Good Growing Keeping you growing with good ideas Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Bringing Learning Outdoors Thu, 08 Mar 2018 11:17:00 +0000 Over the years, I've had the amazing fortune to work with my colleague Dawn Weinberg, who teachers Ag in the Classroom in Hancock County, to coordinator teacher workshops. In these workshops we provide lessons and resources about how teachers can utilize plants to teach a variety of subjects – math, literacy, science, and social studies in their classrooms.

Even at home, the garden can be used to help reinforce classroom learning in a fun and exciting way. Not only does the garden give chances for youth to be outside, it gets them excited about nature and the environment. Gardening also involves all the senses – hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling and tasting (if there are edible things growing in the garden).

Here are some ideas of how we can use gardening to encourage math, science, social studies, and literacy skills at home.

  • When out in the garden with youth – ask them questions about what they see that is different than the last trip. It encourages them to observe the world around them.
  • While exploring the garden – ask them to describe what they are looking at using descriptor words – color, feel, appearance, flowers, fruits, insects, etc. This is a great way to work on improving word usage and expanding their vocabulary.
  • If you are starting plants from seed – have them guess how long it will take them to sprout. Have them start a garden journal with dates of seeding, sprouting, and a weekly measurement of plant growth just for a few ideas. Take pictures each week of the plant(s) to visually track the changes over time. Trying growing giant sunflowers – having taught a youth program that grew sunflowers – the youth were beyond excited to see how big they became over the course of the growing season.
  • Have them read the seed packets with you and review words that they may not understand. Have them compare different seed packets and see what the differences between different plants are.
  • As we know, each plant needs a certain amount of area/space to grow, be it flowers, trees, shrubs, vegetables, etc. Have the youth help measure the area you will be planting and then sit down and with the space available, work together to developed a planting plan. This is a way to reinforce the concept of area – limited space so how do we make the most of what we have.
  • If they become excited about a certain plant or plants, have them research more information about those plants – where are they originally from, what are some fun and interesting facts about the plant. As the daughter of a librarian, I know the importance of information literacy and utilizing reliable sources, especially on the internet. This is a chance to reinforce with youth the importance of vetting sources for reliability and quality of information.
  • If a youth likes to write – ask them to write a poem about a flower in the garden, an insect, a tree, a shrub, etc.
  • If they are interested in butterflies – have them look into what plants they can grow to help butterflies and caterpillars and find a place to plant a butterfly garden.

There are so many possibilities of learning experiences in the garden, that what is above is just scratching the surface. Encouraging youth to be active outdoors, involved in nature, and appreciate the environment provide many benefits to youth now and in the future. There are multitude of studies that show the benefit of green space on youth and adults – from stress reduction, to better attention spans, increased physical activity, to supporting creativity and problem solving. Even if you don't have the space for an in ground garden, you can utilize container gardening to garden at home. You can visit a local park and explore, hikes trails at the local forest preserve, even taking a walk around your neighborhood and looking at trees and flowers is an opportunity to learn. The options to be able to explore, enjoy, and appreciate nature are endless.

A Primer to Supplemental Lighting for Indoor Seed Starting Mon, 05 Mar 2018 16:56:00 +0000 Perhaps my least favorite part of winter is waking up to darkness in the morning. This morning, as I led my half-asleep six-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.

Many gardeners have begun, or will soon begin starting seeds indoors for the upcoming growing season. We are so excited to get our tomatoes and peppers off to a quick start. We carefully plant the seeds, gently water, and tuck them in under a plastic cover to keep the humidity up. Every day brings new hope of germination as we peek under the lid, excepting to find the tips of the new plant pushing their way through the soil.

When the day comes, the gardener fills with joy. Seedlings have begun to emerge! The cover quickly is removed, but now what? It's too early to plant outside; the plants would get hit by a frost and perish. Now that the plant is stuck inside we need light and lots of it.

