Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Orchid Whisperer

Hermann Pigors

Hermann Pigors is an orchid whisperer.

He doesn’t actually call himself that, but he could. With 50 years of experience working with orchids, he knows a great deal about these magnificent blooming plants and how to help them grow and thrive indoors.
After listening to his recent talk at Chalet Nursery, I think there may actually be some hope for me. (I’ve killed all three of the orchids I’ve owned.)

Here are 10 basic tips from his presentation.
n  Good light is critical. Orchids generally like bright light, but not too much direct light or they will scorch. From February through October, Pigors puts his orchids at home in south windows with sheer curtains. He also recommends 55-65% shade cloth or the north side of a building during that time.

n  Some types of orchids require more sun that others. Paphiopedilum, more commonly known as lady’s slipper, needs less light than a cattleya type, for instance.

n  Orchids like humidity. Create it by grouping plants, closing heat registers at night near them, lowering the heat at night, using humidity trays or misting.

Miltonia or Pansy orchids like intermediate to cool temperatures,
shade, plastic pots and less fertilizer

n  Fall- and winter-blooming orchids need short days and cool nights to set their buds.  Orchids classified as “warm” need minimum temperatures of 65 degrees. “Intermediate” is 58 degrees and “cool” is 55 to 60 degrees. This is cooler than what most people have in their homes.

n   “Watering is our most difficult job,” Pigors said. It is best done with rainwater or water with a low mineral content.  If you live on the North Shore of Chicago and your city uses lake water, don’t worry. If you live farther inland and your water comes from a well, you may need to add calcium and magnesium to the water.

n  Plants need more water during the growing season. Allow them to dry out more during the dormant winter months.  If you use a pot with cut out sides, be sure to use a plastic liner. He said such pots work well in Florida, where it rains all the time and the humidity is high. Here in the Chicago area, though, plants potted this way tend to dry out too fast.

Paphiopedilum orchids like warm or cool temperatures,  lower light,
plastic pots and light feeding

n  Fertilizing is essential for orchids growing in fir-bark mixes. From February through October, he recommends using a 20-20-20 or an 8-8-8 fertilizer every one to three weeks at the rate of ½ teaspoon per gallon. From November through February, use 12-36-14, 10-30-20 or 10-50-10 blossom booster or African violet food every three to four weeks according to directions. Plants in greenhouses or sunrooms need fertilizers with higher nitrogen numbers from February through October.

n  Be sure to use the right size pot. If the pot is too large, the roots may stay wet for too long.  “When in doubt, use a smaller pot and then repot next year,” he said. Some types of orchids prefer plastic pots while others prefer clay pots.

Cymbidum orchids like cool temperatures, bright light, plastic pots and lots of fertilizer

n  It’s easier to get some types of orchids to bloom than others. For example, he said cymbidium is “the easiest to grow and the toughest to bloom.” It is a heavy feeder that requires cool nights and bright light.  Phalaenopsis, another heavy feeder, will do well with “warm” nights and medium light.

n  Are your plants are stubborn and refusing to bloom? He recommends more light, cool nights, low nitrogen food or no food, keeping them drier in the winter months, more space and dividing crowded bushy plants.
Pigors is the owner of Oak Hills Gardens in Dundee, Illinois, where he raises many different types of orchids from seed.

by Karen Geisler

Oncidium orchids like intermediate to warm temperatures, medium to bright light,
and either clay or plastic pots.
Cattleya orchids prefer intermediate temperatures, bright light, plastic pots and
outdoor growing from May 15 to September 15 in the Chicago area.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spring Flower Shows

Symptoms: Patient's heart rate elevated while reading plant catalogs. Body temperature rises when passing daffodils in grocery store. Husband reports frequently seeing patient in garden looking under dead leaves for signs of emerging plants. Possible mania suspected.

Diagnosis: Spring fever

Rx: A visit to the Lincoln Park or Garfield Park conservatories in Chicago to see historic azaleas and other plants in bloom. May substitute generic. Repeat as necessary.

Azaleas spring show Lincoln Park Conservatory
The Lincoln Park Conservatory
Yes, Chicago's winter has been among the mildest seen in the past 125 years. Only a few hyacinths have tentatively poked their heads out of the ground in my garden so far. And the buds on my witchhazel are just starting to swell. Somehow, none of this seems to help. I'm as anxious as ever for spring to begin.

