Friday, February 10, 2012

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

A couple of weeks ago the USDA published the latest edition of the Plant Hardiness Zone Map.  This is the map that tells us what plants are most likely to thrive in a certain location.  The big news about the 2012 map is that the zones have changed by about a half a zone and the USDA has added two new zones—12 and 13.  The map is also interactive.  You can put in your zip code and it will tell you what zone you are in.
New hardiness zone map
This year’s map is based on weather data from 1976-2005.  Each zone represents the average extreme minimum temperature for that zone.  The previous map, published in 1990, was based on data from 1974-1986.  Of course, the media immediately jumped on this as proof of climate change and global warming.  The USDA cautions us not to read too much into these changes, that they are not a reliable indicator of climate change or global warming but that some of the change is simply due to better mapping technology that has greatly improved the accuracy of the map.

So what does all this mean for us folk here in Northern Illinois?  Well, don’t plan on planting crepe myrtle or camellias anytime soon.  We are still in Zone 5, though we are in subzone 5B.  We also should keep in mind that the zones are just a guideline.  Each individual garden has its own micro-climates.  The spot by the garage that is protected by the wind and gets radiant heat  off the exposed foundation might even be a Zone 6 while the low spot toward the back of the garden where cold are can sink could be a Zone 5A.   And  there are many more factors that impact how well a plant grows in our area including: light exposure, soil fertility and pH, temperatures at both ends of the thermometer, the duration of any particular cold snap (my rosemary held on until just last week in its whiskey barrel by the garage) and the general humidity level.  Many plants can adapt to varying conditions but it is important to have the proper conditions and the proper plant for those conditions. 
Cold hardiness zones only tell a part of the story.  Many plants, especially annuals, also have a hard time dealing with heat.  The American Horticultural Society publishes a Heat Zone Map and many plant tags are beginning to carry this designation.  The Zone tolerance measures a plant’s ability to withstand some number of “heat days,” or days the temperature goes above 86.  According to the AHS we are in heat zone 5, which means we get between 30-45 days above 86.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Birds In Winter

Birds at feeder in winter
Wow- We finally got some winter last week. As much as I hate shoveling snow it’s nice to get some insulating cover over our plants.. It really helps to protect them from the cold, drying winds and keeps moisture from evaporating from the ground. This is especially important for the broadleaf evergreens that don’t go dormant. If they dry out they will drop the buds that they set last fall and you won’t get any blooms this spring. I noticed that my climbing rose has finally dropped all its leaves and is fully dormant. It is now safe to prune as are any other trees or shrubs that need it.

There are lots of birds that stay around here over the winter including sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, juncos and even gold finches. Most people are surprised that the gold finches don’t migrate since they don’t see them. Actually you do see them its just that their plumage has turned from gold to brown, the better to blend into the environment and avoid predators.

Heated Bird Bath
If you are feeding the birds, make sure you are using a bird feed that is high in energy seeds. These would be black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts. Nyger thistle is also high in energy. Black oil sunflower also has thinner hulls and is easier for the birds to crack open in addition to being high in oil. Suet cakes are also very high in energy and good to put out in winter. 

Bird Bath Heater
With this cold weather, any open water has probably frozen over and is not available to the birds. In addition to feeding the birds, you should also put out fresh water.  My neighbor Dave has a bird bath out during the summer and the birds use it all summer long.  Water is equally important in the winter however.  Using a heated bird bath or a bird bath heater will keep the water from freezing in the bird bath.  The bird bath heater sits in your birdbath while the heated bird bath is all one unit-- heater and bird bath combined.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Poinsettias-Not Your Grandmother's Poinsettia!

Poinsettias are a traditional Christmas plant due to their red foliage.  They are part of the euphorbia family and have bracts rather than flowers.  The flower is the yellow part in the middle of the bract.  They can be a tricky crop to grow up in the northern climes mostly due to the need to regulate light. They need to be trimmed to promote a full shape and because in real life they can grow to be over 10’ tall their growth needs to be regulated.   Here at Countryside our poinsettias are grown at our growing facility at Garden Valley under natural light. At night all natural light must be reduced, even lights from street lights can throw off their natural inclination to bloom when receiving equal amounts of light and dark.  If we have lots of cloudy days so that they are getting more dark than light it not only keeps them from growing but also keeps them from coloring.  This year’s crop looks really nice.
Jana from the greenhouse staff is
ready to help you select the
 perfect poinsettia

Poinsettias are really a desert plant native to Central America.  The Aztecs used it to make a reddish-purple dye and it was long known as a “Christmas” plant even before it was noticed by Joel Poinsett, the US Ambassador to Mexico in the 1800s. A botanist by training, he sent samples to his home in the US and began breeding them.   The rest, as they say, is history.
Poinsettias aren't just red anymore
According to National Geographic  poinsettias were the top selling potted plant in 2001.  75 million were sold at a wholesale value of $256 million.  Today there are 5 major breeders of poinsettias, the most well known of which is the Paul Ecke Ranch of California.  2/3 of all poinsettias came from the Paul Ecke Ranch in that year. 

