Vermont Garden Journal: Planting And Enjoying The Hardy Chelone

Sep 13, 2017

I used to own a camp with a swimming pond in the Northeast Kingdom. I remember in late summer swimming in the pond and admiring these plants growing along the pond edge. They were 2- to 3-feet tall with rounded stems, deep green, boldly veined leaves and white or pink flowers on the top of the stems. The flowers reminded me of an animal's head. Do you know the animal I'm talking about? Yes, it was chelone or turtle head.

You don't have to live in the Northeast Kingdom or have a pond to grow turtle heads. But these conditions tell you something about this native perennial. It's a hardy plant that likes a moist soil. Chelone grows best in part sun, but survives in full sun if the soil stays consistently moist. The white, pink or red flowers are hooded and have two petals that overlap, looking like a turtle's head.

These flowers are good problem-solving plants around your home. They grow in heavy, wet, mucky, clay soils and bloom from late summer to fall when there's a dearth of color in your flower garden. You can plant them in a partly shaded flower garden as long as you keep them well-watered. Other locations include a rain garden or any wet area. Pair them with other part-shade, damp-soil tolerant plants such as Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower and meadow rue.

Chelone will spread over time and can be divided in spring to make more plants. The wild species usually is white or light pink flowered, but newer selections, such as 'Hot Lips', feature dark pink blooms. The plants may be susceptible to leaf diseases, especially if grown in too dry a soil.

And now for this week's tip: when piling food scraps into your compost pile, remember to add a handful of high carbon material, such as hay, dried leaves or peat moss, to the pile to balance the wet, high-nitrogen food scraps and prevent flies and smells from developing.