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Begonias

I start ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia from seed under grow lights. What other begonias can I use to cross-pollinate with the ‘Dragon Wing’ so I can collect my own seeds?

‘Dragon Wing’ is a unique hybrid type of begonia named to reflect the shape of its leaves. It is created by interspecific crosses of two different begonia species and can lead to interesting new plants, but they are sterile.

It is impossible to say exactly which species will cross and which will not cross. You can try crossing angel wing begonia, a common houseplant, with another species. There is a good chance viable seed will be produced, according to Brian E. Corr, new crops development manager at Ball Horticultural Company, West Chicago.

The American Begonia Society (begonias.org) is a resource for information on hybridizing. The archives of the bi-monthly journal The Begonian would also be helpful.


Cold Frames

With all the emphasis on growing fresh vegetables, I think I should use a cold frame but I am not sure what to do or how to go about it. Any ideas?

Cold frames are simply four walls with a window or plastic sheet on top. They range from simply placing four bales of straw in a square with an old window atop them to more deluxe mini-greenhouses with aluminum frames, plastic panels and automatic vents using solar energy to open and close them automatically.

Before building a cold frame, study garden supply and greenhouse catalogs to determine your needs and how fancy you want your cold frame to be. Do you prefer a permanent installation or an easily disassembled frame?

A basic plan for building a cold frame is taught by Chicago Botanic Garden’s senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood. Create four walls from plywood or bricks. Add a transparent lid (plastic sheeting or an old window) for light to enter. Place the lid on an angle. Place the frame against a building, facing south. Make sure there is good drainage. Open the frame when it gets above 60 degrees. Rabbits don’t usually get into the box but chipmunks may squeeze in.

Cold frames are used for extending the growing season, starting plants early, for storing bonsai or protecting semi-hardy plants over winter. The soil in the frame depends on how you will use it. The frame can be set on existing soil when you are storing plants, or fill it with straw to protect bonsai. Locate it conveniently against the house near a back door for easy access, especially if you envision running out to cut some salad greens when snow is on the ground.

Use a cold frame to get a head start on the gardening season. In early spring, start flats of lettuce, radishes, parsley, pansies and other cool-weather plants in the house, and place them in the cold frame in March, depending on the weather. If you plan on planting directly into the cold frame, fill it with a seed starting soil mix and an inch of compost worked into the top 3 inches of the soil. This will help keep the soil loose and aid moisture retention. The plants will be small in the cold frame and can be grown close together. Also use the cold frame to harden off house-grown seedlings.
Don’t forget to check on your plants regularly because winter sun is strong and plants dry up easily. Use it for a head start on the gardening season.


Rose Rosette Disease (RRD)

What is rose rosette disease? I lost two antique roses and removed a hedge of multiflora roses that were supposed to be undesirable. How bad is it?

Rose rosette disease is a plant killer of unknown origin and no known cure. It is known to plant pathologists, but unknown to most rose gardeners in this area.

The disease is believed to be caused by a virus or virus-like pathogen that has been spreading through much of the wild rose population in the Midwest, probably transmitted by a mite introduced to the U. S. to eradicate multiflora roses. It is lethal to the wild multiflora rose and potentially lethal to many rose species and cultivars.

Symptoms of rose rosette disease are highly variable, depending on the species or cultivar. Some of the more recognizable symptoms include rapid elongation of new shoots forming witches brooms, or clustering of small branches with distorted leaves of conspicuous red pigmentation and distorted flowers.

David Robson, Springfield, extension educator, horticulture with the University of Illinois, reports that it is all over our area. Mike Geimer, owner of Geimer Greenhouse, Long Grove, reports coming across RRD in a Long Grove garden. One plant in a bed of Flower Carpet roses caught his eye because of its uncharacteristic red clumping stems. He looked up the symptoms on the internet, identified it as RRD and advised immediate removal of the plant. Also important, warns Geimer: “Always sterilize pruning shears.”

Kathy Hallgren, Sycamore, is worried about the future of old roses. Two summers ago she noticed some peculiarly rampant irregular, hyper-thorny pink growth with irregular leaves on an antique Alba rose.

After researching the symptoms, Hallgren determined the irregularities were from RRD. “I dug out the plant and burned it. Once I learned that multiflora roses could be the culprit, I removed them even though they were healthy. This summer I saw it on one of my ‘William Baffin’ roses so cut it down and burned it. This disease means business,” says Hallgren.

No effective control is available for existing rose rosette disease. All cultivated roses are potentially susceptible. Be on the lookout for it. Early detection is the key to effective cultural control. If the disease is recognized early and the rose is removed, it is possible to save other roses in the garden and hopefully curb the spread of RRD.


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.


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.


Heptacodium

Late last year most of the leaves on my year-old seven-son tree (Heptacodium) turned brown, starting at the tips. It had some new growth on the tips and buds. I used a tree ring soaker hose every two weeks.

