Good Growing Keeping you growing with good ideas Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 How to Get Rid of a Mouse in the House Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:44:00 +0000 Is your house full of visitors that annoy you, eat your food, and can lead to great exasperation and hollering? In-laws and extended family members aside; what I mean are the mice that have decided to move into your home for the winter months. In the wild, these creatures would look for shelter to survive the winter, and your house is a lot cozier than that dead log in the woods.

It recently happened in my household. My wife was wiping down the counter when she moved the blender. "Chris!" she shouted, "I think we have a mouse."

Sure enough, as we inspected the counter along the wall, there were mouse droppings. I quickly went to the pantry to see what damage the mouse had caused. Thankfully, as I rooted around the shelves there was no evidence of a mouse. So at least it hadn't found the pantry goods, yet.

Despite that blizzard in early December, we've had a pretty mild winter, which means a lot of critters have remained active outside. However, with our most recent snow and cold weather, some homeowners may currently be under the invasion of mice.

In my house, I catch and release spiders and all manner of other insects, but mice in the home should be of concern. Vermin such as mice, and especially rats, are a natural source of fear in humans due to their disease-carrying potential and these pests should be controlled.

Following the discovery of our new kitchen tenant, I had to brief the dog and cat that if they wanted to earn their keep, their job was to catch the mouse. After hearing my inspiring speech, they promptly laid their heads back down and went to sleep. Apparently, catching this mouse was up to me.

My mouse control strategy starts in the garage, where I tend to encounter them more often. In the garage, I have a live trap, which is often used for catching voles outside as it can hold up to 15 mouse-sized rodents. Check live traps routinely so any captured rodents do not suffer from starvation or exposure. Captured mice can be released or euthanized. The humane method for euthanizing captured mice is CO2 asphyxiation or cervical dislocation.

Indoors, we opt for snap traps. I baited two snap traps with peanut butter, placed one under the range, where I found more mouse droppings, and the other in the pantry, in case Stewart Little found the rodent jackpot. Place your traps along walls and near openings, which is usually the path most mice take.

If you have trap-shy mice, try baiting an unset trap and let the mouse take the bait without repercussion. After that, bait and set the trap.

University of Illinois Extension does have recommended poison baits, but I really discourage homeowners from using these. Once the mouse consumes the poison bait they typically hide in walls, vents, or attics as symptoms set in, where they will eventually die. As decomposition begins, the odor will make any nearby rooms or even the entire house unlivable. If the poisoned vermin escape outside and is eaten by a hawk or neighborhood cat, the poison would then be ingested and could potentially be fatal to the predator. Use wire mesh or steel wool to seal any openings that are as big as the diameter of a pencil and don't forget common utility openings such as dryer vents or the A/C hose.

Keeping a clean house, caulking and sealing entry points, and moving piles of leaves or excess mulch away from a home's foundation is the best way to limit entry to all pests. And if you are wondering, yes we caught our mouse. No thanks to the dog and cat.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: If you have a mouse skilled at stealing bait from the trap without triggering it, use a small string and tie a piece of dried fruit, nut, chocolate candy, or bacon to the bait location. You may need a third hand so you don't get yourself snapped in the trap.

New Garden Plants for 2019 Tue, 08 Jan 2019 09:47:00 +0000 Every year garden catalogs advertise new, exciting varieties of our favorite plants. Sometimes the options can be overwhelming, with each new addition sounding better than the previous. So how do you go about deciding which new variety to select? Fortunately, All-American Selections (AAS), an independent, non-profit organization tests these new plant varieties and names the best performers as AAS Winners.

Varieties that have never been commercially available are grown and evaluated for a full growing season in anonymous trials that are done by volunteer professional horticulturalists throughout North America. Judges look for significantly improved qualities such as earliness to bloom or harvest, disease or pest tolerance, novel colors or flavors, novel flower forms, total yield, length of flowering or harvest and overall performance. A variety needs to have at least two significantly improved qualities to be considered for an AAS award. There are six national winners for 2019:

Begonia Viking™ XL Red on Chocolate F1 produces vibrant red flowers and has large, uniquely colored dark leaves that maintain their color throughout the season. Plants reach 28-34 inches tall and maintain their mounded shape well and don't become leggy. These extra-large mounded plants are perfect in both landscapes and containers.

Marigold Big Duck Gold F1 produces large (3-inch!) golden-yellow flowers and continues to bloom throughout the season. These plants are 11-15 inches tall with deep-green foliage. These marigolds can be used almost everywhere, in beds and containers; in landscapes as mini hedges, back of the border plants, or even as a filler in new perennial beds.

Pepper Just Sweet F1 is a snacking pepper that produces vivid yellow 3-inch fruits that are sweet with nice thick walls. The plants are also vigorous growers, growing up to 36 inches tall and 15 inches wide, but don't need to be staked because they've been bred to have a strong bushy habit.

