Sunday, December 18, 2011

Poinsettias-Not Your Grandmother's Poinsettia!

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Fall Chores

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fall Leaf Cleanup

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fall Chores

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

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

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tulip Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Applying Chemicals

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. We suffer through drought and heat, and then record rain. The other morning it felt decidedly fall-ish and now the humidity is almost unbearable. I’ve got loads of tomatoes on my plants but none of them are close to ripe. As hard as it is on people, it’s that hard on our plants and our lawns. We need to replenish the nutrients without encouraging too much growth. I’ve seen evidence of Japanese beetles on my roses and hibiscus. And on top of it all we now have diseases to control. 
This time of year you need to be careful when applying chemicals. Chemicals are expensive and you want to be sure you get the most out of them. Your plants and lawn should be well watered before you apply any chemical. Chemicals can be stressful even on the non-target plant and you want them to be in the best condition before applying the chemical. Some chemicals work through the vascular system of the plant, like systemic insecticides or most herbicides. If the vascular system is not functioning because the plant is thirsty the chemical won’t work as effectively. In addition, many chemicals require that you not water for a day or two in order for the chemical to be fully taken in by the plant. If the plant or lawn is already dry, another day or two will stress it even further making the chemical less effective. You may think if the weed is going to die any way what does it matter. However if the weed can’t move the herbicide from the leaf to the roots it won’t work. We had a situation at work recently here a customer returned some Roundup because it wasn’t working. He had applied in the heat of July when the weeds weren’t actively growing so the weed wasn’t dying.

Most chemicals should not be applied when the temperature is over 85 . Again, heat causes plants to slow down their growth so the chemical won’t move through the plant efficiently. Over spray onto turf grass when you are trying to kill weeds in the lawn will stress the lawn. Most herbicides are taken in through the foliage by stomas or openings in the leaves. When the temperature rises, plants close these openings to conserve moisture. If the openings are closed, the chemical can’t be taken in.

Apply chemicals in the morning so that the chemical has a chance to dry before the sun hits it. Most chemicals have a petroleum based carrier. Those drops of chemical on the leaf can act like a magnifying glass, burning the leaf. If the leaf is damaged it cannot undergo photosynthesis as effectively. Photosynthesis is what produces the energy for the plant that is stored in the roots and helps the plant survive over the winter. When spraying insecticides, spray early in the morning when bees are not active so you don’t inadvertently kill them as well. Bees in the US have been under attack from Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees are responsible for the pollination of many of our agricultural production and the value of crop pollination is estimated to be $5-14 billion dollars according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So do be careful when spraying insecticides as they are not selective and can’t tell a Japanese beetle from a bee.

Organic chemicals have become more popular, especially since more people are growing their own vegetables and herbs. Some of the most popular insecticides are neem oil (from the neem tree), pyrethrins (an extract from chrysanthemums), nicotine, sabadilla and rotenone. Neem oil also has a fungicidal effect. A new product on the market is a bacteria called spinosad which was discovered in the Caribbean in an old rum factory. Diatomaceous earth works great on crawling insects. Essentially it is shells of microscopic ocean dwelling animals called diatoms. Even microscopically the shells have very sharp edges. As the insects crawl over them is cuts them to shreds and they dehydrate. Sounds gruesome. For herbicides, organic controls include food grade oils (garlic, rosemary, etc.) and citric acid, usually in a soy based carrier. Most of these controls only kill the tops of the weed not the roots. They are also non selective, meaning you can’t use them to treat weeds in the lawn, but they are effective in killing weeds in the driveway, walkway, patio, or even in a flower bed if you are careful about overspray. Organic fungicides usually contain sulphur or copper.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Watering the Garden

I’ve been dragging hoses and hauling watering cans for the past several weeks so naturally this week’s blog is about watering. In my travels around town I’ve seen a few watering "no-no’s."

Neighbor Ed's garden--looking good
First, it takes up to two years for plant material to fully root in so if you have newly planted landscaping make sure they get 1" of water a week. A well established plant and grass can certainly handle a little drought but drought does stress the plants and make them more susceptible to disease even into the following year

Second, water in the morning so that any water that splashes on to the leaves has a chance to dry before evening. This will reduce the opportunity for disease.

Third, water the soil, not the plant. I noticed my neighbor Ed, whose garden is looking quite lush, water with a sprinkler the other evening. Watering from overhead is very inefficient because of evaporation. Water will also splash up onto lower leaves and can invite soil borne diseases such as tomato blight. Watering in the evening also can provide an opportunity for diseases, since they thrive in moist conditions.

