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The Wonders of Bees

Did you know there are more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide? That’s more than all the mammals, amphibians, and reptiles combined! Can you guess how many more eyes they have than humans? In addition to the two most prominent, there are three eyes on top of their heads just for tracking light and motion. There are many fascinating facts we have learned about bees, but the most critically important one is their role in pollination.

Busy Pollinators

Smart gardeners know that it's the presence of pollinators that makes the difference in the health, fertility, and productivity of wild plants, food plants, and landscape plants alike. However, not only plants are dependent on this relationship. Bees are also essential to humans in our daily lives. If you eat fruits, vegetables, or nuts during the day, there's a good chance your food has been helped along by a bee. By pollinating more than 120 crop plants, it is estimated that bees pollinate approximately one-third of the world's food crops. Besides producing honey, the honeybee (Apis mellifera), has been used extensively for commercial pollination. The value of pollination service by bees is worth billions of dollars annually. Bees also pollinate our native plants that provide food and habitats for other species.

Conserving the Buzz

Bee and Flower

Plants that attract bees:

Bee balm
Big blue lobelia
Black-eyed Susan
Foxtail lily
Jacob's ladder
Joe-pye weed
Purple coneflower
Smooth blue aster
Smooth beardtongue

One of the earliest bee fossils found to date is from the early Cretaceous Period, approximately 100 million years ago, but unfortunately, the past decade has taken a toll on worker honeybees worldwide. As their population has been facing an unrelenting decline, in 2006 this phenomenon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder. There are multiple factors responsible for the disorder including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, and severe weather conditions.

Since bees are so important to global agriculture, our lives, and to the planet, it's important to take measures to keep bees healthy. Planting native plants that attract bees and other pollinators to our gardens is a very simple solution for local conservation. If you must use them, choose pesticides that are certified organic. Beekeeping is not only a popular way to harvest honey, it's a good way to keep bees in check, healthy, and fed. Many other native bees—perhaps not as well-known to gardeners as honeybees—are also capable of pollinating fruits, vegetables, and other crops. These include mason bees, leafcutter bees, digger bees, sweat bees, plasterer bees, and the very large bumblebees. Some nest in wood cavities or underground burrows. Before you swat that "strange flying insect" in your yard, make sure it isn't a beneficial pollinator.

The Mating Scene for Prairie Plants

PHOTO: Prairie

The Prairie State is…not so much!

Illinois is known as “the prairie state,” but this moniker no longer truly reflects the landscape. Urban and agricultural development has left us with less than one-tenth of one percent of prairieland. Years ago, the prairie stretched from horizon to horizon. Today, it can be found only in small patches. Since several species of plants and animals rely on the prairie for survival, as this ecosystem disappears, so will they. Chicago Botanic Garden scientists studying reproductive biology are working hard to understand how populations can be reestablished.

Scientists have taken two different approaches to try to solve the problem of diminishing prairie plant populations. One approach investigates the landscapes themselves, determining which environmental factors help or harm plant reproduction and vitality. The scientists evaluate how fire (or the lack of it) impacts prairie reproduction, and the role of plant pollinators and invasives. Another methodology assesses genetic issues like the loss of genetic diversity, problems with inbreeding, and so on. Garden scientists are pursuing both approaches to maximize our knowledge and solutions.

PHOTO: expanse of prairie

Playing the Game

So, how does prairie plant reproduction happen? Three key environmental conditions must go well for prairie plants to enjoy robust reproduction: location, timing, and compatibility.

Location. The plants must be at the right place at the right time with a good potential match waiting in the wings. Bees and wind carry pollen from one plant to another, but they can only travel so far; when the prairie enjoyed continuous sweeps of plants, location was not a problem, but now so much prairie is lost that the distance between patches has increased and successful pollination has declined. Like human relationships, the more potential partners available in a given location, the better the chances for a good match! Success hinges upon numbers and proximity. For example, it is easier to meet a special someone at a singles’ matchmaking event than at a remote campsite.

Timing. Timing is essential with prairie plant reproduction. They must flower at the same time to reproduce. If a plant blooms a week early or a week late, it loses its potential for partnerships. You snooze, you lose.

