Chesterton Tribune

Spring comes early on enclosed front porch

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Of Wonders and Weeds


March is for .... a peony on the porch.

It may be meteorological spring outside (even though the landscape is still bleak, cold and colorless), but spring is busting out inside my enclosed front porch.

That’s where a new ‘Blitz Torte’ herbaceous peony has been growing since early February. Its six spindly green stalks with small, leafy tips are about 12 inches tall. I quickly point out this is not the ideal way to grow peonies, but when it’s free we gardeners will go to extreme ends to keep a plant alive.

In January while attending the Winter Scientific Meeting in Schaumburg hosted by the Northern Illinois Hosta Society speaker Roy Klehm of Song Sparrow Perennial Farm gave each of us, more than 120, a free peony. The Klehms, well-known for their work in peony cultivation and hybridization, grow 800 varieties of the American favorite at their Wisconsin nursery.

While older peony varieties can mature into quite large plants --- sometimes the clumps are used as a low hedge --- Roy said the new trend is toward dwarfer or rock-garden peonies that bloom earlier and give gardeners new opportunities to use them in the landscape. As an example, ‘Elfin Beauty’ is only 16 inches tall compared to the average 32-inch height of older varieties.

Roy brought us big boxes of named peonies stored as root divisions, each surrounded by shredded bark and wrapped in plastic. I chose ‘Blitz Torte’ because I remembered it had an unusual form described in the catalog as a twisted cactus dahlia type with two rows of flat white petals tinged in red, the pronounced center bright gold. It is slightly fragrant.

We were told to keep our peony cold but not frozen in the bag. I put it on the porch, where temps hovered around 40 degrees, but soon I noticed through the plastic that pink buds were sprouting and growing bigger each day. I emailed Klehm’s about the situation.

I was advised that the buds were very fragile at this time and to carefully pot the peony up in good soil, water it well and keep it cool. When the ground thaws, which hasn’t totally happened in my yard yet, I’m supposed to plant it. Since I had not expected to receive the peony, I don’t have a clue where I’m going to put it.

This year I already had ordered, also from Klehm, the tree peony ‘Themis’ named after the Goddess of Justice, Law and Order. I am a Court TV junkie and couldn’t resist.

I also love to buy plants with names that have special meaning and I am a long-time fan of the “Law and Order” television shows except for “Criminal Intent’; it’s just too implausible that Vincent D’nofrio’s character always knows the most obscure facts that solve the crime. I bet that’s why L&O alumnus Chris Noth as popular Det. Mike Logan is joining the “CI” cast next year. A real loss was the December death of actor Jerry Orbach, L&O’s beloved long-time Det. Lennie Briscoe. I truly believe “L&O Special Victims Unit” is the best of the bunch right now.

Back to peonies. They can stay in the same location for decades left undisturbed and are known as the century plant. If you get the site right the first time, prepare the soil with rich compost and don’t plant them too deeply, all that’s left to do is admire the spring beauties each year.

March is the time when many of us are enticed by the colorful pictures of perfect plant specimens in all those catalogs. But there are some things to consider before placing an order, not the least of which is, what do you have now? What do you want? What do you need? Do you have a place for a new plant? What can you get rid of or move so you can make room for one?

Two good reasons to catalog shop are selection and convenience. At 2 a.m. you could order the new mango-yellow echinacea or coneflower, or the pink coneflower with the double-decker flowerheads with a second row of petals atop the dark center cone. But a downside to catalog shopping can be the shipping cost (although with the price of gasoline this summer driving to comparison shop at plant nurseries could add up fast, too).

Some mail-order nurseries charge $20 for the first several plants while others charge an initial $6.50 to ship one plant and 50 cents for each additional plant. Pricing falls everywhere in between these extremes.

Another consideration is minimum orders. Some catalogs don’t want your business unless you buy at least $50 or $35 (sometimes non-plant merchandise isn’t included). Others require only a $20 order and some, no minimum at all. It’s always best to check out the pages in the catalog devoted to ordering and shipping before you fall in love with something you’ve just got to have.

It pays to compare prices between various catalogs, but it can be deceiving. Is a $6 Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (a fine shade-tolerant small arching grass with narrow yellow blades with green stripes) a better deal than one for $14.95? Possibly not. The costlier one could be larger and more mature. Price also can be set by having fewer plants, making each one pricier than a nursery that has 1,000 of a cultivar in stock.

When buying certain plants like hosta, whether a plant has been cloned by tissue culture or grown by dividing more mature plants affects price, as does whether a nursery sells hostas divided from plants purchased from the hosta’s originator. One feature about catalog shopping is telling them when you want your plants to arrive: the week you hope to have that new border ready, or the week you really believe you’ll get it done.