Put the hose at the base of the plant
to ensure proper watering

When water trees and shrubs, especially newly planted ones, place the hose right up to the base of the plant and leave it on a slow trickle for awhile. This allows the water to penetrate the root ball from the center and then move out into the surrounding soil and encourages the roots to grow out in the same direction.   

And one last thing on the watering front: Lots of people, including me, garden in containers and not just flowers but vegetables as well.  I have two whisky barrels that I plant up every year with tomotoes, peppers, eggplant and some herbs every year.  If you grow tomatoes in containers it is very important that you water them consistently.   Tomatoes require calcium to prevent a problem known as blossom end rot.  There is usually enough calcium in the soil from fertilizers to provide enough calcium but if they get too much water so that the calcium is diluted or not enough water so that they cannot pull enough up through their roots you will notice a "water spot" on the blossom end of the tomato.  Eventually it turns black and starts to rot.  If you notice this happening there are foliar calcium products on the market that you can spray on the plants to prevent it but also remember to water regularly.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Garden Walks

Garden Train with creeping sedum
in foreground
The Garden Conservancy raises money for charity through their "Open Days" program, private garden owners open their gardens to the public. You can go to their website and request to be on their e-mail list to get notices of gardens open in your area. 
Another view of trains with
sedum and veronica
Last weekend I went to two gardens in the Barrington area. The first garden has as it main feature garden trains. These "G" scale trains are built for outdoor use. The woman who owns the garden actually has a business designing and installing garden trains called Huff N Puff. In an area the size of my city lot, she had quite a layout with numerous tracks and trains all running at the same time. There was also an indoor display that basically depicted all of Illinois, from down state farms to the city of Chicago, complete with Wrigley Field, Millennium Park and Grant Park.

Non Stop Begonias, salvia
and argeratum
What I found fascinating was her use of annuals in her gardens. It’s rather inspiring to see plants most people can only afford to use in containers being used as bedding plants. She had a whole bed of tuberous (Non-Stop) begonias in full bloom that were gorgeous. It inspired me to stop at Countryside and get a few for my last container. It is mind boggling to think of the number of flats and 4" containers that are needed to fill a garden that size. It must be truckloads.

The second garden was equally as fabulous, though for different reasons. Again, lots of use of annuals for great color punch, but also, as my friend pointed out, several well-placed arbors to give some structure to an other wise flat landscape when you moved away from the house area. One in particular had clematis growing up the arbor and shrub roses along side.

Clematis arbor
Janice also pointed out that even in the shady areas, the turf grass was thick and green. It’s hard to grow grass in shade and in really dense shade we usually recommend putting in some type of ground cover. To do it successfully, you must start with the right type of grass seed mix. Most shady mixes will have very little bluegrass and lots of fine and tall fescues. It’s important not too push the grass by heavily fertilizing as that will just result in tall spindly blades of grass.

We over heard the owner of this property tell another visitor that she has gardeners in Monday through Friday. That’s a bit intimidating so I am perfectly happy with my little lot.

All of this brings me to the subject of our next garden walk, which is next Saturday, July 9th. It is sponsored by the McHenry County Master Gardeners and is a major fund-raiser for them. This group of volunteers gets special training by the Cooperative Extension Service and must also complete additional training to keep their certificates current. They repay the extension service by volunteering in the extension office in Woodstock and answering homeowner horticultural questions. The garden walk starts at the demonstration garden at McHenry County College and then to 8 other gardens in southern McHenry County. The cost is $17.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Sometimes the mere thought of re-doing something just makes me want to lie down until the urge passes. Having to make decisions and then do the actual work can be daunting. Fortunately for me I have several friends who enjoy telling me what to do, so at least the decision parts are done for me and all I have to do is the physical part, which can be enjoyable.
What used to be in the raised beds were
 a purple sand cherry, euonymous
and some boxwood and holly.
It really didn't do much for me
although it was easy to care for.

So, a couple of weeks ago, at a friend’s urging, I did a little tweaking in the front garden and I do admit the results are quite pleasing. And it really wasn’t a lot of work.

Newly planted impatiens
My parkway tree had some creeping sedum planted around it and it didn’t really provide a lot of color "pop." So out it went– I gave some to neighbor Dave and some to another friend and moved some to the back– and the rest "gasp" I just threw out. It was really quite cathartic. In its place went a flat of colorful Impatiens. Yes, they will have to be replanted every year, but for a few minutes work I will be rewarded with blooms all summer long.

