Monday, December 14, 2009

Hydrangea 101: Part III

Part III

These last three types of Hydrangeas are special not just because most bloom off of old wood but because you can manipulate the color by changing the PH in the soil. In Chicago these hydrangeas will be very happy being some shade of pink. To make them more intense pink you can add lime (raise the PH over 7) and that would make varieties like ‘Lady in Red’, ‘Glowing Embers’ and ‘Homigo’ really pop with bright pink or red color. Lower the PH (under 5) and your ‘Nikko’, ‘Endless Summers’, ‘Blue Billows’ remind you of summers in Martha’s Vineyard. In Chicago it is a battle to keep your hydrangea more towards the blue side. So I do encourage people to know that pink works well here. You can change your PH with sulfur, coffee grounds or my favorite is aluminum sulfate (because the plant takes it up faster and you get better results). However, I personally like the purple flowers, those are the plants that I see that have set flower bud and are about ready to open, so I quick put aluminum sulfate by the roots.

Mophead Hydrangea, Big Leaf Hydrangea, Mac Hydrangea, Hortensia Hydrangea, Florist Hydrangea are all Hydrangea macrophylla. These are what people traditionally envision with the large blue spheres of color gracefully adorning the front of Colonial East coast homes or the masses of pink puffs in front of Midwest Victorian mansions. These are the flowers that many brides adore but cause so much heartache to even the seasoned gardener in the Chicago area. Deep within the industry some of these varieties have nicknames that I will not divulge, because “if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all”. The core of the heartache is caused by the lack of reliable blooms. Most of these varieties bloom off of old wood only. And old wood often dies here during the winter. It is a must for gardeners to provide winter protection such as leaves or straw over the entire plant to maintain the growth from the previous summer to the next spring. However, there are some notable ones that say they bloom off of old and new wood such as the ‘Endless Summer’ ‘Let’s Dance’ and the ‘Forever and Ever’ Series. We tell our clients that you should still give protection and that these varieties have a tendency to bloom off of the new wood very late in the season. If you are willing to take the necessary precautions you do open up the door to more interesting varieties. ‘Glowing Embers’ will strive to be a vivid pink even in a low PH setting. The ‘City line’ series from Proven Winners are smaller more manageable plants. ‘Homigo’ noted for its constantly changing colors, no two blooms will be alike on this plant, a truly unique gift from Mother Nature. ‘Nikko’ is my favorite and long time running variety that when given the proper PH conditions it has brilliant blue color.

Hydrangea macrophylla normalis are an off shoot of the mophead varieties but have some infertile flowers that do not open creating a laceier look, hence why they are called Lace Caps. ‘Twist and Shout’ is part of the ‘Endless Summer’ Series and well received for it blooms off of old and new wood. ‘Lady in Red’ was created by Michael Dirr and has great fall foliage and striking red stems, but she really needs winter protection in Northern Illinois because she is a Southern Bell.

Mountain Hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata) like my ‘Blue Billows’ which I am always praying for a miracle that they will bloom even though they see no winter protection and every spring I am disappointed. If given all the right conditions I would have large Lacey round blues spheres of color that would looks so magnificent in front of our red brick Colonial. I should really call my maintenance crew to pour some leaves on them.

Now that you have been bombarded with all this information, (I thought this would be an easy blog to write, my staff laughed at my naivety) I will work on a chart for more clarity. Remember “Hydra(te)” is part of Hydrangea so they like to be given consistent moisture but hate to sit in standing water. Please contact me or comment on my blog if you have questions, I would love to help.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hydrangea 101: Part II

Part II

     The long awaited part two of our hydrangea series is here.  Just in time to kick off the holiday season.

     Oakleaf Hydrangea, (Hydrangea quercifolia) a native plant to the United States include varieties such as; ‘Alice’, ‘Snow Queen’, ‘Pee Wee’ and ‘Sikes Dwarf’. The flowers on this plant are spectacular white changing to pink but the foliage also turns a rusty red in the fall. This plant has wonderful exfoliating bark in the winter. However, it is subject to winter die back in the Chicagoland and may have large sections of the plant that may die completely therefore affecting its blooming ability. Because of this minor detail we do recommend that you cover your Oakleaf Hydrangeas. You can do this by building a cage with chicken wire or burlap and filling the structure with either dry leaves or straw this will prevent the freeze and thaw and protect the plant from wind damage. This plant blooms off of the old wood or second year growth which is why only maintenance pruning is suggested. ‘Alice’ and ‘Snow Queen’ are very large majestic specimens growing to 6’-10’. If you need a smaller variety ‘Pee Wee’ or ‘Sikes Dwarf’ gives you the three seasons of interest but in a smaller package.
     Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris) are a must for that shady vertical gardening fix. Not known to be speedy growers but patience will be rewarded when these beauties start to flower white lacey flowers everywhere. They can reach up to 50 feet. They like to reside on the North or East sides of structures with moist ground. They can be pruned easily because they bloom off of new wood similar to the ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea, however they grow slow.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hydrangea 101

