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Voles

How can I get rid of voles? I think they are doing a lot of damage to my bulbs.

Voles are mice-like rodents that gnaw on roots and bulbs. They are hard to control.

There are repellents on the market that you can try—Deer Off, Moletox, and a new product named Shot Gun Repel. The latter repellent was designed specifically to protect bulbs from chipmunks, moles, voles and mice. Treat the bulbs before storing or planting. Remove old skin and soil, and then spray thoroughly until wet. Allow the bulbs to dry before storing or planting.


Sowing Seeds

I would like to start seeds under lights. When is the best time to start flower seeds? The seed packet always says to sow a number of weeks before the last frost. When is the last frost?

“In this area we use May 15 as a benchmark for the last frost date, but it can be earlier or later,” says Chuck Prosek, grower at Prosek’s Greenhouse, Winfield.

If your seed packet gives you the number of days to germination, add that to the number of weeks for growth, and then count the number of weeks back from May 15. Tomatoes sown indoors generally need 6-8 weeks of growth before being set out.

Many seed packets do not include germination time. A good guess is to allow 1-2 weeks for the seeds to germinate, but if you use bottom heat, your seeds will germinate earlier and grow faster. Most seeds need warm soil of 65 to 70 degrees to germinate and grow.

When you sow seeds directly into the soil, till the upper inch of soil to loosen it for direct seed to soil contact. The outside soil temperature must be above 50 degrees for cool growing plants, and at least 65 degrees for warm season annuals, according to Prosek.

For future reference, keep a record of indoor sowing dates, germination dates, length of indoor growing period, and transplanting dates.


Tree Position

What is the correct distance from my house to plant a tree? What is the correct distance from the lot line to plant a tree?

It depends on the size of the tree you are planting. A small tree such as a serviceberry (Amelanchier) or a dwarf flowering crab could be planted as close as four to five feet from the house. For a birch tree, a distance of six to eight feet would be the minimum.

Distance from the lot line does not matter as long as it doesn’t interfere with power or sewer lines. You should check with your village before planting. Closeness to the neighbor’s lot line is not an issue, because neighbors have the right to trim back any overhanging branches, according to Matt Zerby, partner in Wasco Nursery, St. Charles.


Types of Fruit Trees

I am going to be planting five dwarf fruit trees; two ‘Bartlett’ pears, one ‘Cresthaven’ peach, and two ‘Honeycrisp’ apples. Could you give me some feedback on them?

If you buy young container fruit trees, plant them very early in the spring to lessen transplanting shock (as soon as the soil can be worked and before the buds break). Plant the tree at the level it was in the pot, adding a layer of top mulch.

“Wrap the trunk in paper or plastic tree wrap to prevent deer and rabbit damage. Protect the trunk from voles with fine wire mesh at the base,” says Tim Norris, president of Spring Bluff nursery, Sugar Grove.

‘Bartlett’ pear is subject to fire blight and also needs a pollinator for good fruit production. ‘Patten’ and ‘Parker’ are two pear cultivars Norris recommends. Two different cultivars will give you better cross-pollination.

‘Honeycrisp’ apples are an excellent choice for this area. They grow up to 20 feet tall on semi-dwarf root stock. They can be pollinated by any member of the Malus family, including a nearby flowering crab tree.

‘Cresthaven’ peach, while hardy here, may not bear fruit, depending on how cold the winters are. When the temperature goes down to zero, ‘Cresthaven’ peach loses all its flower buds. Norris suggests growing ‘Reliance’ peach instead. It needs a long growing season. Last spring (2008) was a cool one and peaches did not bear much fruit. Peaches are not long-lived trees. By the time the tree is bearing fruit, you will need to start growing another tree.


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.


What trends do you see in container plantings, such as type of pot, materials, sun or shade, foliage or flowers.

What trends do you see in container plantings, such as type of pot, materials, sun or shade, foliage or flowers.

Brenda Williams, Sales, Pesche’s Greenhouse, Floral & Gifts, Lake Geneva, Wisc.