Keep in mind that gorgeous daylily you see may not prove to be the exact color shown in the catalog. This has happened to me several times. Descriptions do the best they can but individual growing conditions will vary. Where the catalog nursery is located (or where they grow their plants for sale) makes a difference; farther south means a longer growing season than ours and their plant could be less hardy than we require here. Check hardiness zones carefully.

A good key to quality is whether the plant has received any awards, which usually are noted. For daylilies, knowing how many “fans” or leaf-bearing divisions you will be sent is important. Some catalogs ship one fan, others never less than two. Try to find out how your plant will be shipped: bare-root or in pots. You may want to choose costlier two-day delivery for bare-root specimens depending from where the mail-order nursery will be shipping.

Be sure to review the payment options portion of the ordering information. Most catalogs take personal checks and credit cards but not always American Express. Most also bill at the time your order is placed although a few do not bill your credit card until the order is actually processed and shipped.

Nearly every catalog has a website or toll-free number to call if there are questions about plant availability, or a description or culture question. Calling is how I got ‘Themis’. I had seen it in the Song Sparrow catalog a few years ago but it disappeared; I learned they have a small quantity available for sale but not enough to put in the catalog.

Some catalogs sell special collections of plant varieties of their choice; unless you need or want a specific plant, this is a good way cut your cost and still receive quality stock but you may want to inquire and get a better idea of what you’ll actually receive.

If you look closely, many catalogs have a box to check if you do NOT want them to send a substitution if your ordered plant is out of stock, or a place to list the substitutions you would accept. Some catalogs send you bonus plants, so list those desired if asked to do so. Don’t forget to check the catalog’s guarantee. Some only guarantee the plant will be delivered in good condition; others guarantee stock for a full year but you may have to send back the label or dead roots.

Speaking of labels, those for your new plants are usually quite permanent but very small. And after several years the plastic labels tend to snap off in the ground. It’s good to re-label immediately any that appear to be written with ink marker, which can fade in one season. Or do as Roy Klehm suggested and spray exterior acrylic sealer over labels written in grease pencil.

OK. You’ve weighed all these factors and written up your order. Now it’s time to make a copy of it before you send it off, or if you’ve ordered by email to print a copy. Many nurseries send email or snail mail confirmation of your order, which will notify you if anything is not in stock. The earlier you order, the less likely this will happen.

Spring is definitely here as the 9th annual Friends of Indiana Dunes Native Plant Sale nears. The pre-order deadline has expired but there’s still plenty of open stock to choose from April 2 between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Indiana Dunes State Park pavilion. There is no park entrance or event fee for the sale. Not all the 130 species offered for pre-sale are guaranteed to be available April 2, but surprise plants will be available as well as bigger pots, multiple plants in pots and more large shrubs and trees.

Organizers promise a new floor plan and more cashiers. Experienced garden consultants will be on hand to answer questions, and the Shirley Heinze Foundation will sell publications dedicated to gardening with native plants. Free leaflets will be available on a variety of topics. All proceeds from the sale support the State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

I found one of the most enjoyable speakers at the Winter Scientific Meeting to be Steve Schulte of Foxfire Botanical Gardens in Marshfield in central Wisconsin

 I had no idea such a wonderful place existed so near.

Open daily May 1 through Oct. 1, the property features seven acres of oriental gardens, three waterfalls, two ponds and a variety of meditation gardens. Foxfire is a registered hosta display garden and offers 900 varieties to view and over 500 to purchase including some of their own hosta introductions. Foxfire is hosting a 20th anniversary celebration this summer for serious hostaphiles and gardeners alike. Contact

 for more information.

Steve talked about creating sanctuary in the garden, which he described as a place of mind as well as body. The quality of sanctuary is recognized and felt if not easily defined, he explained, and sanctuary fosters a sense of safety and rejuvenation.

I agree the feeling we get about and from our garden is just as, if not more, important than a merely visual experience. In January I had the opportunity to hear well-known garden author Tracy DiSabato-Aust speak in Merrillville. I found her Latin-overload approach to designing a garden with its rules, color wheels and mathematical formulas far too rigid for me.

Let’s hear it for spontaneity. For making mistakes and learning from them. For screwing up and not feeling guilty about having to do something all over again. For allowing us to know what we want and not letting someone dictate.

Our instincts about what we like are just as valid as someone’s who’s sold tens of thousands of books. All we need is confidence to embark on a journey of garden design that could take years to reach where we’re going, or think we want to go until we get there.

If a woman can change her mind, so can a gardener.


Posted 3/30/2005