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Hellebores

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

Hellebores increase slowly into clumps so have patience, counsels Chris Darbo, wholesale manager of The Natural Garden, St. Charles, and an enthusiastic hellebore grower. “I have Helleborus foetidus, which has finely cut leaves and blooms in January, and H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Both have increased in twelve years to four times the size of the original plants, but they haven"t self sown. They are planted in a bed of sweet woodruff in a partly shady location.”

“I also have a clump of H. orientalis that was transplanted into my back yard five years ago, and it seeds all over the place. It is planted in shade with no ground cover. My theory is if the seeds can"t reach the ground, they can"t grow!” It takes three years before seedlings bloom.

According to Darbo, hellebores do not need fertilizer. She never rakes leaves from garden beds but instead lets fallen leaves act as a winter mulch. Leaf decomposition over the years has helped her soil to become more loamy.

H. niger, the Christmas rose, does not self seed as readily as H. orientalis and H. foetidus.

Note: A new strain of H.orientalis has recently reached the market. Known as the Royal Heritage strain, it includes colors and patterns never seen before in the species. Fifteen years in the making, Royal Heritage hellebores were developed by John Elsley, Director of Horticulture at Song Sparrow Farm in Avalon, Wisconsin.


What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

Evelyn Fink, garden center manager at The Fields on Caton Farm, Inc., Crest Hill

Yuki Cherry deutzia, Kodiak Black diervilla and Little Henry itea should have a presence in everyone’s garden. They will work well complementing taller shrubs in mass plantings and as a focal point when planted individually. All of them grow in full sun to partial shade with sizes ranging from 1½-4 feet. The itea will also grow in full shade. The unique shape and flower of each plant combined with the rich burgundy to wine-red fall color make these must-haves for plant lovers.

Mark Maradik, plant manager, Pasquesi Home & Gardens, Lake Bluff

The native Sugar Shack buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) thrives in wet heavy soils and clay. Fragrant pincushion-shaped white flowers attract pollinators. Red fruit in winter. Bobo is the best Hydrangea paniculata to date from Proven Winners. It is 2-3 feet tall and completely covered with long-lasting white flowers. The Low Scape Black Chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa). Only 2 feet tall, tolerant of all soils; very cold tolerant. Profuse small white flowers in spring and dark purple fruit. Brilliant red/orange/ magenta fall leaves.

Jeff Schulz, owner, The Hidden Gardens, Willowbrook

My favorite dwarf shrubs have all-season interest and can be pruned to stay even smaller. Fothergillia gardenia (24-30 inches tall) is the smallest fothergillia cultivar. White flowers emerge in spring just before the leaves. Fall color is red, orange and yellow. Disease-free. Spilled Wine Weigelia (24-30 inches tall and wide) has dark purple leaves all summer if planted in full sun. Long-blooming pink flowers in spring, Deer resistant. Bobo hydrangea (30-36 inches tall and wide) produces loads of white flowers in mid- to late summer, changing to pink in fall. Flowers are held upright on strong stems and do not flop.


Fruit Trees

I am interested in growing fruit trees in my suburban DuPage County yard. Can sweet cherries be grown here? Can you suggest varieties of apples, pears, peaches, apricots and plums that are hardy and disease resistant?

Sweet cherries are not hardy in this area. Some fruit trees are sensitive to winter cold and spring frost damage to the buds. Early flowering apricots are the most sensitive, followed by peaches. Pears and sour cherries bloom later and are less sensitive to late frosts.

Apples are the least sensitive to frost damage. Apple scab and apple maggot are common pests. Fruit trees require a regular schedule of spraying for pest control.

For a backyard fruit tree grower, tree size is important. Dwarf fruit trees bear full-sized fruit earlier than standard sized trees. Most fruit cultivars need two different varieties to cross- pollinate and produce fruit.

Midwest Fruit Explorers is a non-profit amateur backyard fruit-growing group. For more information about fruit growing, see www.midfex.org.


Pines in Winter

This past spring I planted a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) in full sun. As winter began, the angle of the sun’s rays has caused the tree to receive, at most, 4 hours of sun. What are sun requirements of evergreens in winter?

In general, pines adapt to the winter weather by becoming dormant, says Susan Eyre, Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery, Woodstock. It is the freeze and thaw cycle that is hard on a plant, not the loss of sun hours. In a January thaw, sap rises and then freezes, which can cause the bark to crack, but plants usually recover.


What plants do you predict will be best sellers this year? Why?

What plants do you predict will be best sellers this year? Why?

Bryon Angerman, nursery manager, Alsip Home & Garden, St. John, Ind. and Frankfort, Ill.

