Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I had a great time being on the Mike Nowak show, “Let’s Talk Gardening” on WGN on Sunday. Young Pamela went with me as navigator and between the two of us we were able to answer a lot of questions. There was one question we didn’t get to that I would like to address.

A caller asked about a poinsettia she bought that had droopy leaves that watering didn’t correct. If you have a poinsettia with droopy leaves water it thoroughly but if it doesn’t recover within a few hours, then you have some other problems. Often poinsettias bought from a chain store have been subjected to several stressors. They may have been sleeved in plastic, subjected to long warehousing and transportation times in the sleeve, or have been stored in colde
r than optimal temperatures. The natural reaction by the plant in trying to survive is too droop its leaves and curl them in. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not. Setting them in a sunny window so that the soil and their roots warm up sometimes helps. Don’t set them over a heating duct but do keep an eye on them since exposure to sun will cause them to take up lots of water and they may need another drink sooner than usual. We had that situation here in our greenhouses yesterday. After how many days of cloudy weather, the sun came out and really warmed up our greenhouses. Everyone was on water patrol to make sure all the plants got a drink!

Remember that poinsettias do best in cooler temperatures and, being desert plants, don't like to be watered frequently. A quick test for watering is to just pick up the pot and feel how light the pot feels. If it feels heavy it doesn't need to be watered. People ask us all the time how often to water but there is no easy answer. If it is sunny out and the plant is actively growing, it will take up water much faster than if it overcast or cloudy.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Cactus

Native to Central and South America, Christmas cactus are actually epiphytes, plants that grow above ground level and rely on other plants to hold them up. About half of the 20,000 species of orchids are epiphytes, as are some lichens and algae. Learn something new everyday, don’t you.
Christmas cactus are similar to poinsettias in that they are short day plants that require long periods of uninterrupted darkness in order to flower. They also like cooler temperatures. Ann Larson in our interior plant department says that she gets great blooms from her cactus by leaving it outside at night when the nighttime temperatures are around 40-45 degrees for several nights.

As with most tropical plants, Christmas cactus require humidity to do well. This can be accomplished by placing the plant in a saucer filled with pebbles and water. The pot should be above the level of the water, but as the water evaporates it will provide the needed humidity.
After the plant has bloomed, give the plant a rest by placing it in a cool room with limited watering. After a month, repot if necessary ( they do like to be slightly root bound). If you need to pinch it back, do it in March or April when the new growth begins.

Friday, December 14, 2007

More Winter Blooming Plants

This is another great winter plant, not only because it blooms in the winter but the blooms are numerous. It can be a little fussy and most of the information I have been able to gather indicates that most people just pitch the plant after it has finished blooming.

As with most house plants they do need more humid conditions, especially when our furnaces are running and drying out the air. Get a plastic saucer and fill it with pebbles and water so that the water will evaporate and humidify the air immediately around the plant. The pebbles will keep the plant from actually sitting in the water. They also prefer cooler conditions and bright, indirect light. We were in Rome several years ago in January and I was surprised to see cyclamen growing outdoors in containers.

Cyclamen are tuberous plants and to get them to re-bloom they will need a dormant period after flowering. Let the plants die down by reducing and then stopping watering. Let them rest in a cool, dark place for three months, then re-pot and begin watering and fertilizing.

Norfolk Island Pines

Often called a "living Christmas tree," these plants hail from the South Pacific and are not pines at all. Norfolk Island Pines need bright, indirect light and do best in cooler temperatures. Plant them in a good, well draining soil mix and water to keep it slightly moist but not soggy. In the summer, fertilize monthly with a half strength general purpose house plant food. In the winter provide humidity by misting or setting the container in a saucer filled with pebbles and water. They like to be slightly root bound so repot only when necessary, every 3-4 years, in the spring.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

More Christmas Plants

Last week I blogged about poinsettias, probably the most iconic of Christmas plants, but there are other plants that come into bloom during the dark days of winter and amaryllis is one.

When selecting amaryllis bulbs, big actually is better. The bigger the bulb, the more stored energy, the bigger the bloom or blooms. Use a heavy container, since the full grown amaryllis can get rather top heavy. The container should be large enough to hold the bulb and a small space for a stake to be slid down beside the bulb but no larger. Plant in a good potting soil, burying the bulb so that only the top 1/3 is exposed. Water thoroughly but don’t let them get soggy. Within 4-8 weeks you will have blooms. Keeping the plant in a cool room will prolong the bloom period. A warmer room will accelerate blooming.

