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The Humble Gardener

At University of Illinois Extension, our volunteers are at our core. Hear their voice on this volunteer driven blog.

Question. Plant. Reap. Enjoy!

My favorite time of the year as a gardener is when I get to be in my gardens. To watch veggies that we started last February make their way to our table in early June is a constant marvel to me. I understand the science that makes this happen, but I am awed that we grew this morning's breakfast. Today we had omelets (eggs from our chickens) with mushrooms, pepper and carrot (only one of each was ready to pick), onions, and broccoli. The oyster mushrooms are near the garden in logs that Chip is carefully nurturing, so I'm counting them as part of the garden scene. We topped our toast with homemade strawberry jam that Chip made last week from fruit picked from our strawberry bed. If we could find bacon plants, we would be totally growing our own breakfast. Our botanical talents don't stretch that far, unfortunately.

The other reason that this is a favorite time of year is the questions I receive at are from gardeners who are facing problems right now and need practical advice. Master gardeners are tasked with continuing education requirements, so I happily research answers if I am not sure. Sometimes I know the answer which means my reader gets a fast answer.

One of the questions I received earlier this month asked about what to do with spring plants after they are done blooming. Anyone who planted daffodils or tulips, for example, is looking at a garden of ugly brown tops as the die back begins. No one likes my answer (except the plants themselves). The tops need to die back. If you cut them, you are depriving the bulbs of necessary sunlight and preventing food reaching the bulbs that will make strong bulbs for next spring's show. Cutting the flower stalk itself after the bulbs are done blooming is a fine move because energy going to the stalk is better used by the bulb.

To prevent a garden from turning into an eyesore, you can plant some petunias or snapdragons or salvia to direct eyes towards the color they provide instead of towards the dying leaves. Some folks plant perennials among the bulbs, but we ended up getting so excited last fall that we planted the bulbs too close together to add perennials. So we are relying on annuals towards the front of the garden with some gladiolas and lilies towards the back of the bed. By the end of June, the annuals will be big and blooming, and we can remove the brown leaves knowing we have done our best for the spring bulbs.

Another question that I get often is about dying squash plants. A perfectly healthy looking summer squash or zucchini plant suddenly starts to wilt and soon dies. The culprits: squash bugs. These overwinter in the soil; they emerge in early summer and lay eggs on the squash's stems. The eggs hatch and bore into the stems to feed, killing the plant. Some preventative moves you can make include removing all dead squash plants and fruit in the fall to remove habitat and tilling in spring and fall to kill the overwintering bugs.

There are chemical ways to thwart these pests which I am reluctant to use as they are not very effective and potentially harmful to pollinators. We wrap the stem of the new plants with aluminum foil, going into the actual soil about a half inch and extending the foil upwards on the stem. This works as a deterrent to keep the bugs from reaching the stem and laying eggs. Some gardeners place an old board in the garden and early - very early- the following morning flip the board which has attracted the bugs and kill the bugs. Since squash bugs are stinky when squashed, this method requires a strong stomach. Alternatively, some members of the cucurbits family-butternut squash, cucumbers, melons, and watermelons - are often not attacked by squash vine borers, so these might be grown with better success.

The last question is more a matter of preference than accepted gardening protocol. A friend decided to start a vegetable garden this year in her very small backyard. She didn't want to give up flowers and wondered if she could combine the two. Much has been written about companion flowers grown with vegetables, which are supposed to attract beneficial insects. No one seems to agree on this topic. My stance is simple: I want to attract pollinators to my garden. I want to enjoy the color that flowers provide in a mostly green vegetable landscape. I want to grow flowers. So my advice to my friend is to plant what she wants and enjoy the result. Flowers and herbs amongst vegetables combine the best of all worlds. It's her garden. Plant. Reap. Enjoy.

Master Gardener

Sandra DePalma-Odell

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