Hollies are common landscape plants and even more common holiday decorations that belong to the incredibly diverse genus Ilex which contains over 400 species, both evergreen and deciduous, that hail from all corners of the globe. 

A locally adapted holly species or cultivar is relatively easy to grow and they are fairly disease and insect free. They are incredibly prunable, with dormant buds at the ready to fill in and many do quite well with rejuvenation near ground level if their canopy needs an overall reset. 

As fall progresses and most plants lose their leaves or retreat to their winter dormancy, portions of the landscape can appear bare and boring for winter.  Evergreens and woody plants are commonly considered the best specimens for winter interested, providing structure throughout the seasons to stand out in winter as other plants fade.  However, there are quite a few native herbaceous plants that hold their own in winter but are often overlooked.

There are many oddities of the plant world that are hard to pass up without some questions.  Based on the perspective of the beholder, some of these strange phenomena may lead to either wonder or concern. 

White pine has beautiful color that is expressed in the yellow innermost needles this time of year.

The beauty of fall is upon us with splashes of exorbitant color all around the landscape.  In the past week, red maples (Acer rubrum) have nearly reached their peak color for the season, displaying fire-red leaves that scream for attention.  The brilliant yellows of shagbark (Carya ovata) and pignut hickory (Carya glabra) have been turned on like a switch to produce golden clouds of canopy and an equally stunning understory color in area woodlands. 

Right now, mums are available at local garden centers in a wide variety of colors.

Throughout the fall season, garden centers are filled with a beautiful selection of mums (short for chrysanthemums).   In the garden, mums provide a both a spectacular fall display and a late season nectar source for pollinating insects. 

Native plants are ever gaining popularity as gardeners seek specimens with high ecological value in support of declining insect pollinator populations.  Among the almost 2,300 plant species known to be native in Illinois, our native shrubs are often overlooked and underappreciated in the landscape.  However, many offer a wide variety of ornamental attributes along with high pollinator value.

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is one of only two hydrangea species native to Illinois.  This small and often overlooked native shrub is much more prevalent in southern Illinois, although it occasionally occurs in our part of the state as well.  Its dainty lacecap flowers attract a wide range of pollinators and its foliage serves as food source for the caterpillars of two native moths, lending ecological value to this attractive, shade-loving native.

Noteworthy plants in natural areas can be the superstars of landscaping when gardeners learn to harness their natural tendencies and display their most virtuous attributes.  One group of plants that I have often underestimated are sedges (Carex spp.). 

Vegetable Gardening with Raised Beds

The spring-like weather this past week has been phenomenal.  Although we may see a return to cooler weather since March is known to “come in like a lion”, it was certainly a sign of things to come.  I’m really looking forward to March’s exit as it “goes out like a lamb” and the 2022 gardening season takes shape.


In recent years, gardeners have become increasingly interested in maximizing the benefits their garden spaces can provide for pollinating insects.  We know that these important insect friends are struggling with declining populations reported by research from around the globe, which had put additional emphasis on the need for more pollinator habitat. 


While this winter has brought little ice and snow cover, this past weekend’s winter weather put a coating of ice on most smooth surfaces.  Gardeners, businesses, parks and others with landscaping near walkways must apply deicing salts for safety, but these products can harm plant life. 

Urban trees provide a variety of benefits which are going to be increasingly important as climate change impacts Illinois in coming years.

Last month, the US Forest Service released a technical report titled, “Climate Adaptation Actions for Urban Forests and Human Health.”   The report includes a summation of the current research related to urban trees and climate change, looking at how trees benefit human health, how climate change is impacting urban trees and how we can help our urban forests adapt.

‘Forest Pansy’ is a cultivar of our native redbud that offers unique purple foliage.

The ornamental value of landscape trees can be weighed by a variety of attributes, from interesting bark in the wintertime or colorful blooms in spring to the character of leaves that persists during the growing season. However, the foliage that embellishes branches to create a summertime canopy of beauty is often lost in the sea of green chlorophyll that fills the plant world during the growing season. I have always been interested in landscape trees with unique or interesting foliage that can provide a different splash of foliar color in summer.