Amaryllis plants are easy to keep for the next year and as the bulb matures the blooms will only get bigger and better. Just follow these simple steps: Once the flowers have faded, remove the flower stalks but leave the leaves. Just as with our spring bulbs, this is how the plant replenishes the energy needed to produce blooms the following year. Fertilize with a general purpose house plant fertilizer on a regular basis. Choose a fertilizer that has a low first number (nitrogen) and higher second and third numbers (phosphorus and potassium.) You can also set the plants outside during the summer in a spot that gets afternoon shade. Leave the bulbs in their container as they do like being somewhat root bound.

Assuming you want the plant to rebloom at Christmas, prepare the plant for a dormant period. Stop fertilizing and reduce watering in August. After a few weeks, stop watering altogether. After the leaves have died back, remove them and place the container in a dark, cool place for 6-8 weeks.

In November, bring the plant back out to a warm, bright room and begin watering again. Within 4-8 weeks you should have blooms. Rotate the plant so that the stem grows straight as they have a tendency to grow towards light. You may have to stake it as well.
There are several reasons the bulb may not rebloom the second year including not enough dormant time, or leaves were removed before the plant stored enough energy over the summer. In this case make sure to let the plant get enough sun and fertilizer during the actively growing months to let it store enough energy to bloom. When you do need to repot, you may notice little bulblets. You can plant these and follow the above directions, but amaryllis bulbs take several years to get big enough to bloom, but it will be worth it!

Just to let you know I will be discussing plants for Christmas on the Mike Nowak show on WGN on Sunday, December 16. Be sure to tune in.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Joel Robert Poinsett is often credited with discovering the plant named in his honor when he was the US ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800s. It was the Albert Ecke, however, who saw the potential for a plant that "flowered" during the holiday season. The first plants were field grown and the Ecke family sold them from roadside stands in Southern California. Eventually, plant breeders developed varieties that better withstood being grown in containers in greenhouses. It is interesting to note that 90 percent of all the flowering poinsettias got their start at the Paul Ecke Ranch.
Here are some other interesting facts about poinsettias compiled by the University of Illinois:
They are not poisonous. A study at The Ohio State University showed that a 50 pound child who ate 500 bracts might suffer a slight tummy ache.
The "flowers" are actually colorful bracts, or modified leaves. The flowers are clustered in the center of the bract.
A fresh poinsettia is one which shows little or no yellow pollen in the center of the bract.
The Paul Ecke Ranch grows 80 percent of the poinsettias grown for the wholesale market. The poinsettias that Countyside grows come from several different sources. We get them as cuttings and start planting them around July 4th!
There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias, although red remains the favorite(74% of those polled), followed by white (8%) and pink (6%).
To the right are pictures of some of the more unique poinsettia varieties that we grow. My favorite is the Cortez Fire. I also like its cousin, Cortez Hot Pink. The Winter Rose is very unique with its curly bracts. However, I see that I forgot to take a picture of Micheal's favorite, the Cinnimon Star. You'll have to come into the store to see that one!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Winter Containers

Winter Containers
Your summer annuals are history and the fall containers are looking a little sad. What next for the container at your front door or the window boxes? Why, evergreens and berries for a delightful winter display.

If you’ve been to downtown Crystal Lake, you may have noticed the new hanging baskets on the decorative street lamps. Kim Hartman of the greenhouse staff designed those containers and has a few tips for you to make your home as attractive this winter. I spent some time in the "Elf House" with Kim this week and watched the staff at work.

If you are starting with an empty container, back fill it with some heavy material such as pea gravel and then cover it with oasis. The oasis, or green florists foam, helps retain moisture for the greens and is easy to design with. You will need to secure it into the container so your display doesn't flip out of the container. We used twine criss-crossed over the top.

As with your other season containers, you want a focal point, some filler and a "spiller" to soften the edges of the container. The containers the staff was working on this week were more rounded without a specific focal point, but you can use spruce or balsam tops for a more triangular form. First, they used balsam or douglas fir stems inserted horizontally at the edge of the container and in the center to give the container some dimension. Next, Kim gave the container some texture by inserting different greens and specialty foliage such as cedar, white pine, magnolia stems, and dogwood for color.

Hope to see you Friday night at the Crystal Lake
Parade of Lights. And Saturday Kim is leading a hands-on workshop on winter containers. Of course you can always stop by the store and we can assist you with your project.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Overwintering Tropical Plants

I hope by now you have brought in your tropical plants that you plan to overwinter. I brought in my hibiscus and jasmine a few weeks ago. I also brought in the tropical plants from my pond. I have them in the screen room in big tubs of water.

In a somewhat interesting side note to tropical plants, especially the pond plants: The hardy lotus and the arrowhead that I have in my pond entered their dormant phases starting in September while my tropical plants showed no effects of the early frost we had in September or the cooler temperatures since then. When I had tropical lilies, they continued to bloom well into October. I have to admit they are awkward to overwinter and do take up a lot of room in the house, but I think they are totally worth it.