Hydrangea 101

     Everyone loves hydrangeas but there are so many varieties and so much to know about them. When they bloom, how they bloom, old wood new wood, to cover not to cover, to cut back or stake, sun requirements, water requirements, zone requirements. All sorts of questions go along with these majestic bloomers, its hard to keep it straight. All the ones I will discuss work well for our zone 5 (Chicago Area), however there are a few that might need additional care to make them happy in Chicago, don’t worry I will give you tips for those. This will be a three part series.

Part I
     ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) are big white round flowers (up to 10” across) that bloom profusely in the Chicago area. These bloom off of new wood so they can be cut back. However, their seed heads do add winter interest to the landscape so pruning can also be done in early spring. These hydrangeas prefer morning sun or filtered sun all day. They like adequate moisture, they want to be moist but not wet, and they fail in drought conditions. Other arborescen varieties include ‘Invincibelle Spirit’, ‘Incrediball’ and ‘White Dome’. ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ is the first pink blooming hydrangea aborescens which purchase also benefits breast cancer research. ‘Incrediball’ Hydrangea blooms a flower which is over 12” wide and on sturdier, stouter stems so it’s less floppy than ‘Annabelle.’ Unlike Mophead, flower color is not determined by the acidity or PH of the soil.
     PeeGee Hydrangea (hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora’) have large white flowers when they first bloom and fade to pink. These too have awesome fall and winter interest. They are extremely long blooming and have nice conical shapes. Their flowers are great dried both in the house and for fall and winter outdoor containers. Use them alone or add them to arrangements to create elegance. Just like ‘Annabelles’, their color does not change due to acidity levels of the soil. PeeGees flower off of new wood but are extremely hardy up to zone 3 and will keep their old wood. So, regular pruning will help maintain their shape. These large magnificent plants are great focal points in the garden and prefer to be in a part sun area, however they can tolerate full sun but always require consistent moisture. Varieties include the tried and true ‘Tardiva’ and ‘Unique’. Gaining popularity is ‘Limelight’ because of its erect shape and flowers going from white to chartreuse to pink. A smaller version of ‘Limelight’ is ‘Little Lamb’. Varieties that turn pink quicker include ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Pinky Winky’. And for a more bold pink color ‘Pink Diamond’ is the plant for you. Don’t forget these varieties can be easily trained into a standard or tree like shape to add an interesting element to the garden.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A dreary October Day

     Well, it is another dark and dreary October day (written 10/30/2009). These are the falls that I remember from my childhood: trick-or-treating with a down-filled coat on or a poncho covering the handmade costume that my Grandmother made me. I believe that the last few falls were blessings from garden spirits and that Mother Nature is just bringing reality back to us.
     However, Tom Skilling (area meteorologist) is saying something about El NiƱo and a warm patch in the Pacific Ocean that will bring a milder winter. Maybe this winter will be like the year we sold Christmas trees in t-shirts. Maybe it will be like last year where it snowed a little bit at a time. Or maybe we will get a doozy of a blizzard like the winter of 1969. Now, let’s stay optimistic!
     This is the time of year I advise our beloved family, friends and clients who want to better their gardens with the tips and techniques for preparing for those winter months ahead. Alas, as sad as it is, the old sayings like “Do as I say, not as I do” or the “Shoemaker’s children go barefoot” come to mind. I walk past the bags of bulbs (that had good intentions) in my garage begging to be planted and I look at the ‘Blue Billow’ Hydrangeas that would be spectacular if I gave them just a little bit of winter protection. But it just gets too cold and dark and my motivation is limited to do something about it and then I complain bitterly in summer that the area is lacking color. My poor Arborvitaes will suffer from “Flat head” from the cascade of snow that comes flying off the roof with gusto and I know a little bit of proactive tying would have lessened their stress. Fortunately, they grow out of the ugliness every year or maybe my lawn maintenance crew takes pity and cosmetically fixes them with a tuck here and nip there.  (Thanks Guys!)
     My garden, like the Chicago Cubs, abides by the philosophy and spirit that there is always next year.
(edited by Elaine Colon)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Time for bed, Garden! Part 3

We are going to wrap up our series on putting the garden to bed by discussing some winterizing techniques.

Heavy ice or snow on arbor vitae can cause damage by bending or breaking the tops of the shrubs due to excessive weight. It is very sad to see a flat-head arbor vitae, so be sure to tie them up to prevent this. However, if you put it off and get an unexpected snow, they will recover in the spring...eventually.

