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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.


Trumpet Vine

Will a trumpet vine growing on a tree harm it?

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is a vigorous vine which can climb to the top of a tree in one season and spreads by suckering roots. It blooms in full sun in clusters of 3-inch-long orange tubes with flaring scarlet lobes.

The vine will not harm an established tree but a young tree could be stressed.

“There may be root competition between the vine and the tree for moisture, especially if your tree needs a lot of water. However, trumpet vines can grow with less moisture. When customers claim their vine does not bloom, it is because they are watering and pampering it too much,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery and Garden Center, Crystal Lake.


Peony Blight

Last summer my neighbor told me the black spots on my peony were a blight, although my peonies bloomed nicely. What can I do about this?

Your peonies probably have a fungal disease, a common problem. The causes are wet summers with cool damp nights, too much shade, poorly drained soil, or a lack of air circulation. While your neighbor diagnosed your problem as peony blight, which is caused by an air-borne botrytis fungus, the black spots indicate the more common phytophthora blight, according to Walter Schmidtke, nursery manager at Pesche’s Garden Center in DesPlaines.

Early in the spring, young emerging shoots may suddenly wilt and fall over, turn black and show masses of gray-brown botrytis spores. If nothing is done, these spores are carried to developing buds, which turn black.

Black spots on foliage, leaves turning red in summer, and black stripes on the stalk indicate phytophthora. “Plants with these conditions won’t have as much zest” said Schmidtke.

The best protection against recurrence of either blight is good sanitation. In fall, it is important to cut down and throw away all peony foliage, cutting stalks just below the surface of the ground.

If this doesn"t work and you resort to chemicals, the treatment is the same for both diseases. As soon as the shoots emerge in spring, begin spraying with Mancozeb, a copper sulphate solution, and repeat every 7-10 days until buds form, according to University of Illinois Extension. Spray the whole soil area for overwintering spores. In early summer you can spray plants with Daconil, a general purpose fungicide. Cut away any diseased foliage at once.


Birch Trees

I’d like to plant a white bark birch in front of my home in my sunny front yard. What can you tell me about Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii?

The birch, Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii is a tall, narrow tree (to 100 feet) with very white bark that’s native to India. It is subject to borers. The popular weeping white bark birch, B. pendula is also subject to borers in our climate and is not a suitable choice.

“There are better birch choices, so choose what grows well in our area,” advises Ken Morris, vice president of Spring Bluff Nursery in Sugar Grove. Two trees resistant to borers are the paper or canoe birch and the river birch.

Canoe or paper birch (B. papyrifera) has a stout trunk with creamy white bark that peels off in papery layers. It is native to North America. It is the first paper birch bred to resist the bronze birch borer, but it still needs to be monitored and sprayed yearly for the borers. A good cultivar is ‘Renaissance Reflection.’

River birch (B. nigra), native to the eastern United States, is fast growing when young. It can reach more than 50 feet in height. Its bark is a smooth, shiny apricot and, when mature, flakes and curls in cinnamon strips. It tolerates slow drainage and is also resistant to borers. “It’s pretty tough, good and sturdy,” says Morris.

The cultivar ‘Heritage’ was introduced to much acclaim around 15 years ago.

Birch trees need moisture. Do not allow your tree to dry out in your sunny site.


Begonias

I start ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia from seed under grow lights. What other begonias can I use to cross-pollinate with the ‘Dragon Wing’ so I can collect my own seeds?

‘Dragon Wing’ is a unique hybrid type of begonia named to reflect the shape of its leaves. It is created by interspecific crosses of two different begonia species and can lead to interesting new plants, but they are sterile.

It is impossible to say exactly which species will cross and which will not cross. You can try crossing angel wing begonia, a common houseplant, with another species. There is a good chance viable seed will be produced, according to Brian E. Corr, new crops development manager at Ball Horticultural Company, West Chicago.

The American Begonia Society (begonias.org) is a resource for information on hybridizing. The archives of the bi-monthly journal The Begonian would also be helpful.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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questions

I brought a frangipani (Plumeria) back from Hawaii last April when it was just a leafless branch. It sprouted leaves and grew over summer. Now it is losing its leaves. How can I keep it growing over winter? Will it bloom?

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?

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?