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!                

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bulb Persuasion

By definition, "forcing" something like a delicate little 'Tete-a-Tete' daffodil to bloom out of season sounds mean and heavy-handed. So, rather than "forcing" spring bulbs to bloom in pots indoors ahead of season, let me be kinder, gentler and call it bulb "persuasion". It's actually very easy and rewarding if you know the right procedure.

Bulb varieties that respond well to persuasion

Daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinths and the minor bulbs require a prolonged and uninterrupted chilling period of 38-45 degrees F. (called vernalization) for 10-12 weeks to trigger flowering. If you want to successfully capture that same stunning garden effect indoors you need to duplicate this chilling process. If you don't, you'll just have grassy leaves with little or no flower display to show for your efforts.

You should know there's a wealth of ways to achieve a gorgeous result. Some standard methods to persuade bulbs to flower indoors are:  
  1. Pot the bulbs, sink the pot in the ground (to keep from freezing), cover with coarse mulch and pull out late winter to bring in and enjoy. Downside: Pots may be frozen in ground and inaccessible when you want them. Pots may be dirty and hard to clean.
  2. Pot bulbs, put out in your cold frame. Downside: Seriously, how many of your neighbors have a cold frame or are going to build one for four or five pots of bulbs?
  3. Pot, put in the refrigerator. Downside: Pots full of bulbs are space-consuming in the fridge, especially for the 10-12 week minimum needed for chilling. For those folks with a spare Frigidaire loafing in the garage this is a very workable solution.
  4. Pot, put the watered bulb pots down in a window well and mulch lightly, with straw, for example. Upside: I've learned that window wells are a largely untapped garden resource, but you have to have access to them. Whether it's winter storage of evergreen bonsai or the aforementioned bulbs, wells are really useful. You're putting things below the frost line, temperature extremes are buffered, too, by the ambient heat from the house and they get natural precipitation (unless plastic dome-covered). Win-win, love it.
Who doesn't love having bulbs (especially hyacinths) in flower in February and March while the garden is still under siege? I readily admit to trying a number of different bulb persuasion techniques over the years and I have a favorite. It's my favorite because it gives consistent uniformity of flowers and no rotten bulbs. I call it the bag-in-the-fridge method.

Dated bags of bulbs ready for 10-12-week chill in fridge

Put the bulbs for persuading in paper, ventilated plastic or mesh bags so there is adequate air circulation around them. Remove ethylene gas-producing fresh fruit and vegetables from the fridge before putting the bags in the crisper. Ethylene adversely affects flower buds in the bulbs and can cause them to abort. If you're like me it's best to put a date on the bulbs so you know exactly when the chilling started. 8-10 weeks is the minimum, 10-12 is better. So, if you're looking forward to winter blooms get them chillin' as early as possible.

Prechilled hyacinth potted up and ready to please

With the bags-in-the-fridge method pull them out at the end of their chilling period and pot them. A standard houseplant potting mix is fine. Whether you use clay or plastic the pots must have drainage holes. Don't do less that six (more is better) daffodils or tulips per pot. Single, double early and Triumph are the best tulip classes for persuading. Because of their large bulb size the very tip of tulips and daffodils should be above the soil line. With their incredible fragrance 3-5 hyacinths per pot makes a wonderful show.

Water thoroughly and place in a cool (60-65 degree F. would be great), dark place in your home while the plants commence rooting. That will generally take several weeks. When green leaf tips start showing in the pot you can move them to more light and warmth. Strong light, if not direct sun, and cooler rooms will give you strong, stocky plants. When the buds start showing color move away from sun and heat to prolong flowering.

Persuading bulbs this winter? It's in the bag...

Friday, October 23, 2015


If you grow dahlias October's first frost presents a dilemma. Do you want to try and save the tuberous roots or does that seem like too much trouble? For those in the latter camp take heart. Gorgeous dahlias are inexpensive and a great value for the months of flowers they provide. So, don't feel guilty about tossing and buying new in spring from your favorite garden center or through dahlia specialists.

Try rolling your dahlia tubers in plastic this year!
For those that want to store dahlias it can be a challenging process. There are as many ways to store them as there are people growing them. So, I'm going on record that what I'm sharing is how I'm going to do mine this year. The digging and prep are going to be the same as in the past, but the plastic wrap storage method will be new for me.

The morning after a killing frost  (a freeze is more dangerous, making harvest a more urgent task) I like to get out and cut the blackening foliage back leaving only a 5-6" stem above the ground. This gives you a "handle" to use. Assuming daytime temperatures moderate after frost leave the plants in the ground for a week to "cure" before digging. This will put them in a state where eyes (next year's buds on the neck of the tubers) start swelling and (I'm told) the tubers will store better.

Keep big honkin' tuber mass intact when digging up
When you're ready to harvest dig with a spade or a fork starting at least 6-8" away from the stem. The single tuber you planted this spring will now be a big honkin' mass of tubers that you don't want to slice through. Dig all the way around, loosening the soil and lifting the plant gently. Don't pull it out by the stem!

