Early September typically brings cooler temperatures and enough rain to green up our lawns and keep them green until cold weather shuts them off for the 2017 growing season.

So far, we have had the right temperatures, yet the rains have remained very scattered and the amounts very limited. Long term, this concerns farmers and horticulturists since we need to have the soils recharged with water as winter approaches. Short term, for the farmer, it means crops will be shutting down early, which will limit yields and possibly the grain quality as well.

The impact of all our rains is clear while commuting to work, shopping and traveling through the county. Farm fields to backyard gardens will be drying for some time to come. Farmers will be waiting to return to the fields until the soils can be worked again without damage to soil structure and creating compaction. Farmers will be watching any planted fields closely to see the damage caused by all the water.

Home gardeners will be doing the same thing, yet in a much smaller scale. Gardening has been hard to do this year given our early good weather well ahead of normal.

Just about a month ago, I wrote about getting those houseplants back inside after vacationing in the backyard or on the patio. Now, there are other parts of nature that are trying to follow suit, but are really uninvited houseguests. This includes any kind of insect critter that has begun to look for a place to overwinter and wants to stay warm as long as possible.

At some point, every gardener has had leftover seeds after sowing the vegetable garden or flowerbed. In addition, saving vegetable and flower seeds is one way to save some money each year (or use that money to feed your gardening habit in other areas).

We can expect to see changes in our landscape plants in the coming weeks. The obvious one will be fall color as the weather pattern continues to move from summer to fall conditions. If you are seeing strong fall color already in a plant, there is likely a health issue going on. Anytime we have premature fall color, there is often structural damage either above ground or below it, or the plant is suffering from severe stress from another cause. Before that, the changes may not be quite as easy to spot.

February finds us thinking we already have had our share of wintry weather this year. So far more cold perhaps than the white stuff. The bit of sunshine in all of this is the colorful gardening catalogs keep us thinking about spring. The vegetable and flower gardens are certainly asleep until spring, but we can take a yard inventory from the dining room window and think about what we liked in 2016, what grew well and not so well, and begin to plan what we want to do or change, and how we want our yard to look in 2017.

Annual flowerbeds give us a "do over" every year.

Poison ivy has been around forever and may have behaved itself by staying out of our yards and groundcover beds…until now. Every time there is a situation that affects our landscapes, likely a corresponding condition is favoring nature. For example, if you don't mow the lawn for a season, you get an interesting mix of weeds germinating and growing to outcompete the lawn grasses. The same can be said of our perennial beds too.

Extension has gotten some very seasonal questions arriving at the Master Gardener Help Desk this past week. The phone and email logs seem to suggest we are a lot closer to spring than some long-range weather forecasts, which mention snow in early to mid-April! Here are a few of our frequently asked questions:

Q: I am seeing rodent trails all over my backyard and under the bird feeder now. What should I be doing about this?

As our good summer weather begins to wind down, it is time to get our vacationing houseplants ready to return inside for the winter. A few decisions can be made to save us some time. 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 a less than perfect growing location. You may have set them out on the ground under shrubs or evergreens, put them on the edge of the patio or next to the home.

About now, gardeners are beginning to get the annual itch. Catalogs can keep the urge down, but eventually it comes back, growing stronger and stronger – that absolute need to get your hands dirty. To satisfy the craving, we can do some gardening activities inside right now.

If you start your own flower and vegetable transplants, it is time to round up the materials you will need to be successful. Locating the seedling flats is a good start. These are used for a short time ever year, so even though they are very thin plastic, they do last for many seasons.

I just attended an Illinois First Detector workshop that addressed several invasive pests, insects and diseases, and even certain kinds of wildlife. Some made their way into Illinois, some just over the state line, and others are in other states that grow food crops we eventually eat. The First Detector Program trains participants to look for the early signs of these invasive plants and pests, and report them.

Many Master Gardener Help Desk calls at the end of this growing season have been about garden cleanup, as would be expected. Yet other calls have been about handling expected or bonus yields of late season produce, especially root crops and the hard rind squashes.

Q: We still have carrots in the garden, and do not want them to go to waste. How can we store them for a while longer?

As our gardening season is winding down, questions to the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener volunteers have been mixed, and they have been really good questions to share with others:

Q: My white pine is losing many needles on the inside, is that normal?