I believe these two compact hydrangeas will be hot plants this year. First is Invincibelle Wee White® hydrangea, a compact and reblooming white variety of ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea. Its dwarf habit of 18-24 inches and versatile adaptability to full-sun to part-shade planting locations will yield three to four months of continuous flowers on sturdy stems. It’s sure to become a staple in every landscape. Also look for Mini Mauvette hydrangea for similar habits with pinkish purple flowers.

Molly Hornbaker Blogg, nursery manager, Hornbaker Gardens, Princeton.

Hydrangea Little Quick Fire will be a best seller this year. It blooms early with pure white flowers turning to pink, then rose. Its more
compact size, at 4-5 feet and fits into most urban gardens better than most other panicle hydrangeas. Hosta ‘Autumn Frost’ is an attention grabbing plant with powder blue leaves and showy yellow margins. Last year’s Perennial of the Year, Asclepias tuberosa, should continue to be a big seller because of its gorgeous orange flowers and because it is a host for monarch caterpillars.

Jennifer Brennan,horticulture information specialist, manager of education, Chalet, Wilmette.

Being at a retail garden center and nursery, I get to hear customers’ requests and questions about plants for their gardens. Being on the board of the Perennial Plant Association for 6 years, I get to hear hybridizers and growers claims about the “BEST” plants. It is wonderful when the claims of the hybridizers and growers match the requests of the gardeners and designers. The other fact that is worth stating is that the plants are trialed much better than in the past, so there is proof from many areas of the country that the recommended plants will perform and survive.

The first plant that I expect to be a good seller is one that has been selected by the members of the Perennial Plant Association as the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2018. It is Allium ‘Millenium’. Allium ‘Millenium’ is one of the very best ornamental onions. Unlike spring-blooming Allium bulbs, this hybrid Allium blooms in mid to late summer with large large 2 inch rose-purple, globe-shaped flowers over shiny deep green strappy, grassy foliage. Mature plants have dozens of globes covering this perennial plant. Allium ‘Millenium’ attracts butterflies and bees love it as well, but deer and rabbits stay away. This Allium is good for winter hardiness Zones 5-9; prefers full sun to part shade and is 10-12 inches tall.

The
second plant is a flowering perennial Echinacea. It is Echinacea KISMET™ Raspberry and it is different due to sheer flower number and a fabulous habit. It blooms first year, early in the season, with large flowers and continues until a hard frost. It is a great plant! I saw it in trials in the Chicago area and in Colorado. It attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. It is a wonderful cut flower with a great fragrance. It is deer resistant. It is hardy from Zone 4 to zone 10. It forms an upright mound that is 16 inches tall by 24 inches wide, up to 18 inches in flower. It is a beautiful hot pink color that blooms June, July, August, September and October. And, it likes average well drained soil in full sun.

The third plant is a hybrid of a native grass. Native plants are one of the strongest trends in gardening these days. The natural beauty of native Blue Grama Grass is raised to a higher level in Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’. Its allure includes an abundance of horizontal seed heads, which resemble elegant, petite flags. They emerge chartreuse and transform to blonde. These exquisite blooms hover above thin, blue-green, two-foot stems. ‘Blonde Ambition’ was named a 2011 Plant Select® Winner for its resistance to pests, exceptional performance in low water conditions, retail appeal, and long-lasting attractiveness in gardens and containers. It pops right back up after snowfall. Bouteloua gracilis‘ Blonde Ambition’ was discovered and introduced by David Salman of High Country Gardens. It is easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun. It tolerates a wide range of soils, except poorly-drained, wet ones. It is hardy from Zone 3 to Zone 10. It is a tufted, warm season, Missouri native grass noted for its distinctive arrangement of mosquito larvae-like seed spikes which hang from only one side of its flowering stems. It is native to prairies, plains, open rocky woodlands and along railroad tracks. It has narrow, bluish-gray leaf blades (to 1/4 inch wide) that typically form a dense clump growing 12-15 inches tall. Foliage turns golden brown in autumn, sometimes also developing interesting hues of orange and red. Inflorescences of blond colored flowers appear on arching stems above the foliage in early to mid-summer, typically bringing the total height of the clump to 20 inches tall.

All three of these should be at the top of the selling lists for the 2018.


Fertilizer

What ratio and amounts of fertilizer would you use for a perennial bed and a vegetable garden? For growing annuals in a greenhouse, should the fertilizer be fast or slow-release, organic or inorganic?

Use 3 to 5 pounds of a 10-5-10 or 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1000 square feet in the perennial bed. Add leaves as mulch. In your vegetable bed, nutrients are important. Fertilize more heavily using a 10-10-10 fertilizer at the rate of 5 to 10 pounds per 1000 square feet.