Once you've lifted the root system from the ground many growers recommend gently washing soil off. Truthfully, I'm not crazy about the idea of wetting tubers, so I don't. I try to physically remove as much soil as possible with my hands (yep, it's tedious, but I don't have hundreds to do) without snapping off tubers. Then I turn them upside down on plastic in the garage (out of sun and wind) for a day to let the hollow stems drain. This also allows the tuber surfaces to dry and any remaining soil to be removed before storing. By the way, I personally omit a fungicide treatment, but you may want to do that before storage.

The "How do I physically store them?" part is where the process can go south in a hurry. The problem is keeping tubers from becoming too: wet, dry, hot or cold during the five or more months of winter storage indoors. As Charlie Brown used to say, "Arrrr-ggg-hhhhh." So, Tony is going to use the "plastic wrap method" of dahlia storage that I read about years ago, but never tried.

Separate tubers with "eyes", or buds, for next year

Lay down plastic, roll each tuber once, then add another

How is this going to work (fingers crossed)? Hopefully, I'm going to be able to see the little baby eyes swelling already this fall. I'll cut eye-bearing tubers from the clump. Remember, each tuber has to have an eye to grow next year. I'm going to get a long stretch of plastic wrap and lay it out flat. The first tuber is rolled until it is covered with one thickness of wrap. I'll place a second one in the fold of the first (not touching each other) and roll it over once, too. Then a third and maybe a fourth will be added all in the same stretch of wrap. I'll fold over the ends, secure with tape and write the variety name on the outside. Each variety will be a separate wrap group.

These will be placed in a box and I'll try to find a dark spot where the temps will stay between 40-50 F. Dahlias in storage don't want warmer or colder than that. I like the idea of the plastic wrap treatment since it:

* Takes less storage space
* Eliminates storage media (peat, sand, wood shavings, vermiculite) and whether it's too wet or dry
* You can see at a glance if any of the tubers are problematic in storage and need to be removed

So, dahlia enthusiasts, are you pitching or storing this fall?


Thursday, October 8, 2015

It's Time to Plant Bulbs (Part II)

In the previous post I shared a bit of what's going on in spring flowering bulbs. This time I'd like to share more of the fun aspects of spring bulbs. Here are some bulb tips, tricks and factoids.

Shall we just own up? Honestly, don't you have at least one neighbor who is always doling out horticultural advice? Regardless of the fact that it's free and often unsolicited (let's not even start on accuracy) I'm not above suggesting a few ways to "one-up" the back fence garden guru.

* Consider a monochromatic color scheme, say white tulips. Measure the bed space and calculate how many tulips you're going to need. At 6" apart you'll need 4 bulbs per square foot. At 4" apart you'll need 9 bulbs per square foot (a knockout display, for sure).

ABC's of a longer bulb display

Let's say you have 10 square feet and you're going to do 6" spacing. That means you'll need forty-ish bulbs. Think about dividing into thirds. Get thirteen each of a white: early, midseason and late variety. Plant them in an ABC/ABC/ABC pattern. Guess what? That 10 square feet will be in bloom three times longer than if you had planted forty of one variety. The neighbors will be agog that your tulips are lasting so much longer than theirs.

* Here's a variation on that. Same bed- buy forty of the same variety. Plant 1/2 pointed up as conventional practice dictates. Place the remaining 1/2 on their side. Mother Nature is seldom fooled and "gravitropism" will kick in. The bulbs on their side will upright themselves, but be a week or so behind their correctly oriented counterpoints, essentially doubling the bloom time for the same space.

* Or you can do bulb "tiers" or "bouquets" as a colleague of mine calls them. Dig a hole 8" deep and a diameter of your choosing. Place something like large-cupped daffodils in the bottom. Cover with 2" of soil and then put tulips or hyacinths over that. Then you can add a third tier with crocus or the other minor bulbs 3" or so below the surface. You've just added multiple flowers to the same footprint and extended the bloom period.

Critters don't like these!
* If you have deer or rabbit issues there are a few bulbs that are naturally varmint resistant and will not be bothered by roaming livestock. Daffodils, fritillaria, scillas and hyacinthoides (not to be confused with hyacinths) are all distasteful to four-legged marauders.

The early spring blue "carpet"
* Have you ever noticed a spring lawn that seems to be "blooming blue" and wondered "What's that?" That's a very commonly asked spring question at our garden center and the answer is, "Scilla siberica, Siberian squill." Beautiful and multiplies like bunny rabbits.

* Know that a  new bulb planting may flower up to two weeks later than an established bed of the same variety, in exactly the same location. 

* A bulb planting, new or established, may bloom 7-10 days earlier on a south or west exposure than an east-facing site.

These tulips will last
* Daffodils are the peonies of the spring bulb garden. That is, they get better and fuller for many years after planting. Most (underline most) tulips are not as accommodating in that respect. If you want the longest years of garden service from tulips (called perennializing) consider the fosteriana, greigii, and Darwin Hybrid classes.

