Christmas trees leaning against wooden pallets in a snow covered field

All good things must come to an end. Once the Christmas holiday, or in some cases New Year's, is over, the Christmas tree will need to come down. Instead of hauling off this year’s Christmas tree to the dump right away (or having the city pick it up), consider repurposing it in your landscape.

Food Waste

‘Tis the season for…potlucks? That’s at least what it has felt like these past few weeks. Here’s the thing about potlucks – there’s always way too much food and you must try everything! To top it off, I throw out all the rules when it comes to making food for others to enjoy. I use lots of butter, salt, lard (if the recipe called for it) because I don’t want to serve something that tastes like a soggy Saltine. And I imagine, lots of other potluck-goers do the same.

A bowl of white flour in a glass bowl on a wooden counter

With the holidays approaching, many of us will be doing a lot of baking. Others of us may be buying birdseed to feed our feathered friends this winter. Occasionally some uninvited guests may show up in these products or where you store them - pantry pests. These insects live, eat, and grow inside stored products like birdseed, dry pet food, and dry food products (oatmeal, rice, pasta, flour, chocolate, etc.) as well as other dried plant materials (dried flower arrangements, ornamental corn, etc.).

Gifts

I completely understand why Santa makes his list and then checks it twice. For me, figuring out what others want for Christmas is incredibly difficult. Often my wife will ask, “What should we get for so-and-so?” My response, a shake of my head and a shrug of my shoulders. It seems all my good gift ideas pop into my head in the middle of the summer or on Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, my wife knows her stuff when it comes to gift-giving.

picture of sweet potatoes in a bucket and yams in metal bowls

Pass the sweet potatoes. Or is it pass the yams? We often use these names interchangeably, but in reality, they are two very different plants. So, what is the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

Parsnips

I love parsnips. But have you ever bought parsnips at a grocery store? Let me share my experience. At the checkout lane, the cashier always has a befuddled look when parsnips are up for scanning. A look that I know all too well.

“Oh, those are parsnips,” I tell the cashier.

Satisfied the cashier enters the code and scans the root vegetable, usually adding, “Hmm, looks like white carrots.”

picture of cranberry plants and ripe cranberry fruit

Cranberries are a common sight this time of year. Americans consume nearly 400 million pounds of cranberries per year, and we consume about 20 percent of that during Thanksgiving week! Whether you eat them fresh, dried, as sauce or jellied or drink them, they are staples at many holiday meals. They can also be used in a variety of ways while decorating for the holidays.

Winter Dormancy

By mid-November, the last of the leaves float down to the ground and the landscape appears stark. All is quiet and nothing is growing as our gardens have been put to bed. Or are they? As I walk outside in the frigid cold, it is obvious my body has yet to adapt to colder temperatures, yet the turf stands green and crisp on a frosty morning. Evergreens brighten up a barren image of my yard. Even cool-season veggies are turning their nose up at the fall weather, rewarding me with a sweeter flavor than those same crops grown in spring.

Spooky and Scary plants with doll's eyes plant berries

Halloween is a time of trick-or-treating, witches, ghouls, and ghosts. When it comes to plants, we typically think of pumpkins. Carnivorous plants may also come to mind, what could be scarier than a plant turning the tables and eating insects? There are plenty of other ‘spooky and scary’ plants out there to help get you in the mood.

The Truth about Woolly Bear Caterpillars

Woolly bear caterpillars are hurriedly crossing the roads this time of year. I have always been fond of the woolly bear caterpillar. As a child, the name woolly bear reminded me of the Muppet Fozzie bear. I imagined the woolly bear caterpillar has the same loveable optimism as Fozzie despite being a terrible comedian telling groan-worthy jokes. I know it may seem to be an odd comparison, but I thought of this as a child and to this day, it still pops into my head every time I see a woolly bear caterpillar.

fallen leaves on turfgrass

Now that we’ve had some cooler temperatures (to go along with shorter days), we’re starting to see the leaves change colors. In the next few weeks, we can look forward to our landscapes being awash in yellows, oranges, and reds. As the saying goes, though, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, all of those leaves will end up on the ground, and we’ll begin our annual battle of what to do with them.

Despite our best intentions to create healthy gardens and landscapes, sometimes we wind up introducing a material that has the potential to affect environmental or human health. Do you know if you have any in your yard? Let’s look at a material commonly found in the landscape and its potential impact on environmental and human health.

