Good Growing Keeping you growing with good ideas Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Outdoor Summer Activities for Families: Tips to keep you and the kids outside Tue, 21 May 2019 10:33:00 +0000 As the school year ends it is soon to be the lazy days of summer. Homework and textbooks will vanish, while beach towels and sunscreen become the staple accessory. Parents will find themselves shuttling kids to swimming pools and perhaps a vacation of their own! As we transition from cool spring weather to hot summer temperatures and indoor air conditioning, remember there is a lot we can do outdoors in the summer.

Plant Summer Vegetables

Home vegetable gardening is returning as a popular outdoor hobby. Both baby boomers and millennials find time spent growing food as a rewarding experience. A vegetable garden doesn't require a tiller or backbreaking labor. A couple of large containers on the patio will do for tomato or pepper plants. My favorite is planting herbs in pots. Whether cooking in the kitchen or on the grill, I can pluck some basil or thyme to add flavor to my dish. For all those veggies that you don't grow, visit your local farmers' market to support local growers.

Make Art from Natural Materials

Nature art activities get the family outside and doing something creative. The act of making whether it is art or functional is incredibly rewarding for youth or adults. Use flowers to make a smiley face, or moss and pinecones to build a miniature landscape. Encourage your family to explore different textures and colors found in the surrounding environment. Use grapevines to make bracelets or crowns adorned with flowers and different leaves. During our county 4-H fair, a creative young girl made bookmarks and greeting cards out of pressed and pounded flowers. And of course, you can always send the kiddos on a scavenger hunt to gather materials for a bouquet.

Go for a Hike

Pack a Saturday picnic and hit the trails. Take breaks during your walk to listen for birds or rustling leaves.

Come take a hike with University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalists as we celebrate National Trails Day on June 1st. Master Naturalists will be hosting hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, and families at Blackthorn Hill Nature Preserve located at 1590 Angling Road, Highway 4, Alexis, Illinois. Blackthorn Hill offers 110 acres of prairie and woodland with trails for all ages and skill levels.

Our celebration of National Trails Day includes activities for all ages, plus guided hikes, food, demonstrations, and speakers. The event kicks off at 8 AM and the final hike begins at noon. Guided hikes will leave at the top of every hour, with each hike consisting of its own theme.

Guided hikes will include:

  • 8 AM Birding Hike
  • 9 AM Invasive Species Hike
  • 10 AM Woodland Hike
  • 11 AM Prairie Hike
  • Noon Butterfly and Insect Hike

Education stations will be positioned at the trailhead in the shelter. Come learn outdoor skills and how we can be environmental stewards in our own backyards. Kids can participate in a wildlife scavenger hunt to find hidden silhouette shapes of wild animals along the trails. Find them all to win a prize! Check out the Blackthorn Hill Nature Preserve website for more information.

Can't make it to Blackthorn Hill Nature Preserve? Check out the American Hiking Society for a trail event near you.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: During a hike have family members pick out leaves of different shapes and preserve it as a memento of your adventure. Preserving a leaf can be as easy as placing it between two sheet of tissue paper and then inside a thick book.]]>
Mosquito and Tick Season is Upon Us Tue, 14 May 2019 20:24:00 +0000 I've been seeing mosquitoes and ticks for several weeks already, and as the weather gets warmer they'll get more numerous. Not only are these critters annoying, many are also capable of transmitting a variety of diseases.

There are three main types of mosquitoes. The permanent pool mosquitoes, which reproduce in relatively small numbers in permanent bodies of water such as lakes and ponds. The floodwater mosquitoes, which lay their eggs on low-lying dry soil and will hatch when the areas flood (the eggs can survive for more than two years while waiting for proper conditions). Finally, there are the container breeding mosquitoes. They prefer stagnant water and include the northern house mosquito, Culex pipiens, the main vector of West Nile Virus and St. Louis Encephalitis, and the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, a potential vector for Zika virus.

