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Hellebores

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

Hellebores increase slowly into clumps so have patience, counsels Chris Darbo, wholesale manager of The Natural Garden, St. Charles, and an enthusiastic hellebore grower. “I have Helleborus foetidus, which has finely cut leaves and blooms in January, and H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Both have increased in twelve years to four times the size of the original plants, but they haven"t self sown. They are planted in a bed of sweet woodruff in a partly shady location.”

“I also have a clump of H. orientalis that was transplanted into my back yard five years ago, and it seeds all over the place. It is planted in shade with no ground cover. My theory is if the seeds can"t reach the ground, they can"t grow!” It takes three years before seedlings bloom.

According to Darbo, hellebores do not need fertilizer. She never rakes leaves from garden beds but instead lets fallen leaves act as a winter mulch. Leaf decomposition over the years has helped her soil to become more loamy.

H. niger, the Christmas rose, does not self seed as readily as H. orientalis and H. foetidus.

Note: A new strain of H.orientalis has recently reached the market. Known as the Royal Heritage strain, it includes colors and patterns never seen before in the species. Fifteen years in the making, Royal Heritage hellebores were developed by John Elsley, Director of Horticulture at Song Sparrow Farm in Avalon, Wisconsin.


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.


Climbing Hydrangea

What does it take to make a climbing hydrangea flower? Ours was planted 3 years ago and is growing energetically. It’s in a protected nook near the patio and gets very little direct sunlight, but doesn’t act sun starved. We gave it a shot of slow release fertilizer on planting, and once since. Somewhat inadvertently it gets plenty of water, since the hose spigot is nearby and leaks, but drainage does not seem to be the problem. It now fully occupies an 8-foot trellis but shows no interest in flowering. Is it youth, lack of sun, too much or too little fertilizer, bugs, lack of pruning or what? When do these plants bloom and what conditions do they like?

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) is a choice vine with rich, vigorous, dark green foliage, growing ultimately to 20 feet high and 10 feet wide. The extra moisture it gets is good, and it can bloom in shade. Brent Horvath, president and grower at Intrinsic Gardens, Hebron, has seen it blooming beautifully under a canopy of trees.

After weighing all the cultural factors you described, Horvath has concluded that your vine may be immature and will need a couple more years before it flowers. Climbing hydrangea matures very slowly, especially when it’s sold in 2 gallon containers.


Trumpet Vine

Will a trumpet vine growing on a tree harm it?

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is a vigorous vine which can climb to the top of a tree in one season and spreads by suckering roots. It blooms in full sun in clusters of 3-inch-long orange tubes with flaring scarlet lobes.

The vine will not harm an established tree but a young tree could be stressed.

“There may be root competition between the vine and the tree for moisture, especially if your tree needs a lot of water. However, trumpet vines can grow with less moisture. When customers claim their vine does not bloom, it is because they are watering and pampering it too much,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery and Garden Center, Crystal Lake.


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.


Hoya

I have a hoya houseplant that has been growing happily for eight years. It had flowers when I received it, but it hasn’t bloomed since. What am I doing wrong? Can I get it to flower?

There are many varieties of hoyas. In general, they are easily grown houseplants. Some are fragrant and some have a cascading habit. Give hoyas a moderate amount of light but not deep shade. They can remain in the same container for years without repotting.

Shortened day length, combined with cooler night-time temperatures and dryness over a couple of winter months should bring your hoya into bloom. “Let your plant go dry. It needs a bit of drought,” says Susan Izenstark, horticulturist at Jamaican Gardens, Morton Grove. “The bud is a nodule on the stem. Notice when it swells a little. This is your signal to begin watering.”


Siberian Iris

My Siberian iris ‘Gracilis’ plants have only one bloom per clump. I have five 3 to 5 year-old clumps that are 8 to 10 inches wide. They do not appear to be crowded. All are planted in a moist area. Why is there only one bloom per clump?

“Iris bloom is directly proportional to the amount of sun received,” proclaimed Chuck Simon, Hinsdale, past president of the Northern Illinois Iris Society, who grows 10,000 rhizomes of 1,000 to 1,500 iris varieties. Iris need 4 to 5 hours of sun, but full sun is best. Another cause of bloom failure could be iris borers, which eat mature fans and cause only minor increases in plant growth. Spray with Cygon 2E in spring when eggs of borers hatch in order to break their life cycle. When transplanting iris, make sure the roots remain moist. Grow them in moist but not wet soil. In the first year after planting, water them religiously. Once past that point, they are very hardy. Simon, a master iris judge, referred to the American Iris Society checklist for any special cultural conditions affecting bloom and discovered that this variety is very old. Iris siberica ‘Gracilis’ was introduced in 1927.


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.


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.


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.


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