* Largest bulbs = largest flowers. True. Hyacinths are one case where bigger is not necessarily better. Topsize hyacinths will produce topsize flowers that will be so heavy they'll tend to list and topple, especially under heavy spring rains. Save the big hyacinth bulbs for indoor forcing, go down a size for garden beds.

* On the subject of hyacinths, people often react with a rash after handling the bulbs with bare hands. They have silica in the outer husk that can be very irritating. Simply wear gloves and avoid direct contact with your skin.

Give pink dafs a little shade
* Daffodils with any "pink" (term used loosely) flower parts should be situated in partial shade to prevent fading.

* Mice love crocus corms (bulbs). Birds, especially sparrows, may be attracted and peck at open crocus flowers, especially yellow. Please, don't even ask how I know that. Consider repellents for both.

Don't let your garden be the one on the block missing the soul of spring- the beautiful colors of Dutch bulbs!  

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Nu is het de tijd om de bloembollen te planten (Dutch for...

It's time to plant bulbs! As a Dutch bulbsman (don't look in Webster's, not there) said to me recently, "It's a long winter in Chicago. I know spring is coming when the first bulbs start peeking through in the garden. That's much more exciting to me than the darned groundhog seeing his shadow." Those Dutchmen know how to turn a phrase, don't you agree?

What's new in bulbs? Let's face it. Even if you're a garden curmudgeon it's hard to deny that bulbs are fun and beautiful. A spring garden without bulbs is a garden missing its heart. A new product, Easy Bloom Pad®, makes an incredible bulb garden a snap whether you're new to bulbs (and intimidated), or a seasoned gardener whose knees now demand squatting clemency.
Create a bulb bouquet the easy way!

Easy Bloom Pad® - You can choose straight colors or mixed combos. The bulbs are encased in biodegradable materials that are about the size of a salad plate. Dig the hole 6" deep, loosen the soil, drop the entire pad flat in the bottom of the hole, cover with the soil you removed, water and you've planted a bulb bouquet! Instructions tell you which side is "down". You don't even have to kneel! I think this is one of the most innovative things to come down the proverbial garden path in a long, long time.

"Collections" - Whether it's appropriately color coordinated mixes of tulips, themed daffodils (example: only pink-flowered varieties), mixes of different species (say, daffodils and grape hyacinths), the guesswork has been eliminated for those that believe they're color wheel-challenged. It's now so-o-o-o easy to have a beautiful spring garden.

Bulb collections take the guesswork out

Bouquet or multi-flowered tulips - Not new, but often overlooked. That's right, multiple, full-sized flowers PER each bulb! These varieties ('Toronto', 'Quebec', 'Night Club', to name a few) have been around for a while. Who doesn't want more flowers in the same space for the same effort and investment? Grow them once, you'll add more every year.

'Toronto' gives you more blooms per bulb

Tips for those new(er) to the world of bulbs:
  • Buy early (September) to make sure you get the varieties you want. Store them in a cool, dry place until the soil temperatures cool appropriately for planting.
  • Soil temperatures should be below 60° F., preferably 55 degrees or so. Cooler is better. For those whose life is soil thermometer-less first frost is a good indicator of time to plant.
  • Don't overlook using a complete fertilizer (one that contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potash). For new plantings, don't put the fertilizer in the bottom of the hole and set the bulbs on top of it. Instead, place bulbs, cover with 1" or more of soil, then add fertilizer, OR fill the hole completely and then place fertilizer on top of the soil.
Bulbs like to eat, too

  • Always do an initial deep watering to settle the soil and trigger the start of rooting. If fall is dry, water periodically until the ground freezes.
  • Squirrels, in particular, are drawn to the smell of freshly disturbed soil. Bulbs can become a casualty of their curiosity. If your garden is a squirrel way station there are a number of great repellents to discourage such maddening hi-jinks. These repellents are usually available both as liquids to spray on bulbs and soil, or as granules to place in the planting holes and/or on top when finished.
  • Spring flowering bulbs like well-drained soil. Never plant them in areas where there is standing water (any time of year) or even squishy under foot. Don't water, water, water in summer when they're resting. You won't be happy with the results.
  • As hardy as bulbs are it's great general practice to mulch the beds heavily. Apply 3-4" of coarse organic matter (leaf mulch, compost) to the frozen soil surface. This will keep the soil cool longer in the spring. This results in later, more uniform, and often larger bloom!
Meer Komende opvolging  ("More information is coming" in the next post...) 


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Prime Time for Peonies

A frequently asked spring garden center question is: Can I plant / transplant /divide peonies now? The answer is yes / no / no. You're owed an explanation.

Good ol' die-to-the-ground, pop-up-next-spring-bigger-and-better peonies are popular for a lot of reasons. Good foliage. Beautiful flowers with a wide range of colors, forms and fragrance. Great as cut flowers. Rock hardy. Low maintenance. Many even show lovely fall color.

