Good Growing Keeping you growing with good ideas Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Stepping into the world of Succulents Wed, 13 Dec 2017 13:40:00 +0000 So recently I've become a bit re-obsessed with succulents, especially soft succulents you can grow indoors. It started back when I did a presentation on Hardcore Houseplants and came across a kalanchoe called Panda Plant in my research. Then I was up visiting my mom for Thanksgiving and she has a very large Jade plant that needed a trim. Being a sucker for plant propagation – I took the cuttings home to see if I could get them to root out (so far so good). My program this month on Favorite Holiday Plants, I included a kalanchoe which led to an attendee mentioning Mother-of-Thousands, a different species of kalanchoe. Mother-of-Thousands is a neat succulent that produces little baby plants along the edges of the leaves and then they drop down into the pot rooting easily. All of this, has resulted in my upping my knowledge on succulents and ordering a jade, a Mother-of-Thousands, and four echeverias.

For clarification there are both hardy and soft succulents. The hardy ones can usually survive down to Zone 5, some even down to Zone 4. Whereas the soft succulents can only be planted outside in much warmer zones such as 9, 10, & 11. Here we can grow them inside in winter and then they can spend the summer outdoors doing best receiving filtered sunlight. Common soft succulents include kalanchoe, jade, echeveria, senecio, aloe, and tender sedums.

Succulents are plants that have adapted to survive in arid growing conditions with the fleshy stems and leaves allowing for water storage. This also makes them quite suitable to growing indoors especially in winter when humidity is often very low. They do best in a window that receives bright indirect sunlight for about 6 hours a day. Without adequate light, succulents will begin to stretch and elongate and colorful succulents begin to revert to green. Try and remember to turn the plant each week so that all sides of the plant over time are gaining adequate sunlight.

The number one killer for succulents is overly moist soil resulting in root rot – adequate drainage is critical. When selecting a container to grow your succulents in, chose one with a drainage hole to allow access water to flow out the bottom of the pot. Unglazed terra-cotta pots are a great choice for succulents. When selecting a growing medium, chose a mix that is labeled for succulents/cacti.

When it comes to watering, succulents are low maintenance. Let the soil dry out completely between waterings – overwatering results in rot and yellowing leaves. In the middle of winter – you may not need to water more than once every few weeks and more often when the succulents are actively growing. Always remember to check the soil moisture prior to watering – if the soil medium isn't completely dry, wait.

There isn't a high demand for nutrients either when growing succulents. Use a low nitrogen fertilizer at half the labeled rate to avoid burning the plants. You only will need to fertilize during the months of active growth – spring and summer. Once a month is more than adequate. There is no need to fertilize during the winter months as the growth has slowed with shorter days. Over fertilization of succulents results in poor growth that is weak and can be more prone to rot.

I can see the world of succulents becoming a deep, dark, dangerous hole with the number of varieties available and the ease of care. It's going to be even more fun once these plants are far enough along I can try my hand at propagation. Now to make sure I have enough window space ready to go!

What if Winter Never Arrives in the Midwest? Tue, 05 Dec 2017 14:18:00 +0000 I've heard it on the news, in conversation, and social media, "This warm late fall weather sure is great! I hope the entire winter is like this!"

Is this weather great? Of course! Last weekend I took my kids out to Dickens on the Square, a pleasant downtown event in Macomb. In years past, we are bundled up, freezing as we walk from activity to activity. This year, 2017, Dickens on the Square was jacket weather. As I write, the temperature in Macomb is 63 degrees Fahrenheit on December 4. By the time you read this, our weather will return to levels that are more seasonal. Already I see the wind has picked up, blowing in a chilly breeze from the north.

But the statement remains in my head, "I hope the entire winter is like this!" That statement begs the question, what if the weather stayed warm the entire winter. Let's go down this hypothetical thought path.

What would happen if our Midwestern winter was more akin to spring or fall weather? First thing, our soils would not freeze. As soil freezes and thaws it expands and contracts, breaking large clods into smaller pieces, naturally moving soil and its many components (organic matter, nutrients, micro and macro organisms, etc.) through the top inches of soil horizon. Many farmers and gardeners rely on the freeze/thaw of winter to break up tilled land to create a soil surface more conducive to seeding next spring. Without the freeze/thaw cycle of winter, tilled gardens and fields would retain their large soil clods.

