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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.


Hibiscus

I am growing my potted tropical hibiscus indoors for the winter. The leaves are starting to yellow and fall off. Should I give the plant iron and should I fertilize it? Do I cut it back, and if so, when?

Hibiscus leaves turn yellow in response to the change in environment. The older leaves fall off first. If the leaves are chronically pale yellow with green veins, the plant could be lacking iron, but in your case, it is probably the change in growing conditions that is affecting the plant. When the days get longer in February or March, prune it to shape it, or cut it down to force good bottom growth.”

“Don’t panic; the plant expresses itself dramatically,” reassures Mike Geimer, owner of Geimer Greenhouses, Long Grove. “Don’t be timid pruning it.”


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.


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.


What are some good plant/tree choices to hide unattractive views?

I’d like to block an unattractive view of my neighbor’s house/yard. What are some good plant/tree choices to hide unattractive views?

John Eskandari, owner, The Urban Plantsman, Chicago

Two evergreens for sun are Thuja occientalis ‘Wintergreen’ and Picea pungens ‘Fastigiata’. Both are moderate to fast growers. For shadier locations, Picea abies ‘Cuppressina’ does remarkably well.

A deciduous tree that would work nicely is Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’. It comes in green, gold, red and purple leaved varieties. They work well in shadier spots but the red and purple leaves are less intense in shade.

In smaller areas, I like Amelanchier laevis ‘Cumulus’. It’s a more upright form of serviceberry providing nice spring blooms, edible berries, and golden fall color. It is adaptable to both sun and shade.

Chrissie Sieff, nursery manager, Platt Hill Nursery, Bloomingdale

Whenever I am asked this question, my customers usually have something in mind such as ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ’Emerald Green’, sometimes labeled ‘Smaragd’). They want a green wall, and they want it instantly! Our dead plant return rate is high on this item, so I try to steer them to hardier choices, such as Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ or Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’.

A strategically placed tree can also do the trick. I love katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), river birch (Betula nigra), serviceberry (Amelanchier), and ‘Ivory Silk’ tree lilacs. As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of evergreens.

Andy Wedel, part owner, Wedel’s Nursery, Florist & Garden Center, Kalamazoo, MI

Arborvitae (Thuja spp.) is the first plant we think of, but there are others. It’s hard to pick just one. Fine Line buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Ron Williams’) is a columnar-shaped deciduous shrub with yellow fall color. Evergreen, drought-tolerant upright junipers such as Juniperus chinensis ‘Blue Point’ are great in sunny spots. Some other columnar trees include ‘Crimson Sentry’ maple (Acer platanoides ‘Crimson Sentry’), Red Fox katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Rotfuchs’), and columnar hornbeam (Carpinus spp., cvs.).


Tree Planting

What is the best time to plant a tree in northern Illinois?

The two best times to plant a tree are April-May or September-October because the weather is cool and there is a good moisture supply, according to Joni Cotten, nursery stock manager, Hawthorn Gardens in Hawthorn Woods. However, planting times can vary, depending on the plant and its method of growth.

Bare-root trees are planted when dormant. They are less expensive, and the planting hole can be back-filled with soil dug from the hole. Trees that have burlap-covered root balls are generally planted in the cooler months, while trees in containers can be planted at any time. Rhododendrons and evergreens are not planted bare root.

“Birches and oaks are dug in nursery fields and planted in the spring. Oaks especially have a long tap root, so they do best when they have the entire season to grow,” says Cotten.


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.


Low Light House Plants

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?

Use plants that grow in low light such as pothos, philodendron, peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), any type of dracaena, and include lady palm (Rhapis) for height. It would be possible to grow moth orchids (Phalaenopsis).

“While the bathroom will give you good humidity, your plants must be watered thoroughly. The peace lily needs to be kept evenly moist. Feed monthly with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer,” advises Elizabeth Hoffman, manager, West End Florist, Evanston.


Russian Sage

Our Russian sage (Perovskia) is full and bountiful but will not stay upright. Is there anything we can do? Is there a way to split some off when it has outgrown its space? Should it be trimmed back in fall or spring?

The normal growing habit of Russian sage is to open in the center, according to Tina Pansic, staff horticulturist at Chalet Nursery, Wilmette, who says this is a common complaint. Russian sage must be grown in full sun and can be supported by pea stakes (willow or dogwood branches) or commercial wire stakes. A new cultivar, ‘Little Spire’ is shorter and will stay upright. Your plant can be divided by breaking up the root system with a spade as the bottom stems get woody.Wait until spring to cut the plant to the ground. Plants that are cut back in autumn suffer more winterkill. Pansic cuts her perovskia halfway down in late summer to control the spreading, and then cuts it to the ground the following spring


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.


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