Good Growing Keeping you growing with good ideas Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Caring for Christmas Trees Tue, 11 Dec 2018 13:36:00 +0000 Selecting a live Christmas tree is a tradition for many families. Whether you get your tree from a retail lot, direct from the farm or cut your own here are some tips for keeping your tree looking great throughout the holiday season:

  • After purchasing your tree, place it in an unheated garage or some other area out of the wind and cold (freezing) temperatures until you're ready to bring it indoors. Make a fresh 1/2-inch cut on the butt end and place the tree in a bucket of water. Monitor the water level and add water as needed. If the tree is not taking up water, make a fresh cut.
  • When making fresh cuts to your tree, make sure they are perpendicular to the stem (cut straight across). Cutting the stem at an angle or in a v-shape makes the tree less stable in the stand and can also reduce the amount of water that is available for your tree (some of the cut area may end up out of the water as the water level drops).
  • When you decide to bring the tree indoors, make another fresh 1/2-inch cut and place the tree in a sturdy stand. The stand should be able to hold at least 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. For most Christmas trees that should be at least 1 gallon of water.
  • Additionally, make sure your stand is big enough to fit your tree in. If you have to whittle down the sides of the trunk, your stand is too small. The outer layers of wood take up most of the water, and if removed it can greatly reduce the amount of water your tree can take up.
  • Check the water level in your tree stand daily and keep it above the base of the tree. A cut tree will absorb a surprising amount of water, particularly during the first week, so it may need to be replenished daily. If the base dries out, resin will form over the cut end and the tree will not be able to absorb water and will dry out quickly.
  • Commercially prepared mixes and additives such as floral and tree preservatives, molasses, sugar, bleach, soft drinks, aspirin, or any other concoctions you may find to add to the water are not necessary. Research has shown that plain water will keep a tree fresh. Adding water-holding gels is also not beneficial and can actually reduce the amount of water that is available for the tree.
  • Keep the tree as far away as possible from heat sources such as heaters, vents, radiators, fireplaces, and direct sunlight. Keeping the room where the tree is located cool will also slow down the drying process.
  • When it comes to decorating, make sure to check all Christmas tree lights for worn electrical cords. Also, be sure to turn off the tree lights when leaving the house and when going to bed.
  • Many fresh-cut trees, if properly cared for, will last for 3 to 4 weeks before drying out. Run your hand through the needles to see if they are dry and brittle. If the needles easily break or fall off in your hand, your tree is dry and should be removed from the house.

Good Growing Tip: When it comes time to get rid of your Christmas tree instead of throwing it away or having the city come and pick it up, repurpose it. You can use it to help feed birds, provide habitat for wildlife, use the boughs as mulch, or use the needles as potpourri.

What's More Sustainable: Real or fake Christmas trees? Tue, 04 Dec 2018 16:25:00 +0000 Growing up, a family tradition was going out to the Christmas tree farm to find that perfect tree. As a child, it was fun going out to pick our tree, cut it and then watch it hauled to the barn on a sled, shook for all its worth to get the dead needles out, and finally bundled up on our car ready for home.

My wife had an altogether different experience growing up. She would help her mother haul a fake tree out of the crawl space every year. The family faux Christmas tree had been used for two prior generations.

Once my wife and I were married, I grew accustomed to this new tradition. Hauling the family tree out of the basement on Thanksgiving and putting it back after the New Year. With three generations of use, the now sad looking family tree had come to be called the Grover Tree because the limbs were so worn and bare they hung off the trunk like the spindly arms of the Sesame Street character Grover.

To hold up the limbs, Grover's trunk was mostly tape and rubber bands. Fake needles fell out at an exponential rate. It wouldn't be long until the limbs were soon bare wires. We still did a great job masking much of this and decorations helped make our family tree shine. However, this past year it was decided to retire old Grover.

