Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top Performing Annuals

Last week I watched a “web” inar by Dr. Alan Armitage of the University of Georgia, Athens. For us plant geeks, Dr. Armitage is like a hero as a plant breeder and promoter of annuals and perennials alike. His webinar topic was “Best Performing Annuals,” and it covered both flowering and foliage annuals. At the trial gardens the plants are evaluated every two weeks for number of flowers, leaf color, disease and insect resistance and over all performance. The data are then combined to come up with a single performance score.

It is important to us as retailers to only sell plants that we know perform well. It is also important to everyone up the marketing and production chain. So seed companies, growers and retailers all have an interest in making sure the plants we grow and sell will perform for the end user, you our valued customer. There are all kinds of trials that are done to make sure we all get it right. The most famous is probably the California Pack Trials, but other organizations also host these types of trials, including our land grant universities. When I was a grad student at Michigan State University, the entire campus was an All American garden and it was a big deal during the summer when the seed company execs would come to see how their plants had performed well and which would be going on to full production.

Well Dr. Armitage offered up some really cool plants and here are just a few that caught my eye. As you look through your gardening magazines and start to plant for your containers for next summer keep these in mind. Also here is the link to Dr. Armitage’s web site. You can see pictures from their trial gardens and learn about how you can visit if you are ever down that way.

Breathless Blush– This is a euphorbia similar to Diamond Frost but with a pink blush to the flower. It makes a great “filler” plant in a container and would go well with silver toned foliage plants and darker purple petunias.

Sun Patiens– These impatiens are bred to be more sun tolerant than regular impatiens, tho even those will do well in sun if given enough water. The cool thing about some of the sun patiens (I think) is the foliage. Several varieties have variegated foliage, which is quite stunning.

Zinnia– Zinnias are some of my favorite annuals. Their flowers are very colorful and last a long time on the stem. They are a traditional flower for the cutting garden. That said they are somewhat spindly and need to be planted at the back of the garden. The Zahara series was profiled on the webinar and were very nice. Another more compact zinnia is the Profusion which comes in a variety of flower colors.

Celosia– Michael is not a fan of celosia because it is prone to mildew with the type of flower that is has. The “plumed” varieties retain a lot of water and fall over due to the weight in the flower head. I think the “cocks comb” variety is very unique and would look good toward the front of the container.

Ornamental Peppers– We most often think of these as accent plants for our fall containers, but when I was at MSU all the summer annual beds were edged with ornamental peppers. It was truly beautiful.

Pennisetum Jade Princess– This is a relative of the purple fountain grass that is so popular in containers but has that brilliant jade coloring. Like the purple fountain grass it is not hardy in our climate so don’t expect it to come back the next spring. Like its purple cousin the seed head will attract birds in the fall.

I hope this has given you some ideas for next spring when planning your containers and gardens.  I know after this last week and our frigid temps it probably seems like light years away but it will be here sooner than you think.  Remember we are always available at Countryside to help with any of your gardening questions.  If you are interested in seeing what a trial garden looks like, the closest one to us is the Ball Seed Garden in West Chicago.  They have a big "Open Day" in August when visitors are welcome to visit and Master Gardeners are on hand to answer questions.

Monday, November 23, 2009

More Fall Chores

Thanksgiving is a good marker for many garden chores.  It is still too early for any pruning, especially for roses, which have not yet gone dormant.  You may also want to clean up your perennial beds.  I personally like to wait until spring.  The stems and dried seed heads can be quite attractive covered in snow.  There is a benefit to leaving the stems on as it does protect the root crown.  If you feel you must cut them down now, leave at least 6" of stem above the ground.
But here is something to do if you have broadleaf evergreens, such as boxwood, azaleas and rhododendrons.  The rain we had last week didn't amount to much at my house and it has been so dry up to this point, it is a good idea to give these plants and your evergreens a long drink of water, especially the azaleas and rhodies, as they are very shallow rooted.  Another good practice is to spray them with an anti-transpirant.  This is a waxy coating that keeps them from drying out.  Wilt-Pruf is one brand, Wilt-Stop from Bonide is another.  These pictures from Wilt Pruf show the difference when
one is treated and one is not.  The waxy coating prevents the plant from drying out when the ground is frozen and the plant cannot take up water.

Wilt Pruf and Wilt Stop can also be used on holiday greens used in decorating.  If you decorate your patio containers for the holidays give them a spray of the Wilt Pruf or Wilt Stop.  This will usually keep them looking good through late winter. 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Preparing Roses for Winter

Roses can be tricky to grow here in Northern Illinois. Selecting the proper type of rose is one way to ensure success in growing roses. Proper care is essential.

