Two Plant Geeks at Milaeger's

The weekend before last, my friend Z and I went to a nursery called Milaeger's. We wound up at the smaller of the two locations, but small is a very relative term. This is a big nursery, make no mistake, on a scale with some of the largest nurseries in the Puget Sound area of Washington, except (from what I've heard and read) Flower World.

Once a famous mail-order nursery known for its fantastic catalog and great plant selection, now Milaeger's is mostly a local retail and wholesale nursery. One of the great things about this nursery is that every time you turn a corner it seems to get bigger.

The entrance featured a lush display of begonias and sweet alyssum. I'm not sure I've ever seen such huge alyssum as I have here in the Milwaukee area.

Inside the store area, Christmas had taken over. Keep in mind this was over a week ago, before Halloween. For the sake of readers, I will suppress my rant regarding this practice.

Through the Christmas tree gauntlet, we found the treasures I was most looking forward to, indoor plants! In the photo below is Medinilla magnifica, a plant which has been showing up more and more in the last year or so. While I love the lush, pendant inflorescences and the glossy, thickly veined leaves, it has yet to strike my fancy enough to give it a try. I really can't say how easy or difficult it is as a house plant.

Obligatory orchid shot. They did have some tempting paphiopedilums, but I wasn't looking for orchids today.

What do you think of these hanging glass mini-terrariums? Personally, I love the look and the idea, but I always feel that they would require too much maintenance (mostly watering and pruning, depending on the choice of plants) or would be more like temporary arrangements. In situations like this, I always want to use cool little treasure plants, and I don't want those to be temporary.

Looking like a bed in a conservatory, this is a display of large, potted plants for sale. See the cornstalk-like dracaena with lime-green leaf margins? That's Dracaena 'Lemon Lime'. I've been wanting to get a few larger, easy-care foliage plants. With so many little plants, some of which are rather high maintenance, I wanted something that would be big, lush, and low-maintenance. I mentally marked this one for later pick-up while we continued to work our way through the nursery.

Blechnum 'Silver Lady', supposedly a cultivar of Blechnum gibbum having silver (somewhere?) in the fronds. While these lacked any significant trunk, they were still about twice the size of my Blechnum gibbum, even before it defoliated (again) after moving to Wisconsin. Mine is recovering. It's up to five fronds, with more to come. I'm glad it's such a resilient fern, what with the abuse I've heaped on it since snatching it from a nursery in Pennsylvania, then dragging it down to North Carolina, Washington, and most recently Wisconsin.

There were many other cool plants in the indoor section that I neglected to photograph, including a Kalanchoe orgyalis that I seriously considering taking home. The gold and silver fuzz reminded me of some of the more heavily-scaled rhododendrons. Let's just say that I was getting into serious shopping/drooling mode and forgot about my camera for a bit.

Luckily I remembered what that weight around my neck was when we got outside.While most of the outdoor stock had been sold for the season, there was still a good selection of trees and shrubs, at 75% off. Zone 5 does have its benefits, or at least one. Nurseries really don't want to hold their stock over winter, resulting in ridiculous end-of-season sales, sometimes as much as 90% off.

The brilliant yellow fall color of Ginkgo biloba never fails to enchant.

The fiery foliage of this azalea, one of the Lights series, absolutely glowed with a little back lighting.

According to my friend Z, who is an incurable zone-pusher, the common wisdom in this area is that Japanese maples are not reliably hardy here. This magnificent specimen of a weeping red laceleaf Japanese maple proves the lie in that wisdom. Easily around 6 feet tall and half-again as wide, this specimen has surely been here long enough to experience some truly atrocious zone 5 winters.

Another maple I'm grateful to know grows in zone 5 is Acer griseum. This specimen could even be among the top 10 largest Acer griseums I've seen, and I've been to quite a few gardens in different areas of the country in just a few years. The two biggest I've seen are at the New York Botanic Garden and the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden. Surprisingly, my college campus at Washington State University had many good-sized specimens, and I've seen a handful of others elsewhere. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a nice specimen of Acer griseum here. Knowing how hardy it is, there's no reason not to include this gorgeous small tree in your garden.

The foliage turns late, and is often a good, dark red to orange. Perhaps it is more likely to get frosted in zone 5 before it can color up, but I know from personal observation that it colors beautifully most years in zone 6 and higher. And how can you resist that bark? This one is tame in comparison to some of the others I've seen, which can look like pure copper, molten except where it curls out into the air.

I liked the open structure covering virtually the entire outdoor sales area. I imagine this area is absolutely packed during the main season, but this late in the year they have cleared as much as they can for winter. Still, among the remnants were 4-5 foot tall Sciadopitys verticillata, weeping Alaskan yellow cedars, adorable dwarf conifers, a handful of hardy bamboos, Fothergilla, and many other worthwhile plants. Not having an outdoor area of my own to plant any of these beauties in, I enjoyed seeing them and helped my friend (who was bouncing off the wooden posts with joy) pick out the cream of the crop, before moving on to see the rest of the nursery.

I was impressed with the sheer number of these containers. There were more behind me, and they just keep going....