There has been much debate over which Christmas tradition is more sustainable- cut Christmas trees or fake Christmas trees. Many in support of cut trees balk at the use of synthetics (oil) to create a replica of something natural. While on the other side, fake Christmas tree groups nearly faint at the sight of a perfectly good evergreen being chopped down. Not to mention all the inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and labor it takes to grow those trees.

So what does the research say? Which type of Christmas tree is more sustainable? The answer depends on a few variables such as how long do you use a fake tree or how far you drive to get your cut tree. However, when researchers looked at the overall carbon footprint of real versus cut Christmas trees, they saw both were about even.

Let me throw in a third option – living Christmas trees. A living Christmas tree is a potted evergreen, raised by a nursery or tree farm. These come with an entirely different set of care guidelines. According to Bert Cregg an author of the popular blog The Garden Professors, "When [living Christmas] trees are brought indoors, they begin to lose cold hardiness almost immediately; so the longer trees are indoors, the more likely they will suffer cold damage when you bring them back outside."

So what type of tree did we settle to get? Turns out a friend was getting rid of her fake tree because she was moving and the built-in lights no longer worked. We happily took the tree off her hands and strung up new lights. Hopefully, this tree lasts for generations to come before it too joins good old Grover in the landfill.

Good Growing Tip: After the holiday, Bert Cregg recommends storing your living Christmas tree in a protected, unheated space. Water thoroughly and wait until spring to plant.

Salt in the Landscape Wed, 28 Nov 2018 14:48:00 +0000 As we've already experienced this year, winter in Illinois commonly means snow and ice. Though plowing and shoveling are the primary means of removing snow and ice where they aren't wanted, deicing salts also help prevent slick, hazardous conditions. While salt is great in its place, it's not so great for many things that may encounter it.

Rock salt (sodium chloride) is the most common deicer. It's cheap, effective, and plentiful but it does have some drawbacks. It is corrosive to both vehicles and concrete, and it can damage soil as well as plants. As rock salt dissolves in water, its ions (sodium and chloride) separate. These ions can cause damage in our landscapes in high enough concentrations.

High levels of sodium can damage the structure of soil, preventing it from clumping and making it susceptible to compaction, in turn reducing permeability and aeration. High sodium levels can also raise soil pH.

Nutrient imbalances can also be caused by high soil levels of sodium and chloride. These high levels can restrict plants' uptake of other essential nutrients leading to nutrient deficiencies. Chloride ions also can build up in the growing points of plants and become toxic, leading to stunted yellow foliage, leaf scorch, twig dieback, and stunted overall growth.

Just like the salt in your salt shaker, rock salt absorbs water. As it holds onto water, there is less available for plants. This can create drought-like conditions for plants, even when there is adequate soil moisture.

Salt spray, such as that spread by passing cars, also damages plants. Salt that lands on plant tissues can dry them out by pulling water out of plant cells. It can also enter the plant and accumulate in the growing tips to toxic levels. This most commonly occurs on the sides of trees facing a road and plants that are downwind. Many evergreen plants are very susceptible to salt damage, developing pale green, yellow, or brown foliage in late winter and early spring. Deciduous plants may suffer from killed or damaged buds and branch tips, which can lead to the formation of dense clusters of twigs, called witches' broom. Flowering plants may not bloom. If the damage is not extensive, plants may grow out of it.

So how can you help prevent salt damage to your soil and plants? There are various steps you can take:

  • Use salt judiciously, especially after March 1. Once plants begin to break dormancy, they become even more susceptible to damage.
  • Limit salt applications to high-risk locations like steps, along with walkways and driveways on an incline.
  • Finish clearing snow before applying salt. This will help prevent the movement of salt into the landscape.
  • Salt can also be applied before a storm arrives. This helps prevent ice from sticking to pavement, making removal easier and reducing the amount of salt required.
  • Avoid using pure salt by mixing it with an abrasive material such as sand, ash, or kitty litter to help with traction.
  • Use deicing materials that are less damaging to plants, such as calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and calcium magnesium acetate. (These are more expensive than rock salt, however, and can still cause some plant damage.)
  • Protect plants near the street with a temporary barrier, such as plastic or burlap.
  • Hose off any plants that have experienced salt spray as soon as possible.
  • As the ground thaws in spring, soils that have had a heavy salt load on them can be thoroughly watered to leach salt out of the root zone.

