were flat glass rounds with holes that sat atop a vase. About 1920 Fenton marketed colorful frogs with a hole in the center for a candle or figurine, and in the late 1930’s flower-arranger popularity exploded.

Beautiful women, gold fish, owls, birds, and other characters and animals in cast iron, ceramic or crystal had holes in them for placing flowers, the flower arranger itself to be filled with water or placed in a shallow bowl of water. Some of the most ornate or rare arrangers are worth about $400, said Fadely.

The flower arranger earned the slang term frog about 1940 but it was in the next decade that the frog met its match --- Oasis, the block semi-firm green material that held both stems and water became widespread in the flower trade as it is today.

Fadely scours flea markets and antique shops for flower arrangers and has hundreds in his collection. He recommends “Flower Frogs for Collectors” by Bonnie Bull, who also has a website at

Spring has revealed a real treat. The sunny, warm south side of the shed and garage are where my most tender plants go. Last year the annual salvia ‘Black and Blue’ delighted me there with its black-sheathed abundant blue flowers. In November I mounded compost, then crushed leaves, well over the cut-back plant. Shoots are now sprouting from the base.

The lovely shrub-like tree peonies are finishing blooming (sadly, their end hastened by recent heavy wind/rain that knocked off the petals). These peonies flower just ahead of the herbaceous peonies which die down to the ground each year. Formerly a collector plant, more-affordable tree peonies are making their way into garden centers and we are planting them for the size and beauty of their large blooms.

I have four tree peonies and the woody ‘Jade Plate White’ stems were bending almost down to the ground with the weight of the blooms. I used forked sticks to prop them up and tried using soft plastic garden tape to pull them up as well. One large branch especially was a problem.

Fiddling with it recently I snapped it in half! What was I going to do now? Many new buds were forming other places on the shrub so I just took a deep breath and cut the dangling branch off. Immediately the shape of the tree peony looked much more balanced. But I didn’t want to just throw away the branch with many new green shoots growing at its end.

I could have run in the house, done a time-consuming Internet search and found out the correct way to propogate tree peonies, which is probably a tricky business. Instead, I took five end cuttings, put one in water and four in varying types of amended soil, all placed near the mother plant to duplicate its favorable part-shade conditions.

If any of the cuttings root I’ll faint. If they do, they’re going on the south side of the shed their first winter.

Looking back on this year’s Chicago Flower and Garden Show, I think I know why I’m usually disappointed in it.

In 1992, to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the New World, world flower expositions in Columbus, Ohio and in Spain, his native land, were held to mark the 500th anniversary. Ohio’s Ameriflora transformed a huge Columbus park into gorgeous themed gardens, extensive exhibits from several countries, commercial displays, plant/gift shops and restaurants for about three months.

It was so marvelous, I visited Ameriflora twice. It’s so not fair to compare this rare extravaganza to Chicago’s Navy Pier one-week show, but I do.

Russia is not going to build an extensively landscaped summer cabin with a huge carved wooden bear at the door and a bronze commissioned for a czar in the cabin’s nearby garden for the Chicago Flower Show, but Russia did for Ameriflora. Monaco won’t duplicate a city block heavily planted with ‘Princess Grace’ roses either. Nor will Australia a slice of its famed outback.

I’ll have to take Chicago’s version of a garden show for what it is, but can’t they attract better vendors? What does a super-absorbent sponge mop have to do with gardening? Why do some exhibits create bottlenecks and annoyingly long lines by having one-way in and out? And why waste space on a giant zebra-print, high-heeled shoe sculpture?

Enough venting. Did you know Japanese Painted Fern (athyrium nipponicum pictum) is the Perennial Plant Association 2004 Plant of the Year?

I learned that at the flower show from Rory Klick of the Chicago Botanic Garden. This is an overdue honor for the silvery-green fern with reddish veins that’s performed beautifully in my garden. Numerous new athyrium hybrids are being introduced with ‘Wildwood Twist’ and Ghost’ among them.

“People design by flower color, a compulsion within us,” said Klick, who instead suggested choosing interesting plants with 52-week appeal rather than three- to four-week bloom. She recommended achillea, corydalis, Siberian iris, eupatorium, sedum, baptisia, plumbago and blackberry lilies for texture, long-blooming, late-season color or seed-pod/winter interest.

“I think people plan to be a bit meek in their plant combinations,” said Klick. Go for it, she encouraged, and don’t worry about making mistakes. “You can be a fellow plant junkie and not a professional gardener.”


Posted 5/26/2004