The freeze/thaw effect is also a component of the germination process of many native prairie seeds. A combination of expanding and contracting soils and exposure to cold temperatures is what many native prairie seeds require to break dormancy.

Insect populations also are boosted by warm winter temperatures. However, our native insects are adapted to the warmest and coldest winters the Midwest can throw at them. Even though a lot of the bad insects survive, so do the predators of those pests. When it comes to our native insects, it equals out.

The problem lies in the non-native pests that have no natural predators and plagued our landscapes in recent years. Consider the Japanese beetle. Japanese beetles, while thriving mid-summer, are from a milder location in Asia. In their grub stage, Japanese beetles will tunnel down lower in the soil profile to escape the freezing soil. Fortunately, they can only travel so far in the soil. According to retired Extension entomologist, Phil Nixon, "Research has shown that Japanese beetle grubs do not migrate deeper than 11 inches into the soil for the winter. They die if the soil temperature reaches 15 degrees F or if they are subjected to freezing temperatures for two months."

Mild winter weather will also signal many of our pollinators to emerge and begin foraging. Even with the warm temperatures, there will be no flowering plants due to the short days of winter. A mild winter will place again another stress on our native pollinators, hastening their decline into extinction.

Many plants also have specific chilling requirements (under 45 degrees F) to break dormancy and initiate flowering, fruiting, and leaf emergence. If you grow fruit or nut trees, a mild winter means you will not meet your chilling requirement. As an example, on average most varieties of apple trees require over 1,200 chilling hours. What's more, fluctuating temperatures from warm to cold increases the number of chilling hours. If an apple tree doesn't get that 1,200 minimum of chilling hours, fruit development is hampered and causes a significant impact on commercial and backyard orchard growers across the state.

Before you tell me, "This warm late fall weather sure is great! I hope the entire winter is like this!" please think about what you just read. Mentioned prior is just the tip of the melting iceberg. If it is warm winter weather you desire, I hear Arizona is lovely this time of year.]]>
Waltzing Through Seed Catalogs Fri, 01 Dec 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Eeep!! It's December! Where did 2017 go? This time of year is always a bit melancholy but for gardeners, the sun is right over the horizon. Seed catalogs will soon be gracing mailboxes all over. I love seed catalogs – all the beautiful pictures and information to entice you, usually resulting in your eyes being bigger than your garden space.

It's so easy to be drawn in by new varieties and old favorites and with limited garden space how do you chose. Maybe you're new to vegetable gardening and aren't sure where to being. Those seed catalogs can be really overwhelming sometimes. So here's a few ideas to keep your seed selection in tune with the garden space.

  • Take the time to find out how much space you have available. Go out and measure it if you don't have that information already. This is going to be your limiting factor – each plant has a spacing requirement and if the garden is big enough you need to plan for walkway space to maneuver through the garden. Spacing requirements for each individual vegetable can usually be found in the garden catalogs.
  • Make a list of vegetables you'll actually eat. It might seem very simplistic – but it's a good starting place. Grow things that you're going to eat and enjoy eating. I am someone that always likes to try new things, so if you are adventurous – maybe add one thing to the list you want to try growing that you aren't familiar with.
  • Read through all the different varieties and cultivars. There are a lot of options available. A fun part about starting from seed, it can give you access to plants such as heirloom varieties which may not be available locally. When looking at those cultivars and varieties see what they say about disease or insect resistance. If you're a returning gardener and you know you had certain disease or insect issues previously, see if there are varieties that offer resistance. As you're going through the catalog, make a list of what calls out to you including the variety or cultivar.
  • Put the list aside for a few days and come back to review it with a clear mind. See if the list still sounds appealing. Now is the time to evaluate if you will be able to eat everything on your list. Maybe it's more that you can eat fresh, but can provide you enough to be able to freeze or can. You're probably wondering how you would know how much would be produced. Iowa State University Extension offers a free pdf that has the average potential yield of different vegetables per 10 foot row. You can find that document here:
  • Make a basic map of your garden based on the spacing information for each vegetable you listed and see if you can realistically fit it into the garden space you have. If not it's back to modifying your selections.