On either side of my front door are raised planter beds but the wall blocks were so high you couldn’t really see the bedding plants until the end of the summer when they had finally grown tall enough. So, we took off the top layer of block and res-set the cap stones and now you can see the pink begonias I planted last month.
The re-purposed arbor
On the right side of my house was a really nice arbor that at one time had clematis growing up the sides. It was too shady so the clematis eventually died, except for one which was struggling. So, we took the arbor apart and used the sides for trellises in the aforementioned raised beds. I replanted the struggling clematis and bought another one (The President) for the other side.
The finished project

So, for just a few hours time and a little cash at Countryside I now have a whole new look at the front of the house. I feel really good about re-purposing the arbor, tho I still don’t know what to do with the arched top.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

At Ease Disease, There's a Fungus Among Us

Powdery Mildew
We’ve had a wet spring and that
means two things—mosquitoes and diseases.  It doesn’t matter if it is cold and wet or warm and wet, some disease thrives in it.  Some plants are naturally more prone to fungal infections.  My monarda get powdery mildew every year and garden phlox are also susceptible.  Powdery mildew usually doesn’t do lasting harm, tho it can look a little unsightly.  Roses are also prone to many types of disease, including powdery mildew and black spot.  Other types of diseases can be devastating to some crops, including tomatoes, squash, and potatoes.
Mosaic disease
Plant diseases are spread in a variety of ways.  Sucking insects, like aphids, can transfer the disease and some diseases are spread by spores in the soil.  Rose Mosaic Virus is spread through vegetative propagation (cuttings).  Some are preventable, most are not treatable.

Late blight on tomatoes
The best way to fight disease is to follow good horticultural practices.  Water early in the morning and don’t water from overhead; that is water the soil not the plant.  In the vegetable garden, rotate your crops from year to year.  Mulch between the rows so soil borne spores aren’t splashed up onto the undersides of the lower leaves when it rains or when watering.  If you know you have plants that are susceptible to certain diseases, such as the monarda, or if your vegetables become diseased year after year, start applying fungicides before you see the problem and follow the good horticultural practices outlined above.  If you don’t catch it in time, the only thing to do is to remove the affected leaves or stems and begin a spaying program.  Dispose of the diseased material by putting it in a bag and then in the trash.  Do not throw the diseased prunings in the compost pile.  There are organic fungicides that you can use on vegetables and other edible crops, but always, always read and follow the label. 
You can also use seed or buy plants that are certified disease resistant.  When buying tomato plants, for example, you may see the letters VFNT, or only some of those letters.  The V stands for verticillium, the F for fusarium, the N for nematodes and the T for tobacco virus.  The Champion tomato variety is certified VFNT, which means it is genetically bred to be resistant to those for pathogens. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Vegetable Gardening

Ed's new veg garden
My neighbor roto-tilled up part of his back lawn and put in a vegetable garden. It was an ambitious project that took most of two weekends to finish and now I see rows of something green beginning to sprout.

The vegetable garden at Countryside has been in for several weeks now. This year Richard and Lori have planted potatoes, broccoli, chard, tomatoes, radishes and peppers.

The Countryside Garden

You might think that June is too late to put in a veg. garden but it really isn’t, especially since our spring was so cold and wet. Most of the traditional veg crops do best in warm weather anyway. So, really, now is the perfect time.

Even if you think my neighbor was a little ambitious, many vegetables are easily grown in containers. I grow my herbs and tomatoes in half whiskey barrels where I can position them to take best advantage of the sun in my otherwise shady garden.

Netting over the spinach to keep
our little friends out.

Some vegetables, in particular the leafy chards, beets and lettuce can be interspersed amongst your ornamentals. One year at Ball Seed field days we saw beets used in ornamental annual containers and I just love the look of Bright Lights Swiss Chard in containers. My friend, Jean, does the containers at the Brink Street Market and uses them. Chard is a great alternative to spinach, which has a tendency to “bolt,” or go to seed in the hot weather.

Planting vegetables, even in containers, is a great way to get your kids interested in gardening and interested in eating what they grow. When we lived in Denver I planted pole peas up the one side of our deck. We never had enough for a whole meal but we would use them raw in salads and my girls enjoyed harvesting and shelling them.

If you need some ideas about what to plant, the Cornell University vegetable variety project has vegetables rated by actual gardeners.  It is not just specific to New York, but has garden profiles from all over.  The University of Illinois extension web site also has information about growing, harvesting and storing vegetables.  And, not to brag, but we here at Countryside are a vertible font of knowledge on vegetable growing.

