Self Watering Planters

 Self watering planters make container gardening less labor intensive and save water while making water available on demand for your plants. By maintaining a reservoir of water at the bottom of the pot, separated by a porous plastic plate to hold soil above the water, plants get adequate water with no waste. Most come with a gauge that shows when water is needed that fits inside the watering tube. Just pour water into the tube to keep your plants going.

When you are away from home, self watering planters keep plants hydrated for several days, so they are ideal for business or weekend trips and cut down on the times plants must be watered by others for longer trips. They can be used indoors or outdoors, so they are ideal for over wintering tender perennials. Larger pots can be used on patios or balconies. Light weight soil mixes are available to lighten the load on balconies and roof tops.

Posted on March 4, 2016 .

Tree and Shrub Care

 Early Spring, before trees leaf out is a great time to inspect your woody plants. Without the leaves, you can see the branch structure, crossing/rubbing branches and branches where bark is missing to identify pruning that could improve the health of the trees and shrubs and their shape. 

Another concern is for the plants growing in the shade of a tree. Thinning the tree (removing interior branches) or limbing it up (removing lower limbs) to allow more light to reach the plants below will improve the health of the garden without harming the tree or the beauty it provides.

If you are planning to plant in the tree ring or within the tree’s drip line, be sure to select shade tolerant plants in the smallest containers available to avoid damaging the roots of the tree. Unless the tree is in a wet area, plants that prefer dry shade work best because the roots of the tree will be competing with the plants for water and nutrients. Do not add more than 3” of soil and mulch or bury the root flare (so that the tree appears to be a pole in the ground).

Posted on February 27, 2016 .

Winter Hydrangea Care

 There are several of types of hydrangeas. Some bloom on old wood, some on new and some on both. In zone 5, buds on old wood are often frozen during harsh winter weather. The result is a green plant with few or no flowers. Covering hydrangeas is a trick used to help keep the buds from freezing. There are several types of hydrangeas, each having different requirements.

Care for Macrophylla and Quercifolia

Use large flower pots or styrofoam rose covers filled with leaves to cover smaller plants, placing a brick on top or using landscape staples to secure the cover to the ground. For larger plants, try wrapping with chicken wire or a tarp and filling with leaves or wrapping with bubble type wrap and then chicken wire or a tarp to hold it in place.Care for Arborescens

Care for Arborescens

Annabelle hydrangeas bloom on new wood and in zone 5 are treated as perennials. Cut canes to about 1 ft after leaves drop. 

Care for Paniculata

No cover is needed, however a top dressing of mulch is recommended.

If you are not sure what type of hydrangea you have, try looking for pictures of the various kinds on the internet.

Posted on October 14, 2015 .

Japanese Anemone Star of the Fall Garden


Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida) spend most of the growing season as small clumps of interesting three lobed leaves, only to become one of the stars of the fall garden when they bloom in late August and September. 

They are low maintenance, long lived perennials that can move around the garden until they find a location they love. Not aggressive, easily removed if they choose a location you disagree with, they are a lovely plant to include in your garden. Flowers can be white or pink with a yellow center. Hardiness zone, 3-8, All tolerate part shade.

Some Anemones bloom in spring and Anemone canadensis is a spring blooming, native, fast spreading ground cover for part shade. Be sure to check the labels for requirements when selecting plants. 

Posted on August 27, 2015 .

Oakleaf Hydrangeas

Oakleaf Hydrangeas are a multi-season plant for your landscape. The older versions are 6'-8' tall and wide, but there are newer introductions that are smaller. In addition to spectacular blooms, they have fall color and a corky exfoliating bark in winter. Their large, course, oak shaped leaves in a tall plant are a good texture variation in the garden.

Blooming on old wood, the last two winters in Chicago winters have taken their toll on blooms and fall color. In 2013, the plants died back to the ground, so while the plants survived, no flowers bloomed. Generally, the flowers should be removed after flowering and  should not be pruned in late fall or spring to avoid removing next year's flower buds. If the location becomes too shady, the plants may fail to bloom and fall color will be less spectacular.

Posted on August 21, 2015 .

Astilbes Are Putting On a Show

 Astilbes are a lovely shade loving plant that with enough water will provide lacy foliage all summer and put on a colorful show in late June and early July. This year they are especially beautiful because rain has been plentiful.

Astilbes like some light and will not do well in total darkness. They need regular watering. Planting them next to a fountain that you fill regularly is a good way to assure they get the water they need.

Posted on July 3, 2015 .

How to Measure the Amount of Water Applied to Your Landscape


 Without an irrigation system to measure the amount of water applied to your landscape, you may be wondering how long to leave the sprinkler on. Generally, the recommendation is to apply 1” of water twice a week less the rainfall. 

To measure, place a cup in the area to be watered and time how long it takes to get 1” of water in the cup. Once you know how long it takes, to apply 1” of water, you know how long to leave the water running.

For soaker hoses, turn the water on no more than half way for several hours or overnight.

Posted on June 5, 2015 .

Plant Size vs Installation Cost of Landscape Design

 Plant size is a consideration in the cost of installing a landscape design. Using smaller plants reduces the cost, but you must wait for the plants to mature. Larger plants cost more because someone has been tending them for more years. It is wise to use larger plants where you need instant impact and smaller ones where you can enjoy the transformation of your landscape over a couple of seasons.

In this landscape we chose to use smaller plants and spend the budget on hardscape elements, but in two weeks, some of the plants have already doubled in size while others will need a season or two to reach their full potential.

Posted on May 21, 2015 .

The Importance of Planting Native Trees

 This week the Greater Independence Park Neighborhood Association hosted an event with Openlands, Tree Keepers, Chicago Park District Forestry expert and volunteers from the community to plant 10 new native trees in Independence Park. 

