Metal hardware cloth is a great material to protect young trees and shrubs from winter browsing wildlife.

Fall is an excellent time to add new trees or shrubs to the landscape and many of us have already taken advantage of mild weather and sunny days to get new plants in the ground.  With the lion’s share of work complete after digging, planting and mulching are finished, we often overlook some of the final steps to prepare new woody plants for winter.

The brown marmorated stink bug is an increasingly detrimental pest on wide range of agricultural crops that commonly seeks shelter in our homes over winter.  Photo credit – Kelly Allsup, Illinois Extension

Insects are a celebrated part of our natural ecosystems, but when they enter our homes, it’s rarely anything to celebrate.  Each fall as cold weather closes in, there are a few usual suspects that surface at my house to cause a hubbub.  However, these exotic houseguests are rarely a serious issue, simply existing as annoying roommates that congregate around light fixtures and windows.

Honey locust can have large and terrifying thorns making it one of our spookiest native trees.

Images of witches, skeletons, and other specter abound this time of year.  But we really don’t need to look much beyond the natural world for a dose of spooky entertainment? This week, I’ve compiled my list of the top four spookiest native trees that all offer some great Halloween-related attributes everyone can enjoy on All Hallows’ Eve.

Burning bush (red leaves) and bush honeysuckle (green leaves with red berries) are very easily identifiable in fall as leaves change.  Changes in plant processes this time of year make control of these exotic, invasive species more effective in fall as well.

Fall color is upon us with so many plants entering their annual push toward winter dormancy and putting on a great display in the meantime.  As deciduous plants show their true colors this time of year, it offers the observer an opportunity to quickly identify many species by the color and timing of their autumn display.   

As the local food movement has grown in popularity, an interesting subset of “foodies” have emerged that forage in nature for their dinner.  Many native, wild plants are edible and these folks seek them out in our forests, prairies, and sometimes even our yards. 

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ is a cultivar of our native wrinkle-leaved goldenrod that provides a spectacular display of fireworks-like flowers for up to 2 months in late summer and fall.

For many gardeners, an entire season of continuously blooming plants is a primary goal.  Not only do these fantastic flowers deliver ornate beauty throughout the year, but they are also greatly beneficial to pollinators by providing a continuous food source of pollen and nectar.  Since many plants have a limited flower display, sometimes only spanning a few weeks, it is often difficult to find the right arrangement of plants for an entire growing season of continuous blooms. 

Bald cypress is an Illinois native plant only know to occur in extreme southern Illinois. While it does wonderfully when planted here is central Illinois, should it be considered native?

The term native often means different things to different people.  Most definitions draw a line between geography and time scale which typically is demarcated by the point of human intervention or influence on the landscape. I really like this definition from the Forest Service in 2012, “A native plant is an endemic species that occurs naturally in a plant community, ecosystem, ecoregion, or biome habitat without direct or indirect human involvement.”

This pin oak tree tested positive for bacterial leaf scorch and displays the most distinctive symptoms characterized by brown leaf margins, a colorful band and green tissue along leaf veins.

Shade trees are some of the most valuable plants in most urban landscapes.  They provide energy saving shade as well as valuable habitat for wildlife in a sometimes otherwise inhospitable built environments.  However, a mature shade tree takes considerable time to develop the canopy and branch structure that provides such benefit, which is the primary reason their high value when weighed against other landscape plants.  So, it pays to identify tree ailments effectively in the interest of protecting our investment in time and tree value.

The smooth and shiny, aromatic leaves of basil provide both ornamental beauty and culinary use.

Every gardener has several of those go-to plants, the ones that seem to always grow nicely in their particular gardening system, making them a repeated addition over the years.  I just love it when one of these go-to specimens can not only provide ornamental beauty, but an edible harvest as well. 

This bumble bee dangles from a flower of crimson clover, which is an attractive and valuable soil-building cover crop that can be easily hand-seeded into vegetable garden beds.

Cover cropping is a practice we often associated with larger scale farming, but they have the same great benefits in our home vegetable gardens.  A cover crop is a crop that is grown for protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for harvest.  Since they are not harvested for use as food, growers plant them for other valuable qualities they provide while in the ground.

Submit your application today so you can proudly post a Pollinator Pockets sign in your garden.

