Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Garden Clock is Ticking....

"The days dwindle down to a precious few" is so true for the October garden. As temperatures drop and you face the reality of rain becoming snow, the urgency to complete fall garden tasks becomes almost manic.

You've probably already made the decision whether to cut your perennials now or let them stand as snowy winter sentinels. You've ripped the tired annuals out by their fuzzy little roots. What else could there possibly be to do? Want a few reminders?

1) Don't let fall pass without planting bulbs. The soil temps are finally cool enough to put all the spring flowering beauties in. Who said, 'Spring is disappointing without at least a hundred bulbs in your garden?' Probably a Dutch bulb salesman, but true nonetheless. Applying a balanced fertilizer over established bulb plantings now will pay big bloomin' dividends next spring.

2) Spring flowering bulbs and garlic are planted at the same time- NOW! Cultivate the bed thoroughly, plant 4-6" apart with the clove tips 2-3"below the soil surface. Water as needed, mulch with an insulating layer of straw. You'll be harvesting your own garlic next summer. Baba ganoush, anyone?

3)  Don't forget that second application of lawn fertilizer around Halloween or later. Cold soil temperatures don't matter. Organic or synthetic, your call. Just don't omit this last pass over your turf.

4) Houseplants been outside for the summer? Round 'em up and get them inside before they freeze. Check carefully for varmint infestations, respond accordingly. If you find livestock consider the use of Systemic Insecticide granules. Even then I like to quarantine "vacationers" in an otherwise plant-less room for at least 3 weeks before moving them into the general houseplant population.

5) Treat those acid-loving blueberries, rhodies, azaleas, etc. to a sulfur application applied directly to the soil. If you apply it to mulch the organic matter binds it and the acidifying reaction doesn't occur.

6) Apply several inches of leaf mulch, compost or dehydrated manure to annual, vegetable and perennial beds. Rain and snow, freezing and thawing will break it down and you'll notice positive differences in your plants' performance next growing season.

7) If you're going to overwinter summer bulbs, corms and tubers you'd best be thinking about the harvest. Dig dahlias, begonias, cannas, glads and elephant ears as the first frost blackens the foliage and "cure". Make sure the they're firm and skins are dry, with no surface moisture before storing. Investigate each species particular packing peculiarities. Forgive the Peter Piper picked alliteration.

8) Going to try and keep hardy trees and shrubs outdoors in pots over the winter? Be sure to use the largest container possible, 18" in all dimensions, even larger is better for survival. Do water throughout the winter. Spray evergreen foliage with Wilt-Pruf to reduce dehydration. Expect them to be "annuals" and then it's a wonderful bonus if they prove to be winter hardy.    

9)  When to put the roses to bed for the winter? Apply the 8-10" beaver dam mounds of leaf mulch or compost when the leaves are brown and hanging limp, the soil surface is frozen solid or they've been exposed to 3 or more nights of 20 degree F.

10) Use evergreen branches (buy the bundles or cut from your used Christmas tree) for mulching perennials and to protect unshaded beds of English and pachysandra from winter burn. That's textbook re-purposing.

Tick, tick, tick....    


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Conifers are the Cure

Does our Zone 5 plant palette ever seem limiting to you? Do you yearn for just one specimen plant that no one else in northern Illinois has? Do you ever look at your garden and think, "If I could just get a plant with year 'round interest for that spot I'd be so much happier with my garden?" I know I'm always thinking what would be hot in this or that spot. Do we need a support group for those of us looking for plants off the beaten path?

If it existed I would suggest "Conifers are the Cure". For those that haven't been smitten or bitten yet, but want more landscape interest the world of evergreens awaits. The range of colors (gold, blue, lime, silver and more), forms (columnar, weeping, globe, pencil point and more), needle textures and often wonderful cones is far broader than you might think.

For example: Blue spruces come in different shapes. Love the powder blue color of 'Fat Albert', but lack the space for a 30' tree? Two dwarf forms are popular and readily available. 'Globe' blue spruce exhibits the same intense color typical of the best grafted blues, but with a flattish top, maturing at 5' tall and a bit wider than that.

Globe Blue Spruce
If you want something more sculptural imagine a weeping blue spruce for your garden. One great cultivar is 'The Blues'- kind of clever, eh? Weeping/sad/blue.... But it doesn't look sad. Like most weeping evergreens the mature height and spread tend to be variable based on how they're trained as young plants. A 5-6' height and wider spread might be a realistic expectation after 10 years.

Need another true blue option other than spruce? Pictured below is a Dwarf Blue Concolor Fir (Abies concolor 'Glauca Compacta') . The color is certainly equal to any blue spruce, but the needles are velvety soft to the touch. It withstands temperature extremes and drought, but only reaches 8' tall, with a space-saving 3' girth.

Dwarf Blue Concolor Fir

Norway spruces, with their dark, dark green needles come in all shapes and sizes including weeping, too. Again, like other weepers variability is to be expected. Norway's do tolerate shade, if they're forced into that situation. The dark color on such an architectural specimen arising from winter snow is pretty stunning.

