Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hello Spring, Hello Hellebores


As someone who has worked in garden centers for 49 years, there's precious little of a horticultural bent you could share that would shock me. Been there, heard it. Still, I admire the optimism of people that want it all.

By that, I mean the (re)quest for the elusive plant that does something splashy every season of the year. I call it the "wish-upon-a-star" plant syndrome. If such a plant existed in the upper Midwest it would:

   * bloom April thru October and be available in every color of the rainbow
   * have intoxicating fragrance
   * bear delectable, edible fruit
   * display long-lasting fall color, but
   * have evergreen foliage  
   * grow exactly the height and spread your site requires (sans pruning)
   * be repugnant to marauding deer and bunnies
   * be a way station for pollinating insects and hummingbirds
   * tolerate sun or shade, wet or dry soils

Red Racer
We plant people have all had this fantasy. But until horticultural science is more advanced and we do intergeneric gene splicing I nominate Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) as a wish-upon-a-star perennial for its workhorse range of garden attributes, day in, day out.

Lenten rose is in bloom long before and after Forsythia dreams of showing its golden wares. Literally, H. x hybridus flower stems push up through snow and last year's evergreen foliage. Individual flowers can be 2-3" in diameter, one to four per stem. Because the flowers arrive in late winter Nature has given Hellebores nodding, downward-facing flowers that shed snow.

Cotton Candy
Fortunately hybridizers have been working like mad to bring the blooms to a more upright position so you don't have to lie on the ground to enjoy the wonderful range of new colors. If you're color particular like me you may want to buy named varieties so you know what color you're getting. If they're offered as generic seedlings consider buying them in bloom.

Winter Jewels Cherry Blossom
In the quest for more upright and outward-facing flowers the color range has been expanded to white, cream, butter yellow, pinks, rose, almost black and more. Many have contrasting dotting and spotting on the flowers, and they last at least 6-8 weeks. And, drum roll please, they aren't just 5 petaled (technically they're sepals), now there are numerous double-flowered series.

You want more? The flowers eventually fade and the seed pods develop an almost papery fish-scale appearance that is also long lasting. The foliage has an interesting finger-like texture and is very glossy green. Some new varieties ( H. 'Ivory Prince' and 'Pink Frost', for example) have much darker foliage with beautiful silver veins that make it an attractive foliage plant even when out of bloom. Yes, they're evergreen even in the upper Midwest. Come March "deadleafing" of winter-weary foliage is in order to make way for fresh new leaves.

Ivory Prince with winter foliage, left, then 4 weeks later
Lenten roses are tidy clump-formers, generally 15-18" tall and slightly wider at maturity. The singles may seed about, but that is easily remedied with timely deadheading. As long as they're sited in a moist, highly organic soil (a different gardeners' fantasy) alkaline soils are not a problem. Hallelujah, something that doesn't demand acidic soil! I find they're great performers in sun or shade, although they're most often recommended for partial shade sites.

Winter Jewels Berry Swirl

Hellebores are a bit like peonies in that they're happiest planted and left alone. Slug damage is occasionally reported, but I'm happy to say that's only something that I've read about, unlike many Hosta varieties. Deer and rabbits eschew (not chew, haha) Lenten rose. Is there no end to this plant's virtues? The only drawback I hear from customers is that they're slow to mature, typically taking three years to reach blooming size in a gallon pot. One more asset- winter hardy to Zone 4!

When you wish upon that perfect perennial star put Hellebore hybrids at the top of your fantasy plant wish list!










          

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No Bird Brain, This Lady Part II


Hello again, friends! A vexing technical issue derailed The Hortiholic for a while but I'm finally picking up where I left off with my earlier post with Mary Francis Forde, Chalet's resident bird product buyer, discussing what you should know if you're new to bird feeding, And maybe you should read it even if you consider yourself a veteran birder.