Neither the northern house mosquito nor the Asian tiger mosquito travel very far, typically no more than half a mile. Because of this, efforts to reduce mosquitoes around your home neighborhood can greatly reduce their populations. After getting an adequate blood meal, adult female mosquitoes will lay eggs in any stagnant water source. Therefore, removal of as many water sources as possible from yards and communities will help to reduce populations (they can develop in as little as one cup of water):

  • Make sure to clean out gutters so they don't clog and hold water.
  • Replace water in birdbaths and wading pools weekly.
  • If you have drip trays under potted plants make sure to empty them frequently as well.
  • If you have an ornamental/garden pond stock it with minnows or other surface feeding fish that will eat mosquito larvae (unfortunately koi won't help, they're vegetarians).
  • Ornamental/garden ponds can also be treated with BTi (Bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis) which isavailable as donuts, briquettes, granules, and can provide larval control for a month or more.
  • If you have a swimming pool make sure it is cleaned and chlorinated.
  • Make sure to get rid of, or put drainage holes in old tires, tin cans, abandoned cars, and ceramic pots.
  • Basically, anything that is capable of holding water needs to be emptied frequently and regularly, as it takes mosquito larvae 5-7 days to develop into adults.

While mosquitoes tend to get most of the headlines, tick populations have been increasing throughout the last several years. While they are most common in forested areas or areas with tall grass, they can be found anywhere where there is vegetation. In Illinois there are three species that commonly feed on people: the American dog (or wood) tick; the blacklegged (or deer) tick; and the lone star tick.

There are several steps people can take to avoid tick bites:

  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
  • Walk in the center of trails to avoid brushing up against vegetation.
  • Wear light-colored clothing (so it is easier to spot ticks) and tuck pants into socks
  • Apply a repellent containing DEET (20-30%) as directed (this goes for mosquitoes too).
  • Permethrin can be applied to clothing (as directed) or clothing can be purchased that has already been treated that will kill ticks when they get on the clothing.
  • Examine clothing, skin, and pets frequently for ticks when outdoors
  • If you find a tick attached, remove it promptly by grasping it firmly with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out. Do not burn or smother the tick!
  • See your doctor if any unexplained rash or illness accompanied by a fever develops

If you'd like to learn more about mosquitoes and ticks come to Preventing Mosquito and Tick Bites in Carrollton (5/21) or Jacksonville (5/22).


Good Growing fact of the week: Blacklegged (deer) ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease, are incredibly small. The larvae are about the size of a poppy seed; nymphs about the size of a pinhead; and adults are about 1/8 of an inch long.

Landscaping: It's for the Birds! Tue, 07 May 2019 14:30:00 +0000 Attracting birds to your backyard can go beyond setting out birdfeeders.

Creating a landscape that welcomes birds by providing critical pieces of habitat will not only benefit birds, but other wildlife as well. And it is a great way to introduce young people to nature and have something the whole family can share. According to Cornell, with nearly 80 percent of wildlife habitat owned privately and 2.1 million acres converted each year to residential use – it is critical we create bird-friendly landscapes.

When designing a bird-friendly space, it is always best to start with a plan. As you begin to put pencil to paper one of your goals is to have a diverse landscape. The typical foundation planting, often comprised of yews and daylilies, fails at providing the three things birds need: water, shelter and food. Utilize native or well-adapted plants and design for year-round attractors.

You need to visualize your landscape in layers!

Birds don't simply live in the tree tops. In fact, most species of birds require a variety of layers during their lifecycle from the low to medium to high. You can categorize these layers as groundcovers, herbaceous plants, understory shrubs and trees, and overstory trees. Layering provides cover for birds and protects from predation both from the ground and from above.

Leaving dead limbs and tree snags and brush piles are all great sources of food and shelter for certain birds. What a great excuse for the messy gardener! Don't tidy up the planting beds in the fall. Leave those seed heads for birds to eat over the winter. Instead of bagging up your fall leaves, shred them and place them beneath your shrubs as mulch. Fall leaves harbor overwintering insects that birds will find delectable and come spring your leaf mulch will become a flurry of birds as they search for nesting material.

What plants are recommended? Cornell has a wonderful website called All About Birds and is a wealth of information. Here is a sampling of their recommended bird-attracting plants:


  • Overstory- Oaks (Quercus sp.), hickories (Carya sp.), walnuts (Juglans sp.), beeches (Fagus sp.)
  • Understory – Serviceberries (Amelanchier sp.), native dogwoods (Cornus sp.)
  • Coniferous – Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), spruces (Picea sp.)
  • Shrubs – Shrub dogwoods (Cornus sp.), winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata)


Water is another critical component to have in a bird-friendly landscape. Incorporating a birdbath or water garden in your landscape can provide a wonderful focal point or pleasing space in your yard.

Birds are attracted to moving water. Installing a small pump in a water feature will add interest in the garden for both you and the birds as the sound of moving water attracts species of all types. Birdbaths should be 2 to 3 inches deep and 2 to 3 feet wide with an edge for perching. Clean the birdbath once a week with soap and a thorough rinse of water. Keep your birdbath full of fresh, cool water and sit back and enjoy the sight of birds making your backyard their home.

