I have a love-hate relationship with spiders. I am continually fascinated when watching a spider spin its web. However, cleaning up cobwebs can be very frustrating.

Spiders are abundant (over 1,000,000 individuals per acre in a grassy field) and can be found almost anywhere from the bedroom closet to the 22,000-foot level on Mt. Everest. They are beneficial, feeding mostly on small insects and other arthropods.

Have you ever thought of combining literature and gardening? Literature gardens do just that.

I remember a past Chicago Flower & Garden Show, where two popular children's books came alive in gardens: "The Tales of Peter Rabbit" and "Where the Wild Things Are."

It is difficult to write this article, as it is my last one. After 30 years of service, I retire October 1 from University of Illinois Extension.

Over the years, writing this blog has been one of my favorite tasks. Through these many articles, we have explored many horticultural topics together, and I have learned so much along the way.

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URBANA, Ill. - Watching for the first blooms of spring has always been one of the most highly anticipated activities for nature and plant lovers.

I currently have just over 70 houseplant containers to water. Most have one plant per container, but a few are combinations of plants. They come in all shapes and sizes, colors and textures, and I love them all! Just like pets, I groom, feed, water, and enjoy the company of my plants. Yes, I'm a plant geek!

Do you have a brown thumb when it comes to growing houseplants? If so, you might not be watering them properly. The most common way people kill houseplants is by over watering them.

Vines add vertical beauty to a garden. Fast growing honeysuckle vines are easy to grow. Their intoxicatingly wonderful floral fragrance attracts hummingbirds, bees, and hummingbird moths.

The fall series of University of Illinois Extension's Four Seasons Gardening program, which focuses on environmental stewardship, home gardening, and backyard food production, gets underway soon. As always, programs are available live or on YouTube following the live presentation.

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URBANA, Ill. – Recipes for homemade weed killers abound on the internet. University of Illinois Extension specialist Michelle Wiesbrook explains why homemade is not always better.

Spring has sprung, and it is time to get out in the garden. The average last frost date for central Illinois is mid-April. Therefore I wait until about Mother's Day before planting tender plants such as impatiens, basil, tomatoes, and tropicals. Even though I can't plant most of the tender plants yet, there is still a lot to do.

GENERAL

Energy costs have hit everyone hard! Certainly, there are many tips for conserving energy costs from programmable thermostats to lighting tips. One big influence on home energy costs is the home landscape.

External air temperature, solar radiation, wind movement, and humidity influence your home. Proper use and placement of plants and structures can help modify these factors and thus reduce fuel costs, conserve energy, and maintain human comfort. Although many factors work into the energy formula, let's consider the effect of trees for now.

The summer series of University of Illinois Extension's Four Seasons Gardening program, which focuses on environmental stewardship, home gardening, and backyard food production, gets underway soon. As always, programs are available live or on YouTube following the live presentation.

The nineteenth annual Gardeners' BIG Day is almost here!

This year's event will be Saturday, April 14, 2018, from 8:00-3:00 at Dickson Mounds Museum. Attendees will hear speakers, visit vendors, and see gardening displays. Partnering sponsors include University of Illinois Extension Fulton and Mason County Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists, Spoon River Garden Club, and Dickson Mounds Museum.

I love ferns. Ferns make areas greener and provide interesting texture. Let's look at a few that are commonly grown in home shade gardens.

Hardy, outdoor ferns are easy to grow and are essential in the woodland garden. Ferns come in all shapes and sizes, but most require similar growing conditions. Nearly all ferns do best in dappled shade. Most ferns require a soil rich in organic matter, with good drainage, and slightly on the acid side. Although most ferns also prefer moisture, there are several that will tolerate dry situations.

The Spring series of University of Illinois Extension's Four Seasons Gardening program, which focuses on environmental stewardship, home gardening, and backyard food production, gets underway this month.

The first session of the series is titled A Garden Calendar. Join extension horticulture educator, Ron Wolford, as he discusses month by month tips and tricks for the home gardener. The program is offered twice – on April 17 at 1:30 p.m. and again on April 19 at 6:30 p.m.

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URBANA, Ill. – After a long winter, gardeners are always eager to get outside again. "Get a head start on your vegetable garden by planting cool-season crops," says Gemini Bhalsod, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

Everyone growing blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries should be monitoring for spotted wing Drosophila, a relatively new invasive pest that infests thin-skinned fruits as they ripen.

For the past several years, this invasive insect has severely damaged these crops, making the fruits unusable. If you are seeing gross little white maggots in your garden raspberries right now, this may be the critter.

While walking around our yard last night my husband Mark commented that our gardens look better than ever. We usually spend August enjoying the garden instead of working in it all the time. Still there are several activities that can be done in August.

First and foremost, don't let up on mosquito control. Dump the water! Mosquitoes will grow in almost anything that holds water. Take a walk around your yard today! Dump standing water at least weekly.

Registration is open for the 19th Annual Gardeners' BIG Day! University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners in Fulton and Mason County sponsor this event, which is Saturday, April 14, at Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown.