A: White pines, like all needled evergreens, naturally let go of one set of needles a year. It seems to be quite pronounced this year, though very normal.

Q: My lawn and yard have mushrooms all over the place. Should I be worried?

This column has frequently addressed the need to water new plantings, transplanted trees, shrubs and evergreens added to the landscape. Little has been written regarding water management on what we would all call our "well-established" landscape plants in the yard.

Most of us give little thought that those big oaks, maples, pines and spruce could use our help.

 

Late last week, several weather-related organizations put out a release entitled "Major Cold and Wet Spring Event: Potential Impacts in the North Central U.S. April 26 –May 9, 2017." The story comes from the National Weather Service in partnership with NOAA, USDA Midwest Climate Hub, USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub, Midwestern Regional Climate Hub and the High Plains Regional Climate Center. Given the list of players, I tend to believe what they are saying!

Garden catalogs begin to show up in early January and will continue for the next few weeks. Each picture looks better than the next and promises to be bigger or better than last year. Those photos and headlines are exciting, but as you pour over the pages, it is helpful to know how to decipher the information provided so you can make a more educated decision.

So many problems this year have been weather related. One grass-like weed that has shown up in the lawn, flower and garden beds is yellow nutsedge. Grass-like because it is actually a sedge. It is yellow-green in color and, if left to mature, produces "nutlets" in the soil to grow from in the future. To clearly identify it, cut even a very young plant in two, and look at the cut ends. You will see a strong triangular pattern. Nutsedge will have a fibrous root system that pulls out quite easily.

There are some 8,000 ant species around, and on occasion, ants can become an annoyance in the home. Most often they are a bother in the spring of the year when soils outdoors begin to warm again. Right now, in this particular December, our soils next to the home are still warm. We may be bothered by those ants, when colonies in the soil within the footprint of our home venture inside. Ants could be brown, black, red or shades of these colors and vary in size from extremely tiny to quite obvious.

Over the past weekend, the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) posted a news release with changes for this summer on their tactics for managing Gypsy Moths in parts of Kane, Kendall, Will and LaSalle counties. In past years, the public's involvement has been passive in the sense that IDOA announced spray areas and, at the right time, treatments were made based on trap counts and movement of Gypsy Moths the previous year.

Now is the time to spend some time with your fruit trees before the season shuts us out. A few actions now can help prevent problems later.

Rodent damage to the trunk at the soil line happens when grass grows tall next to the trunk. Remove the grass and weeds using hand clippers, not the string trimmer, as that can cause more problems. Rodents love to hide in the grass, and they will happily eat the bark off the trunk and the surface of the roots. This feeding can girdle the tree, causing it to die.

We have all made them, kept some, unsuccessful with others. New Year's resolutions for your gardens are a little easier to keep. For starters, they are months away and can be more thought out and with time to prepare, more easily accomplished. Here a few to consider:

Add more mulch where it can prevent weed growth, retain more moisture in your shrub beds and tree rings.

Mow the lawn higher with a sharp mower blade more frequently in the spring, summer and fall so the lawn will compete better against weeds and conserve soil moisture.

When was the last time you had your garden or landscape bed soil tested? If you have never had a soil test done, this first time serves as a baseline for any future testing comparisons and lets you know as soon as the results come back if there are actions to be taken. This fall, before the snow flies, is a good time to get that done.

Our latest weather pattern is making outdoor fall clean up more difficult than usual. It always can seem overwhelming, but even more so this year thanks to several long rain events.

For example, just keeping up (again) with the flush of the lawn has been hard, but add in finding a time when the ground is firm enough and grass dry enough, is the real challenge.

This column has talked about how different plants, insects and diseases have developed based on our unseasonal temperatures and rainfall. Last year, I reported on the Viburnum Leaf Beetle larvae feeding towards the end of June. Our accumulation of growing-degree days being so far ahead, the larvae have already been feeding for more than 10 days. Throughout Cook and DuPage counties, homeowners have discovered unfamiliar foliage feeding on their viburnums in the landscape. Surrounding counties are not immune; we just have not found them yet.

Our weather continues to put a lot of disease pressure on our flowering crabapples and apple trees due to the cool and wet conditions. The disease that is easily seen right now is Cedar Apple Rust (CAR). CAR is a two-host rust, and right now, it can be seen on the cedars and junipers as a strange looking gall about the size of a golf ball covered in a bright yellow to orange jelly-like fingers. Those orange structures are sending out fungal spores that will land on newly developing and expanding crabapple and apple leaves, which we will infect them and we will notice later on in the summer.