Aside from generous sun and well-drained soil the only thing peonies ask is to be left undisturbed. A Hosta can be moved around like a sofa, and at practically any time of year as long as a few precautions are taken. Peonies, on the other hand, are homebodies and like to settle in one place for years, even decades.      

So, what's the difference between planting, transplanting and dividing a peony? You can plant a potted peony any time you can work the soil - April through November. Why? Because you're not disturbing the root system. You're just giving the roots more elbow room to grown when you remove it from the pot.
:) peony!

Transplanting and dividing are more stressful :( and time-sensitive. Transplanting is moving an established peony plant (say, 2 or more years in the ground). Peonies don't mind that if it is done at the proper time, which is mid-August through early November. Even so, moving at that right time is still an adjustment. The plant will take a minimum of a year to get its roots back and start performing normally.

Peony ready for "washing"
Dividing a peony is best done in the upper Midwest the same time that you would do a transplant, mid-August through early November. By mid-August next year's buds (called "eyes") are well developed at the base of this year's stems. The eyes are usually maroon, pink, cream or some combination. Each eye will become a new stem next year.

Peony root with red "eyes" showing
In the fall you can cut off current year's stems to work around the plant, and see the roots and eyes better. When digging up to transplant or divide make sure you use a sharp spade. A well-established peony (15 or more stems) can have a root system like a large shrub. Dig deeply and life the entire root system intact. I like to place them on a paved surface and turn the hose on the (car wash nozzle stream). The point is to wash the soil away to check for number and health of eyes and roots.

Cleaned root, ready for dividing
At this point cut any damaged, soft or obviously diseased portions off. If you're transplanting think twice about putting a big multi-stemmed (again 15 or more stems) plant back in the ground intact. There's something less vigorous about a mature, woody plant and how quickly it will rebound. Consider dividing it down to 7-10 eyes. In my experience this is best accomplished with a big, sharp kitchen knife. Look for natural separations where you can cut through creating multiple plants with strong roots.

Another word of caution - Don't go to extremes and cut down to 1-3 eye divisions. Those would take several years to get the stem count up so you have a blooming plant. A nursery standard is called a 3-5 eye division. That will give you a nice sized, vigorous plant that MAY produce a bloom or two the spring after transplanting.

Peony divisions ready for planting
A you prepare the hole be sure to thoroughly mix 1 part organic matter (well-aged compost or dehydrated manure, NEVER fresh) to 3 parts soil taken from the planting hole. The only other caution is to make sure you don't plant too deeply. If the uppermost eyes are placed or settle more than 2" below the finished soil grade you'll never have flowers. Leaves yes, but probably no flowers.

As you now know, the answer to the question of fall peony is:  planting, transplanting and dividing = yes. Enjoy for a lifetime.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Inteview with a Veggie Veteran

Scott T., Veggie Guru
As August winds down it may be tempting to think the only thing left to do in the veggie garden is harvest. Don't overlook planting "cool season" crops, says my favorite vegetable collaborator, Scott Thalmann.

Scott is a retired policeman, working at Chalet, 2 suburbs north of Chicago. Scott's recommendations are based on 43 years of experience. His main garden is 28 x 28', with a 6 x 8' plot just outside his back door for easy harvest of salad greens. His vegetable garden was featured in Chicagoland Gardening magazine in 2006. He's been helping aspiring veggie growers at Chalet for the past 14 years. He's responsible for choosing Chalet's vegetable seed selection.

Tony:  It's the end of August, what are you personally harvesting now?
Scott:  Tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini, peppers and chard.

T:  What fall cool season crops do you grow?
S:  We're at September, so with our first frost date bouncing back and forth I tend to play it safe and know I'll be guaranteed a return on lettuce and radishes.

Cool crops
T:  What do you do to prepare for your cool season crops?
S:  I've been adding compost to my garden for so long that I've really changed the structure of my soil. It's    very loamy and rich. So, I have the luxury of just adding a bit of compost to the areas I'm planting.

T:  If someone just started a new veggie plot this spring and are adding compost or dehydrated manure, what  fertilizer would you recommend?
S:  I like Dr. Earth's Tomato, Vegetable & Herb or Espoma's Tomato-Tone.

T:  What fall cool season crops would be easiest for the first time veggie grower?
S:  Spinach, leaf lettuce (not heading varieties) and radishes.

Buttercrunch lettuce and cabbage
T:  For your garden, what is the drop dead date after which you say let's forget seeding _________ for the  year?
S:  End of July: Carrots (must have uniform moisture, especially in heat), broccoli, cauliflower, "early  varieties  of cabbage (if you can keep if going through summer heat).
     Mid-August: Lettuce, spinach, chard, beets, kale
     Mid- September: Radishes, beets (for greens)

Botanical Interests seeds
T:  Brussel sprouts?
S:  They really need all season, even if from transplants.

T: You've been instrumental in bringing different types of garlic to Chalet. I'm not sure new vegetable growers would know that fall is the time to plant.
S:  As you know, I love cooking with garlic. I really like the "hardneck" types.

