Firewood is sold in a variety of ways these days, from a small bundle at the local gas station to a truckload dumped on the driveway waiting to be stacked by you later.

Measurements for firewood go back to sometime between 1630 and 1640. Back then, you could still buy firewood by the “cord.” The story goes that the term originated from the materials used to measure the firewood – namely a line, string, rope or “cord.”

I know you are already thinking, “Why is he talking about what to do with the holiday tree while presents are still under it?” Well, I may be rushing the calendar a bit, yet having an expectation of how best to recycle the tree makes the follow-through easier.

 

In 2020, many garden retailers found themselves with empty shelves or running very low on seeds and other common garden items. Like any other industry, future orders are based on previous sales with a projected increase to match sales goals. Seed producers base their production on the orders they get from retailers without a lot of cushion. (There is not always a good market for leftover seed.)

evergreen tree with red ornaments

A brief history of decorating evergreens

Everyone recognizes that 2020 has been quite a unique year. Travel has been limited or off the table, school or work may have been moved to home, and since spring, holidays have been celebrated in different ways. One big stress reliever in all of this may just have been the backyard garden and the home landscape.

red poinsettia

What’s your favorite holiday plant? If you said the Poinsettia, you would be in good company. Since 1825 when the Poinsettia was introduced from Mexico, it has been the traditional holiday gift plant. With good reason, too. Poinsettias are not only striking in color and shape, but they can last for several weeks to several months with proper care.

Temperature and placement

We winterize the lawn mower, why not the home orchard and landscape? Now is the time to prevent problems later, by spending some time with your favorite young trees and fruit trees.

How do you handle wildlife in your yard? Do you welcome the birds, squirrels, and other critters, or do all you can to discourage them from visiting? If you are a birder, you can expect to see four-legged critters visiting often too.

Sometimes life gets in the way of doing things on time, especially in the yard, and even if we know better. This past gardening season for homeowners may have had a way of pushing those garden activities back since our year has been so different in so many ways. The weather pattern is most likely to blame, and we have to blame something!

Leaves

compost bin open with contents showing

We have had some good weather to begin our fall cleanup efforts in the home landscape, and other days, it has been too cold and rainy to get out in the yard as we would have wanted. Those days have allowed us to see what else will need to be done before the “snow flies.” Master Gardeners continue to field calls remotely and a common one has been the abundance of weeds found as yard cleanup is progressing.

firewood stacked by a fireplace

Those of you who enjoy the crackling fire outside in the fire pit, soon may be planning your transition to the indoor fireplace. Burning questionable quality firewood outside does not take away from the joy of sitting around the pit after dark, but it can make a big difference inside.

pumpkins and mums

What a great time of year – crisp mornings, warming up to comfortable afternoons, with the opportunity to have that outdoor firepit going after dark.

October also signals the annual trip to a farm or farm stand for fall outdoor decorations including pumpkins, mums, flint corn with or without stalks, and an array of colorful gourds in weird shapes and textures.

There are still many activities in the yard that could be covered, but I am picking three timely topics to cover this week. They all have to do with one thing: soil.

Late summer and early fall provide us opportunities to learn more about the insect world. With our outdoor bloom show coming to a close, there are a great many insects that had been feeding on flower parts that are now looking around for something else to eat or thinking about vacationing where it is warm – inside our homes.

Late summer triggers a column on our houseplants that are going to be brought back into our homes for the winter. For many, we take them outside to let Mother Nature nurture them back to a better state of health, or to kind of take a vacation from having to care for them as carefully as we had been during the winter. You may have set them out on the ground under shrubs or evergreens, put them on the edge of the patio, or maybe you have plant stands you use under your trees in the yard.

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, microbial activity in the ground, and thatch management.

The weather can, does, and will influence foliage disease each year, starting in the early weeks of spring. While early spring was a long time ago, many diseases are now quite visible in the home landscape.

What do lilacs, phlox, vine crops, peonies, and lawns all have in common this time of year? First clue – it is weather related. Second clue – if you touch it, it will rub off. Final clue – it looks like it came out of the kitchen pantry and you would sprinkle on your pastries, pancakes, and waffles.

By this time of year, woody plants have taken care of business, meaning the foliage already has produced the energy needed to form buds for both foliage and flowers for next year. If there is a fruit or pod containing seeds, that is nearly, if not already completed, as well. In the next few weeks, plants will get the signal that fall is on the way and begin to set up for the eventual color change and leaf drop.

