There are a great many beneficial insects in the home landscape that can help gardeners manage destructive insect populations without ever opening the pesticide cabinet. Common to the yard are insect predators, parasitic wasps and natural pathogens that all work to our advantage. Some insects provide immediate control like lady bugs that feed on aphids. There are others like the parasitic wasp that lays their eggs on or inside an insect pest that later emerge to find additional pest to become hosts to their eggs.
Rain is always a good thing, most of the time, for our landscape and gardens. Right now all the rain has brought us all the weeds we can ever imagine in every bed we have. Ignore those weeds and let them flower and set seeds and the landscape begins to look like a jungle of green really quickly. For every square foot of soil in the top inch there are very likely many thousands of weed seeds just waiting to germinate with the rain and sunshine each year.

In the landscape beds, mulches can really play an important role in limiting weed seed germination by keeping the seeds in the dark.

Lawns have been turning green since the rains have shown up and some lawns have already been mowed for the first time. The south and west exposures may need to be mowed before the rest of the yard. As you get ready to mow for the first time in your yard, be sure the mower deck is clear of any grass clippings from last year and while the deck is raised up, remove, sharpen and replace the cutting blade. When you are working under the deck, pull that spark plug wire off the plug before you start.

Gardeners know about spring and summer bulbs and that we plant spring bulbs in the fall and summer bulbs in the spring. Have you ever considered taking some of those and turning them into "winter bulbs" by forcing them into boom during the winter months when the weather is dark and grey? While this may sound hard to do, it really isn't. There are a number of bulbs that will easily bloom for us. Amaryllis, hyacinth and paper white narcissus bulbs often are sold for just this purpose.

Maybe the fireplace has already been used this season or you are about to. The First thing typically to do if you have not had your fireplace chimney cleaned in the last couple of years is to get this done. This is should go to the top of your projects list before you start up the fireplace or wood burner. Creosote buildup can catch fire and chimney fires are common during the winter.

Gardeners have been waiting to see their flower beds, the lawn, the landscape beds and dirt of the vegetable garden for some time now and it has happened or nearly so. After the excitement has faded and another look out in the yard can reveal lots of early spring cleanup.

Now that the snow is gone and gardeners have left the warm comfort of the house, the impacts of the winter are very evident as we do that "walk about" in the yard and begin to formulate early spring gardening plans. Master Gardeners have begun answering questions coming in on the phone, by email and in personal visits to the Extension Office. A routine review over the past two weeks has had some trending questions.

Plants have had quite a time dealing with the very cold weather and blustery winter winds. The lucky ones are currently under the snow and well protected. Soil temperatures remain constant and while covered by the snow, temperatures around the stems, twigs, foliage or buds are protected from the dry cold winter winds.

Successive plantings in the vegetable garden can still be done when home gardeners pick the right vegetables. Late summer into early fall is a great time to make additional plantings of those vegetables that we consume as the whole plant. Mustard greens, a variety of the leaf lettuces, and spinach are good examples. The very late plantings may not make it to a large size, yet harvesting those young tender plants can make a great garnish or addition to the salad.

There are two kinds of radishes that can still be planted. In late summer try seeding winter radish.

We are having prime time weather right now for the family lawn. Our lawns, known for being nearly completely cool season grasses, continue to grow vigorously. Nearly because one of our pesky warm season perennial grasses is Nimblewill. You will see it as patchy spots in the lawn already going dormant. Nimblewill may be going dormant, yet the bluegrass is generating lots of growth above and below ground. Right now the lawn is moving lots of nutrients to be stored for the winter and at the same time growing more roots as well.

Farmers walk their fields, vegetable growers walk their produce fields, have you walked your lawn lately? This time of year is a good time to find out what has been happening to the lawn and what you might want to do yet this season to make your lawn healthier.

With all the rain we had earlier in the summer, pre-emergence products may not have lasted long enough and now you can find annual crabgrass or goose grass in the lawn. If the crabgrass is not too big, pulling it up before it sets seed is a start.

