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Winter Mulch

Must I mulch my garden and, if so, when is the best time to apply it? What are the best materials to use?

Perennial gardens usually come through the winter better when given some sort of protection, although many gardeners leave their established gardens unprotected save for deer netting to keep deer off newly emerging greens in spring. Plants new to your garden can be protected by mulch during the first winter and may not need it after that.

Mulch is used in winter not to keep the plants warm, but to keep the ground at an even temperature and prevent plants from heaving out of the soil during periods of alternate freezing and thawing. Thus it is applied after the ground freezes. If mulch is applied before the ground freezes, it can smother the plants.

The simplest mulch is a loose layer of oak leaves, which do not mat down and rot. Ground-up leaves are ideal, and even dried grass can be used. Or apply straw left over from Halloween decorating.

Use only a few inches of mulch and keep it light enough not to smother the plants. Deer netting helps to hold mulch in place until it is wet enough not to blow around. In spring, as soon as the plant starts to grow, remove the mulch gradually, a little at a time over several days. Don’t wait too long because if the shoots are too tall, you may damage them as you pull off the mulch. Work the mulch into the soil with a trowel afterwards.

Heucheras, astrantias and recently planted perennials may heave even if mulched. Push any dislodged plants back into the soil. Mulch also protects the evergreen rosettes of biennial hollyhock, foxglove, Canterbury bells and sweet William from snow and ice damage.


Sowing Seeds

I would like to start seeds under lights. When is the best time to start flower seeds? The seed packet always says to sow a number of weeks before the last frost. When is the last frost?

“In this area we use May 15 as a benchmark for the last frost date, but it can be earlier or later,” says Chuck Prosek, grower at Prosek’s Greenhouse, Winfield.

If your seed packet gives you the number of days to germination, add that to the number of weeks for growth, and then count the number of weeks back from May 15. Tomatoes sown indoors generally need 6-8 weeks of growth before being set out.

Many seed packets do not include germination time. A good guess is to allow 1-2 weeks for the seeds to germinate, but if you use bottom heat, your seeds will germinate earlier and grow faster. Most seeds need warm soil of 65 to 70 degrees to germinate and grow.

When you sow seeds directly into the soil, till the upper inch of soil to loosen it for direct seed to soil contact. The outside soil temperature must be above 50 degrees for cool growing plants, and at least 65 degrees for warm season annuals, according to Prosek.

For future reference, keep a record of indoor sowing dates, germination dates, length of indoor growing period, and transplanting dates.


Pre-Chilled Bulbs

I purchased some pre-chilled hyacinths and tulips for forcing but there were no directions with them. Does this mean I don’t have to chill them in the refrigerator, and will they just bloom in the house any time during the winter? The last batch of bulbs became moldy in the refrigerator.

Using pre-chilled bulbs avoids the 12- to 14- week cold treatment that bulbs need for indoor blooming. However, you need to pot up the bulbs in a loose potting mix. Do not cover the bulbs in plastic wrap or paper bags. It will still take 3 or 4 weeks of cold for roots to appear.

Hyacinths kept cool do not need to be potted. They can sprout roots in a saucer of water with the bulb held in place by stones. Check the water level and make sure it just touches the base of the bulb and add water as needed.

The bulbs can be forced as soon as you see roots, or you can hold them in the cold temperature to space out the bud development. Place rooted bulbs in bright light in a cool room, and watch for buds. Rotate the plant so the flowering stem will be erect. “Your previous bulbs rotted because they were not potted up,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery, Crystal Lake.


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.


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.


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.


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.


What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

What three dwarf shrubs do you think gardeners should know about and why?

Evelyn Fink, garden center manager at The Fields on Caton Farm, Inc., Crest Hill

Yuki Cherry deutzia, Kodiak Black diervilla and Little Henry itea should have a presence in everyone’s garden. They will work well complementing taller shrubs in mass plantings and as a focal point when planted individually. All of them grow in full sun to partial shade with sizes ranging from 1½-4 feet. The itea will also grow in full shade. The unique shape and flower of each plant combined with the rich burgundy to wine-red fall color make these must-haves for plant lovers.

Mark Maradik, plant manager, Pasquesi Home & Gardens, Lake Bluff

The native Sugar Shack buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) thrives in wet heavy soils and clay. Fragrant pincushion-shaped white flowers attract pollinators. Red fruit in winter. Bobo is the best Hydrangea paniculata to date from Proven Winners. It is 2-3 feet tall and completely covered with long-lasting white flowers. The Low Scape Black Chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa). Only 2 feet tall, tolerant of all soils; very cold tolerant. Profuse small white flowers in spring and dark purple fruit. Brilliant red/orange/ magenta fall leaves.

Jeff Schulz, owner, The Hidden Gardens, Willowbrook

My favorite dwarf shrubs have all-season interest and can be pruned to stay even smaller. Fothergillia gardenia (24-30 inches tall) is the smallest fothergillia cultivar. White flowers emerge in spring just before the leaves. Fall color is red, orange and yellow. Disease-free. Spilled Wine Weigelia (24-30 inches tall and wide) has dark purple leaves all summer if planted in full sun. Long-blooming pink flowers in spring, Deer resistant. Bobo hydrangea (30-36 inches tall and wide) produces loads of white flowers in mid- to late summer, changing to pink in fall. Flowers are held upright on strong stems and do not flop.


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.


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.


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