Cole's has a range of seeds to attract, or not to attract, certain birds and critters.
Tony: Earlier we were discussing the Cole's bird seed line. I personally love it as much as you do. I get a great range of different species with their "Blue Ribbon" mix. It makes me wonder. Would you recommend a different seed blend for an urban feeder and a suburban feeder?
MF:  You might want to. If you were concerned about four-legged livestock (squirrels, mice, skunks, etc.) you don't want a mix high in fillers like millet that will end up on the ground. You might want to use safflower, which I laughingly say is the equivalent of rice cakes. It's not very attractive to squirrels, for example.

Look familiar? 
Tony: Ah yes, squirrels- the nemesis of anyone that feeds birds. Aside from the specifically designed squirrel-proof feeders (like Squirrel Buster) and the use of baffles, can you deter squirrels with smart seed choices?
MF: So, in addition to safflower you can be even more proactive. Cole's has a: "Hot Meats" blend (sunflower meats treated with liquid Habanero chili pepper and safflower oil) and "Blazing Hot" (four different seeds plus the liquid chili pepper and safflower oil). Don't feel bad for the squirrels. They will change where they dine after a bit of conditioning.

Tasteless tufted titmouse
Tony: This is the best part. What about the birds?
MF: Birds don't have a sense of taste as humans do so they're completely unaffected.

Tony: What if your feeder has been up for a while and birds aren't coming to it?
MF: You may have predators (owls, hawks) in the area which makes for nervous dining. Is your feeder out in the middle of an open area? Birds like something close by the feeder where they can land, make sure things are safe in the area, and then fly the short distance to eat. Is the feeder dirty? Is the seed fresh and dry, or is it old and rancid?

Make sure their plate is clean!
Tony: After our conversation I checked my feeder. So, even though they were eating like crazy my feeder was disgusting. Talk about dirty dishes, yuck.
MF (laughter dies down): I have to agree with you that it's not exactly a fun task, but a very necessary one. By the nature of the "residue" on a feeder washing with soap and water really isn't enough. It needs to be disinfected. Empty the feeder completely dislodging any old seed. Then immerse completely in a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts hot water. Let it soak for at least 3-4 minutes, using a long-handled brush if necessary.

Tony: Then rinse very, very thoroughly and let air dry completely before refilling.
MF: Yes. And the air dry part after many rinses is really important. Don't use a cloth where a fiber might snag and be left behind in the feeder. Why? It could absorb bleach and be toxic.
      
Tony: How often should this disinfecting be done, Mary Francis?
MF: Seed freshness and the possibility of disease transmission among birds are a function of how clean your feeder is. How much flight traffic do you have? How rainy and humid is it? As a general rule you should consider every 3-4 weeks.

Tony: I know people that are afraid birds won't survive if we feed them and then stop, or miss feeding for a while. Is that a valid concern?
MF: Birds are always going to take the safest, easiest food. But no, they don't become solely dependent on us to the point of not searching for food in Nature.

A source of water is so important, especially in winter
Tony: What should I have asked about winter bird feeding that I didn't?
MF: That's an interesting question. I guess people need to understand that in certain weather water is even harder to come by than food. In winter the need for water is about drinking rather than bathing. That can be provided as simply as placing a plain saucer on the ground near cover.

Tony: What about it freezing quickly when it's so bitterly cold?
MF: Birdbath de-icers or heated bird baths are the solution for that.

Tony: Mary Francis, thank you for a quick four credit course in Bird Feeding 101. Or maybe that was grad level. You're awesome.















  

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

No Bird Brain, This Lady- Part I


Outside of checking nursery websites that claim to carry "unusual" plants and planning for the annual changes in my garden what's a Chicago horticulturist got to do in February? The snow isn't that deep at the moment, but the temperature is brutal. Competition at my bird feeder is pretty fierce as well.

Bird feeding is one of America's favorite hobbies. As I look out at the amazing diversity at my feeder I realize my knowledge of what I'm doing for my birds is pretty superficial. That's when I turned to Mary Francis Forde, Chalet's bird product buyer, for more info. Mary Francis was an educator for 28 years,  in garden center sales for 11, and bird product buyer for the last five years. I want to share what I learned from her in a recent sit-down chat. Wow, what I didn't know about bird feeding could fill a few blog posts. And guess what? It's going to :)

Tony: Mary Francis, what should someone new to "birding"consider when buying their first feeder?
MF: What's their motivation? What birds do they want to attract? What season are they going to feed? Fall and winter, or year 'round? What are the physical considerations for feeder placement? Are they placing it from: a tree branch, a hanger, off a railing?

