Out with the old and in with the new. A new year means the garden catalogs are starting to arrive and that it’s time to start planning this year’s garden. Whether you’re just getting started or you’re a veteran gardener, consider growing something new this year in your garden.
You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixon, and of course Rudolph from being a part of Santa’s trusty reindeer herd, but did you know that Santa isn’t the only one that is raising reindeer? It is thought that reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, were first domesticated around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago to attract wild deer so hunters could harvest them.
Wild and domesticated reindeer
Most wild reindeer are found in Norway, Finland, Siberia, and Greenland.
The butcher. That’s what I have felt like these last few weeks. Butchering trees for their greenery to make holiday decorations. I would argue, being a fir or pine tree butcher has its perks. I smell like Christmas when I’m done. I’m able to take my kids (and a tag-along cat) for walks as we find the ideal tree for hacking to pieces. So, what inspired such a tradition to cut up evergreens for decorations during the holidays?
From evergreens and Poinsettias to holiday cacti and holly, we use a variety of different plants to adorn our homes and offices during the holidays. One plant we commonly hear about is mistletoe. Mistletoe has an interesting past, from an ancient symbol of fertility to somewhere to sneak a quick kiss. It also has a darker side as a freeloading parasite on trees.
Mythology and folklore
It is believed that the golden bough that allowed the Greek hero Aeneas to travel to the underworld was mistletoe.
Some of my fondest memories of Christmas growing up was venturing out to get a Christmas tree together as a family. Most of the time we just found a misshapen red cedar tree from our timber; however, when choosing a Christmas tree, ideally you want something that has good shape, color, and branch distribution. It is also important that the tree has good needle retention to last the entire Christmas season. Typically pine trees have the best needle retention followed by firs, and spruces have the shortest retention.
Leftovers. Is this why we only eat turkey once a year? Because after all the leftovers we are sick of giant poultry? Nah! I think turkey is simply more of a seasonal thing. We grow up seeing a turkey as the Thanksgiving centerpiece. To eat a whole turkey any other time just feels wrong. It’s like listening to Christmas music after Christmas. There’s not much demand for Deck the Halls outside of the holiday season. However, I will concede, everyone has that deranged person in the office or home that listens to Christmas music in July.
Have you ever gone a little overboard buying plants and run out of room or energy to plant them all in the fall and figured it could wait until spring, only to find out most, or all have died? Or maybe you’ve had a container planter with perennials and excitedly waited for them to resume growth in the spring, but it never happened.
As the harvest hustle and fall field work start to slow, it is time to reflect on the growing season to see what worked well and start making decisions for the next season. On farm yield data from the current season is a great way to evaluate hybrid and variety performance. For choosing new or different hybrids and varieties, the University of Illinois Variety Testing provides some useful information to aid in making those decisions.
I bet you’re sick of reading about elections and politics. Fortunately, the Good Growing column is a welcome escape. Today I would like to dive into diseases. Oh, that’s right. We’re kind of in the middle of a global pandemic and I bet “disease” is not on the top of your list either.
Within our global pandemic of COVID-19, I hear scientists and doctors talk about recommendations for preventing the spread of disease. After listening to all the human health experts talk, one thing I realized, folks in the plant world have been dealing with “pandemic” type events for a long time.
It’s Halloween time again! Last year we had the inaugural list of Spooky and Scary Plants. While trick-or-treating and Halloween parties may look a little different this year, here are some more ‘spooky and scary’ plants to help you get in the Halloween spirit.
As leaves fall from the trees each year, some may find beauty in the reds, yellows, and orange as they blanket the ground, while others may see hours of work ahead of them as they rake or mow the leaves to remove them. Regardless, leaves provide many benefits in the yard and garden other than just beauty. So what all can we do with all those leaves.
Small farms and local foods educator and fellow contributor to the Good Growing column, Katie Parker, was kind enough to let me borrow her hollow-core aerator, to give my compacted lawn some much needed relief.
As Katie wrote in a previous column this year, core aerating your lawn is a great practice to help relieve soil compaction and introduce air and water deeper into the soil. It can even help to reduce thatch issues.
The arrival of fall/autumn brings not only cooler temperatures but also a change in scenery. Our trees transition from green to golds, yellows, oranges, purples, reds, and browns, blanketing our landscapes in a kaleidoscope of colors. We expect our deciduous trees like maples, oaks, sweetgum, and dogwoods to change color and drop their leaves.
