Now that the vegetable gardens have been planted for a few weeks, questions to the Master Gardener help desks have switched over from "How do I?" to "What's going on with my vegetable plants?" Here are a few commonly asked questions:
Q: My spinach and lettuces are sending up flower stalks before I really got to harvest as much as last year. What is the deal?
Bird feeders will bring in a variety of migrating birds during the early spring on their journey to summer digs. This is before there is much for them to eat elsewhere, in nature or in home landscapes. Our winter resident birds that have hung out with us all winter still need that seed too. Be sure to continue your feeding efforts well into spring until they can find food on their own. Plan to use up all birdseed so summer storage or grain pests are not issues. Birds also need water, and without snow now, remember to leave out some shallow dishes of water.
A Note to Readers: This summer, we are excited to announce we will be joining our two horticulture blogs – "Over the Fence" and "Down the Garden Path" into one convenient place – and it's right here! The upcoming "Over the Garden Fence" blog will still feature timely topics and helpful hints from expert Richard Hentschel. If you haven't already, you can sign up for email alerts so you won't miss a post (see the blue box in the upper right corner of this page). Thank you for following U of I Extension!
That magical average frost-free date of May 5 for our area is quickly approaching. Given the weather patterns we have been having, sticking to the May 5 date may not be a bad idea this year. We read about that average frost-free date where there is still a 50/50 chance of a frost and then that "absolute" frost-free date that is about two weeks later. Longtime gardeners have learned just how much they can push that average frost-free date in their landscape and vegetable garden. Conditions like the sun/shade pattern, soil types and any microclimates influence when we can begin gardening.
Our weather has very likely already messed up any plans for getting those early plants in and seeds sown. No one has a clear crystal ball right for when consistent spring weather will happen. If you have sown seeds for later planting as transplants, keep them from getting any taller until they can go outside. Give them strong light and cooler nighttime temperatures than they have had, to keep them from stretching more.
Many weeks have gone by since containers and hanging pots were planted. At the beginning, watering was easy; plants were small with a limited root system so the container or pot held lots of available water for good growth. Fast-forward to now, and the water management has changed as the plants developed. The hanging pots are now full, with lots of bloom and cascading vines, the containers that have vegetables in them are flowering and producing for us, and those container flowers are maturing for the summer too!
An unofficial windshield survey shows an alarming level wilting foliage on ornamental and shade trees planted in the last two to three years, along with trees planted this spring. It takes an extended dry period to have tree foliage wilting. It is obvious when flowers, vegetables and our lawns need water, much less obvious for larger wood plants as they do not show wilting until it gets so bad we see off colored wilting leaves.
You would not think of intentionally planting poisonous plants in the home landscape, but that is exactly what the University of Illinois - College of Veterinary Medicine has done on campus, and for good reason. They have created an actual garden to grow poisonous plants. Each year, farm livestock, recreational horses and our pets are accidently exposed to plants that harm to some level.
Mosquitos are adjusting to our ever-changing weather patterns just like our plants in the home landscape this season. May into June would be our traditional time mosquitos start show up for the summer. This season, April had the rain and not May, so mosquitos can be behind a bit.
Cranberries have long been associated with the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Cranberries, once eaten only a couple times a year, can now be found in the grocery aisle just about any time of the year. They can be used in many different ways, outside of the holidays.
As with so many other fruits and vegetables, we are discovering that cranberries are a fiber-rich food that contains those antioxidants that help us all. Cranberries also have a good amount of vitamin C and are a low-calorie food (as long as you do not use the recipe that requires a lot of sugar!).
There are still lots of things going on in the home landscape as fall settles in. Woody plants are well on the way to dormancy; leaves are turning fall colors and coming down slowly right now. Most of our flowering perennials have lost that luster that we have enjoyed all summer. In fact, by now, perennials have succumbed to the many foliage diseases common this time of year. Powdery mildew can be seen on a variety plants right now.
For many, giving holiday plants is an annual tradition. The one we likely think of most often is the poinsettia; yet mums, azaleas, cyclamen, and Christmas cactus are given frequently too. How well these holiday plants hold up and continue to give us enjoyment depends on their care. Proper management of those plants can extend the bloom show and foliage for several weeks, or maybe months. Some will even give us repeat enjoyment.
