Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pointers on Points and Flowering Faves

If you're overwhelmed by the beauty of a holiday poinsettia you have Joel Roberts Poinsett to thank. As history is recorded, Mr. Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, discovered a large shrub covered in red flowers literally along the road. He found it different and interesting. So, he sent cuttings back to his home in South Carolina. The annals of government service are "mum" (horticultural pun intended, maybe) on whether he was a particularly skilled diplomat or not. But 185 years later his claim to fame is still the foundling poinsettia.

Hybridizers have made astonishing advances in flower color, form and longevity to a plant that was just a sprawling 6' shrub. The range of colors has evolved from roadside-red to include burgundies, whites, pinks, peaches, salmons, candycane-colored bicolors and more. It seems there's a new flavor or two to consider every December. Ah, the designer poinsettia...

Such humble beginnings suggest a no-nonsense, low-care-plant, which is largely correct. The biggest poinsettia caution is to avoid temperature extremes, especially cold. Make sure the plant is sleeved when it leaves the greenhouse. Take it directly to your warm car. Like Monopoly, go directly home with your beauty. Don't pass go, don't go shopping for hours and leave the plant unattended as your car's interior temp drops.

Once safely home in warmth, remove the paper sleeve. Gently tear it off. Don't try to pull it over the top. "Points" are brittle, they will snap. Place in a warm room. 65 degrees F and higher is fine. A brightly lit window with some direct winter sun will make your plant comfy. Like any houseplant, avoid placing the plant against the cold glass of a window or near a drafty door. It will freeze! Allow the soil surface to dry well before watering. When it's time for a drink always use warm water. Don't keep your poinsettia soaking wet.

For those that prefer something other than Ambassador Poinsett's Euphorbia pulcherrima for holiday decor, Hydrangea, cyclamen and azalea are popular, too. Hydrangea choices in December are generally white, but there are different flower forms (like 'Shooting Star') that you may not have seen. They're all easy care. Everything a poinsettia likes, Hydrangea doesn't. So, spare them the sunny window and the warm room. Keep them damp, damp, damp. Yes, damp. Bright light is fine, but keep them out of direct afternoon sun, and in a cool room. Cooler, better. You'll enjoy them for weeks.

For you that have cool, even cold rooms, cyclamen would be a terrific choice. They revel in temperatures in the 50s and 60s. Not only are the butterfly-like flowers unique, but many of the new hybrids have stunning silver veining and splotching on the heart-shaped leaves. Like Hydrangeas, keep them damp at all times and you can have them in bloom for weeks. No direct sun, thank you. Bright light is all they ask.
It's time for a resurgence in the popularity of florist azaleas. The color choices and beauty of a fully colored azalea are stunning, I think. Like cyclamen, the cooler their living space, the longer they'll delight you. It's easy to get them to last a month when you buy them with buds cracking color. Again, bright light (no direct sun) and keep them moist. They are usually grown in a peaty soil. Still, I water every other day when I have one.
Whether "points" are your favorite flower or not, isn't is nice to know there are lots of gorgeous alternatives to brighten your home for the holidays?       


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting a Fir for Christmas?

Let's be honest. Holidays, while joyous, are stressful. Is the dog going to cooperate and wear the reindeer antlers for more than 5 seconds this year? Will the kids remember the words to their first speaking parts in the holiday play? Will you have to cable the tree to the wall to keep it from crashing during Christmas Eve dinner? You do remember this, don't you?

For those that love the tradition of a fresh cut tree, the wonderful choices available now may seem overwhelming. Sure, there are a lot of things to consider. How long will the tree be up? How tall? How wide? Do I want a dense tree or a layered one? Do I wrap the branches with lights or just lasso the outside? Can the branches support my big, heavy ornaments? Don't be overwhelmed. Choices abound:

Fraser fir is now the standard all quality varieties are compared against. The green needles with silver undersides impart a Christmas-y evergreen fragrance to holiday festivities. There are many strong branch tips to support lots of beautiful ornaments. Do be sure to check the trunk before you go home. Frasers tend toward very thick trunks (even at smaller sizes)  that may require something other than a "ring stand".  You'll love the great needle retention that allows you to have your Fraser up for a long holiday season.

Canaan fir is a relatively new selection. There is some variability in appearance so they can sometimes be confused with either Balsam, or even Fraser. The needles are soft (read easy to decorate), but branches are stiff enough to support ornaments. Needle retention is very good, and the aroma mimics Balsam, the most familiar Christmas tree-scent.

Another newer introduction to the Midwestern Christmas palette is Nordmann fir. It possesses soft, flattened black-green needles. While the fragrance is light, needle retention is excellent. Incidentally, Nordmanns are quite popular in Europe.

