I recently returned from "The Gardens of England" tour coordinated for Illinois Master Gardeners, which included the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the largest flower show in the world. Imagine a flower show that encompasses 25 acres and offers an opportunity for guests to see every possible herbaceous perennial (not really, it just seemed like it) throughout stunning design gardens and floral displays—and everything was labelled, so no guessing the identity of unknown plants!

Straw bale gardening has been an interesting project. After reading several books on the topic, I decided I was ready to try my hand at growing "something" in straw bales. My design was simple; four straw bales side by side, set on a weed mat of layered newspapers in the back driveway. Placement is critical; once bales are saturated with water, they become very difficult to move. Orientation is critical too; make sure the bales are placed with the baling twine at the sides and parallel to the ground.

Had it been the middle of summer, the weather we all just experienced the last weekend of January would have been downright cold and worthy of a sweater. But temperatures in the mid to upper 60's in the middle of winter just begs for short sleeves and working in the yard…at least for this spring fevered gardener. I chose to spend some of my time outdoors gathering all the fallen branches and twigs on the property and chipping them. There was only one thing that was going to possibly stand in my way—getting my Chipper/Shredder/Vacuum to start.

Dogs and turf don't always mix, especially in small confined areas. For homeowners, pets (mostly dogs) are the most frequent cause of uneven patches of succulent dark green growth and/or brown areas. And although the exact mechanism of how urine injures turf is not completely understood, its damage is very similar to that resulting from a salt-based fertilizer spill. This has led to a generally accepted belief that animal urine contains enough concentrated salts to dehydrate the turf after repeated applications.

Using the term "evergreen" to refer to all conifers can be somewhat misleading. Not all evergreens are conifers, just as not all conifers are evergreen. Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a good example of a deciduous conifer, but you would never refer to as a deciduous evergreen!

Most gardeners can relate to the giddy anticipation generated this time of the year when nursery catalogs start filling the mailbox. Aside from all the wonderful nursery stock that inspires oohs and aahs, I spend an equal amount of time studying seed catalogs. I plant seeds for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is some plants, like pole beans, grow very reliably from seeds and it is not necessary to buy transplants or containerized plants.

It is not surprising that the very fine, soft, bright green feathery leaves of Eupatorium capillifolium 'Elegant Feather' (dog fennel) stumps even some plant nerds as to its identification. Well, at least this plant nerd was stumped. At first glance, it appeared somewhat reminiscent of Amsonia (Blue Star) but taller (5'), and the foliage significantly more soft and fine. If the plant I originally photographed had not been labeled, I would never have identified it on my own because, let's face it, this looks nothing like the more traditional Joe-Pye weed.

I harvested squash this weekend and it definitely turned out to be a serendipitous event. I had noticed around mid-summer that several volunteer cucurbit vines were growing around my composting area, of which I decided to leave in place just to see what type of fruit would develop. About a month ago, it was pretty clear the vines were producing several 2-4-pound round squash with skins similar in color to butternut squash.

Bird feeders, though wonderful for feeding and bringing feathered friends in close, require regular maintenance to maintain the health of visiting birds and visual appeal of the garden. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, feeders should be hand cleaned about once every two weeks with soap and boiling water or a dilute bleach solution (no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water), and then allowed to dry thoroughly before refilling.

Tomatoes are finally in their happy place in terms of sunshine and warmth, and in response are really putting on a growth spurt. Champion II and Genuwine (Brandywine x Costoluto Genovese) are both indeterminate types being grown this year, both trained on a string and maintained to a single stem. To accomplish this, all suckers are regularly removed, which means checking every few days to catch them when they are small and easy to pinch out by hand. Suckers are small shoots that grows out of every joint where a leaf petiole on the tomato plant meets the main stem.

Many Americans only know chestnuts from the famous line, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," in the 1945 song, "Merry Christmas to You," by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé. Prior to its demise in the first half of the 20th century, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was one of the largest and most important timber- and nut-producing trees in the eastern United States. In less than a lifetime, the native American chestnut population that spanned the entire Appalachian Mountain range plunged from an estimated 3-4 billion trees to a few hundred survivors.

While taking down outdoor holiday decorations recently, I noticed daffodils popping up throughout the Jungle. My first thought was "that's not good" before moving on to selfish aggravation that my daffodil display would most likely be less than spectacular this spring due to probable freeze injury to early exposed leaves…what with so much winter still to come. Clearly the daffodils had met their chilling requirement and with continued mild weather were able to start growth.