What exactly is a collector's garden?
When you're talking about the woodland haven that Barbara Wetzel has created, it is more than 3 acres of rare plants set on her 6-acre home site in Barrington Hills.
Yes, she has jack-in-the-pulpits, but these are an Asian variety, Arisaema sikokianum, that grow taller and more colorfully than the natives in my garden.
The same could be said for her Asian Mayapples, treasured for their bronze or chocolate and green leaves spotted with different patterns according to the variety. And, honoring her southern roots, Wetzel grows close to 1,000 rhododendron and azaleas, thankful she is one of the rare suburban gardeners blessed with acidic soil.
"We love a challenge," she says of plant collectors. "We want something that's really rare and we want to be the only one that can grow it. Seriously, we share with each other -- plants, tips and experiences."
Wetzel's garden, named Park Place, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, to benefit the Garden Conservancy. Four other gardens in Inverness and Bartlett and two in West Chicago will be open at the same time. Admission to each garden is $5, and more will be open on different days throughout the summer. A schedule is at gardenconservancy.org.
Wetzel has been working in her garden for 20 years, growing many treasures from seeds or tiny plants that she loves to nurture and divide. For example, she bought Japanese hakone grass plants, and by the time she put them in the ground they had multiplied sevenfold.
"You don't go out and buy 6 acres of plants," said Wetzel. "At least I don't. It's like decorating a house, you do it a little bit at a time and have more character."
The whole property is fenced to protect it from deer, but sheltering individual plants in the vast garden is impractical -- unless Wetzel is dealing with Asian Mayapples.
She built a 6-foot wire fence around one Asian Mayapple, of the difforme species. Gradually she cut the fence down until now it is just about a foot tall. But one day she walked out for her regular check and a critter had eaten the tiniest of the plants. Enough survived to wow fellow collectors, however.
Ask about the Himalayan maidenhair fern. Wetzel bought it four times before it took, saying the lesson is gardeners should not give up but continue to try different spots for a struggling plant.
"It was worth it," the gardener said of the short fern. "I've got it in three places now, and it's beautiful. What I've noticed is the new growth is bronzey while the mature leaves are green."
The rhododendron and azaleas will be blooming when the garden is open, but visitors should not let the pink and purple glory or the Florida dogwood or various viburnum distract from smaller wonders. For example, Wetzel is trying to establish cornus canadensis, another dogwood that grows only 8 inches tall.
The very long list of plants visitors can see includes yellow trout lily, trillium, hellebore, Adonis, anemone nemorosa, glaucidium palmatum or Japanese wood poppy, delphinium tricorne or dwarf larkspur and tiarella.
And yes, the primula here are the type you buy at grocery stores. They have been known to bloom in January, take breaks when the cold returns, then push out color again and again whenever it warms up.
In her rock gardens are daphnes, non-climbing western clematis, tulips, iris, saxifraga, dianthus, cyclamens, genetians, and oxalis or shamrocks. And that's her favorite collecting tip: join rock garden societies.
"They tend to be the modern-day plant explorers," and members can buy seeds, she said.
While Wetzel enjoys many forms of wildlife at her ponds and in her yard, one unusual treat is tree frogs, which have suction cups on their feet and can be seen climbing windows after rains.
And if you are looking for an easier garden, Wetzel recommends shrub beds with ground covers like hostas, woodland phlox and wild ginger.
The woodland garden extracted a price of incredible amounts of work. Wetzel cut out 1,500 buckthorn, which sounds like a lot, but perhaps worse was the garlic mustard, which she pulled for five years. It was when she finally got that under control that native woodland flowers sprang up.
Wild cherry trees that she considers weed trees can also be a problem. A storm blew branches into her azalea bed, and she had to cut them out herself because she did not trust anyone else to do it.
But this high-energy woman found time for intensive gardening and propagation even before retiring from her career in property management.
"You'll find me gardening or golfing," she said. "And I'd rather garden than golf."