T:  As someone who goes to any length to avoid turning on a stove (me), what are the basics of garlic  growing?       
S: Typically they're available for sale around September 10. They're very easy to grow. Soil temperature  should be below 60 degrees F. before planting. Incorporate lots of compost so the soil is loose. The day of  planting break the cloves apart and plant individual buds 2-3" deep and 4-6" apart. Water well at the time of  planting. If it's a dry fall water as needed until the ground freezes. As the ground freezes cover with a 12"  depth of leaves or straw.  

T:  Next spring after removing the mulch?
S:  About the time a third of the leaves have yellowed it's time to harvest the cloves (usually mid-June until  the end of July in Chicago). I also cut the flower spikes off as soon as they show (but buds still tight) about  6" down and saute them. Delicious!

T:  Favorite varieties?
S:  'Music' is noted for its large cloves, longevity in storage and cold weather tolerance. I'm also fond of  'Peskem River', which is a great hardneck, too.

T:  If you were coaching someone new to fall veggie gardening, what tips would you offer?
S:  *  Don't be afraid to try things- A packet of seed is not a big investment.
     *  Timing. Keep records from one year to the next and adjust planting dates based on your experience.
     *  I have two red lettuces that I think are well worth trying: 'Marvel of 4 Seasons' and 'Bronze Arrowhead'.  

T: Scott, thanks for sharing your vegetable gardening experience!

Friday, August 7, 2015

The "Key" to Seeding a Better Lawn

Spring has sprung, but fall hasn't fallen as far as lawn renovation goes. People are often surprised to learn that mid-August through mid-September is the very best time of year in northern Illinois to seed for a better lawn.

Why is it the best time? Because our dominant lawn grasses, Kentucky Blue (for sun) and fescues (for partial shade) are cool season grasses. They flourish in the cooler conditions of spring and fall. They slow growth or go dormant in extreme heat and/or summer drought unless we irrigate. Fall also means dramatically less weed competition for newly seeded lawns than spring.

How to seed? The Key

A. Assess the lawn, lawn seems "thin"

Does the lawn have less than 50% desirable grass? Is it overrun with aggressive perennial weeds (tall fescue, creeping Charlie, etc.)? Consider a complete kill, then rototilling or slit-seeding* and starting from scratch.

To buy seed, determine:
1. Total number of hours of full sun and shade the site gets.
2. If there is shade, is it dappled with sun coming through trees, or is it sunlight-free?
3. Approximate number of square feet of area to be seeded.
4. Whether you need sun, part shade, shade and a dense shade mix. All are available.

* Slit-seeding involves the use of a heavy walk-behind machine that slices through soil or lawn, dropping seed directly into furrows in the soil. It's awesome as far as I'm concerned, whether you're seeding bare soil or into the thatch of a problem lawn. The best parts of my lawn are where I did a total kill, then slit-seeded with a high quality seed. Seed is an inexpensive part of the solution, so buy the best.

Grass seedlings emerging from slit-seeding

B. Seeding bare soil 
Buy 1# of seed per 250-300 sq. ft. of area.
1. Best results come by cultivating and loosening the soil to a depth of 3-6".
2. Rake level, doesn't have to be "potting soil-perfect". Large clods should be broken up.
3. Depending upon the size of the area best seeding results will be achieved with a spreader. Use the spreader setting specified for the brand and spreader type you have. Settings aren't interchangeable from one company's spreader to another!
Common mistake - Don't be tempted to apply seed too heavily. It shouldn't be clumped. You should be able to see a small amount of soil between seeds.

Proper distribution of seeds

4. After spreading the seed, lightly raking or gently tamping the soil surface is a good idea to make sure the seed is in good contact with the soil. Don't bury it. If you want, you can add a thin, thin layer of topsoil or compost, NOT peat moss.
Important - Use a starter fertilizer containing the phosphorous seed needs to develop strong roots. Phosphorous is the middle number in the analysis 24-25-4 or 3-6-3. And nope, it doesn't matter whether you put it down before or after seeding that same day.

Watering now becomes the most important thing you can do to ensure a successful seeding.
1. Gently dampen the soil surface regularly.
2. When the soil surface lightens in color you should water.
3. On a hot day with drying surface winds you might have to dampen morning and evening.
4. Don't flood- dampen means water isn't standing and seed isn't floating.

Depending upon seed type, weather and moisture conditions it will take 7-21 days to germinate and show green "fuzz". That's when you must keep up the dampening until the root system is established. Consider mowing when the grass reaches 3" or so.

