URBANA, Ill. – Decorative wreaths are a popular favorite during the holiday season. A holiday wreath adds color, interest, and a festive focal point inside or outside your home.
“A wreath can be made from a variety of fresh greenery,” says Andrew Holsinger, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Some of the plant material used for your wreath may even be found in your own landscape.”
When creating a holiday wreath with fresh plant material, remember that gathering the live material is actually pruning the plant, and proper cutting techniques are necessary. Be sure to distribute the cuts evenly around the plant to preserve its natural form and beauty.
“Pines, firs, and cedars hold up well for indoor uses,” Holsinger says. “Just like Christmas trees, these evergreen materials will dry out slowly over time.” A wreath placed outdoors may last for several weeks and those with many broadleaf evergreens actually will last longer if used outdoors. A few nice, needled choices for outdoor wreaths are spruces or hemlock.
Don’t be disappointed if you don’t have the selection of plant material in your landscape, Holsinger says. Typically, many florists and garden centers have adequate supplies, but contact them as early as possible to find the best choices. A difficult growing season sometimes results in some shortages.
“Caution should be used when decorating with plant materials inside the home,” says Holsinger. “Poisonous berries can be found on yews, mistletoe, holly plants, and many others.”
The leaves of yew are particularly toxic. Keep all these plants out of the reach of children and pets. Never place fresh greenery near heat sources such as heat vents, space heaters, sunny windows, or open flames such as candles and fireplaces.
Proper care of plant material will keep your wreath looking great from the start. Holly branches will need protection from freezing temperatures after cutting, otherwise the leaves and berries may blacken. Use outer tips of branches since they are often the most visually appealing and offer the best uniformity in appearance.
Holsinger also provides some recommendations for the preservation and use of greenery.
“When selecting greenery from your landscape be sure to use sharp cutters and immediately put the cut ends into water until ready to use,” he says.
When preparing the cuttings, keep the greenery out of sunlight. Prepare the cuttings to be consistent lengths to arrange around the frame of the wreath.
Maintain balance in your wreath by using uniform bundles of plant material as you secure them to the wreath frame. In addition to green materials, use other plant materials to decorate your wreath. These add color and texture. Some popular choices are dried hydrangea blooms, pinecones, or reindeer moss.
New degree in Computer Science plus Crop Sciences melds the worlds of agriculture and data technology
URBANA, Ill. – Technology and data are increasingly integral to agriculture, and the University of Illinois’ Department of Computer Science and College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences have introduced a first-of-its-kind major built on that relationship.
Starting in the fall of 2018, students will be able to enroll in the new CS + Crop Sciences undergraduate program at the university, one of a growing number of CS + X degrees at U of I.
According to German Bollero, professor of biometry and head of the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of ACES, agriculture’s growing reliance on technology is producing vast amounts of data – from molecular genetics, the study of weather and the climate, GIS-based data gathering, and the many applications of drones.
“The generation of huge data sets has expanded the demand for people with the skills to integrate computer science and agriculture,” Bollero said.
The new degree is expected to be in high demand among students, and has the potential for high impact, said Lenny Pitt, the associate head of the Department of Computer Science and its director of Undergraduate Programs.
“When we talk about this partnership, it has an opportunity to really impact the world, in terms of food production, high-tech farming techniques, the environment, and costs and efficiency,” Pitt said.
Agricultural technology companies are taking notice of the new program. “Syngenta located its first Digital Innovation Lab at the Research Park to gain better access to a wealth of student talent and a world-ranked research university. This decision is continually solidified through news of programs such as CS + Crop Science. I'm excited to interact with a new batch of students who seek to bring engineering skills to the burgeoning field of agriculture,” said Brandon Dohman, innovation lead for the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab at the University of Illinois Research Park.
CS + Crop Sciences plans to begin with 5 to 10 students in the fall of 2018 before eventually enrolling 60 to 80 students. The deadline to apply for the fall is Dec. 1. Students can apply at http://admissions.illinois.edu/apply.
New method analyzes corn kernel characteristics
URBANA, Ill. – An ear of corn averages about 800 kernels. A traditional field method to estimate the number of kernels on the ear is to manually count the number of rows and multiply by the number of kernels in one length of the ear. With the help of a new imaging machine developed at the University of Illinois breeders can learn the number of kernels per ear, plus a lot more information than can be manually observed.
“If you take that same ear of corn into a lab, you can take the same approach but use an imaging system to get a more accurate measure of the total number of kernels,” says Tony Grift, lead scientist on the project. “But you can go a lot further than that. By pinning the ear on a spike and turning it automatically, we can present each row individually to a camera. This allows us to determine up to 16 morphological characteristics of each kernel, including kernel area, circumference, and circularity, a measure for how close the kernel shape is to a circle. We can also calculate the center of gravity and the location of the kernel on the ear, in fact we use these to make sure we don’t count kernels more than once.”
The imaging machine itself isn’t fancy. It’s more like a tabletop photography studio. A single halogen light is hung outside, above the box. The box itself is made from high-density polyethylene or HDPE, which is typically used to make cutting boards. This plastic adheres to virtually nothing (which is ideal for cutting boards) including glue, so it was assembled with bolts and fasteners.
