URBANA, Ill. – Choosing the perfect Christmas tree this holiday season is simply a matter of following a few simple steps, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Ron Wolford.
“Choosing the family Christmas tree can be a memory-filled tradition,” Wolford says. The following tips can help you select a fresh tree for your home and keep it looking its best.
Pick and measure a spot in your home to place the tree before heading out to buy it. Wolford says, “Ask yourself if the tree will be seen from all sides, or will some of it be against a wall?”
Choose a tree that fits where it is to be displayed. For example, if the tree is displayed in front of a large window, then all four sides should look as good as possible. If the tree is displayed against a wall, a tree with three good sides should suffice. A tree with two good sides would work well in a corner. “The more perfect a tree, the more expensive it will be,” Wolford notes. Also, bring a tape measure with you to the farm to ensure your tree is not too tall for your space.
Place the tree away from heat sources, such as heaters, fireplaces, TVs, radiators, and air vents. Wolford points out that a dried-out tree is a fire hazard.
If buying from a retail lot, Wolford recommends going during the day. “Choosing a tree in daylight is much easier than trying to pick out a tree in a dimly lit lot,” he says.
A fresh 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 fall off the tree, but it is normal for a few inner brown needles to drop. Make sure the handle or base of the tree is straight and long enough, so 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 notes. “Make a fresh, 1-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 1-inch cut and place the tree in a sturdy stand. The water reservoir of the stand should provide 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 added 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 www.urbanext.illinois.edu/trees.
Top 10 tips for poinsettias
URBANA, Ill. – It is hard to think of the holidays without conjuring up images of red poinsettias and a snowy landscape. These beautiful plants are easy to care for, with a few simple tips.
“There is no need for people to experience difficulties with their poinsettia plants,” says University of Illinois Extension educator Kim Ellson. “Here are some tips to ensure your poinsettia looks its very best this season and well into the new year.”
- Purchase a healthy, high-quality plant.
- Make sure the cyathia remain tight and have not opened. The cyathia are the green buds in the centers of the flowers, surrounded by the colorful red bracts. They eventually open into tiny yellow flowers.
- White and healthy roots are a great indicator of good plant health.
- Wrap plants before transporting them home.
- Avoid cold drafts; poinsettias are highly sensitive to direct drafts and suffer damage easily.
- Let plants go completely dry between waterings, without stressing plants. Poinsettias are prone to suffer from overwatering as they have sensitive root systems that easily rot out.
- Always water thoroughly.
- If possible, select a cool area in your home. Avoid heating ducts or placing plants in overly warm areas during the holiday season. This will ensure vibrant, colorful bracts.
- There is no need to fertilize your poinsettia during the holidays; save the fertilizer for March.
- Monitor the plant for pests such as whiteflies by checking the undersides of the leaves. Treat early before infestations become unwieldy.
“These basic guidelines should help ensure you get the very most out of your poinsettia this holiday, and enjoy a colorful season,” Ellson says.
Forcing paperwhites for holiday décor
URBANA, Ill. – Longing for a bit of spring during the winter months? A University of Illinois Extension educator suggests “forcing” bulbs indoors to create a beautiful and long-lasting flower display for your home.
“The term ‘forcing’ refers to a technique that imitates the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors, thereby tricking them into flowering earlier,” says Candice Hart. “Essentially, it allows you to bring the outdoor beauty of bulbs indoors.”
Most flowering bulbs need a cold treatment before they will initiate a flower. “This would apply to most of our spring flowering bulbs in Illinois, like tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, and others,” Hart says. “We plant these bulbs outdoors in the fall so that they are exposed to the winter cold before flowering the following spring. This can easily be replicated indoors by placing bulbs in the refrigerator or in a cool garage or basement for a period of time.”
Fortunately, there are bulbs that do not need a cold treatment in order to flower, making the process much simpler. Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus), with its prolific white blooms, is one example. “They are so easy to grow, and make an excellent choice for holiday décor,” Hart notes.
“The unique thing about forcing bulbs is that they can be planted in containers with or without drainage, because they’ll only be in the container for a short period of time,” Hart says. “I personally love the look of paperwhites forced in shallow clear containers with decorative stones.”
