The Daylily Man on Old Stage

In 2000 when Ronald Mickelson planted 20 assorted daylilies around the base of his new deck, little did he think those flowers would lead to a second career.

“I thought daylilies were orange and grew in ditches,” Mickelson said. But when he saw these flowers, “I fell in love with them!”

In some respects the step from being a carpenter (he spent nearly 40 years working for Carlson-Erickson Builders) to being a hybridizer of hemerocallis seems a leap.

Born and raised in Door County, Mickelson’s path did not involve formal study of horticulture. “My grandparents on both sides had farms,” he said, “and I grew up helping them hay, pick strawberries, and raise big vegetable gardens.”

When he and his wife Sue still had kids at home (his son Leif is a carpenter and his daughter Tera is married to Steve Mueller of the AC Tap), they tended a large vegetable garden, too. Mickelson learned plants by doing.

Hybridization techniques he mastered by reading and by asking questions of fellow members of Green Bay’s BAD (Bay Area Daylily) Club. Now he has between 6,000 and 8,000 seedlings under evaluation from his hybridization work; he has two test gardens on neighbors’ land in addition to those gardens he maintains at his home.

A visit to Ron Mickelson’s plots in some respects is like a tour of a public garden. The boundaries of the acre and a half property are delineated by shrubs and then bordered by perennial beds, most of them daylilies. Many of the beds are raised with stone sides.

Both formal and informal visits to Mickelson’s gardens are common. He has been featured on the Sister Bay Historical Society Garden Walk. The Sturgeon Bay Garden Club is planning a visit this summer, as are the Door County Master Gardeners for a demonstration of hemerocallis hybridization. During this writer’s conversation with Mickelson, two different people stopped to visit the grounds; one made purchases and the other dropped off plastic flowerpots. Visitors seem reluctant to leave.

Mickelson grows approximately 600 named varieties of hemerocallis. What was once the family vegetable garden he now uses as his “brood garden” for daylily divisions and seedling. Two large rows are filled with plants he has created. He points to one daylily in particular that “might be a future introduction.”

Presently, the American Hemerocallis Society has registered approximately 70,000 daylilies.

“I look for branching and high bud counts,” he said of his hybridizing work, “and for rebloom in colder climates.” But to be registered, “it must be pretty special.”

He grows a number of other perennials, too. He has about a hundred varieties of hostas on display, about 20 of which are for sale; he offers divisions of his other excess perennials, also.

Mickelson advertises by placing a sign in his front lawn, and business is good. “It’s almost gotten to be a job!” he laughs. Word of mouth, too, brings him customers, many of them returns. He keeps an album with photographs of his lilies in bloom to serve as a catalog.

“I probably sell more to tourists than to locals,” he said. “They want to take a little something back home with them.”

Not only do they come for the value, but for the quality of the plants. “I don’t sell anything unless it’s been here four seasons and is hardy,” he said. “And a lot of the things you buy at [the big box stores] may be tissue plants which may not be true to the variety.

“If you buy from local growers,” he continued, “you will have a nicer perennial.” Some of the discount store plants may initially look good because they may have spent the winter under grow lights, but the following spring, the locally grown plants will be bigger and healthier.

Not only is Mickelson a responsible local grower, but he is environmentally conscious as well. People know that they are welcome to drop off plastic pots. He recycles them by reusing them himself and by sharing them with other growers.

Ron Mickelson welcomes visitors to his gardens at the corner of Old Stage and Wildwood, located between Sister Bay and Ellison Bay. He has the genial manner of a Scandinavian grandpa, a personality in keeping with the quiet beauty of his daylily gardens.