Shopping for the gardener in the family this holiday season? There are more gardening tools out there than you can imagine. There are tools for the vegetable garden, flower beds, trees, shrubs and evergreens. And, there are tools for every job in the yard.

Just what do fruit tree experts mean when they say "you need train your fruit tree?" Home orchardists need to train their trees for structure to encourage fruit production and have a productive, high yielding home orchard. Proper training also gives you a tree that can hold the fruit load without needing any additional support. The scaffold branches need to be positioned to allow good sunlight throughout the canopy to promote fruit production from the interior to the outside of the canopy.

Many homeowners know about the Emerald Ash Borer and the vast amount of destruction to our ash tree population and likely the millions of dollars being spent to treat, remove dead trees and the replacement trees.

Recent cool weather and the temperatures especially at night are beginning to trigger changes in our home landscape and vegetable gardens.

There has been a little bit of fall color beginning on some shade trees, mostly red maple cultivars and some on burning bush. It will be our cool nights and warm daytime temperatures that really kick in the strong colors as pigment content in the leaves start to change from the greens to the reds, oranges and yellows. Sometimes early fall color can signal a problem with plants too. It won't be from being too dry this summer that is for sure.

To control or not to control, that is the question. There are two grubs that historically have caused us to ponder the control question, our native Masked Chafer (White Grub) and our not so native Japanese Beetle. The Masked Chafer will lay eggs in the latter half of July in the northern parts if Illinois, the Japanese Beetle is feeding heavily now and will also be laying eggs yet this month.

Both beetles prefer to lay eggs in moist soil and green grass. Weather will play a big role in where the eggs are actually laid.

Gardeners and commercial growers alike are enjoying the mild winter so far, not worrying about those tender perennials or those later than should have been transplants out in the home landscape or overwintering production crops.

What may be a bit of concern is with the mild winter, so far anyway, is what are the insect populations looking like for 2016 and how are plants going to respond next spring if the dormancy triggers are not fully met.

Let's start with a few confusing sentences this week. You plant spring flowering bulbs in the fall and summer flowering bulbs in the spring. You dig up summer bulbs in the fall. You divide spring bulbs in late summer.

Your favorite spring bulbs are winter hardy and for them to bloom in the spring they need to have the cold soil temperatures to trigger them to sprout and bloom in the spring. There are many kinds of spring bulbs, those that bloom as the snow is retreating and other spring bulbs that will bloom much later. Proper planning can provide a several week period of spring bloom.

Wonder why sometimes the vegetables in the garden don't grow or produce as well as they should have? Besides the usual influences of our general weather conditions like too much or too little soil moisture, another factor is something called growing degree days. This is based on heat units collected as the spring, summer and fall weather moves along. We usually start to add up those heat units on temperatures above 50 degrees. Our vegetable plants grow and develop into flowering and fruiting plants.

This column has not addressed vegetables for a while and now is the time to consider the next round of transplants or seeds to go in the garden. It wasn't but about 7-10 days ago the weather was threatening a frosty night which would have us out covering up tender perennials and some of our vegetables.

The next group of vegetables to be planted are those considered "tender", ones that cannot tolerate that frosty weather at all. If you have the enough space, sowing sweetcorn is in order.

Garden catalogs began to show up in early January and will continue for a while. There may be plenty of phrases and initials that you know. There are some new ones now too. Vegetable descriptions will often include a number of initials at the end. These usually signify that the vegetable has been bred with disease resistance or tolerance to a disease specific to that variety. A tomato for example may have several initials V, F, N, TMV for resistance to Verticillium and Fusarium wilt, Nematode resistance and Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Cucumbers can wear the initials CMV, CVYV and PM.

If you said the poinsettia, you would be in good company as do most of us. Since 1825 when the poinsettia was introduced from Mexico, it has been the traditional Christmas holiday gift plant.

There are some good stories out there why fall color happens with credits to the changing temperatures, and a hot summer and wet fall, and the best one "Jack Frost". There clearly is some truth to changing temperatures and adequate moisture, but Mr. Frost has little to do with the fall colors we enjoy. In fact, if we have an early frost that will be the end of our fall color.

Fall colors are the result of what is already within the leaves. There are several color pigment groups that produce those vivid reds, golds and oranges and even tans.

Storing unused pesticides can be a troubling situation for home gardeners. Frequently asked questions include: Where can I keep them? Is it safe? Will the pesticides last? What about my children and pets?