Rubber Mulch

orange and yellow fall leaves

In the language of folklore, Jack Frost has often been credited with spurring the onset of fall color by pinching leaves with his icy fingers. Obviously today we know that's not the case, but for a long time, scientists thought coloring of fall leaves was caused by the accumulation of waste products over the season that were then revealed as the green chlorophyll pigment faded away. This, as it turns out, is mostly untrue.

 

The Science of Fall Color

Boxelder bugs congregating on the outside of a home

As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter uninvited house guests often start showing up in our homes. A variety of insects and other creepy crawlies will seek out shelter in our homes to pass the winter. Some of our most frequent guests are box elder bugs, multicolored Asian lady beetles and brown marmorated stink bugs.

Garlic cloves

Want to get a head start on planting your vegetable garden for next year? Then garlic is the plant for you! Garlic (Allium sativum) has been grown for thousands of years as both food and for medicinal purposes. It has a long growing season which may seem daunting. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to grow and typically has relatively few pest problems.

sunshine through ash tree leaves

We bought a home! After six years of living in a townhouse on the edge of Macomb, we have started to burst at the seams. In that time, we have accumulated quite a few occupants in our current dwelling. Now with three kids, one dog, a cat, and a couple of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, it was time to hunt for something a bit bigger that would fit our growing family.

fall webworm webbing on tree branch with caterpillars inside

There are many ways we mark the end of summer. Some refer to the beginning of school or the closing of the pool, while others view Labor Day as the ‘unofficial end of summer’. Another way, if you’re more entomologically inclined, is the appearance of fall webworm.

Last year I wrote an article on silphiums. Silphiums are a grouping of wildflowers native to the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest, with stalks of yellow flowers that you see standing tall over all other plants, often in a ditch or reconstructed prairie. This time of year, late summer, is a good time to enjoy the show of the silphiums. I was inspired to write that article by a stretch of Highway 336, traveling south of the town where I live.

chiggar

How can something so small cause so much agony? This thought, along with several other expletives ran through my mind as I clicked from webpage to webpage searching for a cure to my constant itching. What was the source of my anguish? Chiggers! My entire body (mostly the more private parts) was covered in chigger bites.

Black and yellow syrphid flies feeding on rose

Is it a bee? Is it a wasp? No, it’s a syrphid fly, and they are rather abundant this year. We’ve had several questions come into our offices about them. While at a cookout with my family this weekend, we got to experience dozens of them flying around and occasionally landing on us.

Compost Tea: Miracle Product or Snake Oil

 

I love compost. If you have ever sat in one of my classes, you will know that 1) Soil tests can be so important, 2) Always read and follow your pesticides labels (and are those poisons really necessary?), and 3) I love compost!

Compost is derived from once-living organisms, think weeds or apple cores, or the by-product of a living organism, such as manure. Compost also comes in a variety of forms. You can have worm compost, mushroom compost, manure compost, or yard waste compost.

broccoli plants in a mulched garden

Planting a vegetable garden doesn’t just have to occur in the spring. Many of the vegetables that we grow in the spring can be also planted in late summer or early fall.

By the time summer rolls around many of our cool season plants that were planted in the spring are past their prime. They become tough and bitter and will often bolt (flower). By planting these cool season crops again you can extend your gardening season and have fresh produce throughout the fall.

yellow lab

It never fails. Every time I present a topic on lawns this question arises, “How do you prevent lawn damage if you have dogs?” Turns out, I really enjoy this question! Being a dog owner to two yellow labs for almost nine years, I have had my fair share of ragged lawns and muddy paw prints. Let’s start by examining the why and how in which our lovable pooches are so efficient at destroying our turf.

volcano mulch around a tree

Spring is certainly in the air. It seems we finally had our first nice day of the year, with highs in the low 70s and sunshine warming the soil as daffodils and crocus burst forth and begin to flower. Spring also brings the weekend warriors. After being trapped indoors for months on end, we Midwesterners are brushing off the mowers, blowers, and loppers.

snow on brown leaves

Being a fan of winter, this weather has been an absolute blast, but even I must admit- darn it's cold out there. One question I have been hearing a lot is "What about our plants?" Well, if you religiously adhere to the USDA cold hardiness zones then you should have nothing to fear. More than likely your trees, shrubs and perennials will emerge and leaf out to greet the spring. But who are we kidding? Gardeners are notorious for pushing the envelope when it comes to growing plants that are not necessarily suited to our local climate.

bird

Attracting birds to your backyard can go beyond setting out birdfeeders.