A lot of things happen towards the end of August – school has begun or is about to, the last family outing of summer, haircuts all around, and then there is the family vegetable garden. End of summer activities seem to signal the end of our time in the garden, yet the vegetable garden is not done with us.
Right now, there is plenty of soil moisture with all the recent rains. Even when the top of the soil seems dry, dig down just a little bit, and the moisture is there. Established plants are doing well as is the lawn. Gardeners will still be watering in any new transplants, trees, shrubs or evergreens; not because the soil is dry, but rather to settle the soil around the plants so roots do not dry out.
Over the last week and more, we have experienced frost and even freezing temperatures, kind of offsetting the warmer than normal temperatures earlier. About now, the outdoor fire pit and indoor fireplaces are looking pretty good. 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.
All wood contains moisture, and for good combustion, firewood will need to be kept for at least six to nine months outdoors and have a moisture content of 20 to 25 percent to burn well and not generate a lot of smoke.
What do fungus gnats, drain flies, Boxelder bugs and stinkbugs have in common this time of year? The common thread is they are all nuisance household insects that can be found in any home during winter.
Fungus gnats and drain flies can be lumped together based on their favored conditions, cool temperatures and humidity. Fungus gnats often come in with our houseplants for the winter, as they are stowing away in the pots. Drain flies find their way inside at some point before cold weather shows up and need "open water" to breed.
Gardeners have reluctantly decided the gardening season is at an end given our current and future weather patterns. It is now time to "put to bed" a lot of gardening and yard equipment until next spring. While each piece may have a different garden function to ease our workload, they can have a lot in common when it comes to winterizing.
Bird feeders are part of many backyards during the winter months. We enjoy the activity around the feeder, both by the birds themselves and the additional wildlife that feed on the leftovers knocked to the ground. We can attract specific birds by choosing an appropriate feeder and feed.
One of our favorite ones seems to be the thistle feeder since it will attract a number of different finches into our yard. Since thistle seed can be expensive, these specific feeders do not allow the larger birds to feed.
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 backyards because it is very winter hardy.
University of Illinois Extension offices are already getting calls about needle evergreens that are not looking healthy, and spring has yet to arrive! If you drive your neighborhood right now, you can spot those evergreens that died late last fall. Arborvitaes are standing dead in many locations in the Fox Valley, as are Austrian pine and spruce.
What a difference just a few days can make in what we need to be doing in the home landscape. Since the rain shut off or slowed, the first part of the landscape with symptoms of water stress is the lawn (even the lawn weeds). If you planned for it, go ahead and let the lawn go dormant even though it is early in the summer for that to happen. If your fertilizer program is to feed all summer, then plan to water to take advantage of your fertilizing efforts.
There are signs, despite the weather pattern, that spring will indeed arrive this year.
More and more spring bulbs are showing up with flower stalks well above the soil line waiting for a bit better weather to bloom. There is even an up-side to our temperatures. If it remains cooler, those spring blooms will last longer in the home landscape once they open.
Powdery mildew can be seen every year on perennials, lawns or landscape plants at some point in the growing season. As a fungal disease, it is not limited to just ornamental plants. Vegetables like pumpkins, squash, melons and grain crops, and even houseplants, can be added to the list too.
Bakers in the family, and everyone else who enjoy their benefits, really like the holidays. Lots of cookies, cakes and pies are baked during the season. Pantry pests are those tiny grain beetles and flour moths that use the leftover flour to feed on and live in. This phenomenon is common, as many homes do not routinely bake during other times of the year. The leftover flour is pushed to the side or to the back of the pantry or cabinet, and forgotten over time.
I purposely did not go back and count how many times this season I have discussed water. Either we are getting too much, it is interfering with planting, or we are in absolute need of water. Recent weather patterns have brought much needed rain to some of us, but others were left dry.
Master Gardener Help Desks continue to get visitors and calls about failing plants. Large evergreens and older shade trees have issues since the drought of 2012 and continue to show signs of stress, long-term decline and eventual death.
Where you plant your dwarf fruit trees can make a big difference in how they grow and perform. A major consideration is the soil. Fruit trees are no different from other trees and shrubs in your landscape; the soil needs to drain well. Placing the home orchard where water will drain away very soon after a rain event will help ensure the roots will have the needed soil oxygen to supply both the moisture and nutrients needed to the canopy. This supports the continued growth of the foliage and filling of the fruits.