Noble fir is apropos for an elegant tree. The needles are not flattened, but tend to encircle the branches. They're a handsome blue-green and give off a wonderful aroma. The branches are beautifully layered and strong. Big heavy ornaments? Nobles' thick stems handle those easily. Their incredible needle retention is bested only by Concolor firs. You can have them indoors for weeks and weeks, literally. Like Frasers, they have thick trunks that require large diameter, heavy duty stands.

Then there's Concolor fir. If you're the family that puts your tree up in November and takes it down as the Super Bowl nachos are coming out of the kitchen, this is the tree for you. The long, soft silver-blue, silver-green needles are a joy to decorate. And they last! A friend wanted to really test her Concolor's needle longevity. In February she put her Christmas Concolor outside on the deck. In April she took a picture with all the needles still attached. Rusty brown to be sure, but still attached. No shedding, no kidding! No other tree is up to that challenge. Not that you still want your tree up in April, but it's a statement. The other thing is the delightful citrusy fragrance released when the tree is brought into a warm room. You'll swear someone's smuggled an orange tree into your home. The fragrance endures as the days and weeks pass. Incredible.

White pines have a different appearance than the firs. Their long, soft needles shed minimally. They are typically sheared in the nursery so they tend to be densely tufted on the outside without a lot of interior branching. The fragrance is wonderfully predictable- pine forest. The overall impression is "fluffy".

Now, if the tree fits in the stand, looks relatively straight, stays upright and all the lights stay on without blowing a circuit, that's about as stress-free as Christmas gets!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tulips and Cows (Tulpen en Koeien)

Did you know that it is standard practice in Holland to remove tulip flowers as soon as the growers see the color is true? Once the buds have opened the bulb growers bring in the kopmachine to behead the tulips. The beautiful flowers are often fed to cows, who I've read allegedly eat the red ones first. Really?

One way to protect your tulips from the neighbors' cows is to grow them in your window over the winter. Splashy Amaryllis and fragrant paperwhites need no prechilling to bloom in your home. Plant them at room temperature and they're quick to sport their fancy flower finery for you. The other spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus, etc.), however, must be prechilled to flower successfully indoors.

The bulbs just need to be hoodwinked into thinking they've already been exposed to 10-12 weeks of 35-40 degrees F., just as if they were in your garden all winter. There are different ways to accomplish the same gorgeous result.

The most commonly accepted way of forcing the "major" bulbs is to pot in a good quality potting soil. Don't fuss over whether to use clay or plastic pots. Just make sure there are drainage holes. The spring flowering bulbs can't stand heavy, wet soils. Select a pot that will hold at least: 5 daffs, 5-7 tulips, 3 or more hyacinths, 5 or more crocus. For forcing, remember you want maximum effect, so the bulbs can be almost touching. The necks of the bulbs should be slightly above the soil surface. Be sure and leave a water space between the soil surface and the rim of the pot. When those little roots start growing they will push the bulb up a bit in the pot!

One trick is to put the flat side (yes, there is one) of each tulip bulb against the outside of the pot. The first leaf will roll out over the side of the pot and frame the flowers perfectly all the way 'round the container. While we're talking tulips, consider using single early, double early, double late or Triumph "classes" as the best for indoor forcing. Once the bulbs are planted, water thoroughly.

Then you have choices to make. You can achieve the required chilling by placing the potted bulbs in the refrigerator bins for the aforementioned 10-12 weeks. Make sure there are no ethylene gas producers in the same bins as the bulbs. Edibles like apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, honeydews, kiwis, peaches and tomatoes all produce varying amounts of ethylene which can deform the flowers.

If you'd rather not have your Sub-Zero used as a "bulbarium", you can place the bulb pots down in your window wells, an often overlooked horticultural storage unit. This will put the bulbs below the frost line and keep the soil from freezing. Cover with a light layer of straw for insulation. Like the refrigerator, the bulbs will start forming roots and be ready to retrieve and bring to the light-of-day after the chilling time is met.

If the family isn't keen on a refrigerator full of potted bulbs and you don't have window wells, there's a last option that has been EASY and successful for me. I simply put the bags of bulbs (which need to have openings or air holes so there's no condensation on the inside) in the refrigerator bins. When the chilling is complete, pull 'em out and pot 'em. The bulbs don't care whether they were potted or not while they're chilling.

Once chilled and potted, you'll place the pots in a bright window in a cool room, 65 degrees or less, while roots are forming. Water thoroughly so the water goes through the pot, then drain. In particular, it's great if you can keep them cool from rooting to flowering. As long as they're getting enough light the cool temperatures will keep them short and stocky, and the flowers will last longer than in a warm room. If they must move to a warm room try to keep them as cool as possible for the first couple of weeks. Roots have usually started once you see the green stems growing out of the neck of the bulb. Then you can move them to the place where you want to enjoy them.