This time of year, many of the messages coming into our local Master Gardener Help Desks are commonly asked questions that track with our seasonal weather. Here are a few:

Q: My lawn has looked pretty good until two weeks ago, what’s up with all the brown spots and patches now?

photo of downed tree

Strong winds and heavy rains have caused damage to our larger, older shade trees. Wind and rain together provide the “right ingredients” to bring down limbs, especially those that have had structural issues like decay or poor crotch angles, creating included bark which weakens the crotch physically. Bad crotch angles will allow the wind to tear out one of the limbs, usually the smaller or weaker one. The rain just adds many pounds of weight, making the job of the wind easier. Broken branches throughout the canopy is better than having lost a large limb, permanently disfiguring the tree.

During the last two weeks, the news has been covering a unique situation involving unsolicited seeds arriving from China directly to your mailbox. It’s made it to social media as well.

Lawns have come through this summer surprisingly well, especially with all the heat we have had. My unofficial count says we have had at least 15 days of 90 degree heat this summer, and some for several days in row. However, we also had good rains.

For yards that need to be re-seeded, the best window for our area is from the middle of August through the first week in September. (This may need to be adjusted for other parts of Illinois).

Gardeners have been seeing lots of lumps, bumps, and blobs on different kinds of leaves throughout the home landscape, or in parks and the forest preserves. It is not uncommon, as this occurs annually. What is uncommon is the generous number we are seeing this year.

When it finally rains after a dry spell, it is such a relief and gives gardeners a few days off before the watering patrol kicks in again. Our plants get the dust and dirt washed off, foliage perks up, and if the flowers were on the dry side, foliage colors return to normal.

The prolonged hot, dry weather pattern has created some vegetable gardening challenges. Garden plants (and all other kinds of plants) respond to the weather conditions by adjusting vegetative (foliage) and reproductive (fruiting) growth.

The hot, dry weather we have been getting – and will continue to get – changes how we are going to water the home landscape. Best management practices, or BMP, includes more than just watering (but water is so key to plant survival) and more than just your vegetable plants.

Tips for containers and planters

Show of hands, please. How many did something to mark National Pollinator Week?

Master Gardener Help Desk emails have really been different this past two weeks. Our early spring challenges have left and along came the first of our summer concerns in the landscape and vegetable beds. The list turned into more than a column’s worth, so going to hit the big ones this week:

By mid-June, the spring gardens have either slowed or have finished providing us with all those great colorful flowers, from daffodils to peonies to iris. The same goes for many of our flowering shrubs and trees. Our lawns, with all the rain, are for the most part actively growing and green, but there are some lawns that are beginning to show signs of slowing down for summer.

If you have not already spotted them, be on the lookout for those bug-eyed insects with their persistent song in the canopies of your landscape. Yep, that’s right, cicadas are among us. In fact, some are even four years ahead of schedule. Learn more about that online in our Home, Yard, and Garden newsletter.

Homeowners expect so much from shade trees, but those same trees get little care once they get established in the home landscape. Besides getting watered during stressful times, proper mulching can go a long way in the health of the tree.

Given our milder winter, gardeners may be surprised with the need to do some pruning on shrubs that are typically considered hardy in our area. It is not uncommon to find a bit of winter dieback where last years’ growth was actively growing late in the summer or where we got a bit carried away and fertilized too late in the season. The tips and ends of those branches were not able to harden off in time to survive the winter.

The Illinois Extension Master Gardener Help Desk email inboxes have been busy since gardening season has arrived. The early season questions have tapered off with a new batch questions, including sowing summer vegetable seeds or getting those tomato and pepper transplants.

What does our current situation and planting vegetable seeds have in common? Every vegetable seed sown this spring has its own preferred distance from one another.

Our Illinois weather may “play dirty" starting Friday night, especially in the northern part of the state. Predictions are for below freezing temperatures, which can damage or potentially kill vegetable seedlings, some fruit tree blossom, and tender or warm-loving transplants. Here are some tips to help keep plants safe:

Most of us are actively cleaning up the perennial beds, vegetable garden, landscape beds and even getting our first lawn mowing out of the way because the whole yard looks better when that’s done. However, not everyone views this time of spring cleaning the same way. Entomologists, for example, are in favor of leaving the overwintering bits up, as many of our insects use that as a means of survival; while plant pathologists view that same garden debris as a source of future disease in your yard.

