Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Get Ready for Winter

Now is the time of year to prepare the garden for winter.  As much rain as we got this spring and summer, that is how dry it has been this fall.  Plants prepare for winter by transporting the energy produced in the leaves down to the roots and they need water to do this.  If you did any new planting this summer be sure to give those plants a good drink of water.  Don't assume the rain we are supposed to get tomorrow will be sufficient.  I have been dragging the hose around the garden for the last week making sure all my plants have adequate moisture.  I even watered the lawn, which I never do, because it is just so parched.

Besides getting ready for winter we can also prepare for some spring blooming by planting bulbs.  Bulbs seem to go in and out of fashion and you can tell they are currently out of fashion by the limited availability in the garden centers.  I don't know why that is because they really are a good value, especially when compared to buying them already in bloom next spring.  I like to "naturalize" my bulbs by planting them to look like they would in nature.  I don't plant them in rows in a border.  I plant mine in the lawn and in clumps in and among my perennials. 

Bulbs are not hard to plant.  They should be planted at a depth 3x the height of the bulb.  Small bulbs, like crocus and scilla, are planted just an inch or two below the surface of the soil, while larger bulbs, like tulips and daffodils should be planted much deeper.  This ability to plant at different depths allow you to layer the bulbs and you can actually plant enough different types of bulbs in a small area to have blooms from April through June.

If you planted bulbs last summer, you might have planted gladiolas, cannas or dahlias.  These bulbs are not hardy in our area and need to be dug up, dried, cleaned and stored in a cool, dry place until they can be planted next spring. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

More on Organic Lawn Maintenance

Organic fertilizers and good horticultural practices are only two aspects of organic lawn maintenance. You may still have weed and insect issues to contend with.

Organic week control in a lawn is a problem because there are no selective organic controls, such as a broadleaf weed killer that only kills broadleaf weeds. Organic herbicides are made from horticultural strength vinegar (usually a 20% concentration compared to a 3 % concentration for what we use in the kitchen) or horticultural oil extracts such as oil of thyme, mint or rosemary. They are non-selective (think Roundup) and will kill any vegetation they come in contact with. They work best in a flower or perennial bed where the ornamentals can be protected from any over spray. In a lawn, the most organic method is to pull them by hand.

Pre Emergent Weed Control
Preventing weeds from germinating in the first place by using a pre emergent herbicide, is one way to limit weed growth and here there is an organic alternative. The ability of corn gluten to inhibit root growth was discovered at Iowa State University in the early 1990s. It has been growing in popularity ever since. It is a bit tricky to use and get good results. Timing is critical. Several companies package corn gluten, including Bradfield Organics. Make sure you are using 100% corn gluten. Apply it at the rate of 20 pounds per 1000 square feet about 4-6 weeks before the weeds are expected to germinate. This is the tricky part. Most seeds germinate when the soil temperature is between 68̊–86̊ degrees fahrenheit but trying to estimate exactly when that will happen when the weather is so variable here in Northern Illinois is hard. Also, if it is too rainy during the germination period the corn gluten gets diluted and is not effective. On top of that, corn gluten contains about 10% nitrogen and makes an excellent fertilizer so you may actually end up with a bumper crop of weeds!

By far, grubs are the biggest insect issue for turf. Grubs are just one stage in the life cycle of many types of insects, including some moths and certain beetles such as Japanese beetles.
We did not experience a huge Japanese beetle outbreak this year here in my part of Crystal Lake. They do seem to be somewhat cyclical, so I am guessing that over the next few years we will see populations build back up. The best time to kill grubs is in the juvenile stage, which is to say mid-to late July. There is also an organic alternative for grub control.

Milky spore is a bacteria that the grubs ingest as they are chewing on the roots of your lawn. The bacteria then kills the grubs. Milky spore comes in two forms– a concentrated powder that you apply with a tube that looks like a giant Parmesan cheese shaker , and a granular form that is not as concentrated but is more easily applied with a drop spreader. It is not an immediate cure as it takes several years for the spore count to reach a critical mass.