If you have areas in your landscape, such as near a road, which commonly has issues with salt damage you may want to look at plants that can tolerate higher levels of salt. There are several ways plants can protect themselves from salt. Some plants may have physical features that protect them from salt spray (these adaptations won't protect them from salt in the soil). This can include thick waxy surfaces, or tightly arranged bud scales. When it comes to salt in the soil, some plants can prevent salt from entering their cells or can simply withstand higher salt levels in the soil. It's important to note that even plants with some tolerance to salt can still be damaged by high levels it.

Some plants that have tolerance to both salt in the soil and spray include sweet gum, bald cypress, common horse-chestnut, red oak, juniper, eastern red-cedar, cranberry cotoneaster, potentilla, and rugosa roses. To see a more extensive list check out Winter Salt Injury and Salt-Tolerant Landscape Plants from University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Designing for Pedestrians can make Shopping (and Communities!) Better Wed, 21 Nov 2018 11:07:00 +0000 When someone tries to entice me with Black Friday shopping, my response is "That sounds terrible." Shopping, in general, makes me cringe. The idea of rising at 3 AM to wait in line outside of a giant store when it is below freezing outside is enough to turn me into the Grinch.

I'm not the only one who shudders at shopping. Yes, Americans are still shop-a-holics as brain science has proven we get a rush when we buy something, but much of our shopping is turning to the convenience of online buying. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible to compete with the major online retailers, but we can look at our physical stores and ask what can we do better to create a pleasant shopping experience. One theory of what drives customers away from areas of in-person commerce is these spaces are not designed for humans, they're designed for automobiles!

The majority of brick and mortar shopping seems to take place at big box stores, which we have to drive to, find a parking spot, then risk life and limb across lanes of moving traffic to enter a literal warehouse complete with harsh lighting, stale air, and other customers who are not happy to be there. After walking what seems like miles to find the two things on the list, we pack up in the car and move to the next store. Shopping literally and figuratively drives me crazy!

Studies show the top two things that attract customers to a physical shopping location is a variety of options and the environment or experience. While generally, I may be a shopping scrooge, there have been several times that my shopping experience has been an absolute delight. I can say without a doubt it was because that company or community designed the shopping environment for the pedestrian. I think we can all agree we've encountered far more sociopaths behind the wheel than walking on a sidewalk.

Post-World War II, most American communities were designed with the automobile in mind, not the pedestrian. For instance, if you see a person walking down Broadway in Quincy or Jackson street in Macomb, that person looks out of place. That is because those commercial zones were never designed for the pedestrian. Auto-centric design places the pedestrian on a narrow sidewalk (or sometimes no sidewalk at all) sandwiched between a busy road and a sea of parking lots, with the store far off in the distance.

What techniques can we use to make built environments more pedestrian friendly and shopping more enjoyable?

Perhaps most importantly, the sense of enclosure helps to create a comfortable pedestrian space. Bring the far-flung stores up to the street to help shape the pedestrian space and make it a more desirable place to be.

Hide the parking behind the buildings and embrace on-street parking. Often parking is the most contentious of issues, with big box stores having to design for maximum occupancy, which usually occurs once on Black Friday. The rest of the year, half of the parking lot remains empty. What's nice about pedestrian-oriented spaces is they require less parking.

More plants! Living plants help to brighten and tie together streetscapes. Planting areas can also serve to absorb stormwater. Street trees can assist in creating a sense of enclosure and shading for a more comfortable pedestrian experience.

Building frontage should be permeable, which means there should be windows to see into shops and restaurants. Doors to move in and out of buildings. Overhangs to protect pedestrians from rain or hot sun. It seems so many new buildings fronting streets are windowless brick facades. Without even a door along the sidewalk.

Sidewalks should be 12-feet wide. That allows people to pass each other and outdoor seating for a restaurant or sidewalk sale for a retailer.

Amenities should be present and decorative like trash and recycling bins. Lighting should be scaled to the pedestrian. There's no reason to have the same street lighting in a neighborhood or shopping area as there is along the interstate.

Narrow streets are better for pedestrians and reduce traffic accidents. Many may argue, "Those streets are main collectors and they need to be wider." While our communities may need these streets to move the bulk of traffic, an interesting trend happens when lanes are added and widened to accommodate traffic. Those streets that are expanded tend to have more accidents and a greater number of speed limit violators. Plus, widening roads does little and sometimes has the inverse effect on traffic congestion.

What if your community is stuck with a massive thoroughfare through its center and there is no changing that fact? There are things that can be done to calm traffic and improve pedestrian comfort and safety. Roundabouts are great traffic calming tools at intersections and studies have shown they reduce collisions. 'Bump-outs' widen the sidewalk at intersections which is a visual cue for drivers to slow down and reduces the distance a pedestrian has to walk across the street. Plant street trees to give the illusion of a narrower street, which slows down traffic. Research shows that tree-lined streets trick the brain into slowing down the car.

Build neighborhoods not shopping centers. I have been to a few incredible shopping areas that are built for pedestrians. However, when talking with shop owners they can barely stay afloat. Businesses are moving in and out constantly. This is because they were all built outside of the town or city. No one lived nearby. To be a viable commercial area, these places should be part of the community, not outside of it. While these places certainly designed for the safety and comfort of the pedestrian, they did not incorporate them where people live and work, which is why they struggle.

Greenspace is a critical component for any type of development from neighborhoods to retail. Incorporating pocket parks or the traditional town square aesthetic is a relaxing space for shoppers, a place for husbands to retreat, and kids to run. Greenspace also can play host to events like farmers' markets, live music, fairs, and more that help to build a sense of identity for the community.

Want to see a great example of spaces designed for pedestrians? Head down to Disney World. The pedestrian planning of Disney considers everything down to the aromas emitted from the shops. There are low, middle, and high price ranges from apparel to food. If visiting Mickey is not in the cards, you can explore the downtown areas in most Midwestern communities. These were often developed prior to the explosive rise of automobiles. Most of these traditional designs are pedestrian-oriented and express character, which is something much of our current-day development lack.

The Big Picture

If you have read this far, thank you, but you may be thinking, "I thought this was going to be about shopping. What is the point to learn about designing pedestrian spaces? I'm not a city planner." First, yes, I completely lured you in with the opening on shopping so I could talk about designing the pedestrian realm. Second, the major point behind this long-winded post is while most citizens are not consulted on say the design of a building, more municipalities are including their residents as part of the community planning process. Now that we've got our spot at the table its time to learn about good design principles that not only build healthy neighborhoods but can draw in consumers and keep our local businesses viable in a global marketplace. We all have a voice to raise awareness of local design issues, so we must train our brains to think how the built environment can affect our quality of life.

What was discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to community planning. Feel free to contact me or your nearest Extension community and economic development educator for more resources on the issues and solutions that surround community design and civic engagement.

Winter Weather Preparedness Tue, 13 Nov 2018 07:45:00 +0000 Winter Weather has arrived in Central Illinois! Therefore, we'll take a break from our regularly scheduled horticulture programming and talk winter weather preparedness. With Illinois averaging five severe winter storms every year, it's a good idea to be prepared.

Just like thunderstorms, there can be watches and warnings for winter weather. A winter storm watch means severe winter weather such as heavy snow or ice is possible within the next day or two, meaning it's time to prepare. A winter storm warning means severe winter weather conditions are occurring, imminent, or highly likely and therefore you should stay indoors and adjust any travel plans you may have.

So, what are some things you can do to prepare for winter weather? First, you can winterize your home. Make sure walls and attics are insulated, caulk and weatherize doors and windows, and install storm windows or cover your windows with plastic. Taking these steps can help conserve energy and heat.

In addition to winterizing your home, make sure your pipes are also winterized. Frozen, ruptured pipes can cause a lot of damage. An eighth-of-an-inch crack in a pipe can release up to 250 gallons of water a day! Typically pipes that are in outer walls, in crawl spaces, or in the attic are the most prone to freezing. These pipes should be insulated and can also be wrapped with heat tape (make sure its UL approved). Also, make sure to disconnect garden hoses and shut-off and drain water from any pipes leading to outside faucets. When it gets cold out, let hot and cold water trickle at night from faucets that are on an outside wall. It's also a good idea to leave cabinet doors open (to get more heat to the pipes under the sink) and make sure not to set your thermostat below 55 degrees.

In addition to getting your house and pipes ready for winter, it's also a good idea to create an emergency supply kit for both your home and vehicle. For your kit at home, include items such as:

  • a battery-powered NOAA radio
  • food that does not require cooking or refrigeration (canned fruits, vegetables, meats; peanut butter; etc.)
  • extra medications
  • extra water
  • flashlights and extra batteries
  • a first-aid kit.
If you have pets make sure you have the necessary supplies for them as well. Make sure you have special items that people in your household may need as well (infants, the elderly, etc.)

An emergency supply kit for a vehicle is important for all trips, even if it's only a few miles. If your vehicle breaks down or you're in an accident it could take longer than normal for help to arrive. Some items to include in your kit include:

  • a cell phone and charger
  • blankets
  • extra clothing
  • jumper cables
  • a flashlight and extra batteries
  • high calorie, non-perishable food
  • matches or a lighter.
Also, when you are traveling during the winter, especially during inclement weather, make sure to tell someone about your travel plans (where you're going, the route you're taking, and when you plant to arrive).

Finally, when you go outdoors make sure you are prepared. Dress in layers; the air trapped between the layers insulates you and they can be removed if you get too hot. Make sure you wear some sort of head covering as a significant amount of body heat is lost through the top of your head. Your hands should also be protected - mittens offer better protection than gloves. Additionally, keep your feet as dry as possible.

To get more tips on getting yourself ready for winter check out the National Weather Service Office in Lincoln's website on winter preparedness at: as well as U of I Extension's Disaster Preparedness website at:

Arugula: A New Trendy Green from the Old World Wed, 07 Nov 2018 16:00:00 +0000 Arugula has been trending these past few years. You can bet if you turn on a cooking show, they'll probably be using arugula at some point. Many chefs and hip restaurants have made this leafy green with a peppery zing very popular and arugula is now commonly found in grocery stores throughout the US.

While arugula may be having a heyday, this is not the first time human civilization has been enamored with this tasty green. The herbal of Dioscorides from Greece in the first century lauds arugula as "provoking venery". Which is a term I had to look up, and it is something that I would prefer not put in print. Dioscorides also said arugula is "good for ye belly." (Based on a 1655 English translation by John Goodyear)

Arugula, also known as rocket, has been a staple in Mediterranean cuisine and can also be found historically in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian dishes.

The arugula that most shoppers buy at the grocery store likely is grown in California. Many local vendors at farmers markets' may grow and sell arugula alone, or combine it with other greens as part of a mesclun mix. However, gardeners can easily grow arugula at home.

Growing Arugula

Arugula is a cool season crop, meaning it does best in the cooler season's spring and fall. Summer heat and long days trigger the plant to flower, known as bolting. While the flowers are still edible, they tend to concentrate arugula's peppery flavor and can be unappetizing. In addition, because arugula is an annual, flowering signals the end of the plant's lifecycle.

Arugula germinates readily from seed sown directly in the ground in early spring to early fall, and it is very cold hardy. Most types of arugula can survive 22°F. While arugula protected in a cold frame or low tunnel could possibly survive the entire winter in the Midwest.

Arugula grown in the summer can be harvested within 20 days of seeding, while in the spring and fall harvesting will occur 30 to 40 days after seeding. To harvest, cut arugula leaves with scissors or sharp knife. Harvest regrowth as it occurs. Fall-grown arugula can go through multiple harvests into the next spring when the plant bolts.

Problems with Arugula

Arugula does need well-drained soil as it can develop root rot in heavy clay or poorly drained areas. Flea beetles can be a routine problem on arugula. Flea beetles eat arugula leaves giving them a shot-hole appearance. Spring and summer grown arugula tend to have the greatest flea beetle pressure. I've found that growing arugula in fall has almost no problems with flea beetles as these pests vanish with the onset of cooler temperatures. Physical exclusion with floating row covers can help keep flea beetles off of the plants during the spring and summer.

Arugula has become a staple in my garden for the past two years and I have enjoyed this easy to grow crop. While the flea beetles can be a nuisance, the arugula still tastes good, even with leaves covered in tiny holes. My favorite is arugula on a fried egg, or toss a handful of arugula greens on pizza fresh out of the oven.]]>
Getting Trees and Shrubs Ready for Winter Wed, 31 Oct 2018 15:50:00 +0000 Now that the leaves have changed and begun to fall, many of us have or are starting to put our gardens to bed for winter. While getting the garden ready for winter, spend a little time preparing your trees and shrubs too. Doing a few things this fall can help protect our trees and shrubs from damage this winter.

To help prepare trees and shrubs for the coming winter they should be watered (if we don't get enough rain) so that the soil is moist 8-12 inches deep, until the ground freezes. Watering trees and shrubs before they go dormant will help reduce their stress. This is especially important for evergreens and newly planted trees. Evergreens keep their leaves year round and they are more likely to suffer winter desiccation (also known as winter burn). Desiccation is caused when plants lose moisture faster than they can take it up. This will result in discolored and damaged plant leaves and tip dieback. Having well-watered trees and shrubs and adequate soil moisture can go a long way in preventing winter desiccation. Additionally, roots surrounded by moist soil are less likely to suffer cold injury compared to those in dry soils.

Mulching trees and shrubs is also beneficial when preparing them for winter. Mulch will help retain soil moisture and help prevent rapid fluctuations of soil temperature. Organic-based mulches, such as wood chips, are preferred because in addition to the above benefits they will also slowly break down and add nutrients to the soil. When applying mulch put down a 2 to 4-inch deep layer, ideally out to the drip line of the tree. There should be a 2-inch gap between the tree trunk and the mulch (mulch should look like a donut, not a volcano). Mulch piled up against a tree trunk creates an ideal environment for diseases, insects, and rodents.

Shrubs that are in very exposed sites may benefit from additional protection. These plants can be wrapped loosely in burlap or a windbreak can be constructed. Anti-transpirants are commonly recommended to help prevent desiccation. These products are wax-like materials that are sprayed on to the leaves of plants to help prevent them from drying out. These products don't last very long so they will need to be reapplied several times during the winter (read label directions). While they may help (many studies have shown they are ineffective) in preventing winter desiccation, they aren't a replacement for making sure your plants are well watered and protected if they are in exposed locations.

While people are out cleaning up the garden there is often a temptation to prune trees and shrubs. Pruning in late summer and fall will often encourage plants to produce new growth. This new growth won't have enough time to harden off before winter arrives and will be damaged or killed. The only pruning that should be done on trees and shrubs in the fall is to remove dead or damaged branches. Otherwise wait to do any other pruning, such as removing crossing and rubbing branches, until the trees are fully dormant (late winter is a good time).