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Japanese Maple

I’m moving to a townhouse with limited direct sunlight. I would like to put a Japanese maple in a north-facing garden but don’t know if it will do well. What are the best kinds? Also, when is the best time to plant a small tree?

Japanese maples are small decorative trees which are becoming more popular as more dependable cultivars come on the market. Even so, an established tree will sometimes succumb in a severe winter. Their light requirements vary.

The trees can grow in a northeast exposure, and 6 hours of sunlight is not too much, according to Jeff Sibley, nursery manager of Red’s Garden Center, Northbrook. They need a moist, well drained, neutral soil, amended with organic matter. They can grow to 8 feet tall in a good location. He says the best planting time is right after Mother’s Day. A protected spot and plenty of moisture are critical elements for survival, even with the newer cultivars.

Sibley recommended the following cultivars of Acer palmatum var. dissectum, a cut-leaf variety, as the most graceful trees:

  • ‘Crimson Queen’ is a small shrubby tree, with finely cut reddish leaves that hold color all summer and turn scarlet before dropping off in the fall.‘Garnet’ is similar to ‘Crimson Queen’ but a somewhat more vigorous grower.‘Bloodgood’ is a vigorous, upright tree with blackish red bark. It has deep red spring and summer foliage, scarlet in the fall.
  • Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Viridis’ Lace Leaf Japanese Maple is a small shrub with drooping branches, green bark and pale green, finely divided leaves that turn gold in autumn. It takes shade.

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.


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.


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.


Fresh Figs

I recently moved to Chicago from Houston and I miss fresh picked figs. Is there any way to grow figs in Chicago short of installing a greenhouse? Will sunny windows do? I’m desperate.

Figs (Ficus carica) are handsome plants with smooth gray bark and large lobed leaves which can grow into gnarled trees in warm climates. In Illinois, with winter die-back, they are grown as shrubs. They should be sited where they get some protection from the wind in winter.

You do not need a greenhouse to grow figs, and a sunny window would not be appropriate. Grow a fig cultivar suitable for this climate. While most figs are rated to winter hardiness zone 4, the problem comes because our growing season is too short to ripen fruit, which may take until September or October in a cool summer. Sometimes we have an early frost. If so, pick unripened figs and let them ripen in the house.

Alana Mezo, senior horticulturist for the fruit and vegetable island at the Chicago Botanic Garden, recommends ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig, the variety they grow. They have 10 or 12 plants there growing in a row and, through trial and error, have decided not to protect them over winter because rodents chew roots and stems in wrapped plants and set back their growth. Their figs are multi-stemmed, die back to the ground when unprotected, and get off to a slow start in the spring, delaying fruiting.

However, if you do not have a rodent problem, tie the stems together, wrap burlap around the tied stems, and cover the base with a basketful of leaves. With this protection, your plants will have a head start in spring, and you should have figs ripen a month earlier than unprotected plants, at least by late August.

Another method of winter protection is to root prune in a half semi-circle around the plant, lay it down and cover the plants with leaves over winter.

If you grow a fig in a large container, you can wheel it into an unheated garage and store it over winter. Watch it to see if it needs moisture. Your plant does need a dormant cold period, but not a freeze. This is an “iffy” process according to Mezo.

A fig grower in Highwood claims that rubbing olive oil on the fig hastens ripening, but Mezo has not tried this yet.


Perennial Pinchback

Is there an overall rule about when to pinch back my leggy plants?

“The reason plants are pinched back is to obtain compact and bushier growth. This is generally done three times during a growing season, or you can apply the 6 nodes rule,” says Jennifer Brennan, horticulturist, Chalet Nursery, Wilmette.

After 6 weeks of growth, trim back half of the growth, or wait until you see 6 nodes on the plant stem to trim back to get more branching. For plants that respond, such as chrysanthemums, use the 6 node criterion.


Good Annuals for Shade

Now that bedding impatiens (I. walleriana) are not recommended because of impatiens downy mildew, what are three good annuals for shade?

Chris Williams, production manager, K&W Greenery, Janesville, Wisc.

I like New Guinea Impatiens. They make nice bushy plants that are full of large colorful flowers and are easy to grow. You also get a large color selection with New Guineas. The SunPatiens and Bounce impatiens are fairly new plants, and they are recommended for sun as well as shade. Then there’s coleus. Who doesn’t like its colorful foliage? Many varieties grow upright, but others also spread. Torenia, also known as wishbone flower, has trumpet-like flowers of white, yellow, rose and purple that cover nicely mounded, low-growing plants.


Karen Wedel, manager of the outdoor floral department, Wedel’s Nursery, Garden Center, Kalamazoo, Mich.

One of my favorites is begonia. Tuberous varieties have large colorful blooms; wax begonias are good for mass planting. I’m also a fan of the big leaf, 16-20 inch tall Whopper series with large waxy leaves and summer-long flowers.
Another idea is coleus and caladiums. They come in different foliage colors, work great in gardens and containers. They are both also easy-care.
Finally, torenia or wishbone flower, named for the small “wishbone” inside the mouth of the pink, yellow or blue-purple flowers. Blooms all summer. Some varieties will trail.

Kevin DeBoer, manager, Big John’s Farm Market and Greenhouse, Chicago Heights

My favorite is Dragon Wing begonias. They’re usually sold in 4½ inch pots or hanging baskets. At my house I removed them from the baskets, then planted them in the ground in full shade. They turned out awesome! Plain wax leaf begonias are also good.
In addition, I like coleus. They don’t produce flowers, but they have many different vibrant leaf colors. In full shade New Guinea Impatiens will flower sparingly, but if you put them in some sun, they will flower more.


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.).


Pines in Winter

This past spring I planted a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) in full sun. As winter began, the angle of the sun’s rays has caused the tree to receive, at most, 4 hours of sun. What are sun requirements of evergreens in winter?

In general, pines adapt to the winter weather by becoming dormant, says Susan Eyre, Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery, Woodstock. It is the freeze and thaw cycle that is hard on a plant, not the loss of sun hours. In a January thaw, sap rises and then freezes, which can cause the bark to crack, but plants usually recover.


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


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questions

I have a large variegated sedum with pink flowers that I have had for years. I noticed that it has started to send up some all-green shoots. Why is it doing this and how can I keep my plant variegated?

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?

Besides mums, what are a few other plants you would recommend for containers for fall color?

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