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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.


Pines in Winter

This past spring I planted a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) in full sun. As winter began, the angle of the sun’s rays has caused the tree to receive, at most, 4 hours of sun. What are sun requirements of evergreens in winter?

In general, pines adapt to the winter weather by becoming dormant, says Susan Eyre, Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery, Woodstock. It is the freeze and thaw cycle that is hard on a plant, not the loss of sun hours. In a January thaw, sap rises and then freezes, which can cause the bark to crack, but plants usually recover.


Orchids

What causes black spots on my orchid leaves?

There are a number of causes for black spots, depending on the type of orchid.

“In some varieties, like Oncidium ‘Cherry Baby’, the small black spots through the leaf are normal,” says Liese Butler, owner, Oak Hill
Gardens, Dundee.

Black spots on the top of the leaf could be sunburn, caused when sunlight scalds a drop of water that has been left on a leaf. Newer growth of Cattleya orchids can normally have a purplish spot. A black mushy spot and a black stem indicate rot.


Overwintering Clivia

After a summer outside, my clivia has returned indoors. Last year it had only one puny flower. What treatment should I give it over winter to bring it into bloom?

A. Clivia miniata, sometimes known as Kaffir lily, a South African native, is a member of the amaryllis family. When growing clivia, it is important to observe seasonal changes. During short winter days, stop fertilizing entirely until spring, and stop watering also.

“Treat your plant like a cactus,” says Steve Butcher, tropical plant specialist at Sid’s Garden Center in Palos Hills. “You can keep it completely dry for a couple of weeks up to the point of shriveling before watering. Keep your plant in a cool place; 55 to 65 degrees is ideal, but that’s hard to achieve in many homes. It does not need a brightly lit location.”

When the days lengthen, move the plant into a brighter location and increase watering. There are no hard-and-fast rules on watering. The frequency depends on the pot size and the root mass. Use a water-soluble, high-phosphorus fertilizer every second or third watering. After you see buds, reduce fertilizer to once per month. Root bound plants flower better.

Following this regime last winter, Editor Carolyn Ulrich reported five bloom stalks on one of her plants in February. Other plants bloomed in March but one didn’t bloom until June. Clivia are considered a winter-flowering houseplant, but bloom time will vary. Be patient.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Cucumbers

The foliage on our cucumber plants is starting to wither and turn yellow. They get plenty of water and I feed them regularly. What could be wrong?

“The plants may be getting too much water. They can tolerate fairly dry soil,” says Tim Norris, owner Spring Bluff Nursery, Sugar Grove. There are other possible causes for yellowing foliage as well. The cucumber beetle may have fed on the plants when they were small and transmitted bacterial wilt, which later plugs the vascular tissue. To prevent the beetle from feeding on young plants, use row covers until the plants get larger. A stressed plant is also open to attack by bacterial wilt.


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.


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questions

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

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.

This past spring I planted a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) in full sun. As winter began, the angle of the sun’s rays has caused the tree to receive, at most, 4 hours of sun. What are sun requirements of evergreens in winter?

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