Friday, February 24, 2017

Winter Warmth Woes for Plants


While 65 degree winter temperatures in Chicago, day in, day out, are cause for jogger jubilation this weather is not doing most of our plants any favors. Our perennials, bulbs, shrubs and trees are being set up for a potential world of hurt. A notable exception is the lovely, naturally early-blooming witchhazel pictured above.

May I set the stage? December was seriously cold. The ground froze early and we had good snow cover to keep it frozen. Great. Now we've had less than 1" of snow in the new year. The soil surface has thawed. We've had minimal rain to provide moisture for roots. Is there anything we can do to lessen the potential damage to our plants? For what it's worth, here's my take on the situation.

Not ready for prime time
Bulbs
Unfortunately, bulbs are making an early above-ground debut. This is most apt to happen in unshaded south or west-facing exposures against buildings. The reflected heat has warmed the soil and led bulbs to believe it's time to rise and shine. Bulbs have built-in insulation mechanisms so leaves and unopened flower buds can tolerate very cold temperatures without damage. Open flowers would be subject to freeze damage. In other words, we're okay for the moment.
What to Do: If you want to be proactive apply an organic (I love leaf) mulch after the soil surface freezes again to keep it frozen to try to slow the bulbs down. Yes, that is an optimistic assumption.

Perennials
If planted in the past year perennials should be checked for "frost heaving". That is, the edges of the root balls would be 1/2" or more above the surrounding soil surface. Existing partially above grade these roots are subject to temperature and dehydration damage. Such plants are likely to pass on.
What to Do: GENTLY put a foot on either side of the EDGE of the root ball and try to push back into the ground. If dry, water those plants, then (leaf or compost) mulch when the surface refreezes. Remember, mulch roots, don't bury the crown (center) of the plant.

Water
Check plants, especially newly planted evergreens or plants in containers (ex: boxwood or Alberta spruce) for moisture. Dehydrated = damaged, dying or dead.
What to do: If the top inch or so of soil is dry, soak. When the soil freezes again consider applying mulch.

Water and apply Wilt-Pruf to crispy critters
Evergreens
Do you have broadleaf evergreens (rhododendron, azalea, holly, boxwood) in open, sunny windswept areas? Are they dry? If yes, did you water them?
What to Do: While temps are above 40 degrees F. consider applying an antitranspirant spray, Wilt-Pruf for example, to the underside of the leaves to reduce potential dehydration damage for the rest of the winter.

Tree wrap helps to prevent ugly cracks
Frost crack
Frost crack is a nasty symptom, occurring primarily on smooth-barked trees. If there's a prolonged period when trees are subjected to temps above freezing during the day, then dramatic drops at night, the expansion and contraction of the bark creates pressure points on the (again) south or southwest sides of the trunks. When the tree starts growing those pressure points may open up creating wounds - sometimes superficial, other times exposing deep fissures into the heartwood. Young (under 6" in trunk diameter): maple, honeylocust, sycamore and linden are most at risk.
What to Do: When the trunk surface is dry you might consider the use of the corrugated paper tree wraps or burlap to shade the trunk. Remove ASAP in the spring (mid-March).

Deer
Just because there's no snow cover doesn't mean our yews and arborvitae have a forage-free pass. On the contrary, I was inspecting my garden last week and saw 2 androgynous whitetails belly-high in the neighbors' yews, grazing. Two ear-splitting whistles later they were bounding down the street for a more relaxed dining experience. Very satisfying (for me).
To do: Consider draping the black mesh "deer netting" over yews or around arbs to exclude marauding deer. The netting isn't visible and really is a very effective deterrent. Or spray vulnerable evergreens with the repellent Plant-Skydd. It's also very effective when sprayed on emerging bulbs and dayliliesDeer just hate it!

Now the best we gardeners can hope for is a deep, soaking rain followed by a quick return to sub-freezing temps until the time when spring should really arrive.                



















