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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.


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.


Large Tree Replacement

What is the largest tree that one can plant? We are trying to replace some 7- to 8-foot trees that were recently destroyed.

Trees sold at garden centers that are 2.5 to 3 feet tall, with a 2.5 inch diameter trunk, can be planted by hand. A hole for a ‘balled and burlap’ tree with a 5 to 6-inch diameter trunk can be dug by hand without a tree spade.

Any tree with a trunk larger than 6 inches in diameter would need a tree spade to do the moving and digging. Even large trees, such as a 35-foot tall tree with a trunk 9 or 10 inches in diameter can be transplanted with proper equipment. “Spruces 30 feet tall can be installed easily with a tree spade,” according to Greg Oltman, owner, Gro Horticultural Enterprises, Huntley.


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.


Voles

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

Voles are mice-like rodents that gnaw on roots and bulbs. They are hard to control.

There are repellents on the market that you can try—Deer Off, Moletox, and a new product named Shot Gun Repel. The latter repellent was designed specifically to protect bulbs from chipmunks, moles, voles and mice. Treat the bulbs before storing or planting. Remove old skin and soil, and then spray thoroughly until wet. Allow the bulbs to dry before storing or planting.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Peonies

Do the ants on my peony flowers help buds to open, or is this an old wives’ tale? What are the extremely tiny, microscopic yellow wormy looking bugs crawling on my pink peony flowers? My peonies are beautiful, but I don’t want all these bugs.

Peony buds exude a sweet viscous sap that attracts ants. The ants do not generally affect the opening of peony buds. The old tale could have arisen because ants are occasionally seen eating large transparent drops of sap on the buds.

The tiny worms you describe are common yellow thrips, which are attracted to light-colored flowers. Thrips suck juice from buds, petals and leaves. Their triangular bodies are too small and move too fast to be hosed off the plant. A systemic insecticide should be used to prevent plant injuries.

“Peonies are such old time nostalgic favorites that people excuse their shortcomings,” says Mary Ellen Murphy, perennial plant specialist, Pesche’s Garden Center, Des Plaines. “To use the flowers indoors in cut arrangements, pick them when the buds are soft and show color, and then rinse the stems outside with a hose to remove insects.”


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