Petunia Wave® Carmine Velour F1 is the newest color of the popular Wave® petunias. Large 2-2.5 inch carmine rose flowers cover these spreading plants that rarely need deadheading. Plants are 6-8 inches tall and act like a ground cover, spreading 3-4 feet. They are excellent performers and do equally well in containers or hanging baskets and in the landscape.

Tomato Fire Fly F1 produces super sweet pale-white to pale-yellow round fruits that are less than 1 inch in size and weigh about 1/2 oz. that are perfect for snacking and salads. These are indeterminate plants and need to be supported as they grow 5-6+ feet. They also have good disease resistance and ripen 80 days after transplanting.

Tomato Red Torch F1 is a striped oblong tomato with 1.5" long fruits that weigh about 1.5 ounces and is a very prolific early-season producer. Plants have excellent tolerance to environmental stresses like heat and harsh growing conditions. Plants are indeterminate and grow 5-6' tall (so they will also require support). Fruit ripen 60-70 days from transplanting.

AAS also names regional winners. This year there was one regional winner for the Great Lakes (Illinois' region):

Watermelon Cal Sweet Bush is a short internode watermelon, meaning it has a compact growth habit, reaching only 14-18" long! Each plant yields 2-3 sweet, crisp fruits that weigh 10 -12 pounds. This watermelon is a great choice for those of us with limited space, and can even be grown in a container.

Whether you're an experienced gardener or just starting out, make sure to check out these and other AAS winners. To see a list of all of the winners dating back to 1934, visit the All-American Selections website at:


Good Growing Fact of the Week: Plants with an F1 indication means they are a first generation hybrid plant. Plant breeders take parent plants with desirable qualities and cross them and produce hybrid plants (F1). The best of these offspring are then selected for commercial production.

Garden Resolutions for 2019 Wed, 02 Jan 2019 15:39:00 +0000 A new year brings the opportunity for a fresh start. For a gardener having the year switch in the middle of winter can be difficult. Right now, I am full of ideas and goals as I am once again missing my near-daily commune with soil. If it were in my power to change when we celebrate New Year's, I would suggest March 1.

I can make all the plans in the world, but it's cold outside, so those plans have to wait. And as things that get tossed on the back burner so often do, that is where they remain. As the winter trudges onward we get busy with all the facets of life. What better way to stick with your New Year's resolutions than to share them with all the world! (Actually, research shows when someone tells others of their intentions, they tend not to follow through on them. I'm enlisting you all as my accountable-a-buddy)

  1. Plant carrots, right now! I learned in 2019 that you can plant carrots in January and get germination. Once we get around to the longer days in late February the carrot seedlings take off and you can get early spring carrots. All you need is some type of season extension device. It could be a low tunnel, cold frame, or high tunnel if you have one.
  2. Do something about my backyard. I really do like my backyard, but it definitely needs some attention this year. Right now, my proposed plan is to install a dry creek bed to handle excess drainage from around the house and build a very low terrace in my southern landscape bed with natural stone. (Scavenged stone preferably. Have you seen how expensive decent landscape rock can be?)
  3. Continue to share our bountiful harvest. Each year University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners grow and donate fresh produce to local food pantries. It is an incredible experience! If you want to be a part of improving your community we are offering Master Gardener training in 2019. Get in touch with me or your local Illinois Extension office. They know how to track me down.
  4. Walk more! If there is one thing my sanity craves, it is to be able to get outside. Sometimes with our modern lifestyles, that just doesn't happen as often. To help encourage us all, University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalists will host a National Trails Day event on June 1. We're still in the planning process on this one, so look for a future article plugging this exciting new event.
  5. Save the planet! Okay, that may seem like a lot to bite off, but we are facing some serious issues with climate change. To make a difference, everyone is going to need to do something, big or small. My question to you is, how can horticulture and Extension help make our Illinois communities more sustainable. If you'd like to weigh in on this take my survey at It is only three questions and should take less than five minutes to complete.
  6. Never stop learning. This is why I love my job. Once you start down the path of science and nature, you'll realize this is an endless journey and one of the greatest pursuits of humankind. Your local Extension office undoubtedly has opportunities for you to keep on learning. In Macomb, we will be hosting our 23rd annual Gardener's Day on April 6.

Okay, it seems unlikely that New Year's is going to be moved closer to spring. I don't quite have that level of influence as Pope Gregory did in the 1500s when he created the Gregorian calendar. But perhaps Illinois Extension can help you with some of your New Year's resolutions. Check us out online to see what we can offer.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Carrot seed is tiny and often requires thinning because too much gets sowed. Consider using larger pelleted carrot seed or seed tape to eliminate the need for thinning carrot seedlings.

Poinsettia Care After the Holidays Wed, 26 Dec 2018 10:45:00 +0000 Congratulations, you've made it through Christmas and managed to keep your poinsettia(s) alive! As Chris mentioned last week, poinsettias are the most popular potted plant in the U.S. If you're anything like me you have a hard time throwing perfectly (and sometimes not so perfect) good plants away. Alas, most people dispose of poinsettias after they finish blooming, but with a little effort, you can get your poinsettia to bloom again for years to come.