What do bees, ants and termites have in common? At some point in the year, they all swarm.

Our honeybee may be the most obvious example as the queen gathers up thousands of support bees from the existing hive and heads off to find another location to set up shop. Those swarms can be seen hanging in trees or somewhere on the home under the eave. Sometimes they cling to parked cars and trucks before moving along. Bee swarming is much more likely latter in the summer when colony numbers are much higher.

Collecting, storing and using rainwater is a great way to maintain beds and landscape during those times when Mother Nature is not giving us enough water. A rainfall of one inch per hour on a 1,000 square foot surface will yield 10 gallons of water per minute, so it is possible to fill that barrel with the first rain event of the season!

If plants could think, they probably are wondering, "What is going on? Why am I trying to grow in such difficult and changing weather conditions?" I am sure migratory birds and other wildlife are wondering the same thing.

Landscape care strategies have certainly changed since it has gotten dry and hot, and now we have gotten scattered rain events giving water to some and not others.

We are seeing the end of the spring bulbs with foliage yellowing and drying down, which is accelerated by the hot dry conditions. The early spring bulbs "went away" some time back, now it is the daffodils. Other perennials, like columbine and bleeding heart, really do not like the hot weather and those too are fading away.

Although most Master Gardener help desks are on hiatus right now for the winter, questions still come into the office. It is interesting to see the seasonality of the questions this time of year, and this month, there is a thread among most of them – houseplants.

Q: I love my succulents in the summer, but they are already getting leggy. Can I stop that?

This week's column is all about some unwanted indoor insects, but not your usual Box Elder bugs and spiders that made their way indoors this past fall. Homemakers are in full swing baking our favorite cookies and other holiday treats. With that baking comes the potential for all those pesky pantry pests. Leftover baking goods are usually the culprit, especially any flour or flour-based cooking and baking products. This is a bit more problematic for homes where baking starts before the holidays and quits quickly afterwards.
Pesticides are used every day, but many people are not aware of their properties and that they may even be using them. A pesticide is any chemical (synthetic or natural) that is used to repel, control or kill a pest; this might be weeds, pathogens that cause plant diseases, insects or rodents.

The word pesticide represents a wide variety of natural and synthetic products that also are known by more specific wording, depending on what is being managed. Insecticides are for the management of insects and other related creatures.

Back in December, this column talked about doing our best to prevent an outbreak of any one of several kinds of pantry pests in the home. Some of what was shared included sealing bulk amounts of dry pet foods, including the birdseed used all winter for outdoor feathered friends, and limiting, whenever possible, the amount of flour for baking during the holidays.

Even with the best attempts, occasionally these pantry pests show up anyway. Identification is a good place to start and from there understanding the pest life cycle guides us through the removal process.

Weather Injury on our Plants

All of Illinois has seen and experienced some very different, and not so typical, weather the last two months, and we are still waiting to see what is next. March and April seemed like weather from late spring and, on a few days, even early summer. Since we had all that warmer weather early, many plants were well along in early spring development when the cold weather and even some frosts hit yet again. Late, or in our case this year early, frost damage occurred throughout the state.

Birdseed and firewood are two common topics that come up this time of year. Both take some planning to be successful.

Calls to the Master Gardener Help Desks about using bark mulches in the home landscape and gardens has prompted a Q&A column this week. Organic mulches are used on new plants to help them establish and lessen transplant shock. Mulches conserve soil moisture; keep weeds and grass from encroaching and moderates soil temperatures, making it easier on the limited root system. On older established plants, mulches really are there more for aesthetics.

Q: When will I know it is time to add mulch?

Now that nearly every shade tree and ornamental are in full leaf, gardeners have been spotting some "spots" out there. Those spots can range in color from light green on a very green leaf (oak leaf blister) to black dots coming together to give a much larger blotch of black (tar leaf spot on maples).

Boy, there has certainly been a lot of news coverage this past week or two about our higher than usual and even record-setting temperatures. Just about every arboretum and botanic garden, and even Extension, has been called on for interviews.

This summer, the return of beetles has been evident after an all-time low from the drought in 2012. Beetle numbers have climbed each year since then and this summer have a very strong presence again.

