Saturday was a lovely day for a drive in the countryside down to Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery in Avalon, Wis., about 45 minutes south of Madison. We Wisconsinites like to disparaginly refer to folks from Illinois as "flatlanders," but you can see we have some wide open flat spaces as well. This is actually the viewn across the road from the shipping facility at Klehm's. The building itself is hidden behind a high berm featuring the nursery's offerings, including lots of tree peonies in full bloom.
As we were driving down to Klehm's the weather turned quite foggy and gray, though the temps were mild. Nothing like the rain and mud we experienced last time we went to Klehm's with the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society (WHPS) to tour the peony fields during a very wet, cold spring when we were up to our ankles in mud.
Klehm's is a big commercial operation which sells a wide variety of plants via its mail-order and on-line catalogs. It is also an amazingly friendly and gracious operation, which is really no surprise once you meet the folks in charge, Roy and Sarah Klehm.
Roy G. Klehm's family has been in the nursery business since 1852; he is the fourth generation of the Klehm family to work as a nurseryman. After many years of growing peonies, daylilies and hosta in northern Illinois, the Klehms moved to southern Wisconsin where they started Song Sparrow in 1996. On their Website, they note that they grow their peonies, dayliles, trees and shrubs in the farm's fields which have "phenomenally rich deep, fertile soil." They also grow plants in 50 climate controlled greenhouses (above and below).
As WHPS members emerged from their cars in the Klehm lot, there was a big table of 2010 catalogs and maps of the greenhouses, indicating the location of various plants: tree peonies, ferns, "junior" conifers. I hang onto my Klehm catalogs for at least a few years since plants come and go depending on availability. That way I can remember what things I want to order and why, during the off years. And I just like their catalogs; Klehm has always produced beautiful, useful and easy to navigate publications, on paper and in cyberspace. My oldest paper catalog dates to 1995 and I have the Song Sparrow catalog from their first mail-order season: 2000.
No detail is too small for this thoughtful operation: everywhere you looked there were bouquets of herbacious peonies inside the shipping facility.
Along with the peonies, were big boxes of assorted donuts, hot coffee and cold bottled water. I grabbed a donut and was ready to begin. The shopping spree was limited to an hour-an-a-half which is not a lot of time given the size of this operation.
And it is a very special opportunity, owing in large part to UW emeritus professor of horticulture, Ed Hasselkus, pictured below with Sarah Klehm. Ed has spent his career conducting research on woody ornamental plants. You can see the results of this work at the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens at the UW-Madison Arboretum. Ed has been curator of this plant collection — where the research continues apace — since 1967. But Ed will always tell you that his greatest achievement is having influenced the lives and careers of over 3,000 students. Today you can find Ed's former students at many public gardens, arboretums and quality nurseries in the country. Roy Khelm was one of Ed's students, and they still keep in touch, which is how the members of the WHPS (Ed is a member) found ourselves at Klehm's last Saturday. The nursery does not sell plants on site or allow visitors, which is why this was such a treat!
My job was to shop while Mark took photos, thus saving a lot of time and energy arguing over which plants to buy. I had a list at the ready since I had held off buying from the catalog this spring, knowing we would have this special opportunity to shop in person.
I wore a bright orange shirt so Mark could find me in the crowd, because I was constantly on the move running from greenhouse to greenhouse; taking short cuts between them and sometimes through them.
Folks from Klehm's — including Roy and Sarah — were everywhere; answering questions about plants and directing us to the proper greenhouse or searching with us if we could not find a particular plant.
Outside of each green house were Klehm shipping boxes in assorted sizes. You put your plants in them, wrote your name on the outside of the box and then set it on the flatbed trailers to be hauled out to the checkout area later.
Part of the fun was checking out what other people were buying and enjoying the various plant combinations they put together. Serious shoppers pushed and pulled their own heavily laden carts when the time to shop ended.
Of course, I discovered I had plants not listed in the catalog or bought a larger size and thus we were all dashing for help at the last minute to determine the prices of what we purchased. Luckily Klehm staff were stationed all through the check-out area to help us.
As you can see in the picture below, no one left empty-handed. I was rather restrained and spent about what I typically might when I buy from the catalog. One impulse purchase by Mark: a 'Korean Snow' Hosta, which has both speckled and striated variegation. I teased him when we were in the check-out line and discovered his "treat" cost $30.00. However, it is a fairly recent introduction and almost mature size so was worth the price. Also it has a different leaf shape than I am drawn to, so a good garden contrast.
You can't really tell from the picture below but we came home with two of our favorite boxwoods ('Green Gem'), two 'Moon Frost' hemlocks, a larger 'White Fountain' hemlock, a rock garden holly, the Hosta and a stunning Calycanthus 'Hartledge Wine,' and a weeping 'Summer Snow' hemlock.
It was a short, sweet and very satisfying spree at Song Sparrow. I've been buying plants from Klehm via mail-order for more years than I can count. Their plants always arrive in perfect shape and are big and healthy and worth every penny. Their shipping may seem expensive but it is fabulous. I once received three Martagon lilies that were almost 4' tall and in full bud from Khelm. Not a bud broke off during shipping. I planted the lilies and they bloomed mere days later. It pretty much sold me on the company. I was so impressed, I wrote a thank-you to the folks in the shipping department, who proceeded to send me a box of gourmet chocolates as a thank-you for thanking them. I've learned it was a typical Klehm gesture: thoughtful and gracious.