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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.


Azalea

We moved into a house with a lovely azalea that didn’t bloom. We thought it might have been over-pruned. Last fall we did not prune it and now it still hasn’t bloomed. I was hoping to transplant it this year, but it looks rather sickly. Shall we prune it again and give it another year? Can I still transplant it?

Stop pruning your plant since you may have over-pruned it. Evergreen azaleas only need tip pruning in July after their flowers have faded.

Concentrate now on rebuilding the azalea into a healthy plant. Do not transplant a sickly one. Feed your plant regularly with an liquid acidic fertilizer. Keep your plant weeded and its roots moist by using mulch because azaleas are surface rooters. Make sure your plant is situated in soil with good drainage and in a part sun/part shade location.

Try this regime over summer and evaluate your plant next spring, advises Charlene Wooten, manager, Cedar Hill Nursery, Lake Zurich.


Fruit Trees

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?

Sweet cherries are not hardy in this area. Some fruit trees are sensitive to winter cold and spring frost damage to the buds. Early flowering apricots are the most sensitive, followed by peaches. Pears and sour cherries bloom later and are less sensitive to late frosts.

Apples are the least sensitive to frost damage. Apple scab and apple maggot are common pests. Fruit trees require a regular schedule of spraying for pest control.

For a backyard fruit tree grower, tree size is important. Dwarf fruit trees bear full-sized fruit earlier than standard sized trees. Most fruit cultivars need two different varieties to cross- pollinate and produce fruit.

Midwest Fruit Explorers is a non-profit amateur backyard fruit-growing group. For more information about fruit growing, see www.midfex.org.


Trimming Japanese Maple Trees

My split-leaf Japanese maple tree is 15 to 20 years old, about 7 feet high and about 10 feet wide. It is overtaking the corner of the yard. Can I trim it, and at what time of the year?

Trim your tree in late fall to early winter when the tree is dormant. Remove only one-third of the amount you want pruned each year, being careful to retain all its charm.

“Go easy on it,” says Joann Madon, horticulturist, The Growing Place, Aurora and Naperville.


Good Annuals for Shade

Now that bedding impatiens (I. walleriana) are not recommended because of impatiens downy mildew, what are three good annuals for shade?

Chris Williams, production manager, K&W Greenery, Janesville, Wisc.

I like New Guinea Impatiens. They make nice bushy plants that are full of large colorful flowers and are easy to grow. You also get a large color selection with New Guineas. The SunPatiens and Bounce impatiens are fairly new plants, and they are recommended for sun as well as shade. Then there’s coleus. Who doesn’t like its colorful foliage? Many varieties grow upright, but others also spread. Torenia, also known as wishbone flower, has trumpet-like flowers of white, yellow, rose and purple that cover nicely mounded, low-growing plants.


Karen Wedel, manager of the outdoor floral department, Wedel’s Nursery, Garden Center, Kalamazoo, Mich.

One of my favorites is begonia. Tuberous varieties have large colorful blooms; wax begonias are good for mass planting. I’m also a fan of the big leaf, 16-20 inch tall Whopper series with large waxy leaves and summer-long flowers.
Another idea is coleus and caladiums. They come in different foliage colors, work great in gardens and containers. They are both also easy-care.
Finally, torenia or wishbone flower, named for the small “wishbone” inside the mouth of the pink, yellow or blue-purple flowers. Blooms all summer. Some varieties will trail.

Kevin DeBoer, manager, Big John’s Farm Market and Greenhouse, Chicago Heights

My favorite is Dragon Wing begonias. They’re usually sold in 4½ inch pots or hanging baskets. At my house I removed them from the baskets, then planted them in the ground in full shade. They turned out awesome! Plain wax leaf begonias are also good.
In addition, I like coleus. They don’t produce flowers, but they have many different vibrant leaf colors. In full shade New Guinea Impatiens will flower sparingly, but if you put them in some sun, they will flower more.


Russian Sage

Our Russian sage (Perovskia) is full and bountiful but will not stay upright. Is there anything we can do? Is there a way to split some off when it has outgrown its space? Should it be trimmed back in fall or spring?

The normal growing habit of Russian sage is to open in the center, according to Tina Pansic, staff horticulturist at Chalet Nursery, Wilmette, who says this is a common complaint. Russian sage must be grown in full sun and can be supported by pea stakes (willow or dogwood branches) or commercial wire stakes. A new cultivar, ‘Little Spire’ is shorter and will stay upright. Your plant can be divided by breaking up the root system with a spade as the bottom stems get woody.Wait until spring to cut the plant to the ground. Plants that are cut back in autumn suffer more winterkill. Pansic cuts her perovskia halfway down in late summer to control the spreading, and then cuts it to the ground the following spring


Pumpkins

I’d like to know the secret to growing a decent-sized pumpkin for jack-o-lanterns for the grandkids and for decorating. My experience in recent years is that they get about as big as a basketball and then begin to rot. What am I doing wrong?

The longer the fruit is on the vine, the greater the chance it will rot. By September its size is apparent, and it turns orange. It is best to plant pumpkins in different soil each year or every two years, according to Sue Murdock, manager, Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm, South Barrington.

The size and use of pumpkins is determined by the seed you buy. ‘Atlantic Giant’ produces fruits that weigh hundreds of pounds. A better choice is to grow ‘Howden’. It bears well-shaped 10 to 20-pound fruits, the perfect size for jack-o-lanterns. ‘New England Pie’ is the standard for pies with smooth, bright orange flesh. ‘Wee-B-Little’ is a miniature round pumpkin bearing 3- to 4-inch fruit useful for table decorations and suitable for tiny hands.


Cucumbers

The foliage on our cucumber plants is starting to wither and turn yellow. They get plenty of water and I feed them regularly. What could be wrong?

“The plants may be getting too much water. They can tolerate fairly dry soil,” says Tim Norris, owner Spring Bluff Nursery, Sugar Grove. There are other possible causes for yellowing foliage as well. The cucumber beetle may have fed on the plants when they were small and transmitted bacterial wilt, which later plugs the vascular tissue. To prevent the beetle from feeding on young plants, use row covers until the plants get larger. A stressed plant is also open to attack by bacterial wilt.


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.


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.


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