You might be wondering why so many steps just to figure out what seeds to order, but in the long run the idea is to only order what you want and can fit into your garden. Trust me from personal experience – it's dangerous to just start adding seed packets to your cart and then trying to figure out how to make it all fit. Take the time to plan ahead and save yourself time and money as well as having a vegetable garden that will provide you with bountiful produce all season long.

Giving Thanks Tue, 21 Nov 2017 10:15:00 +0000 What is on your list of thanks this Thanksgiving? After all, that is the question of the week. I am grateful for many things. Too much to list here. If I could distill down to a few core items for which I give thanks, the following is what I have to offer.

I am grateful for healthy soil. Yes, I said soil. The same stuff most people call 'dirt.' The same thing we work so hard to keep off our cars, shoes, and out of the house. The very substance that plagues fingernails and a child's hands. Whatever you have to be thankful for this year, you also had better thank soil.

Think about the Thanksgiving meal. Without soil, there is no sweet potato casserole, apple pie, or warm buttery dinner rolls. Even the meat be it turkey, ham, or tofu resides on your table because of soil. Soil is the foundation (literally) for life.

Unfortunately, for many in Central Illinois and throughout the world, tables are sparse, even bare of food year-round. That is why I am also thankful for volunteers. This year, Master Gardeners in Knox and McDonough Counties grew a combined total of 4,789 pounds of produce to donate to local food pantries. We grow the donated produce in our GIFT (Growing Illinois Food Together) Garden in Macomb and the Carl Sandburg Community Garden in Galesburg. If you are interested in learning about growing fresh vegetables and giving back to your community, please come out and join us! Contact the McDonough or Knox County Extension office for more information.

In addition to growing food, Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists give back so much of their time and knowledge to their communities. It is wonderful to get to work with such amazing people. In the past five years, our local volunteers in Henderson, Knox, McDonough, and Warren Counties have donated 23,660 hours of service back to their community, which equates to a $557,422 value.

Which brings me to my next item of thankfulness, my job! Being an Extension educator allows me to work in, study, collaborate and write about stewarding the landscape. Whether it's building a rain garden, troubleshooting a stressed tree, growing tasty veggies, or restoring a prairie, every day brings something new. I get to work with community members and organizations, meet new people, teach and learn from others. Moreover, I get to work outside! To me, that is a great benefit to the job.

It is because of my job I get to write this weekly column. Over a year contributing to Good Growing has been very rewarding. Writing these articles forces me to explore horticultural topics more than I would otherwise. Writing has imparted me far more knowledge as a result. Thank you, readers!

Finally yet most importantly, I am thankful for my family. Their support over the years has brought me far and will take me farther still. Beyond thanks, is hope for the future, especially as I think of my three children. A hope of healthy soil, full tables and bellies, good volunteers, fulfilling jobs and opportunities, and family.

Happy Thanksgiving!]]>
Grow Herbs and Lettuce Indoors this Winter Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:55:00 +0000 Just because days are shorter and colder and the outdoor gardening days are over, doesn't mean that it all must come to an end. Indoors we can have our green houseplants, but what if I told you – you can have herbs and lettuce and eat them too!

You can grow a number of herbs and lettuce indoors even in the middle of winter, short days and all. Whether you are growing indoors or outdoors, please still have the same needs but indoors in winter the two restricting factors that can affect growth is light levels and humidity.

Lettuce and herbs usually need between 6-8 hours of bright light each day. Southern exposure windows are great. If your windows don't receive that kind of light during the winter months, you can use supplemental lighting. You can use specialty grow lights, which can be more expensive, or you can use 2 40 watt cool white fluorescent lights held 6-12 inches above the plants for 14-16 hours per day. Supplemental lighting is not equivalent to natural light which is why the lights need to run for longer. For every 1 hour of natural light you need around 2 hours of supplemental lighting. Room temperatures are best 70 degrees and below so make sure to avoid placing your herbs or lettuce near a direct heat source.

If you are lucky enough to have a window with lots of natural light make sure to rotate your containers every few days. Plants will lean towards the light which is called phototropism. So to encourage even growth turning the containers is helpful and recommended.