We still have plenty of starter vegetables at Countryside and of course seeds. So come on in and let us help you get started. It’s not too late!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hummingbirds in the Garden

Ruby Throated Hummingbird
Last week while having my coffee and watching the rain I noticed a blur in the hedge next to my house. When it finally settled down on a branch I was surprised to see it was a hummingbird. As they migrate north they send out scouts to look for food sources. There is an overgrown honeysuckle growing in the hedge and that was what it had found. Last summer I had a couple hummingbirds come to the monarda I have planted.

Monarda- A hummingbird favorite

If you want to attract hummers to your garden you can start now by putting out a hummingbird feeder. If the scouts find it they will make it a regular stop on their route. They seem to be quite punctual as every day when I come home from work I see them at the feeder. I make my own sugar mix by heating a cup of water in the microwave and mixing in 1/4 cup sugar.

Trumpet Creeper Flower

You can also plant shrubs and perennials that attract these delightful birds. Plan your hummingbird garden with a variety of plants that begin to bloom early in May and continue to provide nectar through out the summer and into the fall. Yes, as a general rule, they seem to be attracted to red, tubular shaped flowers. Here is a list of plants to consider.

Shrubs                         Perennials                     Annuals
Trumpet Vine               Agastache                    Cuphea
Honeysuckle                Columbine                    Fuchsia
Rose of Sharon            Crocosmia                    Lantana
Butterfly Bush               Delphinium                   Morning Glory
Weigela                        Heuchera                      Nasturtium
                                    Lobelia                          Salvia
                                    Monarda                       Petunias

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Japanese Beetle Control

Japanese beetles love hibiscus!
You might think it is a little early to mention Japanese beetles but if you have plants in your garden that attract the little blighters you need to start planning your beetle strategy. I always say you need a multi pronged approach to beetle control and it helps to understand their life cycle to know which control to use when.

The Japanese beetle emerges from the ground in late June or early July and feeds voraciously on your roses, shrubs, trees and whatever else it can sink its little mandibles into and then they lay eggs in the soil. When the eggs hatch they are called grubs and they then feed voraciously on the roots of your grass. As summer turns to fall, they begin to migrate deeper into the soil to over winter. In the spring they move back to feed and then pupate. At this point they are not feeding, but turning into the beetle that emerges to start the cycle all over again. The upshot is you have two opportunities to kill them– in the grub stage and then as adults– and there are several types of controls available at each stage.

In the grub stage you can use a granular systemic insecticide that you apply and then water in. The grass roots take up the chemical (imidacloprid) and when the grub takes a bite– it dies. If you want an organic control you can use Milky Spore, which is a bacteria that kills the grub. It is available in a concentrated powder that you only have to apply once or a less concentrated granular form that needs to be applied six times over two years in order to build up an effective population of bacteria.

Japanese beetles feeding on leaves

Even if you can control the grubs in your own yard, Japanese beetles can fly several miles to find a mate and to feed, so you will still need to control the beetles at the adult stage. You can spray with Eight® or Sevin®, but they will need to be reapplied every 10-14 days. Or you can use a systemic drench. This is particularly effective if you have large trees that are hard to spray. It is a concentrate that you mix in water and then pour at the base of the tree or shrub. The roots take up the chemical (imidacloprid) and move it up to the leaves at about 4-6 feet a week, depending on growing conditions. The protection last 12 months. If you use it on roses, be aware that the chemical does not go into the flowers, so you will still have to use a contact spray on them.

Japanese Beetle Life Cycle

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Black Knot Disease

Branches afflicted with Black Knot

My friend Janice called last week to ask about a problem she was having with her ornamental plum in front of her house. It had black growths on some of the branches. I was pretty sure it was some type of fungus, but I didn’t know what or how to treat it. I told her to take a branch into Countryside and ask for KC or Kelly. They are both certified nursery professionals and have training in disease identification.

Kelly O'Leary
Nursery Staff

Well, the diagnosis was Black Knot. Kelly advised her to prune out the affected branches, cutting at least 4" back from the infected sites and to carefully bag the branches and dispose of them. You don’t want diseased plant material going into a compost pile or back in the woods where the fungal spores can continue to spread. After cutting out the infected branches Kelly recommended treating the tree with Bonide Fruit Tree Spray or any spray containing captan.

Black Knot affects plum and cherry trees. The fungus disrupts the twig growth and causes a tumor like growth. At first the swelling is light brown in color but by the second year the swellings have become hard and black. It takes a year or two before the disease even becomes noticeable and by the time you do see indications of the disease, it is usually too far gone for any remedy to work. As with all fungal diseases, it is easier to prevent than to cure.