I have grown hybrid tea roses in the past but not very successfully. I’d always lose one or two over the winter. I did notice that the shrub roses I had required little care and always came back the next spring. Shrub roses are much hardier than hybrid teas and though you do sacrifice bloom size you make up for it in sheer quantity of blooms. Most climbing roses perform similarly. I have a chain link fence on one side of my garden and a couple years ago decided to plant a climbing rose to help hide the fence. I chose a zephirine drouhin, which is from a very old class of roses and very fragrant. It only blooms once a season but it also tolerates some shade.

Proper pruning in preparation for winter is key to rose growing success. Pruning any plant encourages new growth. This new growth will be very weak and will not survive over the winter. It will add stress to the plant and could end up killing the entire plant. It is important to wait until the rose is fully dormant before doing any pruning, such as you might do to fit a rose cone over it.
Yesterday I was planting some bulbs around my climber and I was stunned to see how much new growth has occurred this fall. There are new lateral branches emerging from the main canes as well as 6-8 inches of new growth at the end of the main canes. This rose is now where near dormant.

Winter Pruning Tip: Wait until all the leaves have fallen from the rose before pruning. If you use rose cones don’t put them on until the plant is fully dormant and can be safely pruned to fit under the cone. Some years this may not occur until late December! Alternatively, you can use rose collars. These are tall strips of plastic that wrap around the base of the plant and allow you to backfill with top soil or garden soil to protect the rose. Also, remember, the purpose of winter protection is not to keep the rose from freezing but rather to keep the rose in a chilled state and avoid the temperature fluctuations from mid-winter warm ups.

If you have shrub roses, you really don’t have to do much to prepare them for winter. You’ll never get them to fit under a cone or get a rose collar around them. They really don’t need the protection anyway. Next spring just prune out any dead canes or branches and give it a good shaping.

Most climbing roses bloom on old wood from last year’s growth so you don’t want to prune in the fall. You can selectively prune out dead canes in the spring or if you have to cut them back do it right after they have bloomed

If you have questions about what kind of rose you have, check with the Countryside greenhouse staff.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fall Lawn Care

I spent most of the day raking leaves. What a chore-- and a waste. Leaf compost is such a great addition to the garden soil. Really, adding any type of organic matter can improve just about any soil. Soil too sandy? Add organic matter. Soil to heavy? Add organic matter. Soils to alkaline? Again, add organic matter. Alot of people like to use mushroom compost, which contrary to its name, is not made from mushrooms but rather the compost (the straw from horse manure, poultry litter, ground corn cobs, rice hulls, etc) in which it is grown. It can be high is salts and is not the best compost to use in our heavy clay soils. Since we have so many leaves this time of year, why not compost them instead of burning them or adding them to land fills?

My neighbor down the street piles all of his leaves directly on his veg. garden and then tills them in right before he plants in the spring. If you don't have too many leaves to deal with you can just run them over with the mower and shred them. Don't leave too thick a layer (you may want to mow several times or rake them out) since they will smother the grass which leads to many more problems next spring. Also make sure you rake the leaves out of the flower beds because a thick layer of leaves will also smother your perennials. You could rake back in shredded leaves because they break down much more easily than non-shredded leaves.

I have a rotating composter so I am going to shred the leaves with the mower and then add them to the composter. I am hoping to get a good ratio of brown (leaves) and green (grass clippings that are high in nitrogen and gets the whole process started). I am also going to make a more concerted effort to add appropriate items from the kitchen to the composter. I did this last year and got a nice batch of compost but then sort of lost interest. My brother just digs a shallow hole off to the side of his yard and fills it in with the leaves and a few shovels full of dirt to start the composting process.

As we go into the winter season, you might want to consider giving the lawn one last feeding with a low nitrogen fertilizer (10-1-10 is a good analysis) but one that is high in insoluble nitrogen so that whatever the grass doesn't absorb this fall will still be in soil for the grass next spring.

Also begin to lower the deck on your mower. Usually we recommend a mowing height of 2-3 inches but as you get close to your last mowings gradually lower it to 1-1.5 inches. This will help prevent winter diseases like snow mold.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Big Freeze

We are supposed to get a hard frost tonight so for all intents and purposes our growing season is over. Last weekend I brought in my tropical patio plants after a touch of cold got my taro. It is recovering but several of the leaves are toast. At the last minute today I decided to try to over winte my rosemary plant. I like cooking with fresh herbs and it was great having an herb container right outside my kitchen door. The basil had gone to flower months ago, but the thyme and rosemary were doing well. Thyme is a perennial, even here, but not the rosemary. Since it was going to die anyway I figure I don't have anything to lose by bringing it indoors.