This summer has been exceptional for magnolia scale. Master Gardeners at the help desks have constantly been addressing this situation with homeowners for the last 5+ weeks. A typical life cycle of a scale is an overwintering female producing eggs under her protective scale covering. The eggs will hatch into very tiny crawlers that may resemble an aphid. These crawlers then move farther out on the branch to tender twigs and the leaves where they use their piercing sucking mouth-parts to tap into vascular system to get their liquid diet.

Reports have been scattered, but throughout Cook and DuPage counties, homeowner's have discovered unfamiliar insects feeding on their viburnums in the landscape. This turns out to be yet another pest from a foreign land, the Viburnum Leaf Beetle. Like many of the insects that are not native to the United States, the source for this beetle happens to be Europe (the Emerald Ash Borer originated in Asia). The viburnum leaf beetle has established itself in the northeast and began to show up in Illinois in the last two years.
This season gardeners have been seeing lots of lumps, bumps and blobs on different kinds of leaves throughout the landscape, in parks and the forest preserves. It is not uncommon as this occurs annually, what is uncommon is the generous number of these growths we are seeing.

These are generally known as plant galls. The Master Gardener Help Desks are seeing quite a few branches with galls on the leaves brought in for identification and recommendations on what to do. Plant galls, while they can be alarming to find growing on the leaves, are typically harmless to the tree.

Our recent winter weather patterns have caused concern from homeowners especially with our last snow storm. That snow came down quickly and was able to stick to and add a lot of weight to tree canopies and evergreen branches alike.

Unless there is a compelling reason to remove the snow loads, like the real potential of having a branch break under this increased load, let the wind and moderating temperatures work and allow the branches to return to normal on their own. Tree limbs and evergreen branches are flexible and usually manage.

Holiday gift plants are always appreciated when given this time of year. The more traditional plants in the past have included Poinsettia, Christmas cactus and Azalea. There are others that are also given like Ornamental Pepper and Cherry, Amaryllis bulbs, Cyclamen and Kalanchoe.

All the holiday gift plants will provide us with beautiful foliage and flowers if kept in the coolest part of the home at least at night and returned to your display area during the day. Placing them away from heat registers or other sources of heat will also help.

Home vegetable and fruit gardening have become much more than an outdoor activity that is "trending", but a very strong "movement" these days. Planning for a home orchard will take a bit more planning than we typically do for the annual vegetable garden. Fruit trees are more of a long term investment in the home landscape.

Summer vacation is just about over for our houseplants that we set out last spring and now the decision needs to be made of what comes back in the home for the winter. We generally consider any plant that cannot survive being outside a houseplant since many of them have a tropical background or are from a hardiness zone warmer than ours.

For many, we take them outside to let Mother Nature nurture them back to a better state of health, knowing that once back inside, they will be in less than a perfect growing location.

Down the Garden Path

Perennial beds are just now waking up from the winter and some of the first plants up are the spring bulbs and a few early bloomers like bleeding hearts if the rabbits leave them alone. Rabbits will feed on the tender tops of most perennial plants in our beds while more of what they like to eat begins to appear in the landscape. Once preferred choices show up, they will eat a lot less of the perennial bed foliage.

Vegetables can still be productive for a couple more months depending on what crops you have been growing. Certainly long season crops like tomatoes, peppers, Swiss chard are there now and will continue to produce till frost for the tender vegetables and Chard will tolerate quite a bit of cool or cold weather. Root crops like turnips, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes and onions can be harvested anytime they are ready and into frosty weather. If you mulch the rows with straw and prevent freezing, root crops could be harvested even with snow cover.
All our recent rain and cooler night and daytime temperatures have given homeowners a surprise in the yard in the form of a variety of mushrooms growing in unexpected places. Nationally, there are about 10,000 known species of mushrooms.

Mushrooms are the "fruiting" structure of the fungus below the surface of the lawn, shrub bed and around the cut stumps of our many ash trees that have been removed. It will not matter if the stump was ground out or not. Fungi are decay organisms, feeding on dead organic matter. Without these fungi, the world would look a lot different.