The most common lawn fungi are powdery mildew, red thread, pink patch and rusts. The University of Illinois does not recommend fungicides on home lawns. Instead use the good horticultural practices that we have talked about. Most fungal diseases occur in shady areas where the grass is not as healthy. Plant appropriate shade tolerant grasses in shady areas, or better yet, replace the lawn with shade tolerant ground covers or a shade perennial bed. Water early in the morning and water deeply and infrequently. Make sure the lawn is healthy through a good fertilizer program. Healthy turf is better able to withstand turf diseases.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Using Garden Chemicals

Organic lawncare is less expensive in the long run but sometimes you have diseases or insects that require a chemical control or the weeds are running rampant and you just need to deal with them.  Garden chemicals are expensive but if you use them correctly they will be alot more effective and won't cost as much to use.

Before you spray make sure the plants, even the target weeds, are thoroughly watered in.  For the weeds, you want them actively growing so that they will take up all and use the herbicide more effectively.  Onamentals and vegetables should be actively growing so that they can withstand the stress of having chemicals applied to them.  Many chemicals require some period of no rain or water for the chemical to work its way into the plant. If the plant hasn't been watered before chemical application it may become stressed from lack of water.

Always spray when it is cool and expected to stay cool for a few days after application.  For herbicides this is especially important because plants take in the chemical through pores in their leaves.  In the heat these pores close up and the herbicide cannot be taken in by the plant.  Also, plants tend to slow down their rate of growth in the heat so if they are not actively growing they are not actively dying.  Leaves have a waxy coating or even a coating of dust that also impedes chemical takeup.  You can add a "spreader/sticker" to the chemical mixture that cuts through this wax and dirt and again increases the chemical's effectiveness.

Spray early in the morning so the chemical has time to dry before the sun hits it.  The beads of liquid can act like a magnifying glass and burn the leaves.  Spray when the wind is calm so that you don't have spray drift and accidently take out some of your perennials when you were spraying for other broad leaf weeds.

As always read the label and make sure it will treat the problem you have.  If you have questions about any chemical stop by Countryside and ask one the ICN professionals to help you determine what the problem is and how best to treat it.  And follow the label directions--more is not always better.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blossom End Rot

I was really bummed this week to discover that some of my tomatoes have blossom end rot. I have probably pitched 7-8 tomatoes. I grow my veggies and herbs in containers because I don’t have a lot of room where there is full sun. I was really happy this spring to discover that the thyme had survived the winter and I replanted the rosemary I had taken inside last fall and it has done really well. This year I planted a bush Early Girl and it has grown and produced quite a few blossoms that will eventually turn into tomatoes.

Blossom end rot pretty much tells you what the disease does in tomatoes. The blossom end turns black and eventually the whole tomato rots. It is caused by a lack of calcium and is due to irregular watering. Too little water and the plant cannot take up enough calcium, too much and the nutrients are diluted. I think it is exacerbated in container gardening because there is only so much soil to hold water and nutrients and the roots can only go so far before they reach the side of the container. When the tomatoes are in the ground at least they can send the roots farther out to search for nutrients and water.

The most immediate remedy (besides correcting the water issue) is water soluble calcium that you can spray on the leaves of the tomato. It is available at Countryside and is called Blossom End Rot Stop.

Planting tip: If for some reason you are having to plant or transplant in this heat, use an anti-transpirant such as Wilt Stop or Wilt Pruf. This will keeps the plant from losing moisture and will make your planting more successful. Plants need about an inch of water a week and prefer to be watered deeply and infrequently rather than frequent shallow waterings.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Organic Lawn Care

With more and more people getting back to vegetable gardening, there has been an increased interest in all types of organic gardening products. One aspect of our gardens that uses a lot of chemicals is lawn care. We really like lush green weed free lawns but weeds are actually a symptom of other problems not the cause. If we just changed a few things about how we care for our lawns, we could reduce our reliance on chemical controls.