There are a few things to remember about bringing plants indoors. More than likely I will have brought in a few unwanted guests (insects) with my plants. I can use systemics on my tropicals but not on edible plants. I can get sticky traps and wipe down the plants to try and physically remove any insect eggs from the leaves.

Usually the plant will undergo a kind of "culture" shock when brought indoors. Even the sunniest spot in your house is not the same as being outside in the sun. You may notice the leaves drooping or even dropping. Resist the urge to water unless you have checked the soil and found it dry. Dropping leaves is a natural part of the plant's effort to acclimate itself to its new environment. Eventually (hopefully) the leaves will grow back and these new leaves will be acclimated to the new conditions. Also, resist the urge to fertilize. Feeding a plant when it is not growing much causes the new growth to be weak and leggy.

I have a spot behind my kitchen sink that is pretty sunny and also conveniently located for cooking so that is where my rosemary will go. I hope it likes it there.

Another factor in surviving winter months for all house plants is humidity. When the furnace is running it really dries out the air and this is bad for most plants. Most plants like about a 50% humidity level. You can increase the humidity around the plant by misting it periodically or by placing trays of water near the plant. Lori always recommends filling a saucer with pebbles and then adding water. Put the plant on top of the pebbles so that it is not actually sitting in the water. This will create a constant humidity dome around the plant.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Over Wintering Tropical Plants

Saturday morning I stepped out on my back deck to discover the temperature had dropped so low overnight that my taro plant (colocasia) leaves were all curled. I drug it in the house and no permanent damage seems to have been done. So we all probably need to think about bringing in our tropical plants and digging up the non-hardy bulbs in the garden. Some plants do seem better able to handle the stress of being indoors than others. My hibiscus and jasmine do just fine, but the Princess Flower I tried to overwinter last year made it to about February then just died. I haven't had much luck with gardenias either. So I guess what I am saying is that as beautiful as some plants are it's just not worth the effort. Pitch them onto the compost pile with no regrets.
Another thing to be mindful of when bringing plants indoors, is what else you may be bringing in. Insects often lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves or in the soil and when you bring plants into a warm room the eggs will hatch and now you have an insect problem. There are many products on the market suitable for houseplants. Ann Larson from the Countryside greenhouse recommends cleaning the plant leaves with an all-purpose cleaning product we sell. You can also use systemic insecticides or sticky traps.
For my hibiscus and jasmine, I just drag them into my dining room, where they apparently get the right amount of sun because they do just fine. The hibiscus has even bloomed in there in January-- what a treat that is!

The canna are also easy to overwinter. I just let them die back in their containers and put them, container and all, into the the basement where it is cool and dry. Last year I did the same with the taro.

Other plants to overwinter:

Gladiolas-- When the foliage has died back, use a garden fork to lift them from the ground. Let them dry and clean the dirt off. Place them in a box with some peat moss or shavings and put them in a cool dark place. When the soil has warmed up in the spring you can plant them again. When you are digging you will find tiny bulblets--baby glads, if you will. Store them as well and replant in the spring. It will take a few years before they are big enough to bloom, but they will eventually.

Dahlias-- This is another garden favorite known for its large colorful blooms. These are actually tubers, and they can be over wintered as well. After the first frost, use a garden fork to lift the tubers. They can be quite large so be prepared. Let them dry for a day, and then cut off the stems, clean off the dirt and store in a box with peat moss or shavings in a cool dark place.

One of the benefits of overwinter bulbs and tubers is that you are saving older more productive tubers and the result the following year should be bigger blooms.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Travel in Guatemala

Mike in the greenhouse has a saying, “Everything is a perennial somewhere.” (The corollary is “Perennial does not mean eternal,” but that is a topic for another day.) This was really brought home to me last month when I spent a week in Guatemala with my dad and the Bend, OR area Habitat for Humanity group building houses.

Guatemala shares its northern border with Mexico and its southern border with El Salvador. In the 90s many US companies had textile plants in several Central American countries sewing garments. These business have now moved elsewhere in the search for cheaper labor and their economies have really suffered. Our build site was in the western highlands town of Quetzaltenango, which means “place of the quetzal,” their national bird and name of their currency. Their were about 15 people in our group. My dad, Fred, was the oldest participant at 78 and the youngest was 16. It was a great group of people and we were able to shave about a week off the normal time it would take to finish these very basic concrete block houses.