Compatibility. Like people, plants must be compatible. In the plant world, that means a diverse gene pool must exist to ensure healthy progeny. As the prairie disappears, genetic diversity suffers, and plants become incompatible with one another. But scientists are seeing some promise.

Improving the Chances

PHOTO: Echinacea

What can be done to improve the chances of successful prairie plant reproduction? Garden scientists are addressing the issues of location, timing, and compatibility. With a focus on Echinacea, a native prairie plant, Stuart Wagenius, Ph.D., and his research team have found a few “matchmaking” successes, including rekindling old prairie flames in an attempt to counteract problems of distance, timing, and genetics.

  • Distance
    Dr. Wagenius has found more plants flowering in a previously burned area—patches of flowering plants are denser and more potential mates are available nearby.
  • Timing
    Findings suggest that spring burns may help synchronize the timing of flowering during the following summer.
  • Compatibility
    When more plants are flowering, we find more genetic diversity among potential mates, and the likelihood of finding compatible mates nearby increases.

Herbarium Collections in Research

PHOTO: Herbarium specimen

A Multifaceted Resource

A herbarium (say the “h”) is a place where preserved plants are collected and classified. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Nancy Poole Rich Herbarium is home to 12,000 specimens of plants—from our own Cook County backyard and the Upper Midwest—all the way from Russia, Korea, and China. This biological library enables scientists from around the world to identify plants in our region and to determine where rare species may be located. Over the years, scientists have realized how important these collections are in documenting and understanding our region’s natural history.

The Herbarium also is an important resource to train staff and volunteers to be able to identify native and invasive plants and to teach students about plant taxonomy and morphology. The Herbarium is not open to the public, but an interactive exhibit displays sample specimens and reveals how the Herbarium helps us understand the Midwest’s natural history, present, and potential future.

PHOTO: Herbarium specimen

Herbarium Plants and Climate Change

Studying specimens in the Herbarium is helping scientists determine how climate change is affecting midwestern plants. By analyzing plants collected at the same developmental stage (e.g., when they begin to flower) throughout different periods in our history, scientists can determine if plants are flowering earlier in the season than they were long ago. And, if plants bloom in response to rising temperatures, their earlier flowering potentially could be linked to climate change. Citizen scientists are expanding our data. Chicago Botanic Garden's Budburst participants help track and document regional growing cycles as they relate to climate.

Understanding Plant Relationships

In addition to determining the impact of climate change on plant growth patterns, study of Herbarium samples can demonstrate how species are related to one another. Consider sunflowers as an example. Sunflowers are used as a food and oil crop. If we want to improve that crop in some way, we can assess the qualities of different sunflower species (e.g., one may have better oil content or produce larger or more nutritious seeds).

PHOTO: plant specimens

Understanding relationships among the species of sunflowers may lead to a more informed breeding process. Traditionally, scientists have studied plant relationships by analyzing morphology and anatomy, but investigating DNA samples of specimens in the Herbarium is a more expedient and reliable method. Precision is especially important when considering plants for drug exploration. The cancer fighting properties in Taxol were discovered in a native species of yew from the Pacific Northwest. If we understand taxonomic relationships among the species of yew, we could perhaps find other useful chemicals in close relatives of this species, or perhaps find a cultivated species that produces the same compound.

Assessing the Past and Future of Plant Distribution

Studying Herbarium specimens enables us to document the distribution of plants at different times: we learn where plants grew in the past compared to where they are abundant today. For example, we know that invasive plants such as garlic mustard and buckthorn were not nearly as pervasive in our region a hundred or two hundred years ago as they are today.

Virtual Herbarium

In partnership with The Morton Arboretum and The Field Museum, and with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Chicago Botanic Garden also makes its herbarium database and images available online via vPlants: The Chicago Regional Virtual Herbarium. The site contains data for 80,000 plant specimens, and can provide real-time reference for scientists in the field. With this resource, scientists can quickly identify a plant species and assess if they have uncovered a new find!