The cheapest herbicide is simply raising the height of the mowing deck on our lawn mowers. This does two things: 1) Increases photosynthesis due to greater leaf surface area resulting in healthier plants with deeper and denser root systems and 2) Increases rhizome development which is how most grasses reproduce. Both of these things lead to reduced weed pressure in the lawn because there is now a lot less space for the weeds to get established.

The recommended mower height for blue grass, which is what most northern lawns are, is 2½ to 3 inches. It is also recommended that not more than ¼ to ⅓ of the blade length be cut at any one mowing. So if you happen to miss a week or the grass is growing faster than you can keep up with it, raise the mower deck and gradually bring it down so that you get to the desired height over time.

Another factor in weed control is soil fertility. Most weeds actually prefer less fertile soils while our lawns need lots of nitrogen to grow well. A good example of a “weed” that grows well in less fertile soils is clover. Clover is a legume or nitrogen fixing plant. It doesn’t need extra nitrogen because it makes its own. Creeping Charlie, another noxious weed tho not a legume, is also a plant that grows well in less fertile soil. The presence of these two plants are a symptom of low soil fertility. The University of Illinois recommends 3-4 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 square feet per year. You can actually add about 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft annually by not bagging your lawn clippings.

Will changing your lawn care practices get rid of weeds immediately? No, but you will notice the difference over time and will able to feel good about your lawn’s impact on the environment.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Frost Alert!

This spate of good weather so early in spring has us aching to get into our gardens. I have primrose blooming and azaleas and daffodils, as well.

In anticipation of the rain that was forecast, I fertilized my lawn on Friday. Now is a good time to put down fertilizer with a pre-emergent weed control, to prevent crabgrass and other annual weeds. If you are an organic gardener, corn gluten makes an excellent weed preventor and fertilizer. When the corn gluten becomes wet it forms a gelatinous mass that smothers the newly germinated weed (and other) seeds.

It’s still too early to plant, tho a quick look through the garden centers last weekend showed forsythia and azaleas for sale. If you just can’t wait, and remember Countryside’s annual flat sale is coming up in a couple of weeks, there is a new product out protects tender plants from frost damage. It is called Freeze Pruf and it is from the Liquid Fence people. Freeze Pruf acts like anti-freeze for your plants. It is a spray on systemic that lowers the freezing point of the plant by 2-9 degrees or the equivalent of half a hardiness zone. It doesn’t make all plants hardy to 32̊ but if the plant is hardy to 40̊ it will lower that to around 38̊ to 31̊. Or if the plant is hardy to Zone 5, it will make the plant hardy to zone 4B. Once applied it will last 6-8 weeks. Freeze Pruf will not protect an impatien from a hard frost but it will keep pansies flowers from frost damage. So use it with caution, but here is another tool to help extend our growing season.

Other things you can do to prevent frost damage, keeping in mind that our last average frost date is around the middle of May, is to cover your plants with a sheet or towel or even a cardboard box. Don’t use plastic as this will transfer the cold to any leaves or flowers that are touching the plastic. You could even use a tomato cage as a frame and hang the fabric over it to protect your plants.

Don’t forget that Kim Hartmann and Ann Larson will be giving presentations at Garden Fest this coming weekend at McHenry County College. Countryside will also have a booth and will be able to answer any questions for you.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

More Pruning

What a difference a week makes! Last week I was out pruning and doing some cleanup and this weekend my poor little crocuses are shivering. It was not so cold out to really hurt anything and I think the crocus will be just fine. The daffodils didn’t seem too bothered either. Freezing temperatures can damage the flowers, but if the bulbs haven’t bloomed the cold will just slow down their growth until warmer weather returns.

So, back to the pruning: If you know what you have, the next thing is to determine what you are trying to achieve with the pruning. Some plants just need to be shaped, or have broken or damaged limbs removed. Some shrubs need a “rejuvenation” pruning.

