Chesterton Tribune

Time to find new plants for the garden

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February is for....finding new plants for the garden.

If the joy of discovering a perennial plant that performs beautifully with little or no effort is equaled only by the thrill of bumping into George Clooney in WiseWay, this column's for you.

While color, bloom time and ultimate size are important, the first question to ask is, can the plant live here?

I once got into a spirited discussion with Carol Wright, who owns a fine plant nursery, Lilies of the Field, south of Michigan City. She maintains we're hardiness Zone 6; I am of the opinion we are Zone 5. I let Porter County Cooperative Extension Agent Dave Yeager settle the matter.

Dave said we are Zone 5, which means winter temperatures can dip to 20 degrees below zero.

Over the past 20 years, some winters have actually been colder, yet five of the 10 warmest winters in 100 years occurred in the last 10 years, said Dave, so someone might try to make the argument (and some hardiness maps even indicate) we're a slightly warmer Zone 6 immediately along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Rather than putting my money into marginal Zone 6 plants, I'm sticking with Zone 5 selections.

But that doesn't mean we can't occasionally try a Zone 6 plant if we take special winter precautions, like generous mulch, a burlap wind screen and an anti-desiccant spray like Wiltpruf, if applicable. Another way to fool Mother Nature is to search out -- or even create -- microclimates in our own yards.

A protected area on the south side of a house near a porch is surely a few degrees warmer than a back yard wide open to the winter winds. Being sheltered by a clump of trees or shrubs might make enough of a difference for a Zone 6 plant. But even if we can make a non-zone plant survive, can we make it thrive?

Three years ago my husband worked for two months in the Panama Canal Zone and I flew down to meet him for a visit. My Mother was sure I'd get lost and she'd never see me again, but that's another story.

While in Panama, a woman gave me five, tiny wild orchid bulbs she plucked off a blooming shrub-like plant in her yard. Roots were already sprouting from the bulbs, so I kept them and a moistened paper towel in a plastic bag until returning home. Yes, I declared them at Miami Customs, and the agricultural agent couldn't have cared less.

Once in Burns Harbor, I planted the bulbs in a pot indoors. Eventually, one survived and grew to 12 inches tall -- then it stopped. Nothing more ever happens. I've tried summering it outdoors, more indoor humidity, fertilizer, varying degrees of sun and improved soil, all with no results.

I've decided you can take the plant out of Panama, but you can't take Panama out of the plant.

Catalogs and plant dealers don't always agree about hardiness zones. Last year I purchased a "Freedom" alstroemeria, excited to grow the florist favorite in my own yard. Plant Delights Nursery labels it Zone 5b, slightly warmer than 5, yet White Flower Farm lists it as Zone 6. The temperature variations aren't great, so stay tuned.

There are two special Zone 5 plants I've grown for two years that provide enough of a surprise in the garden, you almost forget our climate limitations.

Bletilla Striata is a hardy terrestrial orchid, 15 inches tall with long narrow leaves. In the spring, small cattleya-like rosy pink flowers dance on wiry stems. Another beauty, albiet tiny, is Hardy Cyclamen (cyclamen hederifolium). Only two inches tall, shiny mottled foliage emerges in the fall. Miniature pink cyclamen flowers follow, and the whole plant, which spreads slowly, goes dormant in the summer heat.

An underused plant that deserves more recognition is Tovara Virginiana "Painter's Palette." About 18 inches tall, its vivid, dappled white and green leaves splashed with pale pink and a black chevron are as attractive as the airy stalks of tiny red flowers that appear in late summer. Tovara tolerates part shade and self-sows.

It's odd how some plants look great in other people's gardens, but not in ours. I know of a lush stand of Crocosmia on County Road 600N, yet mine struggle. And my stepfather Eddie grows the very unusual Voodoo Lily, (whose flowers actually stink) with great success in Michigan City, but the bulbs he gives me never make it through the first winter.

Could it be microclimates at work?

Often, it's not new plants we need to spice up our gardens but new varieties of old favorites. Instead of the standby Sedum "Autumn Joy," try the grey-burgundy leaved form of it, "Matrona." And if Physostegia (obedient plant) has run around your border once too often, look for the improved "Miss Manners" that stays put and bears white snapdragon-like flowers.

I even buy plants just for their names. I have daylily "Polly's Gold" for my family nickname; daylily "Milk Chocolate," an odd dark tan brushed with amber, because I never met a chocolate I didn't like; and daylily "Faberge" to remind me of the outstanding Faberge exhibit we saw at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Sometimes, the new plants we bring to our yards need a little extra TLC to survive the transition. But beyond a first season or two of pampering, if they don't hold their own, it's generally not a plant for me.

Get out there: As the snow melts, take a walk around the yard and look for damage. Rabbits ate away all the bark in an eight-inch tall ring around the "Bloodgood" Japanese Maple; it likely is doomed. I put tree wrap (and even tied an empty spaghetti box around one new tree when I ran out of wrap) around the lower base of other exposed young trees, something I should have done in the fall.

Catalog find: The first 46 pages of Andre Viette's catalog is a treasure of not only garden design but also growing information for America's most popular perennials. The quality of plants ordered has been good.

Check it out: White Flower Farm is launching a new bi-monthly magazine called The Gardener, which promises to be hands-on, not pretty pictures like Garden Design.