I need green and I need it now. So it's time to make a trek to Chicago's conservatories.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory, located on Chicago's north side near Lake Michigan, has its annual spring show until Mother's Day. The Garfield Park Conservatory, on Chicago's west side, has a smaller-than-usual spring display for a few more weeks as it is still recovering from last summer's hailstorm. The blooms in its Horticulture Hall are still a delight.

Azaleas spring show Garfield Park conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory
Visitors also can enjoy a little bit of horticultural history at both locations. Many of the azaleas now blooming are directly descended from two varieties displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Actually, the term "azalea" is a bit of a misnomer. The evergreen shrubs technically are rhododendrons -- R. concinnum and R. scabrum 'Phoeniceum.'   Both hail from the Far East and were relatively new "discoveries" at the time of the Columbian Exposition. They probably were displayed in the fair's Horticulture Building as neither is hardy in Chicago.

These aren't the original plants, of course, even though azaleas and rhododendrons are long-lived. They are cuttings that have been taken from the originals. Many have been grown as small trees in pots that can be moved around for various displays.

Azaleas Garfield Park Conservatory
At the Garfield Park Conservatory
Both varieties have lavender/purple/violet blooms. So the Chicago Park District has added more modern varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas that bloom in complementary colors. The Lincoln Park Conservatory also has mixed in camellias, muscari, tulips, cyclamen and other foliage plants.

The effect is, well, like a spring tonic. Even though a major snow storm is threatening to hit the Chicago area later today, just looking at these pictures has me dreaming of the day I can get out in the garden again. As the prescription says, I'll just have to repeat as necessary.

By Karen Geisler

Historic azaleas at Garfield Park Conservatory
Rhododendron concinnum

Rhododendron near fountain Garfield Park Conservatory
Rhododendron scabrum 'Phoeniceum' at the Garfield Park Conservatory
flanks a fountain from Chicago's sister city of Casablanca, Morocco


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Dozen Roses for Valentine's Day

Roses are red, violets are blue
Here are a dozen, especially for you

Happy Valentines's Day!

Falling in Love rose
Falling in Love
Photo courtesy of Weeks Roses
Angel Face rose
Angel Face
Photo courtesy of Weeks Roses
Brite Eyes rose
Brite Eyes
Photo courtesy of the Conard-Pyle Co./Star Roses

Kiss Me rose
Kiss Me
Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries
Easy Does It rose
Easy Does It
Photo courtesy of Weeks Roses
Sugar Moon rose
Sugar Moon
Photo courtesy of Weeks Roses

Nearly Wild rose
Nearly Wild
Photo courtesy of Weeks Roses
Perfume Delight rose
Perfume Delight
Photo courtesy of the Conard-Pyle Co./Star Roses

Double Knock Out rose
Double Knock Out
Photo courtesy of the Conard-Pyle Co./Star Roses
Moondance rose
Photo courtesy of  the Conard-Pyle Co./Star Roses
Walking on Sunshine rose
Walking on Sunshine
Phot courtesy of the Conard-Pyle Co./Star Roses

Carefree Beauty rose
Carefree Beauty
Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries

By Karen Geisler

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tussie Mussies

A tussie mussie

You don't need flowery language to impress your sweetheart this Valentine's Day, especially if he or she is a gardener. And you don't necessarily need to bust the bank for a dozen long-stemmed roses either.

Take a cue from the Victorian era, when romance was in full bloom. Try a tussie mussie.

These small bouquets, usually made of fragrant flowers and herbs, have been around since medieval times. The spelling varies, with either a "y" or "ie" at the end, and they sometimes are called a nosegay or posy.

No one's quite sure where the name came from (although just pronouncing it makes me smile). One guess is that "tussie" comes from an Old English word for a knot of flowers. "Mussie" is thought to be a reference to the moss that probably was used to keep the flowers fresh.

Tussie mussies originally were used to keep the nose "gay" or happy at a time when the standards of public sanitation and private hygiene were much lower than today. Their fragrance protected the bearer from bad smells, which were thought to cause disease.

Then along came the Victorian era, which took tussie mussies to a whole new level. (Dim lights, play romantic music.) They used floriography -- the language of flowers -- to convey a secret message in their bouquets. The color of the rose you picked, for example, showed your true feelings.