Native trees have benefits that extend past their better adaptability to our soils and growing conditions. They also produce less pollen than the single sex (male) trees commonly planted in the city. This positively affects allergy sufferers this time of year.

If you are adding trees to your landscape, include natives in your selection.

Posted on May 1, 2015 .

The Importance of Soil pH

 Plants feed from the elements dissolved in the water they absorb from the soil. Soil pH controls which elements are available to the plant.  Getting to know your soil is an important factor in becoming a good gardener. 

Chicago soil is slightly alkaline (7.5), so if you want to grow plants like Rhododendron, Blueberries, Astilbe, Evergreens or Hydrangeas, you can add sphagnum moss, cotton bur compost or sulfur to the root zones of the plants to lower the pH over time. It is a good idea to add peat moss to the backfill when you install these plants. A soil test will give you more information about your soil.

Posted on April 18, 2015 .

Enter Siberian Squill

Scilla siberica (Siberian squill or wood squill) is a spring ephemeral that brightens my garden and my mood with it's bright blue flowers each year. As the Iris reticulata are finishing, Siberian Squill and Daffodils emerge. It's short stature makes it a better choice than Tulips or Daffodils for planting in lawns. It will spread by seed to form large colonies that go dormant by the time lawn needs to be mowed.

Posted on April 10, 2015 .

Iris reticulata - Spring is here.

When I see this spectacular bloom in my front garden, I know Spring is here. This small flower blooms about the same time as Crocus and is about the same size. The bulb is deer resistant and has the most impact if planted in mass. If it peters out after a few years, just dig up the bulbs after the foliage fades, divide the offsets and replant or add more bulbs. Remember to add some bulb fertilizer when you plant or divide.

Posted on April 4, 2015 .

Spring Ornamental Grasses Maintenance

Remember those ornamental grasses that provided such wonderful interest in your landscape last fall? I'll bet they're looking a bit ragged about now. As you do your spring clean up, don't forget to cut back your grasses. If your grasses flopped over last year, leave them a bit longer to help them stand up straighter this year. I often add a waffle type support when the grasses begin to grow for a neater look. Remember to wrap the grasses with twine or a bungee cord before you cut them so it will be easier to haul the bundle to the compost heap or otherwise dispose of them. 

Posted on March 27, 2015 .

Pruning Tip

 Excerpt from Gardening for Pleasure, Algove Publishing, 2000. (Originally published in 1883.)


The mechanical part of pruning is very simple, a sharp knife is the best implement, as it makes a clean cut, without bruising the bark, and the wound quickly heals; but shears are much easier to handle, and the work can be done so much more quickly, that they are generally preferred, and for rampant growing bushes will answer, but upon fruit-trees, and choice plants generally, the knife is to be preferred.

The cut should be made just at a joint; not so far above it as to leave a stub, as in fig. 49, which will die back to the bud, there being  nothing to contribute to its growth; nor should it be made so close to the bud as to endanger it, as in fig. 48; the cut should start just above its top, as in fig. 50.

Note: This is a reprint of an article originally published in 1883. It describes what was recommended in accordance with the knowledge and practices of the day. While reading it, please consider this fact. Today, bypass pruners are generally used to do this kind of pruners.

Posted on March 12, 2015 .

Stephanandra insica ‘Crispa’ - An Underused Groundcover

 Stephanandra insica ‘Criapa’ is a four season deciduous shrubby groundcover, 2-3’ tall and 4-6’ wide. It requires full sun to part shade, medium moisture and is low maintenance.

 The arching habit with maple shaped leaves give rise to blooms in early summer, great fall color and the rich brown arching shoots provide winter interest.

 t spreads by suckering and stems will root wherever they touch the ground. Maintenance consists of pruning shoots back to strong buds after flowering. 

I first saw this plant grown in a parkway garden, so I know it is a hardy plant.

Posted on March 6, 2015 .

Flower Pot Refresh

 Get ready for spring by emptying and cleaning flower pots. Scrape them with a stiff brush, then soak them for 10 minutes in a 10% bleach solution to remove built up salts and diseases. Soak clay pots for 10 minutes in clear water, and thoroughly dry ( in the sun). Soak clay pots before adding soil to help retain moisture on the day you plant.

To sterilize used potting mix, bake it in the oven at 200 degrees for 30 minutes. When cool or when you are ready to plant, mix in some compost and water to moisten the soil and add nutrients.

Posted on February 28, 2015 .

Watering Houseplants

 One of the most frequent causes of houseplant failure is over-watering.  to avoid this, choose a pot with holes at the bottom to release excess water. Some pots come with a saucer or you can double pot by placing a plain (plastic or clay) pot with holes inside a decorative one with no holes. You should water until water begins to leak from the holes at the bottom of the pot. Be sure to remove excess water from the saucer or outer pot. Waiting 1/2 hour will allow the plant to absorb some of the excess water.

Sometimes the soil gets so dry in winter, it pulls away from the edges of the pot and water runs right through the pot into the saucer.  A shower will not only clean the leaves, it allows you to saturate the soil.

Some people put stones in the saucer or in the bottom of the outer pot to allow some excess water to evaporate. This is done to increase humidity around the plant but the water level should be low enough to keep it above the excess water.

Posted on February 20, 2015 .

When Can I Work the Soil?

 As Spring approaches, gardeners are eager to get out into the garden. However, if your soil is wet from heavy rains, working it early means that you are actually compacting the soil and you will end up with clumpy heavy soil that’s not plant friendly. 

Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it together to form a ball. If the ball breaks apart into loose pieces when squeezed, it’s time to get digging.  If pressure causes the ball to break into large chunks or just flatten, it’s too wet to work. I you have heavy clay soil, break up a handful of soil before you do this test.

Posted on February 13, 2015 .