But, back to the plants...
One of my favorite tropical plants is Tibouchina urvilleana or Princess Flower. It has masses of purple flowers and velvety leaves. It is zoned 10-11 so it does not winter over here in Crystal Lake, IL. Mike and I have both tried to over winter it indoors. It makes it to January or February and then croaks. Naturally they thrive in Guatemala where I saw it planted in many town parks and plazas and about 5' tall.

Impatiens (shade) and pentas (sunny and attracts butterflies and hummingbirds) are used as annual bedding plants here. There they can winter over from one season to the next and get the size of small shrubs. I saw a New Guinea Impatiens with stems the size of your thumb. I will say there is a tradeoff. None of these were blooming in years 2 and more the way they do in year 1. I don’t know if this was because they weren’t getting fertilized or if they were just “fatigued” and needed a good pruning.

Another plant I saw reach its full potential was croton. Ann Larson sells these in the interior plantscape department. They have large yellow/bronze foliage and make a great house or office plant. I have seen them used in the borders at the Boston Public Garden to great effect. In Guatemala they were as big as small trees. Unbelievable.

Finally, because I know Lori will be thrilled to know that someone loves irisine, I saw it everywhere– in the median strip of large boulevards, at highway interchanges, everywhere where no one wanted to spend a lot of time on maintenance proving another favorite saying “Every plant has its place.”

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Garden Patrol-- Jackie's Garden

I’ve been helping neighbor Dave with his fight against the creeping charlie that has invaded his lawn. We really knocked it hard a few weeks ago with the Weed Beater Ultra but it looks like we will have to hit it again before we reseed but with the weather we’ve had to take a break. So while we wait how bout another installment of Garden Patrol?

My daughter Alexa showed me this garden one day when we were out on our bikes. It belongs to the grandmother of one of her friends. What intrigued me about this garden is its complete lack of lawn area. I don’t know how well this concept would translate on a large country lot but it is fabulous on a smaller city lot. I absolutely loved the creeping jenny (lysimachia nummularia) “walkway.” You may have seen this plant used as the “spiller” or vining plant in a container, but it actually is winter hardy in our area. It takes sun or shade (in shade it turns darker green as the plant tries to capture as much chlorophyll as possible) and it likes water. It works well around a pond. As you can see in this picture Jackie has it planted with lamium, pulmonaria, geranium and various hostas.

One of the things I think is important in garden design is adding permanent structures. Jackie has done this in a couple of different ways. In the front, amidst the greenery of the perennials, is a whiskey half barrel (split longways) that is filled with red impatiens. This does a couple things for the garden: It brings the flower up closer to the viewer and it adds additional dimension to the plantings. Jackie has done a great job with texture, with the lamium, coral bells, hostas and pulmonaria. Adding the impatiens ensures that there will be constant bloom at least in this part of the garden – what a treat to have that pop of red!

The back garden is just as inviting and this dry creek bed adds some structure and visual interest to the design. If you’ve ever wanted a water element but didn’t want to make such a big commitment, a dry creek bed gives the impression of water without actually having to add the water. Jackie has integrated a small fountain at the head of the creek bed to give her that soothing sound of water in a smaller form.

Jackie’s garden is quite shady but she still likes to grow vegetables. The sunniest spot in her garden is the side yard next to the driveway. The dilemma is that she also enjoys the monarda and other sunny perennials that grow there and attract hummingbirds in the summer and didn’t want to give up. The compromise is to grow vegetables in containers. She has a few peppers in one and some tomatoes in the other.

Jackie’s Garden Tip: Jackie uses Soil Moist crystals in her potting mixes to help with the watering. In the pepper container, she has buried several liter sized plastic bottles cap end up in the soil. She poked holes in the bottom of the bottles and when she waters, she uncaps the bottles and fills them with water. As the soil dries it wicks the water out of the bottles, providing constant moisture for the plants. (This might also work with house plants when you go on vacation.)