To plant in a container without drainage, select a 3- to 4-inch deep decorative container. Place 1 to 2 inches of washed gravel or stones in the bottom of the container and carefully place the bulbs on the gravel or stones. Bulbs can be placed as close as desired. Next, place enough gravel or stones over or around the bulbs to hold them in place.
To use a pot that has drainage, again select one that is 3 to 4 inches deep, and plant the bulbs in a well-drained potting mix with the tops of the bulbs even or slightly below the rim of the pot.
In a container with no drainage holes, add water to the base of the bulbs and maintain it at this level through the life of the planting. “Do not immerse the bulbs in water; only the basal plate of the bulb, where the roots originate, should be in water,” Hart warns. In a container with drainage, simply water the soil thoroughly after planting and keep it moist thereafter.
Paperwhites will flower under any light conditions. However, for best results, place the bulbs in a window area with a southern exposure. When the plants begin to flower, remove them from direct sunlight and place plants in the coolest area of the home. This helps to prolong flowering.
If you can pot up paperwhite narcissus bulbs every 10 days or so starting in the fall, you can have a succession of blooms all through the winter. “These forced bulbs make a great decoration for your own home or gift for the holidays,” Hart notes.
Dicamba and soybean: What to expect in 2017
URBANA, Ill. – One barrier to weed control on soybean farms has just been lifted. In early November, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a label allowing use of the herbicide dicamba in dicamba-resistant soybean, although only one commercial product received that label. Many Illinois farmers anticipate this technology will provide a much-needed method to control weeds that are resistant to multiple herbicides, as well as other difficult-to-control species.
“Without question, there are instances and scenarios in which dicamba will improve control of certain weed species, but dicamba will not bring back the ‘good ol’ days’ of POST-only weed control programs in soybean. Current expectations of what this technology can accomplish tend to be a bit more optimistic than what the technology actually will be able to deliver,” says University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager.
Hager expects the technology will work well in a handful of scenarios. For example, dicamba should be effective for glyphosate-resistant horseweed (i.e., marestail) that does not respond to the traditional burndown tankmix of glyphosate and 2,4-D.
“The new dicamba label allows up to 1 lb dicamba acid-equivalent to be applied prior to planting dicamba-resistant soybean. This can provide better and more consistent control of glyphosate-resistant horseweed compared with 0.5 lb acid-equivalent 2,4-D,” Hager says.
It is important to note that although the new label allows soybean to be planted immediately after dicamba application, Hager advises farmers to wait a few days following application before injuring the weeds with the planting operation.
Hager also predicts that dicamba will provide good control of tall and ivy-leaf morning glory, as well as common and giant ragweed. “Dicamba certainly can provide better control of herbicide-resistant ragweeds than can glyphosate or ALS inhibitors,” he says.
For farmers battling waterhemp, the solution may not be as simple. Most university weed control guides list dicamba as good or very good on waterhemp, but not excellent.
“Dicamba can improve control of pigweed species, but it will never be as effective as glyphosate once was,” Hager notes. “Illinois farmers have made great strides toward utilizing more diverse herbicide programs for waterhemp control than they were using a decade ago. We suggest that dicamba should be used in a way that does not reduce this diversity. It is imperative to maintain a diverse weed management approach to prolong the effective utility of dicamba.”
Illinois waterhemp populations have evolved resistance to herbicides from six site-of-action groups. According to Hager, resistance to dicamba is not a question of “if”, but “when.”
Hager points out some of the restrictions that come with the new dicamba label. “The current label contains several mandates related to the actual spray application procedure that are somewhat unique,” he says. “For instance, there are limitations on boom height, sprayer speed, and nozzle type that applicators must follow.”
One of the most significant limitations is the inability to tankmix dicamba with other herbicides. There is an avenue by which other herbicides can be approved for application with dicamba, but if the current label remains unchanged during the 2017 growing season, applicators will be required to apply dicamba alone.
“In other words, farmers will make a separate application of dicamba and another application of other needed herbicides,” Hager says.
