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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.


Tomatoes

After my father’s tomatoes ripen on the vine, he finds when he cuts into them that there is a hard white core that extends through the fruit.

“This is a common problem,” says Dan Woldhuis, owner, Woldhuis Farms, Grant Park. “Customers bring their tomatoes to me with hard cores.”

Sometimes this is the result of weather that’s too hot and then suddenly cold.

But more likely it is the variety. Change to a soft-skin, less firm tomato such as ‘Celebrity’ to overcome the white core problem. I’ve grown this for many years and sold it at the farmers’ market, but it is too soft for the commercial market and is best for home growers.


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.


Pre-Chilled Bulbs

I purchased some pre-chilled hyacinths and tulips for forcing but there were no directions with them. Does this mean I don’t have to chill them in the refrigerator, and will they just bloom in the house any time during the winter? The last batch of bulbs became moldy in the refrigerator.

Using pre-chilled bulbs avoids the 12- to 14- week cold treatment that bulbs need for indoor blooming. However, you need to pot up the bulbs in a loose potting mix. Do not cover the bulbs in plastic wrap or paper bags. It will still take 3 or 4 weeks of cold for roots to appear.

Hyacinths kept cool do not need to be potted. They can sprout roots in a saucer of water with the bulb held in place by stones. Check the water level and make sure it just touches the base of the bulb and add water as needed.

The bulbs can be forced as soon as you see roots, or you can hold them in the cold temperature to space out the bud development. Place rooted bulbs in bright light in a cool room, and watch for buds. Rotate the plant so the flowering stem will be erect. “Your previous bulbs rotted because they were not potted up,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery, Crystal Lake.


Cycas

I have a cycas palm and am not sure how much direct sunlight or water it needs. It has light brown marks developing on the leaves. What is causing this, and how do I care for my plant?

Cycas palms or sago palms (Cycas revoluta) are tough house or patio plants. They are neither palms nor ferns but primitive cone-bearing relatives of conifers. A rosette of green feather-like leaves, 2 to 3 feet in height, grows from a central point at the top of a single trunk.

Cycas need bright light and should be kept relatively moist with weekly watering. However, prolonged rainy spells can cause fungal leaf spot disease.

“The shiny brown spots are probably caused by scale,” says Jeff Frohn, sales associate at Geimer Greenhouses, Long Grove. “It can be treated with fish oil, vegetable oil or an all-in-one insecticide spray,” adds Mike Geimer, owner, Geimer Greenhouses.


Raising Lawn Level

I want to raise the level of my lawn as much as 2 feet in places. I now have a large quantity of somewhat composted wood chips and I am wondering if I can use them as fill to raise the ground level and provide a good soil in which to sow a lawn.

“It is not a good idea to use only wood chips to raise the grade of an area,” says Greg Stack, University of Illinois extension educator, horticulture. While wood chips may raise the grade for a while, over time they will decompose and eventually the site will sink. Even using them as fill and putting soil over them is not a good idea.

“I would not use straight compost by itself to raise the lawn level, but mix it with soil,” adds Stack.


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.


I've got green worms!

What is the green worm that eats my roses and columbine every year?

It is hard to diagnose your problem without seeing the caterpillar. There are several green worms that bother roses, and one can be controlled with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) but rose slug, for example, cannot. Proper identification is necessary before applying any control method. Do not use an insecticide for anything that"s not on on the product label. Do not use any insecticide as a preventive measure. It doesn"t work and ends up being harmful to the environment and a waste of your money.

Green worm on your columbine could be an inch worm or canker worm. If the caterpillar loops up in the center or arches as it moves along, it could be a looper or cabbage worm. Leaf miners, which are usually white or pink, tunnel in the leaves. “To eliminate insects, use insecticidal soap,” said Nancy Clifton, Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Information Specialist.

For an exact diagnosis, consult your local University of Illinois Extension service or collect a specimen and bring it to the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden or the Morton Arboretum.


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.


Peonies

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.”


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