Green Roof Garden

PHOTO: Green Roof

Raising a Rooftop Garden

They conserve water, reduce noise, stem stormwater runoff, minimize urban heat island effect, and provide necessary habitat for native birds and insects. Green roofs are growing in popularity. The 16,000-square-foot Green Roof Garden atop the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center is open to the public — it's one of just a few rooftop gardens you can actually walk through, so plan a visit to learn more.

A Celebration of Form and Function

Designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates (the landscape architects who created Evening Island), the Green Roof Garden features ornamentals, large plantings, and dramatic sweeps of green — a celebration of both form and function. The Josephine P. & John J. Louis Foundation Green Roof Garden North features both native and exotic plants, including hardy sedums, Mediterranean herbs like oregano and lavender, grasses, and some small shrubs. The containers vary by season. In spring, the rooftop features tulips and dwarf daffodils, and later in the summer look for tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans, basil, dill, and summer annuals in containers.

The Ellis Goodman Family Foundation Green Roof Garden South includes only plants native to North America, and portions of this entire roof serve as demonstration and evaluation sites. In fact, one of the important roles of the Green Roof Garden is to expand knowledge about the types of plants well suited for midwestern rooftop gardens. Because expertise is still evolving, only a limited palette of plants is now used by most gardeners. On both sides, visitors can see how graduated depths of planting medium (a mix of expanded clay, shale, perlite, vermiculite,and organic matter) enable Garden experts to experiment with an array of plants, from grasses to perennials and woody plants…even cactuses!

Evaluation is an integral component of the Plant Science Center's Green Roof Garden. Three monitoring stations, located on each side of the roof, assess air temperature, soil moisture, heat transfer, and light levels. Readings are taken automatically every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, every day, to provide real-time, ongoing data about the effectiveness of our green roof.

Consider Your Own Rooftop Garden

Interested in planning — and planting — your own rooftop garden? It's easier than you think, both to install and maintain. On the Plant Science Center's south roof, observe a typical tray-based rooftop garden system, and discover how it can be used for different types of roofs.

Home Rooftop Garden Tips

  • Use sound thinking. Before attempting any rooftop garden project, have a professional structural engineer inspect the roof to be sure it is structually sound.
  • Know before you grow. If necessary, get appropriate licenses and permissions before starting your rooftop gardening project.
  • Determine the best plants. How much sun does your rooftop receive throughout the year? Are you able to water or must your rooftop garden rely solely on rain? How hot does your rooftop get? How much wind? Determining these factors ahead of time make your plant selection more strategic and help your chances for success.
  • Evaluate container gardens vs. rooftop planting material:
    • For most residences, container rooftop gardening is the best way to go; containers are easier to install and maintain, and can be quite cost efficient. The key is to keep your growing system lightweight.
    • A more elaborate rooftop garden involves covering the roof (or part of it) with planting material and plants. An initial layer of waterproof and insulating material is applied directly to the roof. Root barrier is the next layer. On top of that is a drainage material that allows water to pass through rather than puddle. A filtration fabric often is placed on top of the gravel to prevent clogging. Finally, a layer of growing media is added. Finding a depth balance is sometimes tricky — it must be deep enough for plants to grow and thrive but shallow enough to keep the total weight to a minimum. Read about green roofs.
    • The best products are those specifically designed for green roofs. Because it is on top of your home, quality is key.
  • Factor in other considerations: storage (is there a place on the roof to keep tools and materials or must you bring them upstairs each time?), cost (how much do you have available to spend on the project?), and time (how much do you want Mother Nature to be in charge of your rooftop garden's success? How much gardening time do you have to commit?).

Common Reed

Wetlands Invader

Ever wonder what that tall plant with a feathery-tufted top is that you see growing along our roadside ditches? It’s called common reed (Phragmites australis), and in recent years this highly invasive plant has spread through the Chicago region at an alarming rate. Because the reed grows up to 15 feet high, can be very densely populated, and has a tenacious rhizome (underground stem) network, it is a threat to native wetland vegetation and ecosystem function because it physically excludes native species and alters nutrient cycling.

