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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

Final Spring Package from University of Illinois Horticulture Educators

This is the third of three installments of the 2013 Spring Gardening Packet from the University of Illinois Extension.

February 18, 2013

News source/writer: Richard Hentschel, 630-584-6166,

Training your apple trees

URBANA – Pruning apple trees to produce helps them the best fruits possible. University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Richard Hentschel said that home orchardists need to train for tree structure to encourage fruit production if they are to have a productive, high-yielding home orchard.

"The goal of pruning and general plant care means a balance between vegetative and reproductive growth," he explained. "Fruit trees need enough foliage to provide the necessary nutrition to maintain the tree in a healthy state and nourish the developing fruits. This is managed by limiting vegetative growth and the volume of apples produced annually. Managing the number of fruits produced improves the quality and size of harvested fruits."

Training starts when the tree is planted. This will ensure that the dwarf tree remains dwarf as it matures. With proper training, a fruit tree should begin to produce consistently in the third or fourth year, with yields increasing each year after.

"If you are growing dwarf apple trees, you will likely use what is called the central leader system to train your trees," he explained. "This system allows your fruit tree to look like most other trees in your landscape, yet produce apples without looking like those in commercial orchards."

Start by selecting scaffold branches, placing the first set no more than 24 inches from the ground. By starting that low, there will be room to place additional scaffolds and still have a mature tree that is no taller than 6 to 8 feet tall, making it very easy to manage. Mowing underneath may be difficult, so consider a large ring of mulch that extends to the edge of the canopy, and extend it as needed. If a dwarf tree is allowed to grow without being well trained, it will be much larger than planned for and fruit production will likely be delayed.

Other kinds of fruit trees have their own specific training systems to maximize fruit production. For example, peaches use the open center system.

"There are several advantages to a well-trained dwarf fruit tree," said Hentschel. "During annual spring pruning, it will be much easier to see which branches need attention."

Water sprouts are easily identified as they will be growing straight up from the horizontal scaffold branches. Foliage and fruit treatment will be much easier as the scaffolds will allow easy access to the entire canopy. Harvest is much easier and a lot more fun, too.

Some branches will need to be adjusted using traditional branch spreaders or alternative methods such as pulling the branch into the desired horizontal plane with twine and a stake as scaffolds develops.

As the dwarf fruit tree matures, home orchardists will realize there are additional benefits. The weekly inspection and monitoring of fruit pests will be easier and done very quickly. Even though a young fruit tree may not be producing apples, there are insects and foliar diseases that need to be addressed.

"Foliage-feeding insects reduce the canopy and thus the amount of food that could go into growing and developing," Hentschel said. "Leaf diseases have a similar impact. If allowed to continue over the season or seasons, they could easily delay fruit production and limit the number of high-quality fruits you are able to harvest. You want a tree that develops quickly, yet one that you have trained to encourage flower and fruit set."

If you are going to start your home orchard this spring, there is still time to plan and lay out the orchard and order trees. Young fruit trees that are already planted should be pruned while they remain dormant.

"Enjoy the challenge and amaze your friends with fruit that came right out of your yard," Hentschel said.


February 18, 2013

News source/writer: Ron Wolford, 773-233-0476,

All-America Selections

URBANA -- All-America Selections (AAS) vegetables and flowers have been grown for the last 5 years at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry's Smart Home garden, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"All-America Selections is an independent, non-profit organization that tests new varieties and introduces only the best garden performers as AAS Winners," said Ron Wolford. "The AAS Winners offer gardeners reliable new varieties that have proven their superior garden performance in trial grounds across North America."

The following are the AAS plants that have generated the most buzz from the thousands of visitors to the Smart Home garden.

Ornamental Kale "Glamour Red"

This kale has outstanding shiny, fringed leaves. The flower head is about 10 to12 inches across. The leaves start to turn red when temperatures go below 55 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two weeks. "Glamour Red" needs full sun and will bloom from seed in 90 days. It was blooming in the Smart Home garden well into late November this year.

Sunflower "Ring of Fire"

"Ring of Fire" is a late-season sunflower that takes about 120 days to bloom from seed. It stands out in the garden with its golden petals and a ring of bright red around the brown center. It will grow to 4 to 5 feet tall and makes a good cut flower. "Ring of Fire" needs full sun for best growth.

Ornamental Pepper "Black Pearl"

This is an outstanding plant with almost black leaves. The plant produces pearl-like shiny peppers. The peppers turn a bright red, contrasting beautifully with the black foliage. The peppers are very hot. It will grow to 18 to 20 inches tall and does well in containers. "Black Pearl" needs full sun.

Zinnia "Zowie! Yellow Flame"

"Zowie! Yellow Flame" has an unusual bicolor pattern with a scarlet rose center and yellow petal edges. It is easy to grow from seed to flower in 8 weeks and has a long bloom period from early summer to frost. When used as a cut flower, it will last for 2 weeks. "Zowie! Yellow Flame" does well in containers and is heat and drought tolerant.

Carrot "Purple Haze"

"Purple Haze" is purple on the outside and orange on the inside. When cooked in water, the purple color will fade, but it will not lose its purple color in a stir-fry. If cut for salads, it will keep a purple halo around the orange center. It can be grown from seed, but it does need loose, deeply dug soil because the carrots grow to about a foot long. "Purple Haze" can be grown in containers. It also makes a great addition to a children's garden.

Zinnia "Zahara Starlight Rose"

Zinnia "Zahara Starlight Rose" has outstanding white flowers with rose-colored stripes. It is easy to grow and heat and drought tolerant. It will bloom throughout the summer and seldom needs deadheading. "Zahara Starlight Rose" is resistant to mildew and leaf spot. It needs full sun for best growth.