Fall is here; not only does the calendar tell us that it is officially here, but our days are getting shorter, the temperatures are cooler, combines are rolling in the fields, mums decorate front porches, and the trees are starting to turn. As our summer activities in the garden wind down, there are some things to do to prepare for cooler temperatures.
Perennials and Grasses
Pumpkin spice. Did you read that with disdain? Because I wrote it to be dripping with contempt. Go ahead and reread it with your best disdainful inner voice.
I may lose a lot of you on this. I may even anger my colleagues. But I do not like pumpkin flavoring. Why would so many people be upset about this? Well, Illinois just so happens to be the top grower and producer of pumpkins, pumpkin fillings, and all the other pumpkiny products that fill the shelves this time of year. Most of this production happens in Tazewell County near Morton, Illinois.
When it comes to bulbs, this time of year (fall), much of our attention is focused on getting ready to plant spring-blooming bulbs, and rightfully so. From crocus and daffodils to tulips and alliums, these plants provide a burst of color early in the year before many of our landscape plants begin blooming. While spring blooming bulbs get most of the attention, there are some bulbs that will bloom in the fall that can also provide a splash of color.
We recently bought a home at the end of May with a lawn in need of assistance. When we moved in, we quickly tackled the mole problem by trapping five moles, and one vole! Next, we moved onto the damage done by the moles; we leveled out the mole hills and seeded those areas; however, in the end, we were defeated by the summer heat and our outrageous water bill. For the last 3 months, we have had a partially dead lawn with some smaller bare spots. We have been anxiously awaiting fall in hopes of making our lawn look not so much like a train wreck.
I spend a lot of time asking homeowners to show me their tree butts. Buttress to be specific, but industry lingo shortens it to butt and is described as the dramatic widening of the lower trunk. The buttress of a tree is located beginning at the root flare where the base of the trunk flares out into the root system. How high up the buttress goes depends on the species. For oaks, it may only be two or three foot high. Some tropical trees have buttresses that go up twenty feet!
Wasps have an undeserved bad reputation. While some species can be a tad on the aggressive side, they are, as a whole, rather beneficial. Admittedly they can be intimidating insects, particularly large ones.
This year we have received more reports about large wasps than usual. Perhaps it’s because we’re spending more time at home and out in our landscapes. Maybe it’s because of the excitement over "murder hornets" - which are not in Illinois.
We’re at a point in the growing season where it is still a little early for soybeans to start senescing and turn yellow (dependent on maturity group, planting date, and growing conditions), so it makes you question why are yellow soybeans appearing in fields? There are several factors that can cause soybean leaves to turn yellow and drop.
Like a lot of parents right now in the US, we have decided to homeschool our children. Right now, I’m trying to remember what in the heck did I do in third grade? Time to brush up on the reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Side note, I should probably start a therapy fund for my kids when they get older.
One subject I have a bit of experience with is science. It was always my favorite subject in school, after recess of course. You might be thinking, how am I going to teach science? I don’t have Bunsen burners and beakers. Fortunately, science is all around us.
Several different types of caterpillars will feed on tomatoes. The most well-known, and probably most dreaded, are the tomato (Manduca quinquemaculata) and tobacco (Manduca sexta) hornworms. These large (up to 4 inches long) green caterpillars have a prominent “horn” on their rear end (thus their name) and can do quite a bit of damage to tomato plants.
Us at Good Growing appreciate you taking your time to read, listen, and watch the content we create. From Katie, Ken, and Chris – THANK YOU!
As we enjoy fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and other vegetables from our garden this summer, it is time to start planning the garden for fall production. Many of the cool-season vegetables we plant in early spring can be planted again in late summer to early fall to extend the growing season and have fresh produce for a longer period.
Boredom. I hear that’s a thing when living in a pandemic. During pandemics of historical note, Sir Isaac Newton uncovered the marvels of calculus. Before that, it is said Shakespeare wrote some of his best plays while sheltering-in-place.
Was it boredom that inspired such achievements? Perhaps. However, I prefer to argue that Newton was already a genius and Shakespeare’s masterful writing was honed over his lifetime. That at least makes me feel better that, even after months, I still haven’t fixed our dripping bathroom faucet.
We’ve made it through spring, and we’re into summer. Whether you started your first garden this year or you’re a veteran gardener, we’re coming up on the heart of harvest season. One of the (many) advantages of growing your own vegetables is that you can harvest your produce at its peak quality. Knowing when exactly you should harvest something can be difficult to determine, especially if it’s your first time growing the crop.
