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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.”


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.


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.


Cycas

I have a cycas palm and am not sure how much direct sunlight or water it needs. It has light brown marks developing on the leaves. What is causing this, and how do I care for my plant?

Cycas palms or sago palms (Cycas revoluta) are tough house or patio plants. They are neither palms nor ferns but primitive cone-bearing relatives of conifers. A rosette of green feather-like leaves, 2 to 3 feet in height, grows from a central point at the top of a single trunk.

Cycas need bright light and should be kept relatively moist with weekly watering. However, prolonged rainy spells can cause fungal leaf spot disease.

“The shiny brown spots are probably caused by scale,” says Jeff Frohn, sales associate at Geimer Greenhouses, Long Grove. “It can be treated with fish oil, vegetable oil or an all-in-one insecticide spray,” adds Mike Geimer, owner, Geimer Greenhouses.


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.


Hydrangeas

When is the best time to cut back hydrangeas? How far do I cut them back?

Pruning hydrangeas depends on the species. Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) and Peegee hydrangea (H. paniculata), with its well-known cultivars ‘Limelight’ ‘Little Lamb’ and ‘Tardiva’, are woody shrubs that bloom on old wood. Trim them within two to three weeks after flowering. The following year’s primary flower buds form near the top of the stems in late summer. If you wait too long to prune, you will be cutting off flowers on the old stems.

The new bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla) ‘Endless Summer’ is an herbaceous plant that dies to the ground over winter and starts into new growth in spring. It can be cut at any time since it flowers on both old and new wood.

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens) can be trimmed at any time. “It dies back totally to the ground each year so you can keep it trimmed to the size you want,” says Jean Bragdon, garden center manager at Lurvey’s Garden Center, Des Plaines.


Slugs

I am sick of slugs. Perhaps if I knew their life cycle I could get rid of them. Where do they go over winter? Where do they come from? What is the best way to get rid of them?

Slugs are gastropods belonging to the mollusk class. They have lungs and can breathe air and live one year. At nightime, to conserve moisture, they feed by biting tissue with a rasping mouth underneath their body. They move by sliding over slime secreted by a large muscular foot and constantly lose water from this slime production and evaporation.

To make matters worse, they are hermaphrodites having both male and female organs and can deposit egg-like clusters of 1/8 inch pearls in soil where they overwinter. Their growth is activated by rising soil humidity and temperature in the spring, according to Ed Valauskas, Manager of Library and Plant Information Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Even if your soil is relatively slug free, they can come in from a neighbor’s yard or live in the soil of container-grown plants. If you garden in very sandy, fast draining soil, you will probably not have many of these pests, but in heavy clay soil, slugs find constant moisture that suits their life style.

Slugs feed on plants with moisture in them, especially hosta, ligularia, dahlia and begonia leaves, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes. They hide by day and feed at night or on gray, damp days. Go outside with a flashlight after 10 p.m. and look for them under boards, rocks or pots and destroy them.

Laurie Skrzenta of Laurie’s Landscape, a Downers Grove hosta grower, keeps the hosta area dry and doesn’t water them because slugs do not live in dry locations. She depends on rainfall and maintains that hostas can exist without supplemental water. Laurie also suggested using coarse sand as a mulch. Another possibility is to sprinkle sand in the center of your dormant hostas since this is where the slugs lay their eggs.

There are many home remedies to get rid of slugs including beer, ammonia water, ice water, and yeast water. Gardener Anna Hevrdejs, Woodridge, suggests sprinkling corn meal around slug areas. Slugs like to eat it, then die. Replace it after a rain. She also claims that sweet woodruff planted around hostas restrains the slug population.

Chemical metaldehyde or methiocarb pellets are useful but they can be attractive to dogs and children. They are very toxic. Much safer is a copper strip laid around the areas to be protected, although this is not practical in an ornamental garden.


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.


Osteospermum

Can you tell me if the African daisy Osteospermum ‘Springstar Aurora’ can be winterized here? It is a healthy plant?

Those South African daisies could never endure a frigid winter here and should be considered annuals. Their daisy-like flowers with blue centers open only in sunlight and bloom best in early summer or later when summer days cool down. They can be seed-grown under lights.


Strawberries

I have two strawberry plants in a hanging basket in my yard. I have not had any fruit from them although the vines hang down. I give them plant food once a month and water daily. What am I doing wrong?

Fertilizing your plant with a high nitrogen fertilizer causes excessive leaf growth. Clip the runners so the strength goes into flower and fruit production. In winter, make sure the plant roots do not freeze in the hanging basket, according to Joni Cotton, Hawthorn Gardens, Hawthorn Woods.


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questions

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.

I have twelve beautiful blooming violet plants on my office desk, placed 12 inches from a light source that’s kept burning day and night. I water them from the bottom and let the water remain in the saucer.

No matter what I spray, I continue to have gnats and other insects in my soil. I also occasionally start to get yellow spots on the tips of the leaves and then the spots start going down the leaves. What’s going on here?

Is it possible to plant and grow Italian cypress in the Chicago area? Are our winters too severe for it? If they are, is there an alternative conifer that will provide a similar look?

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