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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.


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.


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.


Cabbage Worms

We are first-time gardeners and have planted Brussels sprouts and green and red cabbage that we are trying to grow organically. There are black egg sacs and small green worms eating the leaves. Is there an organic product we can use on the cabbage?

Egg sacs can be washed off with a hose.

There are several organic methods you can use to deter cabbage worms. Lightweight polypropylene row covers, placed over a row of plants and supported by hoops, will block wind and insects while permitting light, air and rain to reach the plants. Hold down the row covers with soil, stones or bricks.

Another organic method uses pots of mint growing between cabbage plants. The mint odor is said to deter cabbage moths. Don’t let the mint take root, however; it will take over your garden. Rotenone dust is considered organic, as it leaves no poisonous residue on plants. The use of hot pepper spray is an irritant to insects and worms, but also to your skin and eyes. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a specific biological control that is fatal to cabbage worms if ingested. Note that it can be harmful to certain butterfly larvae.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Planting Tulips

Is there a best time to plant tulips? I see them at the garden centers in late summer but I am afraid that it is too early to plant them. If I wait too long, I might forget all about them.

Fall bulb planting should wait until soil temperatures drop to 55 degrees or cooler. This usually occurs when nighttime temperatures drop to 50 degrees or lower for two weeks or more. While waiting to plant, store the tulips in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight—but don’t forget them. After planting, water the bulbs well, advises the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.

If you plant grape hyacinth bulbs amidst your tulips, they will come up early in the fall and serve to mark the position of your tulips.


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