All winter long, starting in January begins the annual flight of vegetable and fruit tree catalogs to your mailbox. It used to be you get a vegetable catalog or a fruit catalog.

Our beautiful ornamental flowering crabapples that grace so many yards have a couple of foliage diseases that can really impact how our flowering crabapples look once the bloom show is gone. Both diseases readily infect the crabapple leaf.

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Just about this time every year, homeowners that have a Sycamore tree in the home landscape begin to notice problems. Leafing out late or seeing a second set of buds and then leaves form is not normal. While Sycamores seem to be the worst, the disease called anthracnose also infects other trees as well. Anthracnose is favored by cool wet spring weather with temperatures for several days in the low 50’s, something we had a lot of in the Fox valley.

The mail carrier is currently catching his breath after a hurried season of delivering holiday cards and packages. The many flower and seed catalogs will be the next thing showing up in our mailboxes courtesy of the post office. Starting in January, which is typical, now you can expect the catalogs you have requested and a bunch more you had not.

Plants in the garden (and insects too) develop based on something called "Growing Degree Days" or GDD for short. This is an accumulation of heat units using a base of 50 degrees. For every degree above fifty goes towards the growing degree-days and plant development. Most of us do not follow GDD, but really on the catalog or seed packet information on how long it takes to go from seed to harvest. You will see a variety listed as a short or long season plant. Those that have grown sweet corn are very familiar with these terms. The same can be said for tomatoes.

Cold weather has already given peach trees in the home orchard a knock down punch for 2014. When temperatures reach -10 degrees, peach flower buds start to die. For every degree below -10 degrees, we lose another 10% of what was left until all the peach flower buds have been killed. The foliage buds are able to withstand these colder temperatures so the peach trees live on to fruit another day. Like other fruit trees, peaches produce flower buds every year. It is just a gamble whether or not we have severe winter temperatures during the winter.

Spring is coming, but may be a bit late compared to what we have gotten used. It is great that plants, insects and wildlife seem to know when it is right to show up. Insects will typically develop right along with their plant hosts and if they do not, always have a fall back plant that will support them if their first choice is not available.

Plants return to growth having gone dormant to survive our winter months.

Bakers in the family and everyone else who enjoy the benefits really like the holidays. Lots of cookies, cakes and pies are baked during the holiday season. It is not the baked goods that will give households any problems, but what comes later with the leftover flour.

Pantry pests are those tiny grain beetles and flour moths that use the leftover flour to feed and live in. This phenomenon is not uncommon as many homes do not routinely bake during other times of the year.

We are lucky here in the Midwest to be able to enjoy spring and summer bulbs alike. We plant spring bulbs in the fall and summer bulbs in the spring. We let spring bulbs overwinter in our garden beds and dig up Summer Bulbs to overwinter indoors.

Our spring bulbs need a cold treatment to trigger them into growing and blooming each spring. That is why if you are going to "force" spring bulbs indoors, they first must be left in the cold or kept in a refrigerator for a period of weeks before you plant them into pots to force or you can pot them up and then store the pots and all.

The annual passage of winter to spring finally has begun. This last week has seen a big green change in the neighborhoods, and the smell of fresh-cut grass is in the air. There are a few easy guidelines to having a better-looking lawn without much more work.

The giving of holiday plants has become for many homes an annual family tradition. The one we think of most often of course is the poinsettia, yet mums, azaleas, cyclamen, and Christmas cactus are also given frequently. How well those holiday plants hold up and continue to give us enjoyment depends on the care given. Taking good care of those plants can extend the bloom show and foliage for several weeks or even months.

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Gardeners would normally see damage from grubs or sod webworms this time of year. With our rainfall this summer, grub damage if they are even out there will be minimal. The winter weather took out a large percentage of the Japanese beetle grubs, so we have not seen that big population we have in the past. Our more native masked chafer grub population having been displaced by the Japanese beetles so without them, grub damage could be low in the home lawns. Grub damage occurs when the grubs are feeding on grass roots faster than the grass can replace them.

January is not too early to start to plan for a new home orchard or to consider replacements for aging fruit trees in an existing orchard. There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider, including apple, cherry, peach, pear and plum.

As we live in the northern portion of Illinois, apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in back yards and commercial orchards. Certainly at the commercial level you will be able to pick just about every fruit you want, but in the home orchard, apples are a good place to start.