Often when you change the environment for any plant, cooler temps for warmer, less humid indoor temps or brighter light conditions for less bright, the plant undergoes some amount of stress. The first reaction to this stress is loss of leaves. After the plant readjusts to its new environment it will put out new leaves that are acclimated to its new surroundings.
One thing that you need to watch for when bringing in plants is insects and/or insect eggs. For hibiscus plants we recommend that you strip the plant of its leaves before bringing it indoors so that you leave any eggs outside. Keep an eye out for aphids, white fly, scale, mealy bug, mites and thrips. These are chewing insects that can be controlled using systemics or insecticidal soaps. Systemic insecticides come in either granular or liquid forms and are applied to the soil. The plant’s roots take up the insecticide and move it up to the stems and leaves. When the insect takes a bite of the leaf it ingests the chemical and dies. Insecticidal soaps are topical and are not harmful to pets. Ann Larson in the greenhouse also recommends using the True Value cleaner that we sell. This is applied topically with a paper towel or rag. After killing the adult insects, any eggs that they laid will hatch in two weeks, so you need to make several applications.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Weather Does Odd Things

The Weather Does Odd Things
I hope we all have been enjoying this gorgeous weather, because as we all know it won’t last forever. I have a PJM rhododendron growing near the Endless Summer hydrangeas that croaked earlier this summer and the yews that formerly grew nearby. Rhododendrons and azaleas are broadleaf evergreens that require a little TLC in our climate. A bit more on that later.
They bloom early in the spring on blossoms that set the previous fall, but sometimes the weather fools them. Remember the cold snap we had back in September? Well, that was just enough to make my rhody think winter had come and gone and it was time to bloom. I took this picture last week and now there are even more blooms.
Care of Broadleaf Evergreens
Rhododendrons, azaleas, and boxwood fall into the category of broad leaf evergreen, as opposed to evergreens with needles. The broadleafed evergreens usually prefer cool climates and acidic soils. They grow really well in the Northwest. Sacramento, CA (my hometown) touts itself as the "Camellia Capital," another member of this family that is not hardy here. Because they do not go dormant in the winter, they are subject to dessication, a fancy word for drying out and must be protected. They do prefer shadier spots in the garden and should be planted in protected areas. Late in the fall, spray with Wilt-Pruf and/or wrap with burlap. The Wilt-Pruf puts a waxy coating on the leaves that keeps them from drying out.
My co-worker, Marge the "Bow Lady" also reports an odd phenomenon: Her iris is now blooming. Again, I have to chalk this up to the weather. And finally, Ann Larson from the greenhouse wanted me to mention that her John Paul II hybrid tea rose, that was ravaged by Japanese beetles earlier this summer, has made a remarkable come-back and is now blooming up a storm. She told me today that stems she cut last 2-3 weeks and were very fragrant.

Tips for Winterizing Roses
Winterizing roses actually begins in August, when you should do your last fertilization and stop dead heading. My roses continue to bloom as well but I am opting not to cut them but instead am allowing them to form rosehips. This tells the plant that it is time to quit growing and get ready for winter. Any cutting done now will produce weak, spindly stems that will not survive the winter.
It is too early to put on rose cones, since most roses would need to be pruned to fit into the cones. Instead you can use rose collars. The collars wrap around the base of the plant and are back filled with black dirt or garden soil. The whole purpose of either the cone or the collar is not too keep the plant from freezing, but keeping it cold after the ground has frozen. This way the odd warm-ups we sometimes have in January or February will not trick the plant from coming out of dormancy prematurely.
Other News from C’Side
We have all been busy transforming the store into a Christmas wonderland. Our department is in charge of the artificial trees, wreaths and garland and we have lots of new styles this year. Our wine tasting this year is Friday, November 9 and our open house is November 17 and 18. Hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The End of the Season

The End of the Season

I am now spending some time doing fall clean-up. There really isn’t much to do at this point, except rake leaves, skim leaves out of the pond and work on killing some of the perennial weeds such as dandelions that seem to be ever-present. We don’t recommend cutting things back in the fall, so that’s one more thing to cross off the list. Plants shouldn’t be cut back until they are really dormant, which doesn’t happen until late November or even later and who wants to be outside then when you could be snuggled up to the fire with a hot toddy.

I am, however, taking a close look at the garden to determine what worked and what didn’t and what changes I want to make for next year. Actually, I will be making a lot of changes because I will be moving and will have a clean slate from which to work. But it’s good to note what I liked about this garden and more importantly, what I didn’t, so I don’t repeat the same mistakes. Although at my advanced aged I probably won’t remember any of it anyway.

