This week's Good Growing column is not going to center on gardening. Instead, we are going to look at the bigger picture of the landscape.

christmas tree

Selecting a live Christmas tree is a tradition for many families. Whether you get your tree from a retail lot, direct from the farm or cut your own here are some tips for keeping your tree looking great throughout the holiday season:

real christmas tree next to an artificial christmas tree

Growing up, a family tradition was going out to the Christmas tree farm to find that perfect tree. As a child, it was fun going out to pick our tree, cut it and then watch it hauled to the barn on a sled, shook for all its worth to get the dead needles out, and finally bundled up on our car ready for home.

My wife had an altogether different experience growing up. She would help her mother haul a fake tree out of the crawl space every year. The family faux Christmas tree had been used for two prior generations.

Winter Weather has arrived in Central Illinois! Therefore, we'll take a break from our regularly scheduled horticulture programming and talk winter weather preparedness. With Illinois averaging five severe winter storms every year, it's a good idea to be prepared.

I have come to the realization that my favorite plants are foliage plants – from pothos to huechera to lettuce and spinach. Spring is on the horizon which means it's going to be spring vegetable planting time before we know it and that includes some of those favorites.

Leafy green vegetables are some of the easiest vegetables to grow. They start readily from seed, can provide extend harvest periods, and are nutritionally healthy. Pretty good deal if you ask me. They are easily grown in containers as well as in-ground planting beds.

Now that the leaves have changed and begun to fall, many of us have or are starting to put our gardens to bed for winter. While getting the garden ready for winter, spend a little time preparing your trees and shrubs too. Doing a few things this fall can help protect our trees and shrubs from damage this winter.

The presence of emerald ash borer (EAB) has been confirmed for McDonough County Illinois, with the initial finding coming from Macomb. EAB is a devastating exotic pest that attacks one of the most popular landscape trees in America, the ash tree. Unlike most native borers that only target dead or dying trees, EAB preys on healthy ash trees.

Days are finally starting to get longer and warmer, both of which gardener's become excited for each year. I stepped outside this morning and was grateful for the sunshine and warmth and began looking over my garden. The daffodils, tulips, bleeding heart, daylilies, and pulmonaria are all raising their heads up out of the ground. Then the realization set in that there is still garden clean up to do!

So let's just say my re-obsession with succulents (that I mentioned back in December) has kind of exploded into lots of new plants in my house. I also discovered that the window I had my first new batch of succulents in wasn't providing enough natural light and they were beginning to stretch. Even though I wrote about being mindful about lighting and stretching – look what ended up happening. Whoops!

Coming up this third week of September is National Indoor Plant week. My attitude toward houseplants is quite harsh. I refuse to grow an indoor plant that is finicky about the pH of the water or must only be given a tablespoon of water every three days. To live in my house, you have to be tough!

Late spring of every year, I return my houseplants to the outdoors, where they often thrive and grow exponentially in size. Sitting on my patio they soak up the dappled sun and natural rainfall, the plants seem to revel in being released from the drab, drafty corners of my house.

Lawn care does not stop when summer ends. To the contrary, when it comes to routine turf maintenance the late summer to early fall months are a critical time for cool season lawns.

Cool season lawns are a group of turf species comprised mainly of Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, and fine fescue. If you are a homeowner in Illinois with a lawn, more than likely it is a cool season type. Cool season lawns green up quickly in the spring and fall but may go dormant during the hottest part of summer.

"The meatball meter is off the charts!" That statement made me chuckle as I sat in a crowd listening to Michael Dirr a few years ago. This leading plantsman known worldwide for his work with trees and shrubs was lamenting on the tragedy of shearing plants into "meatballs".

Often when you see these 'meatballs' in the landscape, they sit atop a sea of mulch. If the mulch is dyed red, then that just adds more to the visual that our yards look like giant plates of spaghetti. Meatballs and mulch may be desirable to many, but I cannot buy into this type of yard.

When you hear the word pollinator, what's the first thing that jumps into your mind? Honeybees may be the first thing that comes to mind, but there are a large number of other pollinators out there. Honeybees do help and contribute to pollination, but they are a native to Europe. In the United States, we have over 3,500 native bees that help to pollinate all sorts of plants. Did you realize that your squash plants are pollinated primarily by a native squash bees?

