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Powdery Mildew

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

Your lilac had powdery mildew, a common fungal disease. It occurs in late summer in humid weather, especially if your plant is located in a damp, shady area. While unsightly, it does not damage the plant since it only affects the outermost leaf cell layer. If it really bothers you, spray the leaves with a sulfur fungicide early in the season. If mildew appears late in the season, spray again.

Newer varieties of lilac are more disease resistant than the common lilac. Improving air circulation by pruning out any dead branches will also help to reduce mildew, advises Joan Barczak, owner of Blumen Gardens, Sycamore.


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.


Heptacodium

Late last year most of the leaves on my year-old seven-son tree (Heptacodium) turned brown, starting at the tips. It had some new growth on the tips and buds. I used a tree ring soaker hose every two weeks.

“I suspect that your watering every two weeks was not sufficient and that your tree was going into early dormancy,” says Chicagoland Gardening editor Carolyn Ulrich. “It was very dry late in the growing season and a lot of trees looked stressed.”

A rule of thumb for watering is one inch per week. Heptacodiums grow best in moist soil. You probably needed to increase the amount of time the water was on the plant and also water more frequently. Soaker hoses can run for hours.

If you want to figure out how much water your tree is receiving, use a sprinkler, if you have one, and run it on your tree until a tuna fish can has an inch of water in it, and then stop. Do this weekly, unless it rains.


Dwarf Junipers

Why do I have brown areas near the tips of my dwarf Japanese junipers? This has been occurring the last few years. They are supposed to be drought resistant”

“It’s hard to diagnose without seeing the plants or their location,” says Matt Warrick, sales associate in tree and shrubs at Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago. “Your plants may be in a situation that’s too dry. With the type of drought we had this past summer, even if a plant is drought-tolerant, it would have needed supplemental watering.”

Other factors that affect junipers are poor drainage, insufficient light, fungal disease, and insufficient acidity in the soil. Any of these conditions could cause needle browning.


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.


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.


African Violets

I have twelve beautiful blooming violet plants on my office desk, placed 12 inches from a light source that’s kept burning day and night. I water them from the bottom and let the water remain in the saucer.

No matter what I spray, I continue to have gnats and other insects in my soil. I also occasionally start to get yellow spots on the tips of the leaves and then the spots start going down the leaves. What’s going on here?

A number of factors could be causing your problems.

“Yellow tips indicate your plant is showing stress either from lack of humidity or watering too much; it’s hard to pinpoint,” says Sandy Fuller, Palatine, past president of Barrington Bloomers, who grows 100 African violets under lights in her basement.

Peat-based soil needs to dry out for fungus gnats to disappear. Use a magnifying glass and try to identify them. Gnats eat only decaying plant material and do not damage the plants. If you have mealy bugs, their cottony waxy sac is easy to identify.

Office tap water may be too cold. Let it sit for half a day before using it. If the water is too cold, the plant could rot. Some violets are more sensitive than others to temperature changes.

Repot your plants in African violet soil and use a 20-20-20 fertilizer.


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.


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.”


Hoya

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?

There are many varieties of hoyas. In general, they are easily grown houseplants. Some are fragrant and some have a cascading habit. Give hoyas a moderate amount of light but not deep shade. They can remain in the same container for years without repotting.

Shortened day length, combined with cooler night-time temperatures and dryness over a couple of winter months should bring your hoya into bloom. “Let your plant go dry. It needs a bit of drought,” says Susan Izenstark, horticulturist at Jamaican Gardens, Morton Grove. “The bud is a nodule on the stem. Notice when it swells a little. This is your signal to begin watering.”


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