Evergreens, because they have foliage even in winter, will lose moisture, especially in windy areas. To prevent wind burn, you have several options: you can wrap them, put up barriers and spray them with an anti-desiccant (Wilt-Pruf). An anti-desiccant is a foliage spray that helps prevent summer scald, transplant shock and winter moisture loss, which is also known as desiccation. We recommend spraying while the temps are still above freezing and the plants are dormant. You can then reapply in January/February.

After you are done working on the actual plants, it's a good idea to clean your tools for the winter. Even leaving dirt and grass on blades can cause rusting over the winter. Drain power equipment of fuel or add a fuel stabilizer such as Stabil. Oil any metals with vegetable oil to prevent rusting. And don't forget to sharpen your tools so they are ready for action once spring returns.

While you're at it, might as well check your snow removal equipment (shovels, blowers, snow rake, de-icers). Try as they might, the forecasters don't always get it right. You don't want to wake up to a winter wonderland one morning and not be prepared.

Now that all the hard stuff is done, cozy up with some seed catalogs and make your wish list for next year!

If you have any questions about the topic we've covered the past few posts, or comments/tips you'd like to share, please send us a note. We'd love to hear from you.

Enjoy your outdoors!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Time for bed, Garden! Part 2

It's a gloriously sunny and crisp day up here, just north of Chicago. So, let's put on some flannel and get out in the garden! The rain from the last few days has knocked down a bunch of leaves, which can keep the kids busy raking.

Once you've gathered a pile of leaves (and after everyone's had a chance to jump into the big pile a few times!) you could mulch them up with your lawnmower or leaf blower (if you have one of those blower/mulcher versions). You might also cut down and/or remove annuals and vegetables to add to your compost pile. Be sure to check for diseases and pests before adding anything to the mulch or compost. You certainly don't want to be harboring anything nasty. Once you've got your compost ingredients neatly piled, let them sit for a while until it starts to look more like soil.

It might be a good time to empty out any pots or containers that aren't freeze-proof, to prevent damage over the winter.

Now for some pruning.
Prune any shrubs you've got that don't bloom in the spring (i.e. Spirea, Weigela, Dogwood). Cut 1/3 of the plant out in this order:
1. Diseased branches
2. Branches that rub against each other
3. Branches that are not aesthetically pleasing
4. Trim to shape

A "rejuvenation prune" would involve cutting the whole plant down if the plant has become very woody or barren.

As for rose bushes, you can cut them down to 12" to 15" tall then mound them up with leaves, mulches, soil...whatever you've got available. This should be done closer to December and should help keep your bushes at a consistent temperature throughout the winter.

Watch your weather forecasts because after the first hard frost you'll want to cut back anything dead or fading from your perennials.

OK. That should be plenty of work for one beautiful Sunday afternoon. Next time we'll discuss more steps to winter-proof the garden and also tool maintenance. As always, questions and/or comments are welcome.

Now, time for some hot chocolate!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Time for bed, Garden!

All of a sudden it's that time of year again; time to put the garden to bed. And just like the kids who want an extra 15 minutes before getting tucked, we've hoped (in vain!) that the warm temps would last just a little longer. Not a chance. So, what should you do to protect your precious garden from the harsh weather around the corner? In the next few days, we'll cover the basics of putting your garden to bed.

First thing to do is evaluate your garden. Ask yourself: Which plants did well? Make note of the environmental conditions (i.e., Oh, bad drainage here! Hmm, it's really windy in that area over there., etc.) Are there any diseases or insects that need attention? Examine the crop rotation. Who ended up where?

You should have stopped fertilizing trees, shrubs and plants by early September. If you haven't, drop the fertilizer now.

This is a good time to think about how you want your garden to look next spring. Plant trees, shrubs and bulbs now. We recommend staking all trees planted in fall to prevent tipping or shifting due to wind and/or snow.

A note about planting tulips and daffodils: You can time their growth based on how you place your bulbs underground. If you plant some of the bulbs sideways and facing down, these will take longer to get above ground and therefore you've extended your blossom time. In addition to tulips and daffodils, you might also consider planting edible bulbs like garlic and shallots.

As always, keep watering if the fall is dry (approximately one inch of water per week).

Next time we'll discuss pruning and mulching. In the meantime, send us your thoughts and have fun out there!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bring your outdoor plants indoors for the winter

Tis the season to bring in those precious plants that have vacationed on your patios and balconies all summer. Granted, this endeavor is always accompanied by a multitude of questions: “Which one(s) are fortunate to make the cut?” “To trim or not to trim?” And my personal favorite, “What freeloaders are lurking within my glorious garden buddies?”