Close up of Black Knot fungus

The best time to prune out the diseased wood is in the late fall or early winter when the tree and the fungus are dormant. This way you won’t be inadvertently spreading more spores. When you do prune make sure you dip your pruners in rubbing alcohol between cuts to again insure that you don’t spread the disease to healthy tissue.

We got about half way through the job of trimming when we realized that we wouldn’t be left with much of a tree when we were through. Janice decided to just replace the tree with a more disease resistant one. This time she is thinking of a crab apple. Though crab apples are also susceptible to fungal infections such as apple scab and fire blight, new varieties have been introduced that are very disease resistant.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Container Show

Last night Micheal and I participated in the McHenry Garden Club’s Annual Container Show. We were up on stage with our friends from The Barn, The Gardens of Woodstock, Harm’s Farm and Locker’s Flowers. Shelley Isenhart from Whispering Hills was the moderator. 
Micheal at the Container Show

Mike and I made 8 containers and all the containers made were raffled off to members of the audience. It was a fun evening that showcased the talent available to you at our McHenry County gardens centers.

Moderator Shelley

We all had the opportunity to make a few comments about our designs and Mike offered some design advice about the use of contrast in designing a pleasing combination. Contrasting foliage and flower texture and color helps make each individual plant stand out in the container.

Shelly talked about the three basic design elements in container gardening being the thriller, filler, spiller—choosing plants that are tall for the “thriller,” semi-trailing or mounding for the “filler,” and trailing plants to soften the edges of the container.
Some of the containers
we made last night

Many of the containers used a lot of annuals but also incorporated perennials including roses, a Japanese maple, a blueberry shrub, heucheras, lamium, and even plants we usually think of as indoor houseplants.

The Barn used miniature conifers in their fairy gardens and accented them with scale versions of garden accents. (Be sure to congratulate Heather next time you are there on the upcoming birth of daughter number 2, due this fall.) Locker’s Flowers used children’s pails as containers and sea shells as soil cover, to add come whimsy to their designs. Harm’s Farm did several containers with vegetables and herbs for containers that are fun and functional.

So, a big thank you to the McHenry Garden Club for sponsoring this fun evening. To learn more about garden clubs in our area contact the National Garden Clubs at

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Year of the Tomato

Topsy Turvy tomato
A couple of weeks ago my youngest, who is in school in Boston, called to ask about growing tomatoes in one of the Up Side Down grow bags. She asked if they started tomatoes from seed would they bear fruit this year. Well, apparently, I have been neglectful of her horticultural education (tho I may say that she is getting a first rate education in information science and it has been worth every penny Mr. Ross spends to send her there). Of course tomatoes are an annual here and even if you could over winter them, the likely hood of survival and then good production the next year is doubtful.
The National Gardening Bureau has proclaimed this year the Year of the Tomato. They have also selected the Zinnia as the Annual of the Year and next year will also honor a perennial.

Tomatoes can be classified in several ways, including by size and shape of fruit, growth habit, color, days to maturity, etc. Everybody has an opinion on which is best, but it really depends on how you are going to use it, to determine what tomato is best for you. There are plenty of hybrids and heirlooms to pick from so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one that suits your needs.
Tomatoes in a mixed container

Tomatoes range in size from grape, cherry, plum, standard and beefsteak. They can be red, orange, yellow, green, almost black and even striped. One important factor in determining what variety to grow is its growth habit. I always grow mine in a big whiskey barrel so I usually pick a “determinate” variety. This type of tomato grows to a genetically predetermined height and bears most of its fruit at the same time. This is a good thing if you do any type of canning or preserving of tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes tend to be more compact, which makes them perfect for containers. Some of them are so compact they can even be planted in hanging baskets! Indeterminate types continue to grow and produce fruit over the entire season. They can get quite large and need staking or a tomato cage to hold them up.
There are a bazillion
tomato varieties

One question we always get at Countryside is about the days to maturity and what this actually means. Tomatoes are classified as early, mid-season and late. Days to maturity are the average days from the time the plant is transplanted into the garden until the first fruit ripens. Since it is an average, it really should be used as a guide not gospel. Generally speaking early tomatoes will ripen in fewer than 70 days, mid-season from 70-80 days and late tomatoes will require over 80 days from date of planting outdoors.

We always have a great selection of all types of tomatoes and I am sure we can find one that will suit your needs.  Click here to see all the varieties we will have this year.