Make sure all the containers you are using to growing your herbs or lettuce have drainage holes and utilize a good quality potting mix. Don't use top soil in your containers. You'll want to plan on a water-soluble fertilizer every 2 weeks for your herbs, but don't fertilize more often. Fertilizing more often can negatively affect the flavor and aroma of your herbs.

To increase humidity you can cluster plants together making sure to give some space between for good air circulation. Another option is a tray with pebbles in it. Fill the tray with water to just below the tops of the pebbles and place your pots on the top of the pebbles. As the water evaporates it adds extra humidity to the air.

At this point you're probably wondering what herbs you can grow indoors and what kind of lettuce. With lettuce, your best bet is loose leaf lettuce. Usually loose leaf lettuce can be harvested at about 4 weeks. I'm a fan of loose leaf lettuce mixes and they are great in the garden in spring and fall as well. As for herbs – basil, chives, oregano, thyme, winter savory, rosemary, parsley, sage and mint all do well indoors. For herbs – harvest what you need when you need it for use in cooking. If you are using fresh herbs in place of dried herbs in recipe the conversion rate is 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs for every 1 teaspoon of dried.

A look at some Illinois native trees Fri, 03 Nov 2017 10:34:00 +0000 The other day I was teaching a group about native Illinois trees and of course I was all excited because I was teaching about trees which is my number one passion. I know in the past I've talked about native plants and have of course mentioned my number one favorite tree that just happens to be an Illinois native – Taxodium distichum Baldcypress. So I figured this time around I would focus on some small and medium sized native Illinois trees considering Baldcypress has the potential to reach 50-70 feet tall!

I want to preface this article with something that I feel is very important in regards to trees – and that's the idea of tree diversity. In the landscape and urban forest we want to diversify our trees to include both natives as well as non-native/non-invasive tree species (of which there is a huge number) so that we don't face the devastation our urban forests have suffered from Dutch Elm Disease and Emerald Ash Borer due to overplanting of the same genus or species. With that said – let's take a look at some interesting Illinois native trees.

American Hophornbeam (Osrya virginiana) – This tree is considered one of Illinois' toughest native hardwoods resistant to a variety of insects and diseases. Reaching 30-40 feet, it is a slow grower, growing less than a foot each year but worth the time. It should be noted that American Hophornbeam is very sensitive to salts so avoid areas where salt sprays or salt run off from deicer salts can occur. This tree is better suited to a larger area where it's drooping, horizontal branches have room to show off its beauty. This tree also has another interesting feature – hop-like looking fruits . Plant in part-shade to full sun in well-drained soils in the spring to allow it time to establish in the soil.

Carolina Silverbell (Halesia Carolina) – This is considered a medium sized tree reaching 30-40 feet tall providing white flowers in the spring time and yellow leaf color in the fall but it is known for dropping leaves early. Make sure to plant this tree in the spring to allow time for it to establish in the soil and it will even tolerate some shade but avoid alkaline sites as it can cause iron chlorosis to occur. A slightly acidic part shade site in moist, well-drained soils is the perfect location for Carolina Silverbell.

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) – This tree has a number of different names including Juneberry, Shadbush, and Servicetree. It produces a very tasty fruit, ripening early to mid-summer, for which you must be speedier then the birds to harvest or provide some level of protection (netting) to keep the birds from getting the fruit first. Downy Serviceberry can reach 15-25' tall and can grow either as a multi-trunk or single stem tree that blooms white in the spring with yellow-orange to red fall color. This tree is also tolerant of poorly drained sites and black walnut.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) – How can you talk about native Illinois trees and not include the iconic Eastern Redbud? This small tree native understory tree can reach 20-30 feet tall with available cultivars such as The Rising Sun only reaching 12-15 feet tall and provides peachy-tangerine colored leaves throughout the growing season or Forest Pansy with distinctive purple-red colored leaves all season. Both have the traditionally recognized flower color of the common Eastern Redbud but with a few spiced up features – shorter height and interesting leaf color.