Back by popular demand, this year's keynote speaker is Fr. Dominic Garramone. Fr. Dominic is a monk of St. Bede Abbey in Peru, IL and the author of nine books related to bread baking. Known as the "Bread Monk" on his PBS cooking show, Fr. Dominic will show how to incorporate herbs and garden produce into delicious bread.

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URBANA, Ill. – Grape vines are a beautiful feature for your landscape that provide both aesthetic and edible benefits, says a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

I grew several different types of salad greens indoors this winter. We ate them in salads, on sandwiches, in tacos, and more. With spring just around the corner, now is the time to plant salad greens outdoors in the garden.

News on the importance of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators continues to grow. Most people think of bees and butterflies when thinking about pollinators, but bats, beetles, moths, flies, hummingbirds, wasps, and more also spread pollen in some plants.

As you plan your spring garden, Kelly Allsup, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, provides the following tips to help you choose the right plants and herbs for your pollinator garden.

Some plants don't seem to play well with others. In particular, a few plants release chemicals to try to keep other plants from growing too near. This botanical war tactic is known as allelopathy. Excerpts from University of Illinois Extension State Master Gardener Coordinator Sandy Mason's The Homeowners Column blog explains this further.

I love exploring woods in the spring looking for wildflowers. They bring such joy after such a long winter. Here are a few of my favorite early spring wildflowers.

Last year I started producing short videos on various gardening topics. They are a lot of fun to make. Currently, I have 31 videos available, covering indoor and outdoor horticultural topics.

In my first educational video "Planting Fall Mums," I demonstrate from my home garden how to plant fall mums. This two-minute video has 213 views - the most views of all my YouTube videos.

Unfortunately, the winter has taken a toll on many plants. Evergreens are especially impacted, many showing significant winter desiccation or even death. The severe cold winter compounded plant stresses already inflicted by recent severe droughts and other weather extremes. Not only did trees likely not have enough internal reserves going into winter, but they were also not able to take up more water during the winter due to deeply frozen soils. Be on the lookout for secondary pests to invade and cause further decline.

I retire on October 1 after 30 years with University of Illinois Extension. I've decided to focus my last couple columns on my favorite plants. I'll start with herbs. As most of my regular readers know, I grow a lot of herbs and use them to make a variety of tea blends.

Over the years, I've found that teas are much more than just a beverage. Sitting down to a cup of tea is a great way to lift us out of the hurrying present, even if just for a little while.

In 2017, 167 Master Gardener volunteers contributed over 10,000 hours in the Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell Counties. The value of their volunteer service is $263,000 (as calculated by Independent Sector).

Master Gardeners have several large events scheduled in our four-county Extension Unit.

Stop by their informational booth at the Peoria Home Show on February 23-25 in the Peoria Civic Center. They will answer general gardening questions, provide information to those interested in being a Master Gardener, and distribute informational brochures and bookmarks.

I love having fresh flowers on my kitchen table. They bring such beauty, energy, and life to the room. Every spring I vow to bring fresh flowers indoors all season, but I never seem to follow through very well. Maybe I would do better if I had a cut flower garden dedicated specifically to this purpose. My colleague Candice Hart provides the following tips for creating a cut flower garden.

It's that time of year when trees and shrubs begin popping up at retail sales areas throughout Illinois. Here are some tips to consider as you plan your new woody plant purchases.

Earth Day falls every year on April 22. I find that Earth Day is a great time to reflect on our world around us.

You might even try to look at a small piece of our world from a completely different viewpoint. Take dandelions, for example. To many people, the dandelion is a weedy pest that invades our lawns, but other people find many positive attributes in the plant.

Vines add vertical beauty to a garden. Although most vines are desirable, some can viciously choke out other plants with their aggressive behavior.

Let's look at four examples. The first two examples are annual plants, meaning that they germinate new plants from seed each spring and then die each fall.

Most people grow vegetables in traditional gardens in rows. Large gardens can seem overwhelming, especially during the heat of summer or after a vacation. If you don't have space for that or just want to try something different, here are some others options to try.

A larger garden is needed for certain crops such as sweet corn. Still, you do not have to plant the garden in a traditional design of long rows. Gardens can be designed in interesting ways and include flowers and vegetables for more visual effect.

I am excited to announce that we are next University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener training class begins this spring!

Training begins April 17 and is held one day a week until June 19. All sessions are held on Tuesdays, and all classes run 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Training includes both classroom lectures and outdoor activities.

While hiking at Turkey Run State Park with friends recently, we found a lot of snails sitting on stinging nettle leaves along the trails. Many of the snails had their head and antennae out of their shell, inviting us to stop occasionally to say hello.

As you plan your summer gardens, consider adding flowers you can preserve or use in arrangements. The pleasure of growing flowers in a garden is only a portion of gardening enjoyment. Flowers and foliage that is gathered from the garden and preserved or arranged can reward you in many other ways.

Have you had fresh strawberries yet this year? They are great when eaten fresh from the garden, and it is easy to grow your own. If you don't grow them yet, consider planting some next spring, which is the best time to plant new strawberries.