The one thing I was really disappointed with this year was a mass planting of torenia under the crab apple tree. We sell this annual as a plant that will bloom in the shade. Well, guess what, it didn’t. The tag says full to part sun and I think it definitely needs more sun than it got. Michael reported the same results in his garden, so I know it wasn’t just me. I think if I am here next spring to plant, I will plant begonias. The begonias we had at the store looked fabulous even at the end of the summer. Begonias are a great plant that don’t ask for much and bloom profusely whether in sun or shade.

My Endless Summer hydrangeas came up beautifully early this summer but all of a sudden wilted and died. They were established plants and I am still perplexed as to what happened.
Another plant that did not perform as expected were the caladiums I had planted behind my pond. I have a small amount of perennials planted behind the pond but since I use a lot of tropical plants in the pond I wanted to carry that same theme into the background. I had planted white variegated hypoestes, an annual that is also sold as a house plant, in mass and then the white caladiums behind that. The caladiums just never grew and then I think our rabbit ate what was there. (She also cut quite a wide swath through the hostas back there and is now confined to quarters.)

Well, thus ends another gardening year. I am looking forward to gardening in my new house on Douglas Avenue. It will be quite different from this garden as it is mostly shade and much smaller. There is a large deck off the house and I hope to do lots of container gardening. Working with Michael these past few years has given me quite an appreciation for this form of gardening.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

I Guess It's Really Fall

The Last of my Tomatoes

Last weeks warm weather caused the last of my "Sprite" grape tomatoes to ripen. Unfortunately the rotten chipmunk that lives nearby got them before I did. Oh, well, I guess chipmunks have to eat, too. I grew these in a half barrel along with some basil. I didn't have any problems with blight or other diseases. Using such a large container reduces the need for constant watering.


I've been meaning to write about clematises all summer but other things always came up. This fall my sweet autumn clematis bloomed wonderfully. I thought this would make an interesting article. I had originally planted this along my split rail fence in the front of the miscanthus grasses. I thought it would be cool to have the clematis wind its way along the fence and through the grasse, but it never had the look I was hoping for. The blossoms got lost in the grass and it just never really stood out. So I got the great idea to plant it at the base of a crab apple tree and have it grow up the tree. This particular crab is prone to apple scab and usually by the end of the summer it really doesn't look good. I could spray it but I don't. It has taken a few years for the clematis to get established and for me to figure out how to get it to do what I want. The first year I didn't cut it back and the second year it bloomed so high up in the tree you couldn't even see the blossoms. This past year I cut it back hard early in the spring and it bloomed through out the tree just like I wanted it to.

We get alot of questions about pruning clematis. Basically, there are three groups of clematis (clemati?): Those that bloom on new wood, those that bloom on old wood and those that bloom on both. Clematis that bloom on new wood can be pruned back hard in the spring. Those that bloom on old wood should be pruned immediately after blooming or just selectively pruned early in the spring. Just cut out the dead stems. Be careful, although it is a woody plant, the stems are very fragile. Follow this same pruning advice for the type that blooms on both old and new wood. It is important to properly prune in encourage blooming and to promote plant health. If you don't know what variety you have, you can figure it out by seeing when your clematis blooms. If it blooms early in the season, it is most likely blooming on old wood. Plants that bloom later in the season are probably blooming on new wood. Clematis are heavy feeders and should be fertilized regulary with a general purpose perennial fertilizer.

Here some pictures I took last week of our chrysanthemums

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


We have been "mum"ified here at Countryside. Every year we grow around 15,000 (yes, that's right) mums of just about every color, bloom-time and plant growth habit. We also provide mums at a discount to many community organizations here in McHenry County for their fund-raising efforts, so even if you don't come by the store, if you have bought mums through your local school or club, you have probably bought Countryside mums.

Mum History-- The Chinese wrote about chrysanthemums as long ago as the 15th century BC. It was cultivated as an herb and was believed to have the power of life. The mum appeared in Japan around the 8th century AD and they were so taken with it, they incorporated a single flowered chrysanthemum into the crest and official seal of the Emporer. The mum finally made it to the West by the 17th century. Since then it has been hybridized to the plant we know today. The National Chrysantheum Society (proving once again there is a club for everyone) divides bloom forms into 13 types but basically they can be summed up as: cushion, daisy, pompon, and spider, quill or spoontip. The spider or quill types are not hardy in our zone and the spoontip is the closest one.

Early, Mid or Late Bloomers-- I was a late bloomer myself. Really, I feel like I'm just coming into my own (and I'm 50) but that may be because my kids are all off at school and Mr. Ross just asked for a divorce BUT lucky for you mums bloom alot sooner than that, although is is all relative and dependent on the weather.