Friday, February 10, 2017

Mid-Winter Houseplant Blahs

We're finally on the "backside" of winter. For those of us not winging off to a tropical island between now and spring that's an important psychological milestone, just as it is for our houseplants. Even the word "houseplant" sounds winter-weary and less than exciting - kind of like "leftovers". Just for today let's call houseplants indoor tropicals (ITs), and maybe they'll seem fresher.

This is about the time our ITs may be showing their ennui by exhibiting "symptoms". Certainly, they're as tired of short days with constant cloud cover and and low indoor humidity as we are. And that presumes we're watering correctly in response to these imperfect conditions. So, assuming they have good personal hygiene and are otherwise free of livestock and pestilence, here's an abbreviated troubleshooting guide. The caveat- "Probably" should probably be inserted in front of each bullet point. Why? Because it's as likely a combination of factors as a single one causing IT malaise in your collection.

Potato chip-crispy spots or lesions on leaves: Underwatering

Lesions that are soft, dark brown or water-soaked: Overwatering 

Leaves are curling (either upward or under): 
  1. Chilling (too close to a drafty window or door to the outside, room colder than the plant likes) and/or
  2. Overwatering
Leaf drop: 
  1. Plant subjected to temperature extremes (too high, too low) for some period of time
  2. Someone in charge of watering that let the plant go bone dry for weeks or months, and it's not a forgiving cactus or succulent?
  3. Is it a new adoptee that was just brought home from the greenhouse? In other words, has it been used to higher light and you've featured it in a window-less, light-less room resembling the inside of a sarcophagus?
  4. Did it get chilled on the way home by being outdoors unwrapped? Did it sit in a car while you shopped-'til-you-dropped for hours and the car temps got dangerously low?
Just tossin' these ideas out there. These aren't accusations, we're just trying to get to the root of your ITs problem (ignore unintended horticultural pun).

Lower leaves turn yellow and drop:
  1. If it's just one leaf and it's the very oldest (lowest on the stem) that may be okay. Leaves don't live forever. Plants naturally shed old leaves that are shaded by the upper portion of the plant.
  2. Multiple leaves yellow? Has it been overwatered? Too much water, too frequently?
  3. Chilling
  

Leaf ends or edges brown, brittle:
  1. Humidity just too low for the plant (by far the most common reason)
  2. Erratic watering- plant is alternatively wet and/or dry
  3. Like Goldilocks, room "too hot", "too cold", never just right
  4. Fertilizing frequently while plant is on winter growth hiatus, and therefore not utilizing nutrients. We call that "burn"
Lower leaves turn brown (dry) and drop: 
  1. Just not enough light for the species you're trying to grow
  2. Room excessively hot and dry
  3. Plant regularly underwatered
Individual leaf stems (petioles) or entire stems soft and mushy:
  1. Overwatered on a regular basis and/or
  2. Left standing in a water-filled saucer or pot with no drainage hole frequently and for long periods of time
White residue on soil surface:
  1. Fertilizing frequently all winter long? S-T-O-P now. Those fertilizers salts are accumulating because the plant is not growing and therefore not using them OR
  2. Using hard water with high salt levels
Plant not producing new growth:
  1. It's winter, full of short, cloudy days. Unless you have a greenhouse or full-length south or west-facing windows to maximize light to perhaps coax some growth from your plants, relax. This is normal for our winters. New growth should start peeking out as we approach spring.
Keep chanting the mantra, "It will be alright. It will be alright. It will..."      

          














Thursday, January 26, 2017

Spring Garden Itch


Mid-winter is about the time most gardeners start getting "spring itch". For nonsufferers, it should be noted this is not a dermatological condition requiring an office visit, nor is it likely to be contagious. It's simply a longing to be back in the garden knowing full well that any activity pursued in the soil is physically impossible for at least a couple of months. There are therapies that can be employed right now to ameliorate the symptoms.

Always a treat -- the first special plants of spring at the doorstep
1. Catalog therapy - Allow yourself to get lost in the beautiful catalogs arriving daily. Make lists of what you must have.

