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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.

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.


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.

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.

White Pine Burn

I have two 20-year-old pine trees whose needles are turning brown on the west side of the plants. On the east side I have a compost pile.

I live in the St. Charles region and my soil is mostly clay. What is causing the browning? Should I get rid of the compost? How do I correct the damage?

Climate conditions could be the cause of the brown needles. There was strong west wind this past winter season, which caused winter burn. With last fall’s rain and winter snow cover, the soil never dried out. According to Todd Mohr, sales associate, Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery, Woodstock, pines normally begin

to go dormant in late August. “We had a lot of burn on our evergreens which showed up over summer,” says Mohr.

Cut a sample of the branch and make sure the plant is alive. You can photograph your tree or take the sample to an arboretum or garden center for evaluation. The compost should not affect the trees unless you have a large pile that is prohibiting air circulation. Spread the compost loosely over the area.

White pine is a native Illinois tree. It may come back on its own. If not, have a tree professional diagnose it.


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.

Ground Cover Suggestions

I have a dampish area with poor grass and moss that I would like to change to ground cover, but if I have only one plant, won’t it be boring? Can I get rid of the grass in winter or early spring?

If we have a dry winter or spring, you can smother the grass with a heavy layer of newspapers held down by bricks or stones, or use a product that will kill the grass. Use it according to the label directions. Grass roots are very persistent, so you may have to dig out the remaining roots by hand. The moss will disappear as you aerate the soil and rake in organic material.

When your area is properly prepared, you will have a large choice of low-growing groundcovers.

Kim Schroeder, perennial buyer at Wasco Nursery and Garden Center, St. Charles, suggests the following: lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), or European ginger (A. europaeum), vinca (Vinca minor), Tiarella, Astilbe-the cultivar ‘Perkio’ is shorter than Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’ and violas such as bird’s foot viola (Viola pedata) or sweet white viola (V. blanda).

These choices are not aggressive growers like goutweed (Aegopodium), which grows anywhere and is very difficult to eradicate. You can plant free form areas with one type and another alongside it as contrast. Most of these ground covers bloom at slightly different times to give you a spring-into-summer flowering season.

Siberian Iris

My Siberian iris ‘Gracilis’ plants have only one bloom per clump. I have five 3 to 5 year-old clumps that are 8 to 10 inches wide. They do not appear to be crowded. All are planted in a moist area. Why is there only one bloom per clump?

“Iris bloom is directly proportional to the amount of sun received,” proclaimed Chuck Simon, Hinsdale, past president of the Northern Illinois Iris Society, who grows 10,000 rhizomes of 1,000 to 1,500 iris varieties. Iris need 4 to 5 hours of sun, but full sun is best. Another cause of bloom failure could be iris borers, which eat mature fans and cause only minor increases in plant growth. Spray with Cygon 2E in spring when eggs of borers hatch in order to break their life cycle. When transplanting iris, make sure the roots remain moist. Grow them in moist but not wet soil. In the first year after planting, water them religiously. Once past that point, they are very hardy. Simon, a master iris judge, referred to the American Iris Society checklist for any special cultural conditions affecting bloom and discovered that this variety is very old. Iris siberica ‘Gracilis’ was introduced in 1927.

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.

Variegated Sedum

I have a large variegated sedum with pink flowers that I have had for years. I noticed that it has started to send up some all-green shoots. Why is it doing this and how can I keep my plant variegated?

All variegated plants contain a combination of green cells with chlorophyll and white tissue with no chlorophyll, which produces the green and white effect. Variegated plants are genetically unstable, so sometimes the tissues revert to all-green cells and send up solid green shoots from the base of the plant. Because these shoots contain more chlorophyll than the variegated tissue, they are more vigorous. Thus they can quickly overrun a plant, according to Hortech, a developer and grower of sedums.

Cut the green shoots off at the base of the plant as soon as you see them. It is possible you have induced vigorous growth by giving the plant too much high-nitrogen fertilizer, so it would be wise not to fertilize. It sometimes helps to divide your plant and then choose the most variegated stems for a new plant. Since your sedum, a cultivar of Sedum spectabile, is such a rapid grower, it will quickly become a new clump after division. Newer named cultivars are more genetically stable and do not have this problem.

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My lilac had a grayish blight on the leaves this summer. What caused this and how can I prevent it?

I have a hoya houseplant that has been growing happily for eight years. It had flowers when I received it, but it hasn’t bloomed since. What am I doing wrong? Can I get it to flower?

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