C. Overseeding (seeding into existing grass to thicken it up) is done at half the rate of bare areas. If the lawn has 50% or more desirable lawn grasses you have choices.
1. Lawn is not compacted, has less than 1/2" of thatch (the spongy layer of undecomposed stems) at the soil surface. Then rake lightly, use a starter fertilizer and follow watering instructions.
2. Lawn is compacted, has more than 1/2" of thatch, is generally thin. This is where you need to consider core-aeration. A core aerator is a neat (and heavy) machine that has empty tines that pull plugs of soil as it is pushed over the lawn. The soil plugs drop onto the surface of the soil, leaving shallow holes in the soil. This allows air, water, nutrients and seed to get right into the root zone. In my humble opinion, well worth doing ... professionally. After core aeration use a starter fertilizer and follow watering instructions.

Core aeration plugs

A better lawn is just a few key steps away!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Plant Buzz Words

I recently attended a great horticultural conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was fascinated with some dry erase boards that had been put up for passers-by to graffiti their response to several questions. To be sure, the attendees were all plant geeks enthusiasts. Anyway, the responses were totally positive and some almost spiritual. "Plants make me feel: complete/at peace/connected to God" and "Plants are important because: they transform me." Pretty moving stuff, wouldn't you agree?

I started thinking about how some people new to gardening might fill in those blanks. I know people that would say "intimidated", "scared that I'll kill them", "nervous", etc. I wondered, too, what would cause that reaction in something so crucial to our survival and the quality of our lives. I realize part of it may be the terms that plant people use, making the assumption that everyone knows what they mean. Shame on us! Let's rectify that assumption and demystify some key garden terms.

Annual - n. A plant that grows, flowers and completes its life cycle in one year. Or more simply, it needs to be planted every spring. Examples: Marigold, petunia, begonia.

Perennial - n. Can be grown from seed or division of another plant. Can have a "regular" root system, or can originate from a bulb, and is often confused with annuals. Plant a perennial and it lives for multiple years. Examples: Peony, Iris, daisy, Hosta, ferns.

Biennial - n. As you might suspect, falls sort of in between annual and perennial. Good to know, but there aren't a lot of them. Grows from seed and makes a mound of leaves one year, flowers, produces seed and fulfills its destiny the second year. Then, it's gone. Examples: Some foxgloves, hollyhocks.

Deadheading -  v. The removal of spent flowers and part of the stem. If the flowers are allowed to stay on long enough the plants will set seed. Once that happens new flower production slows or stops. Deadheading encourages rebloom of annuals and those perennials that have rebloom potential. You also enhance the aesthetics of your garden when plants aren't cloaked in discolored, water-soaked, petal-dropping flowers.

Cosmos before and after deadheading
Deadleafing - v. The removal of unattractive, diseased or dying leaves. You could deadleaf a rose with black spot-infested leaves or a daylily that was losing leaves after summer bloom is finished. Again, serves a hygiene function as well as an aesthetic one!

Disbudding - v. Is different than deadheading. It's an optional practice that increases flower size. For example, dahlias, tuberous begonias and peonies have a large center bud flanked by smaller secondary flowers on either side. Careful removal of the secondary buds (as soon as you can handle them) directs energy to the remaining central flower, making it larger. Want more color? Leave all flowers on and don't disbud. Want larger, but fewer, individual flowers? Disbud.

Dahlia not disbudded, left. Disbudded, right

Tuberous begonia not disbudded, left. Disbudded, right

Amendment - n. Any material (preferably organic) that is incorporated into soil to improve structure and enhance microbial activity. Examples: Compost, dehydrated manure, leaf mulch, cotton burr compost.
Mulch -  n. Any material (preferably organic) that is applied to the soil surface to: reduce weeds, watering and compaction, buffer soil temperatures, improve soil structure (as it breaks down) and frankly, look good. Examples: leaf mulch, shredded: hardwood, cedar or pine bark, compost. You're right, the answer is yes, some materials can be used for both amending and mulching.

Feeling less intimidated? Good, because plants and planting make you feel ______________________ . What would your write-in be?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Plant Life-Saving 101

Soggy soil and rotting roots

It's an understatement to say that spring rainfall has been more than adequate. This year even the River birches and willows are looking longingly toward higher, drier soil. While you can't stop Mother Nature there are actions to take to save plants after the recent downpours:

1) It seems obvious, but do override the in-ground sprinkler system. When air spaces in soil are full of water rather than oxygen, roots become stressed, roots may die. Even lawns, with their comparatively shallow root systems, have had enough for the time being. Save the water, save the money, save the plants.

2) Consider pulling mulch away from root systems to encourage surface drying. This might be a particularly keen idea for any soft-stemmed annuals, perennials or veggies. It may prevent rotting at the soil line. Pots of succulents should probably be brought under cover.
3) Water-compromised plants may show symptoms that include yellowing of lower, older foliage. Leaves may show unusual colors at the edges, or between the veins, which might indicate a nutrient deficiency. Compromised root systems don't transport nitrogen and "minor" elements efficiently.

4) Don't be surprised if plants with big soft leaves (Hydrangeas, for example) wilt even when you know soil is saturated. Yes indeed, your plants may wilt in both cases, whether they're too wet or too dry. So, be sure to check soil moisture levels before adding water to wilted plants that may already be floating.

