Monday, April 10, 2017

Spring Annuals.... No Non-scents

I offer my sincere apology to Mrs. Ogden, my eighth grade English teacher, for the above double negative. More simply put, I want to share some beautiful, cold-tolerant spring annuals that also bear the gift of fragrance. Who doesn't like two for one?

Beware sniff-test shopping on a cold spring day and understand that you won't be getting an accurate scents (unforgivable, but I've no pun shame) of fragrance. It will always be stronger on a dry, sunny day when temps are warm. Some deliciously scented spring annuals to tickle your olfactory organ:

* Alyssum - Also called "sweet alyssum". Unlike many of the cold-tolerant, short span spring beauties this workhorse goes the distance season long until the big fall freeze. Bonus points! Really a blanket-flat, ground cover annual 3-4" tall, growing 6-8" wide. Color range has been expanded from granny's white, purple-ish and pink to include strong violet, rose and even apricot. Whites tend to have the strongest aroma.



While it will cascade in containers, it may be underwhelming as the growing season progresses and it's steam-rolled by taller, beefier neighbors. I love it for front of window boxes and in-ground as an edger. Will tolerate light shade (note tolerate, not prefer), but not water-logged soils. Do get out the scissors and shear back declining flowers after each wave of bloom to keep the flowering encores coming. Just don't be overzealous and scalp to the ground...

* Dianthus - "Annual pink" shouldn't be confused with its biennial cousin, Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus). Like alyssum, not just a one-shot spring wonder, but will bloom all season, especially if it's a cooler summer, or they're sited in some afternoon shade when it's H-O-T. Well-drained soil. Gorgeous shades of maroon, purple, red, pink, white, and killer combos thereof. Great in beds or containers. Those who deadhead will reap the rewards of their labor.

* Pansies & Violas are already a fragrance "given" for those that read the last post, "A Pansy Primer".

* Stock - A florist flower fave for decades. Scent is generally touted as spicy clove. Flowers can be double or single, clustered in short spikes on plants ranging from 12-18" tall. Colors are: pink, white, rose, antique cream and purple. Foliage is gray-green. While they shouldn't be exposed to frost/freezing weather, they stop performing when daytime temps rise and stay about 75 degrees F. Stock can have a 7-10 day vase life, which is a long time as cut flowers go. For those that love to dry flowers, stock is a great candidate. They can be grown from seed, but you'd better start early to have sizable plants to transplant in early spring. Better to buy larger, budded plants, I'd say.   



* Sweet pea (annual) must be grown by anyone that loves sweetly fragrant pastel flowers. If Heaven has a fragrance, it must be "sweet pea" (one man's opinion - mine)! The scent is unlike any other flower, light, distinctive and unforgettable. It's a grandma flower, for sure, and that's part of its charm. I think it's gotten lost for a couple of generations as it doesn't transplant well. It also doesn't have much sales appeal as a leaning green baby vine in a 4" plastic pot. Therefore, sweet peas should be seeded directly into their final resting place, or in peat pots that can be broken down without disturbing the skinny root system. Soak the seeds overnight or nick with a nail file to break through the tough seed coat to speed germination.



Sweet pea is a cool/cold season vine that need a trellis or support to grow around and through to be upright. Keep cutting the exquisitely scented flowers to bring in the house - Heaven-on-a-stem! The more you cut, the more they'll rebloom until it gets hot. Then they're finished (like stock and many other cool spring annuals).

Ladies and gentlemen, it's spring, dust off your trowels!      
     

  

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Pansy Primer


If you haven't planted pansies or violas to jump start your spring garden you're robbing yourself of weeks of additional color. And no matter how mild March might be there's precious little color to be had before April in a Chicagoland garden, and that includes bulbs. Cue the pansies and violas, center stage.

While pansies and violas are in the same genus and species (Viola x wittrockiana), here's an admittedly simplistic differentiator. Violas are essentially small-flowered pansies that bloom more profusely than pansies. Those wanting to quibble should find a taxonomist that cares. Here's why they're both worth the effort:
  • Between the two, the color range is phenomenal. Blues in all hues, purple, yellow, orange, apricot, white, black (like Black Angus black, seriously), maroon, and many combinations thereof. It's a stretch, at least for me, to say there are true reds and pinks. The reds run more to maroon. The pinks are more rose shades. But the color range challenges petunias, which almost cover the rainbow.
  • The flower "faces" are intriguing. There are monochromatics that are pure, deeply saturated colors and beautiful jewel tones, too. There are interesting blotched pansies. There are bicolor and tricolor combinations. Some have striped veins that look like cat whiskers. Some of the newer series produce flirty, ruffled flowers.
  • The monochromatic orange, apricot, yellow, and white pansies often have light, but wonderful fragrance when temps are warm. The aroma reminds me of apricots for some reason.
  • With appropriately scaled small vases with narrow necks, they make sweet, long-lasting cut flowers. It's nice to appreciate the colorful complexity of the often intricate "faces" up close and personal.
  • They tolerate cold as well as they love "cool". While they don't laugh aloud at freezing temps, they certainly do scoff. If they've been hardened off (that is, acclimated to cold outside for a number of days at the growers) before shipping, they can survive being encased in frost or snow. When the sun melts the snow they'll return to an upright position. No harm, no foul. How many annuals can claim that?
  • Whether you need early color for hanging baskets, window boxes, containers, or beds, pansies and violas can do it all. They're especially nice in the foreground of beds, fronting the uninteresting ankles of taller tulips, daffs and newly emerging perennials.
Culturally, what do they ask in return for all this garden gorgeousness? Not much. Pansies and violas dislike heat and humidity equally. So, site them in full sun and enjoy the spring show until the temps start pushing 80 degrees. When they start getting "stretchy" and lax about reblooming, think "Discard" and move on to your summer crop of heat-tolerant annuals. Or, if you want to stretch the return on your spring horticultural investment, site them in an area where they'll receive afternoon shade when it gets warm. You'll squeeze additional weeks of bloom from them with that trick.

Keep pansies and violas evenly moist, especially as day and night temps remain elevated. The other recommendation is to deadhead. Timely removal of spent flowers really resets the bloom button and keeps the show going. Then there's feeding. While they're not particularly conspicuous consumers an application of a timed-release fertilizer at planting time, or several applications of a high phosphorous (P= middle number in a 10-15-10 analysis) water soluble product during their springtime with you will make a world of difference in bloom performance.

A few noteworthy series:

'Spring Matrix' - Large-flowered, perform well early in the cold, often sun-free conditions of spring.
Spring Matrix photo courtesy PanAmerican Seed 

'Imperial Antique Shades' - Huge flowers, in romantic apricot to rose shades.
Antique Shades photo courtesy Clesen Wholesale

'Cool Wave' - Trailing 18" or more, so great for baskets and tumbling down the sides of larger containers.
Cool Wave photo courtesy Ball Horticulture
'Fizzy' - Beautifully frilled and ruffled, often with picoteed edges. Many variations on the purple and yellow theme!
Fizzy Lemonberry courtesy Clesen Wholesale
Oops, I forgot to mention the flowers are edible - great as a garnish or to color zap a salad. Honest. Pass the pansies, please.
      

























            

Friday, February 24, 2017

Winter Warmth Woes for Plants


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



















Friday, February 10, 2017

Mid-Winter Houseplant Blahs

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

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

Potato chip-crispy spots or lesions on leaves: Underwatering

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

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

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

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

          














Thursday, January 26, 2017

Spring Garden Itch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden itch subsiding yet?                 

Friday, January 13, 2017

2017 Landscape Resolutions


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

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

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

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