Welcome to winter, one of the best seasons for gardeners. You have time to plan, prune, and enjoy those houseplants that don’t get much love during the outdoor growing season. Make the most of your winter gardening with these dos and don’ts from Chicago Botanic Garden experts.
DO prune your deciduous trees. From mid-November to mid-March, it’s much easier to prune because you’ll be able to better see a tree’s branching structure and there is less chance of transmitting diseases from one plant to another.
DON’T prune conifers. Needled evergreens can be pruned in late winter or early spring, before growth begins. Arborvitae should be pruned during spring and early summer.
DO water newly planted trees and shrubs that might be in the path of salt spray from salted roads during periods of winter thaw. Consider wrapping vulnerable trees to prevent damage from salt and extreme temperatures.
DON’T overwater houseplants. Because of shorter days and reduced humidity, most houseplants aren’t in an active growth phase, so they’ll require less water and fertilizer.
DO keep houseplants away from cold drafts, radiators, hot air vents, and cold windows. Plants growing in sunny east- or north-facing windows may benefit from being moved to a southern or western exposure for winter.
DON’T try to remove ice or snow that has frozen onto your outdoor plants. You might inadvertently damage them. Let it melt off on its own.
DO start to plan your garden for the new year. Order seeds and bulbs during the winter so you’ll be ready to plant in the spring.
Looking for a feel-good, beautiful, reasonably priced gift? Plants are all that and even on trend—see #plantsmakepeoplehappy; it’s an Instagram thing. Here’s a quick guide on which plants to buy—as a gift or for yourself. Make sure to get them to their destination safely by wrapping them head to toe at the store and getting them back indoors as soon as you can.
Holiday plants come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Take the beautiful but dreaded poinsettia. It’s beautiful because the red, cream, or sparkle-laden plants are dazzling. But it is also dreaded because the plant will drop its leaves in warm and dry air, cold drafts, or direct sunlight. There’s hope—and you need not be a horticulturist to nurture a holiday plant.
Christmas Cactus So much for common names—these colorful plants (Schlumbergera spp.) hail from Brazil’s rainforest. Place them in bright, indirect light. Water thoroughly, letting the soil dry a little between waterings.
Rosemary Who doesn’t love a fragrant pot of rosemary, trimmed to look like a miniature spruce tree? Keep it moist but not sopping wet, and give it bright light or a sunny window. And snip some stems for your culinary adventures.
Orchid Forget to water? No problem. Overwatering orchids kills them faster than underwatering. Place them in a southern or eastern exposure and enjoy several months of bloom.
Poinsettia Give it a cool spot out of direct sunlight and keep the soil moist but not soggy. It’s tricky to keep poinsettias going until spring, but if you’re game, here’s how.
Amaryllis Breathtaking, beefy amaryllis blooms—trumpets of white, cream, red, pink, or multi-colors—put on a show for several weeks. Put the plant in a bright, sunny spot and water thoroughly, letting the soil dry a bit between waterings. As each flower fades, remove the flowering stalk. A bonus: you can get it to rebloom next year.
Cyclamen Often called “the poor man’s orchid,” cyclamen (SIKE-la-men) plants like it cool, preferring daytime temperatures around 68 degrees Fahrenheit and down to 50 degrees at night—not always easy to do. However, an unheated sunroom, enclosed porch, a bright, cool window or an east or north-facing windowsill will do. Set the plant pot in a bowl of water and let it “drink” up the water and then return it to the saucer. Soil should dry out a bit between waterings, but not so much that the leaves begin to wilt.
Need a little holiday pick-me-up? Stop by the Garden’s Greenhouses in the Regenstein Center for a peek at the stunning holiday plants. Save time to drop by the Garden Shop for a selection of plants and other holiday gift ideas.
Guest blogger Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.
With just a bit of effort, you can make your holiday table warm and inviting—and a worthy backdrop for your meal.
Nancy Clifton, former program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, shared some easy, crafty ideas harvest-inspired centerpieces.
A Festive Look
Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:
Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.
Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.
Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers.
Fancy Pumpkin Planters
Add a natural look to your table with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.
Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks. Gather small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.
Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.
Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.
Add an intimate glow
Improvise! Try adding pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feel.
In spite of the recent 90 degree temperatures, it’s time to start thinking about moving your houseplants inside.