Creating a landscape that welcomes birds by providing critical pieces of habitat will not only benefit birds, but other wildlife as well. And it is a great way to introduce young people to nature and have something the whole family can share. According to Cornell, with nearly 80 percent of wildlife habitat owned privately and 2.1 million acres converted each year to residential use – it is critical we create bird-friendly landscapes.

tree pruning

Before we know it, spring will be here. Before getting too busy planting the garden, make sure to take some time to prune your trees (if they need it). While the old adage may say, "prune when your pruners are sharp", most deciduous trees are best pruned while they are in full dormancy. In this part of the country, February or March is a good time to prune. It is important that they are pruned while they are fully dormant. If pruned too early, and not fully dormant, they may produce new shoots that can be killed by cold temperatures.

The weather is starting to warm up and the spring peepers are singing. There are going to be a lot of things to do out in the garden here soon. Here are just a few things to consider doing.

As summer kicks into high gear we often start to see more pest problems. An important and often overlooked part of pest management is scouting. It can help you figure out what is going on in your garden/landscape and help you determine if you need to take any action to manage any pests that are present (particularly if you are going to be using pesticides). Take a stroll through your landscape at least weekly and be on the look-out for pests and diseases.

Blossom end rot is the scourge of many tomato growers. In addition to tomatoes, it can also be found in peppers, eggplant as well as squash and watermelons. When it comes to tomatoes, it is most commonly seen on larger fruited varieties, with long-fruited varieties (Roma type) being more susceptible than round varieties. Blossom end rot starts as a light tan water-soaked lesion (spot) at the end of the fruit where the blossom was (opposite end from the stem). The lesion will continue to grow and eventually turn black and leathery.

sun shining down on pink flowers

A new year brings the opportunity for a fresh start. For a gardener having the year switch in the middle of winter can be difficult. Right now, I am full of ideas and goals as I am once again missing my near-daily commune with soil. If it were in my power to change when we celebrate New Year's, I would suggest March 1.

japanese beetle

It's about that time of year, time for Japanese beetles...

Emerald ash borer, Japanese beetles, bush honeysuckle, purple loosestrife, chestnut blight. These listed items are all types of invasive species, which have dramatically altered our landscape. An invasive species can be a non-native insect, plant, disease, or animal that causes environmental damage, economic harm, or impacts human health in a negative way. Those pests listed above is just a highlight of a growing list of invasive species that threaten the stability of our native ecosystems and developed landscapes.

home garden

Warm weather has arrived and our plants are starting to green-up and bloom. That also means weeds, insects, and diseases are starting to become active too. As the saying goes the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes, and if you're a gardener you can also include pests in the list of life's guarantees.

succulent

While attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, one of my favorite classes had nothing to do plants. It was Personal Finance 101. The professor, Dr. Ted Pilger, spent an entire semester giving out some of the best advice I've ever heard in a classroom. From selecting a retirement plan to how to buy a car. One of the most memorable quotes referred to his negotiating on car prices. He said, "When they stop calling me 'sir', I know I'm making progress."

seed starting

As spring creeps closer and closer many of us are starting to get the itch to go outside and start digging in the dirt. While it's still too early to do that, it is time to start thinking about starting seeds indoors. If you've never started your own seeds before, there are several advantages to doing so.

family hiking up a hill

As the school year ends it is soon to be the lazy days of summer. Homework and textbooks will vanish, while beach towels and sunscreen become the staple accessory. Parents will find themselves shuttling kids to swimming pools and perhaps a vacation of their own! As we transition from cool spring weather to hot summer temperatures and indoor air conditioning, remember there is a lot we can do outdoors in the summer.

Plant Summer Vegetables

mosquito on a human arm

I've been seeing mosquitoes and ticks for several weeks already, and as the weather gets warmer they'll get more numerous. Not only are these critters annoying, many are also capable of transmitting a variety of diseases.

Herbaceous peonies are a common sight in many gardens and some of the most beautiful flowers you will find. They belong to the genus Paeonia which is native to Asia, Europe, and Western North America. They have been cultivated in Asia for more than 2,000 years. These cultivated peonies were brought to Europe and later the United States around 1800. In addition to their beauty, they can be quite long-lived. Many plants have been growing and flowering for more than 50 years and some plantings have been recorded to be over 100 years old.