Grift says the key is in the lighting. “Having a good camera is one thing, but light is very important. Light has to come from everywhere, so we channel light from the halogen bulb through a thin layer of the same HDPE material, which reflects off the side walls in which the cameras were mounted as well. Using the box is simple: You open the door, put the ear of corn on the spike, close the door, and a motor automatically rotates the ear as many times as needed to capture all rows. The motor and two cameras inside are controlled by a computer program that records the information.”
Grift says he’s been working with U of I maize breeder Martin Bohn since 2002 on perfecting imaging boxes. “We began working with roots, we called the box the Corn Root Imaging Box or CRIB,” Grift says. “Corn roots have an awkward shape which is difficult to capture. But we can calculate the stalk diameter, the root angle, and the fractal dimension, which is a way to describe a root’s complexity.”
He says that at some point, he and his colleague Abdul Momin realized that they could put anything inside the box and decided to experiment with an ear of corn.
Because an ear of corn is a natural object, the variations can make it difficult to image accurately. “It’s easier with ears that have very ‘well-behaved’ rows of kernels,” Grift says. “The rows on some ears of corn begin to spiral a bit, making it difficult to get an accurate reading without duplicating some kernels. Former students Wei Zhao and Yu Zhang made adjustments to allow for missing kernels, dead kernels, or some that were squeezed together or twisted, but overall, the imaging system works well.”
“This is where it gets really interesting,” Grift says. “All of the measurements mean very little to us. I like to joke that we agricultural engineers are just glorified technicians on the project. We just provide the numbers in spread sheets. The spread sheet then goes to Martin Bohn who creates a QTL map—quantitative trait loci map—that associates the particular characteristics of the kernel with the genes that control them.”
Martin Bohn, corn breeder and geneticist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and co-author, notes that improved phenotyping methods, like the one this paper focuses on, are critical if we want to leverage genomic information in breeding and genetic research.
“Most plant characteristics that determine the agronomic potential of plants are highly complex,” says Bohn. “For example, a large number of genes, mostly with small effects, contribute to traits farmers are interested in, such as yield, efficient uptake and use of nutrients, tolerance to drought, heat, cold, etc. We can only hope to find these important but small effect genes if we can measure plant traits efficiently and accurately for a large number of plants, hence the term high-throughput phenotyping. The method we report here does not only provide the technology to do exactly this, but it might also be possible to go beyond this. Imagine, being able to determine the nutritional content of each kernel on the cob using our approach. We would love to expand this idea and work with companies to move on from manual, tedious field measurements to smart imaging techniques.”
The study, “Semi-automated, machine vision based maize kernel counting on the ear,” is published in Biosystems Engineering. The research was conducted by Tony Grift, Wei Zhao, Abdul Momin, Yu Zhang and Martin Bohn.
This work has been partially supported by a grant from the College of ACES.
Tony Grift is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Wei Zhao is a former MS student, Abdul Momin is a postdoctoral research associate in the Institute for Genomic Biology at U of I, Yu Zhang is a former visiting scholar and Martin Bohn is an associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences.
Selecting the perfect Christmas tree
URBANA, Ill. – Many people recall nostalgic memories of selecting a Christmas tree with their families. “When I was growing up in Peoria, Illinois,” says Ron Wolford, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, “our family would cut down a Christmas tree growing on my grandparent’s farm.”
Today, you can purchase trees from garden centers, pop-up lots, big box stores, and Christmas tree farms. Wolford shares the following tips to help you select a fresh tree for your home and keep it looking its best throughout the holiday season.
Before you even head out to buy the tree, pick a spot in your home to place it. Ask yourself a couple of questions: Will the tree be seen from all sides or will some of it be against a wall?
Choose a tree that fits where it will be displayed. For example, if the tree is in front of a large window, then all four sides need to look as good as possible. If the tree is against a wall, a tree with three good sides should be fine. A tree with two good sides would work well in a corner.
“Purchasing a tree from a Christmas tree farm ensures that you will have a fresh tree and the more perfect a tree, the more expensive it will be,” Wolford says.
Pick a spot away from heat sources, such as heaters, fireplaces, TVs, radiators, and air vents. “A dried-out tree is a safety hazard,” he says.
Measure the height and width of the space you have available in the room where the tree will be placed.
“There is nothing worse than bringing a tree indoors only to find it's too tall. Take a tape measure with you to the farm,” Wolford says.
If buying from a retail lot, Wolford recommends going during the day. “Choosing a tree in daylight is a much easier experience than trying to pick out a tree in a dimly lit lot,” he says.
When looking for the freshest tree among the dozens lining the lot, Wolford recommends these telltale signs of a healthy tree:
- A recently cut tree will have a healthy green appearance with few browning needles.
- Needles should be flexible and not fall off if you run a branch through your hand.
- Raise the tree a few inches off the ground and drop it on the butt end. Very few green needles should drop off the tree. It is normal for a few inner brown needles to fall.
- Make sure the handle or base of the tree is straight and long enough so that it will fit easily into your stand.
