Seems fitting to give a nod to cranberries in this week’s column, given the time of year. Whether strung with popcorn on Christmas trees, or as dishes at Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, cranberries are a seasonal favorite. Once eaten only a couple times a year, they now can be found in the grocery aisles, canned or dried, just about any time of the year.

There are more gardening tools than you can imagine, and once you start looking, it can be hard to choose from all the options out there. There are tools for the vegetable garden, flower beds, trees, shrubs and evergreens. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Last week, I shared some tips for selecting a fresh, or “real,” Christmas tree. However, that is just one choice out there. Each year, households across America debate the decision of real vs. artificial for the family Christmas tree. Key points may include tradition, aesthetics, and, more recently, sustainability.

evergreen trees

With Thanksgiving last week, holiday tree shopping – whether you are going to cut your own or visit your favorite lot to purchase your tree – is in full swing now. Some of the common favorites are balsam fir, Fraser fir, Scotch pine and white pine, each having different needle characteristics, fragrance, and color. There are of course many other kinds of trees to pick from at any retailer or lot.

poinsettia petals

With this Thanksgiving being one of latest on record, it’s no surprise that holiday gift plants are already making the rounds. Poinsettias are among the most popular of these flowering visual treats. Since 1825 when the poinsettia was introduced from Mexico, it has been the traditional Christmas season gift plant.

Fast-forward past the holidays to springtime. You notice moths flying around the kitchen and pantry. Maybe you see them hovering around the light over the kitchen table or at a window. That is solid proof that you have Indian meal moth lurking in some leftover flour products, likely from all the baking you did many weeks earlier.

Back to present day, you do have the opportunity to avoid having to deal with this problem, and all the inspecting, finding, cleaning and disposing that goes with it.

This time of year, getting the gardening “to do” list finished is challenging anyway, and now with our variable weather pattern, it’s nearly impossible. If there is a way to make gardeners feel better, there is a lot of discussion going on that says leaving the garden debris in place has some benefits for overwintering beneficial insects. Insects that needed that debris to “cocoon” on earlier are still out there since the garden parts never made it to the compost bin or pile.

Woodpile

With fall well underway and winter approaching, helping our feathered friends through the winter and firewood for indoor use are popular topics. Both projects seem simple enough, yet some level of planning is in order to be sure all goes well, so starting early is the best way to go.

Fall Colors & Leaves: Three weeks ago, there was only a hint of fall color in the home landscape. In the last week or so, fall color has come a long way. All the red maple cultivars have developed good reds and lots of other trees and shrubs are showing strong yellows and golds. Very soon, according weather forecasts, we are expecting a hard freeze and that color show will end.

This time of year, we typically would be enjoying a great fall display of reds, oranges, and golds, yet the show seems to have just begun for most trees here in northern Illinois. As soon as we get nights of below freezing temperatures or big winds, it all will be over. The weather and timing may be different this year, but we have the same challenge: what to do with all those leaves.

We have had our first real taste of cold weather over the last few days. Maybe your tender plants escaped being damaged, but others were not so lucky with the forecasted temperatures in outlying areas of low 30s and even high 20s.

Fall is here, and mums and pumpkins are popping up on porches all around us. They are readily available at local garden centers, farmers markets and the big box stores. But, there are a few tricks to keep these treats lasting through the season.

For the longest bloom show, purchase mums that are at 50 percent bloom. They will just get better looking as the weeks pass. There is nothing wrong with a mum in full bloom; the flowers will fade before the fall season ends so you may need to freshen that porch display at some point.

Our weather pattern continues to be a bit different this year, and it may not be too early to consider the start of fall garden clean up. If you have planted tropical plants out in the yard or in planters, they may be showing the effects of cooler nights, and perennials in the flower gardens and vegetables that like warmer weather are slowing down.

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, microbial activity in the ground, and thatch management.

Where there is cool, wet weather, there are wood rots. Questions coming in to the Master Gardener Help Desks reflect an increase in concern by gardeners. Spring and late summer/early fall are the prime times for decay fungal growth to be visible as mushrooms of all sizes, shapes and colors.

The summer of 2019 has been unique for sure. Yet, one thing we can count on is the need to prepare our vacationing houseplants to return inside for the winter season.

Fall is for more than planting trees (although it is true that fall is a great time for that – see more below). Fall also is the time to do so many activities in the home landscape. These are not just weekend activities, but things that can be done in small bites, even on weekday evenings.

One gardening phrase that has been around for decades, if not generations, is “one year’s seeding – seven years weeding,” and that is a conservative estimate actually. According to the Weed Science Society of America, there are plenty of weed seeds that can remain viable in the soil for decades!

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, and Swiss chard are there now and will continue to produce until frost for the tender vegetables and longer for Chard, which will tolerate quite a bit of cool or cold weather.

Hard to believe it is quickly approaching the time to seed a new lawn or over seed what is there. Our best window of opportunity to ensure a good stand that will survive winter is August 15 through the first week in September. 