As our lives get busier, gardeners are looking for easy care and double duty – plants with colorful or unique leaves. Like coleus.They come in all sizes from thrillers to fillers and even a spiller called ‘Rose Lava’ that tumbles over the edge. A tall nicotiana or canna lily easily substitutes for a spike in the center of a container. A euphorbia like ‘Diamond Frost’ might look delicate but is an excellent performer whose “flowers” are actually tiny white leaves.

I also see more succulent containers. With their diversity in texture, color and form plus low maintenance, they fit well in our busy lives. They are modern and bold.

Lori Harms, owner of Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Crystal Lake.

This year we saw a huge increase in holiday greens sales, selling over 100 more than the year before. Spruce tips were in short supply so we used multiple birch logs in assorted lengths to gain height for the focal point. Magnolia leaves, seeded eucalyptus, winterberry branches and juniper berries were used to highlight the containers, along with evergreen fillers. We added elegance with glittered and iced branches in natural, gold, white or red. We also created whimsical looks by adding snowman heads or larger millimeter balls with stars or hearts on sticks for splashes of color.

Tina Perkins, Manager, Winding Creek, Millbrook

We have recently seen a progression towards decorative ceramic pots for container planting. Customers use them for fairy gardens or succulents, which seem to be trending. Depending on the size of the pot, customers may use a mix of small indoor plants and succulents. Usually indoor plants can take lower light conditions or a porch location. Succulents have become more popular to use in containers as they generally require higher light conditions. Both types of plants like a lighter soil.


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.


What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

Evelyn Fink, garden center manager at The Fields on Caton Farm, Inc., Crest Hill

Yuki Cherry deutzia, Kodiak Black diervilla and Little Henry itea should have a presence in everyone’s garden. They will work well complementing taller shrubs in mass plantings and as a focal point when planted individually. All of them grow in full sun to partial shade with sizes ranging from 1½-4 feet. The itea will also grow in full shade. The unique shape and flower of each plant combined with the rich burgundy to wine-red fall color make these must-haves for plant lovers.

Mark Maradik, plant manager, Pasquesi Home & Gardens, Lake Bluff

The native Sugar Shack buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) thrives in wet heavy soils and clay. Fragrant pincushion-shaped white flowers attract pollinators. Red fruit in winter. Bobo is the best Hydrangea paniculata to date from Proven Winners. It is 2-3 feet tall and completely covered with long-lasting white flowers. The Low Scape Black Chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa). Only 2 feet tall, tolerant of all soils; very cold tolerant. Profuse small white flowers in spring and dark purple fruit. Brilliant red/orange/ magenta fall leaves.

Jeff Schulz, owner, The Hidden Gardens, Willowbrook

My favorite dwarf shrubs have all-season interest and can be pruned to stay even smaller. Fothergillia gardenia (24-30 inches tall) is the smallest fothergillia cultivar. White flowers emerge in spring just before the leaves. Fall color is red, orange and yellow. Disease-free. Spilled Wine Weigelia (24-30 inches tall and wide) has dark purple leaves all summer if planted in full sun. Long-blooming pink flowers in spring, Deer resistant. Bobo hydrangea (30-36 inches tall and wide) produces loads of white flowers in mid- to late summer, changing to pink in fall. Flowers are held upright on strong stems and do not flop.


Orchids

What causes black spots on my orchid leaves?

There are a number of causes for black spots, depending on the type of orchid.

“In some varieties, like Oncidium ‘Cherry Baby’, the small black spots through the leaf are normal,” says Liese Butler, owner, Oak Hill
Gardens, Dundee.

Black spots on the top of the leaf could be sunburn, caused when sunlight scalds a drop of water that has been left on a leaf. Newer growth of Cattleya orchids can normally have a purplish spot. A black mushy spot and a black stem indicate rot.


Coneflowers

I thought that purple coneflowers were insect proof, but now I see some aphids at the bud and tiny flies. What is wrong?

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a common native perennial that grows best in sandy or well-draining soil and full sun. If you are not giving your plant these growing conditions, certain insects can attack your plants.

Aphids are sometimes visible on buds, and as sucking insects they cause stunted and deformed leaves. Spider mites are tiny insects that often multiply in hot, dry conditions. Spider mites feed on sap and cause yellowish leaves. Thrips are barely visible, tiny insects causing bud malformation.


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