While buying in bulk might be good for dry goods and groceries, today the pesticide recommendation is to only purchase in the volume you expect to use in a single growing season, with an exception and there will always be one of those.

What do Squirrels, Raccoons and Skunks have in common this time of year? They all love to mess with our lawns right now. Squirrels have been foraging for food that can be stored for the winter in the landscape and part of that activity is burying seeds of all kinds from our trees and shrubs in the lawn, thinking that they will come back later and retrieve their buried treasure. Squirrels can be seen during day finding spots for their stash. Squirrel damage is the least and Raccoon damage the worst.
August brings some unique questions to the Master Gardener help desk. Here are some that have been fun to answer:

I planted my garden sweet corn next to a corn field next door and now my sweet corn isn't so sweet, what is happening? Unlike other vegetables that get cross pollinated and still taste as they should, sweet corn is the exception. When an apple or cucumber gets cross pollinated (and they have to be to get fruit), it is the seeds inside that get changed, not the fruit we are eating. Those characteristics come from the female flower.

Time has run out for doing some gardening projects, but there is still time to plant your favorite spring flowering bulbs and prepare the home orchard for the winter.

Bulbs that flower for us in the spring of the year need to receive a cold treatment, easily provided through our winter weather by Mother Nature. Spring bulbs have been available and likely now are on sale at many retail outlets. Bulbs can be planted individually, especially those showy bulbs like fritillaries and alliums; others may be grouped together for the best effect, such as daffodils and tulips.

For a Horticulturist, this month has not visually been a good one. Sure there has been abundant and beautiful flowers from annuals and perennials and the spring bloom from our ornamental shrubs and trees was spectacular. What I am writing about this week is the visual decline out in the landscape, both residential and community with our larger older trees, shrubs and evergreens.

The heat this past week is a reminder of the summer of 2012 and the extended drought that year.

Where you place your dwarf fruit tree home orchard or even the one or two fruit trees you are going to grow make a big difference in how the fruit tree grows and performs. A major consideration is the soil. Fruit trees are no different than other trees and shrubs in your landscape, they need good soil drainage.
Check lists can be useful to be sure projects and tasks get done in a timely fashion. Going down a check list for the garden to lessen disease is just another part of planning what you are going to grow this season. My check list covers 8 points. Not all will apply to every garden and some gardens may need to cover more.

Since the drought of 2012, Austrian pines have been stressed, especially older trees. Austrian Pines are not native to Illinois, coming from western Europe into Asia, including Austria for which the tree is named. While tolerant of our weather pattern when young and growing well, Austrian Pine becomes more stressed as the years go by.

The past 2 years a fungal disease called Diplodia Tip Blight has really hit them hard. Diplodia attacks the new growth, killing it before the candle even has a chance to expand. You can see trees impacted by Diplodia as you drive through the neighborhoods.

Gardeners growing their own vegetable transplants always begin their gardening season much earlier than the rest of us, especially if putting in that early spring garden. The decision of when to start those seedlings to be turned into vegetable transplants has everything to do with our traditional interpretation of "the average frost free date"

Our average frost fee date for our area can be as early as about May 5th, but could be as late as May 20th. Move north from here and it is going to be later, head south and it will be sooner.

If you are wondering if the hot weather is impacting the home landscape and gardens, the simple answer is, it sure is. With the high daytime temperatures and above normal night time temperatures, it is becoming increasing hard for plants to keep up with the natural moisture loss from foliage. Every plant in your yard loses moisture through the leaves. Remember the recent news story that tried to tie the "heat dome" that kept us hot to all the fields of corn, calling it corn sweat!

It has been a couple of years since I used the month of January to address starting a home orchard. The fruit and vegetable catalogs have begun to replace the holiday flyers in the mailbox and January is not too early to begin planning for a home orchard or expanding the one already there.

There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider, apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum. As we live in northern portion of Illinois, apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in back yards because it is very winter hardy.

Spring is a great time plant fruit trees in the home orchard. Planting now allows the fruit trees to establish a root system this summer. If fruit trees are or have been ordered from catalogs they are most likely going to be bare root with some form of moist packing around the roots to keep them from drying out. Those bare root fruit trees should be kept cool and dormant until you are able plant them and the roots should remain moist. Add water to the packing material if needed.

Time again to respond to several questions that have been coming to the Extension Office this fall.