Looks can be deceiving—the common reed appears innocuous enough; in fact, to the naked eye, it is almost identical to native Phragmites that have been part of the North American landscape for some 40,000 years. Native Americans in the southwest used the fibrous native plant in woven mats, musical instruments, and weapons. The fast-spreading European strain likely crossed the Atlantic accidentally aboard ships in the 1800s. Like the colonists, Eurasian Phragmites first established themselves along the Atlantic coast and then spread across the continent.

A Spreading Troublemaker

Here in the Midwest, the common reed began causing trouble 15 to 20 years ago. Once it moves in, it anchors itself with an extensive and unyielding underground network—this is how it grows and spreads—which makes it especially hardy and difficult to eradicate. Common reed invades quickly. It takes over space where native plants would grow, blocks sunlight, and since the plant does not decompose quickly (it stands as dead matter over the winter), it alters the fragile wetlands balance for native fish and wildlife, many of which cannot survive.

Distinguishing Native from Exotic Phragmites

It is very difficult to distinguish the two just by visual observation, but subtle differences do exist between native and exotic Phragmites. The ligule is the inner part of a leaf where leaf meets stem. If you look very closely, the native plant’s ligule is slightly wider than the exotic’s. The chaff of the native plant is slightly longer than that of the exotic, and while the leaves of the native plant will easily fall off the native plant as it dies, the leaf sheath will adhere pretty tightly to the exotic.

Investigating the Culprit

In an effort to understand these plants better and to halt the spread of invasive species, the Chicago Botanic Garden is investigating the genetic characteristics of both native and exotic Phragmites, determining the potential for hybridization between the two in order to provide land managers with valuable information as they rid imperiled wetlands of this aggressive plant.

Rain Gardens

PHOTO: Rain Garden

Eco-friendly Storm Absorbers

When it rains, often it pours. Our urban stormwater systems were originally designed to prevent flooding and to quickly move water off the streets. However, as stormwater rushes through driveways and gutters, it picks up an array of contaminants en route to the river or lake: oil, fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. When this dirty water reaches its final destination, pollutants poison the water and choke plant and animal life.

Planting a rain garden is a way to enhance your landscape's aesthetic while absorbing and cleaning rainwater. The garden temporarily traps water from rooftops, driveways, and other hard surfaces long enough so it can percolate, filtering out pollutants and improving water quality as it replenishes groundwater levels. Visiting the Chicago Botanic Garden's Rainwater Glen is a good way to see how the process works and to gather ideas for your own rain garden.

DIY Rain Garden

  • Storm watch. Observe your landscape during a heavy rainfall. For best results, rain gardens should be planted between the source of stormwater runoff (roof, driveway) and the runoff's next destination (drains, gutters, landscape depressions). If you have a downspout draining from your roof, combined with a lawn or garden area that slopes away from your house, you've got a great place to create your own rain garden. Before planting, be sure the rain garden location is at least 10 feet away from your home's foundation, and be sure to avoid underground utility lines.
  • Consider your space. Home rain gardens generally are from 100 to 300 square feet (or about 10 x 10 to 15 x 20 feet). A small area can be transformed into a lush eco-garden for just a few dollars per square foot.
  • Choose the best plants for the project. The key to a successful rain garden is using native perennial plants with very deep root systems. The Chicago Botanic Garden's Rainwater Glen features marsh blazing star, spotted joe-pye weed, great blue lobelia, and a variety of rushes and sedges, all of which tolerate rainfall fluctuations.
  • Create your garden. Dig approximately 4 to 6 inches deep—a little deeper on the downslope side (think of a shallow bowl in your landscape, tilted slightly to one side). Use the soil from digging to create a ledge or berm along the downslope side to help trap the water and keep it from running out of the "bowl." Add mulch or grass to the berm to prevent erosion.
  • Arrange plants to their advantage. Plant those that need more water at the deepest level, and situate plants preferring less moisture in the garden's shallow areas.
  • Know your resources. A great resource to help plan your rain garden can be found here. And here!

Not a Mosquito Habitat

Wondering if mosquitos will be attracted to your own rain garden? Happily, the answer is no. In a properly designed rain garden, water usually drains in less than a day. Mosquitos need seven to 12 days of standing water for their eggs to hatch. In fact, rain gardens may attract a variety of beneficial insects like dragonflies that actually will reduce the mosquito population!

