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Do the ants on my peony flowers help buds to open, or is this an old wives’ tale? What are the extremely tiny, microscopic yellow wormy looking bugs crawling on my pink peony flowers? My peonies are beautiful, but I don’t want all these bugs.

Peony buds exude a sweet viscous sap that attracts ants. The ants do not generally affect the opening of peony buds. The old tale could have arisen because ants are occasionally seen eating large transparent drops of sap on the buds.

The tiny worms you describe are common yellow thrips, which are attracted to light-colored flowers. Thrips suck juice from buds, petals and leaves. Their triangular bodies are too small and move too fast to be hosed off the plant. A systemic insecticide should be used to prevent plant injuries.

“Peonies are such old time nostalgic favorites that people excuse their shortcomings,” says Mary Ellen Murphy, perennial plant specialist, Pesche’s Garden Center, Des Plaines. “To use the flowers indoors in cut arrangements, pick them when the buds are soft and show color, and then rinse the stems outside with a hose to remove insects.”

Overwintering Clivia

After a summer outside, my clivia has returned indoors. Last year it had only one puny flower. What treatment should I give it over winter to bring it into bloom?

A. Clivia miniata, sometimes known as Kaffir lily, a South African native, is a member of the amaryllis family. When growing clivia, it is important to observe seasonal changes. During short winter days, stop fertilizing entirely until spring, and stop watering also.

“Treat your plant like a cactus,” says Steve Butcher, tropical plant specialist at Sid’s Garden Center in Palos Hills. “You can keep it completely dry for a couple of weeks up to the point of shriveling before watering. Keep your plant in a cool place; 55 to 65 degrees is ideal, but that’s hard to achieve in many homes. It does not need a brightly lit location.”

When the days lengthen, move the plant into a brighter location and increase watering. There are no hard-and-fast rules on watering. The frequency depends on the pot size and the root mass. Use a water-soluble, high-phosphorus fertilizer every second or third watering. After you see buds, reduce fertilizer to once per month. Root bound plants flower better.

Following this regime last winter, Editor Carolyn Ulrich reported five bloom stalks on one of her plants in February. Other plants bloomed in March but one didn’t bloom until June. Clivia are considered a winter-flowering houseplant, but bloom time will vary. Be patient.

Trumpet Vine

Will a trumpet vine growing on a tree harm it?

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is a vigorous vine which can climb to the top of a tree in one season and spreads by suckering roots. It blooms in full sun in clusters of 3-inch-long orange tubes with flaring scarlet lobes.

The vine will not harm an established tree but a young tree could be stressed.

“There may be root competition between the vine and the tree for moisture, especially if your tree needs a lot of water. However, trumpet vines can grow with less moisture. When customers claim their vine does not bloom, it is because they are watering and pampering it too much,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery and Garden Center, Crystal Lake.

Italian Cypress

Is it possible to plant and grow Italian cypress in the Chicago area? Are our winters too severe for it? If they are, is there an alternative conifer that will provide a similar look?

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) has dark green foliage and horizontal branches and grows into a dense column 60 feet high in Italy. It is not hardy here.

Paul Jeffers, tree and shrub salesperson, Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago, suggests substituting a dense, columnar arborvitae, (Thuja occidentalis ‘Fastigiata’). It grows to 25 feet tall and 5 feet wide, but can be kept lower by pruning. The very narrow arborvitae ‘DeGroots Spire’ is another choice. The false cypress Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’, often mistaken for arborvitae, is a tight upright growing plant.

African Violets

I have twelve beautiful blooming violet plants on my office desk, placed 12 inches from a light source that’s kept burning day and night. I water them from the bottom and let the water remain in the saucer.

No matter what I spray, I continue to have gnats and other insects in my soil. I also occasionally start to get yellow spots on the tips of the leaves and then the spots start going down the leaves. What’s going on here?

A number of factors could be causing your problems.

“Yellow tips indicate your plant is showing stress either from lack of humidity or watering too much; it’s hard to pinpoint,” says Sandy Fuller, Palatine, past president of Barrington Bloomers, who grows 100 African violets under lights in her basement.

Peat-based soil needs to dry out for fungus gnats to disappear. Use a magnifying glass and try to identify them. Gnats eat only decaying plant material and do not damage the plants. If you have mealy bugs, their cottony waxy sac is easy to identify.

Office tap water may be too cold. Let it sit for half a day before using it. If the water is too cold, the plant could rot. Some violets are more sensitive than others to temperature changes.

Repot your plants in African violet soil and use a 20-20-20 fertilizer.

Rose of Sharon - Botrytis Blight

I have two 3-year-old rose of Sharon plants, about 20 feet apart. One blooms every year. The other plant forms about 100 buds and looks healthy, but it has not bloomed in the last two years. The buds are solidly closed and look as if they are rotting from the inside out. There does not seem to be any sign of insects on the plant. What is this problem?

