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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.


Tomatoes

After my father’s tomatoes ripen on the vine, he finds when he cuts into them that there is a hard white core that extends through the fruit.

“This is a common problem,” says Dan Woldhuis, owner, Woldhuis Farms, Grant Park. “Customers bring their tomatoes to me with hard cores.”

Sometimes this is the result of weather that’s too hot and then suddenly cold.

But more likely it is the variety. Change to a soft-skin, less firm tomato such as ‘Celebrity’ to overcome the white core problem. I’ve grown this for many years and sold it at the farmers’ market, but it is too soft for the commercial market and is best for home growers.


Osteospermum

Can you tell me if the African daisy Osteospermum ‘Springstar Aurora’ can be winterized here? It is a healthy plant?

Those South African daisies could never endure a frigid winter here and should be considered annuals. Their daisy-like flowers with blue centers open only in sunlight and bloom best in early summer or later when summer days cool down. They can be seed-grown under lights.


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.


I've got green worms!

What is the green worm that eats my roses and columbine every year?

It is hard to diagnose your problem without seeing the caterpillar. There are several green worms that bother roses, and one can be controlled with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) but rose slug, for example, cannot. Proper identification is necessary before applying any control method. Do not use an insecticide for anything that"s not on on the product label. Do not use any insecticide as a preventive measure. It doesn"t work and ends up being harmful to the environment and a waste of your money.

Green worm on your columbine could be an inch worm or canker worm. If the caterpillar loops up in the center or arches as it moves along, it could be a looper or cabbage worm. Leaf miners, which are usually white or pink, tunnel in the leaves. “To eliminate insects, use insecticidal soap,” said Nancy Clifton, Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Information Specialist.

For an exact diagnosis, consult your local University of Illinois Extension service or collect a specimen and bring it to the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden or the Morton Arboretum.


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.


Variegated Sedum

I have a large variegated sedum with pink flowers that I have had for years. I noticed that it has started to send up some all-green shoots. Why is it doing this and how can I keep my plant variegated?

All variegated plants contain a combination of green cells with chlorophyll and white tissue with no chlorophyll, which produces the green and white effect. Variegated plants are genetically unstable, so sometimes the tissues revert to all-green cells and send up solid green shoots from the base of the plant. Because these shoots contain more chlorophyll than the variegated tissue, they are more vigorous. Thus they can quickly overrun a plant, according to Hortech, a developer and grower of sedums.

Cut the green shoots off at the base of the plant as soon as you see them. It is possible you have induced vigorous growth by giving the plant too much high-nitrogen fertilizer, so it would be wise not to fertilize. It sometimes helps to divide your plant and then choose the most variegated stems for a new plant. Since your sedum, a cultivar of Sedum spectabile, is such a rapid grower, it will quickly become a new clump after division. Newer named cultivars are more genetically stable and do not have this problem.


Amaryllis Bulbs

I plan on saving my amaryllis bulbs that I kept outside over summer, but I noticed red streaks on the inner side of the leaves. What caused that? Will I be able to save my bulbs?

There are several possible causes of red streaks in amaryllis hybrids (Hippeastrum), explains Bill Welter, owner of Victor Hlavacek Florist, Winnetk. If the streaks occur on the foliage only, excess moisture and not enough air around the bulb could have caused the streaks. Amaryllis is also susceptible to leaf scorch, which can cause red streaks on the foliage and on the bulb. This was common on older varieties.

You can save the bulb for next season by letting the leaves die down, then trimming off the foliage, and dipping the bulb in a fungicide solution. Another possible reason for leaf scorch is tobacco mosaic disease, transmitted by insects.


Rabbit-proof Plants

Which flowers can we plant that the bunnies won’t eat? My pansies and marigolds are all eaten.

Rabbits love crisp tasty plants as much as we do. Besides lettuce, they eat everything in the legume family, including beans, peas and sweet peas. Experienced gardeners know they have to protect these plants with row covers.

Annual pansies, nasturtiums, marigolds, impatiens, fibrous begonias, and lisianthus are some of their favorites, especially early in the growing season. Ageratum and sweet alyssum are two annuals rabbits do not eat.

Some perennials are not bothered by rabbits, says Kim Schroeder, perennial buyer, Wasco Nursery, St. Charles. These are English ivy, ajuga, yarrow, artemisia, lily-of-the-valley, foxglove, aconite, iris, peony, poppies, thyme, lychnis, lamb’s ears, ground-covering sedums, salvia and santolina.

For added protection, when you are setting out new plants, spray them at once with rabbit repellent so bunnies will learn to avoid that area, and re-spray after rain.


Overwintering Marginal Plants

I keep seeing photos of interesting plants I’d like to grow, but they’re labeled zone 6 and I’m in zone 5. What can I do to successfully overwinter these marginal plants? I’d like to try them, but I don’t want to waste my money.

“Pushing a plant past the limits of its hardiness is not for the average gardener,” says Marie Dvorak of The Planter’s Palette in Winfield, “but plants can sometimes be successfully overwintered by siting them in a special microclimate such as a sheltered southern exposure.” Another tip comes from horticulturist Ann Hancock at Michigan State University, where they are trialing perennials that the English firm Blooms of Bressingham is introducing in the U.S. Hancock explains that the best way to keep perennials that are tender in Zone 5 or that are rated for Zone 6 is to grow them in raised beds with good drainage because poorly drained wet soils will cause the roots to rot. In addition, it is important to check perennial beds for plants that have heaved out of the soil through repeated freezing and thawing. Replace them in the soil and protect with mulch.

One example of a marginally hardy plant that will be getting attention this year is ‘Flamenco’, a new cultivar of Tritoma (Kniphofia, red-hot poker) that has just been named an All-America Selections Winner for 1999. Tritomas should have their foliage tied upright so water does not remain in the crown, said Hancock.


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