Once they've finished blooming don't waste your time trying to save and reflower them. Forcing exhausts their food reserves. Like a cut flower bouquet, when it's over, it's over.   

Friday, October 25, 2013

To Be OCD or Not to Be in the Perennial Garden...

That is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the garden to suffer the slings and arrows of a million outrageous Echinacea seedlings next spring, or to wield pruners in the autumn against a sea of slug-infested Hosta foliage and by cutting, end their miserable looks for the year.*

I'm not embarrasssed to say that I'm an obesessive-compulsive gardener. Some people proclaim fall their favorite season. Not me, thanks. Bushels of leaves that drop the minute you finish mowing the lawn, peonies that have succumbed to measles and powdery mildew, daylilies that continue to produce brown leaves as soon as you groom them. Wow- what's not to love about the fall garden?

There's something soothing about the aesthetics of a clean fall garden. It's a little like getting the kids tucked in and asleep before Santa arrives. Smug satisfaction, for sure. How nice not to have Calamagrostis refuse rolling like so much tumbleweed over the winter lawn. We don't want our Arborvitae splayed open. Why should ornamental grasses be different? Certainly if you desire "tidy" and cut your perennials back in the fall try to wait as long as you can. If the plants are in full color they're only getting stronger with each additional day they make and store food. In a perfect world, we'd wait for at least one hard freeze before reaching for the pruners and machete.

Consider your schedule. Isn't fall really a slower gardening time for you than spring? What happens when snow sticks around and soil stays frozen? Or, it rains and/or gets warm early and new growth starts emerging through last year's detritus. It's hard to name another gardening chore that's as tedious as pruning dead litter without damaging fresh new growth in the spring. Just my perspective.

Aphids, slugs, leaf spots, blights, pestilence in general, linger around those plants sticking out of yonder snow bank. Removing the debris in the fall, leaving stems 1-2" tall, theoretically reduces the overwintering populations of livestock and disease. Good fall garden hygiene should translate into fewer "pest" issues next year.

In the interest of balance and full disclosure, certainly there are things I leave standing. Of course, evergreen perennials (Iberis, Hellebores, many ferns, some true Geraniums and Bergenia, to name a few) must stay. Why not compromise? If you like the looks of a plant over the winter leave it. Weigh whether its winter long beauty is worth  having to cut back in the cold, driving rains of March.

While I'll admit the sight of rabbits and deer (in my garden) raises my testosterone and blood pressure, there is something to be said for the cover and potential fodder that perennials afford wildlife.  I do believe in doing whatever I can to create a healthy diet for our feathered friends- rabbits and deer, not so much. Admittedly, many perennials provide delicious life-sustaining seeds. That's a huge reason not to deadhead or cut back certain plants (Echinacea, Heliopsis, Rudbeckia, for starters).

Mother Nature always does things for a reason. Leaf and stem debris surely provide necessary insulation, probably increasing winter hardiness. Come to think of it, isn't that why we mulch? Still, if you're obsessive, maybe the compromise is not cutting back marginally hardy perennials in the fall. Leaving the foliage to keep the ground frozen may lessen the effects of the vicious freeze/thaw cycles that can wreck havoc on Midwest perennial gardens.

Another advantage in leaving perennials standing through winter is to mark the specific location of late-emerging species (Hibiscus is a perfect example, often not emerging from hibernation until June). That may prevent you from slicing through the crown with a well-intended, but misplaced, spade.

As I reread this it comes down to the old maxim, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Your call.

*My apologies to William Shakespeare and my 9th grade Humanities teacher, Mrs. Ogden.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Pumpkin Primer

Knucklehead, Orange Warty Thing, Wolf

This is not a joke or a riddle, honestly. Do you know how beets and turnips relate to our present day pumpkin carving tradition? I sure didn't. It seems the Irish used them during the festival of Samhain, meaning summer's end (October 31-November 1). Beets and turnips were the commodity vegetables of the day. They were hollowed out and then (usually) a diabolical face was carved on the front to emit light. Initially, burning lumps of coal were placed inside to create light. Later candles were substituted.

Green Warty Thing

There are a wide range of other-worldly theories on why the need existed in the first place. October 31st was believed to be very magical. The atmosphere was at its "weakest" point of the year on that night. So, the barrier between the living and dead was more easily breached, allowing people to honor the departed. Many felt this light would protect them as they walked about outside that night. Or, one's home might be protected from the spirits by setting the turnip or beet in a window by the door. See a tradition starting here?

Then there are the conflicting stories of "Stingy Jack" tricking the devil on different occasions with the same end result. As a punishment for his devious ways the devil gave Jack a burning ember to go forth into the night. It is said that Jack carved out a turnip, put the devil's coal in it and wandered the earth ever since. Jack-of-the-lantern became  "jack o'lantern".

