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Hillside Nursery gets down to the bare roots

Editor's note: Beginning this week, we'll follow the Sedgwick County master gardeners on a tour of six homegrown garden centers in Wichita. We start the tour at Hillside Nursery.

It's just the first weekend of April and Hillside Nursery is already alive with color — white blooming columnar pear trees, zingy green Daub's Frosted junipers, Golden Ruby barberry, Silver King euonymus.

The nursery grows its own trees in fields south of Derby, and this spring's stock is arrayed artistically as well as naturalistically under venerable old trees.

Because the nursery on South Hillside dates back to 1925, the place has a vintage feel unique to Wichita. Outside, there is a canopy of the tall trees. Inside, a bare-root cellar offers trees and shrubs the way they used to be sold in the 1940s and 1950s, in the altogether — just roots, with the top stems and branches not leafed out yet. Buying trees and shrubs this way cuts the price at least in half over buying them potted, and they're easier to plant and likelier to thrive as well. Hauling them is a breeze — they weigh practically nothing.

"At one time this is the way everything was done," Greg McHenry, owner of Hillside, told the master gardeners as they stood in the cool, earthy cellar. The plants were dug in late fall and packed away for the winter, McHenry explained, then shipped to various parts of the country come spring. It was more of a cooperation with nature. Potting the trees and shrubs has allowed garden centers to sell the plants over a longer period.

Traditionally the season for planting bare roots was Valentine's Day to Tax Day, McHenry said, and they generally should be planted by mid-April, so get them while you can.

Hillside's bare-root selection includes Purple Prince crabapples (an improvement over Prairiefire), river birches, Eastern redbuds ("still the best," McHenry's son Mark says), cherries, apricots, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, honeysuckle, spirea, lilacs, redtwig and yellowtwig dogwood, and viburnums. One master gardener eyed an Autumn Blaze maple for $60 and figured she could buy two of the bare roots for the price of one potted tree she was considering. A shrub that would cost $40 to $50 in a 5-gallon pot is just $20 bare- root.

A note about all garden centers this time of year: Owners keep a close eye on the weather, not putting everything out until danger of a last frost is past. Mid-April tends to begin the height of selection of hardy plants including perennials and vegetables, and annuals are just a little further behind at most places — the third and fourth weeks of April.

Another specialty of Hillside's is grafting hardy junipers. One of them is the Taylor juniper — an excellent, narrow upright substitute for Italian cypresses, Mark McHenry told the master gardeners.

They get to be 30 feet tall and grow fast. McHenry also grafts Canaert and Keteleeri junipers and incense cedars, which he calls a great substitute for problem pines.

Grafting allows McHenry to ensure minimal variation in the trees, and to create unique plants, such as dwarf versions of the tall junipers.

As we went shopping with the master gardeners through Hillside Nursery, here were some of their finds:

* The hot new plant for 2010: Gwen's Rose Delight acer palmatum, aka Shirazz Japanese maple. Its leaves are pink and wine colored, and it's more heat tolerant than other Japanese maples. (It can take morning sun but needs afternoon shade.)

* A $75 peony that's a cross between a tree peony and a regular peony.

* For an excellent windbreak or hedge: Golden Spire arborvitae. It's tough as nails, takes any soil, and has a good gold-green color, Mark McHenry said. Hillside grafts and grows it, and it is an Orientalis variety that does better than the more commonly found American arborvitae, which needs a little protection, extension agent Bob Neier said.

* Prairie Pink dogwood, the one that stops traffic at Eighth and Woodlawn when it's in bloom, is for sale this year after not being available for two or three years.

* Hillside is now selling its own potting mix: $13 for 40 quarts. And it also carries bulk mulch made from Eastern redcedar trees cleared off farmland in Medicine Lodge. It's insect-resistant and costs $45 for a cubic yard — about half a pickup truck's worth. Cheaper and greener than bagged.

Next week: We're off to Hong's.

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