Relying on chemical crabgrass preventer is just one strategy homeowners can employ to reduce the potential of crabgrass in the home lawn. Crabgrass preventers also will prevent other annual grassy weeds, like the foxtails, and a few broadleaved weeds, like annual chickweed. These products are reliable and will do the job as advertised, as long as the products are applied in a timely manner.
A couple of weeks ago, my column covered getting ready for the vegetable gardening season. This time it is about the home orchard. While dormant pruning has been and will continue to be done, getting ready for the management of fruit tree diseases and insects can be done inside, dry and warm.
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, such as those that bloom as the snow is retreating and other spring bulbs that will bloom much later. Proper planning can provide several weeks of spring bloom.
By this time of the year, there has already been a lot of landscape mulch applied for the summer. Landscape mulch can provide more benefit than just how nice a freshly applied layer looks.
When applied around young trees, we know that it reduces the competition from grass and makes it easier for the tree to establish in the new location. The tree gets more water and has no competition for soil nutrients. A big plus is there is no need to trim grass away from the trunk saving the tree from the destructive string trimmer!
Now that the snow is all gone our yards are now shades of brown. All too obvious is the debris from the neighborhood that has blown in, collecting in the ground cover and shrub beds and at the base of your fence. Time to do that quick walk about and pick up so you do not have to look at it every day until spring arrives. Natural litter from your landscape is expected though, and leaves and twigs would be normal right now.
Oak trees are proving to be more important to ecological balance than previously thought. Of the 60-plus native oaks in the United States, 22 of them are right here in Illinois. Homeowners know them for their majestic size and shape, and this time of year, for their colors of red, yellow and gold.
Oaks, like all other trees, contribute to our health by removing air pollution, taking in carbon dioxide and giving us oxygen to breathe. However, there are some things that set oaks apart. Bird watchers have noted some 250 migratory birds that prefer oaks as they pass through northern Illinois.
Raspberries are a wonderful addition a backyard, providing us with berries for fresh use while they are in season and for preserving to enjoy later. Raspberries are a perennial, giving us many years of production, though there should be some annual pruning done. This will prevent that row we started with from becoming an uncontrollable patch that only gives us few berries compared to its size.
Here we are, nearing the end of May. 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 weeding and edging.
Putting a strong clean line on the landscape beds really makes a difference in how they look. It brings out the strong curves that make the bed flow through the yard, and that edge is the important transition from bed to lawn. Grass will grow towards and into the beds about 3 to 4 inches a year, so annual edging is quite beneficial.
It happens every year, almost like clockwork. (I say "almost" because not every tree leaf disease shows up every year.) Another good point to make right way is common leaf diseases are rarely fatal to a tree.
So many things, only so much space to get them down. I think the weather has been both good and bad, depending on your perspective right now. Lawns usually begin to slow down a bit, as the natural spring flush begins to pass, but as long as the rains continue, grass will continue to grow at an above average rate. The good part is I have not seen a bad looking lawn, park, cul-de-sac or parkway yet. The bad news is keeping up with the mowing is tough between the rain and attempts to follow that one-third rule.
Raise your hand if you are cooking for the holidays? My guess is there are quite a few of you. Ever think about all the fresh vegetable waste that goes in the disposal or garbage can?
Cooks can get busy and not think about the compost pile or bin sitting just outside. If the pile or bin is large, composting continues all winter. If not it will resume next spring. In either case, adding the fresh vegetable scraps is doable.
Late summer and fall are great times to plant ornamental and shade trees in the home landscape. The weather is comfortable for us and the trees can begin to establish themselves in yard before the cold weather sets in for the winter.
The fall foliage show is back by popular demand (and because we cannot stop it anyway). Those reds, yellows, and oranges now have begun to subside, and soon enough a night of really below freezing temperatures will bring that to a close. Then, all those leaves will end up in the landscape.
You know it is finally spring, not by the calendar, but by the first landscape maintenance trucks hitting the road without snowplow attachments. Mother Nature is struggling a bit; we are having warmer days, but the nights are still crisp. Those warmer temperatures are needed by many blooming plants to trigger the soon-to-be flowers. Winter bud scales will be softening with rains to later allow the flower and leaf buds to open easier.