Kim helps Jean McDaniel select
poinsettias for her house
Through breeding programs there are now over 100 different varieties of poinsettias from which to choose.  There are bract color differences (red, white, pink, speckled) leaf color differences (dark green to even a lime green color) and even bloom time differences.   My personal favorite pink.  
Poinsettias make a great hostess gift and can brighten up a dreary winter with their bright flowering bracts.  They should continue to stay in color for many weeks.  When you bring them home place them where they will get indirect sunlight for about 6 hours a day.  Since they are a desert plant they prefer the soil on the dry side- water only when the soil feels dry and the pot feels light in weight.  Don’t panic if the leaves start to drop.  This is a natural reaction of the plant to a change in growing conditions.  It has gone from our sunny greenhouse to your darker house and is under some stress.  Though you may be tempted to water it, don’t.  Try finding a room with a little more sunlight. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Fall Chores

These pictures are from Wilt Pruf
One of the last chores for the season is prepping broad leaf evergreens for winter. Broad leaf evergreens sounds like an oxymoron. Most evergreens with which we are familiar are the needled variety, such as firs, pines and spruces. These are trees that have adapted to drier climates by having needles instead of leaves. The needles are green and still undergo photosynthesis but have a lot less surface area so that the moisture inside doesn’t evaporate as quickly. 
Broad leaf evergreens are shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons, boxwood and holly. They really aren’t adapted to our climate or soil but yet we still plant them so we do have a little work to do to keep them happy. Because of their broad leaves that stay on the plant all year they are really susceptible to our drying winter winds. The wind flows over the leaf and just dries them out. This is really damaging for azaleas and rhododendrons because they set their flower buds in the fall. If they get stressed during the winter the first thing they do is go into "survivor" mode and drop the buds in order to protect the rest of the plant.

Azaleas at Uncle Bill's house in MD
To keep this from happening you can wrap the shrubs in burlap or apply an anti-transpirant. There are several anti-transpirants on the market. The most widely available are Wilt Pruf and Wilt Stop. These are organic polymers that make a waxy coating on the leaf so the moisture stays in the plant. You can apply it now and then again around Valentine’s Day. These products can also be used on fresh cut Christmas trees, wreaths, roping and porch pots and they do the same thing as on live shrubs: they keep the moisture in so they last a lot longer without dropping their needles. You can also use these products in the summer when planting or transplanting. The polymer coating helps the plant retain moisture and reduces transplant shock.
Be sure to water your needled evergreens, as well as your broadleaf evergreens, when ever the temperature gets above freezing for an extended period of time. All evergreens continue to undergo photosynthesis and transpire during the winter and they need to replace the water they have lost through this process.

The Northern Lights is the tall
yellow plant in the middle
Here is something to aspire to.  This picture on the right was taken at my great uncle's house in Maryland.  There they have the right climate and soil conditions to grow great azaleas without really trying.  Because of our alkaline soils and harsh winters it is really hard for us to grow broadleaf evergreens, especially azaleas.  They do not reliably flower because of the stress during winter.  If you really want to grow azaleas try the Northern Lights series.  These are azaleas that are deciduous.  They survive our winters because they go dormant and drop their leaves.  Are they as stunning as the ones at my uncle's? In a word no, but that is the trade off. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fall Leaf Cleanup

The last little tomato
I was up on my roof last week blowing leaves out of the gutters with my leaf blower. After I was done I spent a minute looking out over the neighborhood and my own garden and contemplated the summer. Neighbor Ed’s garden was a huge success I would say. Now there isn’t much left except the stems from his tomato and pepper plants and maybe a stray watermelon. I have one little green tomato on my plant that probably won’t be there much longer, especially if we have a hard freeze like they are predicting.  
Leaves are a real problem this time of year. So many of them and what do you do: burn them? Bag them? Hope they blow into the neighbors yard? My neighbor down the street rakes them all on to his garden and lets them decompose over the winter and then tills them into the soil. This adds organic matter and nitrogen.

Before the mower...
I am doing something a little different. I have been blowing the leaves onto the lawn and then running them over with the lawn mower. The mower chops them up into dime sized pieces and does a good job of spreading them around. Over the winter they will start to decompose and next year the worms will slowly move the organic matter down into the soil.

Neighbor Dave has been mulching and bagging and so far he’s had about 15 bags of leaves out for the trash guy to take. I haven’t had any bags. I feel pretty good that I have kept a similar amount of leaves out of the land fill and here in my own yard to add to my own soil. I suppose you could make the argument that I used up some gas and caused some pollution by running my lawn mower but I would have been mowing the lawn anyway.

...after the mower
So why is it important to add organic matter to our soil? Well, no matter if your soil is heavy clay soil or sandy and well drained, all soil can benefit with the addition of organic matter. Organic matter breaks up heavy clay soil making it better for plant roots to move through the soil and become established. When soil is too sandy, organic matter helps it retain moisture. Organic matter also slowly changes the soil pH to more acidic, which most plants like. Our soil tends to be too alkaline, which reduces the plants’ ability to take up available nutrients. Adding organic matter to the garden or to perennial beds is easy because we can top dress with compost but getting it into the soil of an already established lawn in more difficult that’s why mulching leaves and leaving on the lawn is a good idea.

