Friday, June 27, 2008

Garden Walks

One of my most memorable overseas experiences was on a trip to England with my good friend, Mrs. Grindrod. Mr. Ross had given me two round trip tickets to England for Christmas and said I could take anyone I wanted as long as it wasn’t him. We planned our trip around the locales of two series of books we were reading at the time written by Miss Read, otherwise known as Dora Saint. We even got to go to lunch with her one day. Afterward, Debbie and I toured several private gardens that were open to the public in aid of a local charity. We ended the tour at the rectory garden where the ladies were serving a cream tea. It was absolutely delightful. If you are interested in touring private gardens in England you can plan your trip using the National Garden Scheme’s Yellow Book, where you can search to find gardens open in the area. Here in the states, The Garden Conservancy has a similar program. The gardens listed by this organization tend to be large, private gardens. The schedule lists open garden days in many states and we are fortunate to have a few here in Illinois. The nearest open garden for us in Crystal Lake will be June 28 in North Barrington. This garden features a unique garden railway. On July 27, four gardens will be open in Glencoe, Lake Forest and Mettawa and on August 3, the Gardens at Ball, in West Chicago will be open to the public. The greenhouse department at Countryside usually goes to see the gardens during their "trade only" field day, so this is a great opportunity for the general public to see new varieties of perennials and annuals being trialed as well as great container designs, and woodland and wetland restoration projects. There will be guides available to answer questions. You can check out the details and get directions by going to the The Garden Conservancy website.
Closer to home is the upcoming McHenry County Garden Walk sponsored by the McHenry County Master Gardeners. This walk takes place on July 12 and features five local gardens, including that of my neighbor and another of a woman from my garden club. These are both great gardens, cared for by two people who truly love gardening and plants. I am sure the others are fabulous as well. These are great places to get new ideas and also to reassure yourself that your own garden looks pretty darn good.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Garden Patrol: Crystal Lake Community Gardens

Behind Barlina House on Barlina Road is a gardener’s paradise. The Crystal Lake Park District rents garden allotments to anyone interested in gardening. Currently 63 plots have been rented. The day I was there I met Russ and Millie, who were checking on their plot after the heavy rains we’ve had. Their plot was on high ground but several others weren’t.

Russ and Millie have lived in Crystal Lake twice, with a seven year stint in North Carolina, and have always been avid gardeners. They have lived here this time since 1978. This is the second year they have rented a plot from the park district and this year they rented two. They are thinking of getting a third next year. Millie enjoys meeting the other gardeners, saying, "They are such friendly people." Several times last year the gardeners got together for a pot luck dinner at the picnic tables nearby the gardens.

This year they have planted tomatoes, peppers, corn, peas and beans, as well as flowers. They love to eat the vegetables that the garden produces. They have tried different tomatoes but their favorite is the Big Boy. It is big and reliable, and nematode resistant, Millie told me. They try not to use too many chemicals on their crops but when bugs start to eat the garden you have no choice but to, they say. They do mulch between rows to keep down the weeds and retain moisture. This is important since water must be hauled from a spigot a couple hundred feet away. A friend gave them some plastic tubs, which they fill with water and keep by their garden.

They, along with some of the other gardeners, donate the extra vegetables they grow to the Crystal Lake Food Pantry. One of the allotment holders has one whole plot devoted to growing food for the food pantry. If you have an interest in gardening but don’t have enough space at home, the rental fee for a plot is $24/resident, $18/senior citizens and $30/non-resident. It’s a great community of gardeners who are friendly and love to share their love of gardening. Contact the Crystal Lake Park District for more information.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Great Sunflower Project

Here at Countryside we are very concerned about the bees. There was an article last year in the Tribune detailing the decline in the bee population and what is thought to be a virus that kills entire colonies of bees. Any one in agriculture, and that includes all of us who eat, should be aware of how important bees are to food production. According to the USDA, roughly one-third of the food we eat is a result of pollination by bees and animal pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of 90% of flowering plants. Domestic honey bees pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops in the US (North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.)

So, what can the average homeowner do to help this situation? One thing we can do is reduce our use of pesticides, since according to the NAPPC pesticides kill $14.3 million worth of bees a year. When using pesticides follow the directions carefully, don’t spray on windy days, and try not to spray near flowering plants when bees might be present. NAPPC also recommends planting "bee" friendly perennials, such as foxglove, monarda (Bee Balm), and eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed) in our gardens. You can encourage orchard bees, which are solitary, as opposed to hive type bees and are non-aggressive, to live in your garden by setting out bee tubes.