Check with local garden centers before you buy online. In addition to all the good stuff that happens from "buying local", plants are not a sweater or a pair of shoes. I prefer selecting my own actively growing rose, perennial, whatever, rather than accepting something the shipping department (no offense to the fine folks in shipping departments) pulled. I reserve my online plant purchases to: exclusives, very new or very rare specialties that I can't get from my favorite garden center- Chalet. Still, when I come home at night in spring and there's a box of plants waiting to be opened that's better than Christmas, for sure!

Consider renewal pruning on overgrown oldies 
2. "To do" list therapy - Now is a great time to objectively look at your garden and think about how you can make it even better.

What needs: dormant pruning, transplanting, removal, adding to (as in small groupings that need beefing up), cutting back or deadheading (perennials), to be bought, refining bed outlines and sizes (that always means enlarging, by the way), mulch added or removed, acidifying, thinning, fertilizing. You'll have a great sense of accomplishment and purpose facing spring with list in hand.

While the garden is asleep you can enjoy learning and dreaming
3. Reading therapy - Get out your garden books. Buy great garden magazines like Fine Gardening and absorb. It will ease the urge, just by inspiration, I promise.

4. Landscape "assessment test" therapy - This refers to garden design goals rather than the tasks just described in #2. While annual and perennial color are great, at least 6 months of the year that visual impact is dramatically reduced in the Midwest. What is your family's view of your landscape now - from inside the house? We have a tendency to prioritize views from the street, pulling into the garage, sitting on the patio, etc.

  • I took the "test" of a long border that runs the full length of my property. Since I clear cut all my perennials in the fall that bed was b-l-e-a-k November through April. And in snow, boring. Peppering dwarf conifers throughout that bed the last few years has made that winter view much more enjoyable.

Start early and beat the May crowds - good design takes time
  • Now is the time to think about landscape projects requiring professional design.Check now (that's right, winter) with your favorite garden center or landscape firm. Let them help you assess your project. The installation of landscapes is necessarily a seasonally driven pursuit. People are often surprised when they call or come in mid-May to learn that the design and installation can't be accomplished within a few days. A good design is first and foremost an artistic, creative process that requires time. The installation component is equal parts hard physical work and artistry, too. Be one of the prepared people when spring breaks.
The seed racks beckon with colorful choices
5. Seed shopping therapy - Check out the garden center's seed racks and buy what you're going to need. Whether you're going to start them indoors or sow directly in the garden, this is an important garden activity.

Indoor plant care can help keep your thumb green
 6. Houseplant therapy - As day length and light intensity increase again houseplants are going to start stirring from the doldrums of winter hibernation. As you start seeing new growth you can think about feeding, repotting, moving plants around and adding new varieties to your collection. Houseplant care is gardening, too.

Garden itch subsiding yet?                 

Friday, January 13, 2017

2017 Landscape Resolutions


In a recent survey the number one resolution for the year wasn't dieting, but to be a better person. Truly admirable. Why not consider some resolutions to make your landscape better in 2017, too? The Hortiholic will happily share a few suggestions.