In recent decades, insect populations around the globe have been declining dramatically.  A 2019 study assessed global insect populations and determined that 40% of all insect species are in decline and some may reach extinction in coming decades if populations are not stabilized.  Among the causes for these sharp declines, all were human induced, with habitat conversion to human uses topping the list followed by use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, human spread of pathogens and invasive species, and climate change. 

Hand pollination of last year’s hosta flowers produced the seeds used to grow this tray of hosta seedlings.  However, it will take a few more years for these plants to mature and truly express the traits gained from hybridization. Photo credit: Barb and Rick Schroeder

Plants in the genus Hosta, collectively referred to as hostas, are one of the premier plants for ornamental gardens that lack full sun.  These resilient perennials are a mainstay of Midwestern shade gardens and remain popular in temperate regions worldwide.  However, that wasn’t always the case, leading many folks to source hostas from fellow gardeners or grow their own.

Domestication of the tomato was long believed to have happened from plants with cherry-sized fruits, but recent genetic research indicates otherwise.

Tomatoes are the most commonly planted garden crop in the US, as evidenced by the wide range of tomato plants available every year in garden centers.  Beyond home production of tomatoes, the US has historically lead global commercial production, with the state of California being our top producing state.  So it safe to say that Americans grow a lot of tomatoes each year.

The alien-looking fingers protruding from these crabapples release spores that can infect trees in the juniper family to perpetuate cedar-apple rust disease.

Whether its fungi, bacteria or even viruses, one of the most important aspects of plant disease management is stopping or limiting the spread of infectious pathogens.  I have always been fascinated by the way these tiny organisms, rarely visible to the naked eye, make their way through nature to infect new plants.  Many of their stories sound like something out of science fiction, often involving multiple species or special adaptations to enter and infect their host. 

The tufted seedheads of reed canary grass are easily noticed this time of year.

There are so many plants in nature that tend to reveal themselves during some kind of phenological event, such as flowering or fruit set, and then scream for attention.   For example, consider Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), which one of my favorite native wildflowers, frequenting the partial shade of woodland openings and edges on drier sites. 

This two-spotted bumble bee forages pollen on the flower of a spirea shrub

This past week was National Pollinator Week, a time set aside to celebrate the amazing and monumental task that pollinators perform each and every growing season.  Worldwide, animals pollinate about seventy-five percent of all plant species, and about ninety percent of all flowering plants.  And we all know that it takes a pollinated flower to produce so many of the fruits we depend on in our human diets, with animal pollination being responsible for about one of every three bites we take each day. 

These young prairie dropseed plants will mature into a nice sidewalk border of thin, feathery vegetation.

Nothing beats the light and airy look of tall, distinctive grasses in a landscape arrangement.  The fluffy seedheads and slender, attractive stems practically dance in the wind on breezy days, adding texture as well as a structural element to any landscape bed.   

For many years, there was a trend toward more ornamental and non-native grasses.  Recently, there is a growing interest in incorporating our native prairie grasses, given their inherent adaptability to our climate and their exceptional ecological value. 

Sycamores across central Illinois are late to leaf out this year due to a commonly occurring fungal infection.

It has been another difficult spring for sycamore trees across central Illinois as near bare canopies of this tree stick out among the fully developed leaves of neighboring trees.  However, this doesn’t necessarily spell doom for your sickly looking sycamore.  It’s all caused by naturally occurring fungi that tends to ebb and flow with our spring weather over the years. 

Native hawthorn trees are in full bloom this week with a canopy filled with tiny white flowers.

A properly planted and well located tree can last longer than a human lifetime, so tree selection is an important decision.

Colorado blue spruce is a non-native, commonly planted landscape tree that suffers from many issues here in Illinois.

Spring is a great time for planting new trees in the landscape.  There is ample rainfall to support your newly planted specimen and the warming temperatures and mild weather motivate many of us to get out in the garden and plant things.  However, there are some commonly sold trees that fall onto my “do not plant” list.  Many such plants make my list for their invasive habit, but some are on there for insect or disease issues or just generally poor performance as urban trees. 

Garlic mustard is in full bloom right now with clusters of tiny white flowers and distinctive leaves that have a garlic-like aroma when crushed.