“Store your tree in an unheated garage or some other area out of the wind, if you are not putting it up right away,” Wolford recommends. “Make a fresh, one-inch cut on the butt end and place the tree in a bucket of warm water. When you bring the tree indoors, make another fresh one-inch cut and place the tree in a sturdy stand. The water reservoir of the stand should contain one quart of water for every inch of diameter of the trunk.”
Keep the water level above the base of the tree. 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, sugar, aspirin, or other additives to the water are not necessary. Research has shown that plain water will keep a tree fresh, Wolford says.
For more information, visit the University of Illinois Extension website “Christmas Trees & More” at http://extension.illinois.edu/trees/index.cfm.
Disease-resistant apples perform better than old favorites
URBANA, Ill. – You may not find them in the produce aisle yet, but it’s only a matter of time before new disease-resistant apple cultivars overtake favorites like Honeycrisp in popularity, according to a University of Illinois apple expert.
“I know everyone wants Honeycrisp, but they’re notoriously hard to grow. There are so many issues in producing the fruit: the tree might produce a lot one year, but none the next; the fruit doesn’t keep well and is susceptible to disease,” says Mosbah Kushad, an associate professor of horticulture in the Department of Crop Sciences and horticulture Extension specialist at U of I.
Apples are attacked by all sorts of pests, but apple scab, a fungus, is particularly nasty. It can cause yield losses up to 80 percent. For traditional apple cultivars and many newer ones, including Honeycrisp, combating apple scab and other diseases means applying multiple pesticides several times throughout the growing season.
Fortunately, after the gene for scab resistance was discovered by a U of I scientist in 1944, a number of resistant cultivars have been developed. Kushad says the early cultivars weren’t particularly good, but more recent ones show a lot of promise.
“WineCrisp, for example, is a very attractive and flavorful apple,” he says. “It’s not very large, but who wants to buy an apple that weighs a pound?”
A new wave of scab-resistant apples has been developed and tested as part of a cooperative breeding program through U of I, Rutgers University, and Purdue University. So far, several cultivars have proven to be as nutritious or even better for you than older types, but until now, it wasn’t clear whether their quality held up over time.
In a new article published in the Journal of Food Quality, Kushad and several collaborators looked at whether scab-resistant GoldRush, WineCrisp, CrimsonCrisp, and Pixie Crunch retained their quality under standard post-harvest storage practices, and compared their performance to scab-susceptible Golden Delicious.
The researchers exposed the apples to 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), a gas now commonly used in the industry to inhibit ethylene production and slow ripening of stored fruit. “1-MCP could be the best invention for the fruit industry since apples were discovered,” Kushad says. Aspects of nutritional quality and commercial viability were tested in the fruits after 70 and 140 days of storage.
In general, the eating quality – flesh firmness, sugar content, and acidity – of the scab-resistant cultivars was as good or better than Golden Delicious, before and after storage. And two of the scab-resistant cultivars, GoldRush and CrimsonCrisp, had significantly more antioxidant capacity, even after 140 days. The cultivars varied in their responsiveness to 1-MCP, with CrimsonCrisp showing the most promise for long-term storage using the product.
“What the article is saying is that the quality of the scab-resistant cultivars is very comparable to standard varieties. In terms of nutrition, health benefit, aesthetic, and taste, these apples are competing very well. As an alternative to scab-susceptible types, they will be very attractive, especially for organic growers,” Kushad says.
And although you may not see WineCrisp on the grocery store shelves yet, Kushad points out that it and the other cultivars can be found in some local farmer’s markets and orchards. “You’ll see them in the smaller places first, but as volume builds in the top apple-growing states, they’ll start showing up in the big grocery stores. I have no doubt.”
The article, “Influence of 1-methylcyclopropene treatment on postharvest quality of four scab (Venturia inaequalis)-resistant apple cultivars,” is published in the Journal of Food Quality. The study is authored by Moises Zucoloto, Kang-Mo Ku, Moo Jung Kim, and Kushad.
2017 a great year for pumpkins
URBANA, Ill. – Despite a scare in mid-August, the 2017 Illinois pumpkin crop is looking good. In fact, one expert says, “Don’t hesitate to carve more than one this year. There are plenty of pumpkins for everyone.”
Mohammad Babadoost, plant pathologist and pumpkin expert in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois, was not as confident earlier this summer when he found a downy mildew outbreak on pumpkins in Kankakee County. Spores from the fungal pathogen are known to spread very quickly, and he feared it could seriously reduce yields in the area.
So Babadoost came up with a plan of attack – a mix of fungicides that worked well for both downy mildew and phytophthora in local trials – and acted quickly to get the word out.
“All my recommendations are based on local research. Problem-solving in plant pathology must be based on local research, not borrowed information from elsewhere,” Babadoost says.
It worked. About a week after he made his recommendation, Babadoost went back to collect samples of the pathogen, but by that time, the pathogen was gone. “It had a very good effect on downy mildew, and kept it from spreading,” he says.
With the downy mildew taken care of and dry weather in late August and September, the pumpkin crop enjoyed near-perfect conditions through harvest, leading to minimal yield losses throughout the state. “It’s a better than average year for pumpkins,” Babadoost says.