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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Local and statewide information on a variety of current topics for home gardeners and market growers.
Extension Horticultur

First Spring Package from University of Illinois Horticulture Educators

Editor's note: This is the first of three installments of the 2013 Spring Gardening Packet from the University of Illinois Extension.

February 5, 2013

News source/writer: Jennifer Fishburn, 217-782-4617,


URBANA - The arrival of yellow daffodils, green lawns, and garden fresh salad are sure signs of spring. Leafy greens are among the easiest vegetables to grow, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"You are sure to enjoy the best-tasting salad with greens that you have grown," promised Jennifer Fishburn. "Spring greens such as spinach and lettuce are easy to grow in a full-sun to part-shade garden location or in a container garden on a patio." Cool spring and fall temperatures are ideal for growing leafy greens.

Spinach is a cool-season crop which thrives when the average daily temperature is between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This cold-hardy green can withstand temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit but does poorly in summer. High temperatures and long days cause plants to bolt (produce a seed stalk). In addition, leaves may become bitter and have a poorer texture. For late spring plantings, look for varieties that are marked with the words "long standing" or "slow to bolt."

Spinach can be planted as soon as the soil is prepared in the spring. Plant the seeds one-half inch deep and spaced 4 inches apart. If the soil was prepared in the fall, seeds can be broadcast over frozen ground or snow cover in late winter, and they will germinate as the soil thaws. A uniform supply of moisture is essential for rapid leaf development. Spinach plants have few insect and disease problems.

Spinach is a fast-growing, short-lived plant, maturing 37 to 45 days after planting. Leaves may be cut when they are large enough to use. It can be harvested as a micro-green when seedlings have one or two true leaves at about 2 weeks after planting. Baby greens are harvested about one month after planting.

"Spinach can be harvested two different ways,"Fishburn said. "Remove the outer leaves and allow younger leaves to develop. The other option is to harvest the whole plant when at least five or six leaves have formed. Just before serving, rinse the greens in cold water. Spinach should be eaten while fresh and crisp."

Spinach either by itself or mixed with other greens makes a tasty salad. If cooking it, be sure to use a quick-cooking method, such as blanching, sautéing, or steaming.

Spinach has a high nutritional value and is low in calories. One cup of raw spinach has only 7 calories and provides 56 percent of the daily value for vitamin A and 15 percent of the daily value for vitamin C.

Fishburn offers the following recipe for a spinach salad and dressing:

Strawberry Spinach Salad


2 bunches of spinach leaves

1 pint strawberries

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

½ teaspoon minced onions

¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon paprika

¼ cup vegetable oil

1?3 cup cider vinegar


1. Wash spinach leaves and strawberries in clear water and drain well.

2. Remove stems from spinach leaves, tear into bite-sized pieces, and place in a large bowl.

3. Remove stems from strawberries, slice, and add to spinach.

4. Cover and chill until serving time.


1. In a blender or food processor, combine sugar, sesame and poppy seeds, onion, Worcestershire sauce, and paprika.

2. With blender running, add oil and vinegar.

3. Chill in refrigerator.

4. Toss spinach and strawberries with about half the dressing (reserve the rest for another recipe). Serve.

For more information on recommended varieties, growing, and harvesting spinach visit the University of Illinois Extension "Watch Your Garden Grow" website at


February 5, 2013

News source/writer: Candice Miller, 815-732-2191,

Rain barrel savings

URBANA -- The drought of 2012 took a great toll not only on the plants in the garden but also on the gardener's wallet.

"It was tough for some gardeners to decide which plants to water and which to let survive on their own," said University of Illinois horticulture educator Candice Miller. "Unfortunately, if a gardener did decide that watering was absolutely essential, they likely saw an increased water bill the next month."

This year, putting in a rain barrel or multiple rain barrels could be an excellent way to reduce this rise in the water bill.

Rain barrels come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles that are available in the garden center or from catalogs. All are basically the same setup: a container to hold the water, a point into which water from the downspout can be directed, and a spigot to allow water to be removed. Connectors and diverters may also be included.

"These barrels can also range greatly in price, from as low as 50 dollars up to over 150 dollars," Miller said.

A more economical option is to make a rain barrel. For about 20 dollars in supplies, one can make a rain barrel using a trash can or recycled plastic barrel, a spigot, washers, nuts, sealant, landscape fabric, and some basic tools. All these items can be purchased at the local hardware store.

Drill a hole near the base of the trash can into which the spigot is inserted, using the sealant to ensure a good water tight seal. The nut is then inserted onto the threads of the spigot from the inside of the barrel, ensuring that the spigot fits tightly. A hole cut in the top of the barrel's lid allows water from the downspout to enter. Landscape fabric can also be placed underneath the lid to prevent mosquitoes from entering and laying eggs.

"Various versions of assembly instructions for rain barrels are available online," said Miller.

