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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.


Trimming Japanese Maple Trees

My split-leaf Japanese maple tree is 15 to 20 years old, about 7 feet high and about 10 feet wide. It is overtaking the corner of the yard. Can I trim it, and at what time of the year?

Trim your tree in late fall to early winter when the tree is dormant. Remove only one-third of the amount you want pruned each year, being careful to retain all its charm.

“Go easy on it,” says Joann Madon, horticulturist, The Growing Place, Aurora and Naperville.


Azalea

We moved into a house with a lovely azalea that didn’t bloom. We thought it might have been over-pruned. Last fall we did not prune it and now it still hasn’t bloomed. I was hoping to transplant it this year, but it looks rather sickly. Shall we prune it again and give it another year? Can I still transplant it?

Stop pruning your plant since you may have over-pruned it. Evergreen azaleas only need tip pruning in July after their flowers have faded.

Concentrate now on rebuilding the azalea into a healthy plant. Do not transplant a sickly one. Feed your plant regularly with an liquid acidic fertilizer. Keep your plant weeded and its roots moist by using mulch because azaleas are surface rooters. Make sure your plant is situated in soil with good drainage and in a part sun/part shade location.

Try this regime over summer and evaluate your plant next spring, advises Charlene Wooten, manager, Cedar Hill Nursery, Lake Zurich.


Low Light House Plants

We have a skylight in the bathroom over our Jacuzzi tub with an area around the tub that is quite large. What plants can we grow there, and what care do they need? Can we grow orchids?

Use plants that grow in low light such as pothos, philodendron, peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), any type of dracaena, and include lady palm (Rhapis) for height. It would be possible to grow moth orchids (Phalaenopsis).

“While the bathroom will give you good humidity, your plants must be watered thoroughly. The peace lily needs to be kept evenly moist. Feed monthly with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer,” advises Elizabeth Hoffman, manager, West End Florist, Evanston.


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.


Slugs

I am sick of slugs. Perhaps if I knew their life cycle I could get rid of them. Where do they go over winter? Where do they come from? What is the best way to get rid of them?

Slugs are gastropods belonging to the mollusk class. They have lungs and can breathe air and live one year. At nightime, to conserve moisture, they feed by biting tissue with a rasping mouth underneath their body. They move by sliding over slime secreted by a large muscular foot and constantly lose water from this slime production and evaporation.

To make matters worse, they are hermaphrodites having both male and female organs and can deposit egg-like clusters of 1/8 inch pearls in soil where they overwinter. Their growth is activated by rising soil humidity and temperature in the spring, according to Ed Valauskas, Manager of Library and Plant Information Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Even if your soil is relatively slug free, they can come in from a neighbor’s yard or live in the soil of container-grown plants. If you garden in very sandy, fast draining soil, you will probably not have many of these pests, but in heavy clay soil, slugs find constant moisture that suits their life style.

Slugs feed on plants with moisture in them, especially hosta, ligularia, dahlia and begonia leaves, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes. They hide by day and feed at night or on gray, damp days. Go outside with a flashlight after 10 p.m. and look for them under boards, rocks or pots and destroy them.

Laurie Skrzenta of Laurie’s Landscape, a Downers Grove hosta grower, keeps the hosta area dry and doesn’t water them because slugs do not live in dry locations. She depends on rainfall and maintains that hostas can exist without supplemental water. Laurie also suggested using coarse sand as a mulch. Another possibility is to sprinkle sand in the center of your dormant hostas since this is where the slugs lay their eggs.

There are many home remedies to get rid of slugs including beer, ammonia water, ice water, and yeast water. Gardener Anna Hevrdejs, Woodridge, suggests sprinkling corn meal around slug areas. Slugs like to eat it, then die. Replace it after a rain. She also claims that sweet woodruff planted around hostas restrains the slug population.

Chemical metaldehyde or methiocarb pellets are useful but they can be attractive to dogs and children. They are very toxic. Much safer is a copper strip laid around the areas to be protected, although this is not practical in an ornamental garden.


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.


Tree Position

What is the correct distance from my house to plant a tree? What is the correct distance from the lot line to plant a tree?

It depends on the size of the tree you are planting. A small tree such as a serviceberry (Amelanchier) or a dwarf flowering crab could be planted as close as four to five feet from the house. For a birch tree, a distance of six to eight feet would be the minimum.

Distance from the lot line does not matter as long as it doesn’t interfere with power or sewer lines. You should check with your village before planting. Closeness to the neighbor’s lot line is not an issue, because neighbors have the right to trim back any overhanging branches, according to Matt Zerby, partner in Wasco Nursery, St. Charles.


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.


Good Annuals for Shade

Now that bedding impatiens (I. walleriana) are not recommended because of impatiens downy mildew, what are three good annuals for shade?

Chris Williams, production manager, K&W Greenery, Janesville, Wisc.

I like New Guinea Impatiens. They make nice bushy plants that are full of large colorful flowers and are easy to grow. You also get a large color selection with New Guineas. The SunPatiens and Bounce impatiens are fairly new plants, and they are recommended for sun as well as shade. Then there’s coleus. Who doesn’t like its colorful foliage? Many varieties grow upright, but others also spread. Torenia, also known as wishbone flower, has trumpet-like flowers of white, yellow, rose and purple that cover nicely mounded, low-growing plants.


Karen Wedel, manager of the outdoor floral department, Wedel’s Nursery, Garden Center, Kalamazoo, Mich.

One of my favorites is begonia. Tuberous varieties have large colorful blooms; wax begonias are good for mass planting. I’m also a fan of the big leaf, 16-20 inch tall Whopper series with large waxy leaves and summer-long flowers.
Another idea is coleus and caladiums. They come in different foliage colors, work great in gardens and containers. They are both also easy-care.
Finally, torenia or wishbone flower, named for the small “wishbone” inside the mouth of the pink, yellow or blue-purple flowers. Blooms all summer. Some varieties will trail.

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

My favorite is Dragon Wing begonias. They’re usually sold in 4½ inch pots or hanging baskets. At my house I removed them from the baskets, then planted them in the ground in full shade. They turned out awesome! Plain wax leaf begonias are also good.
In addition, I like coleus. They don’t produce flowers, but they have many different vibrant leaf colors. In full shade New Guinea Impatiens will flower sparingly, but if you put them in some sun, they will flower more.


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