Northwest Illinois Horticulture Corner In the far Northwest Corner of Illinois, gardening is a very popular pastime! Get your info here! Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Winter is for the Birds Sat, 12 Jan 2019 10:52:00 +0000 By Nikki Keltner, Program Coordinator, University of Illinois Extension

As a gardener, I find joy in the winter months. It is a time of rest and rejuvenation. I embrace the break from the multitude of tasks that face us in the home landscape and vegetable garden during the growing season. This time of year, we can reflect on the past season, enjoying the fruits of our labors as we look out the window at our landscape in winter. It seems almost bare but it is this time of year that I really enjoy the presence of our feathered friends. I consider them the focal point of our winter landscape.

There are simple ways to attract feathered friends to your landscape. Add a feeding and watering station. Supply a constant source of food and water during the winter months. Make sure feeders and waters are cleaned often as these gathering spots can spread disease amongst the birds.

When feeding the birds, place feeders at various levels. Place feeders in an open spot in your lawn 10 feet or so away from trees and shrubs. This will allow the birds to see if a predator is approaching and allow them to escape to nearby trees and shrubs. Feeders can hang at about 5 to 6 feet off the ground attached to a post or pole or hung from a tree. Be sure to place feeders according to the type of bird you would like to attract. For example, you would like to attract cardinals to your yard, consider feeding them near a hedgerow, chickadees like feeders in trees and mourning doves prefer a ground feeder.

The local stores are full of different types of feeders. There are tube feeders, platform feeders, and house feeders all of which can accommodate regular seed. If you are planning to feed thistle seed look for a feeder that is specifically designed for that type of seed. Suet feeders are generally cage like and come in very simple designs to very elaborate designs that include a roof.

The birds in our yard most likely will be seedeaters or insect eaters. During the winter months have suet available for the insect eaters. For seed eating birds, black oil sunflower will attract the widest variety of birds to your yard. White proso millet will also attract many birds. A mixture of black oil sunflower and white proso millet will be your best bet on feeding the widest variety of birds with very little waste. Be cautious of seed blends that contain milo, wheat, oats and rice as most birds will not eat these seeds and the mixture is wasted.

Birds need a clean, fresh source of drinking water. It is especially important to provide this source during dry times or during winter when unfrozen water can be scarce. Place your birdbath in an open area in your yard, away from tall plants and shrubs so that birds that stop for a drink can see any approaching danger. Immersion water heaters can be purchased to add to a birdbath to keep the water open in the winter. Be sure to add fresh water frequently and clean the birdbath every couple of weeks with a 10% bleach solution.

Take feeding the birds a step further and create a landscape that will benefit our feathered friends. Consider adding diversity to your landscape to encourage birds to stay. A variety of native shrubs and plants can be of value to the birds providing them with food and shelter. Evergreens can provide important winter shelter. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a publication that can be downloaded called "Landscaping for Wildlife." This publication can help you decide which plants to add to your landscape to benefit the birds.

A good resource for bird feeding tips is the Cornel Lab of Ornithology website. There you will find information about the best types of birdseeds to feed and the types of feeders that you should be using for the birds that you would like to attract to your yard. Download the "Winter Bird Feeding" pamphlet from this website as well. This publication contains a wealth of information about backyard bird feeding.

I hope these resources will help you create a bird feeding station in your back yard that brings enjoyment to your home landscape. Bird feeding and other home gardening questions can be directed to the University of Illinois Extension at (815) 235-4125.

Amaryllis Care Thu, 10 Jan 2019 10:49:00 +0000 By Nikki Keltner, Program Coordinator, University of Illinois Extension

One of my all-time favorite plants is the amaryllis. This plant is a very popular holiday plant, sold in many stores and often given as gifts. If you received an amaryllis as a gift I hope you have enjoyed its beautiful bell shaped blooms. There are many colors of amaryllis, red, white, pink, salmon, apricot, burgundy and variegated. One of the most popular varieties is "Apple Blossom" which is pink and white.