Miller added that she recently spoke with a gardener who participated in Extension's rain barrel workshop last summer and has since put in five rain barrels around his house.

"This gardener was able to reduce his water bill significantly by using these barrels and has plans to put in more," said Miller. "The small amount of work expended to make a simple rain barrel can really pay off in the long run."

For more details and safety information regarding rain barrels, visit the U of I Extension website at


February 5, 2013

News source/writer: Nancy Pollard, 708-679-6889,

Landscape value multiplied by native plants

URBANA -- Curb appeal makes a difference whether you are planning to sell or stay in your home for the long haul. According to researchers at Texas A&M, landscaping brings an average of 109 percent return on every dollar spent. Nancy Pollard, a horticulture educator at University of Illinois Extension, said that choosing native plants for the landscape can also improve your home's ecological value.

Whether landscaping your first house, sprucing up the front yard, or replacing a few overgrown plants, using native plants can save on water bills once they are established. Another important reason to use natives is that they provide food for bird, butterfly, and other wildlife populations.

The wildlife does not eat only the berries. Native plants support a huge network of life by providing food for caterpillars. Admittedly, this insect stage has gotten a bad rap, and we certainly don't want them in our cabbages. However, native plants that host them, such as oak, black cherry, or birch, are the grocery stores that mother and father birds depend on to feed their nestlings and fledglings, she said.

"Native plants are the primary food source for literally thousands of species of moths and butterflies, particularly at their caterpillar stage," Pollard explained. "Few native plants mean little food for the caterpillars of these insects, so that no matter how hard a pair of birds tries, they can't find enough caterpillars to feed their clutch of baby birds, and the babies don't make it."

Look around the landscape. If nothing has holes in it, nothing is able to eat there. A blemish-free landscape is effectively a food desert for wildlife.

Non-natives typically will support very few native insects. They gained popularity in the last century of landscaping when it seemed like a good idea to have insect-free foliage, but they do not provide nourishment for the local wildlife food chain.

"What native trees support the most butterfly and moth species? Oaks top the list," said Pollard. "They support a whopping 534 species of moths and butterflies. Native birds eat the caterpillars that eat the oaks, all without doing any significant harm to the trees. So plant an oak this spring."

Choosing native plants when upgrading the landscape can make a big difference to the sustainability of wildlife populations. Black cherries are a close second to oaks, supporting 456 species of butterflies and moths. Willow at 455, birch at 413, and poplar at 368 round out the top five on the native tree list, according to Doug Tallamy, entomologist and wildlife ecologist at the University of Delaware and author of Bring Nature Home.

Are you willing to live with a few holes in the foliage to feed backyard populations of insects and birds?

"Your garden of native plants can be beautiful, provide a good return on investment, and play a critical role in feeding native wildlife," Pollard said.


February 5, 2013

News source/writer: Martha A. Smith, 309-756-9978,

Gardening to lose weight

URBANA -- Our New Year's determination and resolutions to eat better, lose weight, and exercise more have gone by the wayside, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Being cooped up indoors doesn't help either," added Martha Smith. "We look out the window at our sleeping gardens, planning for the coming season as we munch on carb after sugary carb."

But there is hope. There is an activity that can provide exercise and cardio training and improve our flexibility. It builds muscle and helps prevent osteoporosis. It also helps relieve stress and provides our families with nutritious fresh food. All of this without leaving home and fighting for the stairmaster at a crowded gym.

"Spring has arrived, days are getting longer, and gardening season is just around the corner. Gardening helps the pounds and inches melt away," Smith said. "Even better, we don't regard this as exercise because we have so much fun doing it. A quote from a fellow gardener says it all: 'Gardening is a labor of love. A treadmill is just labor.' "

We hear constantly about Americans' expanding waistlines. Obesity, heart disease, and adult-onset diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions. Kids are becoming couch potatoes, truly taking on the shapes of these edible tubers.

"Gardening is a great way to combine a hobby and physical exercise," said Smith. "You bend. You squat. You walk. You carry weights. Think of the plants you could buy with all the money you spend on a health club membership you never use!"

The health benefits of gardening are impressive. Gardening uses all the major muscle groups, which do most of the calorie burning in the human body. But if you are a relatively inactive person, start slowly. Strenuous activity too rapidly and all at once can lead to injuries. Start out with light activities, taking frequent breaks. Set one daily gardening goal for the first week or two, and increase garden activities over time.

The calories burned by a person weighing 150 to 180 pounds in 30 minutes are:

  • Sleeping: 30-36
  • Sitting quietly watching TV or using computer: 40-60
  • Watering lawn or garden: 61-66
  • Mowing lawn with riding lawnmower: 86-100
  • Trimming shrubs with power tools: 120-142
  • Bagging or raking leaves: 162-165
  • Planting seedlings: 152-162
  • Planting trees: 153-182
  • Weeding: 152-182
  • Digging or spading: 170-202
  • General gardening: 200
  • Mowing lawn with push mower: 204-243
  • Double digging: 244

"We garden because we enjoy it. Share this love with others," Smith said. "Get yourself and those kids off the couch and in the garden planting seeds, watching plants grow, and being rewarded come harvest."

