Hydrangeas are one of the most popular landscape shrubs in the US.  They are known for their exquisite flowering display, with many offering a season of beautiful blooms that remain attractive into winter.  Beyond flowers, these amazing shrubs offer additional ornamental beauty from neat and interesting leaves to ornate, peeling bark, making them quite versatile in the landscape.

Each year, we receive quite a few questions about hydrangea care, with the most common question being, “Why isn’t my hydrangea flowering?”  

This young red maple could benefit from corrective pruning to establish a central leader that is free of competition from adjacent limbs.

Wintertime offers few activities out in the garden, other than filling bird feeders and carefully watching dormant plants for any sign of awakening as spring nears.  However, winter dormancy is the ideal time to prune woody plants.  With trees and shrubs inactive in their winter slumber, pruning now can avoid interruption of the many plant process at play throughout the growing season.

Trees and other woody plants grow from buds at tip of each limb which release hormones to suppress growth of other buds lower down the stem.

Woody plants are some of the largest and most long-lived plants in the landscape, forming the majestic and expansive canopy of our urban and natural forests.  With all of this wonderful woody growth, have you ever stopped to think about why woody plants attain greater height than their smaller, herbaceous cousins?  What mechanisms are at play in woody plant growth compared to other plants?  How do cultural practices like pruning or impacts like storm damage effect the growth of these plants?

The alien-looking fingers protruding from these crabapples release spores that can infect trees in the juniper family to perpetuate cedar-apple rust disease.

Whether its fungi, bacteria or even viruses, one of the most important aspects of plant disease management is stopping or limiting the spread of infectious pathogens.  I have always been fascinated by the way these tiny organisms, rarely visible to the naked eye, make their way through nature to infect new plants.  Many of their stories sound like something out of science fiction, often involving multiple species or special adaptations to enter and infect their host. 

Sycamores across central Illinois are late to leaf out this year due to a commonly occurring fungal infection.

It has been another difficult spring for sycamore trees across central Illinois as near bare canopies of this tree stick out among the fully developed leaves of neighboring trees.  However, this doesn’t necessarily spell doom for your sickly looking sycamore.  It’s all caused by naturally occurring fungi that tends to ebb and flow with our spring weather over the years. 

This non-native, kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Klipka’) was bred for variegated leaves which may greatly affect insect leaf feeding.

There is a growing body of research supporting the use of native plants in landscaping to preserve local biodiversity and sustain native wildlife populations. Currently, much of our urban plant composition is not comprised of native species, based on the general public’s historical preference for non-native, exotic plant materials. Numerous studies have found that these non-native plants outnumber native species in U.S. landscape settings from urban to suburban or rural areas.

Houseplants provide beauty as well as a plethora of human health benefits during winter although indoor plant care can often be challenging this time of year.

Winter is a stressful time for many plants in the landscape, given the drought conditions brought on by freezing temperatures and the effects of extreme cold.

Although these stressors typically don’t impact our houseplants the same way, indoor plants experience their own form of winter stress, making wintertime one of the most common times of year for the decline or death of houseplants.

Most folks think of spring as the ideal planting time for trees and shrubs.  However, fall offers a nice planting window with some added benefits over the spring season, making it my favorite time of year to establish woody plants.

Fall weather can create ideal planting conditions, with temperatures cooling off and roots requiring less moisture.  In addition, we typically get a good amount of fall rains to help ensure adequate soil moisture going into winter. 

As you might imagine, my family spends a considerable amount of time out observing the wonders of the natural world, and I am always fascinated by the way my kids view and interpret things in nature. Many times, their straightforward and simple perspective makes me feel like such a dummy. There is certainly wisdom in their innocent perspective.

Boxwood shrubs are perhaps one of the most planted evergreen shrubs in landscapes around the Midwest.  Although they are typically fairly hardy in our area, many suffer from winter injury.  In addition, there are a number of other ailments for this shrub that gardeners should be aware of including a new and very serious threat called boxwood blight.

For gardeners, weeds represent one of our biggest challenges each growing season.  These formidable foes are relentless in their quest to invade spaces and rob the plants we love of precious water and nutrients.  Left unchecked they are equipped to out compete and shade out our garden plants and veggies, consuming the space for themselves.  Some basic understanding of weed lifecycles can go a long way in the yearly battle to maintain our gardens and landscapes.