A pink rose was for grace and beauty; yellow, friendship; white, innocence and purity; orange, enthusiasm or fascination; light peach, modesty; and purple, enchantment. A red rose? That was for romantic love, of course, a meaning that persists to this day.

Other flowers and their meanings include rosemary for remembrance; oregano, joy; sage, wisdom; purple heather, admiration and beauty; hydrangea, devotion; and baby's breath, everlasting love.

Traditionally, a tussie mussie had one main flower in the middle surrounded by filler plants and herbs, and came in a special metal bouquet holder. The concept has evolved over the years, though, and you can now find a large variety of shapes, sizes, styles and containers.

While most use fresh flowers that can be left to dry naturally, some incorporate silk flowers or dried materials. Ribbons, lace or even a vintage Valentine can be added, depending on what you think the object of your affection might appreciate.

So this Feb. 14, go for something a little out of the ordinary. Make your message more personal and interesting with a tussie mussie.

-- Chalet Nursery will have fresh tussie mussies available starting Saturday, Feb. 11 for a limited time. They are made by Kate Rice of Grayslake, IL.

By Karen Geisler

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Winter Walk in the Lurie Garden

Chicago skyline Lurie Garden winter
The Chicago skyline from the Lurie Garden
The Lurie Garden, with its New Wave mix of native perennials and ornamental grasses, is a popular attraction on Chicago's lakefront. About 1 million visitors ramble its paths annually. You'll see very few of them in February, though, due to the Windy City's often brutal and unpredictable winters.

This year has been different, with temperatures that have seemed downright balmy, so I decided to take a guided walk offered by the garden this past weekend. While the views might have been improved with a touch of snow or frost, there was still plenty to take in.

Wild quinine winter Lurie Garden
Wild quinine

Colors ranged from the grey of mountain mint to the red of Moorhexe moor grass to the light tan of prairie dropseed. They were punctuated throughout by the spiky seedheads of cone flowers and rattlesnake master. And when the wind blew, the dried leaves of the European beech trees and the Northern sea oat grasses rustled softly.

Rattlesnake master Russian sage Lurie Garden winter
Rattlesnake master intertwined with Russian sage
All of this is framed by the Chicago skyline, the Art Institute’s Modern Wing and Lake Michigan. Yet, thanks to its “Shoulders” -- a large hedge of arborvitae, beech and hornbeam-- the site is peaceful and serene. It's a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life as well as the rest of Millenium Park.

Culver's Root winter Lurie Garden
Culver's root

Allium foliage winter Lurie Garden
Ornamental onion  'Summer Beauty'

There are "communities" here as the various plants intermingle and weave a tapestry of sorts. Some of the subleties now apparent in planting plan by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf actually may have been lost in the snow most winters.

Bottle gentian Russian sage Lurie Garden winter
Bottle gentian, Russian sage and Culver's root
Horticulturalist Laura Young, who led Saturday's walk, said the garden is being effected by this year’s warmer-than-usual temperatures. The Lenten roses, for example, have already bloomed -- a couple of months ahead of schedule.  The chickweed (unfortunately) is doing well and needs to be pulled.

The garden, usually mowed during the first week of March, also may get its annual haircut a bit earlier this year as a result. So if you want to see the winter garden in all its glory, you probably should go sooner rather than later.  I hope it will inspire you, as it did me, to add more winter interest to your garden this summer using native plants.

Rattlesnake master winter Lurie Garden
Rattlesnake master silhouetted by the
Modern Wing of the Art Institute
Winter north view Lurie Garden
The view to the north

Latin names:
Arborvitae                    Thuja occidentalis
Beech, European         Fagus sylvatica
Bottle gentian              Gentiana andrewsii
Cone flower                 Echinacea
Culver's root                Veronicastrum virginicum
Hornbeam                   Carpinus betulus
Lenten rose                  Helleborus orientalis
Moor grass                   Molina caerulea
Mountain mint            Pycnanthemum muticum
Northern sea oats        Chasmanthium latifolium
Ornamental onion      Allium lusitanicum syn A. 'Summer Beauty'
Prairie dropseed           Sporobolis heterolepsis
Rattlesnake master      Eryngium yuccifolium
Russian sage                Perovskia atriplicifolia
Wild quinine                Parthenium integrifolium

For a complete list of plants in the Lurie Garden, click here.

By Karen Geisler