Starting seed indoors can be fraught with many perils for the plants. The one I most encounter is inadequate light. Some crops like lettuce can get by sitting on a bright windowsill. Still even in the case of lettuce and other greens, adding supplemental light would be beneficial.

Unfortunately, we just can't match the light intensity of the Sun, whether we put the plants under a grow light or in a bright window. And when we finally can transplant outside, we have leggy, floppy plants. Yes, "leggy" is a technical term in horticulture that describes elongated internodes (the section of stem between the leaves), due to the absence or low intensity of light. Okay, so the actual technical term is etiolation, "leggy" just sounds better.

At the garden center, the healthier tomato is often a shorter, stockier plant. The plant's stature indicates it received adequate light while growing at the nursery. So what is a home gardener to do when it comes to providing light to their seedlings?

A quick lesson in the physics of light, aka photons. The Sun beams photons at the Earth, which have varying wavelengths. These wavelengths are best observed in a rainbow; where on one side you can see red and orange light (longer wavelengths) and at the opposite are blue and violet (shorter wavelengths). Plants absorb mostly the red and blue ends of the spectrum, but not much green light, reflecting it instead, hence why plants are green.

To have a good seed starting light, you need to provide red and blue light. Some bulbs are cool-colored (blue) while others considered warm-colored (red). Use both warm and cool colored bulbs to offer a broader spectrum of light. A gardener could also opt for bulbs or tubes specially designed to give off a broad range of light these are called grow lights. Grow lights cost a bit more but may be worth it if you are a competitive gardener.

For my indoor seedlings, I turn to a simple fluorescent shop light. I prefer to use T5 fluorescent tubes as these are relatively affordable, while delivering ample light more efficiently than the older fluorescent bulbs (T12 and T8). Fluorescent tubes also produce very little heat. Therefore, I can lower the light fixture so the tubes are only a few inches from the tops of the plants. Tube light output diminishes with use. Most hardcore gardeners replace their tubes every year. I also use an automatic timer to provide the plants with 16 hours of supplemental light per day, with 18 hours being the maximum for seedlings.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are highly efficient at converting electrical energy into light energy. Commercial greenhouse growers are learning the ins and outs of growing with LEDs resulting in uniform, compact and sturdy seedlings. The commercial success for growers has increased manufacturing of LEDs, which is driving down the price of these fixtures, making them more affordable for homeowners. I hope to replace my T5s with LEDs in the coming years.

While my tomato seedlings sit under the fluorescent, I am basking in the glow of the Sun. Both plants and I are energizing for the coming gardening season.]]>
Bee Friendly To Pollinators Thu, 22 Feb 2018 16:34:00 +0000 Usually when people think of pollinators, the first thing that comes to mind is the honey bee (Apis mellifera). As important as honey bees are to pollination, there are a lot of other pollinators that are just as important. Native bees, Moths, butterflies, flies, bats, beetles, and wasps are all pollinators. There are over 4,000 native bees in North America alone. According to the Xerces Society, native bees are more effective then honey bees on pollinating on a bee-per-bee basis and also many native bees are active in colder and wetter conditions when honeybees are not.

Here are examples of plants that rely on pollinators other than honey bees.

  • The primary pollinator for squash plants are native bees also referred to as "squash bees."
  • Cacao (the plants that results in us having that wonderful thing called chocolate) is pollinated by only one insect – the Cacao midge which is a very tiny fly.
  • PawPaw, a native Illinois fruit tree, is pollinated by flies and beetles only.

I'll receive calls and emails from individuals wanting to know what they can do to help pollinators in their homes and communities. There are plenty of little things we can do to help all pollinators in our yards and gardens.

