Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Gentleman in the Garden

Maybe I've marinated my brain in one too many Jane Austen novels, but I do love a bit of old English romance in the garden.  And in my mind, no garden is complete without the formal touch of Boxwood.
Quietly regal with untarnished etiquette, Boxwood is the gentleman in the garden.  His simple lines and quiet simplicity set off all the flowering plants as they twirl their way through the seasons.

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is a broadleaf evergreen, which is to say, it looks green and lovely in the winter without the prickles of a juniper, yew or pine.  Boxwood is the golden boy for the Bloomin' Calendar (see previous entry).  Although he offers no noticeable blooms, he literally has 4-season appeal.  I like him as much in June as I do in January.  The glossy, oval leaves - which are deep green on the top and light green on the bottom - provide the clean lines which keep this gentleman so pristine.

Boxwood is easily sheered into a hedge, creating an evergreen backdrop or line.    I personally enjoy pruning them separately, unleashing my inner 'beautician' on each one with my trusty, rusty pruners.

If you decide that your garden could use the refined touch of Boxwood, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1.  Boxwood comes in many different varieties.  My favorite is 'Winter Gem', and I can usually pick it up at Lowe's for $6.  This, of course, is a small plant.  Large plants can run anywhere from $25-$50.  That's just not in my budget, but it may be in yours.  Some varieties are less hardy, so take my advice or do your homework.  'Green Mountain' is a pyramidal selection which would make a nice replacement for Dwarf Alberta Spruce or a pyramidal Juniper.  However, Spruce and Juniper are hardier, which brings me to point #2.

2.  Boxwood needs protection.  Our house is situated on the edge of a proposed wind farm in Kankakee county.  There is nothing blocking my front porch from the wind that barrels over these empty cornfields in January.  Our porch faces west and wraps around to the north.  And I can tell you from experience, boxwood flourish on the north side and perish on the west.  For the record, I have seen boxwood that survive in a south/western exposure, but I want you to realize that planting them there is a risky investment.        

Now, I know there are some people who will wrap less hardy plants in burlap for the winter.  Burlap does not fall anywhere into my 4-season appeal palate.  If a plant isn't hardy enough for a spot, find something that is.  I'd rather look at sticks in the winter than a make-shift burlap box.  You can try applying a product called Wilt-Pruf to your boxwood in the fall.  This helps prevent dessication, a cause of winter kill.

Don't let my cautionary warning keep you from trying boxwood.  If you have a north or eastern location or a protected garden, sock a row of them in there.  You won't regret it.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Deal of the Week

Frugal gardener alert!  I scored a $20 Japanese Maple at Lowes today.  No, it isn't a majestic specimen, just a babe of a tree, but considering that larger versions go for $100 and up, I'm willing to take a chance on this one.    They had both weeping and upright varieties.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Earwigs Be Gone!

Earwigs (known in the Uftring household as 'Pincher Bugs') may eat spidermites, which technically makes them beneficial, but they've been known to destroy Hosta.  If you're torn by this good bug/bad bug's reputation, feel free to toss a coin to decide their fate.  If, on the other hand, you find their appearance disturbing and can't wait to rid yourself of them, check out this simple, clever and chemical-free solution:

The Casual Gardener: How To Get Rid of Earwigs in Your Garden 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Favorite Flowering Trees

The blooming tree season is pretty well over, but the landscaping season is just getting into full swing.  Don't neglect these early season beauties when considering what to incorporate into your landscaping this summer.  Here are my four favorites.  If I had a bigger yard, I'd be cramming these in all over the place.

My sentimental favorite: Redbud.  I grew up with Redbuds.  Had one outside my bedroom window and one outside of my Grandma's kitchen window.  But you don't need to have warm, fuzzy memories attached to Cercis canadensis to fall in love with it.  It pops with blossoms that range from mauve to fuschia in spring.  It's post-bloom habit is airy and open with heart-shaped leaves that provide enough dappled shade (at maturity) to grow Hostas beneath.

My messy favorite: Magnolia.  A blooming Saucer Magnolia is akin to a Fannie May buttercream - so rich and delicious, you just can't get enough, but you know you'll pay for it later!  Saucer Mags are drenched in giant, silky blooms.  They are the Queens of the hardy Magnolia family.  However, what goes up must come down, and all those giant blossoms make quite a mess when they fall.  For me, a little bit of raking is well worth the show, but I would recommend siting the tree away from sidewalks and driveways to keep the mess out of traffic patterns.  After the blooms are cleaned up, you'll love sitting beneath the open arms of Magnolia soulangeana.  The habit is similar to a Redbud, but larger.

My risky favorite: Dogwood.  My heart goes pitter-patter when I see a Flowering Dogwood decked out with it's flat discs of petals set in horizontal lines, like a waiter with an armful of white plates.  The beautiful Cornus florida likes warm, moist environs and they tend to congregate in the south (can you blame them?).  Sadly, you and I live in Illinois - a land known for cold winters and dry summers.    To tip the cards in our favor, take some time to find the perfect location for your Dogwood.  Keys to consider: protection from the winter winds and a close proximity to a hose (for those droughty supplemental waterings).  Also, I recommend choosing one of the 'Cherokee' hybrids.  They're a hardier group and resistant to some common Dogwood pests.   Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) is more tolerant of our conditions, and definitely worth considering.