Don't get me wrong, I love a fresh summer tomato, straight off the vine and onto my ham sandwich. Often, there are times during the growing season, where I wonder if that tomato goodness is worth the effort. Let's face it; tomatoes are a lot of work.

Despite the amount of work, tomatoes are a labor of love and a mainstay in most gardens. However, I would contend there is an unwritten rule "Where there are tomatoes; there will be tomato problems."

My obsession with succulents hasn't slowed down any and my love of green growing things overall is causing my indoor houseplant collection to grow bigger as well. I recently added a Monstera deliciosa, Calathea 'Medallion', and Pothos 'Pearls and Jade'. I also have a Watermelon Peperomia on the way with 2 other pothos varieties. Hands down, my favorite plants are those who have interesting foliage. I have been finding out about so many new plants and varieties since I started on the succulent path and then found people to follow on Instagram that love plants as much as I do.

Easter, the holiday when I question my love for hardboiled eggs. Don't get me wrong; I love to sit around the table with my kids to dye Easter eggs and then hunt for those same eggs on Easter morning. By the end of the festivities, we are typically left with two dozen hardboiled eggs. Eating a plain hardboiled egg can only be done so many times. Often we turn Easter eggs into egg salad for sandwiches and perhaps some deviled eggs. By the end of our weeklong egg-o-thon, I need a break from eggs.

Weeds. A word with various definitions, mine simply being an "unwelcomed plant". I will admit certain plants are not allowed to grow in my yard. I'm looking at you yellow nutsedge. However, you will find many common weeds are growing throughout my yard. Does this make me a lousy horticulturist? Perhaps.

Plants like cannas, caladiums, dahlias, elephant ears, gladiolus, and tuberous begonia can make a great addition to the landscape. These plants are commonly referred to as tender bulbs, or summer-blooming bulbs. Not all of them actually grow from bulbs, but this is what their fleshy storage structures are commonly referred to as (other storage structures include corms, rhizomes, tubers, and roots). Unlike spring-blooming bulbs such as tulips and daffodils, these tropical plants will be killed by our cold winter temperatures if left outdoors.

Many a gardener has faced the not so lovely experience of white tailed deer using their backyard as their personal smorgasbord. I'll be honest, I've been lucky in that every place I've lived, I haven't had to deal with deer in my backyard. Should I knock on wood now?

As the calendar creeps closer and closer to fall, often times we begin to encounter yellowjackets more and more. These wasps are commonly confused with honey bees because of their similar size (both are about ½ long) and coloration. Despite this, they are rather easy to tell apart (if you're willing to look close enough). Yellowjackets have bright yellow and black bands on their abdomens and are shiny, while honey bees are golden brown and fuzzy.

Usually when people think of pollinators, the first thing that comes to mind is the honey bee (Apis mellifera). As important as honey bees are to pollination, there are a lot of other pollinators that are just as important. Native bees, Moths, butterflies, flies, bats, beetles, and wasps are all pollinators. There are over 4,000 native bees in North America alone. According to the Xerces Society, native bees are more effective then honey bees on pollinating on a bee-per-bee basis and also many native bees are active in colder and wetter conditions when honeybees are not.

The other day I received a daily update email that keeps me apprised of things in agriculture, natural resources, horticulture linking to various news articles and press releases. One of the articles was from the USDA APHIS about invasive insects and announcing that April is Invasive Species Awareness Month. APHIS also developed a website they have called Hungry Pests focusing on some of the invasive insect species that are causing the most harm to plants and trees or have the potential to.

This past month I have been traveling on the road more hours than I care to count. The time in the car has allowed for some windshield botany. Better described as identifying plants while going over 65 miles per hour.