One Too Many

When the Irish began immigrating to America they discovered pumpkins. I say "discovered" as pumpkins are natives to our side of the world. As you might well imagine, it must be a lot easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip or beet. I didn't try it, but I'm pretty sure that must be the case.

Today's beautiful orange pumpkins are fruit, not vegetables. They are closely related to squash, cucumbers and melons. If you're tempted to grow them next year find a site with lots of sun, well-drained soil and be prepared to give the vine lots of elbow room. I mean that literally or they will clamber over their garden neighbors. If you're serious about larger pumpkins, select seed varieties that have been bred for that characteristic. Still, be prepared to fertilize and water regularly. Producing big pumpkins requires both the right genetics and continuous care.
Pie Pumpkins

Pumpkins are harvested when they have full color. Jack o'lantern-sized pumpkins (5-10 lbs. or larger) can be used for carving or baking. Hybridizers have done amazing things through selection and breeding to give us today's beautiful "gourds" with colors we never saw as kids.

Happy Samhain to all!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Let's Get Off Our Ashes

Bald Cypress foliage

As Emerald Ash Borer steamrolls through our shade tree population we need to consider replacement choices. As one of my professors once said, "Nature abhors a monoculture." So, maybe our takeaway from the ash carnage should be about creating diversity and not overplanting any one species. A mixed forest, urban or otherwise, carries far less potential for total destruction from any insect or disease.

Let's not get caught with our plants down (literally) again. A few top-of-mind options to consider adding to your neighborhood canopy:

Autumn Blaze Maple (Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze') is a great choice for those who want a fast growing tree. AB is a hybrid, resulting from a planned mating of Silver and Scarlet Maples. It was selected for possessing the best qualities of both parents. While the green leaves resemble Silver Maple, the long-lasting fall color is strong orange-red. It has a central leader, but still makes a predictable oval silhouette as it matures. The bark is gray and smooth. Matures to 50' tall, 40' wide.

Autumn Blaze Maple
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a personal favorite. Particularly if you have a site that floods periodically, or even if you don't, this is a specimen to consider. Bald Cypress has a strong central leader like the mast of a historic "tall ship". The overall outline is a majestic pyramid. The soft green, fernlike foliage looks like it would be evergreen, but it amazingly turns rust-orange before dropping in the fall. It's a piece of cake to rake since the leaves are so lightweight. But don't let that fool you, Bald Cypress comes through gale force winds with no breakage.  No insect or disease pests. My experience with them is that they are rapid growers in about any soil, but with additional moisture stand back! Matures to 60' tall, 25-30' wide. There are now dwarf, weeping and columnar varieties to fit different situations.

Bald Cypress

Elm (Ulmus) Thanks to the hard work of hybridizers, especially at Morton Arboretum, there's a whole new world of disease resistant elms awaiting you. To highlight a couple, take a look at 'Triumph' with its broad oval/vase-shape. 'Triumph'  wears glossy, Dutch Elm disease-resistant dark green foliage. The fall color is yellow, and the arching habit desired by so many seems to develop as the tree matures to 50-60' tall, 45' wide. 'Emerald Sunshine' is more dwarf, topping out at 35', spreading to 25'. It's also DED-resistant, but is reported to have Elm leaf beetle resistance, too. Nice bonus!

Emerald Sunshine Elm foliage

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), like a teenager, can sometimes be lanky until it grows and fills out. What a shame so many people overlook this amazing tree because it isn't a "perfect" shape when they first see it in the nursery. The gorgeous, fan-shaped dark green leaves are completely unique in the entire plant kingdom. In fall, they acquire a knockout bright gold fall color. While the growth rate is moderate, a Ginkgo's total indifference to insects and disease is a huge asset. But beware- buy only grafted male varieties ('Autumn Gold', 'Magyar' and 'Princeton Sentry', for example) that don't gift you with the female Ginkgo's ill-smelling fruit. A Ginkgo is a real trooper under even the most adverse conditions.

Purple Fountain Beech
Don't overlook the many regal European Beech cultivars (I obviously don't with 19 of them in my garden), our sturdy, dependable native Oaks and the beautiful Lindens. As with all portfolios, it's  smart to diversify!   

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Show Me

Working in a retail garden center often provides, shall we say, unique experiences. One of the fun ones is attending the Independent Garden Center (IGC) Show at Navy Pier each August. This is a national show that draws an international audience, and features what's new, and hopefully, what our customers want for their homes and gardens. Speaking of international, it was nice of Aussie HGTV star Jamie Durie to stop me and say, "Tony, how are you, mate?" Makes me wish I had an accent.