Now that March has went out like a lamb, these warmer days we are really motivating me to get out into the garden and set things in motion for the 2019 growing season.  Right now is a perfect time to direct seed many of our cool-season vegetable crops, but don’t go too wild with planting or you may wind up with more to harvest than your family and some lucky friends can consume.  One great way I have found to spread out the harvest, creating a continual supply for at least part of the growing season, is through succession planting. 

This past week, many folks around Champaign-Urbana and surrounding areas may have noticed plumes of white smoke gently rising in the distance or caught the scent of what seems to be the well-known smell of a campfire.  It is special time of year when a tiny window of time emerges for the application of ecological burns to promote the health and diversity of native plants in many of our local natural areas.  This practice is by far one of the most important processes that natural areas managers can recreate in parks and preserves to boost the health of prairie ecosystems.

Historically, our part of Illinois has been more prone to ice storms than the northern or southern part of the state.  Based on over 50 years of weather data from the Illinois State Water Survey, our area of Illinois (including Springfield, Bloomington and Champaign) is likely to have an average of 5 days of freezing rain per year.  Whereas the rest of our state will only receive an average of 3-4 days of freezing rain. 

The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is an insect from Asia that has plagued our native ash trees in Illinois since 2006.  This pest was first introduced in 2002 around the Detroit area and has rapidly spread across Michigan and Indiana to infect most of Illinois today.  Sadly, the emerald ash borer will eventually wipe out our native ash species in Illinois as we know them, leaving a major void in our urban forests and natural areas since ash is currently so prevalent.

spotted wing drosophila

In our increasingly globalized society, invasive species have become somewhat of a way of life as we continuously intermix the world’s biota. Plants and animals from other continents tend to find their way to our landscapes and often are here for good.  As a gardener, it’s difficult to keep up with the pace at which new invasives pop up.  It’s even more difficult to figure out what these invasives mean to our home gardens and how they may impact our future plant choices.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are the most popular holiday plant in US households.  It is estimated that over 30 million poinsettias are sold each year around the holiday season, accounting for about one quarter of all flowering houseplants sold in the US, year-round.  That is a staggering statistic, making it the highest-selling potted plant nationwide.  It is so interesting to me that a plant which most of us purchase, enjoy for the holiday season and discard when blooms fade can be so widely sold. 

Everyone has their own idea of the perfect Christmas tree.  While I am not a person that picks the proverbial “Charlie Brown Tree”, I have certainly felt pity on the less attractive trees on the lot in years past.  Whatever your taste, a fresh cut Christmas tree adds a certain bit of nostalgia to holiday décor but takes a keen eye to select the right tree for your home, along with some forethought and proper care to ensure quality throughout the holidays.

Nothing symbolizes the holiday season to a horticulturalist like a holiday cactus in full bloom.  These fascinating plants are cacti, but not at all like the full-sun, desert loving specimens we commonly think of.  Instead, these plants hail from the treetops of forests in Brazil, which is quite different than the desert ecosystems associated with other species of cacti.  They are all epiphytes, living in mostly shaded tree tops and rooting into pockets of organic debris instead of soil.

One of the single best things you can do to improve your garden soil is to add organic matter.  By adding significant amounts of organic matter, you are putting fuel back into the nutrient cycle which naturally adds plant nutrients to our soil and lessens (or eliminates) the need for fertilizer.  Soil structure is improved by boosting organic matter content, making soils better able to retain water and nutrients.

During the growing season, questions about lawn or turf care are quite common at the Champaign County Extension office.

Anyone with a mature black walnut (Juglans nigra) on their property is likely aware that fruits are ripe now and the baseball-sized, green bombs are beginning to fall with each slight gust of wind or, at times, seemingly at random.  This native tree is prevalent throughout central Illinois, thriving on our deep, fertile soils to reach heights up to 100 ft.  When compared to other Illinois forest denizens it has some unique and interesting characteristics that set it aside from others.