Additional concerns about the new product relate to yield potential of dicamba-resistant soybean and the possibility of particle drift and volatilization. For more information on these issues, please visit The Bulletin.
More information will be shared about dicamba use in dicamba-resistant soybean as the product is rolled out. Hager suggests that dicamba will provide a solution to unique weed management challenges, but notes that not all weed management challenges can be met with dicamba.
“Other herbicide-resistant crop technologies, such as Liberty Link and Enlist, also can provide solutions and remain viable options for soybean producers. Proper stewardship of all technologies is essential to prolong their effective utilization,” Hager says.
Orchids make elegant houseplants
URBANA, Ill. – Most of us have limited experience with orchids, and may feel intimidated by their reputation as finicky plants. However, orchids are an amazingly diverse plant family, growing in deserts, mountains, marshes, northern woods, and Illinois forests, and should be given a chance, according to a University of Illinois Extension educator.
Not all orchids enjoy the temperature and humidity commonly found in homes; therefore, some may require special lighting and humidity control for indoor growing. “An orchid obsession is easily cultivated by many enthusiasts,” Sandra Mason says. “However, if you are looking for an easy-to-grow and elegant houseplant, moth orchids are a great option.
“Phalaenopsis or moth orchids possess dark, shiny green leaves adorned with showy flowers of pink, white, or yellow. Imagine a flock of fluttering moths dancing on an arching high wire,” Mason says. “Moth orchids are native to Asian jungles. In the U.S., we find them in stores fluttering next to the apples and lettuce or lumber and nails. Intensely and unnaturally blue- colored moth orchids also greet us at entryways to many stores. However, don’t get too attached to the blue color,” Mason warns. “These flowers have been dyed, and any future flowers will be white.”
According to Mason, moth orchids are not only easy to grow but also one of the easiest to encourage to re-bloom. 'Sussex pearl,' femme fatale,' or 'southern ruby' are just some of the 12,000 hybrid "phals" available. The flowers will last an amazing two to five months. “I had one flowering in my office for so long, visitors thought it was a wax replica,” Mason says.
Unlike other common houseplants, moth orchids don’t live in soil. They are epiphytes, so-called air plants. As Asian jungle natives, they cling with long thick roots to rocks and trees. Their moisture is gathered from rain, dew, and humidity and their nutrients from decaying leaves and other debris that accumulates among their roots. “This likely does not describe your living room,” Mason says, “but the conditions are fairly easy to reproduce by paying attention to light levels and watering practices, and using an orchid planting mix.”
Mason offers a few simple steps for growing moth orchids as elegant houseplants.
1) Orchids require bright light (but no direct sun) to bloom, such as an east or shaded west or south window. Too much light will burn the foliage and too little light will result in little growth or no blooms. Orchids taken outdoors in the summer should be placed in the shade of a tree or patio and should be moved indoors before the temperature drops below 50 degrees F. Moth orchids can also be grown under fluorescent lights.
2) Generally, orchids bloom when night temperatures are cooler than day temperatures. Moth orchids prefer 70 to 80 degrees F during the day and 65 to 70 degrees F at night.
3) Orchids appreciate high humidity between 40 and 85 percent; however, moth orchids are more forgiving than many orchids of the dry air in our winter homes. To raise the humidity, use humidifiers or fill a tray with pebbles, saturate the pebbles with water, and place the pot on the pebbles.
4) Orchids need thorough watering and regular fertilization during their growing season. Think “weakly weekly.” In other words, dilute a weak (low) rate of orchid fertilizer in water every week.
6) Don’t overwater. Some orchid labels recommend watering with ice cubes. This recommendation works well with gardeners that routinely overwater plants. However, ice-cold water is not the typical way a jungle plant would get water. Room temperature water is a more desirable practice.
7) The potting mix should provide good air penetration and fast water drainage. Commercially prepared orchid mixes are best, consisting of a combination of shredded fir bark, charcoal, and perlite.
“Moth orchids can provide years of elegant enjoyment, once we understand their basic needs,” Mason says.