Based solely on the numbers of booths dedicated to fairy (or to be more p.c., miniature) gardening, air plants and garden "art" one could conclude these are still strong trends. From my perspective, here are a few show favorites:

Seed Savers Exchange is dedicated to the premise that genetic diversity and keeping historic varieties from extinction is an important mission. The organization is 37 years old so it is well ahead of the curve on the "heirlooms are cool" trend. SSE offers 600 open-pollinated (non-hybrid) veggie, herb and flower varieties, which includes 300 certified organic varieties. 'Bull's Blood' beet, 'Amish Deer Tongue' lettuce, 'Lazy Housewife' beans and 'Mortgage Lifter' tomato (Can you imagine the story connected with that?) surely give you a sense of the history behind their purpose. Remember, this is just the time to think about cool season veggies. Why not wring another crop out of your unused garden space?

Seed Savers Exchange

Drift roses from Star are an alternative to the Flower Carpet ground cover roses. From the company that brought us the Knockout series, Star Roses has given us another series of dependable, disease resistant, winter hardy, virtually maintenance-free roses. Flower size is about 1 3/4" diameter, in clusters, in seven colors that include apricot, peach, pink and red. Established plants reach 2-3' wide and 18" tall due to the fact that they're the product of crossing miniatures with other ground cover tpye roses. They're so worth considering for your garden. I just planted some Peach Drifts myself.

Drift roses

Women should love, and own, the Hers shovel-spade. What a smart idea. Someone (yes, of course, a woman) recognized that mens' and womens' strength comes from different areas. Men use their torsos and arms, while ladies use their lower body. Therefore, the tools we use should accommodate those differences. They call it Her-gonomic. The angled blade is recycled steel. The nonslip D-grip allows you to use both hands for maximum strength and leverage. The step is enlarged and actually has a raised tread to maximize lower body strength. Guess what? That same smart someone realized that women are diferent heights, too. So, there are three different lengths for real gardening comfort. I keep thinking this would be the perfect gift for the proverbial woman who "has everything" and "digs" her garden.

Hers shovel

The DeWet Tool Company started in northern Holland in 1898 so they know a thing or two about garden tools. My favorite is the spork- a hybrid between a spade and fork. The winged, pointed tines slice through heavy clay and the ventilated head openings in the blade reduce the compaction that happens so easily in our clay soil. Their tulip trowel was the "Best Seller" at the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show. The: Dutch transplanter, perennial planter, rock 'n root trowel and corkscrew weeder give some sense, I think, that DeWet has a tool for just about every gardening task!

DeWet tools

Since we're talking gardening tradition let's not leave out the Brits. Burgon & Ball has some great new products. Now that I've reached (late) middle-age comfortable kneeling and sitting is high (and rising) on my list of priorities. Look into B & B's ultra-cushioned Kneelo knee pads and kneelers. Both have contoured forms and great colors so they're hard to misplace even in a tightly packed garden. Knees and fannies will love the reprieve.


So, there are cool new things to make your garden better and your garden tasks more enjoyable. Check into them!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On the Road to... Olbrich Botanical Gardens

I recently made my annual summer visit to Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisconsin. While this post may read like a promotion from the Olbrich PR department -- it isn't. I'm simply a big fan of this amazing garden overlooking Lake Monona and I think you will be too.

But that's not just my opinion. In 2004, Horticulture magazine selected it as one of the 10 most inspiring American gardens. The next year, the American Association of Botanic Gardens & Arboreta selected it as their "Best Of." Agreed. Olbrich's 14 themed gardens and the terrific Bolz Conservatory sit on 16 acres. While other gardens and arboreta have the luxury of endless real estate, Olbrich proves smaller can be spectacular. Each garden room flows naturally and seamlessly into its neighbor.

Entering the garden from the main building, I always turn right toward the lake, past the gorgeous Corneliancherry Dogwood hedge and stroll through the Atrium Shade Garden. Why don't we think to use Cornus mas this way more often? The overarching Hawthorn tree gives a sense of age to the garden and creates the shade necessary for the underlying perennials. This is one of two great places at Olbrich to check out hosta cultivars (the other being the Eunice Fisher Hosta Garden) for your garden consideration.

Boxwood, Verbena bonariensis and Hakonechloa
The Sunken Garden is Olbrich’s oldest garden. It is traditional, formal and English without being stuffy. The borders in this “room” are symmetrically arranged around the 80’ long reflecting pool and its beautiful limestone terrace. The variety of perennials and shrubs are a color kaleidoscope that undoubtedly changes weekly. Thus far, I have only seen it in July or August. Each time I visit I always find great color and texture ideas to capture and plagiarize at home.