Our rains have really been messing with us when it comes to routine yard work. Keeping the weeds under control is a real challenge right now. Every day we are not able to work in the beds, those weeds keep right on growing. Gardeners with smaller garden beds can lean in while staying on the lawn allows for some hand weeding. At least the moist soil makes pulling those weeds easier. Previous columns have suggested that when a bed does get away from us to at least not let the weeds there go to seed and do not put those seed heads in the compost pile.

Late summer and early fall are great times to work on the lawn. One of the best practices that will benefit the lawn long term is core aeration. Homeowners can rent the coring machine or have a lawn service provide the service for your yard. A coring machine will remove a plug (core) containing a bit of grass, thatch and soil about 3 or so inches deep and leave that core on the surface of the lawn. The machine will work much better and be easier on the user if the soil is already moist.

Most know that core aeration will relieve soil compaction.

Our recent strong winds got our attention as damage to our deciduous and evergreen trees became a real issue. If we were lucky those downed limbs and trees missed our homes and cars. Trees that were already compromised were the first to be damaged. Trees with narrow crotch angles, poor root systems and interior decay did not have the structural strength to resist the winds. Trees that are still holding their leaves and have damaged root systems from another cause are often completely blown over. Trees with interior decay or those narrow crotch angles will typically lose canopy branches.
While there is a lot of summer left, now is the time homeowners are discovering nests of a variety of flying, swarming and potentially stinging wasps and hornets in the home landscaping. In nearly all cases, homeowners have been unaware that a nest even exists in the yard until one day when foliage starts to change color or the nest itself grows in size and becomes much more visible. The more common paper nest building wasp builds a flat nest under the eve of the home or near the gable on the end of the home. Another wasp that can easily be spotted by the nest it builds is the mud dauber.

January begins the annual flight of vegetable, flower and fruit tree catalogs to your mailbox. Depending on your level of gardening, the catalogs arrive frequently and in mass.

The University of Illinois offers the Illinois Vegetable Gardening Guide (https://web.extension.illinois.edu/vegguide/default.cfm) on line and contains several sections on growing high quality wholesome vegetables. There

Our weather up until these past few days has remained primed for lawn diseases. Homeowners who have taken great care of their lawns may actually see more turf diseases than the neighborhood courtyard or cul-de-sac where only mowing gets done. The ever popular textbook disease triangle image has been ringing loud and clear; if you have a pathogen present with a susceptible host and the right environmental conditions, then more often than not the disease will develop.

Early spring flowering shrubs and ornamental trees produce their flower buds by late summer of the previous year. We can begin to enjoy spring bloom as early as mid to late February. Start by selecting branches loaded with flower buds. You can identify the flower buds as they are larger and more round than those buds that will just be producing leaves. Knowing the kind of flowering shrubs and trees in your landscape will help you identify what the flower buds look like and where they appear on the branches.

The University of Extension will again be sponsoring the First Detector Workshops in 2016, for the third year in a row. These workshops have been well received by Arborists, Master Gardeners, City Arborists, Master Naturalists, Landscaper and Nursery business for their timely and strong informational content on known invasive species and those invasive pests headed to Illinois. The workshops are aimed at improving the first detector training and invasive species awareness for all attendees. Early detection and response is the key to managing invasive pests.
Fall is a great time to do clean up in the landscape that seems just like a lot of work with no immediate rewards besides just making the beds look better. The bigger story is when done, you are indeed "sanitizing the yard for your own plants protection"

Gardeners already know the benefit of cleaning up and getting rid of diseased plants and plant parts. These go to the curb in the landscape waste bag to be commercially composted.

Right now the gardening word for the week is "patience" Gardeners are anxious to get the 2015 gardening season going, yet winter does not look like it is going away any time soon. So while we are impatiently waiting to get out in the yard to tend to our landscape plants and the garden, what can we do?

While it remains snowing and cold, get those things done inside to prepare for later activities. Very likely we put some tools away for the winter without cleaning them or made that mental note that those pruners needed to be sharpened or replaced.