If properly cared for, poinsettias can retain their color for several months, but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Once about half of the leaves and "flowers" have dropped, start to decrease watering until the soil is completely dry. This will cause the plant to go dormant. Then store it in a cool, dark location, watering only enough to prevent the stems from shriveling. Once new growth begins, usually in early May, cut the plant to within 4 to 6 inches of the soil; this will help encourage new growth. If you wish to repot the plant, now is the time to do that as well. Place the plant in a sunny window and treat it like any other houseplant, watering when dry and fertilizing occasionally with a dilute fertilizer.

Once the danger of frost has passed and nighttime temperatures remain above 50° F, move your poinsettia outdoors, exposing it to direct sun gradually over a week or two to allow it to acclimate to the outdoors. Eventually, place it in an area receives 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight, with some shade in the afternoon. You can either sink the pot into the ground or leave it above (remember, pots above ground may need water more frequently). To keep your poinsettia from getting too leggy, pinch off the shoot tips, choosing tips with two or three fully expanded leaves below them. Do this every three or four weeks until mid-August to keep the plant compact and bushy. Remember to water your poinsettia regularly, and fertilize it every couple of weeks.

Just like our other houseplants, when night temperatures get down to 55 to 60° F, it's time to bring your poinsettia back inside and place it in a sunny window. Poinsettias are short-day plants, meaning they grow vegetatively during times where there are long days and produce flowers when exposed to short days – or, more specifically, to long nights. For your plant to rebloom in time for Christmas, it needs to be in complete darkness from 5 pm to 8 am from about the end of September until the bracts develop good color, usually in early or mid-December. To provide darkness, place the plant in a closet or cover it with a box. During the day, put it back in the sunny window. Keep up this routine until the bracts are almost fully expanded. Try to make sure the plant doesn't experience temperatures below 60 or above 70° F. Nighttime temperatures above 70 to 75° F may delay or prevent flowering.

With a little attention, you can keep yours going for years to come.

Good Growing Fact of the Week: The large colored parts commonly thought to be the "flowers" of poinsettias are actually modified leaves called bracts. The greenish-yellow flowers (cyathia) are clustered at the center of the bracts.

Pain in the Poinsettia: How to keep your Poinsettia alive over the holidays Tue, 18 Dec 2018 11:00:00 +0000 Have you dodged the bullet this holiday season? You know what I am referring to, right? Poinsettias! Allow me to explain.

All of your friends know you are an avid gardener. With all the vegetables you give away each summer, you hold the status of Gardening Guru. You have likely responded to plant emergency calls, and resuscitated an ailing house or garden plant.

It seems only logical for a gardener's friend to assume the perfect holiday gift to get the Gardening Guru is a Poinsettia. Now you, the gardener, have the attention of everyone as you do your best to keep a houseplant alive in the middle of winter. Why is that so hard? Mainly because that plant is being taken from the perfect growing environment, a greenhouse with state of the art climate controls and cultural care, to a less than ideal home in the middle of winter.

Garden Guru or not, there are ways to keep that Poinsettia alive during the holiday season. And to do that, we need to know a bit about where the plant comes from and its history.

Why Poinsettia?

With known cultivation going back to the Aztec civilization, Poinsettias are native to Southern Mexico. In 1825, President John Quincy Adams appointed the first US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a politician with an interest in botany. Wandering the countryside of Mexico, Poinsett took cuttings from a large beautiful shrub with red flowers growing next to the road. He sent these to his greenhouse in South Carolina, thereby introducing the Poinsettia to the United States. As the plant became more popular in the US, it garnered the official name of Poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett.

Today Poinsettias are the most popular retail potted plants in the US with over 34 million sold each year. Most Poinsettias are purchased in the six weeks leading up to Christmas.

In its native range in Southern Mexico, Poinsettia blooms during December, where the plant was traditionally used to decorate churches to celebrate Christmas. By manipulating a Poinsettias exposure to light, greenhouse growers were able to simulate southern Mexico conditions to trigger flowering and create a popular off-season nursery product for the holidays.

Poinsettia Care for the Holidays

  • Make sure it is wrapped properly because exposure to low temperatures even for a few minutes can damage the bracts and leaves. Remember these are tropical plants!
  • Place the Poinsettia in indirect light. Keep the plant from touching cold windows.
  • Keep Poinsettias away from warm or cold drafts from radiators, air registers or open doors and windows.
  • Ideally, Poinsettias require daytime temperatures of 60 to 70°F and nighttime temperatures around 55°F. High temperatures will shorten the plant's life. Move the plant to a cooler room at night, if possible.
  • Check the soil daily. Be sure to punch holes in the decorative foil so water can drain into a saucer. Water when the soil is dry. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess water.

These tips will keep your Poinsettia alive through the holidays or at least until the relatives leave. Check back with the Good Growing column next week for Ken Johnson's advice on keeping your Poinsettia alive for months or years and how to get the plant to rebloom.

Good Growing Fact of the Week: The word Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized because it is named after a person, Joel Roberts Poinsett.]]>
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.