Strawberries can be grown in the ground or containers. There are three types of strawberries grown in Illinois: June bearing or spring bearing,everbearing,and day neutral. Fruits of day-neutral plants and ever bearers are usually smaller than June-bearers fruit.

Not all bugs are bad. Many gardeners are learning to leave good bugs and tolerate a bit of plant feeding. Some of us are also using plants to attract the good guys. My colleague Richard Hentschel, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, explains more below.

Public gardens are a great place to get ideas for your garden. Last month I visited three gardens in Rockford with Bradley University's OLLI program. I am inspired to add more plants to our water garden and create more succulent container gardens. Here are a few ideas of places you might consider visiting this summer.

I love sitting in my backyard listening to the many garden sounds. Wrens sing. Frogs croak. Grasses rustle. Bees buzz. The longer I listen, the more sounds I hear.

In addition to natural sources, you can design music into the garden. Are you drowning out neighborhood noise or looking for a soothing respite? Loud sounds gently cover up unpleasant noises, while soft sounds sooth and mesmerize.

While enjoying coffee in the garden, I noticed that my largest ornamental banana is starting to flower. For many years I've been growing banana plants around my pool to give it a tropical feel in the summer. By autumn they have large stems with four- to five-foot-long leaves that sour to heights over ten feet tall.

Bananas are grown here for their ornamental value. Although some might bloom, we don't have a long enough growing season for fruit to develop and ripen.

Ornamental bananas come in a variety of leaf colors from green to variegated green and red.

Roses are beautiful, but did you know that they are also edible? Rose flower petals and fruits (hips) add color, texture, scent, and flavor to various dishes and beverages.

I love the taste of Concord grapes. As a child, I remember eating grapes directly from the vines. TO me, there is no flavor comparison between concord grapes and store-bought grapes.

Concord grapes grown in central Illinois are quite different from most store-bought grapes. They are different types. Our native Concord and Niagara grapes are slip-skin types, which means that the skin easily slips away from the fruit pulp. Most store grapes are native to Europe and are called fixed skin varieties because the skin and pulp are all in one.

Recent social media posts suggest using household cornmeal to control garden weeds. Looks simple enough, but does it work?

Cornmeal is simply ground corn that we use in cooking. It is an essential ingredient in cornbread and corn muffins. Although it might add some nutrients when sprinkled on the garden, it likely does not have any effect on weeds.

Serviceberries are beautiful native trees with tasty edible fruit. Recently I picked several fruits to eat with cereal and freeze for smoothies. Usually, the birds beat me to the fruit, but this year my tree has such a large crop that I was able to share.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), also called Juneberry, are native here. I often see them growing along streams and rivers. They are all in the apple family and thus has a pome fruit, not a berry. However, since we eat the entire fruit, it is often called a berry.

Fall is known for planting spring flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils. According to Rhonda Ferree, Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, fall is also an excellent time to plant woody plants and some perennials.

Begin your spring flower display by planting bulbs this fall. It seems like a lot of work now, but after the long winter, you will really enjoy those blooms.

In addition to the standards, such as tulips and daffodils, try some of the other small flowering bulbs. For example, anemones, snowdrops, and winter aconite all bloom very early and have especially beautiful flowers. Snowdrops are among the smallest and daintiest of the spring-flowering bulbs and often flower in early March before all the snow has gone. The latest to bloom are alliums at the end of June.

We are enjoying watching the birds at our feeder this winter. They add action and color to an otherwise static winter scene.

Bird watching is a popular hobby in America. According to a 2016 US Fish and Wildlife Service survey, more than 45 million people watch birds around their homes and away from home. If you aren't already, you too can be a birder. All you need is the will and some basic equipment.

The Winter series of University of Illinois Extension's Four Seasons Gardening program, which focuses on environmental stewardship, home gardening, and backyard food production, gets underway this month. The first session of the series is titled, The Green Pathway to Invasion: Ornamental Invasive Plants. The program is offered twice – on February 27 at 1:30 p.m. and again on March 1 at 6:30 p.m. for home viewing.

As I wrote last week, I retire on October 1 after 30 years with University of Illinois Extension and am focusing my last couple columns on my favorite plants. Although I love many flowers, the poppy is probably my favorite. I am not sure why, but I have a fascination with poppies. I collect antique Hall China in the orange poppy pattern and have my kitchen decorated in poppies.

There are many different types of poppies. One source lists 39 different species alone. Most people grow either the perennial Oriental poppy or one of the many annual-type poppies.

Last week I planted peas and lettuce in my garden. I love peas and can't wait to have some for dinner. Peas and lettuce are both very hardy vegetables, thus the cold and snow last weekend did not impact their growth.

How early you can plant various crops depends upon the hardiness of the vegetables and the date of our last spring frost. Our average frost-free date is April 22 with the actual frost-free date varies two weeks or more in either direction.

There is a good amount of planning that needs to go into creating a successful community garden. To help people and organizations build and maintain productive community gardens University of Illinois Extension created the Community Garden Webinar Series. This series takes users through a variety of modules discussing the different steps that can be taken to develop a successful community garden.