Weeping Norway Spruce
Rich, true gold exists in the conifer palette, too. The use of a gold specimen makes a standout contrast and really puts an exclamation point wherever you place it. There are wonderful yews, like 'Dwarf Bright Gold' (medium height spreader) that is gold for weeks in the spring before "greening off" for the summer. I really like 'Gold Mops' Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Gold Mops') for a fun broad-based gold specimen 365 a year. It came through last winter's weather horror with no damage in my garden.

Mops Falsecypress
Space calling for a  tall drink of water, as my grandfather used to say? The columnar Norway spruce (Picea abies 'Cupressina') fills that bill perfectly. Growing rapidly to at least 30' with a 6' spread, this one has multiple uses. Could be a specimen (single plant by itself in a starring role), staggered in odd-numbered groupings to define a space or single file to create a screen where height and minimal spread are desired. Again, any Norway spruce can do sun or considerable shade.

Similarly height-blessed, but width-challenged,  is the wonderful Weeping white spruce (Picea glauca 'Pendula')  pictured below. This is a great plant to break the strong horizontal lines of a ranch house. Always a predictable pencil-pointed, silver-gray specimen, pruning is never needed. This shape is just genetic destiny. Like most conifers more sun means a fuller, denser plant.

Weeping White Spruce
Do take the time to explore all your options beyond arborvitae, yew and blue spruce. Honestly, finding just the right evergreen specimen can cure the 'garden blahs'.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"High" on 'Drangeas

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer'

If plant popularity is directly proportional to the number of new varieties debuting annually, Hydrangeas are HOT, HOT, HOT. Exciting new varieties are popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain.

Why all the Hydrangea excitement?

  • Something-for-everyone range of flower forms including mophead (softball), panicle (cone-shaped) and lacecap (flat-topped donut with a lacy, open center). Flowers not only last a long time, but many develop interesting seed heads for winter interest.
  • Sun or partial shade tolerance. If you're putting them in sun in hot summer climates, find a site with some afternoon shade. But do give them at least 4-5 hours of sun. Don't test their shade tolerance by placing them in an hour of dappled sun and expect great flowering. They'll have great foliage instead. If you have little sun plant Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). 
  • Fabulous color range of white and creams, pinks, blues, lilacs and in-between.
  • Many paniculatas (cone-shaped flowers) are available as shrubs or single-trunk trees called "standards".
  • They're very easy care, low maintenance plants.

Some amazing varieties worthy of consideration for your garden:

Annabelle (H. arborescens)  The grande dame of hardiness, versatility and performance. Softball-sized, long-lasting heads of creamy white in midsummer. Flowers on both new and old wood. Shade tolerant. 5' tall and wide.

Bobo (H. paniculata)  Just a flower-making dwarf powerhouse, even when young. The creamy white flowers, like all paniculatas, are cone-shaped. Strong stems support the masses of flowers well. Sun, partial shade. 3' tall, 4' wide. Rock hardy, blooms on new growth. Love it- have six myself!

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer'

Endless Summer (H. macrophylla)  The standard for "mophead" Hydrangeas. Has the potential to bloom on both new and old wood. Nice medium pink flowers (if grown in alkaline soil), but blue in acid soils. 3-4' tall and wide.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'

Limelight (H. paniculata)  Chartreuse-green, cone-shaped flowers in midsummer on a vigorous plant that can be 7' tall and wide. Flowers are green, pink and burgundy in fall before they age to fish-scale brown. Very strong stems support the sizable flowers well. Sun/partial shade.

Little Lime (H. paniculata)  Small-space gardeners will appreciate this petite version of Limelight that grows only 4' tall and wide. It brings to the garden proportionately smaller flowers, but masses of them, with the same unique color as its namesake. Sun/partial shade.

Pinky Winky (H. paniculata)  Big cone-shaped flowers open white, quickly start turning pink at the base, all the while growing new white tips at the end. Really different, really pretty. Blooms on new growth. 7' tall and wide. Sun/partial shade.
Strawberry Sundae (H. paniculata)  Another choice dwarf for people with small spaces. Beautiful, dense white flowers that gradually change to strawberry pink (bottom up) as you might well have suspected. Blooms on new growth. 4' tall, 5' wide. Sun/partial shade.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Twist-n-Shout'
Twist-n-Shout (H. paniculata)  Distinctive "lacecap" flowers have a row or more of large sterile flowers surrounding a loosely open center of fertile flowers. Subtle, as Hydrangeas go. Pink when soil is alkaline, blue when acid. 4' tall and wide. The red stems and burgundy-red fall color are unusual for Hydrangea.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Vanilla Strawberry'
Vanilla Strawberry (H. paniculata)  The progression from white to pink and strawberry red is a tasty feast for the eyes. 6' tall, 5' wide. Sun/partial shade.

It's o.k. to be plant addicted. If you feel like you're bordering on Hydrangea obsessive, tell people you're a collector. They'll just think you're charming and eccentric.
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