Over the weekend the Illinois Pest Survey shared a post on Facebook saying that Japanese Beetles were out in Central Illinois. Sure enough, I go and check the growing degree days for the area and they are at the point when Japanese Beetles begin to emerge. If you want to know more about growing degree days, I wrote an article about it back in 2015 and you can find that article here:

In a past article I wrote about how the garden and landscape are fluid things and constantly changing. Trees grow taller and yards become more shaded or a tree comes down and sunlight brightens a once shady spot. As gardener's we are always learning and growing and that is one thing about my career that I adore – I am always learning. Whenever someone says they have a question, usually my light hearted response is I might have an answer and I usually get a laugh.

As we've already experienced this year, winter in Illinois commonly means snow and ice. Though plowing and shoveling are the primary means of removing snow and ice where they aren't wanted, deicing salts also help prevent slick, hazardous conditions. While salt is great in its place, it's not so great for many things that may encounter it.

Night yields to day in the late winter and spring, which seems to reenergize me. Already I've found time to get in the yard to do a bit of cleaning. Near the house, daffodils push their way through the leaf mulch beginning their march skyward, racing to beat the shade thrown by the trees. Magnolia buds in the neighbors yard are swollen, ready to burst in an explosion of flowers. The grass has switched from khaki-colored to green in a matter of a few days. This is a good change.

Nature wants to kill you. Okay maybe wants is a strong word. Nature is term we give to the physical things and relationships that make up our world and universe. Sometimes we try to humanize nature with the name Mother Nature. We picture the ethereal Gaia sitting atop the trees directing the course of life on the planet. Such notions paint a serene setting, peaceful, and safe, which makes it so easy to market the idea "If it is natural, then it is safe."

Perhaps my least favorite part of winter is waking up to darkness in the morning. This morning, as I led my half-asleep six-year-old down the steps into the living room, we were greeted with streams of light coming through the windows. After the short days of winter and several days of cloudy, wet weather, the sun was a welcome sight. I'm not the only one welcoming the longer days and more sunlight; plants also need adequate light.

If you're a gardener (even someone just getting their feet wet), you know what it's like trying to manage insects, diseases, and weeds in the garden. Once the seasons really starts going we always have some insect pest that decides it wants to use our plants as dinner. We try to find more effective and back friendly ways of controlling weeds. Early blight on tomatoes got you down, what can we do to slow it down. One of the best things we can do while in the garden is be observant.

My childhood home sat atop a bluff overlooking the Mill Creek Valley near Quincy. The view over bucolic farm fields and pastures likely was the kicker for why my parents purchased the property. It is a view that still holds me in a trance whenever I'm visiting my folks. However, the bluff upon which our house resided, was comprised of thick, red, gumbo clay!

You have to hand it to those Olympic athletes; they sure do make it look easy. Watching the 2018 Olympics with my family has inspired us to take to the slopes, that is, our small sledding hill. We took advantage of a snowy weekend and got in some much overdue sled riding. In the joyful moments of barreling headfirst down a steep hill with a six and four-year-old on my back, one doesn't think of the physical nature of playing in the snow.

This post is a continuation of my previous article on the topic of natural vs. synthetic. Today, we are going to examine how to select pesticides that pose a low risk to humans and the environment. You can find the first article HERE.

In today's world, the American consumer often relates the terms "natural" or "organic" to "safe." In the world of horticulture, this poor distinction is often made when discussing pesticides.

For the past three years that I have been part of the Good Growing column, I have written an article on gardening in the fall. And before that my predecessor, Mike Roegge, would write about the joys of fall gardening. Yes, you are about to read yet another piece on gardening in the fall. This is our subtle way of suggesting fall gardening is the best gardening. Though after all these years, the subtly may be wearing off.

To say our weather has turned cold is an understatement. Last week, while sledding with my children my pants froze! We did not last long on the sledding hill that day. When I open the door to let out our dog Murphy, he looks up at me with what I can only describe as a "You've got to be kidding me" facial expression.

"Would you look at that?" I exclaim almost routinely as we drive around town. A horticulturalist does not make for the most enjoyable company in a car. Especially, if like my wife, you could care less about the health of a wayward tree or circling back to check out a random flowerbed. "Was that a field of cabbage? We better swing around to check it out." If I am late to something, it is probably because there was a landscape that required a double take.