We list our mums as early, mid, late or season extenders. Mums are short day plants, meaning they bloom when the days become shorter (like we needed to be reminded of that!). The early mums will start to bloom around 1 September with the season extenders not blooming until mid to late October. Warm weather in August can delay bloomtime by a week or so. However, once opened warm weather will shorten the life of the bloom, while cooler, overcast weather will lengthen it. As long as the buds are not open, frost will not hurt the bloom.

Most people I think use mums as annuals but if you want to use them as a perennial, here are a few tips: 1) Do plant them as soon as possible. Don't put them in a container, then plant them in the ground at the last minute; 2) Do plant them in a sunny location in well draining soils; 3) Do use a fertilizer high in phosphorus and low in nitrogen when planting, but once established (i.e. next spring) fertilize monthly. Phosphorus is stimulates root growth, which is important any time you plant, but especially in the fall. ; 4) Do water thoroughly once a week until the ground freezes, usually in November; 5) Don't cut them back in the fall. Leaving the stems on provides winter protection. Also, mulch if you remember; 6) Left to their own devices, mums can get quite tall. Cut them back by about half no later than 30 June.

I forgot to take some pictures so hopefully when I get to work tomorrow we'll will still have some left and I'll add them later.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Garden Heroes

Community Gardens

The Harvard Community Garden germinated as an idea in 1999 when Dave Trumbell and Werner Heidtke got together with Kasey Murphy from the UI Cooperative Extension Service in Woodstock. The first garden was planted in 2001 and it has grown ever since, with the strong support of the City of Harvard and lots of community volunteers. Today, the garden sits on land donated by the City of Harvard and produces over 4,000 pounds of food for the Harvard Food Pantry.
The day I visited it was a great day to be out in the garden. It was cool and sunny and several volunteers had already harvested over 350 pounds of vegetables. There are several other community gardens in McHenry County, including one in McHenry at the Garden Quarter apartments, but the garden in Harvard is the largest. This year volunteers planted over 300 tomato plants, 100 plus peppers and lots of potatoes. They also grow broccoli, cabbage, peas, beans and zucchini. For the seniors that use the food pantry, they grow rhubarb, beets and turnips. To help keep down the weeds (and the work), the volunteers, who are mostly members of the county’s Master Gardener program, put down newspaper and straw between the rows. This also helps retain soil moisture.
The Harvard Food Pantry serves approximately 100 families, though this number fluctuates with the season. During the summer, when more people are working, it declines to 70-80 families. Senior citizens make up roughly 20-25 percent of the total families served.
The University of Illinois Extension Service helps coordinate the volunteers at the community gardens, gives cooking demonstrations at the food pantry and teaches nutrition classes. This government organization is funded by three sources: the federal government, the state and the county, hence the name "coopoerative." It is, I believe, an under-used resource in most communities. Originally founded to serve the agricultural community by taking the research done at our land grant universities and making that technology available to farmers, they soon realized that rural homemakers also needed information about nutrition. While still serving agriculture, they also focus on serving urban communities. The Master Gardeners volunteer to answer gardening questions and the extension staff does community outreach. A product of the 4-H program myself, I am an avid supporter of the extension service and hope that you take advantage of what they have to offer.

Still on my soapbox, if you have some spare time and would like to donate some of it to the community gardens, please give Kasey a call at 815.338.3737 or e-mail her at .
And speaking of vegetables, it still not too late to get in a crop of lettuce or spinach. Stop by Countryside and get a pack or two of cool season vegetables we have already started for you.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fall Bulbs

Planting Bulbs

Most of us think of bulbs only in the spring when we see crocus or tulips blooming in our neighbors’ gardens. I can’t tell you how many people we get at the store in April wanting to buy bulbs already in bloom and they are disappointed to learn that crocus and other bulbs are planted in the fall. We usually have a small amount of blooming bulbs ready to plant or use indoors. This is an expensive way to get early color in the spring. With a little planning you can achieve the same effect for a lot less money.

There are quite a few bulbs that can be planted this fall as soon as the soil temperature drops. Using a technique called "layering," you can extend the blooming period in a small space right through fall. Because different bulbs need to be planted at different depths in the soil you can plant over top of a lower layer of bulbs. The chart shows the depths that bulbs should be planted. Basically, a bulbs should be planted at a level 3 times as deep as its length. Thus, a crocus bulb that is 1" long should be planted about 3" deep in the soil. Remember to plant the bulb pointy end up and root end down.