Along with the tomato foliage diseases that can really challenge the gardener, there is one fruit problem that really can be frustrating. Blossom end rot can show up especially on the first fruit set. We have waited a long time to get our very own tomatoes and those first fruit sets are likely to be in trouble.

This season gardeners have been seeing many lumps, bumps and blobs on all kinds of plants throughout the landscape, in parks and forest preserves. It is not uncommon since this occurs annually, what is uncommon is the generous number of these growths we are seeing.  

January is not too early to start to plan for a new home orchard or to consider replacements for aging fruit trees in an existing orchard. There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider – apple, cherry, peach, pear, and plum.

It's been a different winter, spring and start to summer than we're used to, and it shows in the questions our Master Gardener Help Desk receives. Here's a quick summary of those questions coming in via phone, email and walk-ins last couple of weeks.

Q: Why are my perennials in the yard bigger than ever before?

Vegetable gardening season is nearly here now, and there are several vegetables that can handle cold or cool temperatures, both above and below ground. In fact, our early spring vegetables really need the cooler temperatures to develop properly. Right now, you can sow or plant those very hardy vegetables in the garden. These vegetables can withstand very cold to freezing temperatures, and typically go in the garden four to six weeks before our area average frost-free date. Some use April 30, others use May 5, and both are valid depending on where you live in northern Illinois.

We all know how different the weather pattern has been this year. Foliar plant diseases develop when weather conditions are right, allowing the pathogens to grow and infect our plants. Our extended cooler spring temperatures and abundance of rainfall allowed those early spring foliar diseases more time to develop.

Last week, the column covered problems with our needle evergreens. This week, it is about our broadleaved landscape plants and specifically, what is happening to our boxwoods out in the landscape.

The absolutely best place to start for your flower and vegetable seeds this spring is at the seed packet itself. That is just the start of what will be a several week adventure.

Based on the date you expect to eventually plant outside, the information on the seed packet can guide you when you need to start your seeds. For our area, May 5 has been the average frost-free date for many years. If we had an early spring, a few days earlier could work, but with our weather being so abnormal, May 5 may be a better date this year for planting those very hardy seeds and transplants.

You wake up in the morning, take the cup of coffee to the patio, sit down, and gaze out into the yard and BANG… mushrooms. It is like the book 'I Spy,' you never know where you will find them. While I have been known to say you can never have too much organic matter, that is exactly the environment that promotes decay fungi, which will provide us that mushroom show. They may be those tiny nearly transparent mushrooms or those large mounds erupting in the lawn.

There has been a lot of media coverage and homeowner concerns about boxwoods, and this has overshadowed overwintering damage on a range of other landscape plants from trees down to small fruits and perennials.

First thing's first – winter hardiness. To some extent, gardeners have been cheating Mother Nature annually for years. We have this USDA hardiness zone map to use as a guide and the information on the plant tag to tell us if the plant is going to survive our winters.

Every gardener has their favorite flowers that seem to make it into the garden each year, maybe in a different spot, worked into the design a bit differently than last year, but they are there. It is a little easier to have your favorites if your yard gets lots of sunlight every day.

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.

Recent weather events have taken a toll on some of our older established evergreen trees. Most recently, our heavy wet snow that collected on the evergreen boughs added many pounds of weight and broke out branches throughout the canopy. The wind played a big part of that damage, creating more pressure on the limbs. Most damaged were evergreens with long limbs like white pine and Norway spruce, the very ones that show less damage from other needled evergreen problems. Mother Nature decided to even the score I guess.

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 as the queen gathers up thousands of support bees from the existing hive and heads off to find another location to set up shop. You may see those swarms hanging in trees or somewhere on the home under an eave. Sometimes they cling to parked cars and trucks before moving along. Bee swarming is much more likely later in the summer when colony numbers are much higher.

Plants are beginning to get the right signals from Mother Nature that spring has begun. Foliage and flower buds have begun to swell and expand, and will do so more quickly with the more spring-like weather. Buds have been protected all winter with insulating bud scales that will soften with the first good warm spring rain allowing quick emergence of foliage and bloom.

Perennials may have already begun in warmer situations like the south or west exposures around the home. Take some time to see how they are emerging.

Some of our earliest vegetables can be sown as soon as you can carefully work the garden soil and once soil temperatures reach 45 and 50 degrees. You can place spinach and lettuce in the 45-degree group, and peas, cabbage, Swiss chard, radish, and beets in the 50-degree group. Other vegetables can go out as well, and they are planted as a root and will be protected by the soil, such as asparagus, onion sets, potatoes and rhubarb. From there, the garden soil continues to warm until we hit the upper limit for good germination, and the remaining vegetables can be sown or transplanted.