  • Leave those dandelions and violets in your yard. These are great sources for pollinators especially early in the season when there isn't much to offer. Also – violets are the only food source for 14 species of great frittilary butterfly larva.
  • Eliminate the use of pesticides in areas where you are providing pollinator habitat. If you do chose to use chemicals in the garden, thoroughly read the label first and apply only according to label and avoid spraying plants in bloom if at all possible. In any garden – chemical controls should be a last resort. We encourage using IPM, Integrated Pest Management, which includes cultural, physical, biological, and chemical controls.
  • Make sure to provide a diversity of flowering plants all season long. Great pollinator plants include wild indigo, coneflowers, black eyes Susan's, goldenrod, and milkweed to name a few.
  • Avoid using weed cloth or extremely thick layers of mulch. There are a large number of solitary ground-nesting bees that need easy access to the ground, you can still use mulch just don't go overboard. It's even better if you can leave a few bare spots here and there.
  • Provide water sources – trays, bird baths, etc. Just remember to change the water out at least once a week to prevent stagnation and to avoid it being a breeding site for mosquitoes.
Keep an Eye Out for These Winter-Blooming Plants Wed, 14 Feb 2018 16:37:00 +0000 You have to hand it to those Olympic athletes; they sure do make it look easy. Watching the 2018 Olympics with my family has inspired us to take to the slopes, that is, our small sledding hill. We took advantage of a snowy weekend and got in some much overdue sled riding. In the joyful moments of barreling headfirst down a steep hill with a six and four-year-old on my back, one doesn't think of the physical nature of playing in the snow. It turns out, I am not an Olympic athlete, at least that much is certain as I draft this article grateful for a soft chair, pain reliever, and a heating pad.

For most of the plant world, winter in the Midwest means the slumber of dormancy, bare branches, and the brown tufts of tall grasses and seed heads. As with many qualities of nature, there are exceptions to the rule of winter dormancy. Very soon, the handful of winter-blooming plants will begin their display. In fact, for those in Southern Illinois, the show may have already started! Following are a few winter-blooming plants to look for during the mid- to late winter months.

Ozark witch hazel – During my time at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, I will never forget the first time our tree identification class came across a witch hazel. It was the fall blooming common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). The witch hazel stood in the dimly lit understory of a park-like canopy of trees. I returned several weeks later in late autumn to observe the yellow ribbon-like blooms while the shade trees shed their leaves for the winter all around. It came to my attention there were several species of witch hazel, even some that bloomed in the middle of winter. Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is one species of note that blooms fragrant, yellow to blood red flowers from January to April (depending on the cultivar and your location). Considered more of a large shrub, Ozark witch hazel will send up suckers to form colonies making it appropriate as a large hedge, screen, or along woodland borders. Ozark witch hazel can be a landscape focal point by pruning any suckers.

Snowdrops – This plant lives up to its name. Dainty white flowers emerge in February often poking through snow cover, reaching almost six-inches in height. Native to Central Asia near Georgia's northern border to Russia, snowdrops (Galanthus alpinus) is a small bulb that will naturalize in a woodland understory or a lawn under large deciduous trees. Place snowdrops along pathways or within view of a window to observe the delicate nature of this plant. Once the weather begins to transition to summer, snowdrops foliage will yellow, fade out and go dormant.

Bloodroot – A recent favorite, I first noted bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) at the Carl Sandburg Birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois. In early March, Knox County Master Gardeners led me out to a lush groundcover dotted with solitary white flowers. They encouraged me to pick a leaf, and to my surprise, the profuse sap from the cut leaf dripped bright red. Bloodroot is an intriguing North American native, growing only ten-inches tall in the full shade of a woodland. The flowers are short-lived, but the foliage will continue to remain attractive into the late summer when the plant goes dormant.

Hellebores – Often marketed as Christmas or Lenten Rose, hellebores bloom starting February through March in Illinois. Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) blooms sooner than Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis), but both display large three to four-inch wide nodding flowers. A welcome sight in the middle of winter. Hellebores grow 18-inches tall in part to full shade. The evergreen foliage may turn brown during frigid weather without any snow cover. Prune off the damaged foliage and new growth will fill in later in the spring. Hellebore are very poisonous.

