The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is a common houseplant that is often sold around Christmas time due to its Christmas-tree-like appearance.  However, in its native range, it is quite different than the 1-5 ft houseplant we know it as, reaching heights of 150-200 feet.  Although affectionately referred to as a “pine”, it is technically not a true pine (of the family Pinaceae) but rather a member of a separate coniferous family, Araucariaceae.

Have you ever heard of a plant with no roots? How about a plant that has no roots in the soil, but rather root-like structures that grow into other plants to steal water and nutrients?  Doesn’t that sound like something right out of a sci-fi movie?  Well, every holiday season, many of us hang a plant with these very characteristics in our homes. 

About forty-five years ago, two Extension Educators in the state of Washington met to brainstorm ideas and solve a problem they both shared.  David Gibby and Bill Scheer were both Extension Educators in the Seattle metropolitan area and were looking for ways to handle the overwhelming public demand for information about urban horticulture.  

If you live near a wooded area and have any type of minute crack in the exterior of your home, then you have undoubtedly been visited by a creepy, crawly winter guest over the years.  The Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridi) seeks refuge in rocky bluffs to spend the winter in its native range, but often mistakes our home for winter refuge given the lack of rock outcrops in central Illinois.  They have the uncanny ability to squeeze and crawl their way to the smallest cracks in exterior siding, windows and doors, often making it to interior rooms in our homes. 

At this point in fall, most of our vegetable gardens are completely done for the season, with the exception of some kale or a few other cold hardy crops.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to extend the growing season for a few months and keep enjoying fresh produce?  Many small farmers have very successfully done this with the use of high tunnels.  In fact, many high tunnels in our area are productive nearly year round.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday and in that move, solidified our national memory of this plant-based holiday.  The original Thanksgiving occurred several hundred years earlier in 1621.  It was a celebration of the plants produced through successful cultivation of crops in the New World by a group of pilgrims that had suffered severe losses the previous winter but triumphantly learned to farm locally adapted crops in the Massachusetts soils with help from the indigenous Wampanoag Tribe.

Over the past several weeks, our fall color has peaked here in central Illinois.  The stunning bright red to pink hues of red maple (Acer rubrum) were exceptional this year.  Who could miss the rainbow of color from sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua), covering yellows to orange-red and even purple, sometimes all on the same tree.  Beauty like this helps us overlook those pesky gumballs that sweetgum will deliver next spring.  Our State Tree, the white oak (Quercus alba), was especially beautiful this year with a seemingly larger red color among its typically ora

The annual ritual of fall garden cleanup can be a toilsome, yet rewarding task.  After racking up piles and piles of leaves, it is really nice to see some green grass poking through as one last gasp of summer.  Cutting back the old, dead stems from garden beds can create a more manicured look for the long and bare winter season.  However, it may be worth considering a scale back on fall cleanup tasks to save some needed habitat for wildlife this winter.  

This time of fall, most of our native, deciduous vegetation is turning beautiful autumn colors and nearing the annual leaf drop that occurs before winter.  In the next few weeks all of our native vegetation will drop the leaves that have worked so hard to produce energy all year.  However, one non-native bush will retain its green leaves for weeks longer, gaining a competitive advantage over our native vegetation as it claims the last days of photosynthesis this season.

Fall is an excellent time to reflect on the past growing season and look toward next spring’s gardening opportunities with the lessons from this year in mind.  I often look back with spite on the insects and pathogens that caused problems or ruined crops, but there is one aspect of our gardens that is often overlooked and my underlie many of the problems we experience….. our soils! 

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.

One of the most glorious aspects of fall is bringing in the apple harvest.  Every year around harvest time I wonder when exactly to pick my apples, which raises some questions.  What does the apple maturity chart say for this variety? Has the weather this year impacted fruit quality?  They taste pretty good, but are they still too small?  Taste is one of the best indicators, but there are several other signs you can observe to help solve the puzzle.

Have you ever wondered what the earth looked like when the dinosaurs roamed?  Humans didn’t realize that we have a living fossil among us that offers a glimpse into the past until the 1940s when the dawn redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) was “discovered” by scientists in China.  This discovery has been noted to be one of the greatest for botany in the 20th century and the story behind the find is certainly a noteworthy tale in world history.

Throughout the fall season, garden centers are filled with a beautiful selection of mums (short for chrysanthemums).   It is a wonderful time to plant these attractive, fall blooming plants, but some consideration should be given when planting in fall.  Many folks plant mums and don’t actually do much to encourage flowering, but there are some measures you can take earlier in the season that will result in additional beauty at bloom time.

It’s beginning to be that time of year again, when our vegetables gardens become less productive and most of the season’s bounty has been realized.  Before you begin to look toward next year’s plans, why not consider planting something for the winter season?  A hard-working cover crop is the perfect selection to fill in your garden and improve soil for next year.

In recent years, a new gardening phenomenon has gained popularity in the US, but it gets its roots abroad.  Keyhole gardening is a technique that was developed in Africa, for use in dry, arid climates with low soil fertility.  It has proven to be such an effective, sustainable method of small scale plant production that US gardeners have readily adapted across the country.

The American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a native shrub to Illinois and much of eastern North America.  Despite its weedy habit, often growing in natural areas and unmowed ditches, this plant has some remarkable features.  It offers both natural beauty and utility as well as easy propagation and adaption to a wide range of sites.

Do you have a tree that is displaying fall color right now?  Although it may be beautiful, this may be a sign of health issues.  In our area, most trees do not begin to change colors for the season until October.   A branch or two here and there or some yellow leaves in the canopy are not cause for alarm, but if the majority of your tree is changing color now, it may be a cry for help.

This time of year, when most vegetable gardens are teeming with fresh produce, it is hard to think about starting additional plants.  However, right now is the perfect time to start a fall garden and extend the growing season until the first frosts of the year, or possibly beyond with certain hardy plants.

This weekend, I will be traveling to southern Illinois for the experience of a lifetime—a total solar eclipse.  The eclipse will occur on Monday, August 21, and will only be viewable in “totality” within a narrow band of approximately 70 miles that extends across the US from Oregon to South Carolina.  Unfortunately, in our area we will only be able to view a partial eclipse, which is still fascinating, but does not carry the life-changing impact that many experience from a total eclipse.

The landscape is drab and we impatiently await the first tulip. But hang in there, because the University of Illinois Extension Garden Day Workshop and Spring Festival is right around the corner! For over a decade, local gardeners have celebrated the arrival of spring by attending this yearly event. Garden Day features everything plant lovers enjoy: speakers who entertain and educate, a wide variety of vendors to shop, a delicious made-from-scratch lunch, a silent auction, door prizes and a raffle room.

For many of us, Monarch butterflies conjure cherished memories of childhood. However, this beloved butterfly once so familiar has become more and more absent from our gardens. Scientists believe a lack of habitat along with colder than usual weather patterns has caused their numbers to drop in recent years.

Consider this- the monarch is the only butterfly known to migrate like a bird. They can fly 100 miles in a day and travel up to 3000 miles to reach their winter habitat in Mexico.

Everyone likes a sale and gardeners are no exception. The Vermilion County Master Gardeners will hold their annual Plant Sale on Saturday, May 13 at The First Presbyterian Church, 100 North Franklin St. Danville from 7am - 2pm.

The event will take place inside the First Presbyterian Gymnasium. As always there will be a wide selection of annuals, perennials, heirloom tomatoes, herbs and even some house plants to choose from. Having the opportunity to talk with the gardener who grew the plant you wish to purchase is a unique experience.