Every year garden catalogs advertise new, exciting varieties of our favorite plants. Sometimes the options can be overwhelming, with each new addition sounding better than the previous. So how do you go about deciding which new variety to select? Fortunately, All-American Selections (AAS), an independent, non-profit organization tests these new plant varieties and names the best performers as AAS Winners.

snow covered trees

With the recent cold snap/polar vortex many people have also been wondering about how it's going to affect the insect populations. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, or perhaps good news (depending on your thoughts on insects) but, for the most part, most insects will survive just fine. Insects use a variety of strategies to survive through the winter.

mouse trap

Is your house full of visitors that annoy you, eat your food, and can lead to great exasperation and hollering? In-laws and extended family members aside; what I mean are the mice that have decided to move into your home for the winter months. In the wild, these creatures would look for shelter to survive the winter, and your house is a lot cozier than that dead log in the woods.

It recently happened in my household. My wife was wiping down the counter when she moved the blender. "Chris!" she shouted, "I think we have a mouse."

boy planting a tree

"Spring is better!" "No, fall is better!" "No, spring is better!" "Fall is better!"

What you are reading is the debate between two gardeners about when to plants trees. Here's the secret, they're both right and a little wrong, at least here in Illinois.

After a long, cold, and snow-laden winter, many of us gardener's are eyeing a particular spot. A spot that could use a tree. Fortunately for us gardeners, springtime heralds the newest stock of trees from nursery suppliers.

Cover crops are turning into a popular topic in Illinois. Not only among farmers but also with gardeners. For the past four years, I have incorporated cover crops into my vegetable garden rotation.

Cover crops, also called green manures, are a great soil management tool for vegetable gardens and even home landscapes. Typically, cover crops do not have a harvestable portion but contribute to the garden in other ways.

squash bugs

If you've ever grown squash or pumpkins (or other cucurbits, like cucumbers) then you've likely encountered squash bugs. Squash bug (Asasa tristis) adults are brownish-black and about 5/8 of an inch long. The adults will overwinter in protected areas (under plant debris, around buildings, etc.) and emerge in the spring. When they emerge they will seek out cucurbit plants to feed on as well as mate. Females will lay clusters of about 20 bronze colored eggs on the undersides of leaves, commonly where two veins meet to form a V, or on stems.

monarch butterfly on a pink flower

Spring is a herald of life. Grass flushes green, buds on trees swell with optimism, vegetables ready for planting in the garden emerge from basements crowded in flats. Spring also brings speculation. What will we encounter this growing season? What do the climatologists predict? Are all the Japanese beetles dead?

dandelions

Is your lawn blooming? Mine is, and I couldn't be happier! You may be wondering if I am referring to the actual grass plants in my lawn. Nope! Currently, my lawn is a stunning display of colors. Mostly yellows and different hues of blue and purple. Yes, my lawn is full of what many people believe to be weeds – dandelions, clover, creeping Charlie, and violets. Crocus started the show this spring, emerging from the near dormant turf. The crocus was then followed by daffodils and tulips. What a stunning display it has been!

To be human is to be stressed. For our ancient ancestors, stress may have been encountering a predator. Today, modern stress can come in many forms, from simple disappointment or to tragic events. Unfortunately, our brains evolved to deal with fighting for our lives or running from predators, not the frustration that comes with a malfunctioning smart phone or when the internet goes out.

What can we humans do to handle these new types of stresses in the modern world that we created? Does nature still have a role to play?

pink impatiens

Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) is one plant I had written off years ago. In my mind, I thought I had seen the last of one of the most popular bedding plants in the nursery trade. Impatiens were fast disappearing from garden centers because of an incredibly infectious disease – impatiens downy mildew.

Impatiens is a powerhouse annual and was the go-to bedding plant for those gardening in the shade. In fact even today, it is still readily available in many garden centers. So why the doom and gloom on America's favorite bedding plant?

tomato plant

Tomatoes are one of the most commonly grown vegetables in home gardens. While tomatoes are relatively easy to grow there are a few diseases you should keep your eye out for. Two of the most common diseases people encounter are early blight and Septoria leaf spot. Both of these diseases are caused by fungi. Consistently wet conditions are required for both of these diseases to develop, which we've had plenty of.

Has this cold weather been making you wish you could get outside and play in the dirt? Or perhaps you're looking for ways to improve your garden soil during the winter. Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is a good way to get both of these accomplished. In addition to producing compost, it's also a great way to put those kitchen scraps to use.