Here's another picture of the side yard. Jackie is using arborvitae as a screen from the neighbor's driveway. Arbs are pretty fast growing. Jackie bought these a few years ago when they were only a foot tall and now they are almost 5 feet tall! I wasn’t surprised to learn that Jackie is a long-time volunteer McHenry County Master Gardener. The Master Gardener group in McHenry County is very active. As payback for the training they receive they are expected to contribute volunteer hours at the McHenry County Extension Office in Woodstock. There they man phones answering gardening questions from the public. If you have any questions they can be reached at 815-338-4747. Their annual garden walk will take place July 11 which is also the same day as the Countryside Flower Shop and Nursery Pond Tour. A great day for visisting gardens and ponds in McHenry County.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lawn Renovation 2

As I mentioned I have been helping neighbor Dave with his lawn. He has a terrible problem with creeping charlie, also known as ground ivy, but whose botanic name is glechoma nederacea. As with most plants, glechoma family has variaties that are considered ornamental, and some that are, well, not so much. We sell a variety at Countryside that Micheal uses in mixed containers for the "spiller," that is the viney plant that spills over the side of the container. (Lori always calls it glaucoma, but it has nothing to do with the eye disease.)

Any way, a few weeks ago we sprayed his lawn with a product called Bonide Weed Beater Ultra. It is a broad leaf herbicide and does not contain 2,4-D. Instead the active ingredient is carfentrazone. 2,4-D acts by causing the plant to grow so fast it outgrows its food supply and dies. Carfentrazone acts by disrupting photosynthesis and causing the cell walls rupture. ALWAYS, always, always follow the directions on the label for application rates, re-entry into the area, and re-application intervals. Also, most herbicides work best when air temperatures are moderate, say below 85 F. And don't spray if it is windy.

You can see by the pictures that the first application really knocked it for a loop but there is still some life in it so we will have to make a second application. The label for the Weed Beater Ultra says you can re-apply in 2-6 weeks but that you should make no more than two applications per season.

I have a problem with garlic mustard. This is a problem in many areas of McHenry County. Garlic mustard is a very invasive weed and poses a severe threat to native plants and animals by aggressively competing for light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space. Where herbicides cannot be used you can hand pull the plants when the soil is wet so that you get the entire root or you can cut the second year stems to the ground to prevent the flowers from going to seed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lawn Renovation Part 1

Neighbor Dave has a terrible problem with Creeping Charlie so I have been giving him advice on how to get rid of it. For most of us here in suburbia, a lush green lawn is the sign of a well kept home and garden.

The best way to keep weeds, diseases and insects to a minimum is to use good horticultural practices. This will save you time and money in the long run, because the best defense is a good offense.

1. Always mow at the correct height. I told neighbor Dave over the weekend that he was mowing his lawn too short. "We don't live on a golf course, so your lawn doesn't have to look like a putting green!" The University of Illinois recommends most bluegrass lawns to be cut at about 2-3" high. This does several things. It keeps the soil shady and reduces weed seed germination and helps to retain moisture in the soil.

2. Keep your mower blades sharp. This makes a clean cut when you do mow and keeps the grass from looking raggedy.

3. If you do water, water early in the morning and water deeply but infrequently. Watering early allows the grass to dry off before the sun hits it. The drops of water can act like a magnifying glass and burn the grass. Also, watering at night encourages fungus growth. Watering deeply encourages the roots to grow deeper and makes for a stronger turf that can better withstand drought.

4. Proper fertilization: The University of Illinois recommends 2-4 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 sq feet per year. Fertilizers come labeled with 3 numbers. These represent the percentage of nitrogen (first number), phosphorus (sec0nd number) and potassium (third number). The nitrogen is for growth, the phosphorus is for flowering and the potassium is for overall plant health, in a nutshell. You should fertilize 3-4 times a year. If you are going to apply 1 pound of nitrogen each time of a 20-1-3 fertilizer and you have 7,000 sq. ft. yard you would need to apply 35 pounds of total fertilizer for each application. (1/.2)*7000/1000)

Are all types of nitrogen the same? No. Look for fertilizers that have water insoluble or slowly available types of nitrogens. These nitrogens do not leach out of the soil or evaporate into the air so they are better for the environment. Also, our soils are already high in phosphorus, so look for fertilizers that have a low second number. Neighbor Dave and I are using a completely organic fertilizer made from composted poultry manure. Organic fertilizers are high in insoluble and slowly available nitrogens, so the nitrogen is always available to the grass when it needs it.

Next posting we will look at how Dave's fight with the creeping charlie is coming.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Macy's Flower Show

I missed the Chicago Flower Show at Navy Pier in March, so last month I met Alexa down at the State Street Macy's for their annual flower show. Obviously, not the same scope and scale as the one at Navy Pier but a treat none-the-less on a dreary rainy Sunday. The City of Chicago Master Gardeners manned the information booth to answer any questions and there were lots of flower arranging demonstrations from some of the more avant garde downtown flower shops.

