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Compost Bin

I’d like to start composting. Do you have any advice on what kind of bin to purchase/build so that it is successful in the Chicago climate?

Compost, decayed organic matter, improves soil structure, porosity and density and creates a better root system. It increases moisture retention and nutrients while adding significant quantities of organic matter to the soil. It is such a valuable addition to garden soil that it is worth the effort to collect and store waste vegetative material until it decomposes.

Compost bins range from low to high tech. A compost heap can be as simple as a pile of leaves stored at the rear of your garden. The most costly composter is a revolving two-tumbler device with a rotator drum that separates new material from finished material and discharges the final product.

Ideally, if you are saving a mix of unshredded plant material that includes flower stems, large leaves and small branches, a three-bin system works best. Stake out three 36-inch square cages using fence rails, lattice or steel wire. Raw material goes into the first bin. When it is partially decomposed, aerate it and shift it to the second bin, and put the most highly decomposed matter into the final bin. With that method, you can keep adding fresh material as the season progresses.

Do not put any diseased plants in the pile. Keep it in a concave shape to hold rainwater, and aerate it occasionally. As the pile “cooks,” it will heat up during the summer. An interior temperature of 180 degrees will kill bacteria but is not often attainable; 120 degrees is more likely for a mix of green and dried leaves.


Raising Lawn Level

I want to raise the level of my lawn as much as 2 feet in places. I now have a large quantity of somewhat composted wood chips and I am wondering if I can use them as fill to raise the ground level and provide a good soil in which to sow a lawn.

“It is not a good idea to use only wood chips to raise the grade of an area,” says Greg Stack, University of Illinois extension educator, horticulture. While wood chips may raise the grade for a while, over time they will decompose and eventually the site will sink. Even using them as fill and putting soil over them is not a good idea.

“I would not use straight compost by itself to raise the lawn level, but mix it with soil,” adds Stack.


Miniature Gardening

Miniature gardening is the rage. What enchanting miniature plants work well in a shaded area?

T Biernacki
Many miniature plants grow in shade. Some unusual ones are the 6-inch tall Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile ‘Tom Thumb’), the 2-inch tall Ajuga reptans ‘Planet Zork’ and two cultivars of the very slow-growing conifer Cryptomeria japonica: ‘Koshyi’ and ‘Tenjan’. Or look for two European gingers, Asarum forlesii ‘Mercury’ and Asarum takaoi ‘Roundabout’, which are about 3 inches tall. Also: the maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum), mosses and miniature hostas

M Samios
The best and most obvious answer is miniature and small hostas. From the ever-expanding “mouse” series with ‘Holy Mouse Ears’, ‘Mighty Mouse’ and ‘Giantland Sunny Mouse’ to newbies such as ‘Mini Skirt’, ‘Ladybug’, ‘Baby Booties’ and ‘Little Starlet’… perfection! Add some grass-like carex such as ‘Beatlemania’ for texture, miniature Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile) and dwarf heucheras from the Little Cute series, and your garden fairies will be in heaven.

C Bornmann
If you’re planting in the ground, these low-growing perennials will add interest and texture to your garden: Irish and Scotch moss (Sagina sublata and S. subulata ‘Aurea’ – best in part shade), brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) and miniature hostas. Add color with annuals such as polka dot plants (Hypoestes), ‘Strawberry Drop’ coleus and torenia. It’s important to add perennials and annuals into your garden for a longer season of color.


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.


Mandevilla

I brought my mandevilla plant into the house to overwinter. How best can I keep it? Will it flower? Can I root pieces of it?

Mandevilla is a tropical vine requiring high light. Keep it in the sunniest part of your home. It will not flower over winter because the light intensities will not be great enough to bring on flowers and many of the leaves will fall off. It is best to keep it in a semi-dormant stage by trimming it back, withholding fertilizer and allowing it to dry out between waterings. Mandevilla is prone to aphids, white fly and mealy bugs, but don’t treat the plant preventively with an insecticide. It doesn’t work, and it also adds unnecessary chemicals to your indoor air. Treat a bug problem only if one develops. One preventive measure that does work is to give your houseplants a periodic shower or spritz them with a hand spray in the kitchen sink.