The Rock Garden is a major change in topography and plants. The combination of hardy alpine plants and dwarf conifers is an inspiration to try in your own rock garden and/or dwarf conifer collection. It’s nice to see “rock hardy” (no pun intended, really) Zone 4 & 5 plants presented in such an unexpected elevation. The sound of the rushing water nearby is a great auditory part of the whole experience.
Rock Garden
There’s always some great new twist with each visit and that’s hard to do when you have such a finite amount of terra firma. This summer the surprise was the carnivorous plant collection that I don’t remember from last summer. So cool. Where have you seen anyone in the Midwest doing that? Small space, done beautifully- just as you might expect to see the plants in their boggy habitat. As someone who admires them, I just sat and took it in for minutes. I’m sorry this photo doesn’t do justice to the charm of that little specialty garden.
Carnivorous plant garden

Then there's the Thai Pavilion, a gift to the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Built in Thailand, disassembled and packed for a seven week journey by sea to Tacoma, then by rail to Chicago, and finally to Madison by truck. Nine Thai artisans made the trip to reassemble it. That took three weeks. Yes, that's all gold leaf. Aside from the stunning architecture and uniqueness of such a structure in the Midwest, hardy plants have been selected to create the look of an Asian garden.
Thai Pavilion and Garden

I'm going on, aren't I? I haven't even mentioned my favorite feature at Olbrich. To me, the 30' prairie-style tower overlooking the 2-acre Rose Garden alone is worth the trip. It is ramp accessible for all to enjoy and affords a panoramic view of the entire garden. What a total experience for all the senses!

One view from the Rose Garden Tower 
Congratulations to everyone at Olbrich Botanical Garden. You've created an award winner packed with new plants to learn and practical ideas to implement at home. I do look forward to experiencing Olbrich's wonders in the three seasons I have seen yet.
Mama and Baby Bear Awaiting Lunch Service


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Walk the (Garden) Walk, Talk the Talk

Once in a blue moon, the planets align and you can do a couple of really fund things in the same week. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two great garden walks. First was a tour of four distinctly different Chalet-designed landscapes. Second was a tour of four more amazing gardens held by the Garden Conservancy. What more can a plant geek ask for?

The first myth to dispel is that these walks are only for people who are totally immersed in gardens and landscaping. Not so. Who doesn't want their garden, their outdoor living space, to be as beautiful as their home's interior? Everyone that drives by sees the front of your property. Only friends and family share the inside of your home. In view of that, shouldn't we take more time to personalize our gardens so they truly reflect our personalities?

Wall of Clematis
Garden makeover television as inspiration? Please. When was the last time you came away with a new plant hardy for your Midwest garden? What about a stunning plant combination you could plagiarize? I’m still waiting for any of these “landscape” programs to show us something dazzling that is vaguely Zone 5 appropriate. Evidently only gardens in California are worthy of makeovers. 

If “local” is smart shopping, then attending local garden walks is brilliant. You view and learn plants that are hardy for your area. You’ll discover new plants while making your own observations about placement (sun/partial/shade). This is worthwhile info that can be used in your garden. In addition to specific plants you’ll see color combinations literally in the light of your geographic area. You’ll capture these on your smart phone and then translate to your space. Maybe you’ll recreate the combo exactly. Perhaps you’ll sub plants, but keep the colors and textures you liked. At any rate, your garden just got better for you and your family.  

Cascading Lantana and Agapanthus pot

Garden walks often mean great coaching from passionate people. In the case of the Chalet landscape tour, it was an opportunity to talk to the landscape architects who designed the spaces. Horticulturalists were present, questions were answered. On the Garden Conservatory's "Open Day," the homeowners were available to share plant names, why they did something the way they did, and tips for success. New things learned, ideas sown.

I find magazines more personal and relatable to my garden needs than television. Still, seeing gardens is a very personal, and hopefully, enjoyable way to spend a few hours. The fragrance of an Oriental lily, an espalier in a shape you've never imagined, a tree you didn't know (but now must have) is all part of a garden walk. You will certainly see planting combinations that aren't your style. But isn't is as valuable to learn what you don't wnat as what you do?

Viewing any garden should be inspiring, not intimidating. Don't go home and set a controlled burn because your garden isn't as grand as what you just saw. Regardless of scale or style, our gardens should be a sanctuary offering us beauty that is our own unique creation. By allowing us this connection with the natural world, gardens can nourish our souls.

A proper cottage garden


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rain sodden, down-trodden gardens

When the surface water is an inch deep for a full day in my delta “garden” I know the soil is saturated. (If you saw it, you would understand why garden is in quotes).  While my dwarf River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Fox Valley’) loves periodic flooding, few plants do. Landscape plants recovering from 2012’s  historic heat and drought  needed rain- no doubt. But the extreme flipflop to saturated soils is equally dangerous.

