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Winter Mulch

Must I mulch my garden and, if so, when is the best time to apply it? What are the best materials to use?

Perennial gardens usually come through the winter better when given some sort of protection, although many gardeners leave their established gardens unprotected save for deer netting to keep deer off newly emerging greens in spring. Plants new to your garden can be protected by mulch during the first winter and may not need it after that.

Mulch is used in winter not to keep the plants warm, but to keep the ground at an even temperature and prevent plants from heaving out of the soil during periods of alternate freezing and thawing. Thus it is applied after the ground freezes. If mulch is applied before the ground freezes, it can smother the plants.

The simplest mulch is a loose layer of oak leaves, which do not mat down and rot. Ground-up leaves are ideal, and even dried grass can be used. Or apply straw left over from Halloween decorating.

Use only a few inches of mulch and keep it light enough not to smother the plants. Deer netting helps to hold mulch in place until it is wet enough not to blow around. In spring, as soon as the plant starts to grow, remove the mulch gradually, a little at a time over several days. Don’t wait too long because if the shoots are too tall, you may damage them as you pull off the mulch. Work the mulch into the soil with a trowel afterwards.

Heucheras, astrantias and recently planted perennials may heave even if mulched. Push any dislodged plants back into the soil. Mulch also protects the evergreen rosettes of biennial hollyhock, foxglove, Canterbury bells and sweet William from snow and ice damage.


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.


Staking Plants

I dislike staking perennials. Is there anything I can do to avoid it?

There are several techniques you can use to limit time spent on this chore, but it is difficult to totally

avoid staking some plants.

First and foremost, the old adage “right plant, right place” means full sun perennials need to be grown in full sun for tight upright growth. If they are too shaded, the plant will stretch or bend toward the sun and grow in a loose habit. Growing plants a little closer together also helps because it enables plants to support each other.

The best remedy to avoid staking is to cut some tall plants down by one-half in June. That will delay flowering in helenium, monarda, platycodon, chrysanthemum and aster, but the plants will remain upright. If you really want to eliminate cutting back, grow dwarf versions of these plants.”
Short, thin branches from forsythia or dogwood (known as “pea staking” in England) can be placed around the perimeter of newly emerging plants to help keep the stems upright. Some garden centers have begun selling bundles of branches for this purpose. In a short time, the shrub cuttings are covered by emerging shoots. This technique works well with fine foliage such as baby’s breath or flax.

There are numerous staking supports from bamboo to iron rebar rods. Wire staking supports are available in full, half and even quarter circles to support single stems. Peony hoops can be left in place over winter and will support not only peonies but boltonia, baptisia, and even errant tomatoes.

Some plants always need to be staked. Giant dahlia tubers need a heavy stake dug into the hole at planting time. That prized, single-stemmed iris, lily, or delphinium can get blasted in a storm, and then it’s too late to save it.

Remember: the time to stake plants is during the cooler days of spring when plants are growing rapidly and not on humid July days. Staking should be done unobtrusively and subtly for plants to retain their natural grace.


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.


Compost Bin

I’d like to start composting. Do you have any advice on what kind of bin to purchase/build so that it is successful in the Chicago climate?

Compost, decayed organic matter, improves soil structure, porosity and density and creates a better root system. It increases moisture retention and nutrients while adding significant quantities of organic matter to the soil. It is such a valuable addition to garden soil that it is worth the effort to collect and store waste vegetative material until it decomposes.

Compost bins range from low to high tech. A compost heap can be as simple as a pile of leaves stored at the rear of your garden. The most costly composter is a revolving two-tumbler device with a rotator drum that separates new material from finished material and discharges the final product.

Ideally, if you are saving a mix of unshredded plant material that includes flower stems, large leaves and small branches, a three-bin system works best. Stake out three 36-inch square cages using fence rails, lattice or steel wire. Raw material goes into the first bin. When it is partially decomposed, aerate it and shift it to the second bin, and put the most highly decomposed matter into the final bin. With that method, you can keep adding fresh material as the season progresses.

Do not put any diseased plants in the pile. Keep it in a concave shape to hold rainwater, and aerate it occasionally. As the pile “cooks,” it will heat up during the summer. An interior temperature of 180 degrees will kill bacteria but is not often attainable; 120 degrees is more likely for a mix of green and dried leaves.


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.


Pumpkins

I’d like to know the secret to growing a decent-sized pumpkin for jack-o-lanterns for the grandkids and for decorating. My experience in recent years is that they get about as big as a basketball and then begin to rot. What am I doing wrong?

The longer the fruit is on the vine, the greater the chance it will rot. By September its size is apparent, and it turns orange. It is best to plant pumpkins in different soil each year or every two years, according to Sue Murdock, manager, Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm, South Barrington.

The size and use of pumpkins is determined by the seed you buy. ‘Atlantic Giant’ produces fruits that weigh hundreds of pounds. A better choice is to grow ‘Howden’. It bears well-shaped 10 to 20-pound fruits, the perfect size for jack-o-lanterns. ‘New England Pie’ is the standard for pies with smooth, bright orange flesh. ‘Wee-B-Little’ is a miniature round pumpkin bearing 3- to 4-inch fruit useful for table decorations and suitable for tiny hands.


Houseplants

I have houseplants outside that I will need to bring indoors. What is the lowest temperature at which I can leave them outside?

The rule of thumb is when night temperatures are in the 50s, it is time to bring your houseplants indoors, according to horticulturists at Pesche’s garden center, Des Plaines.

To avoid the shock of suddenly bringing plants into a hot dry environment, place them in a shaded area before the heat comes on in the house. Bring in sensitive tropicals such as hibiscus and anthuriums as soon as summer cools down.

Christmas cactus and cymbidium orchids can tolerate chillier temperatures and stay outdoors longer, but move them indoors before the thermometer drops to freezing, says Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension Educator, Horticulture. Indoors, a cool 50-degree area such as an unheated sun porch will give them the short day situation they need to set flower buds. Stack keeps his Christmas cactus in a cool unused room where the lights aren’t turned on. His plant sets buds and blooms reliably every year, he reports. Christmas cactus buds will dry up in an overheated, dry room.


Perennial Pinchback

Is there an overall rule about when to pinch back my leggy plants?

“The reason plants are pinched back is to obtain compact and bushier growth. This is generally done three times during a growing season, or you can apply the 6 nodes rule,” says Jennifer Brennan, horticulturist, Chalet Nursery, Wilmette.

After 6 weeks of growth, trim back half of the growth, or wait until you see 6 nodes on the plant stem to trim back to get more branching. For plants that respond, such as chrysanthemums, use the 6 node criterion.


Large Tree Replacement

What is the largest tree that one can plant? We are trying to replace some 7- to 8-foot trees that were recently destroyed.

Trees sold at garden centers that are 2.5 to 3 feet tall, with a 2.5 inch diameter trunk, can be planted by hand. A hole for a ‘balled and burlap’ tree with a 5 to 6-inch diameter trunk can be dug by hand without a tree spade.

Any tree with a trunk larger than 6 inches in diameter would need a tree spade to do the moving and digging. Even large trees, such as a 35-foot tall tree with a trunk 9 or 10 inches in diameter can be transplanted with proper equipment. “Spruces 30 feet tall can be installed easily with a tree spade,” according to Greg Oltman, owner, Gro Horticultural Enterprises, Huntley.


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questions

I am growing my potted tropical hibiscus indoors for the winter. The leaves are starting to yellow and fall off. Should I give the plant iron and should I fertilize it? Do I cut it back, and if so, when?

What are some trends in gardening you see becoming more prevalent in the next few years?

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