With the exception of the last couple of days, the weather really has been moderating up and nighttime temperatures are getting gradually higher, all good things for gardening. We can soon expect to have the kind of weather that allows us to get some early spring yard work out of the way. While we still can expect wet weather, drier days allow for raking the leaves that have blown in from the neighbors, and picking up twigs and small branches that have fallen out of the trees from the strong winds. Sometimes early mowing is an option to help collect debris from the lawn.
There are some 8000 thousand ant species around and on occasion ants can become an annoyance in the home. Most often they are a bother in the spring of the year when soils outdoors begin to warm again. Right now with our soils next to the home being warmer yet, we can have ants from outside colonies foraging for food. This time of year we are normally bothered by ants from colonies in the soil within the footprint of our home. Ants could be brown, black, red or shades of these colors and vary in size from extremely tiny to quite obvious.
The snow continues to melt and rains have begun to rinse away the dirty grunge of winter. While we wait for last of the snow to go and the ground to warm up before we can plant even those cold and cool loving vegetables, we can do some garden strategizing.

We should have been expecting it, but no one is really ever ready for the first really cold weather we get. Our hardy trees, shrubs and evergreens or perennials weren't really impacted by low 30's and upper 30's that areas in the Fox Valley received. Gardeners do plant lots of tender flowers for their color, texture and habit that make our gardens shine, yet can be much more sensitive to cold temperatures.

All the rain and cooler weather has really started a change in the home landscape and vegetable garden.The fall and cooler season vegetables really like this weather and have been growing well. Those warm season vegetables like tomatoes and peppers begin to shut down as night time temperatures slow them down even with more normal daytime temperatures. If the idea is to go ahead and let Mother Nature finish off the garden, be sure to harvest any vegetables that are mature as those have a chance of ripening inside the home.

Just what do fruit tree experts mean when they say, "You need train your fruit tree?" Home orchardists need to train their trees for structure to encourage fruit production, to have a high-yielding home orchard, and to have a tree that can hold the fruit load without needing to prop or tie up the branches. The scaffold branches are positioned to allow good sunlight throughout the canopy to promote fruit production from the interior to the outside of your tree's canopy. This also will allow air circulation in the canopy, reducing leaf and fruit diseases, so you benefit in two ways.

Now that the Holidays and Super bowl Sunday are over and pretty much our lives have returned to a more normal routine, there may be some insects beginning to show up in the pantry or kitchen. Leftover baking goods are usually the culprit and enough time has passed that we should be on the lookout.

Squirrels clearly know fall is approaching based on the calls coming into the Master Gardeners help desk telephone line and homeowners bringing in handfuls of small oak twigs. Squirrels will on an annual basis collect, hide, and eat a great many acorns in anticipation of winter, it is what they do. Squirrels will bury acorns in the typical places like the lawn, vegetable and flower beds, but also in containers on the porch and patio.

Where you place your dwarf fruit tree home orchard, or even the one or two fruit trees you are going to grow, makes a big difference in how the fruit tree grows and performs. A major consideration is the soil in the area you are considering for your fruit trees. Fruit trees are no different than other trees and shrubs in your landscape; they need good soil drainage.

Lots of tree planting happened in the Fox Valley this past fall. The replanting has been pushed by the continuing tree population decline from the Emerald Ash borer, a boring insect that has now killed millions of ash trees in the Midwest. The other major reason homes have replanted trees has been the long term decline of our landscape and shade trees from the drought of 2012 and terrible winter of 2013/2014. Plant diseases and other insects attacking many plants have caused additional plant loses.

Cucumbers, Squash, Zucchini, Pumpkins and Melons are all considered vine crops out there in the garden. Cucumbers are known for attracting cucumber beetles and a disease called cucumber wilt. Squash attract the squash bug and squash vine borer and a disease called powdery mildew. Pumpkins have issues with the squash bug and powdery mildew as well. How you handle these insects and diseases can make the difference between getting a crop, even it is only a partial crop and not getting anything from all your hours spent in the garden.

Cucumbers spread cucumber wilt.

July has brought us a mild summer with a fair amount of rain. It was not until the end of July that our yards and gardens began to look more typical – drying ground with some cracking showing up as the soil did begin to dry. If you missed some of those weeds, by now they are well established in the beds and take quite a bit of effort to get them out. As a reminder, even if the bed is beyond recovery for this year, DO NOT let those weeds go to seed.
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 and some of them we can help with. The four big factors are tree health, weather, typical age for the tree to bear and proper pollination.
Our summer season has moved along enough that the some of the flowers in the garden have finished their bloom show and now are in need of bit of help. Deadheading is simple enough, you just remove the old spent blossoms. For flowers with individual blooms, removing those spent flowers will encourage reblooming. Examples are marigolds and geraniums. On plants that have more of a flower stalk with many blooms, we are removing the stalk once all the blooms are done. We typically remove the stalk down to a point where there is some foliage. Examples here would be iris and daylilies.
All this cooler weather especially at night is having an effect on all our plants in the landscape. The temperatures we have been having at night especially have caused changes in how the plants have changed from actively growing to getting ready for dormancy. Some of our plants that are used as annuals or as garden accent plants are really tropical and would in their native habitat never go dormant and have responded immediately to the cold nights. If you have grown elephant ears or see them in public plantings, they have taken on a wilted kind of look, even though they have plenty of water.
Our daily routine during this time of year is often interrupted with time away from home, having family and friends stop by, planned or unplanned. One of those pleasant interruptions is the live holiday tree and the holiday gift plants you give or receive. Taking care of the tree once it is up and decorated really means making sure there is plenty of water in the reservoir. Trees were most likely cut sometime in October or November if grown locally and perhaps as long ago as August or September from far away growers, so it has been without water for some time.