She added that a garden mentor can make all the difference. "Show them you care and they will begin to care as well. My father-in-law used to say, 'The best sleeping pill is a hard day of work.' Yes, you can garden excess pounds away. You will feel better, your clothes will fit once again, you will sleep better, and you will be rewarded with beautiful gardens and fresh produce that your family can enjoy."


February 5, 2013

News source/writer: Greg Stack, 708-720-7520,

Award-winning flowers and vegetables

URBANA – There seems to be an award for everything, whether it is for the best picture, best actor, best country music video, or best automobile for 2013, and gardening is no exception, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"There are plenty of 'new' things out there to try. For many gardeners, the problem is 'so many neat things to grow and so little space.' So how does one choose?" asked Greg Stack. "Well, one way is to look to All America Selections (AAS) and the Perennials Plant Association (PPA) to help you out."

AAS recognizes new flowers and vegetables that are significant improvements over previous varieties and that offer gardening success. Only the best receive this award. In the perennial arena, the PPA showcases a perennial that is a standout among its competitors and is suitable for a wide range of growing conditions, requires minimal care, and offers multiple seasons of interest.

"Let's look at what each organization has selected as things to consider for your 2013 garden," he said.

The first AAS winner is a canna called "South Pacific Scarlet." This plant is compact, growing to about 4 feet tall, and it is well-suited for the garden or container. It is a multi-branched heavy bloomer, producing flowers in shades of scarlet, held high above the tropical-looking foliage. It is easily grown from seed that is sown indoors, starting around mid- to late February. Transplant seedlings to individual pots and grow them indoors until all danger of frost is past. Set them outside in a full-sun location and enjoy the show. The rhizomes (underground stems) can be dug up in the fall and stored indoors for planting next season.

Echinacea "Cheyenne Spirit" is a coneflower for the perennial garden offering a mix of colors from purple, pink, red, and orange tones to light yellow and cream. They grow to about 2 feet tall and are well branched. Once established in the garden, they are very drought tolerant. Bloom time is from mid-summer to fall. "Cheyenne Spirit" will bloom the first year from seed if the seed is sown indoors around Jan. 25.

"A trick for good germination of Echinacea seed is to sow it on top of moist media and cover it very lightly or not at all with media," Stack noted. "Exposure to light helps germination. These sturdy plants also hold up well in the garden during wind and rain."

Geranium (Pelargonium) "Pinto Premium White and Rose" is the third AAS flower winner for 2013. Plants grow to about 12 to14 inches tall and produce large, 5-inch-diameter blooms of a unique flower color that goes from white and then deepens to rose pink, giving them a bicolor effect.

These plants are well branched with deep green leaves and a very dark "zone" marking. Removal of the old flowers along with regular fertilization keeps the plants neat and free-flowering.

In the vegetable category, look for three additions to the vegetable garden.

Melon "Melemone" F1 is an early, high-yielding, honeydew-like melon with a delicious tanginess. Fruit size is about 4 pounds, and it will hold about 1 month after harvesting. Plants are compact, spreading to about 24 inches. For northern gardens, sowing seed indoors about 4 weeks ahead of the frost-free date and setting out plants helps to ensure an earlier harvest.

Tomato "Jasper" F1 is the new AAS tomato winner. The very vigorous plant produces high yields of cherry-type sweet tomatoes. "Jasper" is also resistant to fusarium, a common soil-borne disease.

Fans of seedless watermelons should look for "Harvest Moon" F1. This melon is similar in appearance to an heirloom variety called "Moon and Stars." The short vines produce melons that weigh about 15 to18 pounds and have a sweet, pink-red flesh.

"There are some things to note when growing seedless (triploid) melons," Stack said. "If you sow seeds direct to the garden, the seed packet will come with diploid pollinator melon seed in a ratio of 3 triploid to 1 diploid seed. Make sure you plant both types of seed. They are usually treated with a colorant to distinguish them. If you buy transplants, you need to include another variety in the garden for proper pollination."

The Perennial Plant Association (PPA) also hands out awards and announces a perennial plant of the year. For 2013, it is variegated Solomon seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum'). This classic beauty is a great plant for the shady woodland garden. In addition to the variegated green and white foliage, it produces bell-shaped, fragrant white flowers in late spring. This is followed by bluish-black berries. Also in the fall, the foliage turns an attractive yellow. This perennial grows to about 2 feet and tends to colonize an area. It is hardy to zones 3-8.

"So there you have it. The awards have been given to some new, interesting, and unique flower and vegetable entries," Stack said. "Try at least one and expand your horticultural palette beyond the everyday. These plants will also give you some interesting talking points when visitors come into your garden."

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