Rain Barrel

Additional Tips

  • Connect a rain barrel to one of your downspouts and use the collected water for your favorite garden plants.
  • Avoid dumping waste (including yard clippings) into storm drains.
  • Be sure to use pans when repairing cars so oil and other pollutants do not reach the street.
  • Sweep, don't hose down driveways (saves water, too!).
  • Use a commercial carwash—vendors must follow guidelines for safe water disposal, whereas at-home car washing allows pollutants to flow into the storm sewer and off to a nearby lake or river.

Saving Seeds

What the Garden Is Doing…and What You Can Do at Home

Safeguarding Long-term Survival

Environmental threats like urbanization, climate change, invasive species, and pollution have caused many plants to become rare or endangered. By banking seeds of these plants in safe storage, away from danger, the Chicago Botanic Garden is working to safeguard their long-term survival. Also known as ex-situ (offsite) conservation, seed banking native species guards against their disappearance in the wild and is an important way to conserve plant diversity.

Climate change occurred naturally over millennia, with most organisms either adapting or migrating in the face of such environmental change. Today, however, changes are occurring very rapidly and many species may not be able to adapt. Moreover, human development, and the corresponding loss of natural ecosystems, has blocked traditional migration pathways used by plants in response to climate change.

The Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank houses seeds from native plants throughout the Midwest and Great Plains regions, with the goal of banking at least 10,000 seeds from 1,500 native species we have identified. Most of our seeds are banked here at the Garden, but a part of every collection is sent to other seed banks such as the international Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, and to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, as backup.

In an effort to extend our seed-banking impact, the Chicago Botanic Garden is working with local urban farmers trained to propagate native plant species and harvest and bank the seeds. In fact, banking seeds at home is quite easy — whether your motivation is to help preserve imperiled native species or simply to prolong the life of store-bought or garden-harvested seeds for future use. Read on for some tips to get you started.

Steps to Saving Seeds at Home

  1. Choosing which type of seeds you’d like to save. If purchasing from a garden store or from your own garden, it is best to use heirlooms: hybrids will not breed true. If harvesting seeds from your garden, start with one type of seed from each species (e.g., one type of cucumber, one type of tomato, etc.) to avoid cross-pollination. Just starting out? Tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and purple coneflower are good choices.
  2. Harvesting from a living plant. Collect seeds when the weather is temperate and dry. Choose the most robust, disease-free plants. Be sure to harvest only seeds that are mature. Collect seeds from fruits and vegetables that are past the point of eating; they should be overripe, but not yet moldy, and seeds should be tan or light brown instead of white. If harvesting from flowers, wait until the bloom is faded and petals have dried/browned somewhat.
  3. Preparing seeds: dry vs. wet seed collection. Beans, peas, onions, carrots, corn, most flowers, and herb seeds can be spread on a piece of paper or towel in a dry location. Wet seeds—those contained in fleshy fruits or vegetables—should be scooped out and soaked in a container of warm water. Let the mixture sit for two to four days, stirring each day. After day four, the “good seeds” should sink. Spread the seeds on a paper towel to dry.
  4. Drying and storing seeds. There are two options for drying. You can go the easy route: separate seeds by type and place in individual paper bags in a cool, dry place for two to three weeks. Or, to ensure proper drying, you may wish to use silica gel. You can find silica gel at craft and hobby stores. Place silica beads in a container that seals airtight. Place seeds (separated and labeled by type) in small trays or cups on top of the silica beads in the box. Seal the container and store in a cool, dry place for seven days. When silica beads turn orange, the seeds are adequately dried. Seeds that are not properly dried may become moldy and unusable. Remove seeds, place them in an airtight container, and store in a cool and dry location (e.g., garage or refrigerator). Voilà, your own mini seed bank!
  5. Using Seeds. Seed viability decreases over time. Parsley, onion, and sweet corn must be used the next year. Most seed should be used within three years. To use seeds, remove your mini seed bank from storage. Allow the seeds to warm to room temperature before removing them from their containers. You are ready to plant!