This very erratic spring weather is really making it difficult to plan the spray program for the home orchard. Fungicide sprays for Apple Scab and Cedar Apple Rust need to be started at the right time. Both diseases begin with our cool wet weather early in the year. The spores really like the cool wet weather since they can travel farther before drying out and dying. The indicator that it is time to spray is something called “green tip”, when the buds have broken and just the very tip of the new green emerging growth has emerged from the protective scales on our apple and crabapple trees.

In China it is the year of the snake, but here in the Midwest most gardeners will agree it seems to be the year of the weed. Weeds are everywhere and are not even slowing down as summer moves along.

Master Gardeners have been very busy with clientele bringing anything from a single weed to an entire bushel basket full of weeds pulled from the yard. Weed seeds typically germinate in the spring while there is ample soil moisture and good strong sunlight. This is true for all our weeds, annuals, bi-annuals and perennials alike.

This column has talked about the many impacts of our 2012 drought and why our trees, shrubs and evergreens have had such a struggle regaining their health and returning to a good annual rate of growth over the past 2 years. Lawns were clearly a victim of the drought too and so many calls to the Master Gardeners have been about identifying never before seen weeds in the lawn and then what can be done about them. Lawns are perhaps the most easily stressed plants in the home landscape.

Storm damage can now be added to our list of what has happened to our landscape plants. The drought of 2012 started things off creating lots of stressed trees, shrubs and evergreens. Recently planted and very mature plants were affected as well as everything in between. Jump ahead to the winter of 2013-2014, where we saw very cold winter temperatures above ground and the frost below ground. One bright spot was all the snow that protected our perennials. Recently, the summer storms have wreaked havoc on mainly older larger trees and evergreens.

Spring is a good time to be planting trees, shrubs and evergreens in the home landscape. We have lost so many trees to the Emerald Ash borer, other wood boring insects and diseases lately that some communities look bare, especially when all the street and parkway trees were ash. Since the drought in 2012, needled evergreens have not fared too well either. Arborvitae and Spruce have taken a hard hit as have Austrian pine. There are needle cast blights that have really established themselves, especially on older mature or stressed evergreens.

Most of the spring blooming shrubs and small ornamental trees in the home landscape already have their flower buds ready to go right now. The flower buds were created last summer and have overwintered protected by insulating bud scales. As cabin fever has just about hit the peak for a lot of us, consider bringing a bit of spring indoors early. We have had enough cold weather to trigger bloom if those branches are cut and brought indoors. Choose branches that have lot of flower buds.

Just about now, you can see holiday trees sitting in the front or side yard, waiting for the assigned pick up date to be collected and mulched. This is one way to be sure your holiday tree gets recycled to the benefit of the environment. The follow through to getting your tree composted in a community program is to be sure your take advantage of the composted material later by bringing some back home and using it in your landscape beds. Those fallen needles that need to be collected can go to the compost pile.

January 2013 was recorded as the second warmest in 35 years. The high for January 29, 2013 was 62 degrees. That memory has likely faded away deeper and deeper as we shovel our 33+ inches of snow we have had this winter.

The weather has caught us all by surprise and there can be some leftover gardening projects still unfinished. If that bag or box of spring flowering bulbs is still sitting in the garage, the ground is not frozen and planting those bulbs will be easy. Follow the directions for proper planting depth and put some bone meal in the bottom of the hole as part of the planting process. We are supposed to get some break in the weather, so pick your day carefully by watching the weather closely.

There has been some recent press covering cicadas in Illinois this summer. While we can have a few cicadas every year, the brood of concern will be invading northwestern Illinois in the summer of 2014. According to the experts that follow cicadas, this is known as the Iowa brood (also called the Marlatt's Brood III) and will emerge in most of the southern two thirds of Iowa. The brood will also get into Illinois covering about four counties.