Chesterton Tribune

Quirky spring weather brings floral surprises

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Of Wonders and Weeds:


Truly, the best is yet to be and even the lousy Spring we've had is a sweet reminder of why we tolerate Indiana's harsh winters, no snowbirds we, fleeing at the first sign of frost only to return with the mosquitos.

The first crop of early bloomers is a memory, with a second flush of late spring flowers now taking center stage. I've been told by a nursery owner that if we cut down our old-fashioned bleeding heart right after it blooms, it will rebloom, but I've been too chicken to try this.

Is it my yard or is Nature's timetable askew? Late varieties of the herbaceous peonies that die back each year are now coming into bloom, yet several varieties of iris have been blooming for weeks. And many daylilies, including "Moonlit Madness, " a large cream beauty with a wild purple eyezone, are fully budded.

During our recent conversation on bloom times, experienced gardeners Dave Stegeman and Dan Coffman both agreed the flowering seasons are all mixed up. But Dave pointed out that's not a bad thing for hosta hybridizers. In my own yard "Francee," a dependable favorite white-edged green hosta, is throwing flower buds as is a fine unnamed hosta I purchased at a sale, a cross between "Nigrescens" and "Blue Whirls."

Having hosta bloom out of sequence gives hybridizers access to pollen from one species at a time when it's not normally available; some hybridizers freeze pollen and have varying degrees of success, but the real thing is far superior, I've been told.

The frost early this month turned my hosta "Lakeside Cha Cha," planted last fall, to mush. The frost also tinged Hydrangea "Nikko Blue" and others plants, although they're still fine and I've left them alone. I cut off the damaged "Cha Cha" leaves and the plant is rebounding. Next year I"ll try to protect that hosta somehow a little longer.

Speaking of hostas, hostaholics said they saw "Embroidery" for sale in Lake County for $100 a plant. It must have been a good size. Catalogs sell small divisions of it for between $60 and $75 each -- if you can find it. The hosta reportedly can't be duplicated quickly by making thousands of hosta babies in a laboratory (known as tissue culture) and can only be divided from a mother plant.

This will be my first full year's test for "Jean Gymer," a reblooming iris that flowers again in the fall.

The peach-sherbet heads cast a soft glow, albeit shorter than the tall iris also blooming now. Andre Viette Nursery offers several varieties of rebloomers, and their shorter stature but full-sized flower head are an advantage when I see the other tall-bearded iris flopping over, reminding me why I didn't like growing them before.

The roses I didn't cover until February all sprouted from the bud unions and are about to flower, apparently not a one lost. As usual, the robust, coral "Christopher Columbus" is growing the fastest. "Columbus" is so vigorous I have to cut out canes to ensure good air circulation. Usually, "Sonia" or "Garden Party" is the first to bloom, but this year it appears "Miss All-American Beauty" will win.

Portage rose expert Dale Fadely recently recommended I try miniature roses and I bought two. He said all you do is pile some leaves over the top of them in the fall and they return dependably each spring. If they're that easy, I'll definitely make a place for them somewhere.

A plant I especially enjoyed this spring was epimedium rubrum (Fairy Wings,) aptly named as its new heart-shaped leaves are splashed red.

The 10-inch tall clump marches slowly in a neat circle, while some varieties are much more vigorous; Martha Stewart even recommends them as a groundcover. Blooming in April, epimedium's small yet delicate flowers are worth a close look. Plants Delights Nursery has a large selection. This is the kind of flower to enjoy in a tiny bud vase on the kitchen windowsill above the sink.

Often, one plant can get lost in the shuffle, like the epimedium, but a clump of four pulmonaria (lungwort) blooming very early with the hellebores really caught my eye. The vivid blue flowers just yelled, "I'm tired of snow and I can't take it any more." And when the low, long-bloomer is done, pulmonaria's fuzzy green leaves with silver spots is a good foliage alternative.

I'd share the specific name of the pulmonaria with you but somehow, I, uh, lost the label.

To my dismay, many plants I thought were labeled are not. Now someone will say, who cares, a great plant should be appreciated for what it is, not who it is. I agree. But it just simplifies things so much to know what you have, and where it is. At the Crown Point Garden Walk last year I believe one man had 188 different plants, trees, groundcovers, vines and shrubs LABELED, numbered and listed on a hand-out sheet.

I've found that several shrubs, not just a few, fell victim to some gnawing critters over the winter and the shrubs required brutal pruning. The dwarf Japanese lilac and the tree peony, both so nibbled, sent up lots of new shoots to compensate. In a few years, everything might just be better for the experience. Until then, they look pretty lopsided.

A few years ago I started deadheading lilacs and rhododendron to force energy into the flower head for next year rather than letting them make seeds. The rhodies have seemed to really respond, although this must be done carefully so as not to knock off next year's flower buds.

The benefits of deadheading -- cutting off the spent flowers -- cannot be overstated. We can even cut out a few stalks of the just-opening phlox, as well as many other flower varieties, to force new shoots to grow in time for a smaller, second flush later in the year.

As late in the gardening season as it seems, the buddleia davidii (butterfly bush) is just starting to take off. These are the wispy, lilac-imposters of summer that get quite large on one year's growth. My cousin Dave in South Bend always dug his up and threw it away each year, thinking it was dead instead of just still dormant. Buddleia transplant easily, although the roots can be 30 inches long and the plant may sulk the first year.

I recently became aware of buddleia alternifolia (fountain butterfly bush) which blooms in the spring on last year's wood. Tolerant of poor soils, it should love it in Burns Harbor.

Recently Karen Hix, a member of the Portage Garden Club, was installed as President of the Garden Clubs of Indiana for a two-year term and feted at a reception at Woodland Park. Karen helped organize the local Duneland Garden Club; she is a generous, gracious woman especially active in encouraging youth gardening. Karen will represent Indiana on the National Council of State Garden Clubs Inc.

How many of you received a garden gift certificate for Mother's Day?

Mine are already spent. I purchased a Romantica "Auguste Renoir" rose, which promises to be "nearly disease-free," at Chesterton Feed and Garden, and three each of phlox "Natascha" and eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed) "Cori" from White Flower Farm.

Do I have my family trained or what?