The Extension Office and Master Gardener Help desks receive lots of questions regarding invasive and noxious weeds every year. There are major differences in how these weeds and plants are managed from the already existing regulatory legislation in Illinois. In a recent newsletter from the University, these two classifications are discussed.

"The State of Illinois has two "legal" lists of problematic plants that require attention -- Noxious Weeds and Exotic Plants.

Winter weather can certainly take its toll on our ornamental plants, flower bud killing temperatures, heaving our plants out of the soil, maybe even killing our plants down to the ground to start over and the needle desiccation of our evergreens. Another unwelcome surprise many gardeners are finding is the damage from Voles that hid under all our snow this winter.

About now homeowners who enjoy the crackling fire outside in the fire pit may be thinking about that transition to the indoor fireplace. Burning questionable quality firewood outside does not take away anything from the joy of sitting around the pit after dark. It can make a difference in the fireplace.

Whether you cut, split and dry your own firewood or buy it for the winter, good management will reward you with more heat and less smoke. The heavier the wood, given the same moisture levels, the more heat will be released as it burns.

While reviewing the University of Illinois Plant Clinic Newsletter, it became clear that this season has really been about diseases, starting with the usual and expected diseases that come along with the cooler temperatures and rains of spring. Plant diseases continued as our rains continued well into June. That set up diseases to be with us the rest of the summer. More infection earlier and longer allowed much heavier disease pressure in our vegetables, fruit trees and ornamental plants.

Homeowners have likely heard of core aeration as a way to relieve soil compaction in the lawn. While that is certainly true, coring has several more benefits for the grass plant, soil profile and microbial activity in the ground and thatch management.

Last weeks' column briefly mentioned starting seeds for the flower or vegetable garden and that you need to start by reviewing the seed packet instructions. That is just the start of course of what will be a several week adventure.

For our area, May 5th has been the average frost free date for many years. If we are having an early spring, a few days earlier can work. With our weather being so abnormal, May 5th may be a better date this year for planting those very hardy seeds and transplants.

Experienced gardeners know where poison ivy is likely to be and what it looks like in its various forms and stages of growth. That may not be the case for newer gardeners just getting into their yards or having moved from an area relatively free from poison ivy to a wooded area or neighborhood. Without knowing it is in the yard, it is all too easy to get the oils on your hands and clothing while clearing beds of otherwise harmless weeds.

Until you can easily ID poison ivy, the adage of "Leaves of Three Let It Be" are pretty good words to live by.

Our growing season has really gotten going finally and with all the good comes some bad from time to time. Gardeners have become much more aware of what we do in our individual home landscapes have a larger impact on the environment especially when you add up the amount of land in our neighborhoods, then the city or village. It is estimated that there are about 50 million (50, 000,000) acres of turf in the United States, 75% of that is in home lawns. It is easy to how homeowners can impact ground water, wildlife and more by what we apply in our yards.
The recent issue of the University of Illinois Extension Home Yard and Garden newsletter states that the growing degree days for our area (recorded at St. Charles) have recorded more days than our 11 year average of 865, at 1056. Gardeners then would have expected better plant growth of our vegetables. Clearly the vegetables have not been reading the reports!

While it is a bit early yet for home orchardists to begin a spray program, Extension offices have begun to get phone and email inquiries on timing for dormant oil sprays on fruit trees in home orchards and calls on managing Cedar Apple Rust and Apple Scab fungal diseases.

In a normal year this column in the middle of December would be talking about how to deal with wildlife in the yard that damage our valuable landscape plants from feeding damage. This year the ground is open and lawns are still green with no frost in the soil at all. While the weather remains favorable, rabbits will feed on the diversity of plant material in the home landscape, lessening damage to any one plant. Rabbits will feed on grass, clover and other lawn weeds as long as the ground is open.

In the middle of January not a lot is going on outside in the home landscape. The Holiday tree may have been put up for bird shelter and the feeding stations kept full of bird seed and suet, cobs of corn for the squirrels and maybe a salt lick for other kinds of wildlife. Perennial beds covered in snow enjoy the protection from drying winter winds and the sun if we ever see sunny days anytime soon.