“Which one(s) are fortunate to make the cut?” - The # 1 deciding factor for which plants make the cut to spend the winter in your limited household space should be ease of maintenance: bring in those plants which are conducive to being wintered indoors with little or no issues. Problem plants (mandevilla, passion vine) are just not worth the heartache. Then there are the three other reasons for choosing which plants are spared the harsh reality of the compost heap. You probably want to save those plants that are sentimental, like grandma’s peace lily or the rex begonia you rooted from a friend and/or the plants that you searched high and low for that are rare, like night blooming cyrus, orchids or a coveted citrus plant. Also indoors-worthy are those expensive plants, like topiary rosemary, gardenias, braided hibiscus and bodacious bamboos that you use for screening your neighbors who think garden art is the A/C compressor. These plants and those like them should be welcomed into your home with loving arms.

“To trim or not to trim?” - Most plants enjoy a regular trim. It keeps them full, promotes new growth, eliminates damaged growth and helps maintain the size of the plant. There are those plants that benefit from serious trimmings such as hibiscus, gardenias and oleanders. For the more timid gardener, a light trimming will work too, but not as well. For Geraniums (pelargonium), both scented and large flower varieties, we recommend cutting 50% to 70% back. Sounds drastic, yes, but yields great spring results. Trim to maintain shape for your ivy, herb and Eugenia topiaries. So, periodic trimmings are helpful in keeping these plants happy. However, there are plants with leaves that are generated near the center of the plant or close to the soil such as clivias, gingers and agapanthus that should not be trimmed back because they recover extremely slowly from this.

“What freeloaders are lurking within my glorious garden buddies?” – Finally, what “friends” can you expect on your plants and how do you deal with them? First, we recommend trimming the plant back if it is applicable. This physically removes many insects. Second, we recommend spraying the whole plant while it is lying on its side, so you can get under the leaves, too. Spraying it down with water (outside!) should knock a good portion of its freeloaders off, too. We recommend also spraying the plant down, after it has dried off, with an insecticidal soap or insecticidal oil. Be careful to follow the instructions provided. For instance, soap is usually not good for gardenias and oil does not work well on fuzzy-leafed plants. If you find you have an outbreak of insects, there are certain methods that you can apply while your plant is indoors to deal with them. Personally, I like to seek out the little buggers and squash them with my fingers.

Now that you’re armed with some criteria, go out there and decide which plants will be eliminated from the garden and need to pack up their bags and leave the premises immediately and which are still in the running to become America’s Next Top House-Plant. : )

Monday, September 28, 2009

A summer annual blow out… Literally!

Even though it is the beginning of meteorological fall it feels like the end of October, with overcast skies, a high in the upper 50s and wind gusts up to 45 MPH.

While I was driving around this morning, I noticed the summer annuals; having been bombarded with cold wind and rain from a low that descended on us from Canada last night, look downright sad. The wind sucked the life out of the sweet potato vines, the red salvias are looking thin and the petunias bearing little to no flowers, these containers are just screaming for a fall makeover.

Just when you start breaking out the sweaters, your once beautiful pots would like to be updated to match the season too. The available assortment for the autumn show is awesome. For living texture you have kales, cabbages, grasses, mums, asters, ajugas, sedums, pansies, ivies and various other cool loving perennials. For accents you can use bunches of dried grasses, dried hydrangeas, cut willow branches and bittersweet. To be even more creative you can use large structures in your containers such as various shaped bamboos (etc. trellises, teepees, obelisks) pumpkins, squash and gourds (both fresh and dried). You’ll be amazed at the possibilities and the ability to express your individuality. Come on in and we will be glad to inspire you or visit your local independent garden center.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Earth box intro

As the season comes to a slowing we all reflect on our accomplishments or disappointments in the vegetable garden. It was the first time that many of my staff had witnessed the whole process of vegetable growing and all of us partook in the fruits of our own labor. With the cool season of summer of 2009, well below average temperatures, we had some veggies that thrived and some that were mediocre. Our cool crops(broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale) were awesome and are still producing. Our tomatoes were OK, still there are lots of green ones and hopefully a warm Indian summer should ripen the rest. However, the new garden gadget that we all were taken by surprise was the "Earth Box". No one expected that piece of plastic to yield anything, it did two almost 7 foot monsters (1 early girl, 1 sweet 100's) with and abundance of fruit. One of my lucky customers had spied it the week of the fourth of July (it had just started to have ripening fruit) and had us deliver it to the back patio of her home. She had plenty of cherry tomatoes for her salads all summer long and loads of juicy 'Early Girl' Tomatoes for her burgers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

First things first

Welcome to “A Gardening Life” Blog. My name is Elizabeth and I live and work in our 4th generation family owned garden center just north of Chicago. Educating and garden problem solving for our area are two of our strongest missions in the green industry. But we wanted to extend our helpful know-how to people in our region and across our beautiful country. Please feel free to comment or ask question. We love to help!