There is clearly an uptick in households interested in planting a vegetable garden right now. Seasoned gardeners may be expanding the size of the existing garden or finally trying new (or new-to-them) vegetables that had not won a spot in the garden before. Others are going to be getting started for the first time.

First time gardeners, this column is for you. There are all sorts of gardening gadgets out there, yet first timers only really need a few basic tools to get the first vegetable garden planted.

Tools to get started:

  • A garden shovel

crabgrass in lawn

Now is the time to prevent crabgrass so you will not have to see it in the lawn later. Crabgrass like other “weeds” in the landscape is an opportunist. Crabgrass will take advantage of places in the lawn that are thin or have been damaged from the winter, such as the road salt on your parkway.

The past couple of springs, we have not had the kind of weather for good early season vegetable gardening. This spring has been a lot better with enough drying time to actually get out there and get potato seed pieces in the ground, sow those early rows of spinach and lettuce, and put out cabbage transplants.

Spring is greening from the ground up. The thunderstorm with lighting last week jump started the lawns and turned them green just about overnight. Still, for some lawns, it may be awhile before you need to bring out the mower.

Emails to the office this time of year are always a mix of “When can I…?” or “Is it too late already to…?” kinds of questions. Here are three common examples:

Q: When should I be putting down crabgrass preventer?

Why not add garden work to your new, and temporary, routine as many of us “sit this thing out” at home? If we hold off getting the garden going just because things are different right now, catching up later will be tough. Besides, getting outdoors in our own yard and spending some time alone is still doing our part.

We all want to get out in the yard, do something good for the yard, yet there is all this late winter weather hanging on. The cold weather at night, frosty lawns, cold rains during the day or the frost on the ground can keep us from doing the things we want.

We can do other things besides trying to overseed the lawn, get the garden soil ready for vegetables or work up the ground where the annuals are going. For example, if you bought new flower or vegetable seeds, re-read the packet to be sure when it is time to start them indoors.

Our plants will break dormancy at different times each spring. This depends on, as you can guess, the kind of weather we have. Besides the warming weather, “chilling hours” influence how soon we see bud swell and blooms.

University of Illinois Extension and Master Gardener Help Desk phone lines have seen more action recently, especially when it comes to what can be done outside. Here are a few that may ring a bell for many homeowners:

Q:            I am going to start my own vegetable and flower transplants this year. Can you give me some best practices?

lilac blooms in a vase

In the near future, when the weather is just right, gardeners will be out getting that dormant pruning done. This includes the both fruit trees and flowering shrubs in your yard. Out there in the home orchard, pruning is for structural reasons, maintaining the scaffolds that will hold the fruit.

Now available - 2021 Jumping Worms Update: fact sheet | map | news release

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red roses

Whether you receive or give a gift of cut flowers, it is nice to know how to make them last. A few simple steps will keep your Valentine’s Day blooms fresher, longer.

Clean Start

Pick your vase based on the size of the bouquet and be sure to remove any debris from previous arrangements and thoroughly clean the inside of the vase. This prevents the water from quickly being contaminated, which jeopardizes the health and longevity of your cut flowers.

different types of shovels laying in the grass

Many of us are already watching our calendars and the weather for signs of Spring. It officially starts Thursday, March 19, and ends Saturday, June 20. Avid gardeners are making plans to be toiling away preparing vegetable and landscape beds for the 2020 growing season.

Very often, if not always, this work means using a shovel. If we were all great gardeners, our shovel(s) got put away in 2019, nice and clean, with a thin coating of your favorite rust preventer.

apples in tree

Just what do experts mean when they say to train your fruit trees? It means home orchardists should train the branches for proper tree structure; this encourages fruit production and allows the fruiting branches to support the fruit load without additional support.

harvested apples filling a crate with trees blurred in background

If you live in northern Illinois, the most frequently grown large fruit is very likely the apple. There is certainly nothing wrong with peaches, pears, plums or cherries, it is just that apples are the hardiest of them all.  

plant on window ledge, snow outside window

In the middle of January, not a lot is going on outside in the home landscape except the feeding stations, kept full of seed and suet for birds, cobs of corn for the squirrels and maybe a salt lick for other kinds of wildlife. Perennial beds covered in leaves or snow enjoy the protection from drying winter winds and the sun (if we see sunny days).

Just about now, you can see once-fresh Christmas trees sitting in yards or by curbs, 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. (And, if available in your area, be sure to mark your calendar to later take advantage of the community program and bring home some of the composted tree material for your landscape beds.) As you take the tree outdoors, collect those fallen needles and add them to your own compost pile.