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On a cold, dreary day with misting rain last week a group of Master Gardeners met at the Idea Garden, in the University of Illinois Arboretum, for a ritual that has occurred for many years.  Each year, most plants in the “Tropicals Section” of the Idea Garden are removed from the ground and transported to nearby greenhouses on Campus.  This fascinating process is completed by the Master Gardners with much care and much labor to ensure the sensitive tropical plants are safely tucked away for the winter, to be planted again next spring.

The Idea Garden began its tropical plant collection in 2001 with a very limited selection.  “Tropicals began as a small section and slowly expanded over the years,” said Mary Munoz who was one of the early volunteers to work on the project.  Munoz was there last week to lend her years of experience to the others and assist with the plant moving operation.

“Today, the Tropicals Section has grown to include over fifty different varieties among about thirty species of tropical plants,” added Emilie McGill.  McGill is currently the chairperson for the Tropical Section.  She and other Master Gardners began planning the move months ago to ensure everything proceeded without a hitch.  Earlier in the week they all met to prep the plants for their move.  Most of the larger plants were cut back to help them fit into their new space and to limit the top growth each plant must support throughout the lean winter months.

With the use of a large moving truck, the Master Gardeners transport all of the tropical plants to the U of I Plant Sciences Laboratory greenhouses after carefully digging up each plant. To avoid the introduction of outside pathogens into the greenhouse spaces, much of the soil is brushed away from each plant’s root system.  The plants are then replanted into temporary pots for the winter using sterile potting soil.  Not only does the new soil limit transport of diseases, but it makes the pots relatively light weight for the loading and unloading process.  Upon careful unloading and placement into the greenhouse, which can be somewhat of a puzzle to figure out, the plants are immediately watered to ease the transaction into their new environment.

Once settled into the greenhouse, staff at the U of I Plant Sciences Laboratory graciously tends to daily watering and insect/disease control.  The Master Gardners regularly visit the plants to cut them back and provide other aspects of winter care. 

“The bananas will grow up to one foot a week in the greenhouse,” says Rick Schroeder.  He is another veteran of the Tropicals Section.  In the past, Schroder was chairperson for the section and remains active in its annual maintenance. 

With limited space in the greenhouse, some winter pruning is essential as the plants are quite responsive to photoperiod.  As our days shorten, growth will wane and the plants will enter semi-dormancy.  However, once the days begin to lengthen the plants respond.  “About the end of January, they start to take off,” says Schroeder.   Sometime around the first of March the Plant Sciences Laboratory staff will begin to fertilize the plants to help build vigor for their move back to the outdoors.

In mid-May, the tropicals are moved back out to the Idea Garden from their comfy greenhouse digs, which can be a hard transition on the plants.  “In May, we come in with a truck one day and it’s an instant garden by day’s end,” commented Mary Munoz.  “After the move, our tropicals don’t look as good, but by about mid-July they are really starting to fully recover.  By the end of the season, it’s a jungle again,” says Rick Schroder. 

The Idea Garden is located near the corner of Lincoln and Florida Avenue, within the U of I Arboretum, and is open to the public year round.  The entire garden area is maintained by the Champaign County Master Gardeners. 

If you are interested in joining the Master Gardeners to learn more about horticultural practices at the Idea Garden and other community spaces, no prior experience is needed.  U of I Extension provides a 9-week training course, beginning in January each year.  The course is taught by Extension Educators, University Staff, and other experts in our area.  It offers an exceptional overview of all aspects of horticulture and prepares you to work and learn side by side with others that have similar interests.

U of I Extension is currently accepting applications for the January 2018 class.  Applications are available for pickup at our office on Country Fair Drive in Champaign or online at:  http://go.illinois.edu/2018MGSignUp.

Ryan Pankau is Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties.