Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
Extension Educator, Horticulture
November 26, 2007
Amaryllis--A Holiday Favorite
Popular during the holiday season, the spectacular amaryllis can be enjoyed throughout the winter, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
"The amaryllis has a single flower stalk with four-inch blooms at the top," said David Robson. "The blooms resemble lily flowers and come in an array of colors from red to pink, coral, and white. The foliage is bright green and strap-like, similar to a bromeliad.
"You may be lucky and get two or three flower stalks per bulb."
Robson provided some recommendations for the purchase and care of amaryllis.
"If buying a bulb--available from October to March--select a large, fat one at least 2-1/2 inches in diameter," said Robson. "Bulbs need to be that size to flower properly. Make sure the bulbs are free of any mold or rot. If the bulb feels soft and squishy, avoid it."
When planting, use a container that has one or more drain holes in the bottom. Amaryllis bulbs are potted so that one-half to two-thirds of the bulb is exposed above the pot rim. Use a pot that is no more than two to three inches bigger in diameter than the bulb. Leave one-half inch of the pot rim above the soil line so you can water without spilling over the edge.
"After potting, soak the soil thoroughly," he said. "When watering, make sure water comes out the bottom of the pot, but do not let the pot stand in this excess water. Pour the excess off. Too much water and the bulb may rot."
Flower stalks with several blooms on each should develop in about six to eight weeks if a top-grade bulb was used. Stake the stalks if necessary but be careful not to injure the bulb.
"Some people stake before planting. It is possible that one flower stalk will bloom out before another is formed," Robson said. "Make sure to keep the soil moist during the flowering period."
The cooler the night temperatures, the stronger the stem, the longer the flowers will last--and the more intense the colors will remain.
Getting the bulb to re-flower the next year isn't always simple, but it can be a rewarding challenge.
"Cut off dead blooms immediately," he said. "However, don't remove leaves that begin to grow after the flower stalks have developed. Keep the plant moist and in a humid location with bright light to full sun. Once the danger of frost is over, sink the pot with the bulb inside into soil outside in a sunny flowerbed and fertilize with a complete water-soluble fertilizer every four to six weeks.
"In late summer, gradually reduce the watering. When foliage has died down, trim it off. Place the pots inside where it is cool--40 to 50 degrees--and dry. Lay the pots on their sides. The bulbs need a six to eight-week rest period. This period is critical to set the flower buds."
Amaryllis should be repotted about every three years or so. Otherwise, do not disturb the roots.
"Pots should be two to three inches larger than the bulb at planting, but pot-bound bulbs seem to flower nicely year after year with minimal care," said Robson.
November 16, 2007
The search is on for that best ever Christmas tree. If you are looking for the "freshest" tree, you will want to visit one of the local choose and cut tree farms. If you are planning on purchasing your tree off a sales lot, buy your tree now. Not only will you be assured of a better selection, but also it is important to keep your tree as fresh as possible and that means getting it into water. Few tree lots continually bring in fresh cut trees; what you see now is probably all that they will have.
Whether you cut your own tree or buy one off the lot, water replenishment should be your primary concern. When a tree is cut (and whenever the stem end is taken out of water and exposed to air) a seal forms which prevents the tree from taking up water.
Once you get your tree home, make a fresh one-inch cut on the butt end and place the tree in a tub or large bucket of warm water. The tree may go through a gallon or more of water for the first several days after being cut.
Leave the tree in water in a cool protected location until you are ready to bring it indoors for decorating, even if it is for a week or more. An unheated garage is ideal. If the tree stops absorbing water before you are ready to set it up, make a fresh cut on the end.
When it's time to bring the tree indoors, make a second fresh cut on the stem at least an inch above the original cut. This will enhance the tree's ability to take up water. Before the new cut has a chance to dry, place the tree in a water-holding tree stand.
It is important that the tree stand holds a large reservoir of water. If the well goes dry, a seal will form and you will need to make a fresh cut. That's no easy job on a fully decorated tree.
Check the water supply daily and refill as needed. A 6-foot tree may need a quart of water each day. If your tree doesn't consume a lot of water, it probably isn't a very fresh tree.
Research continues to show plain water is as good if not better than most homemade or commercially prepared products in preventing a fresh tree from drying out as long as you keep the basin filled.
For safety reasons, the tree should not be decorated with cotton, paper or other materials that are flammable. Wax candles and other types of open flame should be avoided. Lights and wiring should be checked for worn spots and cracks, and care should be taken not to overload electrical circuits. Keep the tree away from heat sources like fireplaces and heating ducts.
While you are watering your tree, check the battery on your smoke detector. A great stocking stuffer for friends and relatives would be a replacement battery for their smoke detectors.
November 12, 2007
Most people think about fertilizing their lawns in spring and early fall. However, Thanksgiving is also a time to think about applying fertilizer.
Late fall fertilizers are often called winterizer fertilizers or just winterizers. Simply put, this may be the most important fertilizer you apply to your lawn–especially if you've never applied one.
Winterizers don't provide immediate results. You won't see anything this winter except maybe some granules here and there that don't work into the soil or break down with late fall and winter rains and snow. That's due to the nature of the fertilizer and the season of the year. Winterizers benefit is what they do to the root system throughout the winter months and the effect on shoot development next spring.
The best winterizers are slow-release fertilizers, and usually low analysis, with nitrogen levels between 10 and 15 percent. Nitrogen is the first number listed on the fertilizer bag.
The fertilizers granules break down slowly over the late fall, winter and spring based on soil temperature, moisture and microbial activity. During this time, the roots, which are growing as long as the ground isn't frozen, are absorbing and storing the nutrients until the air temperature is ideal for the bluegrass, ryegrass or fescue to use it for shoot growth and green color.
When air temperatures finally warm in the spring, the stored nutrients are immediately available and the turf is green and thick usually by mid-March. A thick stand also means less reliance on crabgrass preventers since crabgrass problems are minimized due to a lush turf.
Winterizers are put on a week after the last mowing of the year. Since that's difficult to predict, a better method would be to apply the winterizer to the turfgrass on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Most applications are based on applying one pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet. Like straight lawn fertilizers, most winterizers are formulated for this rate. Read and follow the directions on the label. It doesn't hurt to water the winterizer in right before bringing the garden hoses and sprinklers in for the winter.
November 6, 2007
Historically, fall had been leaf-burning time. However, burning leaves is a waste–both environmentally and economically–and regulations prohibit burning leaves in many Illinois communities.
It simply doesn't make sense to waste good, free organic material. There are several better ways to use leaves. If allowed to collect beneath the trees, leaves slowly decompose, releasing their nutrients to nourish the trees. This provides the litter that creates new, rich soil for tender roots.
Where landowners have lawns beneath the trees, accumulated leaves can smother the grass if allowed to build up thicker than several inches. Grinding the leaves with a power mower lets the tiny pieces fall between the blades of grass where the natural benefits can be obtained without harm to the grass. Michigan State University research shows that shredding the leaves actually provides a better soil structure for the turf to grow on. In addition, Purdue University showed that leaves decompose quickly, provided there was some nitrogen to help them break down. Winterizer fertilizers can be used to provide that nutrient.
An added benefit was the return of the nutrients in the leaves as they decompose–particularly phosphorus and potassium. The former encourages plants to develop better root systems, while the latter is used to increase the plant's hardiness and tolerance to stress conditions.
Most mowers come with baffles that can replace the bagging attachment. Mow over the leaves several times, and then switch the baffle with the bagger if you want to use the leaves as mulch or in the compost pile.
Shredded leaves can be dug into the vegetable or flower gardens in fall and will greatly improve the soil for next year. They also can be used to mulch overwintering perennials and roses.
If you have room, a backyard compost pile provides an economical way to dispose of autumn leaves. It can also provide you with a source of organic nutrition for your garden.
Below are a few tips to follow when mowing leaves:
1. Make sure the mower blade is sharp. If not dull before mowing the leaves, it probably will be at the end of the season. A sharp blade pulverizes the leaves into smaller pieces.
2. It is best to make several passes over the leaves. Set the mower up slightly higher for the first pass.
3. Don't mow the grass shorter, no matter what you may have been told years ago. Keep the grass at least 3 to 4 inches high to allow the shredded leaves to fall between the blades.
4. Mow slowly. The longer the leaves are under the mower, the smaller the pieces.
5. Make sure the leaves are dry before mowing. Wet leaves may pack under the mower. On the other hand, dry leaves may be dusty. Consider wearing a mask and/or goggles.6. Mow often. A couple inches of leaves are easier to mow than 4 or 5.