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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.


White Pine Trees

I have lost four 12-15 foot tall white pine trees over the last year. All had the same symptoms, browning needles at the bottom that continued up to the top. Can you tell me what pest is killing the white pines? I am also losing an Austrian pine now. It is experiencing the same symptoms.

White pines in this area are very rarely troubled by disease. They are, unfortunately, highly susceptible to high pH problems, or soil alkalinity, and are utterly intolerant of salt, according to Rich Eyre of Foxwillow Pines, Woodstock. The browning needles could also indicate the plant is getting too much water or has poor drainage.If environmental problems are not the issue for your white pines, consult an expert. Betty Lockwood, Plant Information Specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, suggested you bring them a sample branch to check on disease and bring in an arborist for an on site visit to check your growing conditions. Or take a 12-inch sample of an affected tree to your local extension office.Austrian pine is very tolerant of environmental conditions but is prone to certain diseases—diplodia tip blight and dothistroma needle blight, both caused by a fungus. Only an arborist or a laboratory can provide an accurate diagnosis. If you bring in a 12-inch sample for diagnosis, be sure to sterilize your pruning shears with denatured alcohol after cutting the diseased wood.


Types of Fruit Trees

I am going to be planting five dwarf fruit trees; two ‘Bartlett’ pears, one ‘Cresthaven’ peach, and two ‘Honeycrisp’ apples. Could you give me some feedback on them?

If you buy young container fruit trees, plant them very early in the spring to lessen transplanting shock (as soon as the soil can be worked and before the buds break). Plant the tree at the level it was in the pot, adding a layer of top mulch.

“Wrap the trunk in paper or plastic tree wrap to prevent deer and rabbit damage. Protect the trunk from voles with fine wire mesh at the base,” says Tim Norris, president of Spring Bluff nursery, Sugar Grove.

‘Bartlett’ pear is subject to fire blight and also needs a pollinator for good fruit production. ‘Patten’ and ‘Parker’ are two pear cultivars Norris recommends. Two different cultivars will give you better cross-pollination.

‘Honeycrisp’ apples are an excellent choice for this area. They grow up to 20 feet tall on semi-dwarf root stock. They can be pollinated by any member of the Malus family, including a nearby flowering crab tree.

‘Cresthaven’ peach, while hardy here, may not bear fruit, depending on how cold the winters are. When the temperature goes down to zero, ‘Cresthaven’ peach loses all its flower buds. Norris suggests growing ‘Reliance’ peach instead. It needs a long growing season. Last spring (2008) was a cool one and peaches did not bear much fruit. Peaches are not long-lived trees. By the time the tree is bearing fruit, you will need to start growing another tree.


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.


Azaleas

I received a beautiful flowering azalea plant during the holidays. I would like to continue growing it over winter. Will I be able to bring it into bloom next year?

Trying to get azaleas to flower in the home is difficult and time consuming because the light in a house is lower than that in the greenhouse where it originated. But if you would like to try to keep your plant growing, follow these directions.

To keep an azalea flowering after you get it, give it water-soluble acid fertilizer at quarter-strength. Keep it in a cool, shaded location, away from heat-releasing light bulbs or hot air vents.

After flowering, remove the withered flowers and keep the plant in a cool, sunny location. Water as needed to keep from wilting. In summer, sink the pot in the garden in a semi-shaded spot. Water and fertilize regularly. Acid fertilizers will help to maintain proper soil pH and keep the foliage from yellowing. Before July 1, shape the plant if needed. Keep the plant outdoors as long as possible in the fall. The plant may need protection from early light frosts but should be brought in before heavy frosts or freezes occur.

Once the plant is indoors, place it in a cool area, 40-50 degrees. An unheated porch, cold frame or similar area is good. Flower buds develop during the cold period. About 6-8 weeks of cold are needed for bud development. Do not fertilize during this time and only water enough to keep the plant from wilting. Buds should develop and swell. In January, move the plant into a cool sunny area, about 60 degrees. Flowering should begin in a few weeks. If temperatures are excessively high during this period, buds often develop poorly and new shoots will grow right past the buds, hiding them. Additional humidity is helpful to keep the calyx on the flower moist and easier to open.

Even if your plant doesn’t rebloom, all is not lost. Azaleas are known to be air purifiers.


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.


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.


Dwarf Junipers

Why do I have brown areas near the tips of my dwarf Japanese junipers? This has been occurring the last few years. They are supposed to be drought resistant”

“It’s hard to diagnose without seeing the plants or their location,” says Matt Warrick, sales associate in tree and shrubs at Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago. “Your plants may be in a situation that’s too dry. With the type of drought we had this past summer, even if a plant is drought-tolerant, it would have needed supplemental watering.”

Other factors that affect junipers are poor drainage, insufficient light, fungal disease, and insufficient acidity in the soil. Any of these conditions could cause needle browning.


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.


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.


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questions

I have houseplants outside that I will need to bring indoors. What is the lowest temperature at which I can leave them outside?

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?

We have a skylight in the bathroom over our Jacuzzi tub with an area around the tub that is quite large. What plants can we grow there, and what care do they need? Can we grow orchids?

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