Here are a few of the things we saw: I just love topiaries, where the plants are wired, trimmed and pruned to grow into a specific shape not found in nature. This kalanchoe flamingo was really bright and cheery. Kalanchoe is a common plant available in most flower shops. It makes a great gift because of its bright flowers and long bloom time. The blossoms range from white to yellow to orange, red and hot pink. They are a succulent and require well drained soil, a sunny location and little water. They can be made to rebloom. First, cut back the faded flowers, then place the plant in a dark room for about a month. When new buds have formed bring the plant back to a sunny location and begin watering again.

The shrub at the center top of this picture is a variety of azalea called "Northern Lights." What is unique about this shrub, and what makes it a great azalea for our climate, is the fact that it is deciduous, unlike other azaleas and their cousins rhododendrons, that are evergreen. Why does this matter? Because these plants go dormant and are not subject to drying out in our winters. They are not as floriferous as the evergreen ones but I suppose, like lots of things in life, it's a trade off.

The Macy's designers must have had fun putting together these displays. It reminds us that we should have fun in our gardens. Add things that are whimsical or create an unusual juxtaposition, whether it's a fun plant or piece of statuary or even an old bike with the baskets planted up with annuals. Especially this year we could all use a little chuckle and what better place than in our garden.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Snow in March

What a shock to the system to wake up this morning to a snow frosted landscape. No working in the garden today. For deciduous trees that have not yet leafed out, this bit of heavy, wet snow is usually not a disaster. Down the street from me several trees have branches hanging over the street. If they had already leafed out the extra weight of the snow would have been enough to break them. This happened to us a lot in Colorado, where we once had snow the first week of June and sometimes as early as September. We would be out at midnight shaking the snow out of the trees.

Here it is the evergreens that take the brunt of these late snows. My neighbors have arborvitaes as a screen and over the years many branches have broken. Some are hanging over onto my side of the fence. You can take a broom or rake and gently push up on the branches to remove the snow. Where branches have broken you will need to prune them. This will aid the tree in healing over and reduce the opportunity for disease or insect damage later on. You can go to the Cornell University extension web site for a down loadable brochure on pruning to see how to do it properly.

It is also time to cut back your ornamental grasses. They can be cut back to about 6 inches. You might also give some thought about dividing them. They should be divided about every 2-3 years otherwise they die out in the middle and begin to look like a donut. Many perennials have this tendency if not divided frequently. It is actually a survival mechanism. As the middle dies and begins to decompose it provides needed nutrients to the remaining part of the plant. However, since I know you are very diligent gardeners and fertilize with a well balanced fertilizer every year and otherwise take good care of your gardens, it is an un-necessary task for the plant to do this and plants with holes in the middle are unsightly in the garden. So transplant regularly, (spring is great time to do this), and if you run out of room, find a friend who would like them or donate them to Habitat for Humanity.

And speaking of grasses, this year’s Plant of the Year, as selected by the Perennial Plant Association, is the Hakonechloa “Aureola,” otherwise known as Japanese Forest grass. I guess we don’t often think of grasses as being a perennial, but really they are and the PPA is to be commended for selecting a grass as this year’s Plant of the Year as they have become so popular in recent years. I would have thought that the Plant of the Year might have been a miscanthus, one of my favorite grasses, but the Hakonechloa does have a lot going for it. This grass is hardy in zones 5-8 (we are zone 5) and in our climate does well in partial sun and moist, rich soil. Its leaves are gold with green stripes and will lighten up the darker corners of any garden. It would also look good in a container, with some colorful coleus. It is also deer resistant, which is a definite benefit where we live. You can also go to the Perennial Plant Association web site to learn more about this plant and the PPA.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Clematis are a great group of flowering vines that are adaptable to many situations. They are usually sold as “sun” perennials, but in fact there are many varieties that tolerate some amounts of shade. There are low growing “shrub” type clematis, clematis that bloom early spring, in the summer and several varieties that bloom in the fall. Most clematis have large, even huge, blooms and some with smaller, more dainty, bell-shaped blooms. Clearly, there is a clematis out there with your name on it.

What throws people off is how to prune it. Most plants are pretty forgiving with how we prune them, the worst that will happen is that you will accidently prune off this year’s buds and you won’t get any flowers for a year. So don’t be nervous… just follow these simple instructions:
Clematis can be divided into three types of plants: those that bloom in the spring, those that bloom in the summer/early fall and those that bloom twice, once in early summer and again in late summer (truth be told I have never had one of my twice blooming plants actually bloom the second time).