In recent years, as interest in more sustainable agricultural practices has grown among home gardeners, organic pest control options have become widely available in many retail outlets and garden centers.  I use many of these products in my own garden and find their origins in nature and modes of action against pests quite interesting. 

Our native sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) is known for its extraordinary exfoliating bark which peels off to expose the beautiful creamy white and greenish colors beneath creating a camouflage-like appearance.  This summer many area sycamores are shedding bark at alarming rates which has prompted folks to question the health of their trees.

Garlic is a long-season, over-winter crop that does best when planted in the fall.  It can then be harvested in the early summer, which allows space for another summer crop.  This is rather unusual timing in the gardening world and it has always interested me for that reason.  Planting garlic is a great way to end the gardening season by caching away a crop for early harvest next year. 

Recently, my wife, Amanda, noticed that something was chewing on the nice stand of kale she planted in our vegetable garden.  Initially, I brushed it off to the usual, acceptable amount of insect damage kale can withstand and still produce a harvestable crop.  Typically, kale has some insect visitors that prematurely harvest some of the foliage, but we’re always OK with a little damage as long as they leave enough foliage for us to harvest throughout the season.  

Japanese beetles emerge each June to feed on a variety of host plants, like this rose.

Last week, I notice the first of an annual pest in our area that is always unwelcome to anyone that gardens.  Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) adults emerge from the ground every June to voraciously consume a plethora of plants.  Although there are certainly plants these beetles prefer, their list of potential host plants is quite large (greater than 100 species) including everything from large landscape plants to home vegetable gardens.  As these small, metallic beetles buzz about each year, they are most known to feed on foliage, although they often consume flowers, fruits and

Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) is one of the centerpiece landscape plants in my backyard, given its prime location at the corner of our screened-in porch and patio.   Last fall it delivered a stunning display as foliage turned every shade of yellow, orange and red to purple.  This spring it wowed us with gorgeous, showy flowers that persisted for several weeks and were accompanied by its characteristic fragrance which, at times, filled our entire backyard and porch.  It’s hard to decide which season’s dramatic display was the best.

In the busyness of spring and planting all our annuals, such as flowers and vegetables, the perennials in our garden often get overlooked.  To keep perennial plants performing at their peak, it is necessary to divide them from time to time in order to maintain vigor and flowering.  As a general rule, spring flowering perennials should be divided in fall, while late-summer of fall flowering perennials are best divided in spring.

In the past week or so, crabapple trees have stolen the spring flower show among our blooming landscape plants.  These beautiful trees produce abundant flowers for up to 4 weeks each spring, with one of the best, most showy displays of any ornamental tree species.  They pick up where the magnolia trees left off, often flowering in close succession.  The beautiful, tiny flowers are produced from branch tips to the tree’s interior, creating a canopy of blooms.

Evergreen plants, which retain their leaves (or needles) throughout the seasons, are some of the showstoppers of our landscapes in winter.  They provide some much needed color in a world devoid of the green, chlorophyll-laden foliage we have throughout the growing season.  Although evergreens do go into dormancy during winter, much like their deciduous cousins, their foliage is still subject extreme exposure over the winter months.

In recent years, orchids have become increasingly popular as houseplants, popping up for sale everywhere from smaller garden centers to big chain stores.  Many of us have taken these plants home, given them plenty of TLC, only to be let down when they begin to suffer from wilting and discolored leaves.  This has led to a common misconception that orchids are hard to take care of, requiring a special kind of green thumb.  In reality, these plants are quite easy to care for once you understand their particular needs.  In fact, it has been said that they thrive on ne

Native plants are typically defined as vegetation growing wild in an undisturbed area at the time that scientific records began.  Specific climate, soils and other environmental factors, define a plants native range.  Our area is fortunate enough to have a large diversity of both prairie and forest plants that call central Illinois home. 

Winter is an excellent time for reflection on the past year’s growing season and any gardening successes or failures to account for next year.  In this season of seed catalog mailings and New Year’s resolutions, I have found it to be an ideal time to set gardening goals for the coming year during the down time associated with the shortest days of the year.

I have always found it motivational to first focus on what I can accomplish prior to leaf out and the coming growing season.   One of the primarily activities that can be done in the dead of winter is pruning.