Q. How is the best way to handle newly planted trees and evergreens for the winter?

A: Our weather this fall has really been great for the establishment of trees, shrubs and evergreens recently planted and those planted last spring. As a general rule it will take a year for every inch of trunk diameter for shade trees and upright evergreens to recover from being transplanted.

Gardeners whisper about it hoping there is some truth to what your parents told you about when to plant your vegetables. Others will devise their own way to determine when it is safe to plant in their yards. In other cases the gardener will join the gardener's anonymous club, being a real gambler on setting out transplants early and hoping for the best.

So how did we get where we are with our planting dates? Historical records show that over the years, May 5th has become that magical date for a good portion of N. Illinois.

It is way too early to be doing anything outside to brighten our view from inside, yet you can bring some of that spring color indoors by forcing blooms on a number of flowering shrubs and ornamental trees in your home landscape. Early spring flowering shrubs produce their flower buds the summer before and after enough winter weather, those flowers are ready to bloom. It is the combination of warmer temperatures, the water provided and the stored energy in the branches that allow us to enjoy the blooms.
Questions coming in over the phone, via email and with residents visiting the Master Gardener Help Desks is really an easy way to see any developing trends in the home landscape. Some weeks' it is all about insects, other weeks' plant diseases. Here are few from the past few days.

Can I cut back my Asparagus now? You should really leave the Asparagus foliage standing until it naturally yellows, browns and dies. That foliage is supplying the roots with energy to allow us to harvest again next year.

We have been enjoying mild late fall temperatures and our plants have been slow to respond to the normal signals to go dormant. Trees and shrubs finally received the message, yet our lawns remain pretty green and maybe even needed one more mowing before the big snow.

There are some landscape plants that have always needed a bit of help to get through the winter with limited damage. Whether brand new to your yard or established for years, broadleaved evergreens like rhododendrons or boxwoods can be heavily damaged by winter sun and drying winds.

About this time of year gardeners are wondering why some of the flower beds are looking good and others never seemed to really take off and fill in.

Garden soils can make such a difference in how quickly flowers will cover the bed. With all the rain we had earlier, poor drainage is often at the "root" of things with water logged soils and limited soil oxygen present. Good root development counts on a balance of both. Overly wet soils will prevent roots from growing deeply so when our weather moderated, there were no roots down deep to support the flowers with the water they needed.

In the past couple of weeks some of our large shade trees have signs of chlorosis showing up. The leaves are not the medium and deep green they are normally and can have darker veins that fade out into the surrounding leaf tissue.

This spring has seemingly brought out the worst in some of our lawn weeds. Creeping Charlie, also called Ground Ivy has been the number one complaint I have had this spring while talking lawn care with homeowners and garden club members.

Creeping Charlie quietly grew well into the fall of 2015 with the same great conditions that allowed our lawns to remain green well into late November last year. Creeping Charlie is very good in increasing its size by sending out long runners into parts of our lawn where it has never ventured before.

Just about now, you can see holiday trees sitting in the front or side yard, waiting for the assigned pick up date to be collected and mulched. This is one way to be sure your holiday tree gets recycled to the benefit of the environment. The follow through to getting your tree composted in a community program is to be sure your take advantage of the composted material later by bringing some back home and using it in your landscape beds. Those fallen needles that need to be collected as you take the tree outdoors can go to the compost pile.

This column has covered growing degree days, chilling hours, planting based on our average frost free date and growing season extender methods. One more to add to the list when it comes to insect infestations on our favorite plants is something called Phenology. What a plant looks like and very specifically what stages their flowers are in can tell us it may be time to be on the look- out for and perhaps the need to treat for certain insects.

We have had some good weather to begin or continue our fall clean efforts in the home landscape and days where it has been too cold and rainy to get out in the yard as we have wanted. Those days have allowed us to look out the patio window and see what else will need to be done before the "snow flies". Some perennial and annual beds have already been cleared of spent plant parts, leaving us with a bed that still looks green from weeds that had a great growing season too. Those weeds got a start back several weeks ago and some have been out there since spring.
August usually means lots of hot dry weather. During last week we had at least one "rain event" that was pretty substantial. Some readers had several inches of rain in fact. Things we can do and see while we are waiting for things to dry out are:

Lawns

Bird seed and feeding birds over the winter is an annual discussion with homeowners that enjoy having birds in the yard over the winter. First, the bird seed talk everyone should hear or read. All bird seed mixes are not created equal. Selecting bird seed means buying seed to attract your favorite birds and not just the least expensive bag on the retail shelf. Wild bird mixes most often contain millet, sunflower cracked corn and milo. White millet with a bit of red millet is good, avoid those that contain large amounts of milo, as it is not a favorite of many birds.