When the days are longer in early spring, begin feeding it with a 20-20-20 plant food to encourage new growth and then switch to a 20-30-20 formula. “It’s hard to propagate in winter, but in spring when your plant gets a burst of new growth, you can try to root cuttings,Ôø‡Ôø‡Ôø‡ advised Susan Izenstark, tropical specialist at Jamaican Gardens, Morton Grove.


Types of Fruit Trees

I am going to be planting five dwarf fruit trees; two ‘Bartlett’ pears, one ‘Cresthaven’ peach, and two ‘Honeycrisp’ apples. Could you give me some feedback on them?

If you buy young container fruit trees, plant them very early in the spring to lessen transplanting shock (as soon as the soil can be worked and before the buds break). Plant the tree at the level it was in the pot, adding a layer of top mulch.

“Wrap the trunk in paper or plastic tree wrap to prevent deer and rabbit damage. Protect the trunk from voles with fine wire mesh at the base,” says Tim Norris, president of Spring Bluff nursery, Sugar Grove.

‘Bartlett’ pear is subject to fire blight and also needs a pollinator for good fruit production. ‘Patten’ and ‘Parker’ are two pear cultivars Norris recommends. Two different cultivars will give you better cross-pollination.

‘Honeycrisp’ apples are an excellent choice for this area. They grow up to 20 feet tall on semi-dwarf root stock. They can be pollinated by any member of the Malus family, including a nearby flowering crab tree.

‘Cresthaven’ peach, while hardy here, may not bear fruit, depending on how cold the winters are. When the temperature goes down to zero, ‘Cresthaven’ peach loses all its flower buds. Norris suggests growing ‘Reliance’ peach instead. It needs a long growing season. Last spring (2008) was a cool one and peaches did not bear much fruit. Peaches are not long-lived trees. By the time the tree is bearing fruit, you will need to start growing another tree.


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.


Pre-Chilled Bulbs

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.

Using pre-chilled bulbs avoids the 12- to 14- week cold treatment that bulbs need for indoor blooming. However, you need to pot up the bulbs in a loose potting mix. Do not cover the bulbs in plastic wrap or paper bags. It will still take 3 or 4 weeks of cold for roots to appear.

Hyacinths kept cool do not need to be potted. They can sprout roots in a saucer of water with the bulb held in place by stones. Check the water level and make sure it just touches the base of the bulb and add water as needed.

The bulbs can be forced as soon as you see roots, or you can hold them in the cold temperature to space out the bud development. Place rooted bulbs in bright light in a cool room, and watch for buds. Rotate the plant so the flowering stem will be erect. “Your previous bulbs rotted because they were not potted up,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager, Countryside Nursery, Crystal Lake.


Ground Cover Suggestions

I have a dampish area with poor grass and moss that I would like to change to ground cover, but if I have only one plant, won’t it be boring? Can I get rid of the grass in winter or early spring?

If we have a dry winter or spring, you can smother the grass with a heavy layer of newspapers held down by bricks or stones, or use a product that will kill the grass. Use it according to the label directions. Grass roots are very persistent, so you may have to dig out the remaining roots by hand. The moss will disappear as you aerate the soil and rake in organic material.

When your area is properly prepared, you will have a large choice of low-growing groundcovers.

Kim Schroeder, perennial buyer at Wasco Nursery and Garden Center, St. Charles, suggests the following: lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), or European ginger (A. europaeum), vinca (Vinca minor), Tiarella, Astilbe-the cultivar ‘Perkio’ is shorter than Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’ and violas such as bird’s foot viola (Viola pedata) or sweet white viola (V. blanda).

These choices are not aggressive growers like goutweed (Aegopodium), which grows anywhere and is very difficult to eradicate. You can plant free form areas with one type and another alongside it as contrast. Most of these ground covers bloom at slightly different times to give you a spring-into-summer flowering season.


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.


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questions

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Is there a best time to plant tulips? I see them at the garden centers in late summer but I am afraid that it is too early to plant them. If I wait too long, I might forget all about them.

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?

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