Algae are simple aquatic plants that we often find growing in bodies of water throughout Illinois. We often associate algae with a slimy feeling that makes our ponds and lakes less attractive; it gets stuck on our fishing poles, and it makes swimming less enjoyable. Although algae often get a negative rep, it does produce more than 50% of oxygen in our atmosphere. However, like most things, algae are beneficial under the right circumstances. Excessive algae growth can cause taste and odor problems with drinking water and can even kill fish by limiting oxygen and food.
I get lots of pictures of sick trees. Most of the time the first photo sent to me is a declining canopy. Maybe a picture of an ugly leaf. After all, that’s what we tend to notice first as our eyes occasionally gaze upward to the living behemoths that shade our parks, yards, and homes.
It’s National Pollinator Week (June 22-28, 2020)! Pollinators are vital to life as we know it. Around seventy-five percent of all plant species are pollinated by animals (and 90% of flowering plants). While we tend to focus on bees, particularly honey bees, many different animals will pollinate plants. Insects such as butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and wasps as well as some birds and bats will also pollinate plants.
I love garlic. I just so happened to marry a woman who did not. But something magical happened during her first pregnancy. She developed a taste for all things pickled and garlicky. Since then we have been throwing garlic into almost everything we make.
Ladybugs, ladybirds, or more appropriately lady beetles (they are beetles, not bugs after all) are common insects in the landscape. They are one of the darlings of the insect world. They’re commonly found on stationery and clothing, and they are even featured in nursery rhymes and songs. They are also one of the few insects people are excited to have land on them since many believe they bring good luck.
Now that we are spending more time outside, you might be noticing more and more mounds or ridges of soil popping up in your lawn. There are a few different animals that like to make these mounds, but often times the main culprit is the mole.
Home remedies abound in the horticultural world. Some gardeners swear by their mixtures of a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but Extension does not readily recommend the use of homemade pesticides. Perhaps your anti-Japanese beetle potion warded off the critters last year. But what if you get the amount of ingredients out of balance next time or what is happening in the long-term to your plants, soil, and environment? Salt and vinegar are two common ingredients in many purported weed remedies found on the internet.
Having 8+ years of experience with growing field corn and a master’s degree in crop science, I thought I knew all there was to planting sweet corn; however, my first time planting it was a flop. I planted the seeds as if I was raising 350 bushel field corn (who doesn’t want lots of sweet corn?) which resulted in lodged sweet corn plants. Come to find out; you don’t plant sweet corn exactly the same as field corn.
Have you been there? A new recipe calls for some fresh basil or dried rosemary. After searching the fridge and spice rack, you realize you do not have what you need to give your meal that kick of flavor that herbs often provide. I have certainly stared down the barrel of an empty bottle of dried oregano. One of my saving graces has been having some herbs growing outside our kitchen window. Herbs are relatively easy to grow, provided you give your plants the right conditions. Let’s examine some common herbs that might get you out of a culinary crisis.
Peppers are a popular plant in the home garden. They come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and heat. From the bright colors of sweet bell peppers to the face-melting heat of the Carolina Reaper, there is a pepper for any taste. In addition to their culinary uses, peppers can also make great additions to ornamental beds due to their bright colors.
Cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins are collectively known as cucurbits. Because these crops are related, they are afflicted with many of the same pests and diseases. Here are some of the most commonly encountered pests and diseases in cucurbits.
Cucurbits are members of the Cucurbitaceae family and are home to some of the most popular garden crops in the world. This article will dive into the three main categories of cucurbit crops: cucumber, melon, and squash. Each one of these categories could become a book unto itself and we only touch on the subcategories of each.
Cucurbits, which include squash, cucumbers, gourds, watermelons, and cantaloupes, are some of the most popular vegetables planted in the garden. Plants in the cucurbit family have similar growth habit and requirements for production. Cucurbits are best identified by their prostrate, vining growth; large, lobed leaves; and bright, yellow flowers.
Tomatoes are the most commonly grown plant in the home vegetable garden. Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, and there is a wide variety of different types. If you’re growing tomatoes, you’ll more than likely encounter a few pests and diseases along the way. So, let’s take a moment and talk about some common issues we encounter when growing tomatoes.
‘To-MAY-to’, “to-MAH-to’, they’re all the same, right? Well, according to Taste of Home magazine, there is a such this thing as using the right tomato for different recipes. Who knew? I guess this calls for some investigation into the different types of tomatoes.