Female beetles are attracted to moist soils and locations where there will be plenty of food for their hatching eggs. We have had quite a bit of rain this summer, so finding moist soils is not a problem, and our green lawns will be providing the food. Statewide, the rains have been irregular, but around here, we have had to continue to mow consistently all summer.

For those homes having suffered greatly from all the storm water, getting the lawn back can take some time. Grasses have a very limited period to come back once under water, just a few days, and yards in many areas were covered a lot longer.

Colder weather, frozen soil, fallen and windblown leaves, and later any accumulated snow, all will force rabbits to take shelter and begin to look for food anywhere they can. Once the ground is frozen, rabbits will have fewer places to take shelter or hide. Foraging for food will mean staying a lot closer to the protection of their winter home.

Welcome to another year of gardening! You would think January would be a time for gardeners and homeowners to sit back a bit, yet questions keep rolling in to Master Gardeners and Extension Educators. Let's check out a few of them:

Q: With bitter cold weather, is there anything I should be doing or watching for outside in the garden beds?

We store our summer bulbs because they are not winter hardy compared to our spring bulbs, which generally are planted in the late summer and fall months so they will bloom for us the following spring. these are also different from those late summer to fall bulbs that also are hardy.

Summer bulbs are planted after the danger of any late frosts have passed in the spring and are generally dug back up as the summer changes to fall, either just before or just after our first light freezes or even killing frosts each fall.

Once the fall school term approaches, many home gardeners give up on the vegetable garden as other activities and projects seem to need more attention. Vegetable gardens can provide fresh produce well into October and maybe even early November depending, on what is grown.

As the growing season moves forward, the weather begins to change in day length and in temperatures during the day and night. The vegetables may slow down in production a bit, yet the produce harvested is just as nutritious for the family as it was all summer long.

Vegetable crops are mostly doing what they should be doing right now, given our sporadic plantings working around the weather. U of I Extension Master Gardeners have mainly been getting tree, shrub, evergreen and flower questions, and are not hearing about problems in the vegetable garden.

Warmer temperatures this past week have brought out a variety of insects that would have otherwise stayed hidden. Visits to our Extension offices, photos sent by email, and phone calls have been constant.

At the top of the list are stink bugs, also known as squash bugs if you are a gardener. There are several dozen versions around the area, nearly all of them sap feeding. Nearly all are native with one exception – the Marmorated Stink Bug. In recent years, it has shown up and it is quite destructive, feeding on our fruits and vegetables.

Do you have crabgrass where you always do? Do you have crabgrass where you have never seen it before? You are not alone this year. You can chalk this up to our weather patterns this season, as you likely have foliage fungal disease and mushrooms in the lawn too.

Horticulture Educator Rhonda Ferree recently wrote an article on our over-the-top spring rains and the waterlogged soils that resulted. Her comments apply statewide and I wanted to share some of that article this week.

"It's no secret that much of Illinois has received excessive spring rains, which has resulted in waterlogged soils and flooding. It is important to understand what is happening to plants growing in these conditions and what to expect later. I look at this as a wait-and-see situation."

This is that warning shot over the bow of the ship or in this case the holiday bow. Homemakers are in full swing, baking our favorite cookies and other holiday treats we enjoy so much. With all that baking, comes the potential for pantry pests to show up.

Leftover baking goods are usually the culprit, especially any flour or flour-based cooking and baking product. This is a bit more troublesome for homes where baking starts before the holidays and quits soon afterwards as our normal routine returns.

We certainly have had some unique weather this summer, but we still have more than two months of growing weather. While the lawns – and our water bills – have benefited from the rains, so have the weeds.

That perennial question of "How soon can I plant my garden?" likely has been around since the first garden was planted. Part of the answer stems from knowing what kind of vegetables you are going to sow from seed or put in the garden as transplants. There are things you may need to know before you can answer that question for your own garden.

Cool season vegetables are those that can survive or prefer cool to cold air and soil temperatures. Within this group, we can break them down further.

Taking care of a fresh holiday tree once it is up and decorated really means making sure there is plenty of water in the reservoir. However, it also means paying attention to when it needs to come down.

If you made a family event out of tree hunting at any one our local Christmas Tree Farms, your tree is much fresher and will easily last until New Year's, even if you put it up the first of the month. For other trees, the needles are likely already drying and the tree is no longer taking up any water.