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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.


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.


Colorful Shrubs

I am interested in improving fall color in my yard. What shrubs turns red beside burning bush (Euonymus alatus)?

Wendy Vichitk, plant manager at Luurs Garden and Flower Shop, Hillside, recommends these shrubs for a colorful fall garden:

Low growing 2- to 3-foot Virginia sweetspire ‘Little Henry’ (Itea virginica) has red foliage and grows in both sun and shade. The foliage of the somewhat taller ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is dark red, as the name indicates.

Fothergilla ‘Mount Airy’ has blue-green leaves that turn intense yellow and orange-red in sun and half shade.

Oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) grows in shade or partial sun, with orange-red to red fall color.
The leaves of apple serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora) burn a bright orange red. There are several cultivars on the market to choose from.

Many viburnums have bright fall color. The easy to grow Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) and the also fragrant V. juddii have leaves that produce a mixture of red, orange and mahogany. Arrowood viburnum (V. dentatum) and cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) both exhibit typical red-purple color.

The intensity of color is affected by the weather. Warm sunny days followed by cool nights bring the highest leaf color. The health of the plant, its growing conditions, and the amount of water the plant receives also affect fall color.


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.


Raising Lawn Level

I want to raise the level of my lawn as much as 2 feet in places. I now have a large quantity of somewhat composted wood chips and I am wondering if I can use them as fill to raise the ground level and provide a good soil in which to sow a lawn.

“It is not a good idea to use only wood chips to raise the grade of an area,” says Greg Stack, University of Illinois extension educator, horticulture. While wood chips may raise the grade for a while, over time they will decompose and eventually the site will sink. Even using them as fill and putting soil over them is not a good idea.

“I would not use straight compost by itself to raise the lawn level, but mix it with soil,” adds Stack.


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.


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.


Tomatoes

After my father’s tomatoes ripen on the vine, he finds when he cuts into them that there is a hard white core that extends through the fruit.

“This is a common problem,” says Dan Woldhuis, owner, Woldhuis Farms, Grant Park. “Customers bring their tomatoes to me with hard cores.”

Sometimes this is the result of weather that’s too hot and then suddenly cold.

But more likely it is the variety. Change to a soft-skin, less firm tomato such as ‘Celebrity’ to overcome the white core problem. I’ve grown this for many years and sold it at the farmers’ market, but it is too soft for the commercial market and is best for home growers.


Fertilizing Grass

Would it help to apply a starter fertilizer on a poor green lawn in December? Will it give it a head start for spring? It hasn’t been reseeded.

Some people have applied fertilizer over snow when the grass is dormant. However, it is best to fertilize in November to winterize your lawn and give it a start for spring, according to Steve Hipenbecker, assistant manager of Nature Scape, Gurnee. Use a fertilizer labeled as a “winterizer,” not a “starter.” Lawn starter products, typically high in phosphorus, are intended for newly seeded lawns. Winterizer fertilizers are typically high in potassium, which helps increase cold tolerance and disease resistance. Although advertised for fall application, winterizer fertilizer can be applied in spring as well. You can seed in spring, but early September is generally considered the best time to seed a lawn. The soil is still warm, the nights have cooled down, and dew collects on the grass each morning.


Asparagus

Can I grow asparagus from seed? I saved the little red berries from my plants.

You can grow asparagus from seed. I have done so many times, but it takes three or more years for a crop, and growing from seed usually gives inferior plants. Better crops come from hybrid plants.

If the red berries from the female plant have dried over winter, there should be two or three black seeds inside. Clean them off and prepare your seed bed for planting.

Asparagus needs full sun and a sandy loam soil raked smooth. After the danger of frost is past, bury the seeds at a depth two times its diameter and keep the bed moist. In the third year you can lightly cut the pencil-thin stalks. There are often volunteers of female plants between rows you that can transplant. However, it is best to start asparagus by buying roots so you have a small crop the first year. Most varieties sold are male.


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