Forsythia is currently blooming across central Illinois with clusters of bright yellow flowers creating a dramatic display.

Every spring, the awakening plant world has those hard-to-miss harbingers which alert us that winter is over and help to welcome spring.  In native plant communities, I think of spring ephemeral wildflowers as the primary signal and watch intently for their blooms each year.  However, in the built environment, there are other, nonnative plants that signal spring with their unmistakable displays.  While tulips and daffodils are probably a few of the most recognized ornamental plants in the early spring landscape, there is one shrub that has always been the beacon o

Standing dead stems are important overwintering habitat that should not be removed from the garden until insects emerge later in spring.

This past week’s warmer weather has been an exhilarating blast of spring when contrasted with the icy, extreme cold just one week earlier.  The warmup has spurred many of us to get back out in the garden to start getting ready for spring.  While our landscape beds and gardens will be places of burgeoning spring beauty as plant life begins its annual revival in the coming weeks, they are also ecological hotspots of awakening spring life in the insect world.

Native butterfly milkweed is a favorite among gardens for its beautiful flowering display and high wildlife value, but native plants are a surprising minority of plant material available for purchase each year in the US.

Native plants are becoming a larger part of our built environment each year as more and more gardeners begin to recognize their value. Natives support local ecosystems and wildlife habitat in ways that are increasingly important as our human footprint on the landscape grows.  From professionals to backyard gardeners, there is a growing demand for native plants, especially as many realize their ornamental and functional value in the landscape as well.

Hand pollination of last year’s hosta flowers produced the seeds used to grow this tray of hosta seedlings.  However, it will take a few more years for these plants to mature and truly express the traits gained from hybridization. Photo credit: Barb and Rick Schroeder

Plants in the genus Hosta, collectively referred to as hostas, are one of the premier plants for ornamental gardens that lack full sun.  These resilient perennials are a mainstay of Midwestern shade gardens and remain popular in temperate regions worldwide. However, that wasn’t always the case, leading many folks to source hostas from fellow gardeners or grow their own.

These young prairie dropseed plants will mature into a nice sidewalk border of thin, feathery vegetation.

Nothing beats the light and airy look of tall, distinctive grasses in a landscape arrangement. The fluffy seedheads and slender, and attractive stems practically dance in the wind on breezy days, adding texture as well as a structural element to any landscape bed.   

For many years, there was a trend toward more ornamental and non-native grasses. Recently, there has been a growing interest in incorporating our native prairie grasses, given their inherent adaptability to our climate and their exceptional ecological value. 

Colorado blue spruce is a non-native, commonly planted landscape tree that suffers from many issues here in Illinois.

Spring is a great time for planting new trees in the landscape. There is ample rainfall to support your newly planted specimen and the warming temperatures and mild weather motivate many of us to get out in the garden and plant things. However, there are some commonly sold trees that fall onto my “do not plant” list. Many such plants make my list for their invasive habit, but some are on there for insect or disease issues or just generally poor performance as urban trees. 

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.

burning bush

This past week, the vivid red leaves of our native maples have really stolen the show, reaching near peak fall color for the year.  I have always loved the brilliant red colors of autumn leaves, making burning bush (Euyonomous alata) an old favorite of mine. However, in recent decades this plant has emerged on invasive species lists from the East Coast to the Midwest, which has forced me to take it off my personal list of recommended landscape plants.

Fall color is beginning to paint tree canopies around central Illinois, making the next few weeks prime time for taking in the beauty.   Among our native trees, sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) typically get credit for the most beautiful and colorful display, but many of Illinois’ native oak trees put on a wonderful show of their own.

Fall annuals can breathe life into waning gardens late in the growing season, filling in among fading flowers to add beauty and interest.  Mums seem to be the quintessential fall annual, although perennial in our area if established early enough in the season, packing the garden centers with blooms ranging from yellow or orange to deep red and purple. 