My sand cherries have been rather weak and spindly, with not a lot of leaves on them. I have pruned some off the top last year just to get it below the window, but all that did was force more growth on the top and the lower branches were practically leafless. So last weekend I took it down to about a foot above the ground. I was ruthless. This should result in some vigorous growth from the ground up. Spireas can generally stand a pretty thorough thwacking as well. Some plants you just can’t kill.

I needed to be a bit more judicious with the crabapple. My goal here is to keep it shaped nicely and not let it get too big so that a major pruning is ever necessary. I cut back the sucker growth (crabs really want to be shrub and will send up little stems from their roots) and the water sprouts. These are the little branches coming at a right angle from the main branches. Then I looked for branches crossing each other and removed them. I also cut back branches that were brushing up against the siding of the house and cut back the branches that were getting too tall.

Neighbor Dave has a few issues also. He has a shrub hedge of some type of spirea, Bridalveil I think, that has been beaten down by the snow. I tell him all the time that after it snows he needs to take a broom or rake and gently, from underneath the branches, shake the snow off. The snow is so heavy it has bent the branches down to the ground. This can be self correcting but sometimes not. Also, heavy snow can break branches, especially on evergreens, when the heavy snow sticks to the needles and adds additional weight. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A New Year

Last weekend I was finally able to get out in my garden and take stock of the situation. There was still snow on the ground but I could definitely see signs of spring. Some daffodils are beginning to poke through the soil and some of the creeping sedum ground cover is beginning to green up, or in this case “red” up since it is the Dragon’s Blood variety. I am looking forward to having the scilla I planted two years ago come up and I hope it has spread a bit more in the lawn this year.  I just love the way those houses on Woodstock street look in the spring when the scilla is blooming.  I’ve also noticed something coming up along the fence, I have forgotten what is there so I hope it’s not a weed.

Now is a good time to look around the garden and begin planning for the coming season. You can really see the framework of the garden and evaluate it with a more critical eye. I already know I want to plant more bulbs out in the back garden, in front of my shrub bed. And I want to find a place for a couple of Fothergilla, a shrub with great autumn interest. I read about them in the trade magazines this winter and I need to do a little more research on how shade tolerant they are.

Today I spent some time out in front looking at how my little casa looks from the street. My street is used as a “rat run,” as they would say in England, so a lot of people see my house. You really need to be mindful of this area of your garden and what is planted there. The plants closest to the house are called “foundation plants,” mostly because they are used to hide the cement foundation and any utility boxes that may be in the front of the house and to help soften the edges of the house and make a smoother transition to the rest of the garden. I like to think of these types of plants as forming the “foundation” or basis of the entire landscape plan. The down side to plants grown so close to the house is they tend to eventually outgrow their space. You need to really keep up on the pruning and shaping and be ready to admit when the plant has outlived its usefulness.

At my house there are two sand cherries on front of the two windows and a crabapple off to the side. The sand cherries have gotten five feet tall or so and cover the window a bit. The crabapple is almost to the roof line, so a little pruning work is in order and now a great time to do it. Before you go overboard on the pruning there are a few things to keep in mind: what types of shrubs do you have and what are you trying to achieve. There are basically two types of shrubs: those that bloom on old wood and those that bloom on new. Lilacs are an example of a shrub that blooms on old wood. Spirea would be shrub that blooms on new wood. Shrubs that bloom on new wood tend to bloom later in the season. If you were to prune a lilac now you would be not get any blooms this year. So if you don’t know what you have don’t prune it now. Wait until it has bloomed and take in some leaves to KC, Kelly, Ed or Elaine and get them to identify it for you and they can give you care and pruning instructions.

In fact, next week (March 20) KC will be giving a seminar on how to prune. Several other Countryside staffers will also be giving seminars or demonstrations that day so be sure to stop on by. And don’t forget Garden Fest this year at MCC.  Kim from the greenhouse staff will be giving a talk on shrubs in the garden and Ann Larson from the flowershop will be giving a talk on house plants.

Next week I will show you how my pruning chores went.