What are the immediate symptoms of too much water? 
Surprisingly, plants may wilt even though the mulch or soil surface is wet. Roots need oxygen to transport  water so they wilt in saturated soils.
Nitrogen (responsible for leaf color, vigorous growth) is highly mobile in soil and may be leached by heavy rain. Nitrogen deficient leaves will be pale throughout, including veins. New leaves of water-stressed plants  may be smaller than normal. Older leaves will show yellow first. It’s possible that even lawns may start looking lighter-than-normal green.   
Water-induced nutrient deficiency 

Unusual colors that might  otherwise be interesting may start showing at the edges or throughout the leaves between the veins. Yews, a landscape staple, are poster plants for wet soil damage. Their needles turn rusty-orange – all the way to the branch tips. Also, keep your eyes peeled for black, purple or discolored bands (cankered) stems on deciduous trees and shrubs.

Is there a difference between wet and flooded?
Absolutely. Areas that often have standing surface water for a day or more require  flood tolerant plants (or a great landscape firm to change the drainage!). For example, trees such as Bald Cypress, Swamp White Oak and River Birch (have you seen the cool dwarf cultivars like ‘Fox Valley’?) are perfectly happy with periodic flooding. While it seems logical please understand plants are not Wet-Dry vacs that will pump an area dry. Select flood-tolerant plants for these sites. 
'Fox Valley' River Birch
What about containers?  
Plants in containers with holes in the bottom drain better than plants in the ground. Most potting mixes are “soilless”, being coarse peat or bark-based, to promote drainage. The downside is minimal nutrient value. So, be sure to fertilize throughout the season (more frequently in sun, less for plants in shade) in years with heavy rain. Be sure that containers with saucers (attached or otherwise) are emptied religiously. After 30 minutes the soil will have absorbed all the moisture it can hold. After that, roots die.                                        

What about insects and disease?
Pestilence is most certainly in our immediate garden future. The jury is out on how this moisture will affect Japanese beetles. Slugs should be rampant. Protect hostas, annuals and other perennials whose foliage  rests on the ground. Earth-friendly baits, like Sluggo, contain iron phosphate and are safe even around edibles. Slugs eat the bait, get a tummy ache and crawl away to die in a few days. It’s alright. Chances are, you’ll never run across the proverbial slug graveyard.
Fungal diseases will abound. The usual suspects, black spot on roses, tomato blights, powdery mildew and a jillion leaf spots are a sure bet as we move into heat and humidity. Remember, fungicides must be applied ahead of the infection. They will not reverse symptoms that are already present.

Can I forego watering new plants?
Sure can’t. Rainfall is not cumulative. Do regular checks of newly installed trees and shrubs even after measurable rainfall. Water appropriately. Don't forget to overrride your irrigation system on days it's raining heavily and for a few days after substantial rainfall. Your plants will thank you!!!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I know I'm not rocking anyone's horticulture world by recounting the universally documented virtues of mulching, Still, it might bear repeating:

* You absolutely will have fewer weeds
* Watch your water bill drop because your plants and soil are losing less precious water
* Less soil compaction  from driving rains and perhaps foot traffic (from two and four-legged family members)
* Insulating soils from extremes in temperature fluctuation. That works both ways to benefit plants. Soil temperatures drop more slowly in the fall under mulched soils. Roots continue to develop while soil temperatures are above 40 degrees F. Durng the heat of summer plant roots benefit from cooler soil temperatures, too
* Mulches provide organic matter that improves soil structure. Mulch also increases microbial activity that converts organic matter into nutrients
* Research indicates pine fines or pine bark mulch actually have innate fungal-inhibiting properties that make them a smart choice to use for rhododendrons and azaleas

May I just get this one pet peeve off my chest? Why do some landscapers insist on building beaver dams of mulch? You've seen what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, it's an all too frequent occurrence. The mulch is mounded around the trunk at least a foot deep. Guys (women would never do this), root systems need oxygen- just like your lungs. Beaver dam mulching not only reduces oxygen to roots, it keeps bark tissue wet. Wet bark is subject to all kinds of issues. When bark tissue isn't healthy, that's stress. Plant stress often leads to insect and disease problems. Enough said?


We know it isn't difficult to mulch properly. Leave a two to four inch diameter opening of naked soil from the trunks of trees, or the outer edge of multi-stemmed shrubs. Spread mulch there, away from stems. In dense clay soils a one to two inch depth is fine. For sandy soils applying a three to four inch layer of mulch is appropriate. Extend the mulch as far as feasible within the context of your garden beds or lawn.

