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What are your three favorite “all-but-forgotten” perennials that every garden should include? Why do you like them?

What are your three favorite “all-but-forgotten” perennials that every garden should include? Why do you like them?

Jan Sorensen, Native Plant Specialst, Wasco Nursery & Garden Center, St. Charles

Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’ is a late season plant for sun to part shade and a wide range of soils. Deer and rabbit resistant with few pests or diseases. The fuzzy texture and gray-green leaves of Stachys byzantina ‘Helene von Stein’ complement other sun plants wonderfully. Leaves mask brown lower foliage of asters. The 3 to 5-foot tall Baptista australis and PRAIRIEBLUES cultivars offer gorgeous blue and purple flowers and they attract butterflies. They like full to part shade and tolerate poor soils.

Elizabeth Hoffman, owner, West End Florist and Garden Center, Evanston.

My three favorite forgotten perennials are plumbago, bergenia and Stokes’ aster. Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is a ground cover with sky blue flowers in fall and red leaves. Intersperse it with spring bulbs for three seasons of interest. Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia) is versatile, handling conditions from moist sunny areas to dry shade. It is rabbit and deer resistant. When you rub your two fingers on either side of the leaf you can make it squeak (hence another common name: pig squeak). The long-blooming and easy-care Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis) is fairly pest and disease free. Rabbits tend not to eat it, and it attracts butterflies.

Rich Massat, co-owner,The Growing Place, Naperville and Aurora

Three favorites of ours are pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), Laddie peony (Paeonia peregrina) and balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). Pasque flower blooms very early in spring with extremely soft leaves and silvery green buds. Red, white or purple flowers; purple seems to have more vigor. The ferny-leaved Laddie peony also blooms very early with red flowers. It’s a hybrid of Paeonia peregrina and P. tenuifolia. Balloon flower is named for blue, pink or white flowers that start out looking like a balloon and open to look like a star. They have a long blooming period in summer.


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.


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.


Tree Position

What is the correct distance from my house to plant a tree? What is the correct distance from the lot line to plant a tree?

It depends on the size of the tree you are planting. A small tree such as a serviceberry (Amelanchier) or a dwarf flowering crab could be planted as close as four to five feet from the house. For a birch tree, a distance of six to eight feet would be the minimum.

Distance from the lot line does not matter as long as it doesn’t interfere with power or sewer lines. You should check with your village before planting. Closeness to the neighbor’s lot line is not an issue, because neighbors have the right to trim back any overhanging branches, according to Matt Zerby, partner in Wasco Nursery, St. Charles.


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.


Gardening Trends

What are some trends in gardening you see becoming more prevalent in the next few years?

Nick Urhausen
Current gardening trends continue to explore a variety of annual shade alternatives. Consider begonias of all types, such as fibrous, hiemalis, nonstop, rex, tuberous and the trademarked Big series and Dragon Wing. For a tropical feel, caladiums, elephant ears, and banana plants are not only exotic but add an element of height. Lastly, the hundreds of coleus varieties, along with black and chartreuse sweet potato vines, are colorful, reliable, and rich in texture.

Diana Stoll
I believe choosing plants for butterflies, bees and other pollinators will be an important trend in 2015 as folks realize the important role they play in our environment. Growing fruits and vegetables will also remain an important focus of gardeners, especially those that can be grown in containers and small spaces. Low-maintenance plants, preferred by both aging and beginning gardeners, will be another trend to watch in 2015.

Anna Keesling
People are looking for “bee-safe” plants that are free of neonicotinoids and other harsh pesticides. Also, they want to do vegetable gardening with non-GMO varieties. Succulents are very hot. The indoor use of succulents in dish gardens is a no-brainer; they look cool, they’re so easy to care for and make great unique gifts. Ornamental kale and cabbage have become very popular for fall decorating.

Rich Hornbaker
The popularity of hostas has made gardeners realize how much fun it is to use foliage for color, so they are looking beyond flowers to the reds and purples of coral bells (Heuchera); the yellow fall bottlebrushes of Amsonia hubrichtii; and the great fall colors of shrubs such as Viburnum, oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia), witch hazel (Hamamelis) and trees such as seven son flower, (Hepticodium), Ginkgo and scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea).


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.

Houseplants

I have houseplants outside that I will need to bring indoors. What is the lowest temperature at which I can leave them outside?

The rule of thumb is when night temperatures are in the 50s, it is time to bring your houseplants indoors, according to horticulturists at Pesche’s garden center, Des Plaines.

To avoid the shock of suddenly bringing plants into a hot dry environment, place them in a shaded area before the heat comes on in the house. Bring in sensitive tropicals such as hibiscus and anthuriums as soon as summer cools down.

Christmas cactus and cymbidium orchids can tolerate chillier temperatures and stay outdoors longer, but move them indoors before the thermometer drops to freezing, says Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension Educator, Horticulture. Indoors, a cool 50-degree area such as an unheated sun porch will give them the short day situation they need to set flower buds. Stack keeps his Christmas cactus in a cool unused room where the lights aren’t turned on. His plant sets buds and blooms reliably every year, he reports. Christmas cactus buds will dry up in an overheated, dry room.


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.


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.


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