Urban trees provide beauty and definition to our cities and most of us have a love and appreciation of these denizens of the boulevard and backyard.  In recent years, a body of research has emerged showing even greater benefits than previously understood to both the environment and our existence as humans. 

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. 

This time of year, daylilies are far from the center of attention in most landscapes.  The beautiful, vibrant flowers that adorn the scapes of most traditional varieties earlier in summer have long faded, leaving a much less interesting plant that very much resembles a clump of grass. As their name implies, each flower only lasts one day, yielding to subsequent flower buds that open for a period of just a few weeks in many cases. 

How many times have you been kept up at night worrying about a poisonous plant?  Hopefully, for most of us the answer to that question will be ‘not many’.  For better or worse, humankind has not always had a well-defined separation from the plant world as we often see today. 

I always love it when a particular plant that I know from the natural world doubles as a landscape plant.  Not everything that is beautiful in nature can handle what we throw at it in human landscapes, some native plants are just too sensitive.  However, one old favorite of mine from wetland habitats across Illinois is quickly becoming a new favorite in landscape situations as well, not only it for its beauty or its great benefits to pollinators, but also for its overall adaptability in the landscape. 

The ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea is a cultivar that was originally collected from a wild specimen in southern Illinois and remains one of the most popular in production today.

The ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea has been a mainstay of the ornamental shrub world since its release in the 1960’s.  This showy shrub is filled with beautiful snowball-like flowers that adorn its spindly branches each summer.  The blooms begin as pretty green puffs that turn white at maturity, often lasting 6-8 weeks throughout June and July, and gradually changing to a tan color to provide interest throughout fall and winter.   

Imagine spending years establishing and cultivating a beautiful landscape on your property, only for it to be destroyed in a heartbeat from a severe storm.  Couple that with a limb through your roof and you have a real disaster on your hands!  Who do you call?  What do you do about your roof?  How will your garden ever recover? In the past two weeks or so, Master Gardener Pam Hohn and her husband, Chris, have faced a steep learning curve on this matter following extensive damage from a recent tornado.

June weather in Illinois is some of the best of the year. After our overly wet spring, I am sure most area gardeners are looking forward to sunny skies ahead and anxious to wrap any spring gardening plans that were delayed.  Sunny June skies will be a welcome addition to the 2019 Vermilion County Garden Walk as last year was a bit rainy.   This year’s event features a number of garden spaces that Master Gardeners are well acquainted with, but the general public often doesn’t visit. 

A startling report on global biodiversity was release by the United Nations this week noting an alarming trend in worldwide species extinction.  We, humans were pegged as the primary cause of an increase in extinction rates to the highest levels in human history.  Specifically, around 25% of the species assessed are threatened, suggesting that one million of the eight million known species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

In many communities there are iconic trees that nearly everyone recognizes and admires in passing during daily life.  The spreading, stately tree at the corner of University and Prospect Avenue in Champaign is certainly a historic and interesting specimen.  I cannot count the times that someone has asked me, “what kind of tree is that?”, nor can I count the times that I have sat at the stoplight on University Ave admiring that tree as I waited. 

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.

Nothing signals the coming of spring quite like a daffodil (Narcissus psuedonarcissus) in full bloom.  After winter slumber as bulbs beneath the ground, these tiny plants emerge very early in the year to put on a spectacular flowering display each spring.  These delightful harbingers of the spring season actually have some interesting evolutionary adaptations which allow them to thrive in a wide variety of environments, making them such great performers in our landscapes and gardens.

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 multitudes of seed catalog mailings, 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 and coldest 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. 

The cold of winter is absent in the Danville Area Community College (DACC) greenhouses right now, making them a wonderful oasis of green plants and horticulture in action.  The 6,125 square foot facility, located in the heart of the Danville College’s campus is operated by various students and instructors in the Horticulture Program.  It not only serves as a lush collection of beautiful tropical plants, but also houses a number of ongoing experiments related to coursework or specific projects developed by the DACC horticulture staff.