If I could give out Olympic medals, each of these plants would get gold for giving us a little bit of life during the doldrums of winter. As for myself, I may have to steal away one more winter adventure before the snow melts. However, this time I will remember to stretch a bit before resuming my role as a human sled for my children.]]>
Leafy Greens in the Garden Thu, 08 Feb 2018 12:16:00 +0000 I have come to the realization that my favorite plants are foliage plants – from pothos to huechera to lettuce and spinach. Spring is on the horizon which means it's going to be spring vegetable planting time before we know it and that includes some of those favorites.

Leafy green vegetables are some of the easiest vegetables to grow. They start readily from seed, can provide extend harvest periods, and are nutritionally healthy. Pretty good deal if you ask me. They are easily grown in containers as well as in-ground planting beds.

As for all vegetable gardening – timing of planting is important. Leafy greens can be seeded outdoors in late March/early April. Some will be okay throughout the summer, providing continual harvest, such as chard and kale. Others such as lettuce and spinach struggle in the heat and bolt, which means to flower and begin to produce seed. Lettuce and spinach that have bolted become bitter and are better pulled, placed in the compost pile, and replaced with a different crop. These two can be planted again later for a fall crop. Some loose leaf lettuces can potentially be grown later into the summer as they are a bit more heat tolerant if provided shade from taller crops or shade cloth and provided adequate moisture.

Leafy Greens – Recommended Planting Dates

  • Chard – April 10 – June 1
  • Kale – April 1 – 30 & July 1 – August 1
  • Leaf Lettuce – March 25 – May 15 & August 15 – September 15
  • Spinach – March 25 – April 15 & August 15 – 30

If you are growing in containers, make sure to use a high quality potting mix – avoid using garden soils or top soil. Chose a container that has drainage holes and large enough to accommodate a mature sized plant. Seed directly in the containers according to the directions on the seed packet.

Leafy greens prefer moist, well-drained soil when growing in the ground. Adding in compost to vegetable beds every year is beneficial to improving overall soil quality, especially if you are struggling with soils that have a higher clay content. If you are just getting started in the world of vegetable gardening, it's worthwhile having a soil test done. Soil tests are best done in the fall, if the pH of the soil needs modification, there is time for materials applied to have an effect before spring planting. If you didn't have a chance to have a soil test done in the fall, definitely do one this spring – it will give you a guide for nutrient management.

You can begin to harvest leafy greens once leaves are large enough to use. Seed packets will also provide information about when and how to harvest. Using scissors or a sharp knife to harvest leaves minimizes damage to the plant for those that will be continually harvested as compared with snapping leaves off. With greens such as kale, harvest the lower leaves and avoid harvesting from the top. Kale will continue to grow upwards as long as bottom leaves are continually harvested. I have seen some really tall kale plants over the years!

If you're wondering what to do with all the leafy greens you might harvest aside from salads or sautéed spinach or kale, there are a lot of great recipes that incorporate them. My inner foodie can't wait to cook with homegrown greens this year.

Does Sand Improve Clay Soil Drainage? Wed, 31 Jan 2018 15:21:00 +0000 My childhood home sat atop a bluff overlooking the Mill Creek Valley near Quincy. The view over bucolic farm fields and pastures likely was the kicker for why my parents purchased the property. It is a view that still holds me in a trance whenever I'm visiting my folks. However, the bluff upon which our house resided, was comprised of thick, red, gumbo clay!

My parents would send me out with a shovel so I could dig holes, much to my childhood delight. After all what better entertainment for a child! It is my assumption today they knew the soil was so heavy; my digging wouldn't take me down to China as I had hoped. Instead, my holes were a handful of inches. Regardless, I scraped away, with my oversized shovel. Who needs television when you have a shovel and an active imagination?

Over the years of gardening and landscaping on this property, we continually had to battle the clay soils. Only after efforts to build raised beds and add organic matter to the land with wood mulch, horse manure, and shredded leaves, did we begin to see a positive response from the garden and landscape plants.