My multi-season favorite: Serviceberry.  I have a Serviceberry.  But I wish I had three.  I think these small shrubby trees look even better when planted in groups.  I treasure all the seasons with my little gem.  In spring, Amelachier canadensis sprouts white blooms, followed by purplish-blue edible fruits (a big draw for birds).  An A+ in fall color makes Serviceberry the Valedictorian of its class.  The canadensis surname tips us off to a hardy ancestry that will keep our Serviceberries blooming after many a hard Illinois winter.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the reliable Crabapple.  I grew up with one in my front yard and I made many a 'crabapple pie' (the non-edible kind: think mud pie, but prettier).  The blooms swarm the whole crown in spring, creating a virtual cloud of flowers.  Personally, their post-flowering foliage and habit are not my favorite.  Just sort of blah for me.  Crabapples, however, win big awards for cold hardiness.  In Illinois, that HAS to count for something.  If you're looking for a crabapple, do your homework.  They are notoriously susceptible to disease, but breeding has created some excellent resistant varieties.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

License to Kill

I'm a softie.  I steer away from movies like Dumbo, Bambi and Old Yeller (I'm sniffling just thinking about them).  I can't eat lobster (what a way to die...poor dears).  Once, I caught a VERY badly behaved mouse - and rather than kill it - I drove several miles away and released it in a cornfield.  But bugs?  Well, they're more of a gray area for me.  I have two boys who love to inspect and capture or kill them, so we have developed some guidelines to regulate insect treatment.

If the bugs are in our house, they're trespassing (a capital offense).  If they're outside, leave 'em alone.

This standing order has saved the lives of countless Daddy Longlegs and the ruination of many an anthill.

BUT there are a few bugs on my Watch List.  I think of them as little terrorists.  No mercy.  The house rule goes out the window for them.  Inside, outside, upside down.  I don't care.
I'm the terminator.

Bug #1: Japanese Beetles
Decked out in their iridescent copper and green coat, these little menaces might be mistaken for something beautiful.  They're not.  Destroy them.  However, not being a fan of the CRUNCH experienced when crushing buggy exoskeletons, I kill them humanely.  Well, at least it treats ME humanely.  I drop them in a bucket of soapy water.  The soap destroys the water tension, rendering the offender helpless to escape.  Additionally, soap does damage insect cell membranes, but beyond the technical jargon, this is what you need to know: it kills them.  During Japanese Beetle season, I work outside in my garden with a bucket of soapy water by my side.  Fortunately for gardeners, JBs are not as wily as the common housefly.  They are easily caught and tossed in the bucket.  If you have kids, give them each a bucket and promise an ice cream cone to the one with the most beetles.  If you're a softie like me, you can just give them all an ice cream cone when they've done the job.

Bug #2: Grubs
Grubs are nothing more than baby beetles.  In Illinois, our two main grubs are the Masked Chafer and the Japanese beetle.  They live in the soil, so I usually find them when I'm planting or weeding.  They roll up in a C-shape when disturbed.  No soapy water to soften the brutality of this deed: I smoosh them soundly with whatever tool I have on hand.  (Confession: my softie nature took over and I released the pictured grub after our little photo shoot.  It took me awhile to get just the right shot and by then, I'd just spent too much time with him to not become somewhat attached.  So warning to fellow softies: don't think about it.  Just do it.  And whatever you do, don't name them.)

Bug #3: Bagworms
Why are bagworms such successful pests?  Well, it's really a two-pronged attack.  First, they're camouflaged in their nest: a small enclosure that often looks like a pine cone or other natural plant structure.  Second, there's SO MANY of them.  Each nest contains 500-1000 eggs which will hatch in May and unleash hell on your plant.  So pick them and burn them.  Or pick them and smoosh them.  Or pick them and drown them in soapy water.  But just be sure to destroy them.  Bagworms can also be sprayed in early spring with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), neem oil or spinosad.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

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The Taming of the Lilac

Got my first whiff of Lilac today.  Oh, sweet heavenly sunshine, what a fragrance!  I stood there, smelling and enjoying, wondering if the neighbors might be getting suspicious.  I'm sure they've seen me do stranger things...

When we first bought this house, I knew EXACTLY how I wanted to landscape the front.  And job #1 was to plant a Magnolia out from the corner of the house.  That idea was dismissed by my Love when he pointed out the proximity of the well.  What a kill joy.  So, I snuck a Lilac into the ground and promised myself that I would train it to look like a multi-stemmed tree.  (See the Felco #2 article for my obsession with pruning plants)  Well, in case you were wondering, keeping a Lilac in order is harder than it sounds.  Lilacs, by nature, do not wish to look like multi-stemmed trees.  Their DNA demands a shrubby countenance, and their determination is hard to restrain.  I snip back watersprouts and hack away at suckers all season long.  Someday, when I move from this house, that Lilac will sing Hallelujah and revert to its wild nature.  But today - after 8 years of chopping, trimming and waiting - I feel like I finally  have a multi-stemmed flowering tree on the corner of my house!  So I will stand here, looking silly with my head in this shrub, sniffing and sighing with delight.  I think I've earned the privilege.

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