There are many wonderful resources to help you create a bird-friendly backyard. University of Illinois Extension can help get those resources in your hands. Contact your local county Extension office today! Another great resource would be your nearest Illinois Audubon Society group. Check Illinois Audubon's state website for local chapter information.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Evergreens are an important source of cover for songbirds, especially in winter when predators like sharp-shinned hawks or house cats are known to stalk bird feeders for a meal. According to Cornell, place your feeders within 10-feet of protective cover. This distance can be adjusted depending on what common predators are in your yard.]]>
It's Peony Time! Tue, 30 Apr 2019 10:17:00 +0000 Herbaceous peonies are a common sight in many gardens and some of the most beautiful flowers you will find. They belong to the genus Paeonia which is native to Asia, Europe, and Western North America. They have been cultivated in Asia for more than 2,000 years. These cultivated peonies were brought to Europe and later the United States around 1800. In addition to their beauty, they can be quite long-lived. Many plants have been growing and flowering for more than 50 years and some plantings have been recorded to be over 100 years old.

Depending on the species and cultivar, peonies will bloom from late spring to early summer (typically starting in early May in central Illinois). Peonies were traditionally white, blush, pink and red in color. However, due to breeding, coral, yellow and patterned peonies can now be found. In addition to a wide variety of colors, blooms also come in a variety of different shapes. The American Peony Society recognizes six different types of flowers: single, Japanese, anemone, semi-double, bomb, and double.

If your peonies aren't producing buds and blooming, there are several different things that could be causing this.

  • If you planted peonies in the last year or two and they aren't producing flowers don't be alarmed; it can often take 2-3 years for them to establish and bloom.
  • Excessive shade can also lead to poor flower development (peonies prefer full sun and can take some shade). If this is the case, dig up peonies in the fall and place them in a sunny location.
  • One of the more common reasons peonies don't bloom is that are planted too deeply. The crown of the plant should be no more than two inches below the soil surface.
  • Over-fertilizing can also reduce the bloom of your peonies. Too much nitrogen fertilizer will cause the plants to produce a lot of foliage and a reduced number of blooms. Established plants with good growth only need to be fertilized every few years, if at all. If you decide to fertilize, do so after they are done blooming and use a balanced fertilizer or one with a higher phosphorous content (middle number).

Despite the old wives tale, peonies do not need ants to help them flower. Ants are commonly seen on the buds of peonies and many think that they help pry the flower buds open. Peonies have glands called extrafloral nectaries on their sepals (leaf-like structures that cover the flower before it opens) that release nectar. These are different than the nectaries that are inside of the flower that produce nectar to encourage pollination and provide food for pollinators. It is believed that plants have these extrafloral nectaries to attract beneficial insects. The beneficials (such as ladybugs and ants) will feed on the nectar and protect the plant from pests.

Despite being beneficial, one common complaint with peonies is the presence of ants on the flowers, especially when they are being cut to bring indoors. To get rid of the ants on the flowers stick the flowers in some water and swish them around. This should remove most of the ants.

Just like roses and many other flowers, it's a good idea to remove flower heads and/or seed pods when plants are done blooming. This will help the appearance of the plants and also prevent the plant from sending energy into producing seeds.

Good Growing fact of the week: In addition to herbaceous peonies there are also tree and intersectional peonies. Tree peonies are multi-stemmed woody shrubs that grow 3 to 7 feet tall. Intersectional (also referred to as Itoh) peonies are hybrids created by crossing tree and herbaceous peonies.

Blooming Lawns! Tue, 23 Apr 2019 13:39:00 +0000 Is your lawn blooming? Mine is, and I couldn't be happier! You may be wondering if I am referring to the actual grass plants in my lawn. Nope! Currently, my lawn is a stunning display of colors. Mostly yellows and different hues of blue and purple. Yes, my lawn is full of what many people believe to be weeds – dandelions, clover, creeping Charlie, and violets. Crocus started the show this spring, emerging from the near dormant turf. The crocus was then followed by daffodils and tulips. What a stunning display it has been!

Lawns have replaced a significant portion of native landscapes that may have been home to wildflowers and the pollinators that depend on them. While much of that native landscape is gone, the pollinators have dwindled but still remain. Fortunately, there are some plants that have adapted to surviving in our lawns. Early spring blooms of dandelions, creeping Charlie, and violets are important food sources for pollinators.

