Herb and plant sale blooms at OP Conservatory

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It's hot one day, freezing the next. Must be spring. One sure sign is the 16th Annual Herb and Scented Plant Sale, this Saturday at the Oak Park Conservatory.

"We're jammed to the gills with plants. So many things are in bloom?#34;it's been an unusually good year," says Sue Kelly, sale chair. The 12,000 plants, representing 261 varieties of herbs, annuals, perennials and vines, have been selected, planted and nurtured by volunteers.

The plant sale is the largest fundraiser of the year for Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory. Proceeds (beyond expenses) support the conservatory's outreach and educational programs, as well as its maintenance.

"This is really a phenomenal success story," says Bob Haisman, Friends board member. Pointing to an effort that started back in the 1970s "when there was talk of knocking it down and building a parking lot," he credits the community for saving the "75-year-old Victorian greenhouse. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised over the last two decades" for its support.

The theme for this year's sale is "Garden All Stars," award-winning plants proven to perform well in the Chicagoland area. Kelly and three other local plant experts spent many hours last September researching plant varieties to find plants that fit the bill.

It's time-consuming but not as hard as it sounds, notes Kelly. The Internet is a huge help, and many of the plants went through independent testing and were designated as All American Selections and Fleuroselect Gold Medalists (the European version).

It takes a month to order all the seeds (or plugs if seeds aren't practical), and then the conservatory's head grower, Henriette Yardley, collects 35 volunteers who spend months growing the plants for the sale.

It's the selection process, and the number of different varieties, that sets these plants apart from the admittedly cheaper flats available at large-box retailers, suggests Haisman.

"They sell mass-produced plants that are grown in Canada and aren't necessarily the varieties that do best here," he explains. "And they tend to stick with the current fads."

Typically, the conservatory sale attracts two kinds of customers. Herb fanciers from all over Illinois, and even surrounding states, come every year to find just that right variety of rosemary (there are seven for sale) or mint (12 varieties). Haisman believes this qualifies as the largest herb sale in the Midwest.

But there's a lot to offer the average weekend gardener as well, notes Kelly. Plants chosen because they do well here are great for local yards. And volunteers will be on hand to answer questions for beginners.

One way to get a look at the all-stars is to stop by the conservatory, where a new exhibit features many of them. Admission is free during regular conservatory hours (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). It runs until May 15.

At the sale, Kelly suggests checking out the rose "Zephirine Drouhin," a climber with no thorns that tolerates part shade (it sold out last year), and the 10 different varieties of clematis, many of which are especially big and beautiful.

She also expects stoneware containers they've imported from Canada?#34;light enough to lift but sturdy enough to stay outside all year?#34;to be big sellers. "Some are planted up. I can see people coming to blows over them," she says, with a laugh.

By this weekend, it should be safe to put most of these plants right into the garden, says Haisman. If you're worried about the cold, hold onto them another week. By May 15, the danger of frost at night should have passed. "They can stay in the containers as long as they get some sun and you water them," he advises.

Members-only shopping days are Thursday, May 5 and Friday, May 6 from 1 to 7 p.m. The public sale is Saturday, May 7 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Plants are priced by container size. The Oak Park Conservatory is located at 615 Garfield St. Call 725-2460 for more information.

?#34;Laura Stuart

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