Ornamental Pepper "Chilly Chili"

This ornamental pepper is kid safe; it is not hot. The fruit goes from yellow to orange to red, a real kaleidoscope of color. "Chilly Chili" is very tolerant of hot weather. It will grow about a foot tall and spread 6 to 10 inches. It can be used as an ornamental garnish on salads.

Gaillardia "Sundance Bicolor"

The globe-shaped, mahogany red and yellow bicolor flowers will often cover the plant. "Sundance Bicolor" is heat and drought tolerant and will spread 15 to 16 inches. Full sun is a must. It does well in containers and hanging baskets. No pinching or staking is needed.

Swiss Chard "Bright Lights"

"Bright Lights" has probably gotten the most buzz in the garden. The yellow, pink, violet, orange, red, and white stems attract attention. It can withstand the summer heat unlike lettuce and spinach. It is easy to grow from seed and is ready for harvest in 60 days.

"For more information about these and other All-America Selections, check out the All-America Selections website at," said Wolford.


February 18, 2013

News source/writer: Richard Hentschel, 630-584-6166,

Soil amendments impact soil test results

URBANA -- Gardeners already know the importance of testing their garden beds every few years. If soil amendments are added annually, then the soil test should be done more often to be sure that nutrient levels and, just as important, the pH level are still within an acceptable range, said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Richard Hentschel.

"Because amendments are so important to the continued health of the soil, there has been a substantial increase in their use. For the most part, adding well-composted organic matter will not cause a growing problem in the garden beds," he said.

"Organic matter today can come from your own compost bins, the store, or other sources such as municipal composting programs," he continued. "There is something very satisfying about knowing that the spent plant parts from your own yard are being reused in your own beds in the form of composted organic matter."

As soil organisms break down organic matter during composting, the pile or bin can become more acidic. If this material is added to gardening beds and incorporated into the soil profile, over time it will change the soil pH.

"If your soil is alkaline anyway, this is a good thing, helping to keep pH levels between 6.0 and 7.0," Hentschel said. "If you have a garden soil that is normally acidic, it may be necessary to add garden lime as well as organic matter to maintain the pH level."

Only a soil test will indicate the need for lime, so do not assume it is necessary. Addressing the pH is important, as this will influence the levels of other nutrients available to the garden plants. In general, if the pH becomes too acidic or alkaline, nutrients will not be readily available for uptake by the plant. There are exceptions: Irish potatoes prefer an acidic soil, and asparagus prefers an alkaline soil.

"Besides composted organic matter from your own yard, there is a long list of amendments that can be used," he said. "These include peat moss, corn cobs, rice hulls, aged manure, wood ashes, and spent leaves.

If organic matter is used frequently, a gardener might want to invest in a soil pH meter for use in between commercial tests. There are many kinds available; the easiest are probe types where the probe is inserted into the soil profile and a reading is available immediately. Some are a single piece; others use a probe connected to the meter. The key to getting an accurate reading is to sample the garden bed in several places, inserting the sampling probe to the same depth and the same moisture content. There are other tests that the home gardener can perform but, because pH levels influence so much in the soil, this test may be the most important.

Commercial soil tests are most often done in the late summer or fall to allow enough time for the organic matter added in the spring to react with the garden soil and ensure that the test results accurately reflect pH and nutrient levels.

"Soil test results should measure soil pH and the major nutrients used by plants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. They may also include calcium, sulfur, and magnesium as secondary nutrients. If organic matter levels are available, get them, too," he said. "Organic matter levels between 3 and 5 percent would be the target."


February 18, 2013

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

Plant to attract beneficial insects this spring

URBANA -- Beneficial insects are an asset to the garden, said a University of Illinois horticulture educator.

"Beneficial insects are naturally occurring insects that help control garden pests, whether by eating the pest, eating the pest's eggs, or parasitizing the pest," said Candice Miller. "Ladybird beetles, for example, are a great beneficial insect to have in the garden because both the larvae and adults feed on soft-bodied pests such as aphids and are able to help control a garden infestation."

There are also various parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside pests such as aphids or tomato hornworms. The larvae develop inside the pest, killing it from the inside out.

How can you attract these naturally occurring beneficials to your garden?

"Start planning now what you'll plant in the garden," said Miller. "Beneficial insects like to have a selection of things to feed from, so start off by planting a garden of diverse fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Don't simply plant the garden in rows. Instead, try interplanting your fruits and vegetables with flowers throughout the garden."

Parasitoids need to feed on nectar, honeydew, and pollen in particular, and they prefer to feed from plants with small flowers. Sweet alyssum, members of the carrot family such as Queen Anne's lace, members of the brassica family such as broccoli, and herbs such as dill, fennel, and coriander are all plants with small flowers. Plants in the aster family such as cosmos are also suitable.

"One may also consider planting marigolds or pepper plants around the garden to serve as trap crops," said Miller. "These plants are there to attract the garden pests away from your other garden plants. The marigolds and pepper plants can then be removed, treated with pesticides, or kept in the garden to maintain pest populations for beneficial insects to feed from."

Reducing the use of chemical pesticides in the garden is also essential. Most pesticides that kill garden pests are also going to kill beneficial insects and may leave a residue that lasts the rest of the season.

"With just some simple planning early in the season of what to plant and some changes in practice, gardeners can take a step toward naturally controlling the pests in their gardens," she said.

For more information regarding beneficial insects, visit the U of I Extension website at

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