The other thing you can do is participate in the Great Sunflower Project. Researchers at San Francisco State University want to learn more about urban and suburban pollinators and their impact on urban home and community gardens. It is very simple to participate. Go to their website to learn more about the project. Registering is very easy and once registered you will be sent a packet of sunflower seeds. Plant them and when they flower do a bee inventory. An inventory sheet and instructions are on the web site. One of our customers, who is also a friend of mine, is participating and she is going to keep me appraised of her results. This sounds like a great project to do with your kids this summer. Let us know how you do.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Lawn Care

Phosphorus as a lawn fertilizer element has made the news lately as being a major cause of water quality issues in our lakes and streams. Excess phosphorus, from phosphates in lawn fertilizers causes algae growth and reduces water quality, especially in standing bodies of water such as lakes. If any of you are as old as I am, you may remember when phosphorus was removed from laundry detergents for this very same reason. It helped whiten fabrics, and my mom was very worried about getting Fred’s shirts their whitest after it was banned. But somehow we survived that crisis. Some cities and states have already banned phosphates in lawn fertilizer. Minnesota banned phosphates in 2005 and Maine in 2008. Here in Chicagoland, Antioch and Third Lake, in northern Illinois recently banned it.

So, what is phosphorus and why is it in fertilizer? When you buy fertilizer there are usually three numbers on the box or bag that describe the available amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is responsible for green growth in plants. It is what makes the grass green up in the spring. Potassium helps with general plant health, including tolerating stresses such as heat, cold and disease resistance. Phosphorus, in the form of phosphates, stimulates root growth, increases stem and stalk strength and improves flower formation. This is why we always recommend high phosphate starter or transplant fertilizers when planting new annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. It is generally not necessary in lawn fertilizers, unless soil testing shows your soil to be phosphorus deficient and then only when seeding or laying sod.

Americans love their lawns and strive for the greenest lawn on the block. Proper lawn care will help your lawn look its best and reduce your use of fertilizers and herbicides (weed killers). The following steps will help your lawn look its best:

1. Aerate: The soil beneath most lawns becomes compacted over time reducing the amount of oxygen available to the roots. Aerating even once a year will help this. After aerating you can top dress with compost to add organic matter to the soil. This will help reduce the compaction further, increase drainage and increase the water holding ability of the soil.

2. Watering: Most lawns (and plants) need an inch of water a week. It is best to water infrequently but deeply to encourage roots to grow deep. This will help during periods of drought.

3. Fertilizing: Fertilize in the early spring and fall, when the grass is actively growing. Don’t fertilize during the hot summer months. Sweep up any fertilizer that gets on the drive or sidewalk.

4. Mowing: Cut the grass to a height of between 2-3 inches and only remove one-third of the growth at a time. This may mean cutting the lawn twice a week instead of weekly. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn. They will decompose over time and add organic matter back into the soil. Keeping the grass cut high should also reduce weeds as the grass will shade the seeds and keep them from germinating. A thick healthy lawn is better able to crowd out any weeds that are growing.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Hostas are a great plant with many cultivars, or sports, used in landscaping a shady area. While they do get a fragrant usually white or lavender flower, they are mostly grown for their foliage. The leaves can be ovate or elongate, small or large, and can range in color from blue to chartreuse as well as variegated.

While hostas are generally disease-free I recently became aware of a hosta disease called Hosta Virus X or HVX, for short. This disease manifests itself as blotching, called ink bleed, on the leaves and unusual leaf corrugations. It was discovered in 1996 and is spreading. It is transmitted mechanically, by using secateurs, scissors or even spades when cutting or dividing infected plants and then using those same tools on uninfected plants. Infected plants may not immediately show the symptoms of the disease until stressed by some environmental factor, such as drought or cold.

There is no cure for the disease. It is not necessarily fatal but plants that are highly susceptible can die. Unusual blotching or leaf corregations does not mean your plants are infected since several things may cause that to happen including cold weather but if you see any unusual blotching on your hostas it may be best to remove the plant and throw it away. Do not put it on the compost pile. Clean your tools with a solution of 10% bleach water after using them on each plant. Do not buy hostas if you don’t know where they came from. The virus is not thought to spread via the soil so you can replant in the same area although researchers do recommend waiting a few weeks so that any remaining plant material from the infected plants dies completely.
Hostas that appear to be more susceptible to HVX seem to be the gold or chartreuse colored varieties, in particular Sum and Substance and Gold Standard. Some varieties, or sports, that have been recently named are not actually new varieties but plants with HVX. The University of Arkansas web site has a chart listing highly susceptible, somewhat susceptible and sports known to be infected with the virus.
For more information here are some Web sites to go to: