Good Growing Keeping you growing with good ideas Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 The Best Gardening Happens in the Fall: Learn how with University of Illinois Extension Wed, 15 Aug 2018 11:25:00 +0000 For the past three years that I have been part of the Good Growing column, I have written an article on gardening in the fall. And before that my predecessor, Mike Roegge, would write about the joys of fall gardening. Yes, you are about to read yet another piece on gardening in the fall. This is our subtle way of suggesting fall gardening is the best gardening. Though after all these years, the subtly may be wearing off.

If you have a garden dedicated solely to the summer, you should plant a fall garden. There are certain "gateway plants" that can get you hooked to growing in the waning days of summer heat. Turnips, Swiss chard, and lettuces are great for the beginning fall gardener. My gateway plant was kale. I know, I know I may have just lost you with that four-letter word, but trust me, kale grown in the fall is delightful. The cooler temperatures trigger the plant to produce more sugars, giving kale a much better flavor than if harvested in the spring or, perish the thought, summer.

My first fall garden had twenty kale plants. Which were nineteen too many. Lower kale leaves are harvested as the plant grows up. By the end of autumn, my kale plants were three foot tall, and my wife told me "Never again!" Still, it was quite satisfying growing our food through New Years.

To protect a bed of turnips and pac choi that first fall, I built a cold frame. Cold frames are wedge-shaped boxes, with the angled top facing south, and a transparent top. We used a rigid polyvinyl covering, though I have seen many gardeners use old windows. Today, I extend the season by using low tunnels, which can cheaply cover and protect all of my garden beds.

In my opinion, the best fall crops are carrots and spinach due to the heightened sweet flavor from the cold temperatures. Carrots harvested in the late fall and into winter are known as candied carrots, and they are a real treat, though I do have difficulty growing carrots in my soil. However, the spinach is almost unstoppable, lasting me until the next spring when warm temperatures cause it to bolt.

This fall we will be growing more cabbage and pac choi, to limit our meat consumption. This is not due to my family turning vegetarian, far from it. The use of cabbage and pac choi is because we are now feeding three growing boys, and these two vegetables work well to bulk up starches like rice.

If you are interested in starting a fall vegetable garden, I will be leading two free workshops September 14 in Galesburg and September 15 in Macomb. During this two-hour class, we will discuss cool-season gardening methods for harvesting fresh vegetables in the fall and using season extension techniques for winter harvest. This workshop will use hands-on components, including planting fall crops and building a low tunnel. You will also have a chance to take home cool season vegetables to plant in your home garden. Register online at or contact Amanda Christenson at 309-342-5108.

And yes, I will be handing out kale at the workshop to get everyone hooked on fall gardening. Mostly because my wife won't let me bring them home. I have plenty of recipes if you need them.]]>
Five Valuable Tips for Fall Lawn Care Fri, 10 Aug 2018 10:28:00 +0000 Lawn care does not stop when summer ends. To the contrary, when it comes to routine turf maintenance the late summer to early fall months are a critical time for cool season lawns.

Cool season lawns are a group of turf species comprised mainly of Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, and fine fescue. If you are a homeowner in Illinois with a lawn, more than likely it is a cool season type. Cool season lawns green up quickly in the spring and fall but may go dormant during the hottest part of summer.

Coming out of a hot, dry summer, cool season lawns will be stressed and could use some tender loving care. Following are five tips to pick up your lawn as the summer fades to fall.

  1. Aerate - A great way to relieve soil compaction and reduce thatch. The machine for the job is a hollow-tine aerator (a.k.a. core aerator). Aerating will also help to increase air and water infiltration, improving turf stand health, which allows grass to combat common lawn disease. Operate the core aerator a few days after a rain when the soil is still slightly damp. Core aerators cannot cut into hard, dry soil. Leave the soil cores to break down over the next few weeks.
  2. Overseed – Broadcast seed into an established lawn with a seeder or by hand. Slit seeders are a great tool for overseeding into established lawns. Select a high-quality seed and set seeder at the correct rate.

Bonus Tip: To patch bare spots, rake up the soil surface for good seed-to-soil contact. Mix bagged topsoil with bagged compost 50/50. Combine grass seed with the soil/compost mix at a 3:1 ratio. Three scoops of soil mix with one scoop of seed. Apply the 3:1 mix to the bare spot, firm up the patch with your hands. Keep the area moist until germination and follow up with watering while the young grass plants develop. Cornell has a great video on this technique.

3. Fertilize - Apply 1 pound of nitrogen fertilizer per 1,000 square feet. If you only do one lawn feeding a year, this should be it!

Optional: Apply a late season fertilizer called a winterizer one week after the final mowing of the season.

4. Mulch your clippings and leaves – By bagging clippings and leaves you are taking nutrients away from the soil. Ditch the bag and return those nutrients and organic matter back to the lawn. Mulching mowers work best. Lawns, where clippings are not bagged, can go longer between fertilizer applications. Research at Michigan State University shows that shredding your fall leaves into the turf can improve lawn health.

5. Perennial weed control - This is also a great time kill broadleaf weeds such as dandelion or creeping Charlie. At this time of year, perennial weeds are preparing for winter so they are sending carbohydrates to their roots. Applying a systemic herbicide at this time will be more successful at killing the entire plant, above- and below-ground. Once the weeds are dead, cool temperatures are conducive for cool season turf to fill in the bare spots.

Silphiums: Standing tall over the prairie Sun, 05 Aug 2018 10:45:00 +0000 This past month I have been traveling on the road more hours than I care to count. The time in the car has allowed for some windshield botany. Better described as identifying plants while going over 65 miles per hour.

Many invasive species stand out as my brain has been wired to spot those for purposes of eradication. Teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus and Dipsacus sylvestris) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) was the most prevalent in my travels from Illinois to Michigan. Around St. Louis, teasel was another top weed spotted along with escaped ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana).

Despite the weeds, there was one group of native plants that stood out above the rest, mostly because they are some of the tallest prairie species, the Silphiums.

Silphium is a genus (the first name in the Latin species name) that is home to four plants that no tallgrass prairie should be without. Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), and my favorite Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum).

These four plants share similar traits that make them easy to identify when traversing the prairie, which is a reason I like this genus. All four plants have rough almost sandpaper-like leaves. The harsh texture of these leaves is caused by stiff hairs on the upper and lower leaf surface.

The shortest of the silphiums tends to be rosinweed, growing up to five feet tall. Prairie dock and cup plant can grow up to ten feet, while compass plant towers above the prairie at twelve feet tall. The height of these plants is mostly due to the flower stalks which raise bright yellow sunflower-like blooms above the grasses and other native forbs. The flowering stems bear multiple blooms along its length. Compass plant for my money tends to give the best flower display.

The coarse nature and size of silphiums give these plants a bit of a prehistoric look as they stand out against the prairie grasses. The ease in identifying silphiums is an excellent gateway into learning about prairies and can make you sound quite impressive during parties.

You can help your trivia team by knowing that compass plant derived its name because the leaves tend to line up in a north-south direction. While pioneers relied on this belief, it is not always dependable as I've found a few times in the prairie.

Cup plant is aptly named due to its rigid leaves that emerge and surround the stem and holds water after rain. I love it when a plant name makes sense!

Prairie dock has large spade-shaped leaves that can be 18-inches long and 12-inches wide! These leaves emerge on long six-inch stalks. Picture hosta, but more battle ready like a 1980s movie action hero. Though the leaves are shorter than most of the surrounding plants, prairie dock still competes successfully, while sending up 12-foot flower stalks as a great signal to the plant's whereabouts.

Are you interested in learning more about native plants, wildlife, or conservation? The University of Illinois Extension leads the Master Naturalist program. A group of volunteers who wish to promote the stewardship and conservation education of our natural world. If you would like more information on becoming a Master Naturalist please contact your local county Extension office and visit our website.

One last thing to chew on during long car rides: Did you know silphiums produce a resin that many Native Americans would use as chewing gum? Your trivia team will thank me.]]>
Final Thoughts Fri, 27 Jul 2018 10:50:00 +0000 In a past article I wrote about how the garden and landscape are fluid things and constantly changing. Trees grow taller and yards become more shaded or a tree comes down and sunlight brightens a once shady spot. As gardener's we are always learning and growing and that is one thing about my career that I adore – I am always learning. Whenever someone says they have a question, usually my light hearted response is I might have an answer and I usually get a laugh. If I honestly don't have an answer I tell people I'm not sure, that I will find an answer and along with it I will learn something new.

Over the last 6 years as a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension I have had the honor to help countless people learn new things and in turn learned many new things myself. The Good Growing column and blog began three and half years ago and during that time I was able to share my love and passion for gardening, plants and the outdoors. There were definitely weeks where it was down to the wire for writing articles when I was struggling for an idea to write about and thank goodness for colleagues, friends, and family for saying "hey, what about this topic?" It saved me a number of times over the years. Writing every other week could be a struggle so those who write columns on a daily basis, I applaud you!

Over the life of just the Good Growing online blog posts alone, my colleagues and I have written over 170 articles and those blog posts received over 107,000 hits. My hope is that everyone that reads a Good Growing article walks away with a new piece of information that might positively influence their life or just provides them with new knowledge.

This week's article was an easy topic to choose but a hard article to write. Just as gardening is fluid and changing, life is as well. I became engaged back in December to a wonderful man who lives three and half hours away (how's that for irony – same length of time I've written Good Growing articles). That distance is coming to an end when we close on my house here in Illinois and I will be moving to a new state to start a new life which is very exciting! I am also sad as my last day with University of Illinois Extension is August 1, 2018. I am grateful for all the wonderful experiences, teaching opportunities, and wonderful people I have met over the last 6 years and it will be greatly missed but I am also looking forward to see what the future holds. Onwards!

So dear readers, thank you for following along with me over the years and I hope that you will always desire to be lifelong learners. Happy gardening.


Organic vs. Synthetic: Selecting low risk pesticides Tue, 17 Jul 2018 09:56:00 +0000 This post is a continuation of my previous article on the topic of natural vs. synthetic. Today, we are going to examine how to select pesticides that pose a low risk to humans and the environment. You can find the first article HERE.

In today's world, the American consumer often relates the terms "natural" or "organic" to "safe." In the world of horticulture, this poor distinction is often made when discussing pesticides.

First, some clarifying statements:

  • Pesticides are products made to kill living organisms
  • Pesticides are regulated by the federal government
  • Pesticides can be synthetic or organic
  • An ornamental or food crop labeled as "organic" does not mean pesticide free. Instead, these growers may use organic pesticides
  • There are many levels of the term organic. USDA Certified Organic is a term defined by the government that specifies what may be used on/in the product.

There is one way the government indicates the acute (immediate) toxicity of a pesticide to humans. On each pesticide container, you will see one of three signal words: Caution – least toxic, Warning – mildly toxic, and Danger – highly toxic. Usually, skull and crossbones accompany the signal word Danger. As if Danger wasn't enough of a clue, hopefully, the skull and crossbones get the point across that this category of pesticides has no place in the home landscape.

Another way to measure the risk of using a pesticide is with the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ). The EIQ examines three parts 1) Risk to the applicator, 2) Risk to the consumer of the product, and 3) Risk to the environment. These three categories are scored and then averaged to come up with one EIQ number. The higher EIQ means greater chances for a negative impact on people and the environment. Low EIQ means a lower chance for negative impact. Companies are not required to list a product's EIQ, but these are easily found online. Cornell Extension has a spreadsheet on their website listing every active ingredient found in regulated synthetic and organic pesticides and their corresponding EIQ.

When having to decide on what pesticide to use, I use Cornell's EIQ spreadsheet to identify those that pose the lowest risk to me and the environment. For instance, the synthetic herbicide glyphosate (RoundUp) has an EIQ of 15, which is pretty good and poses a lower risk than many other herbicides. The organic insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has a very low EIQ of 7.9. Conversely, the organic fungicide copper sulfate has an EIQ of 61.9. That is really high!

Some EIQ numbers are higher not because they harm humans, but they pose a high risk to the environment. That is why I like the EIQ system as it takes into account the risks to me and the environment. But keep in mind the EIQ scores are not perfect. There are a few that could be ranked higher. Ideally, I try to stick to products with an EIQ under 20.

Hopefully, this article shines some light on the organic vs. synthetic debate, and that "natural" does not indicate "safe." Evaluating pesticides needs to be on a case-by-case basis. Reduce the amount of pesticides, no matter what type you use. When turning to pesticides evaluate them based on their effectiveness and safety, not organic vs. synthetic. And always read and follow pesticide labels.]]>
Beyond Honeybees - Pollinator Diversity Wed, 11 Jul 2018 12:03:00 +0000 When you hear the word pollinator, what's the first thing that jumps into your mind? Honeybees may be the first thing that comes to mind, but there are a large number of other pollinators out there. Honeybees do help and contribute to pollination, but they are a native to Europe. In the United States, we have over 3,500 native bees that help to pollinate all sorts of plants. Did you realize that your squash plants are pollinated primarily by a native squash bees?

Pollinators go beyond bees and also include butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps and hummingbirds. They all play an important role in the ecosystems sustainability and survival. So what can we do to help this amazing and diverse group of pollinators?

Pollinators need water, resting places, nesting areas, bare ground, shelter, and of course nectar sources. Those yards that are neatly manicured with the perfect lawn and no debris anywhere actually is not beneficial for pollinators. That stack of logs sitting there can be utilized by pollinators for shelter, that bare patch of land can be used by ground nesting bees, and that dead stump over there is perfect for wood-nesting bees. You can even build a pollinator nesting box. University of Georgia Extension has great instructions available to build your own and you can find them here -

It should also be noted that a reduction/elimination in the use of chemicals in the landscape also plays an important role in helping pollinators. There have been recent changes to the label for Imidicloprid which is a systemic insecticide that has been used on Tilia sp. (which includes Linden) to control Japanese beetles. With the understanding of how toxic it is to pollinators, and Linden being a favorite – you can no longer use this product on any Tilia sp. including Linden. I did mention this in the article I wrote two weeks ago, but thought it was important enough to mention again. Even if you have Imidicloprid left over and has the old label which lists Linden – don't use it on Linden regardless.

When it comes to nectar sources you hear a lot about what flowers to plant and how to setup pollinator pockets and gardens – annual and perennial flowers abound in lists everywhere. Just like the diversity of pollinators, there is also diversity in pollinator plants. Pollinators also utilize blooming trees and shrubs as nectar sources, not to mention the importance of pollinators for fruit and nut trees.

Here is a quick list of some pollinator friendly trees and shrubs.

  • Aesculus parviflora – Bottlebrush Buckeye
  • Aesculus pavia – Red Buckeye (these produce gorgeous red flower clusters in spring)
  • Cephalanthus occidentalis – Buttonbush
  • Cercis canadensis – Eastern Redbud
  • Clethra alnifolia – Clethra
  • Hydrangea macrophylla & Hydrangea quercifolia ­–Lacecap Hydrangea & Oakleaf Hydrangea (the big-leafed hydrangea flowers consist mostly of modified sepals or leaves and hide the actual nectar source and make them ineffective sources for pollinators)
  • Ilex opaca – American Holly
  • Liriodendron tulipifera – Tulip Tree (this is also a larval source for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail)
  • Viburnum sp. – Viburnum

There is a wealth of information available from Extensions and Universities about pollinators and research is ongoing on determining the cause of reduction in pollinator species and what we can do to help them. Every small thing we can do to help pollinators is a beneficial.

The Dark Side of Nature: Natural does not equal safe Mon, 02 Jul 2018 11:30:00 +0000 Nature wants to kill you. Okay maybe wants is a strong word. Nature is term we give to the physical things and relationships that make up our world and universe. Sometimes we try to humanize nature with the name Mother Nature. We picture the ethereal Gaia sitting atop the trees directing the course of life on the planet. Such notions paint a serene setting, peaceful, and safe, which makes it so easy to market the idea "If it is natural, then it is safe."

Perhaps I'm jaded as an Extension horticulture educator. Often I see the other side of nature when things don't go as intended. I understand that nature is about struggle, natural selection, and evolving to overcome the challenges posed by our dynamic world. And yes, I come upon lots of plants and natural chemicals that can harm humans. It's not all butterflies and rosemary.

Throughout history, humans have been able to identify many natural chemicals to use for both good and evil. Let's take arsenic as an example. Arsenic is an organic chemical and was used as a pesticide for years. It was very good at killing pests. Arsenic is also very good at killing humans.

Poison hemlock is an example of a beautiful plant, found throughout the world, even along our roadsides in the Midwest. Poison hemlock is a plant with a dangerous secret because this plant's sap is toxic if ingested. Ancient Greeks used this plant to execute prisoners. Remember Socrates?

Another common Midwest weed, wild parsnip's sap causes burning blisters when exposed to UV light. A few years ago local roadside workers were weed eating a ditch without shirts when they unknowingly trimmed down a patch of wild parsnip. The string trimmers flung plant parts containing the sap all over them. Later that day their torsos were covered in blisters, which required treatment at the hospital.

Tree of Heaven is an invasive species whose sap can cause cardiac and lung problems. Conservationists doing their part to rid a natural area of this invasive plant sent their tree of heaven trimmings through a wood chipper. Nearly all had to be hospitalized as the chipper shredded the wood and sprayed the sap into the air, which they breathed.

I could continue and fill pages and pages on dangerous natural compounds, but the point of this article is not to scare you or be anti-nature. The purpose of this article is to build an awareness of blanket statements. "If it is natural then it is safe" is a blanket statement that lumps all organic chemicals into a category of safety. This topic is debated fiercely when it comes to the use of pesticides. My next article in the coming weeks will dive into organic vs. synthetic and ways we can select the lowest risk pesticides to protect the environment and us.

All living things on this planet have evolved defense strategies to keep from being eaten and perpetuate their genes. Sometimes these defenses are chemicals that are useful to us for controlling pests, but may also be toxic to humans. Just because something is from nature doesn't mean it is safe or that it is inherently good or evil.

Nature is wondrous and brings us peace. Gaia doesn't have a secret agenda against humans, but can be deadly all the same and deserves our respect.]]>