I heard a presentation a few years ago that I thought was interesting. Yes, you would probably be surprised at what I find interesting. Whenever possible, try to replicate what the plant would receive at its feet in nature. So, for trees and shrubs, consider using wood-barked based products that are broken down by fungi. For soft-stemmed annuals, perennials and veggies use "green" mulches that are dominated by bacteria- compost, leaf mulch, cotton burr compost, for example.


Don't get hung up on trying to match different mulches throughout your landscape. The most important thing is to mulch, rather than NOT.  Don't forget one last benefit of mulch- appearance, appearance, appearance. In addition to all the documented physical benefits mulch acts as a unifying element. It ties your plants together visually in a way that is very pleasing.

You don't know how lucky you are I didn't get started on white marble chip "mulch".  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Speed Date Confessions

Before I begin blogging I must take a minute to thank and tip my hat to my predecessor, Karen Geisler, who has put her horticultural heart and soul into The Hortiholic from Day One. Job well done, Karen. Thank you for setting the bar so high.

Somehow, this first blog feels like a speed date. You’ve seen those structured date-athons where women get a seat at a small table, usually in a restaurant, with one empty seat on the opposite side. The starter calls time and the men take a seat. Everyone has three minutes to share their assets before time is called and the men move to the next seat and the next potential match. Ah, romance.

So, here goes. I’m an only child who started gardening when my family moved to Champaign, Ill. One summer day I was bored, and decided to talk to the neighbor lady as I saw her head out to her flower garden, shovel in hand. She promptly told 9-year-old me that I wasn’t going to sit and talk while she was working, so I’d darned well better pick up a hoe and get on those weeds. I didn’t know then how that 30-second conversation would change the course of my life, but did it ever. Maybe the Universe does send us what we need?

Within two weeks, I convinced Dad that sod wasn’t a virtue and commandeered a 7 by 12 foot parcel of lawn. By 16, I was working at a garden center every weekend and summers. During my second semester of freshman year at the University of Illinois, I came to my senses and transferred out of Pre-Vet. That’s when my future came into focus. I graduated seven semesters later with a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture. With the exception of a six month stint at Ball Seed Company as azalea buyer, my last 47 years have been spent learning from my garden center customers, first in central Illinois and now at Chalet, in the Chicago North Shore suburb of Wilmette,Ill.

 I’m fortunate to have six-tenths of an acre that has been mine for 24 years. When you collect “woodies”, you can only plant so much before you have to either remove and replant the newest, rarest cultivar, or live with what you have. My passion is anything beech, especially the cultivars of European Beech (Fagus sylvatica). I have 19 as of this minute. Perennials on the other hand are like jello -- there’s always room for more. Since I’d rather be in the garden than in the kitchen, I’ll readily admit to more interest and expertise in ornamentals than edibles.

What do you mean, the time’s up? I haven’t even shared my astrological sign yet.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Illinois Orchid Society Show

White and pink striped orchid
Phalaenopsis Taida King's Caroline

It's said there are more species of orchid than any other plant on Earth, with the possible exception of asters.

After attending "Spring Into Orchids," the Illinois Orchid Society show at the Chicago Botanic Garden this past weekend, I'd have to agree.

There were all colors, shapes and sizes -- everything from the more traditional Phalaenopsis and Cattleya orchids to lady slippers and pansy varieties. There was even one with a fuzzy white flower unlike anything I'd ever seen before -- a Rhyncolaelia.

I dearly love orchids, the way they provide a burst of color in late winter/early spring, just before the tulips and daffodils start coming into their own. Unfortunately, orchids don't seem to do well in my house. It may have something to do with my light exposure or getting the temperatures low enough to set the buds. I'm not sure.

So I usually go to this sale every year and buy an orchid, assuming it will be a sort of long-lasting cut flower. Who knows? One of these days I may actually get one to survive and even rebloom.  I'll definitely keep trying!

As you can probably tell from the photos below, I also love to take pictures of orchids so I can remember their beauty throughout the year. I hope you enjoy them.

Yellow orchids with rose centers
Doritaenopsis Sin-Yaun Golden Beauty

White star orchid wth rose center
Laelia purpurata

Purple orchid with lace texture
Vanda Sansai Blue 'Acker's Price'

Pink orchid with pansy face
A pansy orchid, Miltoniopsis Pearl Ono
Pink orchid
Phagmipedium Suzanna Decker

White orchids with pink splatters
Phalaenopsis Winter Carnival Carousel

Pink orchid against paper screen
Cattleya Blc Triumphal Coronation 'Seven Star'

Orange-yellow orchid
Phalaenopsis Baldan's Kaleidescope 'Golden Treasure'

White orchid with pink edges
Iwanagara Appleblossom

Bronze striped lady slipper orchid
Paphiopedilum kolopakingii

White orchid with fuzzy center
The strangest orchid at the show, Rhyncolaelia

By Karen Geisler