To layer the bulbs, dig an area as deep as the biggest bulbs you will plant. Place those bulbs at the bottom, cover with dirt and then with some bulb fertilizer or bone meal. Then plant the next layer, cover with dirt and fertilizer. Continue until you have finished. Be sure to water in thoroughly. Bulbs put down their roots in the fall. This technique can also be used to plant up a container to force for next spring.

There are a variety of bulbs that can be planted to get color through three seasons. Within the daffodil and tulip families there are early, mid and late season bloomers. Alliums bloom in late spring or early summer. Lily varieties bloom early to mid summer. I have autumn crocuses and colchicums blooming now in my garden. I first saw the autumn crocuses in London one September and have enjoyed them ever since. The stamens from these plants is harvested for the pollen, which is saffron, the ingredient in pealla. The colchicums, which are often called crocus but aren’t, have huge, elaborate flowers. Several bulb varieties are even deer resistant, including daffodils, allium, grape hyacinth, lily of the valley, scilla, and fritillaria.

When planning your garden, make sure to leave room for bulbs for color that begins early and can last through all three seasons.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A New Entry In The Giant Tomato Contest

Well, this didn't start out to be a contest, but another Countryside employee has grown a pretty darn big tomato. Unfortunately, she ate it before I could get a picture. Donna T. has been a cashier at Countryside for over 10 years and has been an avid gardener all her life. She enjoys ornamental gardening with perennials and annuals, as well as vegetable gardening. Her entry into the tomato contest is a Striped German, that weighed in at 2 lbs. 9 and 1/4 oz. It was 6 1/2" long, 6" wide and approx. 4" high. Donna says the Striped German has been one of her favorite varieties for years. She didn't have any special secrets for growing it, just regular watering and fertilizing. She grew it in a raised bed so drainage was great (which kept it from cracking with all the rain we've had). Some of her other favorites are: Prudens Purple (pink Brandywine heirloom) and Delicious ( hugh red)
For orange varieties which are less acidic -- Jubilee -- medium size, beautiful and cherry tomato Sungold (not heirlooms)
I also trial other varieties, but MUST have these.
Guess the best thing about heirlooms is the taste. The downside is they ripen later than most hybrids.

Donna also says she is looking for seeds for a red bell pepper called ' Vidi '. Not a better tasting red bell out there. Great for roasting.

If you've grown a great tomato and would like to share the experience with other Countryside gardeners, please e-mail the photo and a brief description of how you grew it to me at:

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

One Big Tomato

Every year we (in the editorial sense, not me personally) plant up a big garden out behind the office at Countryside. Lori likes to trial new varieties that we are growing to see if they really perform as the seed catalogues say they do. One of her favorites is an heirloom tomato called Box Car Willie. This year she produced a whopper. This baby weighed 1.62 pounds! Lori used fertilizer spikes that last all season long (a time-saver tip).

And speaking of vegetable gardening, it is not too late to do a late season planting of cool season crops, such as lettuce, cabbage, brocolli, spinach and swiss chard. And we've done some of the work for you by starting these last month and they are now available in House 5. So if your veg garden is looking a little shabby after the rains we had in August you can revitalize it in time for fall.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Off to College

Well, I've had a life changing event this week. We sent the last kid off to college. All the way to Boston. For what ever reason both girls decided that the East coast was where they wanted to be. So Alexa and I drove out to Boston and as we like to do, we made a detour. I have always wanted to visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt house in Hyde Park, New York. It wasn't too far off the New York State Throughway. The house actually belonged to his mother, Sara, and many of the original furnishings are still in the house. We also toured Eleanor's cottage, where she retired to after FDR died, Val-Kill, and a Vanderbilt mansion. There were gardens at both houses and Alexa allowed me to wander through them and take a few pictures.

The gardens at the Vanderbilt mansion were beautiful. At the time the Frederick and Louise lived there, in the late 1800s, at the height of the "Gilded Age," when the grandchildren were busy spending the money their industrialist grandparents and parents had amassed, the gardens supplied all of the cut flowers used in the house. According to our guide, 50-60 arrangements were made everyday. This bed to the right is planted with red cannas surrounded by what I recall to be dwarf pennisetums, or fountain grass. In front is a mass planting of pink zinnias.

This is a view of the Hudson river from the Vanderbilt house. This mansion is the smallest of all the Vanderbilt mansions, with a mere 54 rooms. Frederick Vanderbilt was the black sheep of the family, having married a woman 10 years his senior and divorced from one of his cousins. He recieved $10 million less than his brothers, but interestingly was the only brother to have any money left at the end of his life. The mansion was willed to a niece who immediately put it up for sale for $350, 000 and after getting no takers lowered the price to $250,000. Eventually, for $1 and a big tax break, she gave it to the US National Park Service after appealling to her neighbor at Springwood, President Roosevelt.