“I suspect that your watering every two weeks was not sufficient and that your tree was going into early dormancy,” says Chicagoland Gardening editor Carolyn Ulrich. “It was very dry late in the growing season and a lot of trees looked stressed.”

A rule of thumb for watering is one inch per week. Heptacodiums grow best in moist soil. You probably needed to increase the amount of time the water was on the plant and also water more frequently. Soaker hoses can run for hours.

If you want to figure out how much water your tree is receiving, use a sprinkler, if you have one, and run it on your tree until a tuna fish can has an inch of water in it, and then stop. Do this weekly, unless it rains.


Azaleas

I received a beautiful flowering azalea plant during the holidays. I would like to continue growing it over winter. Will I be able to bring it into bloom next year?

Trying to get azaleas to flower in the home is difficult and time consuming because the light in a house is lower than that in the greenhouse where it originated. But if you would like to try to keep your plant growing, follow these directions.

To keep an azalea flowering after you get it, give it water-soluble acid fertilizer at quarter-strength. Keep it in a cool, shaded location, away from heat-releasing light bulbs or hot air vents.

After flowering, remove the withered flowers and keep the plant in a cool, sunny location. Water as needed to keep from wilting. In summer, sink the pot in the garden in a semi-shaded spot. Water and fertilize regularly. Acid fertilizers will help to maintain proper soil pH and keep the foliage from yellowing. Before July 1, shape the plant if needed. Keep the plant outdoors as long as possible in the fall. The plant may need protection from early light frosts but should be brought in before heavy frosts or freezes occur.

Once the plant is indoors, place it in a cool area, 40-50 degrees. An unheated porch, cold frame or similar area is good. Flower buds develop during the cold period. About 6-8 weeks of cold are needed for bud development. Do not fertilize during this time and only water enough to keep the plant from wilting. Buds should develop and swell. In January, move the plant into a cool sunny area, about 60 degrees. Flowering should begin in a few weeks. If temperatures are excessively high during this period, buds often develop poorly and new shoots will grow right past the buds, hiding them. Additional humidity is helpful to keep the calyx on the flower moist and easier to open.

Even if your plant doesn’t rebloom, all is not lost. Azaleas are known to be air purifiers.


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.


What trends do you see in container plantings, such as type of pot, materials, sun or shade, foliage or flowers.

What trends do you see in container plantings, such as type of pot, materials, sun or shade, foliage or flowers.

Brenda Williams, Sales, Pesche’s Greenhouse, Floral & Gifts, Lake Geneva, Wisc.

As our lives get busier, gardeners are looking for easy care and double duty – plants with colorful or unique leaves. Like coleus.They come in all sizes from thrillers to fillers and even a spiller called ‘Rose Lava’ that tumbles over the edge. A tall nicotiana or canna lily easily substitutes for a spike in the center of a container. A euphorbia like ‘Diamond Frost’ might look delicate but is an excellent performer whose “flowers” are actually tiny white leaves.

I also see more succulent containers. With their diversity in texture, color and form plus low maintenance, they fit well in our busy lives. They are modern and bold.

Lori Harms, owner of Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Crystal Lake.

This year we saw a huge increase in holiday greens sales, selling over 100 more than the year before. Spruce tips were in short supply so we used multiple birch logs in assorted lengths to gain height for the focal point. Magnolia leaves, seeded eucalyptus, winterberry branches and juniper berries were used to highlight the containers, along with evergreen fillers. We added elegance with glittered and iced branches in natural, gold, white or red. We also created whimsical looks by adding snowman heads or larger millimeter balls with stars or hearts on sticks for splashes of color.

Tina Perkins, Manager, Winding Creek, Millbrook

We have recently seen a progression towards decorative ceramic pots for container planting. Customers use them for fairy gardens or succulents, which seem to be trending. Depending on the size of the pot, customers may use a mix of small indoor plants and succulents. Usually indoor plants can take lower light conditions or a porch location. Succulents have become more popular to use in containers as they generally require higher light conditions. Both types of plants like a lighter soil.


Large Tree Replacement

What is the largest tree that one can plant? We are trying to replace some 7- to 8-foot trees that were recently destroyed.

Trees sold at garden centers that are 2.5 to 3 feet tall, with a 2.5 inch diameter trunk, can be planted by hand. A hole for a ‘balled and burlap’ tree with a 5 to 6-inch diameter trunk can be dug by hand without a tree spade.

Any tree with a trunk larger than 6 inches in diameter would need a tree spade to do the moving and digging. Even large trees, such as a 35-foot tall tree with a trunk 9 or 10 inches in diameter can be transplanted with proper equipment. “Spruces 30 feet tall can be installed easily with a tree spade,” according to Greg Oltman, owner, Gro Horticultural Enterprises, Huntley.


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