Sunday, July 24, 2011


Bela Lugosi daylily
'Bela Lugosi' daylily

Nothing says summer more than daylilies.

Coneflowers may come close, but I’m always thrilled when the first daylily breaks into bloom. That’s when I know summer is in full swing. Time to break out the lemonade and barbeque sauce.

The botanic name of daylilies, hemerocallis, comes from the Greek words for day (hemera) and beautiful (kalos) as each flower lasts only one day. They generally bloom from sunrise to sunset, which makes their beauty even more precious.

Lavender Deal daylily
'Lavender Deal' daylily

There are literally thousands of colors and shapes to choose from: the traditional or diploid ones, tetraploids with thicker petals and larger blooms, doubles, triples, spiders, those with ruffled edges or “diamond dust,” even some with fragrance.

That’s a far cry from the orange daylilies (hemerocallis fulva) that grew in my backyard when I was a kid. My father mowed over them not once but twice, claiming they were a "weed.” Of course, they bounced back better than ever.

Ironically, many states now agree with my dad’s assessment. These lilies -- also called tiger lilies, ditch lilies, roadside lilies and even outhouse lilies -- are considered an invasive weed in several states including Wisconsin. They spread by rhizomes, or underground roots, and are almost impossible to get rid of once they’re planted. While that’s good if you have a problem spot in your yard, it can be a problem if you ever change your mind. You need to remove every little bit of root, and I mean EVERY bit.

Spiritual Corridor daylily
'Spiritual Corridor' daylily

The newer varieties, for better or for worse, aren’t quite so vigorous. They need the same care as any new perennial, at least for the first year. You can’t just plant and forget about them like the fulva daylilies. One of my husband’s college friends unfortunately learned that in a big way one year when all of his new daylilies died.

And modern daylilies aren’t exactly low maintenance. They eventually will shade out most weeds that try to grow underneath them, but you need to break off the spent blooms, or deadhead, for them to look their best. That’s especially true with the larger, darker blossoms. The old blooms will eventually fall off, but they make the plant look messy until then.

Wayside King Royale daylillies
'Wayside King Royale' daylilies
Many people think daylilies are native, but they’re not. They started out in Asia and came to the U.S. via Europe. Early settlers bought two types of daylilies with them -- orange (fulva) and yellow (flava). The latter, also known as the lemon lily, is much more well-behaved than its counterpart. It doesn’t bloom as much as the yellow Happy Returns daylily you find everywhere nowadays, but it blooms early and has a great lemony fragrance that I love.

Daylilies started getting fancier in the 1920’s and 1930’s and have been going strong ever since. I currently have mostly purple daylilies in my garden. There’s Lavender Deal, Wayside King Royale, Bela Lugosi, Fuschia Dream, Chicago Arnie’s Choice, Prairie Blue Eyes, Swirling Waters and Little Grapette.

Other daylilies that I’ve grown include Catherine Woodbury, Lilting Lavender, Cherry Cheeks and Joan Senior.

Charles Johnston daylily
'Charles Johnston' daylily

My wish list includes Charles Johnston, a great-looking red flower, and one of the late-blooming varieties such as Autumn Minaret. I saw the latter planted in some containers in Minneapolis one fall and it was spectacular at more than 5-foot tall.

What are some of your favorites?

By Karen Geisler

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Founding Fathers

Fourth of July container
Happy Fourth of July!
One of my favorite quotes about gardening is by Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

"Though an old man, I am but a young gardener," he said. For me, his comment perfectly sums up the appeal of gardening -- one is constantly learning and growing.

He wasn't the only Founding Father who was an avid gardener, however. Others who planted extensive landscapes included George Washington, John Adams and James Madison, our first, second and fourth Presidents respectively.

Gardens, for them, were often a way to cope with the pressures of political life.

"As much as I converse with sages and heros, they have very little of my love or admiration," John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in a letter dated July 3, 1776. "I should prefer the delights of a garden to the dominion of a world."

Washington retreated to his Mount Vernon estate when he wasn't fighting the British or running the country. Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, did likewise when he left office.

"A garden, you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician," he wrote to a friend. "Accordingly I have purchased a few acres about nine miles from town, have built a house and am cultivating a garden."

Gardens with native trees and shrubs also inspired the Founding Fathers, giving them hope that the rich and diverse plant life of their fledgling nation would help it remain independent and prosper.

Uncle Sam for the garden

According to a new book, "Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation"  by Andrea Wulf, Washington and others radically changed their gardens after the Revolutionary War to be almost exclusively native trees and shrubs. It was a political statement of a sort.

Ironically, Jefferson and Adams also discovered in 1786 that the "hottest" garden trend in England at the time used native American plants. It was easy for Americans to duplicate that look because it involved their own country's plants arranged in a naturalistic style.

Wulf, a British garden historian, noted that several members of the Constitutional Congress took a short break from their deadlocked deliberations in July 1787 to tour the Bartram Garden in Philadelphia. The property included plant material from all of the 13 former colonies, all growing in harmony. The visit may have helped break a stalemate over the structure of Congress, she said.

"It can only be speculation that a three-hour walk on a cool summer morning among the United States of America's most glorious trees and shrubs influenced these men," Wulf wrote. "But what we do know is that the three men who changed sides and made the Great Compromise possible that day had all been there and marveled at what they saw."

So if you find yourself in or near a garden this Fourth of July, take a few moments to reflect on the diversity of America's native plants. It played an important role in the formation of our country.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day!

By Karen Geisler