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Miniature Gardening

Miniature gardening is the rage. What enchanting miniature plants work well in a shaded area?

T Biernacki
Many miniature plants grow in shade. Some unusual ones are the 6-inch tall Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile ‘Tom Thumb’), the 2-inch tall Ajuga reptans ‘Planet Zork’ and two cultivars of the very slow-growing conifer Cryptomeria japonica: ‘Koshyi’ and ‘Tenjan’. Or look for two European gingers, Asarum forlesii ‘Mercury’ and Asarum takaoi ‘Roundabout’, which are about 3 inches tall. Also: the maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum), mosses and miniature hostas

M Samios
The best and most obvious answer is miniature and small hostas. From the ever-expanding “mouse” series with ‘Holy Mouse Ears’, ‘Mighty Mouse’ and ‘Giantland Sunny Mouse’ to newbies such as ‘Mini Skirt’, ‘Ladybug’, ‘Baby Booties’ and ‘Little Starlet’… perfection! Add some grass-like carex such as ‘Beatlemania’ for texture, miniature Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile) and dwarf heucheras from the Little Cute series, and your garden fairies will be in heaven.

C Bornmann
If you’re planting in the ground, these low-growing perennials will add interest and texture to your garden: Irish and Scotch moss (Sagina sublata and S. subulata ‘Aurea’ – best in part shade), brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) and miniature hostas. Add color with annuals such as polka dot plants (Hypoestes), ‘Strawberry Drop’ coleus and torenia. It’s important to add perennials and annuals into your garden for a longer season of color.


Container Plants for Fall

Besides mums, what are a few other plants you would recommend for containers for fall color?

Jackie Weiss, garden center manager, Linton’s Enchanted Gardens, Elkhart, Ind.

Dwarf or miniature sunflowers add a bright, sunny pop of color to any container. Mix them with pink celosia, ornamental kale, dwarf ornamental grass and ornamental peppers for a special autumn arrangement. The kale is a great addition as the colors get brighter with colder temperatures. Ornamental pepper can also be taken in and kept as a houseplant through the winter months. Or use aster through October and plant in the garden before the soil freezes. Comes in many colors.

Tracy Bordis, product line specialist, Lurvey Garden Center, Des Plaines, Ill.

The rudbeckias ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Prairie Sun’ and ‘Becky Cinnamon Bicolor’ all have beautiful large flowers. Herbs and leafy vegetables like Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, mustard ‘Red Giant’, bronze-leaved fennel and variegated sage all add fun textures. Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ combines nicely with ornamental kale and cabbage. Also plant trailing pansies like those in the ‘Cool Wave’ series at the edge of planters and hanging baskets. Another creative way to add interest to fall planters is with preserved and dried botanicals, sticks or accents.

Zannah Crowe, horticulturist, Monches Farm, Colgate, Wisc.

Our favorite addition to autumn containers – hands down – is ornamental kale. As the temperatures drop, the leaf color intensifies and the plant actually becomes more attractive. We frequently pair ornamental kale with late season grasses as well as decorative gourds and squash tucked amongst the foliage to celebrate the abundance of the harvest season. Your visitors may still be enjoying your kale peeking through the early snow on Thanksgiving Day!


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.


Amaryllis Bulbs

I plan on saving my amaryllis bulbs that I kept outside over summer, but I noticed red streaks on the inner side of the leaves. What caused that? Will I be able to save my bulbs?

There are several possible causes of red streaks in amaryllis hybrids (Hippeastrum), explains Bill Welter, owner of Victor Hlavacek Florist, Winnetk. If the streaks occur on the foliage only, excess moisture and not enough air around the bulb could have caused the streaks. Amaryllis is also susceptible to leaf scorch, which can cause red streaks on the foliage and on the bulb. This was common on older varieties.

You can save the bulb for next season by letting the leaves die down, then trimming off the foliage, and dipping the bulb in a fungicide solution. Another possible reason for leaf scorch is tobacco mosaic disease, transmitted by insects.


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.


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.


Peonies

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.


Japanese Maple

I’m moving to a townhouse with limited direct sunlight. I would like to put a Japanese maple in a north-facing garden but don’t know if it will do well. What are the best kinds? Also, when is the best time to plant a small tree?

Japanese maples are small decorative trees which are becoming more popular as more dependable cultivars come on the market. Even so, an established tree will sometimes succumb in a severe winter. Their light requirements vary.

The trees can grow in a northeast exposure, and 6 hours of sunlight is not too much, according to Jeff Sibley, nursery manager of Red’s Garden Center, Northbrook. They need a moist, well drained, neutral soil, amended with organic matter. They can grow to 8 feet tall in a good location. He says the best planting time is right after Mother’s Day. A protected spot and plenty of moisture are critical elements for survival, even with the newer cultivars.

Sibley recommended the following cultivars of Acer palmatum var. dissectum, a cut-leaf variety, as the most graceful trees:

  • ‘Crimson Queen’ is a small shrubby tree, with finely cut reddish leaves that hold color all summer and turn scarlet before dropping off in the fall.‘Garnet’ is similar to ‘Crimson Queen’ but a somewhat more vigorous grower.‘Bloodgood’ is a vigorous, upright tree with blackish red bark. It has deep red spring and summer foliage, scarlet in the fall.
  • Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Viridis’ Lace Leaf Japanese Maple is a small shrub with drooping branches, green bark and pale green, finely divided leaves that turn gold in autumn. It takes shade.

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.


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.


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