No one wants to hear the word "rain" these days. Clearly all the wet weather has changed the way we planted the vegetable garden and our flowerbeds this year. I have heard people describe spring plantings as "I went ahead and mudded them in." Not the best practice for seeding and transplanting, of course, yet the plants and seeds got in the ground. The result of all that "mudding in" likely left that soil caked and cracked when we did get some drying weather. Don't attempt to break up the clods; it's better to lightly cover the caked soil with some kind of organic matter.

When talking about flower buds on our fruit trees and flowering ornamental plants, a couple of plants come to mind.

Gardeners and farmers have had a chance to catch up on planting (finally). As I was traveling south, then east, before coming back north, I saw a lot of the state over the last week, and it showed just how behind planting corn and soybeans has been, with many fields just now being worked and planted.

Gardeners now have been able to work the garden soil and edge landscape beds with proper soil moisture. Earlier attempts to plant and prepare the soil left the surface to crust over badly with half-inch cracks.

An old joke goes: "Why do you put your houseplants out for the summer? So I can slowly kill them all winter back in the house." Well, there is a certain amount of truth to that. We cannot always get them inside for the winter when we should, cannot always supply the right kind of light for all of them, and often watering them is not easy given plant sizes, various soil mixes, and humidity in the home.

You sorted them last fall, deciding which ones win the windowsill lottery and which ones go on to "a better place" – a.k.a., the compost pile.

Our weather can influence how well our landscape plants over-winter. Boxwood, rhododendron, azaleas and evergreen groundcovers get through the winter without all the desiccation associated with cold winters and come out in the spring looking a lot better. Limited or no snow can drive the frost deeper into the soil profile. A winter with temperatures that allow cycles of freezing and thawing soils will heave shallow rooted perennials and groundcovers out of the ground by spring.

There are some good things that happen if our weather is mild for most of the winter.

We have some real signs spring is going to happen, and the calls, emails and visits to the Illinois Extension Master Gardener Help Desks often start with "What's the best time to…?"

Here are a few FAQs for the start of the home gardening and landscape season.

Q) What is the best time to apply crabgrass preventer?

Late February to early March is just about the right timing for household and houseplant insects to show up. Over-wintering outdoor insects in the home become indoor household nuisance pests, and new insects may just be waking up. Plus, houseplants that survived the move in from the patio last fall will typically harbor insects in small numbers that now could be exploding with increasing numbers.

Household nuisance insects include boxelder bugs, stinkbugs, and Asian ladybugs for sure.

This time of year, questions about starting seeds indoors are common. The following FAQs should serve as a helpful refresher for the seasoned gardener and a great resource for all the first-timers.

Q: I have a bag of open potting soil in the garage. Why must I use soilless seed starting mix?

When we have very cold weather, it is great to see snow come along with it, for our garden plants at least. Snow cover provides insulation from the drying winter sun and the extreme air temperatures. A good snow cover protects above ground plant parts and helps them survive the winter.

In parts of the country that do not experience our kind of cold weather, plants do not have to go dormant. Many houseplants typically live outdoors year round in other parts of the United States or the tropics.

About this time of year, Extension starts getting calls and emails asking about the right pollinators for the home orchard since it is time to order from the fruit tree catalogs. You may recall that we touched on this a few weeks back, but let's really dive in this time.

Catalogs provide a great amount of information like flowering, harvest times, mature size based on rootstocks, if the tree you are considering comes with pollination requirements, and much more.

We finally got some dry days to catch up on planting the family vegetable garden and dealing with the landscape beds, weeding, edging, and putting down composts and other kinds of organic matter.

Unlike the farmer who has to make some hard planting decisions this late in the season, our annual plants are going to grow and flower. We just may need to plant a few more annual flowers to get the bed to fill in for the summer though.

Garden catalogs began to show up in early January and will continue for the few weeks. Each picture looks better than the next and promises to be bigger, better, than last year. There may be plenty of phrases or words that are unfamiliar or perhaps you have seen them before and never went far enough to find out what they mean. 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.

The end-of-year sales and holiday greetings have barely ceased and already the gardening catalogs have begun to arrive in your mailbox and inbox.

Home orchardists struggle from spring through the summer to make timely cover sprays, hoping to harvest good quality fruit. Several practices can help you grow fruits that are the envy of the neighborhood.

If you enjoy fruits like blueberries and apples, or if you plant summer squash or fall pumpkins in your garden, you have a reason to protect our pollinators.

Without pollinators, including butterflies and bees, the flowering plants they visit would not produce food. The pollination process also helps provide fibers, medicines, and other products, and it provides food and habitat for wildlife.

The weather is at least providing gardeners with consistently warming temperatures (mostly) that are in turn warming our garden soil. Of course, what is not so welcoming is the rain seems to continue and not just light spring showers either. Gardeners and farmers alike cannot find a drying pattern long enough before the rain moves in again to get things planted.

Questions to the Master Gardener Help Desk have begun to reveal the frustration of dealing with the weather.

Q: Is there a way to plant my flower and vegetable seeds and transplants in my muddy soil?