5) Remember that plants in containers have more positive drainage than plants in beds. Most potting mixes are "soilless" and contain large amounts of bark or coarse peat to promote positive drainage. The minimal nitrogen content these mixes provide can be leached out of the bottom of the pot with heavy rainfall. You can apply: water solubles (Dyna-Gro), earth-friendly naturals (Dr. Earth, Espoma) or timed-release (Osmocote) to maintain optimal growth and beauty.

6) If you have hanging baskets or containers with saucers (either attached or otherwise) be religious about pouring off the drainage water within 30 minutes. After that, roots are drowning.

Drain those saucers

7) Slug populations will be exploding soon. Protect hostas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage and other slug favorites with Sluggo, which is indeed safe around edibles. Slugs will eat the bait, lose their appetite, stop feeding and die within a few days!

Slugs in the rampage

8) Fungal problems (black spot on roses, tomato blights, powdery mildew, leaf spots) will undoubtedly blossom with the abundant rainfall, heat and humidity. Remember that fungicides must be applied ahead of an infection. They will not reverse symptoms that are already present.

9) As the summer wears on we will reach a time when the soil is dry again. Rainfall is not cumulative. So,be sure to do regular checks of newly installed trees and shrubs even after measurable precipitation. Any plant that was container grown or had a small root ball will dry out more quickly than an established plant. Don't be lulled into thinking you don't have to water "new" plants for the rest of the summer. You will at some point in time.

10) Few plants tolerate standing surface water for long periods of time. If your garden has areas that flood and you aren't planning to correct the drainage (for whatever reason) research and use plants that are "flood tolerant". Even if those areas are bone dry later in the season you must plan and plant for worst case scenario. Baldcypress, River birch, Swamp white oak, 'Huron' gray dogwood, winterberry and a number of hardy ferns will endure challenging moisture conditions.

Rain, rain, it will go away. In the meantime, are any of these actions you can take right now to save lives in your garden?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dahlia Do's and Don'ts

Flowers, like celebrities, can have cyclical popularity. Based on the volume of customer questions, dahlias are the smokin' hot plant right now. Never grown them? Check them out at your local garden center and prepare to be dazzled.  

A wealth of choices
Hybridizers have expanded the range of flower and plant sizes, colors and flower forms so there's a dahlia for every taste. It's pretty darned cool to watch a quarter-sized bud open into an 8" (or larger) flower later in the summer! Yep, I'm in awe of big ole' dinnerplate dahlias.

Here are a few tips for success from my experience growing dahlias over the years as well as from people who grow them by the hundreds.

Undivided dahlia clump
The smaller bedding dahlias can be grown from seed, but the large-flowered varieties are grown from tubers (potato-like storage organs). They're most often sold as undivided clumps with multiple tubers. Don't just dig a hole and plop the old clump back in the ground. Get a sharp knife and cut a tuber from the mother clump. Each tuber must have an eye, or bud, to produce a new plant. Eyes will be at the end of the neck of the tuber, coming from last year's stem. A dahlia clump might have as few as one, or as many as 3-4 eyes.

Divided tuber with eyes
Like tomatoes, nothing is gained by planting dahlias too early. They're tropical in origin and shouldn't be planted until soil temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees F. They abhor cold, wet soils.
  1. Dig a hole 4-6" deep. The tuber will be placed horizontally in the bottom of the hole. Life is easier when you place the stake (you'll need a stake for these big, vigorous plants) in the hole next to the eye of the tuber. Dahlias, like vampires, resent having a stake driven through their heart, which is the tuber!
  2. Some growers recommend mixing dehydrated manure into the backfill soil as the organic amendment. You get the bonus of a small amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
  3. Important: Dahlia wisdom is our spring soils generally contain enough moisture that you don't water at the time of planting. In fact, don't water until you see the first shoots breaking through the soil.
  4. Dahlias are an exception when it comes to mulching. You actually want the sun to hit the cool/cold soil and warm it up. So, don't be in a hurry to mulch. Remember they respond to sun and warmth.
  5. If you want a shorter, bushier plant (not a bad idea with plants that may be 6' tall by summer's end) you can pinch out the tip. As soon as the plants have more than 3 pairs of leaves, reach in gently with your fingers or a cutting tool and remove the growing point, leaving 3 pairs of leaves intact. Like most pruning this will produce a shorter plant with more shoots and potential flowering stems!
  6. Big flowers equal hungry plants, right? That sure seems like it would compute. But many dahlia growers urge against lots of nitrogen. Use a granular fertilizer with a ratio of twice as much phosphorous as nitrogen. Example: 5-10-10 (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). Apply a month after planting, then a month later. Avoid water soluble fertilizers.
  7. When we get into hot weather water deeply when needed. Remember you planted those tubers 4-6" deep. They have lots of thirsty leaves and flowers later in the summer when it gets hot. Don't use wilting as your indicator that it's time to water. Always water deeply before wilting occurs.
  8. As your dahlias start budding you have a fun decision to make. Do you want masses of smaller flowers, but lots of color to be viewed from a distance? Or, do you want big, honking flowers for cutting or bragging rights (It's a guy thing, like having the first tomato on the block)? The former, do nothing. The latter, remove the buds paired on either side of the larger central bud as soon as you can handle them. The plant's energy will be directed into that remaining bud and will really increase the flower size.
Dahlias - definitely not for the fairy garden!!!             