For hanging baskets of annuals in a greenhouse, a slow-release fertilizer is best. Use a 20-10-20 liquid fertilizer following label directions. In general, organic fertilizers have a lower chemical analysis than inorganic ones, so you have to use more, according to David Tyznik, owner of Planter’s Palette, Winfield.

A healthy plant is dependent on its soil. A balanced soil is rich in beneficial microorganisms that improve the soil structure and supply necessary nutrients. Soilless potting mixes have no microorganisms. “Both organic and inorganic fertilizers work well, but those in soilless mixes need more fertilizer,” says Tyznik.


Purple Coneflower

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

If your coneflowers remain standing over winter, the seed heads will be available as bird food and will also be an attractive presence in the winter garden. They should be cut back in early spring before April. If you prefer, you can cut the plant back after frost and throw the seed heads on the ground.


Sowing Seeds

I would like to start seeds under lights. When is the best time to start flower seeds? The seed packet always says to sow a number of weeks before the last frost. When is the last frost?

“In this area we use May 15 as a benchmark for the last frost date, but it can be earlier or later,” says Chuck Prosek, grower at Prosek’s Greenhouse, Winfield.

If your seed packet gives you the number of days to germination, add that to the number of weeks for growth, and then count the number of weeks back from May 15. Tomatoes sown indoors generally need 6-8 weeks of growth before being set out.

Many seed packets do not include germination time. A good guess is to allow 1-2 weeks for the seeds to germinate, but if you use bottom heat, your seeds will germinate earlier and grow faster. Most seeds need warm soil of 65 to 70 degrees to germinate and grow.

When you sow seeds directly into the soil, till the upper inch of soil to loosen it for direct seed to soil contact. The outside soil temperature must be above 50 degrees for cool growing plants, and at least 65 degrees for warm season annuals, according to Prosek.

For future reference, keep a record of indoor sowing dates, germination dates, length of indoor growing period, and transplanting dates.


Asparagus

Can I grow asparagus from seed? I saved the little red berries from my plants.

You can grow asparagus from seed. I have done so many times, but it takes three or more years for a crop, and growing from seed usually gives inferior plants. Better crops come from hybrid plants.

If the red berries from the female plant have dried over winter, there should be two or three black seeds inside. Clean them off and prepare your seed bed for planting.

Asparagus needs full sun and a sandy loam soil raked smooth. After the danger of frost is past, bury the seeds at a depth two times its diameter and keep the bed moist. In the third year you can lightly cut the pencil-thin stalks. There are often volunteers of female plants between rows you that can transplant. However, it is best to start asparagus by buying roots so you have a small crop the first year. Most varieties sold are male.


Cold Frames

With all the emphasis on growing fresh vegetables, I think I should use a cold frame but I am not sure what to do or how to go about it. Any ideas?

Cold frames are simply four walls with a window or plastic sheet on top. They range from simply placing four bales of straw in a square with an old window atop them to more deluxe mini-greenhouses with aluminum frames, plastic panels and automatic vents using solar energy to open and close them automatically.

Before building a cold frame, study garden supply and greenhouse catalogs to determine your needs and how fancy you want your cold frame to be. Do you prefer a permanent installation or an easily disassembled frame?

A basic plan for building a cold frame is taught by Chicago Botanic Garden’s senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood. Create four walls from plywood or bricks. Add a transparent lid (plastic sheeting or an old window) for light to enter. Place the lid on an angle. Place the frame against a building, facing south. Make sure there is good drainage. Open the frame when it gets above 60 degrees. Rabbits don’t usually get into the box but chipmunks may squeeze in.

Cold frames are used for extending the growing season, starting plants early, for storing bonsai or protecting semi-hardy plants over winter. The soil in the frame depends on how you will use it. The frame can be set on existing soil when you are storing plants, or fill it with straw to protect bonsai. Locate it conveniently against the house near a back door for easy access, especially if you envision running out to cut some salad greens when snow is on the ground.

Use a cold frame to get a head start on the gardening season. In early spring, start flats of lettuce, radishes, parsley, pansies and other cool-weather plants in the house, and place them in the cold frame in March, depending on the weather. If you plan on planting directly into the cold frame, fill it with a seed starting soil mix and an inch of compost worked into the top 3 inches of the soil. This will help keep the soil loose and aid moisture retention. The plants will be small in the cold frame and can be grown close together. Also use the cold frame to harden off house-grown seedlings.
Don’t forget to check on your plants regularly because winter sun is strong and plants dry up easily. Use it for a head start on the gardening season.


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questions

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.

My split-leaf Japanese maple tree is 15 to 20 years old, about 7 feet high and about 10 feet wide. It is overtaking the corner of the yard. Can I trim it, and at what time of the year?

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

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