Help to reduce the spread of a very bad plant, buckthorn
  • Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is a noxious invasive, not an acceptable screening plant. Do yourself and your neighbors a huge favor and get rid of it to slow the spread. Boxelder and Siberian elm are equally awful and should share the same fate.
Assess the front of the house, and elsewhere
  • Tens of  thousands of dollars are spent on home renovations so our houses won't be "dated". How long has it been since you've considered the front of your house? Stand at the street, pretend it isn't your home and objectively ask, "Does this landscaping make my house more beautiful or is it as tired as the _______ (kitchen, bath, fill in the blank) I just replaced? Everyone sees the front of your home. Be proud of it. If you're overwhelmed seek professional help (design, not a therapist), preferably before spring so you're ready to proceed with ideas, or even better, a plan when weather breaks.
  • Just because you divided the Hosta lining the sidewalk and now have 150 or more "plants", don't feel compelled to share Nature's bounty. Compost 'em or throw 'em away. Don't put the neighbors in a position where they feel they have to accept and find a place for them. Neighbors, if you don't want the "seconds", politely decline. Perhaps, "Oh thanks, but I have other plans for that area." I'm sounding like Miss Manners, aren't I?
  • Break out of the rut. Try 3 new varieties of annuals, perennials, veggies or herbs. They don't have to be new on the market. Tried and true is good, especially if you're a newer gardener and building confidence in your green thumb. New to you and your garden is just fine.
  • Make life easier on yourself and stop trying to grow grass under a Norway maple. Too much shade, too much root competition. Consider a really tough shade tolerant ground cover. If that's too daunting make a bed with mulch as the ground cover. Let the bare soil and lack of grass suggest a potential bed outline. 
Create a pollinator-friendly place
  • Bees and Monarchs aren't the only pollinators. Other butterflies, moths, insects and birds can use all the help they can get. Check out "Little Garden Club of Wilmette Pocket Prairie Plant Selection Guide" as a great resource. They've certainly raised my understanding of how even a grouping of 5 or more native plants as a way station in your garden can make a big difference!
  • Do you have a room whose windows no longer "tell" time of day because of the foliage "curtaining" it? Do guests have to walk on the grass, or single file, to the front door because the landscaping is overgrown? If it's just a plant or two and you think it's salvageable, find out what the plants are and whether they can handle a rejuvenation prune or... must be trashed. 
Save tags to replicate what you liked
  • If you're not an obsessive compulsive person (guilty), if you're not a spreadsheet guru (guilty again) save the tags and labels from your plant purchases. I recommend a year, but two would be better. It's so much easier in the spring to replicate a successful container or add to a perennial grouping if you have the tags. Spring is frenzied in the garden center. A rousing game of 20 questions with your favorite horticulturist ("Well, I think it was blue. Maybe a foot tall. I don't remember when it bloomed. What was it?") may not yield the correct answer.
Take up birdfeeding and enjoy the show
  • Get a bird feeder and keep it filled! Winter is tough for our feathered friends when snow cover is deep. Learn the species names. I guarantee you'll enjoy watching them jockeying for a spot at the feeder. The antics of the squirrels trying to get around the baffle is fun, too. You'll be saving lives.

I got rid of so much angst with this post I think I can skip my therapy session this week.                          

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Winter Garden Exhibitionists

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the garden
Early cold temps and deep snow made perennials harden;
Beds and borders held no rabbits or mice,
Tools were hung in the shed, rust-free and nice.
What did my wandering eyes survey
But eight garden wonders flaunting their winter display.


Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a lot to flash year 'round, but when fall strips the beautiful scarlet-orange autumn leaves bark takes center stage. For my money  there are few plants that could steal the spotlight from the handsome, curling mahogany bark, even on small branches. A slow-growing ornamental, this is a stunning specimen either as a single trunk or multi-stemmed tree. The leaves are uniquely three-parted and dark green. 20ish' tall and 15' wide, this hardy Asian maple matures to a rounded silhouette. Zone 5.


Evergreens sometimes get overlooked in the color crush of a flower-filled summer border packed with shrubs and perennials. Right now, dead of winter, it's hard to overlook the sculptural elegance of a Weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies 'Pendula'). This is one evergreen that tolerates shade without getting "skanky". The needles seem to darken in shade and appear almost black against winter snow. Zone 3 hardy, this plant, like weeping just-about-anything, can be extremely variable in form. The plant will be taller the longer it is staked upright in youth and has the chance to develop a thick, self-supporting trunk.


While on the subject of artistic evergreens, Weeping white spruce (Picea glauca 'Pendula') is a perfect pencil-point without ever being touched by pruners. Growing rather quickly (up to a foot per year) the branches hang tightly down like arms against a torso. There is a silver cast to the needles, but they are not blue spruce-conspicuous. This weeper eventually grows 25+ ' or more, but only 3' wide. Sun-loving and happy in well-drained to dry soil, I love using this one to create visual interest by interrupting a long horizontal architectural line. Majestic swathed in winter white. Zone 2.

