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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.


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.


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.


Pre-Chilled Bulbs

I purchased some pre-chilled hyacinths and tulips for forcing but there were no directions with them. Does this mean I don’t have to chill them in the refrigerator, and will they just bloom in the house any time during the winter? The last batch of bulbs became moldy in the refrigerator.

Using pre-chilled bulbs avoids the 12- to 14- week cold treatment that bulbs need for indoor blooming. However, you need to pot up the bulbs in a loose potting mix. Do not cover the bulbs in plastic wrap or paper bags. It will still take 3 or 4 weeks of cold for roots to appear.

Hyacinths kept cool do not need to be potted. They can sprout roots in a saucer of water with the bulb held in place by stones. Check the water level and make sure it just touches the base of the bulb and add water as needed.

The bulbs can be forced as soon as you see roots, or you can hold them in the cold temperature to space out the bud development. Place rooted bulbs in bright light in a cool room, and watch for buds. Rotate the plant so the flowering stem will be erect. “Your previous bulbs rotted because they were not potted up,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery, Crystal Lake.


Siberian Iris

My Siberian iris ‘Gracilis’ plants have only one bloom per clump. I have five 3 to 5 year-old clumps that are 8 to 10 inches wide. They do not appear to be crowded. All are planted in a moist area. Why is there only one bloom per clump?

“Iris bloom is directly proportional to the amount of sun received,” proclaimed Chuck Simon, Hinsdale, past president of the Northern Illinois Iris Society, who grows 10,000 rhizomes of 1,000 to 1,500 iris varieties. Iris need 4 to 5 hours of sun, but full sun is best. Another cause of bloom failure could be iris borers, which eat mature fans and cause only minor increases in plant growth. Spray with Cygon 2E in spring when eggs of borers hatch in order to break their life cycle. When transplanting iris, make sure the roots remain moist. Grow them in moist but not wet soil. In the first year after planting, water them religiously. Once past that point, they are very hardy. Simon, a master iris judge, referred to the American Iris Society checklist for any special cultural conditions affecting bloom and discovered that this variety is very old. Iris siberica ‘Gracilis’ was introduced in 1927.


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.


Purple Coneflower

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

If your coneflowers remain standing over winter, the seed heads will be available as bird food and will also be an attractive presence in the winter garden. They should be cut back in early spring before April. If you prefer, you can cut the plant back after frost and throw the seed heads on the ground.


Heptacodium

Late last year most of the leaves on my year-old seven-son tree (Heptacodium) turned brown, starting at the tips. It had some new growth on the tips and buds. I used a tree ring soaker hose every two weeks.

“I suspect that your watering every two weeks was not sufficient and that your tree was going into early dormancy,” says Chicagoland Gardening editor Carolyn Ulrich. “It was very dry late in the growing season and a lot of trees looked stressed.”

A rule of thumb for watering is one inch per week. Heptacodiums grow best in moist soil. You probably needed to increase the amount of time the water was on the plant and also water more frequently. Soaker hoses can run for hours.

If you want to figure out how much water your tree is receiving, use a sprinkler, if you have one, and run it on your tree until a tuna fish can has an inch of water in it, and then stop. Do this weekly, unless it rains.


Overwintering Clivia

After a summer outside, my clivia has returned indoors. Last year it had only one puny flower. What treatment should I give it over winter to bring it into bloom?

A. Clivia miniata, sometimes known as Kaffir lily, a South African native, is a member of the amaryllis family. When growing clivia, it is important to observe seasonal changes. During short winter days, stop fertilizing entirely until spring, and stop watering also.

“Treat your plant like a cactus,” says Steve Butcher, tropical plant specialist at Sid’s Garden Center in Palos Hills. “You can keep it completely dry for a couple of weeks up to the point of shriveling before watering. Keep your plant in a cool place; 55 to 65 degrees is ideal, but that’s hard to achieve in many homes. It does not need a brightly lit location.”

When the days lengthen, move the plant into a brighter location and increase watering. There are no hard-and-fast rules on watering. The frequency depends on the pot size and the root mass. Use a water-soluble, high-phosphorus fertilizer every second or third watering. After you see buds, reduce fertilizer to once per month. Root bound plants flower better.

Following this regime last winter, Editor Carolyn Ulrich reported five bloom stalks on one of her plants in February. Other plants bloomed in March but one didn’t bloom until June. Clivia are considered a winter-flowering houseplant, but bloom time will vary. Be patient.


Rabbit-proof Plants

Which flowers can we plant that the bunnies won’t eat? My pansies and marigolds are all eaten.

Rabbits love crisp tasty plants as much as we do. Besides lettuce, they eat everything in the legume family, including beans, peas and sweet peas. Experienced gardeners know they have to protect these plants with row covers.

Annual pansies, nasturtiums, marigolds, impatiens, fibrous begonias, and lisianthus are some of their favorites, especially early in the growing season. Ageratum and sweet alyssum are two annuals rabbits do not eat.

Some perennials are not bothered by rabbits, says Kim Schroeder, perennial buyer, Wasco Nursery, St. Charles. These are English ivy, ajuga, yarrow, artemisia, lily-of-the-valley, foxglove, aconite, iris, peony, poppies, thyme, lychnis, lamb’s ears, ground-covering sedums, salvia and santolina.

For added protection, when you are setting out new plants, spray them at once with rabbit repellent so bunnies will learn to avoid that area, and re-spray after rain.


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