At-a-Glance Glossary of Terms

Orthodox seeds: seeds that can be dried to low levels of humidity and frozen for long-term storage. Eighty percent of the plant species worldwide have orthodox seeds. Examples of orthodox crop plants: peas, corn, tomatoes. Examples of orthodox native grasses/plants: Little bluestem, big bluestem, purple coneflower, prairie dock.

Recalcitrant seeds: seeds that because of their physiological make (e.g., high food reserve, high oil content) are not conducive to dormancy. Local examples of recalcitrant seeds are oaks, walnuts, and maples—they germinate immediately with no dormancy. Many tropical rainforest plants also are recalcitrant, never going into true dormancy.

Open-pollinated plants: plants pollinated by wind, birds, and insects as opposed to self-pollinated plants or plants with controlled pollination (hybrids). Open-pollinated varieties mutate and adapt to local fluctuations. Generally, they are hardier than their hybrid counterparts and exhibit enhanced genetic diversity.

Rose Care

PHOTO: Roses

"Green" Roses

Some gardeners are intimidated by growing roses, and the idea of incorporating ecofriendly techniques is just another thorn in their sides. Nothing could be further from the truth! Rose care requires work, but it is straightforward, the rewards are rich, and many "green" tips make the work easier, are less expensive than traditional techniques, and are healthier for your garden.

The Basics

The dirt on roses. The first step to ensuring gorgeous roses is making sure your soil is healthy. You can arrange to have your soil assessed, or do it yourself with one of the many kits on the market. Select rose types that are disease resistant. Many new landscape roses, like the Knock Out® series, keep disease at bay. Be sure the roses are mulched throughout the season. Mulch will hold moisture, adjust soil temperature, minimize weeds, and return nutrients. Select a mulch type that is acidic if possible.

Choose a sunny spot for your roses; they should receive at least five to six hours of direct sunlight daily—the more, the better. Provide enough space between the roses to ensure good air circulation, which will lessen the threat of disease. Prune your roses early in spring, once the ground has thawed and swelling buds are visible.

Prune Prudently. When pruning, remember to open up the center of the rose shrub to start the growing season on the right foot. However, know your specific rose's growth habits, as some shrubs should not be cleared from the middle. Make sure to sanitize your pruners with a 10 percent solution of bleach before moving from one plant to the next; this will lessen the spread of disease. Do not be afraid to prune fairly aggressively, leaving canes about a foot long.

Remove weakened stems throughout the growing season, and prune again after flowering. Throughout the growing season, always remove dead and diseased leaves, and quickly remove fallen leaves as well, which are often sources for reinfection. Consider composting: no need to buy compost when you can make your own! You can add the fallen rose leaves to your compost pile, since the pile's heat generally will kill leaf pathogens.

Water Deeply. Water your roses deeply, soaking the soil, not the foliage, just before or after dawn. This gives the plants a good, long drink before the water evaporates in the sun. Watering at night may foster a fungal disease like black spot. If disease control is necessary, try a natural fungicide like a potassium bicarbonate product. When spraying, be sure to coat both sides of rose leaves; follow the product label instructions carefully.

Fight Disease and Insects Naturally. Rose care commonly involves the use of strong chemical deterrents. As with the potassium bicarbonate approach suggested above, if cultural care fails, use ecofriendly products like botanicals, microbials, minerals, soaps, and oils for disease and insect management. Don't panic at the first sight of aphids; often there is just a brief lag time until ladybugs move in and naturally reduce an aphid outbreak. If you must act, try spraying off the aphids with a strong stream of water, or use an insecticidal soap and follow the labeled instructions. Some companion plants, such as garlic, chives, and ornamental allium, serve as a pest deterrent. Lavender, salvia, and scented geraniums add a blend of color in addition to keeping bugs away.

Try These New Varieties for Chicagoland

The Knock Out® Rose Series (developed specifically for our region)

EasyElegance® Roses, those hardy to the area (up to about Zone 5b)

Easy-to-Love® Roses and Home-Run Roses

The recent All-American Rose Selection (AARS) winners (usually disease-resistant and gorgeous)

Don't forget the true blues. Many of the old rose varieties are still with us for a reason…they withstand the test of time and are usually a safe bet.