Typically sold as a bulb, amaryllis bulbs are often in a kit with soil and a pot. Once potted, the bulb starts shooting its flower stalk. My family enjoys watching the flower stalk grow day by day increasing in height until it reaches about 12 to 18 inches. Then the blooms start to unfold. It is like the anticipation of a gift, how many blooms will be on the stalk? They can have anywhere from 2 to 6 blooms on a stalk but typically have 4. As the beautiful bell shaped flowers unfold another flower stalk may appear and start to grow. While the plant is in bloom, set it in a cooler location in your house out of direct sunlight to ensure long lasting blooms.

The flower stalks are born before the leaves appear earning the amaryllis the nickname "naked lady." Once the blooms fade, the spent flower stalks can be cut down to the base, then the strap like leaves will start to appear. Allow the leaves to remain on the plant as they will create and store food in the bulb for next year. Next year? Yes, you can keep this plant and it will re-bloom for you. Place it in a bright, indoor location during the remainder of the winter months. Water it thoroughly but let it dry out between waterings. Once the danger of frost has passed, take your amaryllis outdoors where it can receive filtered sunlight like the north side of the house or under a large shade tree. Once it has adapted to being outside you can move it to where it receives more sun. You can leave it in a pot or plant it in a garden. I like to plant my amaryllis in a flowerbed that receives sun in the morning and shade from a little leaf linden tree in the afternoon. Outside the plants will thrive, taking in the nourishing rain and the sun. Fertilize the plant every two weeks with a water soluble fertilizer designed for blooming plants (be sure to follow label directions).

Before the first frost, bring the amaryllis indoors. Store the plant in a cool, dark place like a basement and stop watering them. They can be stored in their pot or bare root. Since my amaryllis are directly planted in the ground during the summer and dug up in the fall, I typically store them bare root. Remove the leaves as they yellow. The bulb needs to go through this period of rest for about eight to twelve weeks in order to re-bloom. Inspect the bulbs periodically during this rest period, if they start to grow, re-pot them and bring them into the light. If they have not started to grow after the rest period, repot them with fresh potting soil, bring them into the light and start watering them. Soon you will see the flower stalk appear starting the entire process all over again.

There are a few other tips that will help you be successful with growing amaryllis. They should be planted in a pot that is about 2 inches larger in diameter than the bulb. The pot should have drainage to ensure excess water can leave the pot, keeping the roots healthy. Use a quality, soil-less potting mix avaible in any garden center. Plant the bulb so that the top one-third of the bulb is showing. Properly cared for amaryllis can live up to 75 years!

If you have additional questions about amaryllis or another plant that you received this Holiday season, please give us a call at the University of Illinois Extension at (815) 235-4125. Be sure to check out our website at and on our Blog called Northwest Illinois Horticulture Corner at for additional resources about plants and home gardening.

Fall Garden Tasks Tue, 09 Oct 2018 08:33:00 +0000 October is upon us and as gardeners that means we are wrapping up the gardening season. The leaves have started to turn and will be falling soon. As we head into fall, we need to consider completing a few simple tasks outside in our lawn and garden that will help keep out garden looking good for the next season.

In our perennial garden beds, most perennial plants have slowed or stopped growing and most are not flowering. If the plant is still strong and the plant has not shown any disease issues then consider allowing it to stand over the winter. Perennial plants, especially ornamental grasses, add a unique interest to the winter landscape as they poke through the blanket of snow. In addition, perennial plants provide a place for our beneficial insects to overwinter as well as provide food for the birds.

It is a great time of the year for planting. Yes, fall is for planting. Planting spring flowering bulbs this time of year will give us beautiful blooms early next spring. Look for daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinth and more at your local garden center to plant this fall before the soil freezes. Fall is also a great time to plant trees and shrubs. Trees and shrubs benefit from the cooler air temperatures, warmer soil temperatures and increased rainfall, all which play a role in their successful establishment.

Let us talk about fall garden clean up tasks. At this time, cut back annual flowering and vegetable plants that have frosted back. Consider composting any dead plant materials that is free of disease. Make sure to remove any weeds that remain in your garden. These weeds can harbor disease and produce thousands of seeds, which can cause you even more headaches in the years to come.

Leaf removal is a familiar task. Remove leaves from the lawn to prevent them from smothering the grass or shred the leaves and a light layer can be reapplied to lawns as organic matter, the shredded leaves can also be used in flowerbeds as mulch or incorporated into the soil of a vegetable garden. The 2018 growing season provided us with several diseases in trees namely tar spot on maples. If you had a tree disease in your landscape this year, it is best not to compost those leaves or use them for mulch. It is best to dispose of them off your property to help ensure that the disease does not over winter in those fallen leaves.