Want to raise more butterflies? Violets are the larval (caterpillar) food source for the great spangled fritillary butterfly. In late summer, the adult female butterfly will lay her eggs near, not on, a patch of violets. The eggs will hatch and the young caterpillar will overwinter in wood mulch or leaf litter. If you allow violets to grow in your lawn or landscape and have leaf litter or wood mulch nearby, chances are you will be raising the next generation of Great Spangled Fritillaries next spring.

Is my entire lawn choked full of 'weeds'? No. The small lawn area that I look out on from my back window is pretty much a full stand of grass, minus the dog spots. From my oasis of turf, the yard slopes down to a wooded area. That slope is where the flowering lawn resides.

What do I spray to keep weeds out of my oasis of lawn grass? Nothing. I credit my weed-free lawn with:

  1. The area is very small (picture three parking spaces and that's about the size),
  2. Cutting the lawn as high as my mower will go (about 3-inches),
  3. Overseeding every year (anytime from August 15 to September 15),
  4. Fertilizing every year (best time is again August 15 to September 15),
  5. Mulching fall leaves back into the lawn (Sometimes I have to run over the leaves a few times)

As you have read the size of my lawn is smaller than most, but it is appropriate for the scale of our house and needs of my family. Plus, I needed more room for other plants like tomatoes!

If seeing bees nectar on dandelions or caterpillars munching on violets doesn't bring joy to your heart, maybe a flowering lawn isn't for you. Even still, consider growing a patch of wildflowers, or leave the lawn herbicide on the shelf and practice good lawn care that I listed above.

Want to learn more about good lawn care and what it takes to grow a lush lawn? University of Illinois Extension will be offering a lawn care clinic at the McDonough County Extension office on Tuesday, May 21 starting at 5:30 PM. The clinic will be outdoors and is free. In case of inclement weather, we will move indoors. Let us know you're coming by calling the office to register, or sign up online at

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Lawn care goes beyond fertilizer and irrigation, good soil management is also key. Topdressing with an inch of compost is a great way to add organic matter to your lawn soil.

Pest Management in the Garden Tue, 16 Apr 2019 16:28:00 +0000 Warm weather has arrived and our plants are starting to green-up and bloom. That also means weeds, insects, and diseases are starting to become active too. As the saying goes the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes, and if you're a gardener you can also include pests in the list of life's guarantees.

When faced with some of these pest problems this year consider using integrated pest management (IPM). IPM is an approach to reducing insect pest, weed, and disease populations to an acceptable level (we don't typically 'wipe out' the pest) using a variety of different techniques. There are four techniques used with IPM: cultural, physical/mechanical, biological and chemical.

The idea behind cultural management is growing and maintaining a healthy plant. A healthy plant is less susceptible to disease and they are better able to withstand attacks from insects and competition from weeds. This means growing the right plant in the right place at the right time.

Make sure you are planting plants that are appropriate for the site they will be planted in. Don't plant something that needs full sun in shade or that requires acidic soils in alkaline or neutral soils. Placing a plant in the wrong environment can prevent the plant from reaching its full potential and will likely lead to a weak plant that has more than its fair share of insect and disease problems. If you have known disease problems in an area, looking for resistant cultivars to these diseases can help reduce problems you may have (this can also work for some insects). In addition to selecting the right site for your plant, make sure it is getting the proper fertilization and enough, but not too much, water (too much water causes as many problems as not enough). You can also alter the time of your planting to avoid a particular pest. For example, plant summer squash in early July to avoid squash vine borer because they have finished laying eggs by then. Some other cultural management techniques are pruning, sanitation, and mulching (just don't make volcanoes).

The goal for physical/mechanical management is to physically eliminate pests. This can be done in a variety of different ways such as hand picking Japanese beetles, bagworms, or other caterpillars; pruning out diseased branches, webworms or galls; pulling or hoeing weeds in flower beds or vegetable gardens; or putting up barriers to prevent pests from getting to your plants such as bird netting or fencing for rabbits and deer.

In biological management, pests are managed with other living organisms (often called natural enemies). Ladybeetles (aka ladybugs) eat small soft-bodied insects like aphids, scale, and mealybugs. Lacewing larvae, sometimes referred to as aphid lions, feed on aphids, scale, mealybugs, small caterpillars, and occasionally mites. There are tiny parasitic wasps, too small to sting people, that lay eggs inside of aphids and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the aphid. There are other parasitic wasps that lay eggs on caterpillars. You may have seen these in your garden before if you grow tomatoes; infected hornworm caterpillars will have a mass of what looks like eggs on them, but they are actually cocoons. If you see this, don't get rid of that caterpillar, eventually, the wasps will emerge from the cocoon and will go on to attack more caterpillars. Like plants (and us), insects can also be infected by fungus and bacteria which may help manage their populations.