My Favorite Gardening Magazine

If I am reduced to writing about my favorite magazine, you would not be amiss if you assumed a slow news week here at Countryside. I don't know about you but I am really looking forward to some cooler weather and NO MOSQUITOS! In the meantime I've been thumbing through some of my Gardeners' World magazine that I wasn't able to thoroughly read when they arrived earlier in the summer.
This magazine is published by the BBC as an adjunct to their popular television series of the same name. I don't know if they show this program on HGTV, since I am the only person on the planet without cable, but all of the program's personalities write articles for the magazine. The pictures are fabulous. I especially like reading about new plant introductions and the section titled, "What to do now." There is a great section on container gardening and always lots of new ideas for the garden. It is very inspirational, especially during the dark days of winter. I took a bunch of last year's issues into work and left them on the lunch table, if you would like to come in and take a look.
What's your favorite gardening magazine? Drop us line and let us know.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fall is for Grasses

Perennial grasses are a wonderful addition to any perennial bed. They provide a nice backdrop, or canvass if you will, for a perennial bed, give some structure to a landscape design and provide some winter interest in the garden when little else is going on.

As you drive around McHenry County you can see grasses used in a variety of ways and with a variety of other plants. For example, by the Noodles on Rt 14 in Crystal Lake, there is a great display of switch grass planted with Russian Sage, day lilies and what I believe to be a type of vibernum shrub. I thought there was a planting of Knockout roses and feather reed grasses in Woodstock on Rt 47, but the other day I went looking for it and couldn't find it. Well, I am getting old and forgetful, but the combination of roses, grasses and russian sage is a good combination none the less.

Grasses come in many shapes, heights, and seed types. There are even some that will take some shade, but those tend to be shorter. Most grasses are clumping varieties, rather than runners, meaning the clumps will widen over time but you won't find them all over your garden.

Some of the shorter varieties that are good candidates for borders are the fescues and prairie dropseed. I found this example of prairie dropseed over by Countryclub Road in Ridgefield. Here it is planted in front of some rudbekias. This is a shorter, spherical shaped grass with airy seed heads that smell of buttered popcorn when touched.
Other varieties you might consider include the Japanese blood grass and the Japanese forest grass or
hakonechloa. This grass is almost chartruese in color and takes part sun to part shade. Its floppy nature gives it almost a water-like quality and would look good in a dry stream to give the illusion of flowing water. I do have to give credit where credit is due: I saw this at Craig Bergman's garden center many years ago and now work with Kim Hartmann who used to work there. What a small world!
Here are some examples of grasses at different times of the year. These are varieties of miscanthus, the one on the left is in my garden during winter. (I did fix the fence this past spring.) The one on the lower right was taken during the fall. The blades have turned golden with a tinge of purple. There are grasses that turn a more purple color during the fall. The Japanese blood grass, a shorter grass, has streaks of purple all summer.
And speaking of purple grasses, here at C'side, we often get questions about a purple grass that did not come back the following year. After a few questions we determine that the grass the customer bought was the Purple Fountain grass. This is a great grass to use in containers or even in the landscape, but it is not hardy in our area. Many plants that are sold in garden centers are grown by national companies and the tags reflect that. The tag for purple fountain grass does say perennial, but if you read closely it is only perennial in zones 8-11.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

water Gardening

I have written about my pond before, so you know how much I love it. I have about 8 frogs living in it now. I don't know how they find it but they do. They are not very vocal. It is fun to watch them sun themselves on the flagstone that surrounds the pond. My taro and cannas have really grown and I just love the cypress I added earlier this year.

If you have thought about adding a pond to your garden but decided it was too much work and/or too expensive how about adding a water feature instead? A water feature can range from a bird bath to a water-based container garden. Water features are available as kits or you can do it yourself with a few commonly found items. They can be above ground or even in the ground.

These two pictures are examples of birdbaths. The first one is a purchased recirculating bird bath. The pump is in the pedestal of the bird bath and the water is pumped up to a "spitter" that is mounted on the side of the bird bath. The second picture is a home-made in ground bird bath made with pond liner and lined with rocks. Although it is hard to see in the picture, there is a small pump that recirculates the water. Birds are attracted to moving water.