The cool season grasses that we see in our lawns in northern Illinois thrive in the fall. They continue to grow and fill in. It is important to inspect our lawns this time of year for weeds that we may want to remove so that our lawn has a chance to fill in, aiding in its ability to out compete the weeds in the next growing season. Mowing will continue a while longer and when it concludes be sure to sharpen the blades on your lawn mower. Sharp blades leave a clean cut on the grass keeping it healthy and free from invading insects or disease.

Plan to dig your tender bulbs after they frost back. Cut back the dead foliage, remove the loose dirt and store in a cool spot in the basement at about 50 degrees. Also, bring in your houseplants before the first frost. Inspect them for insects and consider repotting them to keep unwanted insects from hitching a ride into your home.

Once the tasks are complete, you can enjoy the slower pace of the winter months while you plan and dream about the garden next year. Make notes of vegetable garden plantings and plan to rotate your crops to different locations in the garden this coming year. As the seed catalogs start pouring in grab your notebook and start making plans for the next growing season.

For more information on garden related issues, call the University of Illinois Extension at (815) 235-4125.

Why succulents are ideal plants Thu, 02 Aug 2018 12:04:00 +0000 This blog post is written by Extension Educator Candice Hart,

Succulents have long been a favorite group of plants for gardeners, for one great reason: They don't need to be watered often! For a gardener who feels watering is a chore, succulents are a dream.

By definition, a succulent is a plant that has thick fleshy leaves or stems adapted to storing water. Therefore, succulent is a very broad term that can include many, many plants. Some of the common succulent plants you may be familiar with are hens and chicks, jade plants, aloe plants, or holiday cacti, just to name a few.

"First of all, succulents need minimal watering. For a gardener that works or travels a lot, succulents are a great choice. They thrive on neglect and dry soil. In fact, the easiest way to kill a succulent plant is by watering too much," says Candice Hart, a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension.

Hart points out a few more benefits of growing succulents. For example, she says they rarely suffer from diseases and pests. Besides the occasional mealybug, there are usually very few problems that pop up on succulents. "Succulents also have really interesting flowers and plant forms. The variety of colors, shapes, and patterns that are available in succulent plants is like nothing else."

Even though succulents are fairly low-maintenance plants, Hart says there are a few tips and tricks that can keep them healthy and happy.


If growing succulents indoors, a southern- or western-facing window would have the most ideal lighting for these sun-loving plants. Many succulents will thrive under incandescent or fluorescent supplemental lighting if the ideal lighting situation is not available.

Succulent container gardens can be taken outdoors for the summer and kept as houseplants for the winter. "Fill a sunny deck with succulent container pots for the summer and then, before the temperatures dip below freezing, bring those pots in and keep them as houseplants for the winter," Hart says.


Most cacti and succulent plants can adapt to wide fluctuations of temperature because that is what occurs in their native desert habitats. It is naturally very warm in the day and cold at night in the desert.

Exposure to temperatures between 40 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods is not harmful to succulent plants. In fact, many desert plants will initiate flower buds when grown in a cool, dry, well-lit location. Nighttime temperatures of 45 to 50 degrees are suitable to stimulate flower bud formation.


The amount of water needed for a container garden really depends on the time of year, the size of the plant, the type of potting soil, and the size of the pot. As a result, these plants can't be watered on a set schedule because of those varying factors. "In other words, you can't set an alarm to water your succulent containers every Monday," Hart says. "Watering without taking the conditions into account can easily lead to overwatering the container."

Overwatering is by far the easiest way to kill a succulent or cacti plant, so prior to watering, check the soil with your finger to judge the amount of moisture still left. If the soil still feels moist, don't water yet. Wait until the soil completely dries out before watering again.

If these basic care instructions are followed, you'll be a succulent-growing pro!


Reduce Your Plastic Footprint Mon, 30 Jul 2018 11:58:00 +0000 This blog is written by Extension Educator Jennifer Fishburn, 217-782-4617,

Reduce, reuse, and recycle. The three R's are part of being a good steward to the Earth. Jennifer Fishburn, a University of Illinois Extension educator, points out that it is ironic that the horticulture industry, whose goal is to beautify our yards, uses millions of plastic pots and trays each year.

Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of municipal solid waste, she says, and one of the largest categories of plastics includes pots and flat trays that hold plants. In a 2004 estimate, Penn State University's College of Agriculture Sciences estimated that cell packs, flats, and assorted nursery pots account for more than 320 million pounds of plastic produced each year.

Ultimately, Fishburn says, the solution is for the industry to go "green" and offer plants in biodegradable pots. The makeup of commercially available biodegradable pots vary. They can be made of wood fiber, paper, peat moss, or animal products such as cow manure. Drawbacks of biodegradable pots are that some tend to be more fragile or expensive than plastic containers.

"But the benefits of using biodegradable pots are that they won't end up in the landfill, plants experience less transplant shock, and roots stay intact."

A study on biodegradable pot strength and biodegradability was undertaken by Longwood Gardens, Louisiana State University, and the University of Arkansas. Researchers tested plantable pots: peat, CowPots®, fertilepot, cocofiber, StrawPot; and compostable pots: ricehull, paper and cord fiber, OP47 bio pots. Cowpot® containers decomposed the most readily, and cocofiber the least. Complete results of the study can be found at

"Until the horticulture industry begins using biodegradable pots, it is our job as gardeners to reduce, reuse, or recycle plastic containers and not send them to the landfill," Fishburn says.

She offers a few tips for gardeners:

  • Reduce the number of containers by starting seeds at home. Consider starting seeds in homemade newspaper pots.
  • Reuse plastic pots for planting next year's seeds or donating divisions to a local plant sale. If reusing containers, be sure to disinfect plastic pots by soaking clean pots in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for ten minutes.
  • Recycle plastic pots and trays. Many recycling programs do not recycle plastic pots made of numbers 2, 5, and 6 plastics. Check with your local garden center or hardware store to see if they have a plastic pot recycling program. For example, all Lowe's garden centers will recycle plant pots and trays. Simply return clean pots and trays to the store nearest you. According to Lowes' website, reusable material is sterilized and reintroduced to the production cycle, while non-reusable material is sent for recycling.


The mystery lurking under the pond turns radiant Tue, 10 Jul 2018 12:05:00 +0000 This blog post is written by Extension Educator Kelly Allsup,

They are the stuff of nightmares, but can make us stand in awe at their beauty. Their dark, extended bodies are poised to attack while lurking under water. They propel themselves through the water with a forceful expulsion of water through their rectum, directing themselves at any unsuspecting insect, small fish, or tadpole. They snatch at their prey with an enlarged lower jaw that looks like it may detach due to the vigor of the attack. Some crawl with long legs while on the hunt and some wait in ambush. When they are fully-grown nymphs, they surface from the water and an adult emerges from the splitting exoskeleton.

If you have not guessed by now, this mystery creature is a dragonfly.

"Dragonflies have been on Earth since before the dinosaurs, and they continue to captivate us today. As adults, their hefty size, vibrant color patterns and spectacular aerial agilities make them a standout in the garden," says Kelly Allsup, University of Illinois Extension educator.

Adult dragonflies are different from their cousins, the damselflies, in that they hold their intricate wings horizontal to their body when perched. Damselflies close their wings when they are perched and have much more slender bodies than the dragonfly. Dragonflies have very large compound eyes that bulge on the sides of their head, allowing for a 360-degree field of vision. Each eye can contain 10,000 to 30,000 individual facets or light-sensing units, allowing for excellent vision.

They will eat flies, mosquitoes, wasps, butterflies, and even other dragonflies, often in dramatic fashion.

"Dragonfly adults, however gorgeous, scoop their prey up with their legs during flight and swiftly tear it to pieces with their massive jaws and razor sharp mandibles, making them the top of the insect food chain," Allsup says. "However, all of this happens too fast for us to see. When flying, they can top out at 30 mph, making it very hard for a 4-Her to catch one for their fair project without the swift and steady sweep of a net."

Any onlooker who visits a pond or lake in the summer has most likely seen the mating ritual of the dragonfly. The sexually mature males are territorial, as water is crucial to complete their life cycle. They make trips to scout for other invading males and mates.