Coming Up Roses at the Garden

The Chicago Botanic Garden has evaluated different shrub roses, and has lots of information online about roses in general:

Rose Garden Guide

Rose History

Rose Care Video


Planting Pointers and Mulching Musts

PHOTO: Mulch on roses

Planting and mulching seem like basic gardening skills, but some of the worst gardening mishaps occur when gardeners overthink or overspend. David Cantwell, assistant horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, mulches and plants nine acres and offers these tips:

Purchase the right plant

Shopping for a tree? Do not be intimidated; insist upon inspecting the burlapped root ball. Remove the soil and planting material at the top of the root ball so you can see the base of the tree's trunk where the larger roots spread out into the soil. If there is no widening at the base, the tree may not be healthy. The trunk should flare out at the soil level—this is known as the "root flare." When finally planted, this root flare should be at least three inches higher than the surrounding soil.

Visit Chicagoland Grows for suggestions on trees and plants best suited for the Chicago area.

Break the cycle

When you bring home a containerized plant, you notice that the roots grow in a circular direction. That cycle must be broken before planting or the roots will eventually strangle the plant. Here's what to do: For container-grown shrubs and small trees, take a sharp pair of pruners and vertically score the root mass in at least five passes, top to bottom. These clean cuts will promote root growth, and circling (girdling) roots will be disrupted. If the roots are less dense and the potting soil is loose, it is easier to tease out the roots to grow away from the main trunk. When placing the plant in the hole, pack the soil firmly, but not too tightly. For balled and burlapped roots, take a sharpened spade and shave off the outer 1 to 2 inches of soil and root tips before planting.

Dig the right hole

Shallow is better than deep (roots need soil with lots of oxygen, found closer to the surface of the ground). Sloped sides are better than sharp right angles because they allow more airflow and better root growth. It is not necessary to amend the soil—just make sure the sides of the hole are roughened up to enable growing roots to "catch" and penetrate the surrounding soil.

Avoid mulch madness

Mulch minimizes weeds, reduces water loss, and encourages plant growth by assisting in nutrient amendment and by reducing soil erosion. However, mulching too much is far worse than not mulching at all. Mulch is a planting medium that may not be entirely decomposed, so it may continue decomposing after it has been placed. Decomposition generates heat and can damage bark, especially with soft-barked or younger trees, and it robs the soil of much-needed nitrogen. Many gardeners make the mistake of building a mulch "volcano" around the base of a tree or other plant. Only air should come in direct contact with the tree bark: anything else fosters disease, mold, and other maladies. And often, dense piles of mulch (especially wood chips) actually route water away from the plant and wick moisture from the soil.

Mulch wide, not deep. Thumb-deep is enough. Trees send out roots laterally: they can extend hundreds of feet away from the mature tree to find water and to network with other trees. When too much mulch is placed over the roots, the tree seeks oxygen higher up. Instead of traveling out, the roots waste energy rising toward the surface of the soil.

Select mulch made from healthy, native, local wood and/or leaves (nothing beats leaf mulch also known as "leaf mould"), instead of showy imports that can actually harm your plantings. Look for organic, composted types, and buy in bulk to save money. Though they are often free for the taking, avoid using wood chips over the root zone. Use woodchips only for "p" surfaces: pathways, picnic areas, playgrounds, parking, etc.

Water the right way

For at least one month after planting a tree, water at least 2 inches per week (as long as the water drains away and does not puddle around the plant an hour after watering). The goal is to have the water penetrate the root zone. Even if the soil or mulch is dry at the surface, the soil below may be sufficiently hydrated. Poke around to be sure. Be sure the plant stays well hydrated its first two season—after that, less watering is needed because the roots will gave established themselves into the surrounding soil, and deep watering, less often, will promote stronger root growth.

Ring around the tree

Consider leaving a grass-free ring around the base of your tree. Grass competes with tree roots: it robs available oxygen, moisture, and nutrients from the tree's root zone. Leave a grass-free, lightly mulched soil diameter around the tree, especially younger trees. The circle should be at least as wide as the tree's canopy and will enhance healthy growth.

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