Downy Woodpecker getting his fat ration
Tony: So, if you wanted to make an immediate impact for winter what would you suggest?
MF: Consider getting a suet feeder. Don't overlook the birds' need for fat and protein in the winter. Suet is a great way to provide vital calories needed to replace what they're burning just to stay warm. The new "no melt" suet formulations have a long shelf life in all kinds of weather without becoming rancid.
Robins love insect-embedded suet!
Tony: I notice there are a lot of choices in the suet cake selection- different seed types embedded in them.
MF: You bet. Did you notice the one with insect larvae in it? It's a great one to make life easier for overwintering robins. They love it!

So many great feeder options nowadays
Tony: There are so many cool feeders now, too. You can have a specialty feeder (like niger, sunflower, peanut or a general feeder). Please share what you were saying about niger thistle.
MF: Niger is a strong draw for finches, chickadees and doves as most seedheads are "grazed out" by now, so they're looking for food sources. Be aware that most male finches won't be showing color now so don't assume (from a distance) that you're just getting sparrows.

Tony: When you have a wide range of choices and prices (like anything in life, by the way) I'm always suspicious of the, shall we say politely, the "value product". Based on what I see researching wild bird seed there's a big difference in what you get for your money.  
MF: I would agree. The label must show the % of protein, fat and fiber as well as the sources. But, it isn't required to show the % of each type of seed in the bag. Birds need high protein and fat, NOT fiber. Fillers are high in fiber, which would be corn and millet.

Tony: I'm fascinated by the idea that birds test their seed before they eat it. Please share that.
MF: Through my reading I learned that in the same way a human can look at a peanut in the shell and know how many nuts are in it, a bird does something similar. They take a seed in their beak and can tell by weight if it's fresh, whole or insect-infested. If it's not fresh it ends up on the ground.

Your birds will be the happiest in the 'hood
Tony: Nature is just so cool. I had no idea they did that. What's your opinion of Cole's bird seed? People (and birds) must love it since it's a top seller. I use their "Blue Ribbon", and am so happy with the feathered diversity it brings to my garden. It seems like I get everything good, with very few sparrows. No cards or letters from sparrow enthusiasts, please. They're aggressive, territorial, and either eat everything in the feeder in one afternoon or throw it out on the ground.
MF: You're preaching to the choir on sparrows there, brother. There's a reason for Cole's popularity. It absolutely is a top quality line with a very low percentage of "fill" seed. It's treated with nitrogen gas prior to being sealed to kill grain moths. Then it's vacuum sealed, again to reduce any likelihood of grain moths infesting the seed. If unopened, Cole's seed has a three year shelf life. As you know they have a wide range of mixes, but they're more protein and fat-based with lower fiber than a lot of what's out there.
And since you mentioned it you might consider switching from their "Blue Ribbon" to "Special Feeder" for the fall and winter. The primary difference is "Special Feeder" contains raw peanuts and pecans in the mix for extra protein and fat.

Tony: Mary Francis has a lot more to share, so stay tuned for Part II.      

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Just Right for Low Light

Building on the earlier "Life Saving Houseplant Resolutions" post let's ensure a winning start in 2016.

Some of us go plant shopping with a specific site in mind. Some of us shop, fall in love with a particular plant ("It's talking to me" as one of my favorite clients says), buy it, and then put it in a spot where it will look good. Neither process is wrong, but we need to concede that houseplant success begins by matching the light in our desired site with getting a bead on the plant's light needs.

Think about it. If the tropical plant you're lusting after has evolved for hundreds of thousands of years on the jungle floor in the shade of its taller plant neighbors, it's probably not keen on direct sun. The converse is true, too. The cactus or succulent that loves to be bathed in sun is probably going to be sulky in a windowless room.

