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Welcome to My Jungle - December, 2015

Growing giant vegetables usually takes some extra effort, but sometimes Mother Nature provides just the right conditions for some crops to exceed normal growth expectations. Take turnips for example. Normally, turnip are harvested as they reach the size of a tennis ball or slightly larger up until soil freezing. This ensures reaching peak flavor and maintaining a smooth internal texture. Like many root crops, turnips can get woody as they age—usually due to environmental factors such as uneven soil moisture and higher than optimal temperatures. Dwayne Nickle, Master Gardener for the Madison-Monroe-St Clair Unit, had a crop of turnips this year with some real superstars, a couple reaching the seven pound mark! And according to Dwayne, they still have a nice texture with no woodiness. Needless to say, Dwayne had plenty to share throughout the community.

When contemplating additions to your landscape next year, don't forget to include winter interest plants. And December is a good month to take notice of plants others have planted for winter interest for additional ideas. Winter interest includes characteristics like berries, interesting seed heads, colorful and/or peeling bark, or leaf retention. Golden Privet, Ligustrum 'Vicaryi' is an example of a fragrant medium to large shrub that retains its leaves well into winter. The interesting feature of this plant is that the tips of the plant are always brushed golden, to which it derives its name, regardless of time of season; from the green of summer to a deep muted burgundy of winter.

Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica is a small tree (or a large multi-stemmed shrub) that also retains its leaves well into winter in the hue of butterscotch. This witch hazel relative has reminiscent leaves of its cousin and is well suited to a smaller space due to its relatively narrow upright growth. In addition, it has been selected by Missouri Botanical Garden as a Plant of Merit for its outstanding quality and dependable performance for the lower Midwest.

Judd Viburnum, Viburnum x juddii is usually planted for its spring floral display and intense fragrance, but it also provides excellent fall color that is retained well into winter. And like the previous two plants mentioned, due to retained leaves, birds flock to this plant just as they would conifers or holly for protection against harsh conditions.

Hellebore, Helleborus spp. really stand out in a winter garden because they are essentially evergreen. Not really though; it just seems that way because new leaves continually form in the crown of the plant while dying leaves are pushed to the bottom of the plant somewhat obscuring them from view. A spring task it to clip away all the old leaves. During summer, hellebores provide texture to the garden but are essential green like most everything else. But in the winter, they really stand out because few if any herbaceous perennials go through winter with fully expanded green leaves. And to even further gild the lily so to speak, hellebores "start" blooming in the middle of winter and peak in late spring.

Another consideration in terms of plant characteristics to select for is winter "feed" value. A number of plants if top-growth residue is left in place provides seed to birds and other wildlife over the winter months. The most popular choices for birds include most of our native plants, including Coneflowers/Echinacea spp. and Black-eyed Susans/Rudbeckia spp. So spend a little time researching other plants that not only provide food for wildlife over the winter months but also winter habitat for wildlife and insects as protection against harsh winter weather. You'll find yourself leaving more and more residue in place as a way to help support a more diverse living community