The final management technique used is chemical. The goal is to manage pest populations by using pesticides, whether it is an insecticide, fungicide, herbicide, etc. If you are using IPM, chemicals should only be used as needed. In some cases using pesticides may be the best option to manage a particular pest. However, often times one of the three other techniques (cultural, physical/mechanical, and/or biological) can be used to manage pests. If you do go the pesticide route you want to try and use pesticides that are the least toxic possible. Before using any pesticide product make sure to read the label. The label will tell you where you can legally use it, what it will control, how much you should use, how often you should use and any precautions you need to take while using the product.

Good Growing fact of the week: In addition to prey, many natural enemies need sources of pollen and nectar, particularly the adults. By planting plants that are attractive to them such as dill, cilantro, fennel, cosmos, and blanketflower you can encourage them to stick around.

Top Ten Mistakes Made in the Home Landscape Mon, 08 Apr 2019 15:16:00 +0000 Spring is certainly in the air. It seems we finally had our first nice day of the year, with highs in the low 70s and sunshine warming the soil as daffodils and crocus burst forth and begin to flower. Spring also brings the weekend warriors. After being trapped indoors for months on end, we Midwesterners are brushing off the mowers, blowers, and loppers.

Our anxiousness to get outside often comes with some common mistakes in the landscape. Little mistakes can lead to a gardener's frustration. Big mistakes can lead to the loss of a prized tree. The list is long, but I've narrowed it down to my top ten mistakes many people make in the home landscape.

  1. The first twenty years of a tree's life is determined by the first twenty minutes it spends in your yard. Proper tree planting is critical to the long-term success of our beloved shade trees. When planting a balled-and-burlap tree, it is important to remove the wire basket once you get it to the planting hole. Then loosen the burlap and use that lift the tree in the hole. Once the tree is in the planting hole, remove as much burlap as possible. Don't leave it on!
  2. When planting your tree, make sure the root flare is above the soil line. The root flare is where the trunk flares out into the root system. If the tree looks like a telephone pole sticking out the ground, it is planted too deep.
  3. Keep mulch away from the trunk. Mounding mulch against the trunk (also known as volcano mulching) is a terrible practice that could lead to damage and rot around the base of the tree. Mulch rings should be as wide as possible, 2 to 4-inches deep, with a 2-inch gap around tree trunks.
  4. Tree topping turns your tree into a hazard to you and anything underneath. Don't top your tree. Enough said!
  5. Those golf course fairways sure do look nice clipped low to the ground. Why does your lawn look so terrible when you cut it that short? Because golf courses have huge budgets, work crews, and someone with a degree in turf management. Our cool season lawns grows best at a taller cut height. Mow at a height of 2 to 3 inches to get a dense lawn that can outcompete the weeds.
  6. So many people have told me they've already put grass seed down in March. That's too early for our area in Central Illinois! Wait at least until April when soils begin to warm. The best time of year to seed a lawn is the late summer to early fall. Sod is recommended in the spring.
  7. Sharpen those mower blades! Dull blades don't cut grass they, beat, shred and tear lawns. At a minimum, sharpen your blades at least once a year. The sharper the better!
  8. With spring comes the desire to freshen up the mulch. Before putting new mulch on top of old mulch break up the mulch with a cultivator or hard-toothed rake. This breaks the shell that can form over time, especially with shredded mulch. Cultivating mulch improves water and air movement to the soil.
  9. Leave the dandelions alone! Dandelions are a great source of pollen and nectar for our early season pollinators. If you must treat your yard for dandelions, wait until late summer to early fall. Treating in the spring won't stop the dandelions from germinating throughout the growing season, and you'll just have more of the same next year.
  10. Fall leaves are not waste! Why buy mulch when you have access to fall leaves? Shred them up and use them in place of mulch. Or compost them to create gardener's black gold!

I have made plenty of mistakes and killed lots of plants. It is all a learning experience. With everything that can go wrong in the landscape, this was a tough list to narrow down to ten. What common mistakes do you encounter? Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me with your common landscaping mistakes.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Extension offers research-based information to answer your home gardening and landscaping conundrums. Contact your local Extension office to avoid these common mistakes and more!