Yes, weeping plants may be an acquired taste. Purple Fountain European beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Purple Fountain') is a fave. Trees have a strong central leader with tightly held branches that come out from the trunk a bit and then turn south. 'Purple Fountain' has elegant, glossy, maroon leaves all summer. This color is intensified with sun, but like all beeches will tolerate some shade. Leaves hang on until late in the fall before turning bright gold. The bark is smooth and gray, like elephant hide before the elephant wrinkles. Soil must be well-drained. P.F. is a great complement to contemporary architecture. Zone 4.


Compact Concolor fir (Abies concolor 'Compacta') is a charming dwarf shrub sub for blue spruce when that strong color is needed, but space is limited. Growing slowly into a predictable 6' tall, 3' wide pyramid, this sun-lover is low maintenance. The needles are feather soft to the touch, but the plant is oblivious to drought, heat cold and winter wind. "Cute" is an appropriate adjective. Zone 4.


The many chartreuse summer flower heads of  Little Lime hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Lime') are now a distinctive brown that provides strong color and bold texture in a snow-drifted landscape. 4' tall and equally wide at maturity this sun-lover provides months of flower effect - from summer through winter. Maintenance of these "panicle" hydrangeas is basically restricted to late winter removal of old flower residue and minimal silhouette shaping. Drought-tolerant when established, use Little Lime in groups to make a powerful statement in your garden- summer and winter. Zone 3.


Golden Mop Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop') is a year 'round  color accent that holds true even in winter. In my experience this is one of the very hardiest Falsecypress varieties. My specimen is in full sun and catches a lot of winter wind with no ill effects after eight years. Zone 4.


Winterberry (Ilex verticiallata) is a rock hardy, native holly. It does drop its gold leaves in the fall to reveal plentiful apple red berries. Requires one male variety to pollinate a group of females. Don't worry, they're sold labelled "male" and "female". Tolerates sun or some shade, as well as wet sites that occasionally flood. The white spring flowers (of both sexes) are not showy, but when the berries go from green to red in late summer enjoy them before the birds discover and devour. This picture (taken the week before Christmas) shows a female winterberry that escaped complete denuding. Zone 3.

Tho' the lawn was long since frozen and snowy,
Salt crystals sparkled on roads like diamonds quite showy.
While ice and snow caused grasses to topple and shatter,
With these eight beauties in the garden, it just didn't matter.

                                                            Tony Fulmer
                                                            December 2016          



   



Thursday, December 8, 2016

(Paperwhite) Bulbs and Booze


Forcing paperwhite narcissus is a holiday tradition for many families. They're easy, inexpensive, quick to grow and flower once potted, and bear a distinctive fragrance. They don't even have to be potted in soil to perform. The fact of the matter is most people "pot" them in shallow bowls with gravel, decorative stones or even marbles rather than soil. So, what could go wrong?

The common bugaboo is the stems and flowers tend to stretch and elongate, weakening them. Then they splay open like an arborvitae in icy, wet snow. Unlike many flowers it's hard to support them so they look natural. Try running a stake through stones or marbles and see how that works for you. No, not very well.

As the story goes (and good readers, this is true, not another urban legend) a writer for the New York Times posed a question to Cornell University horticulture professor William Miller. Question- "Does gin affect paperwhites?" Great person to ask, right? Those of you that don't interact with the public daily may be flabbergasted and wonder how such a question could have arisen. Not me. The public's gardening questions have kept me on my toes for decades. And watch out for the full moon...

Paperwhites grown, left to right, in 2% to 10% alcohol
Courtesy Cornell University
Professor Miller and his horticulture student, Erin Finan, did the hard work. In the end their research showed that moderate dilutions of alcohol from certain sources did indeed shorten the plants and keep their flowers and foliage upright. The plants were as much as 1/3 to 1/2 shorter than the water only control group. Flower size and fragrance were, happily, not affected.