Oh look! A frost-proof flower! Sculpture can be very hit-or-miss for me. This I kind of liked, despite the apparent lily blooms arising from foliage more similar to a tulip or perhaps an over-sized hyacinth. Silly me, wanting botanically accuracy in my artwork.

There were rows upon rows of huge greenhouses outside, but they didn't appear to be open for retail at that time. In one block, hundreds of poinsettias were being grown for holiday sales. We moved on inside to see if we had missed anything else. There is a large store full of expensive, kitschy stuff for the wealthier clientele that tends to frequent Milaeger's. I didn't have much interest in all the baubles and useless decorations, but take a look at that ceiling! What a cool feature to see in what is essentially a nursery gift shop, albeit a very large one.

My friend Z is a master at finding bargains. Remember that the outdoor plants were discounted at 75% off? The picture only shows a couple of his plants, but this cart was full of plants, which included a 5-foot Japanese umbrella pine, several typically-expensive dwarf conifers, a Carol Mackie daphne, several bamboo, and a Fine Line buckthorn, and possibly a couple things I've forgotten. The total at full price would have been over $600. He got all of it for about $160, less than the original price of the umbrella pine!

And we managed to fit everything, including my handful of indoor plants, into my car with room to spare, although the umbrella pine was very close to tickling my friend's neck the whole way home. I'm so glad I have a small SUV now instead of that crappy sedan I had, which only had a hole through the back seat big enough for a set of skis. Hardly practical for plant geeks. As for my purchases, I went back inside while my friend was loading up his cart for another look at the indoor plants. I stumbled upon a second 'Lemon Lime' Dracaena at half the price of the one I had found before and with three stems in one pot instead of one. I don't care that it's shorter. It's easy for these to grow taller. It's much harder to get them to branch out or look full. I also got two crotons (Codiaeum variegatum), 'Mrs. Iceton' and 'Magnificent', which I need to remember to take better pictures of, perhaps when the evening sun hits them and lights them on fire. You can just see them tucked under my dracaena. I also got a couple tillandsias to replace two that are clinging to life after a deck washing mishap in North Carolina, Tillandsia funckiana and Tillandsia crocata. The first one has long stems coated in short leaves, like a feathered serpent that spits out red flowers. The second has yellow flowers and the plant I picked out even has a flower spike that should bloom any time now. I'll be sure to share pictures when it does, though I won't be able to share the fragrance. Tillandsia crocata is one of the few members of that genus with fragrant flowers.

Thank goodness for drop-down seats! What would I do without them?

I know the rains have started back home, but I hope my gardening friends back in the PNW remember that this is a great time to plant, as you don't have to remember to water! Bet you wish you had end of season sales like this, though!


  1. Wow, nice score there, bargains! And loving that ginkgo shot!

    1. Thanks, guys! Yep, my friend knows how to shop!

  2. 75% off! In the land of year-round gardening, we NEVER get deals like that. Can the trees be planted outside this late in the season or do they have to be protected until planting in spring?

    I'm glad you found a good selection of indoor plants - I have 2 of the Dracaena and have found them nearly indestructible. However, I've never succeeded in growing Crotons inside - I guess I'm not good at keeping the humidity high enough.

    1. I know, right? I think in Washington I rarely saw anything more than 25% off, except in the rescue plant sections and a few unique places that discount things at 50-60% off. Depending on how hardy they are, I think trees can be planted until the ground freezes. The Sciadopitys is being subjected to Christmas tree treatment in my friend's 70+ degree apartment. At least he plans on running a humidifier next to the poor thing. Hopefully it survives long enough to be planted out in spring.

      The crotons are an experiment for me. I saw one at the public library in my college town that looked perfectly healthy (Pullman is very dry, and even drier inside during winter), so we'll see how they do surrounded by plants. As soon as I can make sure they aren't riddled with spider mites and can surround them with other plants. Main problem for me will likely be keeping them warm enough. I like things cool.

  3. A shopping trip at it's best, nice plant scores for both you and Z. I have to admit though I have issues with fall planting. It's never as successful for me as spring planting.

    1. I've never had trouble with fall planting, but then I'm not as big a zone pusher as you. If I do plant something that could be risky, I plant it in the spring.

  4. We have pretty good sales here too, but I'm in the same boat as Loree. I've lost so many fall planted things that I try to resist temptation in the fall. Those Christmas decorations are going to need dusting several times before the big day.

    1. Funny, I've never had trouble with fall plantings before. But then if I have something that could be a bit tender I plant it in spring. Ha! Yes, those Christmas decorations will need some sprucing up by the time Christmas actually comes around.

  5. Mostly 50 - 60 percent off here. Glad you had a great time doing some retail therapy! Love the mini-terrariums but I'm with you on the maintenance issue. How about filling them with moss and tillandsias instead?

    1. Really? I rarely saw discounts that good except in the clearance sections. Maybe a few nurseries where I grew up would have better sales, but mostly 30% off was the max. Moss and tillandsias would be better in those mini-terrariums, but I've had trouble with tillandsias rotting because they stay wet too long. The terrariums could increase that likelihood.


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