The best time to do this is when temperatures outside are relatively close to the temperatures indoors, meaning mid- to late September. Before you move everything in, however, there are four quick steps you’ll want to take to help ensure a successful winter of windowsill gardening.
1. Clean up any dead or damaged growth.
Why bring any additional mess indoors when you don’t have to? Carefully remove any broken branches, sunburned leaves, or otherwise unsightly growth from your plants.
2. Lightly trim back plants as needed.
This step is a bit optional, and you really only need to do it if your plants have become large and overgrown. Never remove more than one-third of the growth at a time. Removing more can stress the plant and send it into shock, which can be hard to recover from indoors.
3. Check thoroughly for pests, and treat as needed.
One of the biggest ways to set yourself up for success is to start with clean plants. There are several pests that can cause problems indoors. The most common are mealybugs, spider mites, scale, and aphids. Insecticidal soap is a lower toxicity insecticide that is safe for most houseplants and will take care of nearly any pest problem you might have. As with any chemical, make sure to follow all package instructions. It is NOT recommended to use soapy water—this eats away at the cuticle (a protective waxy layer on the leaf), making it more vulnerable to disease problems in the future. For specific pest recommendations, contact our Plant Information Service.
4. Finally, resist the urge to repot unless necessary.
Sometimes plants have simply grown too large for their pots, in which case it’s OK to repot. But don’t repot if the plant doesn’t need it, as this will add unnecessary stress that could harm the plant in the long term. Always use soil specifically for containers (potting soil). Black dirt is too heavy and will encourage rot. When repotting, select a new pot that’s only 1 or 2 inches larger in diameter. Anything much larger than that will encourage rot because the soil will stay wet for a long time.
This season’s Brazil in the Garden exhibition features a bold tropical look at the Chicago Botanic Garden—you can get that same vibrant feel in your home garden, using perennial plants.
Surprisingly, there are a number of plants that thrive in the Chicago area in spite of their tropical looks. With attributes ranging from huge leaves, delicious fruits, or potent fragrances, these trees and shrubs will add a tropical splash to your backyard year after year.
Magnolia ashei is one of the most tropical-looking plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It features huge leaves, huge flowers, and huge fruits. The leaves can grow up to 36 inches long, the flowers can be more than a foot across, and the fruits are up to 5 inches long and turn bright red. Magnolia ashei has an irregular growth habit and makes a bold specimen. Look for this one in the Native Plant Garden (however, this plant is not an Illinois native).
Another large leaf magolia, Magnolia tripetala x obovata, is similar in most respects; however, it features a broad, round form and is a bit more formal in the landscape. This magnolia can be found in the Waterfall Garden.
Campsis radicans is a native vine with large, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers all summer long. The flowers are a hummingbird magnet, which just adds to the tropical allure, and are available in numerous colors, including red, orange, and yellow. This is a large, growing vine so give it room to grow. It does tolerate pruning but blooms best when allowed to grow uninterrupted. Even the seed pods are ornamental, looking almost like green bananas hanging from the flower clusters. Look for it in the Waterfall Garden, and the fence surrounding the Graham Bulb Garden, where we have red and yellow varieties mixed together.
Another native plant that wouldn’t look out of place in the rain forest is the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). This native tree has green leaves that can reach a foot long. It’s a beautiful understory tree that will grow well in dappled shade with ample moisture (but never standing water). However, the real reward with pawpaws are the fruit. These large fruits have an incredibly tropical flavor, like a mix of mango, pineapple, and bananas. The fruit are among the last to ripen in the late summer and well worth the wait. To get a good crop of fruit, make sure to plant two varieties.
Pawpaws also get beautiful golden fall color, which only adds to their appeal. One note of caution however: the trees can sucker, so make sure to plant your pawpaw somewhere where this isn’t a problem, or make sure to remove the suckers as they sprout. Look for pawpaws in the Bulb Garden, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and Native Plant Garden.
And finally, what is a tropical garden without lush fragrances? Clethra alnifolia is a hardy shrub that thrives in partial shade and boasts intensely fragrant blooms in late summer.
Clethra flowers have a rich smell similar to gardenia, but with spicy undertones. The flowers are tall spikes of white or pink and are a magnet for pollinators such as honeybees and hummingbirds. With careful planning, you can mix varieties of clethra and have blooms that last from mid-July through late August. Several varieties of clethra can be found in the Sensory Garden.