I haven’t yet put a winterizer fertilizer on my lawn and I will probably do so next week. The major holidays are a good reminder for yard chores and Thanksgiving is the reminder for winterizer. Putting fertilizer on in the late fall may seem odd since the grass is going somewhat dormant but it actually gets the lawn ready for spring. And Thanksgiving is probably a good time to ready the mower for winter as well.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fall Chores

Nursery in Lake Como, Italy
I went to Italy last month and as usual I am always interested in seeing what the local horticultural industry is up to. We were in the Naples area and on the train between Naples and Sorrento I noticed numerous greenhouses and hoop houses (like Houses 5-21 at Countryside). Even speeding by at however fast the train was going I saw long stem roses and carnations. It was hard to resist the urge to get off the train to try and find the growing operations. Another crop I noticed growing was chrysanthemums. Our chrysanthemum season is about over but theirs was barely started! I did a little research when I got home and learned the Italy is the third largest producer of cut flowers. They also purchase 5% of all cut flowers. I did stop at a little nursery in Lake Como up by the train station and took a few pictures. I tried in my terrible Italian to explain to the woman working there that I also worked at a garden center but I don’t think I was successful.  
Always on the job!
Well, when I left it was the last of summer but I came back to fall and fall chores. If you are still mowing be sure to lower the mower deck a little bit each time you mow. Leaving the grass too long over the winter encourages disease as the grass flops over and doesn’t get good air circulation. It’s not too late for a last feeding of winterizer for the lawn. You could even wait until later this month to do it. 
If you are really in the mood for tidying up in the garden, you could cut back the perennials but don’t cut them all the way to the ground. I always like to leave the stems until spring. This gives the snow cover something to stick to and provides insulation through the winter and protects the plant against crown rot.

Rose Collars
Rose Cone
For you rosarians, we recommend using rose collars rather than rose cones. You can put the rose collars on now. They go around the base of the plant and then you fill the collar with top soil. Contrary to popular belief, this does not keep the plant from freezing. What it does is once the ground has frozen it keeps it frozen so that the plant does not undergo a freeze/thaw cycle. Sometimes in January or February we have a bit of a warm up and this can fool the plants into coming out of dormancy. Then we get a hard freeze that shocks the plants and can kill them. If you use rose cones, wait until the rose is fully dormant before pruning it back to fit the rose cone over it. Sometimes this isn’t until after Christmas. If we do get a warm up, remove the rose cone or remove the lid if it has one, so moisture doesn’t build up inside the cone.

And one last thing... Friday, November 11th is the Countryside Wine Tasting. This is a great event, not to be missed. The Countryside staff will all be there to kick off the holiday season with you.  Here's a link to the website with information about all the upcoming holiday events.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tulip Time

Crocus are one of the first
bulbs to bloom in spring
It’s officially fall; the days are getting shorter, the temperature is falling and things in the garden are slowing down. I haven’t mown my lawn in over a week, when at the height of summer it was a twice a week chore. Sometimes I am actually relieved when this time of year rolls around.
But, it is not too early to think about next spring and it is the perfect time to plant bulbs. Bulb sales have been declining for several years and it’s mystery to me why. One of my gardening friends thinks it’s because we want instant gratification. We don’t want to plant something now and then have to wait six months before we see it bloom. Well, what ever the reason it is too bad because bulbs are a wonderfully versatile plant in the garden.

Fritilliaries are deer resistant
You can pack a lot of blooms in a small area by "layering" the bulbs, or planting them at different levels based on their requirements. A good rule of thumb is to plant a bulb at 3 times its height. Smaller bulbs like crocus need only be planted maybe 2-3 inches down in the soil while the bigger bulbs such as daffodils or allium need to be planted deeper. And it seems to just work out that the smaller bulbs bloom earlier than the bigger bulbs. There are even bulbs that bloom in the fall! The saffron crocus is one of them, colchicums are another.

The bulb industry has a new ad campaign to show you just how easy it is to plant bulbs. It is called Dig, Drop, Done. Dig the hole, drop in the bulb, and you’re done. You should also be sure to water thoroughly but that doesn’t really go with the alliterative dig drop done theme. I like to naturalize my bulbs, either in the flower beds or in the lawn. I just randomly toss the bulbs in the area I want to plant and then plant them where they land.

Daffodils in bloom
You can fertilize if you like but it really isn’t necessary. The bulb itself has all the energy it will need to grow and bloom the next year. The best time to fertilize is in the spring when you first see the foliage poke up from the ground. After the blooms have faded, resist the temptation to cut back the foliage. This is how the bulb produces and stores the energy needed to bloom next year.

When you buy bulbs make sure to purchase the largest bulbs possible. The bigger the bulb the more energy it has to produce blooms the first year. The bulbs should be also be firm and not bruised. Soft bulbs are dead and will not bloom next spring.
Fox in the neighbor's garden

Yesterday while walking in the neighborhood a fox ran in front of me on Pomeroy Street. He ran into someone’s side yard and sat there long enough for me to take this picture with my phone. He jumped up on a retaining wall and then saw me and took off.