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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.


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


Colorful Shrubs

I am interested in improving fall color in my yard. What shrubs turns red beside burning bush (Euonymus alatus)?

Wendy Vichitk, plant manager at Luurs Garden and Flower Shop, Hillside, recommends these shrubs for a colorful fall garden:

Low growing 2- to 3-foot Virginia sweetspire ‘Little Henry’ (Itea virginica) has red foliage and grows in both sun and shade. The foliage of the somewhat taller ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is dark red, as the name indicates.

Fothergilla ‘Mount Airy’ has blue-green leaves that turn intense yellow and orange-red in sun and half shade.

Oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) grows in shade or partial sun, with orange-red to red fall color.
The leaves of apple serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora) burn a bright orange red. There are several cultivars on the market to choose from.

Many viburnums have bright fall color. The easy to grow Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) and the also fragrant V. juddii have leaves that produce a mixture of red, orange and mahogany. Arrowood viburnum (V. dentatum) and cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) both exhibit typical red-purple color.

The intensity of color is affected by the weather. Warm sunny days followed by cool nights bring the highest leaf color. The health of the plant, its growing conditions, and the amount of water the plant receives also affect fall color.


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.


Osteospermum

Can you tell me if the African daisy Osteospermum ‘Springstar Aurora’ can be winterized here? It is a healthy plant?

Those South African daisies could never endure a frigid winter here and should be considered annuals. Their daisy-like flowers with blue centers open only in sunlight and bloom best in early summer or later when summer days cool down. They can be seed-grown under lights.


Hellebores

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

Hellebores increase slowly into clumps so have patience, counsels Chris Darbo, wholesale manager of The Natural Garden, St. Charles, and an enthusiastic hellebore grower. “I have Helleborus foetidus, which has finely cut leaves and blooms in January, and H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Both have increased in twelve years to four times the size of the original plants, but they haven"t self sown. They are planted in a bed of sweet woodruff in a partly shady location.”

“I also have a clump of H. orientalis that was transplanted into my back yard five years ago, and it seeds all over the place. It is planted in shade with no ground cover. My theory is if the seeds can"t reach the ground, they can"t grow!” It takes three years before seedlings bloom.

According to Darbo, hellebores do not need fertilizer. She never rakes leaves from garden beds but instead lets fallen leaves act as a winter mulch. Leaf decomposition over the years has helped her soil to become more loamy.

H. niger, the Christmas rose, does not self seed as readily as H. orientalis and H. foetidus.

Note: A new strain of H.orientalis has recently reached the market. Known as the Royal Heritage strain, it includes colors and patterns never seen before in the species. Fifteen years in the making, Royal Heritage hellebores were developed by John Elsley, Director of Horticulture at Song Sparrow Farm in Avalon, Wisconsin.


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.


Are there any shrubs that can survive in exposed situations?

At the end of every winter, there are many shrubs growing along sidewalks that are dead and damaged either by salt, wind or dogs. Are there any shrubs that I can plant in these more exposed situations and expect them to survive?

Sharon Yiesla, plant knowledge specialist, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle

First, we need to note that there are some exposed areas where we just shouldn’t try to grow plants. There’s too much ice melt or salt, and dog urine is always a problem. Evergreens are also out. There’s nothing that will tolerate wind or salt. That said, there are some deciduous shrubs that can work. Hydrangea are now a huge group, Potentilla tolerates everything, and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) can survive shopping center parking lots. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is tough, but look for double-flowered cultivars so they don’t go to seed so fast.


Peter Moersch, owner, Stonewall Nursery, Oregon, Wisc.

I would advise looking for something on a standard. A standard is a genetically compatible rootstock which has had another plant grafted onto it. Standards are usually 24–48 inches tall and serve to “pick up” the grafted section off the ground and make it more visible. This certainly helps with snow load and keeping plants away from doggies.

Many dwarf conifers and deciduous materials are used as grafted standards. Some examples would be dwarf white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Horsford’), globular blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’), and Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata). Many dwarf Korean lilacs (Syringa spp.) and hydrangeas are also done on standards.


Scott Stringer, certified arborist, Bartlett Tree Experts, Chicago

Starting your planting project with a soil test can ensure your tree or shrub selection has the best chance of survival and can tolerate existing salt levels. Options for shrub planting with a tolerance to salt are Hydrangea, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Spiraea, serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), and rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). Options for trees are Japanese tree lilac (Syringa amurensis), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), and in wet areas, bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).


Asparagus

Can I grow asparagus from seed? I saved the little red berries from my plants.

You can grow asparagus from seed. I have done so many times, but it takes three or more years for a crop, and growing from seed usually gives inferior plants. Better crops come from hybrid plants.

If the red berries from the female plant have dried over winter, there should be two or three black seeds inside. Clean them off and prepare your seed bed for planting.

Asparagus needs full sun and a sandy loam soil raked smooth. After the danger of frost is past, bury the seeds at a depth two times its diameter and keep the bed moist. In the third year you can lightly cut the pencil-thin stalks. There are often volunteers of female plants between rows you that can transplant. However, it is best to start asparagus by buying roots so you have a small crop the first year. Most varieties sold are male.


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.


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questions

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?

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?

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

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