River Birch (Betula nigra) – Did you know that River Birch is actually an Illinois native? This trees pushes the boundary of being considered a medium size tree (medium is usually up to about 50') but can range anywhere from 40-70' and there are cultivars available that are much shorter. Fox Valley River Birch (Betula nigra 'Little King') only reaches 8-10 feet tall which is much smaller and more space friendly for small yards. River Birch are prized for their cinnamon colored exfoliating bark – providing wonderful winter interest in the landscape. As is implied in the name River Birch preferred moist well-drained soils – so avoid planting them on high and dry locations such as berms. For fun tree trivia the tallest River Birch on record is 145 feet tall.

What to do With Fall Leaves? Fri, 27 Oct 2017 07:42:00 +0000 Once again, it is that time of year. Farmers toil in the fields, families meander through corn mazes, and neighborhoods prepare for masked and hooded goblins and superheroes. Windows flung open, welcoming the crisp, fresh air of autumn. Everything becomes pumpkin flavored and…*cough, cough*! Oh no! Close the windows! And yes *cough* people start burning leaves.

Though most municipalities ban leaf burning, I live in the county, where burning leaves goes unabated. If you are leaf burner, this column is for you.

Burning leaves is a waste of energy. Locked inside that leaf are nutrients ready to recycle back into the soil. It took nature eons to build that soil and create a system of nutrient cycling. Trees pull that energy from the soil, use it in the process of making leaves, (actually used in all types of plant growth and development), then the leaves fall to the ground, they decompose, and return that energy to the soil. Burning leaves robs the soil of that recycled energy.

So what is a homeowner to do with all these leaves? You can expedite that recycling of energy-rich carbon leaves back into the soil through composting. Compost is incredibly beneficial to soil of all types, especially heavy clay or sandy soils. Hence the term 'black gold'.

To compost leaves, gather them up in whatever way is most suitable. I put the collection bag on the mower and mow my yard collecting leaves along the way.

In a successful compost pile you need carbon and nitrogen, ideally at a ratio of 30:1 respectively. Carbon should be the bulk of your compost pile. Carbon is your fall leaves. Nitrogen is the fuel of the composting process. Sources of nitrogen are lawn clippings, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, or any green living plant material. Some home composters use nitrogen fertilizer.

Air and water are the last two ingredients in a compost pile. The microbes whose job it is to break down the carbon-rich materials use air, water, and nitrogen. By shredding the leaves, you increase the surface area for the microbes to bind to the material. Composting materials should have the feel of a wet sponge. Turn your compost pile at least once a week for the first few months. Should a compost pile begin to smell, there is not enough air. Turning the pile will bring oxygen back into the center of the compost pile.

If composting sounds like too much work, then try my preferred way to handle fall leaves. I gather the leaves using a blower, rake, or mower. Then using a leaf blower, set to reverse, I shred the leaves and use them as mulch in my landscape.

Lesson one in leaf shredding – shred your leaves. Yes, some skip this step and just pile leaves around their plants. Whole leaves mat down trapping excess moisture underneath or not allowing water and air through to the soil. Whole leaves also catch the wind easier and blow around more than shredded leaves.

Lesson two – Your leaf shredding device should have a metal impeller. Many leaf blower/vacuums have plastic impellers, which may break if any small pebbles or sticks accidentally are sucked up.

Lesson three – double shredding significantly reduces the volume of leaves. By running over the leaves with my mower, and then running those shredded leaves through my leaf blower/shredder, I take a pile of leaves the size of a small car to a couple of five-gallon buckets.

Lesson four – If you have recurring foliar disease on your trees don't mulch your leaves. Proper composting can break down those diseases. Also removing the leaves from your property will break the disease cycle.

Lawns benefit from shredded leaves too. Research from Michigan State University shows shredded leaves in the turf adds organic matter and mulches bare patches of soil, blocking potential germinating weed seed. In their research plots at MSU, they had 100% control of dandelion after three years of shredding fall leaves into the lawn.

Some organizations will take your fall leaves, shred them and sell it back to homeowners! I happily relieve my neighbors of their bags of leaves. I even ask our Master Gardeners if they can spare some carbon. I am a bit of a leaf hoarder. Fortunately, it decomposes by the end of the summer, and I'm left leafless, anxiously awaiting autumn.

Hopefully, if you're a leaf burner, I've stayed the lit match in your hand this fall. Every soil benefits from compost, and nearly every yard needs mulch somewhere. Consider the underutilized source of fall leaves to meet your soil's needs.