From the description it sounds like your plant is infected with botrytis blight, a fungus disease that attacks buds before they open, according to Jim Schuster, extension educator, horticulture, University of Illinois. Your plant needs to be treated with a fungicide early in the season. Remove all diseased portions of the plant and any residue on the ground, as the fungus lives over winter in discarded material.


I have some peonies that I want to transplant but cannot plant them in their permanent place until next spring when our new house will be built. Can I dig them now and transplant them again next spring?

The correct time for transplanting herbaceous peonies is late September into October. Cut back the foliage when you dig them up. Each clump you move should have at least three eyes, or growth buds, and thick tuberous roots. Dig a hole deep enough to cover the eyes with two inches of soil when you transplant. If planted too deeply, they will not bloom.

Transplant the peony into its temporary place, or else move it into a container and dig the container into a shady area, not in full sun. Be careful about watering the container plant; try to keep it evenly moist. Next spring, move the peony into its permanent location, suggests David Leider, perennial grower at Klehm Plants, Barrington.

“Replanting in spring disrupts the roots and will halt blooming for one year. Peonies are pretty strong plants and very hardy. They will recover,” says Charlotte Thayer, assistant to the owner at The Natural Garden, St. Charles.

Fresh Figs

I recently moved to Chicago from Houston and I miss fresh picked figs. Is there any way to grow figs in Chicago short of installing a greenhouse? Will sunny windows do? I’m desperate.

Figs (Ficus carica) are handsome plants with smooth gray bark and large lobed leaves which can grow into gnarled trees in warm climates. In Illinois, with winter die-back, they are grown as shrubs. They should be sited where they get some protection from the wind in winter.

You do not need a greenhouse to grow figs, and a sunny window would not be appropriate. Grow a fig cultivar suitable for this climate. While most figs are rated to winter hardiness zone 4, the problem comes because our growing season is too short to ripen fruit, which may take until September or October in a cool summer. Sometimes we have an early frost. If so, pick unripened figs and let them ripen in the house.

Alana Mezo, senior horticulturist for the fruit and vegetable island at the Chicago Botanic Garden, recommends ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig, the variety they grow. They have 10 or 12 plants there growing in a row and, through trial and error, have decided not to protect them over winter because rodents chew roots and stems in wrapped plants and set back their growth. Their figs are multi-stemmed, die back to the ground when unprotected, and get off to a slow start in the spring, delaying fruiting.

However, if you do not have a rodent problem, tie the stems together, wrap burlap around the tied stems, and cover the base with a basketful of leaves. With this protection, your plants will have a head start in spring, and you should have figs ripen a month earlier than unprotected plants, at least by late August.

Another method of winter protection is to root prune in a half semi-circle around the plant, lay it down and cover the plants with leaves over winter.

If you grow a fig in a large container, you can wheel it into an unheated garage and store it over winter. Watch it to see if it needs moisture. Your plant does need a dormant cold period, but not a freeze. This is an “iffy” process according to Mezo.

A fig grower in Highwood claims that rubbing olive oil on the fig hastens ripening, but Mezo has not tried this yet.

Low Light House Plants

We have a skylight in the bathroom over our Jacuzzi tub with an area around the tub that is quite large. What plants can we grow there, and what care do they need? Can we grow orchids?

Use plants that grow in low light such as pothos, philodendron, peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), any type of dracaena, and include lady palm (Rhapis) for height. It would be possible to grow moth orchids (Phalaenopsis).

“While the bathroom will give you good humidity, your plants must be watered thoroughly. The peace lily needs to be kept evenly moist. Feed monthly with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer,” advises Elizabeth Hoffman, manager, West End Florist, Evanston.

Climbing Hydrangea

What does it take to make a climbing hydrangea flower? Ours was planted 3 years ago and is growing energetically. It’s in a protected nook near the patio and gets very little direct sunlight, but doesn’t act sun starved. We gave it a shot of slow release fertilizer on planting, and once since. Somewhat inadvertently it gets plenty of water, since the hose spigot is nearby and leaks, but drainage does not seem to be the problem. It now fully occupies an 8-foot trellis but shows no interest in flowering. Is it youth, lack of sun, too much or too little fertilizer, bugs, lack of pruning or what? When do these plants bloom and what conditions do they like?

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) is a choice vine with rich, vigorous, dark green foliage, growing ultimately to 20 feet high and 10 feet wide. The extra moisture it gets is good, and it can bloom in shade. Brent Horvath, president and grower at Intrinsic Gardens, Hebron, has seen it blooming beautifully under a canopy of trees.

After weighing all the cultural factors you described, Horvath has concluded that your vine may be immature and will need a couple more years before it flowers. Climbing hydrangea matures very slowly, especially when it’s sold in 2 gallon containers.

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