"When a mate is found, the male clutches the females head and she brings her abdomen up to a special structure that holds the sperm. This is known as the wheel position. In some cases, males have adapted special techniques to remove the sperm of a previous mate," Allsup says.

Once they have mated, the females will dart around a body of water looking for a suitable site with submerged vegetation to lay her eggs. All the while, the male will either hover above her or remain clasped to her to prevent other males from mating with her.

Dragonflies are excellent beneficial insects in the garden but require ponds, plant variety, hiding and perching spots in rocks, shrubs and trees, and full sun.


To Spray or Not To Spray in the Garden Sat, 07 Jul 2018 11:54:00 +0000 This blog post is written by Extension Educator Martha A. Smith,

Stop and think before grabbing a bottle of pesticide to control garden pests. That's the message University of Illinois Extension educator Martha Smith wants to convey to gardeners this season.

"Integrated Pest Management stresses monitoring your landscape, keeping a keen eye out for problems from the start," Smith says. "Ask yourself, should I spray or is there an alternative? Most pest problems start out small.

"Perhaps an infested branch can be removed. Simply hand-picking the critters off a plant can save you time, energy, money, and chemicals. How much pest damage are you willing to tolerate? If you seldom stroll through your landscape you might not see that pest until it has consumed a major portion of your investment. At this time, a pesticide control may be the only choice."

We are in the midst of gardening season. Pests are sure to attack. Monitoring and considering control options are signs of a responsible gardener, according to Smith. "Remember, a pesticide is any product used to control a pest, and a pest is anything harming your plant. Fungi, insects, bacteria, or rabbits could all be considered pests," she says.

Both synthetic and organic products are available for controlling garden pests. Regardless of what type of control you select, Smith offers a few tips to effectively apply the product.

  1. Read the label. Understand what the product is intended to do and when during the lifespan of the pest it should be applied. Correct timing will give the best control with the least amount of chemical.
  2. Correctly identify the pest. Caterpillars resemble sawfly larvae but the products to control them can be different. Also, is that caterpillar a true pest? If you choose a caterpillar control, don't question the absence of butterflies later in the season. Caterpillars can be voracious eaters, but the majority will turn into colorful butterflies. Consider the "pest factor" before spraying.
  3. Mix material as directed. Don't think if one teaspoon is recommended, two teaspoons will be better. Effectiveness will not increase by doubling the amount of chemical. In fact, higher concentrations can harm plants.
  4. Follow all personal safety instructions on the label. A sleeveless tank top and flip-flop sandals are probably not the recommended protective clothing. Consider a long-sleeved shirt, pants, eye protection, socks, closed-toe shoes, and gloves if not already instructed on the label.
  5. Use measuring utensils – don't guess at amounts. Have a set of measuring utensils specifically designated for chemicals. Write on them "chemicals only." Don't use utensils that are also used in food preparation.
  6. Spray on the target. Don't apply a chemical across a 20-foot border when only 2-3 square feet require attention - it may not be necessary. Read the label to find out if the entire plant needs to be sprayed. Spray to the point of runoff and stop.
  7. Pollinators can be harmed with certain pesticides. Consider spraying after the plant has finished blooming and pollinators no longer visit. If you must spray while the plant is in bloom, spray when insects are not active, such as dawn and dusk.
  8. Application equipment should be in good working order. Leaks can lead to damage on non-target plants. Use equipment that is recommended on the label.
  9. Spray when the weather is calm. Pesticide drift occurs when spray is carried off-target by the wind. Drift can also be minimized by spraying at a lower pressure and using the largest nozzle opening that will still allow you to complete the task.
  10. Watch the weather and avoid the heat of the day. Some pesticides will burn plant material if applied when temperatures are too hot. High temperatures can also cause some pesticides to evaporate and decompose quickly. Spray in the morning.
  11. Watch the weather and avoid spraying before rain or before overhead irrigation. This will reduce effectiveness by washing the material off the target plant, possibly leading to groundwater contamination.

Keep these spray guidelines in mind when selecting a pest control for your landscape. Monitor and identify the pest early. Consider your control options. Remember your control selection may not be what your neighbor would choose. Be a responsible gardener and ask: "To spray or not to spray?"