As you begin your fall garden cleanup think about adding a soil test to your list of things to do. Soil testing is a quick and easy task that has many benefits. By conducting a soil test, it will allow you to see what the pH of your soil is, as well as what the nutrient levels in your soils are like.

This past week I was honored to be invited to the Western Illinois University Agriculture Banquet, where faculty and students celebrated another year of education, research, and community outreach. Most graduating students will be filling vital roles in the agriculture, green industry, natural resources, and education sectors. As I sat at my table, I couldn't help but think of the challenges ahead of these students and the massive, even global, problems they will have to face, most notably climate change.

red poinsettia

Have you dodged the bullet this holiday season? You know what I am referring to, right? Poinsettias! Allow me to explain.

All of your friends know you are an avid gardener. With all the vegetables you give away each summer, you hold the status of Gardening Guru. You have likely responded to plant emergency calls, and resuscitated an ailing house or garden plant.

Congratulations, you've made it through Christmas and managed to keep your poinsettia(s) alive! As Chris mentioned last week, poinsettias are the most popular potted plant in the U.S. If you're anything like me you have a hard time throwing perfectly (and sometimes not so perfect) good plants away. Alas, most people dispose of poinsettias after they finish blooming, but with a little effort, you can get your poinsettia to bloom again for years to come.

orange and black monarch butterfly perched on milkweed plant

There is something about mowing that is so satisfying.

What is it? The smell of cut grass? Taming an unruly landscape?

To me, it is measurable progress. It seems so often that modern jobs give few tangible results. So much of our work is in the digital ether. After a full day's work, I leave the office switching off my computer, and all my toiling vanishes with the click of a mouse.

If you've been following the Good Growing column, you know the rabbit hole that I went down when I jumped on the succulent bandwagon. That hasn't stopped, I've got 48 little Mother of Thousands plantlets in a tray rooting out. Still not sure what I'm going to do with them all, but guilt prevents me from throwing extras in the compost pile at the moment and the mother plant has started an entire new round of plantlet formation already.

Even though the weather seems to think it's still summer, fall has arrived. This means leaves changing color, apple cider, and pumpkin spice everywhere. It also means many of us will be taking a visit to a pumpkin patch.

In the last month, I've received calls and emails asking about what should be done to prepare the garden soil in the spring once the grounds is no longer frozen and ready to be worked for the new gardening season. Questions such as – what fertilizer should I apply, can I apply manure to my garden, if I do apply manure should it raw or composted, what about peat moss or should I use regular compost, etc.

The problem with learning about invasive plants species is once you know about them, you start to see them everywhere. It can be a little depressing. How joyous it was when I began my life in horticulture. Learning about amazing plant processes and all the wonderful plants used in the ornamental landscape. Indeed, at the outset of my botanical life, all plants were good.

In practice, things are quite different. My understanding of the term 'invasive' took shape after learning my first legally invasive plant – bush honeysuckle.

Spring finally decided to arrive and if you're like me, you're itching to get outside and enjoy the nicer weather. It's be a long cold winter that I am more than happy to finally say good bye to. Happiness is seeing perennials starting to raise their green heads or begin to flower (my Pulmonaria are having a party in the garden right now) and spring bulbs merrily blooming away.

Over the years, I've had the amazing fortune to work with my colleague Dawn Weinberg, who teachers Ag in the Classroom in Hancock County, to coordinator teacher workshops. In these workshops we provide lessons and resources about how teachers can utilize plants to teach a variety of subjects – math, literacy, science, and social studies in their classrooms.

In that past two weeks, West Central Illinois has seen a much-needed return of rain after a summer of low precipitation. With the rain has come a handful of calls into the Extension office about mushrooms/toadstools popping up in lawns.

Most callers are curious as to why toadstools are showing up now, while a few are on the warpath to eliminate these fungal intruders. The lawn warriors often ask, "What can I spray to kill this fungus?" My answer: nothing, but there are remedies we'll discuss after a primer on dirt a.k.a. Soil.

Arugula has been trending these past few years. You can bet if you turn on a cooking show, they'll probably be using arugula at some point. Many chefs and hip restaurants have made this leafy green with a peppery zing very popular and arugula is now commonly found in grocery stores throughout the US.