Fall foliage colors have not been exactly what we have grown to enjoy in previous years. The drought has played a big part in those missing colors.

In 2021, both the consumer and retail sides of gardening have seen unique challenges due to the pandemic.  Since spring 2020, garden centers saw a huge and unexpected increase in demand for seeds, plants of all kinds, and all the associated supplies used in home landscape.

Are we still in droughty conditions here in northern Illinois? As of October 5 – the day before we started to get all the rain – we sure were. Are we good now? We are better off, but not “out of the woods.”

flower bulbs

Watch the short video series on this topic

When it comes to bulbs, it can seem confusing when to do what in which season. In general, you plant spring-flowering bulbs in the fall, and plant summer-flowering bulbs in the spring. You divide spring bulbs in late summer, and you dig up summer bulbs in the fall. Now that fall is here, let’s look at this a little closer.

As autumn progresses, gardeners begin wondering what to do with all the plant parts that need to be pruned off, and later, all the leaves that will fall. A great alternative to those landscape waste bags is to recycle right in your own yard and benefit from all that free organic matter.

Imagine a podium or soapbox and me standing in a town square. Got that image?

Ok, here goes my “sermon.”

As of Sept. 16, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports our area as “abnormally dry.” Have you been watering your trees, shrubs, and plants in the yard?  We have had such dry weather that there are not just a few plants that need to be watered, but a whole lot.

One activity that seems to get “put off” until the last minute is bringing in the houseplants that have vacationed outside for the summer. It is not uncommon to find ourselves out there with a chance of frost and flashlight in hand covering up the houseplants or rushing them inside the garage for the night. 

Some of our late summer and early fall garden tasks can take more time than others. Making a “to do” list can help us get them done in a timely manner and not forget anything. (For example, hurrying to get the houseplants in just after dark and before that predicted frost is never fun.)

Here’s a short list to get you started, including tasks when it’s too wet or hot out. However, every yard is different, so be sure to add your own tasks and prioritize for what works best for you.

Our Master Gardener Help Desks routinely get calls or emails about bees, wasps, hornets, and other striped or stinging things.

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Many families tend to “give up” the vegetable garden once school starts, yet you do not have to. Vegetables can still be productive for a couple more months, depending on what you have been growing.

Given that it is summer, it is not hard to believe we need to be out in the yard watering. August is usually a dry month and that sure seems to be how it started for us. As of Aug. 5, the U.S. Drought Monitor website shows the more northern counties along the Wisconsin Stateline are anywhere from “abnormally dry” to “severe drought” levels.

Vegetable gardens are really beginning to produce our favorite fruits and vegetables. Earlier, cool weather promoted lots of foliage on our leafy greens and that gave us lots to harvest, eat, and share. Snap beans have been pretty good too. Now other crops producing fruits like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and okra are coming along. Vine crops also are really taking off, most likely finding their way well outside the boundaries of the official garden.

So many good things have happened in the home landscape this year so far. The earlier cool and drier weather let our perennials and shrubs put on the growth that has not happened in our hot dry springs. Along with that has been the way better than average bloom show. There has been a lot to enjoy when out on the patio or deck and even when working the beds, getting to see the detail of fresh foliage, flower buds and bloom

close up of green poison ivy leaves

Experienced gardeners know where poison ivy is likely to be found in the home landscape, and what it looks like in its various forms and stages of growth. That may not be the case for newer gardeners or those having moved from an area relatively free from poison ivy to a wooded area or neighborhood. Without knowing it is in the yard, it is all too easy to get the oils on your hands and clothing while clearing beds of otherwise harmless weeds.

lady beetles eating aphids on a plant

This time of year, garden insects are often a topic of questions or discussion. Plants and pests have grown up alongside each other, and now there may be a little too much feeding going on for your liking. It is also about now that the natural insect predators show up to take care of the damaging insects for you.

Regular rains (or watering) is almost always a good thing for our landscape and gardens. However, every time it rains (or we water) we can get weeds. If you ignore those weeds, let them flower and set seed, the landscape can begin to look like a jungle. For every square foot of soil there are many thousands of weed seeds in the top inch, and they are just waiting to germinate with sunshine and water.

standing water in grassy lawn area

Any homeowner who has suffered from flood waters in the yard will find getting the lawn back can take some time. Several factors impact the amount of damage and the recovery, including what kind of grass, what season, and how long the area stayed flooded.

Every summer, neighbors can be found discussing which is better, watering the lawn all summer or letting mother nature take over. You can find pros and cons on both sides of the fence.