I think my wife likes to torture me. Multiple times a year she buys grocery store tomatoes. You might know where I’m headed with this. These tomatoes are very often bland versions of their flavorful kin. Slicing into the tomato I am usually met with a solid white center. To turn up the flavor I pile the bacon on top of my tomato slice during the assembly of the traditional bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Did you hear about the tomato and lettuce? Well, the lettuce was a-head and the tomato was trying to ketchup.
I haven’t seen any lettuce and tomatoes racing lately; however, being a fairly hardy, cool-season crop, lettuce tends to thrive more than tomatoes (a warm-season crop) in temperatures we are currently experiencing, between 60°F to 70°F.
Very often what grows in a garden are those fruits and vegetables we enjoy eating. Though, sometimes our gardens may exceed our appetites. After growing fifteen kale plants, my family determined, we probably could live off of two. And ten cherry tomato bushes were nine too many. One vegetable, my family does enjoy regularly is sweet potato. Baked, boiled, or fried – sweet potatoes are used more often than potatoes in my home, making it a good candidate for the garden. Let’s examine what it takes to grow sweet potatoes in our Central Illinois climate.
Rabbits love them (at least in cartoons), and so do we. Carrots are one of the most popular vegetables in the United States. On average, Americans eat around 8 pounds of fresh carrots a person (with an additional 1.4 pounds of frozen carrots). Not only are carrots a great snack, they’re also relatively easy to grow in the home garden.
Watering. The inescapable task of any garden. No matter what, at some point, you will need to water your plants. That’s just the fact of the matter here in Illinois. We do get lots of rain, but then there are times we go through some very hot, and dry weather.
Can Watering Wait?
Much like humans, plants require certain nutrients to live and grow. There are 18 essential nutrients that plants require to grow and survive. Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen are needed in the greatest quantity and are obtained from air and water. The next 6 nutrients are considered macronutrients; 3 primary macronutrients include Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium and 3 secondary macronutrients include Calcium, Magnesium, and Sulfur.
As the saying goes, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. If you’re a gardener, you can also include pests to the list of life’s guarantees. Now that it's started to warm up enough to get out and plant the garden, it also means it’s warm enough for weeds, insects, and diseases to become active too. So, get outside and start scouting your gardens.
Have you ever tried growing squash, and had the plants completely take over your garden? How about growing tomatoes without a cage? Many of our most popular garden crops such as peas, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and melons grow as vines. They can take up a considerable amount of space in the garden. Providing support to these plants in the form of cages, stakes, and trellises can make growing them easier.
There are a variety of benefits to providing your plants with support.
Are you waiting on the edge of your seat, ready for that frost-free date to pass so you can safely plant your tomatoes in the garden? If you know any vegetable farmers, they already have tomatoes in the ground. But you can’t fit a high tunnel in your backyard. Maybe the front yard? Nah, the neighbors won’t like that one bit. There are strategies to get you out in the garden sooner by extending the season. Let’s cover some early- and late-season strategies for the home gardener which don’t involve 100-foot long high tunnels.
What is Season Extension?
Much like humans after being cooped up all winter, plants require acclimation to the outdoors prior to being transplanted outside; for plants this is termed hardening off. Hardening off is the process of slowly introducing plants to outdoor conditions after being started indoors.
Weeds are everywhere. If we could add one more thing to life’s certainties I would argue “weeds” should be added to the list. Our soil is full of seeds, lying in a dormant state waiting for the right conditions to germinate. Each time we disturb our soils through tilling, planting, raking, even pulling existing weeds, we provide the opportunity for new weed seeds to sprout in those locations. So if you are just starting a garden, or are a green thumb backyard grower – what can you do to help manage the weeds that will undoubtedly pop up in your tomatoes and salad greens?
How well do you know your garden soil? Does it drain well or stay wet for a couple of days after a significant rain? What is the pH? Does it have sufficient nutrients available for your vegetables to use to grow? We often overlook the importance of soil management when it comes to building our gardens; however, soil is a foundational medium when it comes to plant growth. Soil keeps plant roots anchored and provides plants with essential nutrients, water, and air.
When it comes to planning and creating a garden, you need to determine how you’re going to grow your plants. There are a variety of ways in which this can be done, each with its advantages and disadvantages. The amount of space, as well as your gardening goals, will play a large role in the type of garden you choose.