Cactus-flowered dahlia


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Timely Tips for Spring Garden Cleanup

Are you itching to get out and start playing in your garden? Me too. It's time to: prune, mulch, stake and most important - plant! Here are a few things to consider as you head out in Slogger-shod feet and West County Rose gloved-hands armed with Felco pruners.

Snow Mold
1. Lawns - Check turf for this winter's gift - snow mold! You can't miss it (see picture). Symptoms look worse than their long term effect. Snow mold will disappear with fertilization and light raking once the ground warms and dries a bit more. Don't rake in deep shade where shallow-rooted fescues reside. You may pull them up and out. Fungicides are unnecessary.

Vole Tunnels
2. Voles - Yes, that's a "V", not an "M". This picture was taken in mid-March as the snow receded. My lawn has never had vole damage before, although I've railed about their potential winter damage on trees and shrubs for years. It looks as though I'll be raking, tamping lightly and reseeding areas of my back yard as soon as the soil thaws more.

Northwind Switchgrass
3. Perennial cleanup - For those gardeners that didn't get out the scythe (just kidding, I use pruners, too, I do) last fall the time has come. Try to begin cutting back before the days get too warm and new growth starts emerging in last year's stem residue. You may need to remove winter tattered foliage ("deadleafing") rather than doing a to-the-ground cut back on some evergreen perennials like Bergenia, Heuchera and Hellebores, for example. Don't cut back creeping Phlox, Oriental poppy and Iberis, or you'll be out of luck.

4. Perennial support - Don't forget last year's promise to yourself to get the cages, hoops and "grow through" plant supports on early. Remember trying to wrestle those 3' tall peonies into their cages? Gardening is much more fun when we're proactive with this very necessary task. This may even apply to shrubs. Let's get those 'Annabelle' Hydrangeas contained early so their beautiful ivory heads aren't resting on the ground this year.

5. Slug prevention - You know which of your prized perennials are attacked by slugs every year. At spring cleanup simply apply earth-friendly Sluggo (it's iron phosphate) around the crowns of susceptible Hosta, Ligularia and other slug-victims. They ingest it, stop feeding, and pass on to Hosta heaven before they reproduce. If applied preventatively it's really easy to have beautiful unblemished perennials.

Spring Break Tulip
6. Spring bulbs - Deer and rabbits  won't touch daffodils. Tulips are a three course meal. Foliage, buds, flowers- all fair game. While you can erect physical barriers that sort of negates the idea of a beautiful color display to welcome spring. However, there are a number of great repellents that can be applied so your garden can look like a slice of Holland. Both Bonide's Repels-All and Plantskyyd repellents come in granules to apply to soil, or liquid to spray directly on plant parts. They work! Don't forget to fertilize your bulbs this spring, either as they emerge or as they finish flowering.

7. Roses - Don't be tempted to remove winter protection too early. Don't be afraid to prune roses (other than climbers, species roses, and some shrub roses) hard. Even if my roses have green canes 15" or more I cut them back to an outward facing bud, leaving the stems (canes) only 4-8" tall. What rosarians say about pruning hard and getting more new basal branches is true. You'll also be removing overwintering black spot spores that lurk in old leaves and canes.

8. Soil preparation - Plant performance is all about soil, soil, soil. Spring cleanup and planting is the perfect opportunity to enhance your soil, especially if your garden has dense clay. Take this time to topdress annual, veggie and perennial beds with compost, leaf mulch or dehydrated manure. This can be cultivated in, or in the case of new beds rototilled or spaded in. After a couple of years of this TLC soils will start showing big structural improvements- and your plants will respond accordingly.

9. Weed prevention - Many weeds (especially annuals, the ones that grow for only one season) can be thwarted with pre-emergent weed control. After you've done whatever raking or cleaning you're going to do in beds (especially those with bare soil) apply the granules. Water in or lightly cultivate the granules into the soil surface. Understand that you're preventing weeds, not killing those that have germinated and are growing. Read directions carefully and fully BEFORE application to get maximum results!

10. Mulch- The tests have been done, the results universally show that virtually all plants perform with better, more vigorous growth if they're mulched. Spring is the time to get that organic matter down (leaf mulch, cotton burr compost, shredded pine or hardwood bark, etc). Remember you're mulching roots, not stems. So, try and leave mulch-free zones immediately adjacent to annual and perennial stems, and "trunks" of trees and shrubs. While mulch will dramatically deter weed growth you can apply pre-emergent weed control to the surface of mulches, if you like.

Emerging Tete-a-Tete Daffodils

Let the planting, mulching, pruning and staking begin!