That being said the most challenging sites are the really low light ones: off to the side of a north window, an east exposure with heavy window treatments, an interior office with no natural light. You get the idea. So, assess the quality of light (direct, indirect, bright, really dark) in your room. Go for the worst case scenario. On a sunny day in our Chicago winter what are the light conditions? Is there direct sun? How long is it even bright? Thirty minutes, an hour, all afternoon? Be honest and don't fudge the answer. This reality check will determine your plant's future success.

So, what are some good candidates for a low light scenario? Below are five houseplants that will tolerate the dark corners and recesses of your home sweet home and still maintain an acceptable appearance.

Chinese Evergreen - Aglaonema
Sparkling Sarah
Aglaonema (Chinese Evergreen) - Hybridizers have done wonders taking the dark green leaves and developing wonderful splashes and blotches of cream, silver green, even rosy shades that really add interest to a dark room. Keep Chinese Evergreen away from cold drafts that accompany doors opening to the outside.
Mother-in-law's-tongue - Sansevieria
Sansevieria (Mother-in-law's Tongue) - Whether the cute compact rosette forms or the taller (to 24"+) upright varieties, this is an iron-clad standard of tolerance to almost any adverse condition you present. Just don't overwater and it will thrive.
Peace Lily - Spathiphyllum
Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily) - Foliage resembles the spear-like leaves of Chinese Evergreen, except the leaves are glossy green, rather than matte. It will provide a bonus of white sail-like flowers that last for weeks before turning pale green. No direct sun - ever. Prefers to be evenly moist. You may want to try 'Domino', a variety that has wonderful white splashes on the leaves.
Palms - Lady and Areca are best
Palms- Explore the world of palms and you'll find a number of species that will be quite happy in low light. I especially like Lady or Areca palms for those situations. These will generally be taller plants placed on the floor for height. They'll endure temperatures that are cooler than some other tropicals will tolerate.
ZZ plant - Zamioculcas
Zamioculcas (ZZ plant) - It looks prehistoric (in a good way) to me. After a year of growing it I'm a big fan! It's so easy. It's on the far side of a room away from an east window. It's in a 10" pot that I water once a month. My ZZ is producing lots of new stems. That's surprising to me as I tend to expect ultra-low maintenance plants to be slow growing.

So, if you're one of those people lacking strong light and the proverbial "green thumb" give some of these winners a chance. If they don't make the grade, it's time to think "silk".             









  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Life-Saving Houseplant Resolutions

I've been told confession is good for the soul. So, I'll admit I've made (and broken) New Year's resolutions at one time or another. The gym three times a week. Actually, I've never even considered that one. The low-carb, no sugar diet. Uh-huh. Quitting smoking (fortunately, not one I ever needed). What about resolutions that will ensure great results with your houseplants? No, it's not one you ever hear, is it?

I will choose the right plant. Hello ZZ
Resolution #1 - (Raise your right hand as you swear) I will not put an indoor plant requiring high light (like a Ficus) in a north window and then be shocked when it drops its leaves. Instead, I promise to get a plant that matches my true light conditions, dramatically increasing my plant's chances for survival. For those really low light areas in my home or office I will consider: Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), Peace lily (Spathiphyllum), palms and the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). I'm really loving this low maintenance "camel" now that I'm growing it.

Resolution #2 - I will water completely, but at intervals that are appropriate for the plant's specific needs. Surprise! Watering once a week is not a universally correct answer to the question, "How often should I water?"
I will remember to empty the saucer
I understand "completely" means applying warm water (not hot, not cold) uniformly around the soil until water runs out the bottom of the container. After 30 minutes (no longer than that) I will empty all remaining water from the saucer. This will prevent the excess water from cutting off vital oxygen to roots and killing them. If I think it's time to water, but I'm not sure, I'll wait another day or two before I do. This reinforces the old maxim, "I can always add water, but if I've over-watered I can't remove the excess."

I will use a pebble tray and cluster plants in groups
Resolution #3 - I will try new ways to increase indoor humidity rather than just misting leaves with a spray bottle. Smart. More long term solutions would be: using the "buddy system" of grouping your plants together. As they give off water through their leaves (transpiration) they're increasing humidity around each other. Another solution would be to place plants on pebble-filled trays with water just below the pebble surface for evaporation. The bottoms of the pots should sit above the water, not in it, so they don't wick water into the soil. Right hand still up?