For those of you that are tired of battling rogue paperwhites and want more control here's what Professor Miller and Ms. Finan's research revealed:
  • Plant in stones and water as usual. The bulbs will root and shoots will start elongating quickly. Once stems are several inches tall pour off the water.
  • The day day you pour off the water take any hard liquor (gin, whiskey, vodka. etc.) or rubbing alcohol and create a 5% solution.
  • I wouldn't do that to you. Saving you the math to get from a 40% alcohol product to a 5% solution (by the by, don't use beer or wine due to their sugars), just add one part liquor to seven parts water. Easy, right?
  • Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) is 70% alcohol. So, add one part to ten parts water.
  • This is an ongoing process throughout the life and flowering of your paperwhites, not a one-shot deal. So, each time you need to raise the "water level" in the container use the alcohol/water solution.
  • As with people, too much alcohol can be a problem. Don't be tempted to increase the solution to more than 10%. Toxicity will occur.
For those that are scientifically inquisitive and care the Cornell researchers believe alcohol in that lower percentage affects/slows the plant's water uptake. That lack of water somehow shortens flowers and foliage, yet doesn't change flower quality.

In the end if you love paperwhites and the above process reminds you (chillingly) of chemistry class there's another solution. Sorry, pun not intended. I never joke about chemistry. Get a tall glass vase and still plant them in stones and water. As they grow if they start to flop the vase will hold everything upright like a bouquet. Last call....              
    

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holidays Without Decorating Disasters



Holidays are supposed to be enjoyable. But everyone, every family, has their personal tale of decorating gone terribly wrong. These (mis)adventures often make for side-splitting merriment when retold years later around the holiday table, disaster participants excluded. Haha. Perhaps a holiday catastrophe can be averted by considering some of these tips during advance prep.

  • Every live tree type has its own distinct advantages and occasionally a downside. For example, if you're the  family that puts the tree up Thanksgiving weekend and keeps it up 'til New Year's Day, a balsam shouldn't even be a consideration. Instead, choose a Concolor, Fraser, Noble or Nordmann fir. They'll perform for the long Christmas stay.
  • Apply an antidessicant spray, such as Wilt-Pruf, to the undersides of the branches of wreaths, roping, fresh greens and trees to reduce dehydration. If indoors, try to keep fresh greens in arrangements in water.
  • Divorce is expensive and seldom amicable. Your tree is the center of the festivities so buy the correctly sized stand for your cut tree and be done with it. Don't try to whittle a 6" trunk into a pencil point for a stand with a 4" diameter opening. If you spend the hour(s) and somehow succeed in this engineering miracle be prepared for the fallout, or more accurately "fall over". Stability in all aspects of the holidays shouldn't be underestimated. The aesthetics of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree are somewhat lessened when guy-wired to the walls to stay upright. Trust me, this happens regularly.
  • Sorry, but tree stand again. Example, 6" trunk in 6" stand. Even without high school physics this scenario means there is no room left for water. Can you say dangerous?
  • NEVER let your fresh tree run out of water. A dry tree is a hazard. Make a fresh cut just before placing the tree in the stand indoors. Fill immediately with warm (not cold) water. Check the water reservoir at least twice daily the first few days when the tree is hydrating. Once uptake slows a daily inspection of the stand should be sufficient. You know the only fire you want for the holidays is in the fireplace!
  • Follow light manufacturers' recommendations for the limit on how many light strands can be put together for one continuous sequence. Failing to do so may result in all manner of electrical hijinks.
  • Test your lights before stringing the tree. Holiday cheer fades quickly after weaving them artfully in and out of the branches and the plug-in ceremony reveals they're not live. Use cardboard tubes to store individual light sets after the holidays. Only cats enjoy playing with tangled light sets.
  • Ask if the artificial berries or greens you're purchasing for outdoors are suitable for that purpose. Don't assume. Usually the water-resistant ones will be labeled as such. If they aren't, dyes may bleed and stain surfaces. Colored berries or podded stems may crack and expose their white interior. I'm pretty sure that's not the look you're trying to achieve.
  • Be mindful of leaving ceramic, terracotta or ceramic containers full of soil outdoors for the winter. Alternate freezing and thawing of wet soil may cause cracking, deterioration and the premature demise of these porous pots. Instead consider using the plastic or composite containers with the faux finishes. No one will ever know what they're not.     
Hope this saves even one family from a holiday disaster, large or small!            

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