In-Ground Bed (Traditional)
Once the weather starts to warm up, we can start thinking about planting our warms season plants outdoors. Warm season plants can further be broken down by their frost tolerance to tender and very tender plants. Tender plants are injured or may be killed by a light frost but can withstand cool weather, while the very tender, in addition to being damaged or killed by frost, may be injured by cool weather.
For many, gardening takes place in the summer. However, for me, and a growing number of gardeners, we are growing in the garden nearly all year long!
Perhaps my least favorite part of winter is waking up to darkness in the morning. Even worse while being at home during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, it has been cloudy for nearly a week! This morning, as I led my half-asleep 6-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.
Starting a Garden: Begin with a Plan
The key to a successful and productive garden is a plan; it saves time and makes the garden easier to care for. By starting with a plan, you will be ready to get to work once planting time is here. So let’s get started!
Spring is finally here! March 19, 2020 is the earliest first day of spring it's been in 124 years. Many of us are finding ourselves spending more time at home and looking forward to gardening, in many cases for the first time. In the coming weeks, the Good Growing team - Chris, Katie, and I - will be doing several articles on starting a garden.
Have you ever noticed the leaves of your peach tree becoming curled and puckered and turning reddish or purplish? If you’ve seen this, you’ve likely had peach leaf curl.
Peach leaf curl is a fungal disease caused by Taphrina deformans. It is one of the most commonly encountered diseases of peaches and nectarines, especially in home plantings. While it primarily affects the foliage, it may also infect blossoms, young twigs, and fruit.
Our recent cycles of warm weather and snow have been somewhat of a nuisance; however, for those of you with a thin stand of vegetation in your pasture or hay field, this weather may be a great aid in frost seeding these areas.
Introduction to Frost Seeding
Do you think at some point as children our imagination changes from imaginary friends, action figures, tea parties, and dolls to speculative market planning? How dull the adult imagination can be. However, if there is one thing about winter, it puts my imagination into overdrive. I create these visions of farming on a grand scale with employees, tourists, and food. Yes, food! My perfect farm would have a café, perhaps a small local brewery operation as well.
When we think of the typical home landscape, our garden areas are usually separated by the type of plant being grown. We have a separate bed for flowers and ornamental plants, one for vegetables and one for herbs. Often the vegetable and herb gardens are tucked away in the backyard and out of view from the neighbors. However, in recent years there has been an increasing trend to incorporate edible food crops into landscapes or edible landscaping.
Are you stricken with pools of water in your yard and you don’t own a pool? Instead of water moving away from your house, does it run into the basement? Are you constantly battling eroded hillsides? If you fight these common water maladies, then very likely there is a stormwater drainage problem in your yard. In this post, we’re going to cover the three most common drainage issues for homeowners.
Settling Soil Around Foundation Walls
The weather this year has been a bit of a roller coaster. One day it feels like spring, and the next, we are reminded that we’re still in the middle of winter. Despite some of the warmer temperatures we’ve had this year, we still have a way to go before the warm weather sticks around for the long haul (the median last frost date in Jacksonville is April 19).
As a kid, I remember the bald eagle being rare and revered. At school and on TV we learned the bald eagle was an endangered species. The resounding theme when I was young was that bald eagles were noble hunters, flying skyward and swooping down to grasp fish from an icy lake. In movies bald eagles had a piercing call, it sounded like a mighty high-pitched screech. I’m not sure how to convey this sound through text, but hopefully, you remember the sound clip that played every time you saw an eagle onscreen in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla) are plants we commonly find during the holiday season. They are widely marketed as living Christmas trees and are commonly adorned with bells and bows. If you purchased or received one, they could become beautiful houseplants for many years if properly cared for.
In 2015, I was interviewed for an article in an Associated Press story. The topic was on biodiversity in the home landscape. While a few snippets of my interview made it into the article, I provided over 1,500 words worth of answers to the journalist’s questions. Now after five years, this interview transcript floated back up from the depths of my computer and I thought, “Hey! This is some pretty good stuff here!” For your reading pleasure, here are portions of my interview with AP writer Dean Fosdick from 2015.
The garden catalogs are coming thick and fast this time of year. There may be no better way to beat the winter blues than to thumb through these catalogs and start planning this year’s garden (it will be time to start seeds before you know it). While making plans for this year’s garden, take some time to review your notes from last year. What varieties and cultivars did you grow last year? What produced well, what didn’t? What tasted good, what didn’t?
It is now the year 2020. It seems like everyone agrees, saying year “twenty-twenty”, feels so strange. As if we have arrived in a future we’ve only seen in movies and the Jetsons.