I will feed only when I see new leaves or flower buds
Resolution #4 - I will not fertilize year 'round if I don't see new growth. I'll fertilize when spring rolls around or when I see my plants actively producing bright green young leaves and/or new flower buds. The more light my plants receive, the more frequently I can fertilize them.

If my plants are in low light sites (north windows) I won't fertilize at all November through perhaps March when our day length and light intensity are so low that plants tend to "rest". I promise to use houseplant-specific fertilizers at the recommended rate.

I will upsize when needed
Resolution #5 - I will repot based on visible need, rather than some psychic sense that it's time. I will check root balls, looking for 40% or more roots in the soil mass before I consider up-potting. I understand most houseplants perform just fine when somewhat pot-bound. If it's determined that I need to move my plants to a larger pot I will increase the pot diameter in small increments, say, an inch at a time. I will not jump 2" or more in diameter at a time.

Your 2016 resolutions are now sworn and witnessed. You may now lower your hand and spend the New Year enjoying more beautiful houseplants and great chocolate desserts!              

  
 
     

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Holiday Gift Giving for Gardeners

A personal observation about gardeners - People that do their own: planting, pruning, weeding, edging, watering and mulching are an amicable lot. Translation: Easy to shop for. So, for those on your holiday gift list you know to be "gardeners" you might consider:

Look good banning the bad rays

Garden hats - The sun is not our skins' best friend, that's a given. There are some great outdoor hats that provide 50+ UPF sun protection and are fashionable, too. Who wouldn't feel good about giving (and receiving) the gift of health? Under $50.

Who isn't charmed by playful plantings?

Topiaries, miniature gardens - Seasonal or otherwise, themed topiaries and miniature gardens are meant to bring a smile and even provide an "out loud" laugh. I'm told the idea of these little gardens is especially intriguing to people who may have downsized and no longer have an outdoor garden. Not to be sexist, but many grandmothers tell me creating and maintaining these gardens is an activity they love to share with their grandchildren. Or, buy the components and challenge your personal creativity. Fun, with a wide range of prices.

Hers Shovel - An ergonomically correct tool that addresses the fact that women tend to use their lower body strength, rather than their torsos, like men. The blade is angled differently than standard shovels and has a large, non-slip step to allow women to maximize their leg strength. The handle is not only cushioned, but designed to allow the gardener to really use both hands and arms for maximum strength. Really smart, too, are sizes: small (less than 5'2"), medium (5'2"-5'7") and large (taller than 5'7"). Makes planting easier, under $90.

Stand back and watch the wonder unfold

Amaryllis - A jack-in-the-beanstalk among flowering plants. Once they're out of their fall dormancy their growth is measurable from one day to the next. Not only is their daily progress fun for all ages to watch, but the incredible trumpet-like flowers truly dazzle in a wide range of colors and forms! What a cool gift to interest kids about plants, too. Under $25.

Capture the best of your soil

Garden sieve - If you inherited a garden where a former owner used gravel mulch, or if your soil just has lots of junk in it, this is indispensable. When you're digging shovel the soil in the sieve and shake it back and forth like you're panning for gold. You are. The soil that falls through is root, rock and clod-free. Makes planting in awful soils a lot simpler for you and your plants. Functional and under $30.

Get the skinny on garden rainfall

Rain gauge - As any meteorologist will tell you rainfall can vary widely within a very small geographic area. You'd be surprised at how much different the figure may be than your local weather report. So, it's nice to go to your gauge after a rain and know how much your garden received, especially during the heat of summer. Accurate info is a great thing. Under $30.    
     
Subscription to a great gardening magazine - My favorite is always Fine Gardening, a Taunton Press publication. Beautiful gardens, great practical information, with lots of applicable local and Midwest content. Inspirational, educational. A year subscription is less than $30, money well spent.