It is that time of year for plant galls (or things that look kind of like a gall anyway) to be more obvious in the home landscape. They got a start long ago when bud swell was going on earlier this spring, but they are more noticeable now.

person watering plants with a purple watering wand

Watering plants may seem easy, but it can inspire a lot of questions – When? How much? What is the best way? What kind of watering attachment? Can I use harvested water?

houseplants on a table and on windowsill

Plants can be found in nearly every house, apartment, or really any dwelling we call home. It may be that spider plant in your home office, or the avocado seed rooted in water on the kitchen windowsill, or even an entire collection of African violets (or another favorite family of plants).

Water is a critical component of a successful garden, but are we watering wisely? There are steps we can take to make sure our plants have enough water while keeping our efforts efficient.

Calls and emails to the Extension office have certainly been trending on all things water, and I wanted to share a few of our most-asked questions:

Q: I am seeing cracks in the ground. I am wondering, should I be watering already?

Gardeners have really enjoyed the great bloom show from our spring flowering bulbs in the past few weeks. No matter how bad the winter weather seems to get or how late we have a frost or snow, spring bulbs always seem to pull through for us.

We can always count on spring, but we cannot count on how our plants will come through the winter weather. Emails and phone calls coming into our offices are revealing some trends on how our landscape plants faired.

gypsy moth caterpillars and a female white moth with fuzzy brown egg mass

For more than 20 years, the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) has been continually monitoring gypsy moth in an effort to track infestations, put quarantines in place, and provide treatments.

Dividing perennials has been, and always will be, a good gardening practice. However, with invasive jumping worms now confirmed in more parts of Illinois, sharing those perennials with neighbors or donating them to plant sales may not be the best thing to do.

2021 gardeners are reporting plant development as much as two weeks earlier than expected. Even the “early asparagus” seems earlier this year. That is a promising thought, though in the back of our minds, we can all remember those late frosts, or even a light freeze, after setting out our vegetable transplants.

close up of red apples on a tree

Last week, I wrote about what I feel is the most damaging fungal disease for apples and flowering crabapples – apple scab. These treatments may seem like a lot of work, but control measures for apple scab also will help with other diseases and pests.

apple blossoms

Our Master Gardener help desk gets emails mid-summer when apple trees drop many of their leaves, except for the outer 12 inches or so. The same thing can happen to our ornamental flowering crabapples. In both cases, the cause is the same – a fungal disease that infects the foliage and fruits.

green grass

The snow is long gone, but it has left us with lawns that, to date, may look pretty sad. Prepare for the spring green up ahead with these tasks.

University of Illinois Extension offices always know when spring is on the way based on kind of questions emailed to our Master Gardener Help Desk. As the weather warms up, the messages increase, and here are two common questions this time of year:

Q: How early is too early to start vegetables indoors for planting outdoors later?

Recent warming temperatures signals the beginning of the pruning season. Gardeners may need to just help nature shape up a shrub that did not read the rule book on how it should look, or they may begin or continue to structure the tree fruits or grapes in backyard.

snow-covered plant debris

Outdoor insects have endured quite well, despite our hopes that either the cold or snow would have done them in for the 2021 gardening season. The cold is more of a factor than the snow. The snow will act as insulation for those overwintering insects at or below the soil line. (Side note: This also is why our perennials do so much better in the spring if covered with snow all winter compared to open and exposed to the wind and cold temperatures.)

Box Elder bugs on wood siding

Now that our days are warming up, so are those outdoor overwintering insects along with our not-so-favorite winter indoor pests.

Red apple hanging from tree

Note: this is the fifth post in a series on fruit trees. Read part one.

Young fruit trees in the home orchard should begin to fruit once the tree has become established.  Several conditions will need to be met before that happens. Some of them we cannot control and others, we can help along. The four big factors are: typical age for the tree to bear, tree health, weather, and proper pollination.

Note: this is the fourth post in a series on fruit trees. Read part one.

Note: this is part three of a series on fruit trees. Read part one.

Note: this is part two of a series on fruit trees. Read part one.

Whether you have a single fruit tree or a small grove in the backyard, having the correct pollination is key for fruit production. However, for some species that is easier than others.

Note: this is part one of a series on fruit trees

You don’t need space for a full orchard to plant and enjoy fruit trees in the home landscape. However, where you place those fruit trees – whether it’s a whole home orchard or just a few trees – makes a big difference in how they grow and perform. As they say, “location, location, location.” Here’s what to consider:

January finds us thinking we have already had our share of cold, and this year, some snow. Yet the colorful gardening catalogs keep us thinking that spring will return. 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, what grew well and not so well, and begin to generally plan how we want our yard to look in 2021.

As we approach mid-January, there may be more going on inside than outside for gardeners. Perennial beds covered in snow enjoy the protection from drying winter winds and the winter sun (if we ever see sunny days anytime soon). For some of us, traditional bird feeding started weeks back.

January begins the annual flight of vegetable, flower, and fruit tree catalogs to your mailbox (or your email inbox). Depending on your level of gardening, the catalogs may arrive frequently and in mass.