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Meanwhile, Back in the Midwest.. Larry’s Wisconsin Garden

Dead Hawthorn
Dead Hawthorn

Larry’s Wisconsin Garden

My many fans have wondered how things are going here in southern Wisconsin (if two constitutes “many”), so here is an update.


You may recall that my wife and I are originally from Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin, and then left, spending five years in Dallas and 35 years in Maryland. We lived in the same house in Maryland the entire time, and I worked at Behnke’s from 1984 to 2019. In 2021 we moved back to Wisconsin for family, less traffic, and colder winters. (Not really the latter, but one has to lie to oneself about some of these things.)

Wisconsin Spring

Spring came late to these here parts. It was really the middle of May before it was safe to plant annuals, and our first actual hot day didn’t hit until June 14, when we hit the 90’s. Till then, June had been in the 70’s with nights in the low 50’s, which helps make up for the late fall/winter/early spring season, which lasts about six months. (Hereafter known as The “Dreary Season.”)


The Dreary Season

The Dreary Season landscape is composed mostly of shades of brown punctuated by needle-bearing evergreens in green and blue, periodically blanketed in snow. The lawn turns brown; the leaves are down, and there are few broadleaf evergreens (azaleas, hollies, etc.) here, because of the cold winters. At the garden we had in Bethesda, winter was quiet, but we had broadleaf evergreens to liven things up, and lots of hellebores. (Hellebores grow here, but they emerge and flower in April, along with the early bulbs.) Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus) brightens things up with its red stems standing out against the snow.


The Spring season is shorter (at least this year, which had a record cold-April), and we don’t have the diversity of flowering trees and shrubs. No (or very few) Japanese Flowering Cherries; and few magnolias although some varieties are hardy here. No crape myrtles in summer. There are a number of species of Dogwood (Cornus) but not Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood. The primary flowering tree is the Crabapple. I put two in this spring to get some trees going. Every yard seems to have them; nice flowers and some fruit for the birds this winter. Lilacs are also popular, so I put in four; two traditional lilacs and two bush-form.

What Larry Is Learning

This being our first year here, I am learning what works and what doesn’t. The cool temperatures make plants more compact with stronger stems (slower growing) and the flower colors are more intense. Peonies are coming into bloom, and they are spectacular. Rich colors, and without as much “flop” as I am used to in Maryland. German Iris are also very popular here. We had two severe thunderstorms this week, just in time to beat up the peonies, just like in Maryland. Peonies seem to attract thunderstorms, sort of like little blooming lightning rods.


Native plants are popular, and I see a natural style of gardening as I drive through neighborhoods. It’s quite common to see the front yard turned over to perennials or a meadow or prairie (although many of these look more like weed patches, the owner forgetting the “garden” part of natural gardens.) Taking the “no turf look” to extremes, one home I passed yesterday had planted the entire front yard in onions.

The Best Time To Plant A Tree

Following Stephanie’s advice that the best time to plant a tree is “today,” it was the first thing I did this spring as the ground thawed and nurseries began stocking trees and shrubs. I went to a local nursery and bought 4 large trees. Two crabapples, one Magnolia ‘Jane’, and one large balled-and-burlapped ‘Winter King’ hawthorn. The were still dormant but looked good.


As soon as I took the Magnolia out of the pot, I figured it was unlikely that it was going to make it, as all the exterior roots were dead. I figured it had frozen and I contacted the nursery, and we decided to wait until Memorial Day to see how it did. (Conversation: “They just do that, don’t worry. If it hasn’t leafed out by Memorial Day, we’ll replace it.” This is one of the standard answers in the garden center biz. Another is: “Oh, you are looking for XYZ and it’s not in stock? Check back in two weeks, it will probably be in by then.” This can be translated as either: “I know what it is but I don’t know if or when we are getting it;” or, ”I don’t know what it is, but the odds of you finding me when you come back in two weeks are pretty low, and maybe it really will be coming in.”)


As expected, by Memorial Day that Magnolia had not leafed out and would have been pushing up daisies, if it had been in the meadow section of the garden.

The Disappointment

The big disappointment was the hawthorn. This was a big tree, and I had to rent a truck to get it, then literally drag it a hundred yards across the yard to the planting hole. I had it in a big plastic saucer (The AM Leonard GardenGlide, with attached rope), and dragged it two feet at a time, putting sheets of cardboard beneath the saucer to make it slide easier. It was how I envisioned the blocks being moved to build the pyramids. As of mid-June, that hawthorn, which still looks perfectly healthy, has not leafed out, so I figure it’s another goner. I wanted the hawthorn because we had some planted out at Behnke’s at Beltsville, and every spring a flock of cedar waxwings would come in and eat the berries, and it was really cool to watch.


The moral to that story is, even if you’ve worked with plants your whole life, sometimes they just don’t do what you want them to. Also; there is no shame to buying smaller plants that you can handle, like the two 15 gallon crabapples, which did just fine.

Good News and Bad News

What else can go wrong: I am greatly relieved to not have a deer problem as yet. It was horrible in Bethesda. On Halloween we usually had more deer in the yard than trick-or-treaters. Here I have only seen one deer, and he seemed lost. Also, somewhat confused as I ran in his direction waving a big stick, screaming “Go Back to Maryland, you Creature from Hell!”


The bad news is that we have a plethora of rabbits; and they get big and sort of mean-looking. I was looking forward to having a sunny garden for the first time and being able to plant all this cool stuff; but I’m going to have to pay close attention to the rabbit-resistant plant lists. I’ve only planted three stinking perennials so far, and I had to cage two of them the day after planting. Vernonia (Ironweed) and Tradescantia (Spiderwort) are rabbit chow, while Baptisia (False Indigo) is doing okay so far. I have developed a great empathy for Elmer Fudd, the eternal enemy of Bugs Bunny.


Wildlife In Larry’s Garden

We have a pair of great horned owls that live in the neighborhood, but apparently, the wascally wabbits have been able to evade them, at least most of the time. I’ve got tons of hostas as shady foundation plants. These came with the house (two or three boring varieties. I call them “Blah-stas,” although they look pretty nice right now.) I’m starting to see the tell-tale sign of rabbit browse on hostas: leaves on the ground, stems gone. So it looks like I’m going to have to do some spot treating with repellant.


So, we’ll see what summer brings. I’m finding that the first thing summer is bringing is an incredible assortment of weeds, so that gives me something to do for an hour or two a day. I expect to continue planting through the summer as well. As soon as a driveway paving project is completed this month, I’ve got Big Plans for a front yard perennial garden.


I’d better get a move on: It’s only four and a half months till the beginning of the Dreary Season.
Where the Wild Things are
Where the Wild Things are
Rabbit damage on Hostas
Rabbit damage on Hostas
Property Line of Larry's Yard
Larry Hurley's Wisconsin Property Line
Piles of Dead Buckthorn
Invasive Buckthorn trees, Rhamnus, dug up from the Spruce Forest; Hurley Garden, Middleton

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hello Larry—so wonderful to read the witty commentary on your gardening experiences in the frigid North! We look forward to hearing about your successes growing plants and combatting critters in your new climate zones.
    Ps..get a dog or two to chase off the deer and rabbits and for entertainment during the “dreary time”

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