Group 1 plants bloom on old wood and should be pruned only after they have flowered for the year. These plants bloom early in the spring. Remove all the dead and weak stems immediately after flowering.
Group2 plants bloom on new and old wood so they bloom both in the early summer and then later on in the summer (maybe). Watch for swelling buds and carefully remove all dead stems above the swelling buds.
Group 3 clematis flowers only on new growth. These are the plants that flower in the early summer. These types of clematis can be pruned hard in February or March.

Here are a few other facts about clematis care:
Clematis prefer cool roots. Dig the hole about 2 feet deep and amend with organic matter. Set the clematis with the crown of the plant about 1 inch below the top of the hole. Back fill with the amended soil and water in thoroughly.
Clematis stems are very brittle. Tie the clematis to the trellis or what ever you want it to grow up and be sure to protect the base of the plant with screening material to prevent animals from damaging the stems.
Apply a layer of mulch over the winter months.

Here's another interesting thought when selecting clematis: you can plant several varieties together as shown in the picture on the right. You can select plants that bloom at the same time but in different colors or you can plant ones that bloom at different times so you always have something blooming. If you want to learn more about clematis, visit the greenhouse staff at Countryside.

Here are some varieties to try for shadier areas:

Alabast: Creamy white 5-6” flowers. Blooms May, June and August
Clair de Lune: 6-7” white blooms that turn to pale lavender. Blooms June, July and late August.
Elsa Spath- Rich lavender blooms, free flowering
Nelly Moser- pale pink with a red bar down the middle, blooms June and September
Lemon Chiffon- pale yellow cream
Viticella varieties: smaller 4-5” flowers, blooms profusely in July and August

Friday, March 13, 2009

Well, this past weekend would not have been a good one to spend out in the garden, but better weather will be here soon! Before things really get going, there are a few chores to be done prior to plants coming out of dormancy and that is pruning. Early spring is a great time to prune because the trees and shrubs have not leafed out and you can still see the branches and most plants heal more quickly in the spring than they do at other times of the year.

We prune for a variety of reasons. Pruning helps maintain the health of the plant. You can begin to control and train the growth of young trees and shrubs so that more drastic pruning doesn’t have to be done later. We also prune to rejuvenate shrubs, but sometimes replacement is the best option in these cases. Trees are a huge investment and add value to our homes, so it is worth spending the time to take care of them properly.

Shrubs: If you are rejuvenating a shrub do not prune more than of the plant during any one growing season. In most instances you will just be removing dead canes or giving a light shaping. In the early spring you can prune the summer blooming spireas, Rose of Sharon, dogwoods (those with colorful bark), privets, potentilla, St. John’s wort and snowberry. You could also prune the buddleia’s, caryopteris, and Russian sage, but here in our part of the country these tend to die back to the ground. Later in the early summer you can prune or shape the spring blooming shrubs such as lilac, rhodendrons, azaleas, and spring blooming spireas.

Trees: If you have mature trees it is probably best to call in a professional. They should send out a certified arborist to do the initial examination of the trees in question. They have the right equipment and experience to do the job right. There is a great pamphlet on the Cornell University web site called "An Illustrated Guide to Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs". They also have information on pruning fruit trees for maximum performance. Pruning fruit trees is definitely a science.

Roses: I always wait until my roses start to bud out before I prune. This way I know exactly what winter damage has occurred. I prune down to the first outward facing bud break. This encourages the growth away from the middle of the plant. You really want to keep the middles as free from branches and leaves as possible. This way light can get all the way down to the lower branches and give the plant the greatest opportunity for photosynthesis as possible. This will lead to greater flower production and is better for overall plant health.

One thing that is really important when pruning is using the proper tools and having them well maintained. At Countryside, the greenhouse staff all use Felco pruners. The great thing about Felco pruners is the blades are replaceable. They are made from high quality steel so they maintain their edge longer and it is worth getting them sharpened. We totally abuse our pruners, cutting wire and plastic and all sorts of things we shouldn’t. Last year K.C.’s husband Duane sharpened all our pruners and that edge lasted all summer. If your budget can’t stand the Felco’s, Corona tools has several pruners that come close to the Felco’s and are not as expensive. Also the Corona tool website has two downloadable guides to pruning so check those out at (Lucky thing I always check these links. The first time I typed this in from memory I thought it was just "corona," which naturally took me to the Corona beer site.)

