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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.


Trumpet Vine

Will a trumpet vine growing on a tree harm it?

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is a vigorous vine which can climb to the top of a tree in one season and spreads by suckering roots. It blooms in full sun in clusters of 3-inch-long orange tubes with flaring scarlet lobes.

The vine will not harm an established tree but a young tree could be stressed.

“There may be root competition between the vine and the tree for moisture, especially if your tree needs a lot of water. However, trumpet vines can grow with less moisture. When customers claim their vine does not bloom, it is because they are watering and pampering it too much,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery and Garden Center, Crystal Lake.


Cycas

I have a cycas palm and am not sure how much direct sunlight or water it needs. It has light brown marks developing on the leaves. What is causing this, and how do I care for my plant?

Cycas palms or sago palms (Cycas revoluta) are tough house or patio plants. They are neither palms nor ferns but primitive cone-bearing relatives of conifers. A rosette of green feather-like leaves, 2 to 3 feet in height, grows from a central point at the top of a single trunk.

Cycas need bright light and should be kept relatively moist with weekly watering. However, prolonged rainy spells can cause fungal leaf spot disease.

“The shiny brown spots are probably caused by scale,” says Jeff Frohn, sales associate at Geimer Greenhouses, Long Grove. “It can be treated with fish oil, vegetable oil or an all-in-one insecticide spray,” adds Mike Geimer, owner, Geimer Greenhouses.


Are there any shrubs that can survive in exposed situations?

At the end of every winter, there are many shrubs growing along sidewalks that are dead and damaged either by salt, wind or dogs. Are there any shrubs that I can plant in these more exposed situations and expect them to survive?

Sharon Yiesla, plant knowledge specialist, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle

First, we need to note that there are some exposed areas where we just shouldn’t try to grow plants. There’s too much ice melt or salt, and dog urine is always a problem. Evergreens are also out. There’s nothing that will tolerate wind or salt. That said, there are some deciduous shrubs that can work. Hydrangea are now a huge group, Potentilla tolerates everything, and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) can survive shopping center parking lots. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is tough, but look for double-flowered cultivars so they don’t go to seed so fast.


Peter Moersch, owner, Stonewall Nursery, Oregon, Wisc.

I would advise looking for something on a standard. A standard is a genetically compatible rootstock which has had another plant grafted onto it. Standards are usually 24–48 inches tall and serve to “pick up” the grafted section off the ground and make it more visible. This certainly helps with snow load and keeping plants away from doggies.

Many dwarf conifers and deciduous materials are used as grafted standards. Some examples would be dwarf white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Horsford’), globular blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’), and Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata). Many dwarf Korean lilacs (Syringa spp.) and hydrangeas are also done on standards.


Scott Stringer, certified arborist, Bartlett Tree Experts, Chicago

Starting your planting project with a soil test can ensure your tree or shrub selection has the best chance of survival and can tolerate existing salt levels. Options for shrub planting with a tolerance to salt are Hydrangea, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Spiraea, serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), and rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). Options for trees are Japanese tree lilac (Syringa amurensis), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), and in wet areas, bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).


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.


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.


Hellebores

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?

Hellebores increase slowly into clumps so have patience, counsels Chris Darbo, wholesale manager of The Natural Garden, St. Charles, and an enthusiastic hellebore grower. “I have Helleborus foetidus, which has finely cut leaves and blooms in January, and H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Both have increased in twelve years to four times the size of the original plants, but they haven"t self sown. They are planted in a bed of sweet woodruff in a partly shady location.”

“I also have a clump of H. orientalis that was transplanted into my back yard five years ago, and it seeds all over the place. It is planted in shade with no ground cover. My theory is if the seeds can"t reach the ground, they can"t grow!” It takes three years before seedlings bloom.

According to Darbo, hellebores do not need fertilizer. She never rakes leaves from garden beds but instead lets fallen leaves act as a winter mulch. Leaf decomposition over the years has helped her soil to become more loamy.

H. niger, the Christmas rose, does not self seed as readily as H. orientalis and H. foetidus.

Note: A new strain of H.orientalis has recently reached the market. Known as the Royal Heritage strain, it includes colors and patterns never seen before in the species. Fifteen years in the making, Royal Heritage hellebores were developed by John Elsley, Director of Horticulture at Song Sparrow Farm in Avalon, Wisconsin.


Birch Trees

I’d like to plant a white bark birch in front of my home in my sunny front yard. What can you tell me about Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii?

The birch, Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii is a tall, narrow tree (to 100 feet) with very white bark that’s native to India. It is subject to borers. The popular weeping white bark birch, B. pendula is also subject to borers in our climate and is not a suitable choice.

“There are better birch choices, so choose what grows well in our area,” advises Ken Morris, vice president of Spring Bluff Nursery in Sugar Grove. Two trees resistant to borers are the paper or canoe birch and the river birch.

Canoe or paper birch (B. papyrifera) has a stout trunk with creamy white bark that peels off in papery layers. It is native to North America. It is the first paper birch bred to resist the bronze birch borer, but it still needs to be monitored and sprayed yearly for the borers. A good cultivar is ‘Renaissance Reflection.’

River birch (B. nigra), native to the eastern United States, is fast growing when young. It can reach more than 50 feet in height. Its bark is a smooth, shiny apricot and, when mature, flakes and curls in cinnamon strips. It tolerates slow drainage and is also resistant to borers. “It’s pretty tough, good and sturdy,” says Morris.

The cultivar ‘Heritage’ was introduced to much acclaim around 15 years ago.

Birch trees need moisture. Do not allow your tree to dry out in your sunny site.


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.


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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