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Staking Plants

I dislike staking perennials. Is there anything I can do to avoid it?

There are several techniques you can use to limit time spent on this chore, but it is difficult to totally

avoid staking some plants.

First and foremost, the old adage “right plant, right place” means full sun perennials need to be grown in full sun for tight upright growth. If they are too shaded, the plant will stretch or bend toward the sun and grow in a loose habit. Growing plants a little closer together also helps because it enables plants to support each other.

The best remedy to avoid staking is to cut some tall plants down by one-half in June. That will delay flowering in helenium, monarda, platycodon, chrysanthemum and aster, but the plants will remain upright. If you really want to eliminate cutting back, grow dwarf versions of these plants.”
Short, thin branches from forsythia or dogwood (known as “pea staking” in England) can be placed around the perimeter of newly emerging plants to help keep the stems upright. Some garden centers have begun selling bundles of branches for this purpose. In a short time, the shrub cuttings are covered by emerging shoots. This technique works well with fine foliage such as baby’s breath or flax.

There are numerous staking supports from bamboo to iron rebar rods. Wire staking supports are available in full, half and even quarter circles to support single stems. Peony hoops can be left in place over winter and will support not only peonies but boltonia, baptisia, and even errant tomatoes.

Some plants always need to be staked. Giant dahlia tubers need a heavy stake dug into the hole at planting time. That prized, single-stemmed iris, lily, or delphinium can get blasted in a storm, and then it’s too late to save it.

Remember: the time to stake plants is during the cooler days of spring when plants are growing rapidly and not on humid July days. Staking should be done unobtrusively and subtly for plants to retain their natural grace.


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.


Frost

I have a Japanese maple that was hit by frost. Some of the leaves are curled and brown. Will they fall off and new leaves grow? Is there anything I can do to help the tree? What is the best method to prevent this from ever happening again?

Your tree will recover from the frost damage. Adventitious (secondary) buds at the nodes will send out new leaves. Make sure that your tree is sited correctly in a sheltered location and protected from harsh winds, advises Susan Eyre, Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery, Woodstock. If your tree is fully leafed out and a hard frost is predicted, you could drape your tree with plastic, a tarp or some other covering overnight.


Fertilizer

What ratio and amounts of fertilizer would you use for a perennial bed and a vegetable garden? For growing annuals in a greenhouse, should the fertilizer be fast or slow-release, organic or inorganic?

Use 3 to 5 pounds of a 10-5-10 or 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1000 square feet in the perennial bed. Add leaves as mulch. In your vegetable bed, nutrients are important. Fertilize more heavily using a 10-10-10 fertilizer at the rate of 5 to 10 pounds per 1000 square feet.

For hanging baskets of annuals in a greenhouse, a slow-release fertilizer is best. Use a 20-10-20 liquid fertilizer following label directions. In general, organic fertilizers have a lower chemical analysis than inorganic ones, so you have to use more, according to David Tyznik, owner of Planter’s Palette, Winfield.

A healthy plant is dependent on its soil. A balanced soil is rich in beneficial microorganisms that improve the soil structure and supply necessary nutrients. Soilless potting mixes have no microorganisms. “Both organic and inorganic fertilizers work well, but those in soilless mixes need more fertilizer,” says Tyznik.


Raising Lawn Level

I want to raise the level of my lawn as much as 2 feet in places. I now have a large quantity of somewhat composted wood chips and I am wondering if I can use them as fill to raise the ground level and provide a good soil in which to sow a lawn.

“It is not a good idea to use only wood chips to raise the grade of an area,” says Greg Stack, University of Illinois extension educator, horticulture. While wood chips may raise the grade for a while, over time they will decompose and eventually the site will sink. Even using them as fill and putting soil over them is not a good idea.

“I would not use straight compost by itself to raise the lawn level, but mix it with soil,” adds Stack.


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.


Overwintering Marginal Plants

I keep seeing photos of interesting plants I’d like to grow, but they’re labeled zone 6 and I’m in zone 5. What can I do to successfully overwinter these marginal plants? I’d like to try them, but I don’t want to waste my money.

“Pushing a plant past the limits of its hardiness is not for the average gardener,” says Marie Dvorak of The Planter’s Palette in Winfield, “but plants can sometimes be successfully overwintered by siting them in a special microclimate such as a sheltered southern exposure.” Another tip comes from horticulturist Ann Hancock at Michigan State University, where they are trialing perennials that the English firm Blooms of Bressingham is introducing in the U.S. Hancock explains that the best way to keep perennials that are tender in Zone 5 or that are rated for Zone 6 is to grow them in raised beds with good drainage because poorly drained wet soils will cause the roots to rot. In addition, it is important to check perennial beds for plants that have heaved out of the soil through repeated freezing and thawing. Replace them in the soil and protect with mulch.

One example of a marginally hardy plant that will be getting attention this year is ‘Flamenco’, a new cultivar of Tritoma (Kniphofia, red-hot poker) that has just been named an All-America Selections Winner for 1999. Tritomas should have their foliage tied upright so water does not remain in the crown, said Hancock.


Perennial Pinchback

Is there an overall rule about when to pinch back my leggy plants?

“The reason plants are pinched back is to obtain compact and bushier growth. This is generally done three times during a growing season, or you can apply the 6 nodes rule,” says Jennifer Brennan, horticulturist, Chalet Nursery, Wilmette.

After 6 weeks of growth, trim back half of the growth, or wait until you see 6 nodes on the plant stem to trim back to get more branching. For plants that respond, such as chrysanthemums, use the 6 node criterion.


Winter Mulch

Must I mulch my garden and, if so, when is the best time to apply it? What are the best materials to use?

Perennial gardens usually come through the winter better when given some sort of protection, although many gardeners leave their established gardens unprotected save for deer netting to keep deer off newly emerging greens in spring. Plants new to your garden can be protected by mulch during the first winter and may not need it after that.

Mulch is used in winter not to keep the plants warm, but to keep the ground at an even temperature and prevent plants from heaving out of the soil during periods of alternate freezing and thawing. Thus it is applied after the ground freezes. If mulch is applied before the ground freezes, it can smother the plants.

The simplest mulch is a loose layer of oak leaves, which do not mat down and rot. Ground-up leaves are ideal, and even dried grass can be used. Or apply straw left over from Halloween decorating.

Use only a few inches of mulch and keep it light enough not to smother the plants. Deer netting helps to hold mulch in place until it is wet enough not to blow around. In spring, as soon as the plant starts to grow, remove the mulch gradually, a little at a time over several days. Don’t wait too long because if the shoots are too tall, you may damage them as you pull off the mulch. Work the mulch into the soil with a trowel afterwards.

Heucheras, astrantias and recently planted perennials may heave even if mulched. Push any dislodged plants back into the soil. Mulch also protects the evergreen rosettes of biennial hollyhock, foxglove, Canterbury bells and sweet William from snow and ice damage.


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.


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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?

I dislike staking perennials. Is there anything I can do to avoid it?

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