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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.


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.


Perennial Pinchback

Is there an overall rule about when to pinch back my leggy plants?

“The reason plants are pinched back is to obtain compact and bushier growth. This is generally done three times during a growing season, or you can apply the 6 nodes rule,” says Jennifer Brennan, horticulturist, Chalet Nursery, Wilmette.

After 6 weeks of growth, trim back half of the growth, or wait until you see 6 nodes on the plant stem to trim back to get more branching. For plants that respond, such as chrysanthemums, use the 6 node criterion.


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.


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.


Dwarf Junipers

Why do I have brown areas near the tips of my dwarf Japanese junipers? This has been occurring the last few years. They are supposed to be drought resistant”

“It’s hard to diagnose without seeing the plants or their location,” says Matt Warrick, sales associate in tree and shrubs at Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago. “Your plants may be in a situation that’s too dry. With the type of drought we had this past summer, even if a plant is drought-tolerant, it would have needed supplemental watering.”

Other factors that affect junipers are poor drainage, insufficient light, fungal disease, and insufficient acidity in the soil. Any of these conditions could cause needle browning.


What suggestions can you offer for more exotic herbs that I could add to my garden to spice things up?

We all seem to plant the basic herbs like basil, rosemary and parsley. What suggestions can you offer for more exotic herbs that I could add to my garden to spice things up both for cooking and adding interest/beauty to my landscape?

Ron Peterson, head grower, Milaegers Garden Center, Racine, Wisc.

I think lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) would be a good candidate for landscape interest and culinary use; it is even reported to have more mosquito control attributes than citronella. It is a warm season annual grass that grows quickly and is used in teas and Thai cooking to add a lemony flavor without the acidity of lemon juice. Stevia is a natural sweetener option for those trying to avoid added sugar. There is also a mint called Berries and Cream which merges peppermint with berry flavors for a unique twist on the traditional mint options.

Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe

Golden lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) adds good citrus flavor to dishes and tea. The 8-inch tall cultivar ‘Aureus’ makes a good edging paired with Salvia officinalis ‘Icterina’. The chartreuse ‘Lime’ shines in dark garden corners.

Red shiso (Perilla frutescens) has frilly garnet red leaves, edible flowers and a spicy cinnamon/clover flavor. Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) has a taste between arugula and cilantro. Plant once cilantro bolts to seed. Steely blue foliage up to 5 feet tall.

Joe Heidgen, co-owner, Shady Hill Gardens, Elburn

A plant that is often included with the popular herbs that gardeners know at Shady Hill is the scented geranium. It doesn’t look anything like a garden geranium, but it has a wide range of fragrances, as well as varying leaf shapes and colors. The fragrances may be lemon, rose, pine, ginger, lime, balsam or apple. It can be used in cooking and also in potpourri and sachets. Some scented geraniums are upright, some cascading, but all are unique and quite easy to grow. They are ideal for planters.

Kevin DeBoer, manager, Big John’s Farm Market, Chicago Heights

Onion or garlic chives can be grown and cut for use in potatoes and eggs. We also have five different types of mint that can be grown and used for mojito, flavoring water and teas. Some varieties such as pineapple mint are attractive and add beauty to the garden. Thymes such as English and lemon can be used in pasta and in marinades for grilling. A good marinade for meat can be made from thyme, rosemary, sage, Italian olive oil and pepper.


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.


Staking Plants

I dislike staking perennials. Is there anything I can do to avoid it?

There are several techniques you can use to limit time spent on this chore, but it is difficult to totally

avoid staking some plants.

First and foremost, the old adage “right plant, right place” means full sun perennials need to be grown in full sun for tight upright growth. If they are too shaded, the plant will stretch or bend toward the sun and grow in a loose habit. Growing plants a little closer together also helps because it enables plants to support each other.

The best remedy to avoid staking is to cut some tall plants down by one-half in June. That will delay flowering in helenium, monarda, platycodon, chrysanthemum and aster, but the plants will remain upright. If you really want to eliminate cutting back, grow dwarf versions of these plants.”
Short, thin branches from forsythia or dogwood (known as “pea staking” in England) can be placed around the perimeter of newly emerging plants to help keep the stems upright. Some garden centers have begun selling bundles of branches for this purpose. In a short time, the shrub cuttings are covered by emerging shoots. This technique works well with fine foliage such as baby’s breath or flax.

There are numerous staking supports from bamboo to iron rebar rods. Wire staking supports are available in full, half and even quarter circles to support single stems. Peony hoops can be left in place over winter and will support not only peonies but boltonia, baptisia, and even errant tomatoes.

Some plants always need to be staked. Giant dahlia tubers need a heavy stake dug into the hole at planting time. That prized, single-stemmed iris, lily, or delphinium can get blasted in a storm, and then it’s too late to save it.

Remember: the time to stake plants is during the cooler days of spring when plants are growing rapidly and not on humid July days. Staking should be done unobtrusively and subtly for plants to retain their natural grace.


Container Plants for Fall

Besides mums, what are a few other plants you would recommend for containers for fall color?

Jackie Weiss, garden center manager, Linton’s Enchanted Gardens, Elkhart, Ind.

Dwarf or miniature sunflowers add a bright, sunny pop of color to any container. Mix them with pink celosia, ornamental kale, dwarf ornamental grass and ornamental peppers for a special autumn arrangement. The kale is a great addition as the colors get brighter with colder temperatures. Ornamental pepper can also be taken in and kept as a houseplant through the winter months. Or use aster through October and plant in the garden before the soil freezes. Comes in many colors.

Tracy Bordis, product line specialist, Lurvey Garden Center, Des Plaines, Ill.

The rudbeckias ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Prairie Sun’ and ‘Becky Cinnamon Bicolor’ all have beautiful large flowers. Herbs and leafy vegetables like Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, mustard ‘Red Giant’, bronze-leaved fennel and variegated sage all add fun textures. Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ combines nicely with ornamental kale and cabbage. Also plant trailing pansies like those in the ‘Cool Wave’ series at the edge of planters and hanging baskets. Another creative way to add interest to fall planters is with preserved and dried botanicals, sticks or accents.

Zannah Crowe, horticulturist, Monches Farm, Colgate, Wisc.

Our favorite addition to autumn containers – hands down – is ornamental kale. As the temperatures drop, the leaf color intensifies and the plant actually becomes more attractive. We frequently pair ornamental kale with late season grasses as well as decorative gourds and squash tucked amongst the foliage to celebrate the abundance of the harvest season. Your visitors may still be enjoying your kale peeking through the early snow on Thanksgiving Day!


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questions

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

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.

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

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