I was going to also cover pruning clematis but that is whole blog in itself so I will cover that next time.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Just a Bunch of Stuff

The other week, obviously when we were still in the deep freeze, I met the younger daughter down in Chicago for the day. She is on an internship, living in our condo, and thinking this must be what it’s like to be a grown up, minus the rent bill. It has given me plenty of reasons to go downtown for the weekend or just even a day. I never take advantage of the opportunities we have with Chicago being so close. We have promised ourselves to take some of the neighborhood tours the city offers in the summer to become more familiar with the place we call home. But, I digress.
Here’s what I really meant to write about today. We meandered through Millennium Park and through the Lurie Gardens. I was there late last spring when the salvia was in bloom and it looked just like an ocean, with wide swaths of blue. It’s all well and good to have a garden that looks great in spring and summer, but what about winter? What do you look at then? Perennial grasses are one thing you can plant to give you winter interest. The grasses we saw were some type of miscanthus, judging by the seed head. There are several other grass varieties that also look good in the perennial garden, or even as specimen plantings (meaning they look good just on their own.) These would include the calamagrostis (feather reed grass), pennisetums ( fountain grasses), and panicums (switch grass). I think the miscanthus is one of the best, with lots of cultivars from which to choose.
These pictures I think really illustrate another topic we talk about when designing a garden and that is structure. Just what does the designer mean when he/she talks about structure in the garden? One of my favorite garden writers, Joe Eck, says that structure is what is visible at a distance and can be seen in winter. So, we leave perennial grasses unpruned for the winter as a way to add structure to the garden.

Structural elements in the garden aren’t necessarily always botanic, i.e. plants. They can be pieces of garden art, statuary, or even a strategically placed bench or gate. This gazing globe was in one of the planters in front of some hotel. I love glass and the swirls in this globe are really beautiful. At times during the year when nothing is blooming, like mid-summer or the dead of winter, here is a little color to cheer you up.

One more thing-- we often talk about how to provide winter protection for plants and shrubs that need some extra TLC in our part of the country. This is boxwood down at Millennium Park. It is a broad leaf evergreen, in other words, it has a leaf like the deciduous trees or shrubs, but because it is evergreen it doesn't drop its leaves in the fall. Therefore they are subject to drying out over the winter. In Chicago, being close to the lake, they may not have the dry winds that we do out here. The Park District has made a low fence with burlap to protect the plants. We would recommend using a product called Wilt Pruf or any other anti transpirant to provide additional protection and it probably wouldn't hurt to give your broad leaf evergreens (box, azalea, rhododendrons, etc.) another application now, since we can still get some cold dry weather.

Say, rumor has it that Heather at The Barn and her husband are expecting a baby in August. Be sure to stop by and wish Heather all the best and then come on by Countryside to see all of us.

Don’t forget the Flower and Garden Show this year down at Navy Pier. It runs March 7-15 and offers lots of seminars on gardening and cooking (two of my favorite things). So head on down to Navy Pier and get inspired.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Welcome Back!

I love this time of year. The days are noticeable longer, when I get home from work it is still light out, and the snow that falls doesn’t usually stick, in short, there is hope that spring will be here eventually. Last weekend I even rode my bike into town for breakfast.
To the untrained eye, this plant may look dead. Even to the trained eye it might look dead, as Michael gave it the last rites when he saw it in December. I don’t even know what it is called, but it has lovely velvety purple flowers in the summer. Anyway I brought it inside last October and almost immediately it dropped all its leaves. I resisted the temptation to keep watering it, only watering when the soil was dry, about once every two weeks or so. This did give me some hope that it was still alive, since if it were actually dead the soil would have stayed wet. It has started to grow, sending out new green shoots. They are rather long and lanky, since it doesn’t get a lot of light in the room that it is in but at least I didn’t kill it.
My hibiscus, which is now going on year three, is also looking pretty robust and I have been having to water more frequently, another sign that it is coming out of its dormancy. I even had a few blooms this winter.

A project I wrote about last October is coming along great. I decided to force some bulbs for an early indoor spring. I planted them in a shallow container and put them in a paper bag in the refrigerator. When the stair well to my basement got cold enough I put the bag there to continue the chilling process. Spring blooming bulbs need to be chilled in order to bloom. The amount of chill time depends on the type of bulb. You can read about it on the previous blog or go to Van Bloem web site to learn more about forcing bulbs. Anyway I had sort of forgotten about them until a few weeks ago. I retrieved them and put them in my dining room, which is usually pretty cool. It has been about a month and they are now starting to bloom. It is important to turn the container as they do have a tendency to grow toward a light source and turning the container will help to keep them growing straight. After they have finished blooming I will transplant them outside. I could also let them go dormant and dry the bulbs, then plant them in the fall.