Winter time is somewhat of a downtime for deciduous trees.  After a growing season’s worth of beautiful foliage, culminating in the wonderful fall display of color, woody plants enter the long, cold season of dormancy that is part of their annual life.  For many of us, this is not a time of arboreal beauty or great ornamental value, but rather a time of dull, bare tree canopies cast against our wintery skies.  However, I find winter as a time to reflect on one of the most often overlooked aspects of tree beauty, which lies in the character of their bark. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment was released last fall in two volumes, containing information about how climate change is affecting the physical earth system across the US and a detailed assessment of how those changes now, and in the future, will impact our country.  The report documents aspects of climate change already measured across the US and paints a dismal outlook, with climate change occurring faster than projected by past assessments. 

Most of us think of tree leaves when we think about beautiful fall foliage, but many ornamental grasses provide wonderful fall color that often extends well into the winter season.  Right now is an excellent time to observe these grasses in the landscape and consider how we might integrate them into our own gardens. 

The Douglas Discovery Garden is an outstanding gem of Vermilion County and the Danville area.  It offers a wide variety of gardening applications for area residents to observe and learn from so they can apply these practices in their own gardens.  The beautiful space also has an interesting history of learning behind it, or some may say underneath it.

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. 

Eleven years ago, the US Senate unanimously approved the designation of a week in June as National Pollinator Week, marking a huge step in recognizing both the value of our pollinators and the plight they have faced nationwide.  Governors in all 50 states have also recognized the same Pollinator Week in their states.   This week (June 18-24) is National Pollinator week, the perfect time to reflect on the value of these hardworking animals.

Master Gardeners across Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion Counties are planning a great line up of Garden Walks in the coming few weeks.  These events offer a wonderful opportunity to observe the diversity and individuality of garden spaces designed by a wide range of area gardeners.  All the gardens included in these events were selected based on their exemplary display and unique features.  Participants are encouraged to ask questions and take pictures as each Garden Walk was designed to inspire new ideas among beginning and avid gardeners alike.  

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.

If you are like me and your lizard brain apparently controls more of your actions than it should, then you can relate to a primal need to provide habitat for our reptilian friends. 

Urban and developed landscapes can often be difficult places for reptile and amphibian populations to flourish although our cold-blooded friends do provide many desirable services: pest control, increasing biodiversity and providing opportunities for recreational observation of wildlife. 

With last week’s Easter snow, it is hard to believe that the frost-free dates for our area are fast approaching.  Hopefully April will follow a more March-like tradition of “in like lion and out like a lamb”. 

The “frost-free” date for the Champaign area is around April 15th, which is the spring median date for overnight lows above 32⁰, meaning we still have about a 50/50 chance for frost on that date.   By April 30th, the chance for frost in our area drops to about 10%, with the latest recorded date for temps below 32⁰ being May 21st. 

Potatoes are a cool season vegetable that are among the world’s food staples, ranking number four in the list behind rice, wheat and corn.  This native to the South American Andes was domesticated around 7,000 years ago.  Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers observed indigenous use of the potato during their travels and brought the first specimens to Europe in the late 1500’s. 

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. 

If you have not visited the formal gardens at Allerton Park and Retreat Center, near Monticello, I strongly recommend making the trip.  These spectacular gardens combine exquisite landscape design with sculptures from around the globe to create a flowing transition from Robert Allerton’s magnificent, Georgian-inspired home (constructed in 1900) to 1,500 acres of pristine natural areas in the surrounding park.  It is truly a remarkable and historic place in Central Illinois, combining art, history, and elaborate design with the flourishing, unimpeded ecosystem of the Sangamon River corridor.

In recent years, a new gardening phenomenon has gained popularity in the US, but it gets its roots abroad.  Keyhole gardening is a technique that was developed in Africa, for use in dry, arid climates with low soil fertility.  It has proven to be such an effective, sustainable method of small scale plant production that US gardeners have readily adapted across the country.