Invasive species can be characterized as any non-native species that is introduced to a new location, has the ability to spread and causes some kind of harm.   Across Illinois and around the globe, invasive species cause significant ecological and economic damage each year.  In the ever globalizing society we live in, these exotic invaders are a result of either accidental or intention mixing of biota around the planet.  Humans have a long history in this mixing process and as we have become better and better at moving around the planet, the rate of invasive species introductions has parall

Bluebells are a beautiful native wildflower that adds a splash of blueish-purple to both woodlands and landscape gardens in spring.

We all have our favorite spring wildflowers for one reason or another. Maybe they are part of a native plant community we visit often, such as a close-by natural area or favorite park trail?  Perhaps our preference comes from the plants we are able to cultivate at home, in our own gardens?  For me, it’s certainly hard to pick one favorite, I probably have a list a mile long of my “favorites”.

New Vegetable Garden Maintenance

Vegetable gardening takes some forethought and planning to ensure your garden space is ready, select the best crops, and get everything planted while working around spring rains.  Our enthusiasm and planning in early spring typically culminates in the planted garden and often wanes as the work and heat of the growing season sets in. 

I am as guilty as the next gardener for not thinking enough about garden maintenance later in the year during the excitement of spring planting.  However, there are some things we can think about now to setup of the rest of the season for success.

Beets are a cool-season vegetable that can be direct seeded into the garden now.

Although this past week’s weather trended toward more winter-like conditions, we all know that warmer spring weather is just right around the corner and next week looks quite promising.  One of the key factors in knowing when to plant your vegetable garden relates back to weather since some plants are very sensitive to colder temperatures.

Raised garden beds are a great solution to a variety of common soil issues.

In last week’s blog, I covered the basics of site selection for a new vegetable garden.  Finding the best location in your yard, or understanding that containers may be the winning option is a really important part of setting up your growing space for success.  I would like to continue the discussion this week by taking a closer look at the growing medium, or soil, we choose for gardening. 

Starting a New Vegetable Garden

With an increased amount of time at home these days, there is an increased interest in gardening.  It is such a great way to get outdoors and get some exercise while growing some neat and interesting plants. 

Spring Pruning Can Hurt Your Tree’s Bank Account

The beautiful warm weather this past Wednesday created an irresistible opportunity to get outside and observe the awakening plant world.  Woodland wildflowers are starting their spring show, which will peak over the come month or so.  The swelling, pink buds of redbud are a sure sign of the flowering display that will ensue in coming weeks.  In my landscaping, it was nice to see daylily patches and fall-planted bulbs start to push up those vibrantly green first leaves of the year.  Although a little too wet for much work, my vegetable garden is awaking with some unwanted green from the firs

Ash trees have a distinctive, opposite branch arrangement observable by twigs that occur directly across from each other on each stem.

Trees represent some of the most long-lived vegetation in the landscape.  As such, these perennial, woody plants are also some of the highest valued plant material in our yards, parks, and urban areas.  Tree identification is an important first step in understanding the care of these invaluable plants that often take an entire human lifetime to develop into the mature, cathedral-like shade trees that line our city streets and shade our homes.

Photo Credit: Teresa Dewitt

Warming spring weather is often enough motivation to get many of us out looking for the first blooms of the growing season.  In my home garden, snow crocus (Crocus sieberi) is about the only plant that has started to show life over recent days, reaching full bloom sometime earlier this week.  If your garden is still as bare as mine, our local natural areas are a wonderful place to observe native spring wildflowers and some early performers are already beginning the show for 2020.

Newly planted urban trees are at risk of mortality if proper after-planting care, such as mulching and watering, is not carefully tended.

Spring is a time of an awakening plant world full of blooms and endless possibilities for the coming growing season.  It’s a time that many of us think about updating our landscaping, making it the most popular time of year to plant trees and shrubs. 

Chinese witch hazel blooms during the late winter to early spring with a flowering display that often lasts over a month.

The late winter is often a time of anticipation for spring flowering, when many gardeners watch for the first signs of early blooming bulbs.  However, one unique woody plant is currently in full bloom putting on the first flower display of spring in the Illinois landscape. 

The yellow lady’s slipper orchid is an Illinois native that can be grown in cultivation. Photo credit: Chris Benda.

Over the past 200 years or so, orchids have went from a mysterious and challenging plant, barely sustained in cultivation, to a fixture in many homes and businesses. Today, easy-care varieties of these beautiful flowering houseplants can be purchased just about anywhere, including the supermarket checkout lane.