First some hard truths about clay soil:

  1. Clay soil particles are the smallest of soil particles. Sand is the largest soil particle, with silt falling in the middle.
  2. Clay's soil particle shape is flat, or plate-like; meaning it's good at stacking on top of each other and creating a very "tight" soil.
  3. Clay is very good at preventing water from infiltrating into the soil profile, which leads to runoff and erosion problems.
  4. Clay is also very good at holding water. Clayey soils will stay wet longer than other soil types.

All these factors can create an environment that is not favorable to some plants or the gardener.

One garden misconception repeated routinely is to till sand into clay soil to break up the clay structure and facilitate better drainage. The idea stems from the fact that if clay is the smallest soil particle leading to poor drainage, and sand is the largest soil particle causing fast drainage, mixing the two will equal out to well-drained soil.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

When sand mixes with clay, it creates a soil structure akin to concrete. To create a real change in a clayey soil structure, you would need to add a 1:1 ratio of sand to clay. Considering the actual volume of clay soil underfoot, that equates to a lot of sand.

It is far more practical to use organic matter to help break up clay soil. Compost is your best bet, but organic matter can come from other sources like wood mulch, composted manure, shredded leaves, or even cover crops.

And sometimes the best course of action is to accept your lousy soil and use plants that prefer clayey conditions. Yes, these plants do exist! Plants such as columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), blazing star (Liatris), and many others will tolerate the sticky, wet mess of clay soils.

I suppose that if you do opt for the sand method, it does help to have a child with a love for digging holes, and lacking the sense to know any better.]]>
Updates and New Varieties Fri, 26 Jan 2018 13:43:00 +0000 So let's just say my re-obsession with succulents (that I mentioned back in December) has kind of exploded into lots of new plants in my house. I also discovered that the window I had my first new batch of succulents in wasn't providing enough natural light and they were beginning to stretch. Even though I wrote about being mindful about lighting and stretching – look what ended up happening. Whoops!

Last night I got creative with an adjustable metal rack with shelving. I was able to adjust it so that I could put all my new succulents under a grow light (ummm….so the addiction is full blown – I'm now the happy plant owner of 26 succulents). The supplemental lighting will help address the stretching issue and will prevent my other newly obtained succulents from stretching at all. You don't need to buy expensive grow lights to provide supplemental lighting – one cool and one warm fluorescent bulb will work just fine. Just remember that supplemental light is not the equivalent of real sunlight so the lights need to be run longer to account for that. For every 1 hour of sun a plant needs, supplemental lighting needs to be run for 2 hours to provide the same benefits. Plants also need a rest period and do need a period of darkness. Make sure to either remember to turn the supplemental lights off manually each night or for ease get a timer.

So in the shelving reorganization I also got creative and was able to set it up so that the bottom half will be the home to my hydroponic set up. I ordered all the supplies and they arrived yesterday – so now that I have the rockwool, I can get seeds started. If you decide to build a DIY hydroponics system – you'll want to start the seeds outside the system. Soak the rockwool in water for at least 30 minutes, plant the seeds, and then keep the rockwool moist in a tray until your seedlings have developed long enough roots and then they can be placed into the net pots in your setup.

With that little update, I have to say I'm grateful for the fact that I have space for plants indoors, but I am truly itching for spring and being able to get outside and garden. I'm ready for fresh grown tomatoes and to be able to say good bye to cold weather. This of course led me to start researching what new varieties of vegetables are coming out this year. I was pleasantly surprised and happy to see a number of vegetable varieties that are good for growing in containers. I grew vegetables in containers for years when I was renting and couldn't dig up the yard and still do even with an in ground garden. Some of the varieties suitable for containers that caught my eye included:

  • 'Sugaretti' (spaghetti squash)
  • 'Patio Pride' (pea – can be eaten as a sugar snap or wait till it's mature for shelling),
  • 'Hansel' and 'Gretel' (eggplant)
  • 'Sunrise Sauce' (tomato that can be used to make sauce)

The first day of spring is March 1 – the gardening season is inching closer and I can't wait to see how this year turns out.