Bioenergy grass can withstand freezing temperatures
- Prairie cordgrass, a native perennial grass used for biomass energy, is tolerant to salt, flooding, and freezing stress.
- A new study demonstrates the gene expression patterns responsible for freezing tolerance in prairie cordgrass.
- Once the genes responsible for freezing tolerance are identified in prairie cordgrass, they may be applied to other crops in the future.
URBANA, Ill. – March 2012 was unusually warm. Biomass crops around the Midwest were well established and thriving. But when a late frost came in mid-April, all of that changed.
“When I went out in the morning, I was just shocked,” says University of Illinois agronomist D.K. Lee. “All the grasses were covered in frost. By noon, Miscanthus and switchgrass had turned black. The only plant that was untouched was prairie cordgrass.”
Lee already knew that prairie cordgrass, Spartina pectinata, was especially tolerant of flooding and salt stress, but this discovery confirmed his suspicion that cordgrass was tolerant of freezing, too. Being tolerant of environmental stress factors is important for biomass crops, because they are often grown on so-called marginal land where conditions are far from perfect. With its tolerance of several major stress factors, cordgrass has the potential to be grown in more places than other perennial energy crops.
The next step for Lee and his research group was to identify the molecular changes that keep cordgrass perky in cold weather.
“Unlike salt and flooding stress, freezing usually happens abruptly. The plant has to react quickly. To find out what was happening at the molecular level, we grew cordgrass in a growth chamber at 25 degrees Celsius and then abruptly moved them into another growth chamber set to -5 degrees.
“We looked at gene expression within five minutes after exposure to freezing temperatures. We found some unique genes being activated right away and then different ones turning on 30 minutes later,” Lee says.
The team suspects that the initial genetic response protects the cells from freezing. Typically, ice crystals form in the spaces outside the cell when a plant is exposed to freezing temperatures. Once these “seed crystals” form, they grow quickly and burst the living cells. To avoid this, cordgrass may quickly pump ions outside the cell, keeping ice crystals from forming or growing. The secondary reactions that occur after 30 minutes may have to do with repairing damaged cells, allowing the plant to recover more quickly.
Lee says the findings just scratch the surface; much more needs to be done to fully understand the genetic mechanisms that allow cordgrass to avoid tissue damage during freezing temperatures. Once the system is fully understood in cordgrass, the hope is that it can be applied to other crops.
“Corn farmers are always looking to plant earlier in the spring,” Lee says. “They think if they plant early, they could see a yield benefit. Currently, crop insurance won’t cover corn if farmers plant before a certain date, because there’s a big risk of frost. If we understand more about freezing tolerance, we could eventually apply it to annual crops and potentially expand the production area for crops such as corn.”
The article, “Transcriptome analysis of Spartina pectinata in response to freezing stress,” is published in PLOS One. Lee’s co-authors are from U of I and Seoul National University.
Trees and shrubs for poor drainage sites
URBANA, Ill. – The splendor of trees and shrubs is apparent in the above-ground portions of the plants, but what lies beneath should not be ignored.
“Soil plays a vital role in the survival of trees and shrubs in the landscape,” University of Illinois Extension educator Andrew Holsinger explains.
Placement of trees is vital to their success, especially when planting in wet soils. Soil texture—the relative ratio of sand, silt, and clay in the soil—is a primary factor in soil moisture retention. Soil texture also influences aeration, or how air moves through the soil. Heavy clay soils tend to have poor aeration and drainage.
There are other factors influencing soil moisture that are important when planting trees and shrubs. These include whether there is a hardpan or other soil interfaces that can interfere with root development. Additional reasons for concern are precipitation patterns or poorly timed or located irrigation systems.
Some trees and shrubs have a greater ability to withstand wet soils than others, Holsinger says. “It is much more cost-effective to plant the right species for the location than trying to adjust the site conditions,” he adds.
A threat to planting in wet soils is frost heaving. Frost heaving is an upward swelling of the soil during freezing conditions caused by ice formation in the pore spaces of soils. Holsinger recommends planting trees and shrubs in wet sites during the early spring to ensure a full season of growth, which can reduce the likelihood of frost heaving.