Share the joys of birding

Bird feeder - Birding and gardening are neck and neck as America's favorite hobbies. Why not combine the two and enjoy watching the birds feeding in your garden from your window? The range of feeder choices is mind-boggling. If you're giving a feeder, why not include a bag of good seed (like everything in life, you get what you pay for, so read the ingredients on the "value" seed label carefully before buying)?

Happy stress-free holiday shopping to all!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Keeping Christmas (A)Live

Many of the new permanent (not artificial, please) holiday greens are incredibly realistic. Still, there are those of us that cherish live greens and the fragrance they bring to the holidays. With that desire comes the challenge of keeping those greens fresh as long as possible. Some easy tips to achieve that goal:

The tree - How long are you going to have the tree up? Are you the family that puts it up the day after Thanksgiving and takes it down in January? Or, do you have it up for 2 weeks and then you're off to the Caribbean? Buy accordingly. In order of needle retention, shortest to longest: Balsam fir, white pine, Canaan fir, Fraser and Nordman fir, Noble and Concolor fir.

Buying early, but not decorating for a while? Take it home and store it out of the drying effects of wind and sun. An unheated garage meets those criteria. Don't lose height needlessly by cutting before it goes in water. Myth: Placing it in a bucket of water outdoors that quickly grows cold does nothing for keeping it fresh before stand set-up.  

If you're going to set it up right away your garden center may make the fresh cut for you. Making your own cut? It can be as little as 1/4". Like a cut flower, your tree just needs freshly exposed cells for water uptake. Once that cut is made you have up to six hours (1-2 hours is far better) to get the tree in the stand and in warm water.

Literally the "Last Stand" you'll ever need

Get a stand that holds good quantities of water. Love the Bowlin stands- huge reservoirs and are so heavy and stable they can could go through a tornado and remain standing. Well, almost. I've been unable to uncover any research that proves commercial preservatives make any difference in tree freshness. Forget aspirin, bleach and the home remedies. Do consider spraying an anti-transpirant like Wilt-Pruf on the underside of the needles, letting it dry in the garage before bringing it inside for set-up. This should make a difference.

 Helps to keep trees and greens fresher

So, the tree has a fresh cut and is in the stand. Always add warm water. Be vigilant the first few days. Check a few times a day to make sure the stand never goes dry. Generally the tree will become hydrated and slow its uptake. Still, water levels should be checked at least daily throughout your tree's time indoors. By the way, when the holidays are over think about cutting the branches off and using them as mulch over ground cover or perennials- a great way to recycle.

Spray the underside where moisture is lost

Wreaths and roping - Wilt-Pruf can be used on all greens, whether they're to be used indoors or out. Like the tree, try as best you can (and I do know it can be difficult) to spray the underside of leaves where the water loss actually occurs. Regardless of what precautions you take, placing greens near fireplaces, radiators and vents takes a toll. Know that balsam is wonderfully fragrant, but has a thin needle that dries and sheds indoors. White pine roping will eventually discolor, but needle drop is minimal.

Live plants in pots outdoors - Treat boxwood, Alberta spruce, really any tree or shrub in a pot, as an annual. If it's alive next spring, what a great bonus! Generally, the smaller the volume of soil the more apt it is to freeze and damage the roots irreparably. I recommend 24" (all directions) containers as giving best chances for success. Use Wilt-Pruf and water periodically if plants are under an overhang, or we experience a dry winter.

Live Christmas trees keep on giving

Live Christmas trees indoors - This references the sustainable practice of decorating potted trees indoors for planting after the holidays. Three things you should know:

* Predig the hole before the ground freezes. Store the soil where it won't freeze. Mulch the hole with straw to keep it from freezing before you plant the tree.
* Limit your tree's time indoors. I like 1 or 2 days in an intermediate cool area (like a garage or unheated porch), 5 days maximum inside, 1-2 days back in the cool area again, then plant.
* Know that cute 4-5' evergreen in a pot is a lot of weight to be hoisting back and forth, in and out, up and down stairs. But it is very cool see it years later in the garden and say, "That was our Christmas tree in 2015!"

Happy Holidays, all!                

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