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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.


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.


Peony Blight

Last summer my neighbor told me the black spots on my peony were a blight, although my peonies bloomed nicely. What can I do about this?

Your peonies probably have a fungal disease, a common problem. The causes are wet summers with cool damp nights, too much shade, poorly drained soil, or a lack of air circulation. While your neighbor diagnosed your problem as peony blight, which is caused by an air-borne botrytis fungus, the black spots indicate the more common phytophthora blight, according to Walter Schmidtke, nursery manager at Pesche’s Garden Center in DesPlaines.

Early in the spring, young emerging shoots may suddenly wilt and fall over, turn black and show masses of gray-brown botrytis spores. If nothing is done, these spores are carried to developing buds, which turn black.

Black spots on foliage, leaves turning red in summer, and black stripes on the stalk indicate phytophthora. “Plants with these conditions won’t have as much zest” said Schmidtke.

The best protection against recurrence of either blight is good sanitation. In fall, it is important to cut down and throw away all peony foliage, cutting stalks just below the surface of the ground.

If this doesn"t work and you resort to chemicals, the treatment is the same for both diseases. As soon as the shoots emerge in spring, begin spraying with Mancozeb, a copper sulphate solution, and repeat every 7-10 days until buds form, according to University of Illinois Extension. Spray the whole soil area for overwintering spores. In early summer you can spray plants with Daconil, a general purpose fungicide. Cut away any diseased foliage at once.


Nitrogen Problem

I applied commercial compost and hardwood mulch to an area where I am establishing a small garden. I did a few soil tests on the area and the results indicated the nitrogen was depleted. I intend to spread a bag of dried blood to rectify this problem When is the best time to apply the dried blood?

Landscape professionals are usually skeptical about results from home soil tests. They don’t always produce accurate results unless you take a large soil sample from many parts of your yard.

“Take your home soil test results with a grain of salt,” advises Tony Fulmer, manager, Chalet Nursery, Wilmette. He cautions not to become overly excited by the results. “Hard-wood mulch is used by landscapers all over the area, and I don’t see a problem with it causing nitrogen depletion.”

Apply the dried blood now. The 12% insoluble nitrogen starts working when soil temperatures rise.


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.


Strawberries

I have two strawberry plants in a hanging basket in my yard. I have not had any fruit from them although the vines hang down. I give them plant food once a month and water daily. What am I doing wrong?

Fertilizing your plant with a high nitrogen fertilizer causes excessive leaf growth. Clip the runners so the strength goes into flower and fruit production. In winter, make sure the plant roots do not freeze in the hanging basket, according to Joni Cotton, Hawthorn Gardens, Hawthorn Woods.


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.


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.”


Italian Cypress

Is it possible to plant and grow Italian cypress in the Chicago area? Are our winters too severe for it? If they are, is there an alternative conifer that will provide a similar look?

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) has dark green foliage and horizontal branches and grows into a dense column 60 feet high in Italy. It is not hardy here.

Paul Jeffers, tree and shrub salesperson, Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago, suggests substituting a dense, columnar arborvitae, (Thuja occidentalis ‘Fastigiata’). It grows to 25 feet tall and 5 feet wide, but can be kept lower by pruning. The very narrow arborvitae ‘DeGroots Spire’ is another choice. The false cypress Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’, often mistaken for arborvitae, is a tight upright growing plant.


Plumeria

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?

During winter, plumerias defoliate naturally. Keep your plant somewhat dry.

” We keep it in the cactus section over winter because it really likes to dry out. It doesn’t need a lot of misting. A southwest window with bright light is the best exposure for it.” says Lourdes Espinosa, greenhouse associate, Sid’s Nursery and Greenhouse in Palos Heights.

In spring, depending on the weather, and as the days lengthen, resume watering and fertilize with a high-phosphorus liquid fertilizer every two weeks. When the night temperatures remain reliably above 50 degrees, the plumeria can be grown outside. Acclimate the plant slowly to the outdoor light by keeping it in a shady place for a week. It flowers from summer to autumn.

Plumerias can grow into a 3-foot shrub with good care. Wear gloves when pruning since the sap is toxic and irritating to the skin.


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