Every season brings new surprises to homeowners. Spring is no exception to this. Finding out the 300 spring bulbs you planted last fall are actually white, not the yellow the plant label said they were. Less enjoyable surprises would be finding out the young trees you planted to replace the Ash destroyed by the Emerald Ash borer have been damaged from the winter weather.

One of the most common kinds of damage is called "Frost Crack".   Frost cracks may not be readily obvious right away, the damage occurs on the south and southwest sides of tree trunks.

Seems like summer took so long to get here with weather that was enjoyable and now those unspoken words have begun to enter our everyday lives, heard on the TV, references to it on the radio, thinking about ordering hot chocolate or hot cider instead of coffee, farm stands offering more than just summer veggies. Yes, FALL is on the way, there I said it.

There are so many more days to enjoy yet this year, don't think because school has started that the world (of gardening) should come to an end.

Nearly all our spring blooming plants have finished now and are in the process of putting their energy into storage if a bulb. Next year's flowers depend on the plants ability to continue to produce food reserves until they naturally die down. The very early spring bulbs have already disappeared from the beds in fact. Bleeding hearts are also beginning to go away too. Currently daffodils are showing signs of slowing down with yellowing leaves. That will continue until all the foliage has yellowed and dried down.

Here we are at the end of May and maybe the beds in the backyard look ok or maybe not. We love our lawns, yet grass can move into our landscape beds in a stealth like manner, while we are waiting for better weather for bed weeding and edging.

Putting a strong clean line on the landscape beds really makes a difference in how they look, bringing out the strong curves that make the bed flow through the yard. That edge is the transition from bed to lawn that defines outdoor spaces.

Extension offices routinely get phone calls after a fruit tree has been planted that second or third year in the home orchard or landscape about what is going on, "Why don't I get any fruit?". Often times what is happening is natural, sometimes we contribute to the delay of fruit production by the care we have given the fruit tree. It is pretty common that we will get some fruit that first year. This is due to the growing conditions and management the wholesale fruit tree grower used to produce the fruit tree we are buying at the garden center or retail outlet.
The weather is sure messing with our plans for early work in the yard. There are at least a couple of projects that not only can be done, but should be done as soon as possible and at the right stage of growth.

Perhaps the more critical project is that of our earliest sprays in the home orchard. The foliage diseases for apples show up by wind with the spores floating along by the many thousands if not millions landing on the swelling buds just showing the smallest hint of green emerging leaves.

Lawns are really greening up nicely over the last couple of weeks courtesy of Mother Nature. Lawns will naturally green up in the spring anyway, yet the rains and warmer temperatures really help too. Questions to the Extension offices and the Master Gardener Help Desks have been all about lawns and the occasional outdoor insect finding its way inside our homes.

This time of year you can do several lawn projects. Lawn cleanup is the one of the very first. Overwintering leaf litter, twigs, stems and dead branches from the trees is a good place to start.

Caterpillars are frequently collected by students for science classes, parents to show their little ones the amazing change from caterpillar to butterfly or moth. It is how they are handled after being collected that makes the difference in how successful your project is.

Most of our caterpillars are found this time of year, late summer and early fall, being nearly full grown out in the yard. They are big enough to be easily spotted in the garden or shrub bed.

Insects are very interesting to watch as they go about their lives in nature from early spring through Fall. We notice them when something goes wrong or missing on our valuable landscape plants and flowers, especially when those insects are considered detrimental to growing our prized flowers or being able to harvest that perfect vegetable.


 

 

Last year gardeners were caught off guard with outbreaks of scale insects on their trees and shrubs. University of Illinois Master Gardeners received many calls of Magnolia foliage turning black and sticky residue on lawn furniture, yard ornaments and if you stood there for even a minute, all over you.

What a treat to have some early warming weather the last few days. Of course it is way too early to be doing much other than a little debris pick up out in the yard. This weather does allow us to see what has been happening outdoors though. It is pretty easy to see what the rabbits have been feeding on. Herbaceous plants will have been eaten down to the ground, while woody plants will be showing a lot of white color, the area just beneath the bark that they have eaten away. Telltale signs are those droppings we see so often in the snow and on the soil surface where feeding has been happening.