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Strawberries

I have two strawberry plants in a hanging basket in my yard. I have not had any fruit from them although the vines hang down. I give them plant food once a month and water daily. What am I doing wrong?

Fertilizing your plant with a high nitrogen fertilizer causes excessive leaf growth. Clip the runners so the strength goes into flower and fruit production. In winter, make sure the plant roots do not freeze in the hanging basket, according to Joni Cotton, Hawthorn Gardens, Hawthorn Woods.


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.


Tree Planting

What is the best time to plant a tree in northern Illinois?

The two best times to plant a tree are April-May or September-October because the weather is cool and there is a good moisture supply, according to Joni Cotten, nursery stock manager, Hawthorn Gardens in Hawthorn Woods. However, planting times can vary, depending on the plant and its method of growth.

Bare-root trees are planted when dormant. They are less expensive, and the planting hole can be back-filled with soil dug from the hole. Trees that have burlap-covered root balls are generally planted in the cooler months, while trees in containers can be planted at any time. Rhododendrons and evergreens are not planted bare root.

“Birches and oaks are dug in nursery fields and planted in the spring. Oaks especially have a long tap root, so they do best when they have the entire season to grow,” says Cotten.


Planting Tulips

Is there a best time to plant tulips? I see them at the garden centers in late summer but I am afraid that it is too early to plant them. If I wait too long, I might forget all about them.

Fall bulb planting should wait until soil temperatures drop to 55 degrees or cooler. This usually occurs when nighttime temperatures drop to 50 degrees or lower for two weeks or more. While waiting to plant, store the tulips in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight—but don’t forget them. After planting, water the bulbs well, advises the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.

If you plant grape hyacinth bulbs amidst your tulips, they will come up early in the fall and serve to mark the position of your tulips.


Overwintering Marginal Plants

I keep seeing photos of interesting plants I’d like to grow, but they’re labeled zone 6 and I’m in zone 5. What can I do to successfully overwinter these marginal plants? I’d like to try them, but I don’t want to waste my money.

“Pushing a plant past the limits of its hardiness is not for the average gardener,” says Marie Dvorak of The Planter’s Palette in Winfield, “but plants can sometimes be successfully overwintered by siting them in a special microclimate such as a sheltered southern exposure.” Another tip comes from horticulturist Ann Hancock at Michigan State University, where they are trialing perennials that the English firm Blooms of Bressingham is introducing in the U.S. Hancock explains that the best way to keep perennials that are tender in Zone 5 or that are rated for Zone 6 is to grow them in raised beds with good drainage because poorly drained wet soils will cause the roots to rot. In addition, it is important to check perennial beds for plants that have heaved out of the soil through repeated freezing and thawing. Replace them in the soil and protect with mulch.

One example of a marginally hardy plant that will be getting attention this year is ‘Flamenco’, a new cultivar of Tritoma (Kniphofia, red-hot poker) that has just been named an All-America Selections Winner for 1999. Tritomas should have their foliage tied upright so water does not remain in the crown, said Hancock.


Fertilizing Grass

Would it help to apply a starter fertilizer on a poor green lawn in December? Will it give it a head start for spring? It hasn’t been reseeded.

Some people have applied fertilizer over snow when the grass is dormant. However, it is best to fertilize in November to winterize your lawn and give it a start for spring, according to Steve Hipenbecker, assistant manager of Nature Scape, Gurnee. Use a fertilizer labeled as a “winterizer,” not a “starter.” Lawn starter products, typically high in phosphorus, are intended for newly seeded lawns. Winterizer fertilizers are typically high in potassium, which helps increase cold tolerance and disease resistance. Although advertised for fall application, winterizer fertilizer can be applied in spring as well. You can seed in spring, but early September is generally considered the best time to seed a lawn. The soil is still warm, the nights have cooled down, and dew collects on the grass each morning.


Slugs

I am sick of slugs. Perhaps if I knew their life cycle I could get rid of them. Where do they go over winter? Where do they come from? What is the best way to get rid of them?

Slugs are gastropods belonging to the mollusk class. They have lungs and can breathe air and live one year. At nightime, to conserve moisture, they feed by biting tissue with a rasping mouth underneath their body. They move by sliding over slime secreted by a large muscular foot and constantly lose water from this slime production and evaporation.

To make matters worse, they are hermaphrodites having both male and female organs and can deposit egg-like clusters of 1/8 inch pearls in soil where they overwinter. Their growth is activated by rising soil humidity and temperature in the spring, according to Ed Valauskas, Manager of Library and Plant Information Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Even if your soil is relatively slug free, they can come in from a neighbor’s yard or live in the soil of container-grown plants. If you garden in very sandy, fast draining soil, you will probably not have many of these pests, but in heavy clay soil, slugs find constant moisture that suits their life style.

Slugs feed on plants with moisture in them, especially hosta, ligularia, dahlia and begonia leaves, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes. They hide by day and feed at night or on gray, damp days. Go outside with a flashlight after 10 p.m. and look for them under boards, rocks or pots and destroy them.

Laurie Skrzenta of Laurie’s Landscape, a Downers Grove hosta grower, keeps the hosta area dry and doesn’t water them because slugs do not live in dry locations. She depends on rainfall and maintains that hostas can exist without supplemental water. Laurie also suggested using coarse sand as a mulch. Another possibility is to sprinkle sand in the center of your dormant hostas since this is where the slugs lay their eggs.

There are many home remedies to get rid of slugs including beer, ammonia water, ice water, and yeast water. Gardener Anna Hevrdejs, Woodridge, suggests sprinkling corn meal around slug areas. Slugs like to eat it, then die. Replace it after a rain. She also claims that sweet woodruff planted around hostas restrains the slug population.

Chemical metaldehyde or methiocarb pellets are useful but they can be attractive to dogs and children. They are very toxic. Much safer is a copper strip laid around the areas to be protected, although this is not practical in an ornamental garden.


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.


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.


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.


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questions

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?

I am interested in improving fall color in my yard. What shrubs turns red beside burning bush (Euonymus alatus)?

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?

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