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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.


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.


Fruit Trees

I am interested in growing fruit trees in my suburban DuPage County yard. Can sweet cherries be grown here? Can you suggest varieties of apples, pears, peaches, apricots and plums that are hardy and disease resistant?

Sweet cherries are not hardy in this area. Some fruit trees are sensitive to winter cold and spring frost damage to the buds. Early flowering apricots are the most sensitive, followed by peaches. Pears and sour cherries bloom later and are less sensitive to late frosts.

Apples are the least sensitive to frost damage. Apple scab and apple maggot are common pests. Fruit trees require a regular schedule of spraying for pest control.

For a backyard fruit tree grower, tree size is important. Dwarf fruit trees bear full-sized fruit earlier than standard sized trees. Most fruit cultivars need two different varieties to cross- pollinate and produce fruit.

Midwest Fruit Explorers is a non-profit amateur backyard fruit-growing group. For more information about fruit growing, see www.midfex.org.


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.).


Coneflowers

I thought that purple coneflowers were insect proof, but now I see some aphids at the bud and tiny flies. What is wrong?

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a common native perennial that grows best in sandy or well-draining soil and full sun. If you are not giving your plant these growing conditions, certain insects can attack your plants.

Aphids are sometimes visible on buds, and as sucking insects they cause stunted and deformed leaves. Spider mites are tiny insects that often multiply in hot, dry conditions. Spider mites feed on sap and cause yellowish leaves. Thrips are barely visible, tiny insects causing bud malformation.


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.


African Violets

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?

A number of factors could be causing your problems.

“Yellow tips indicate your plant is showing stress either from lack of humidity or watering too much; it’s hard to pinpoint,” says Sandy Fuller, Palatine, past president of Barrington Bloomers, who grows 100 African violets under lights in her basement.

Peat-based soil needs to dry out for fungus gnats to disappear. Use a magnifying glass and try to identify them. Gnats eat only decaying plant material and do not damage the plants. If you have mealy bugs, their cottony waxy sac is easy to identify.

Office tap water may be too cold. Let it sit for half a day before using it. If the water is too cold, the plant could rot. Some violets are more sensitive than others to temperature changes.

Repot your plants in African violet soil and use a 20-20-20 fertilizer.


Pumpkins

I’d like to know the secret to growing a decent-sized pumpkin for jack-o-lanterns for the grandkids and for decorating. My experience in recent years is that they get about as big as a basketball and then begin to rot. What am I doing wrong?

The longer the fruit is on the vine, the greater the chance it will rot. By September its size is apparent, and it turns orange. It is best to plant pumpkins in different soil each year or every two years, according to Sue Murdock, manager, Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm, South Barrington.

The size and use of pumpkins is determined by the seed you buy. ‘Atlantic Giant’ produces fruits that weigh hundreds of pounds. A better choice is to grow ‘Howden’. It bears well-shaped 10 to 20-pound fruits, the perfect size for jack-o-lanterns. ‘New England Pie’ is the standard for pies with smooth, bright orange flesh. ‘Wee-B-Little’ is a miniature round pumpkin bearing 3- to 4-inch fruit useful for table decorations and suitable for tiny hands.


Purple Coneflower

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

If your coneflowers remain standing over winter, the seed heads will be available as bird food and will also be an attractive presence in the winter garden. They should be cut back in early spring before April. If you prefer, you can cut the plant back after frost and throw the seed heads on the ground.


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.


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questions

I dislike staking perennials. Is there anything I can do to avoid it?

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

I brought a frangipani (Plumeria) back from Hawaii last April when it was just a leafless branch. It sprouted leaves and grew over summer. Now it is losing its leaves. How can I keep it growing over winter? Will it bloom?

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