Water gardens are easily adapted to smaller spaces with containers. You can use either plastic or ceramic containers. If using a ceramic container you can fill the drainage holes with plumber's epoxy. A small pump can be added to circulate the water and provide the relaxing sound of splashing water. There are a variety of plants that can be used in the container water garden, ranging from dwarf lilies, lotus (quite impressive used alone), canna, taro, cyperess, water lettuce and water hyacinth. All of these will need to be wintered over inside. If the container is big enough (over 5 gallons) you can even add a fish.
I will be giving a seminar on container water gardening this spring at the McHenry County Master Gardeners Garden Fest. Be sure to attend this great day of gardening seminars. If you have any questions you need answered now about water gardening, stop by the store and see me, Steve or Kerry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rain, Rain Rain

I don't know if this is the rainiest August we've ever had, but it must be close. On the upside, it's nice not to have to water and this is the first year in a long time my lawn hasn't looked like shredded wheat. Also, it is easier to weed with the ground so wet. I hope you all take advantage of this opportunity to pull weeds and get the entire root. On the down side, the mosquitos are awful and last Tuesday I awoke to a very wet basement.

We've had calls at the store about plants, container plants especially, not looking too good. The roots of all plants need to have oxygen. If they are water logged from either overwatering or too much rain, they will die. Make sure your containers and window boxes have adequate drainage and if your soils are very clay-ey add organic matter, such as a good compost, to the soil the next time you plant.

Those Summer Time Blues
I would have to say my garden is not looking at its best right at the moment. Lots of my perennials have finished blooming and the fall plants are just starting. There seems to be a little lull in the action. This is good time to consider what I like to call "garden tchotchke." I suppose when I say this the first thing that might come to mind is pink flamingoes and gnomes. And there is nothing wrong with a little whimsy in the garden. But I am really refering to garden statuary, which has a long history in garden design.

When the Victorians (both the English and moneyed Americans) did their grand tour of Europe in the 1700 and 1800s, they went to Greece and Rome and were awed by the ruins of the Acropolis and the Coliseum and other "classical" statuary. They went back home and recreated what they had seen in their own gardens. Overturned Greek columns and the like are known as "follies," since no one really expects to find actual Greek columns in someone's garden back in England.

Today statuary serves several purposes in garden design. It provides some interest at times when little else might, and it provides some structure for the garden, similar to a well placed shrub or tree. Some statuary can be whimsical or it can be "classic." And there are more choices besides just cast stone (a nice way of saying "concrete"). Ironwork comes in a variety of designs. I have an armillary (a type of sun dial) in the middle of my rose garden that has a Jackmanii clematis growing around it. Even in a perennial bed there is a place for an urn planted up with annuals to bring some color closer to your eye. Behind my pond, which is mostly planted with foliage plants I have a cool newel post that is painted bright colors and adds a bit of "pop" to the bed.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

What's In Bloom?

Gardening with perennials can be a little problematic as most perennials have a limited bloom time, usually 4-6 weeks. Some, like the salvias, can be cut back to force a second, later blooming, but most perennials get one shot, then that's it til next year. To get color all season in the perennial bed requires a large enough space to plant different plants with different bloom times to keep the color going. Local author, Pam Duthie, has written several books on perennial gardening for continuous bloom.

Late summer brings with it more blooms but with more subtle colors. Gone are the vibrant colors of spring and early summer, with a few exceptions. Now we move to mauves and purples. And the grasses are now beginning to show their blooms as well.

The other afternoon while I was working in the perennial lot I took some pictures of what was blooming. Late summer is the time for the hardy hibiscus to bloom. This is a plant that is slow to come out of dormancy in spring. After we potted them up last spring, they looked just like sticks for the longest time. But it was worth the wait, because their dinner plate-sized blooms are gorgeous.

Echinceas, or coneflowers, are also blooming. Plant breeders have developed quite a number of different varieties since the major breakthrough with the Orange Meadowbright of a few years ago. These also appear to be hardier than the original Meadowbright, as well. One of the newer varieties has a "mophead" flower.

Eupatorium, or Joe-Pye Weed is a great plant for fall with the added benefit of being attractive to butterflys. There are varieties available that have either green or dark purple leaves, and while most varieties are tall, "Phantom" is one that is shorter at 12"-24". The flowers range from wine red to pink/red.

To add a little pop to the garden this time of year, consider either the rudbekias, Black Eyed Susans, or the Gallardia, with its yellow and orange flowers.

There are several different varieties available suitable for our area, differing mostly in size. The variety "Herbstsonne" can get 4' to 9' tall, while the popular "Goldsturm" is a more manageble 24"-30".
Gallardia, or Blanket Flower, has orange and red flowers. Some varieties have a daisy like flower, while "Fanfare" has a daisy like flower with tubular petals. The plants range in size between 12" to 24"-30" depending on the variety. The newest introduction is "Oranges and Lemons," which has a more subtle orange color.
Staff member Kim Hartmann spent last week at the Perennial Plant Association meetings in Ohio. I am sure she brought back many great ideas for our perennial offerings for next year. Be sure to stop in and ask her how the meetings were.