Initial decisions about placement of a new tree should be guided not only by the mature canopy, but also the expansion of the root system.
“With varying requirements for moisture, it is easy to select trees or shrubs based on their prior performance,” Holsinger says.
Looking at the distribution where trees are located in the wild can guide your thinking when it comes to plant selection. However, species like bald cypress or black gum have more adaptability than their natural distribution would suggest.
“Just because a tree can grow on a wet site doesn’t mean that other characteristics shouldn’t factor into the selection process,” Holsinger says. Insect issues or weak wood should also be considered when selecting trees or shrubs for landscape plantings.
Can houseplants improve indoor air quality?
URBANA, Ill. – In an era of increasing energy prices, many Americans insulate and seal up their homes during the winter months. Although this can result in savings on the monthly power bill, sealing the home can concentrate indoor air pollutants and cause various health problems.
“Making a building airtight limits the exchange of fresh air,” explains University of Illinois Extension educator, Chris Enroth.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are present in many of our modern-day home furnishings and are a major source of indoor air pollution. Benzene is an example of a VOC and is among the top 20 most widely used chemicals in the U.S. Benzene is present in many types of products such as ink, oils, paints, plastics, rubber, detergent, dyes, and more. Homes with gas ranges or an attached garage typically have higher levels of benzene, as it is present in gasoline and vehicle exhaust.
Humans are another major contributor to indoor air pollution. “Think about the cabin of a passenger plane,” Enroth explains. “We exhale the gas carbon dioxide, shed skin cells and hair, sneeze, cough, and so on. When we are outside, humans integrate into a complex web of life that manages these by-products. Seal a bunch of people up in a small artificial space, and you need some serious ventilation.”
Air filters can remove the majority of pollutants, but it is tough to rid a home of trace VOC elements. That’s where indoor plants come in. Several studies have shown that many indoor plants have an ability to filter out VOCs and other air pollutants.
Enroth adds, “It is believed that most of these air pollutants are filtered out as part of the plant’s photosynthesis activities. The air cleansing process is ongoing, so long as the plant is growing and healthy.”
An ongoing study examined five common houseplants and their efficiency at extracting VOCs from the air. It was found that dracaena was the most effective houseplant at absorbing acetone, a commonly used VOC found in products like nail polish remover. However, bromeliads performed best in the removal of six of the eight VOCs tested in the study.
Despite these results, other researchers are casting doubt on the effectiveness of indoor plants in removing pollutants. Earlier research on indoor plants involved small sealed chambers. Critics point out that when these studies are scaled up to the size of an average 1,500-square foot home, it would take 680 plants to clean the air.
Another problem is the amount of VOCs indoor plants are exposed to in a home or office. In one study, it was found that some homes contained up to 180 different airborne compounds. These chemicals are present in various concentrations and mix and interact in a nearly infinite number of ways, but most of the published research focuses on about a dozen different VOCs.
Does this mean you should toss your pothos in the compost?
“Of course not,” Enroth says. “Houseplants have routinely been proven to improve our psychological well-being. Those living or working in buildings like hospitals, extended care facilities, offices, and single- or multi-family buildings report better productivity, learning, and reduced anxiety and depression when indoor plants are present.
“What’s needed is more research on the effects of houseplants in homes and workplaces,” Enroth explains. “We know indoor plants assist in air cleansing; we just don’t know to what extent. Until that research becomes published, all gardeners agree: the world is a better place with more plants. So keep your rubber tree, spider plant, and dracaena. In fact, consider adding more indoor plants to your living and work environments.”
For more information on indoor plant maintenance, contact your local Extension office.
Garden tool care
URBANA, Ill. – After the garden is cleaned up and put to bed for the winter, it is time to give your tools some attention. University of Illinois Extension educator Jennifer Fishburn says that garden tools should be cleaned, sharpened, and hung in the correct place after every use, but admits that does not always happen.
“I think most gardeners are like myself,” Fishburn states. “Use the tool and be happy that it ended up in the shed and not lying in the yard.”
Quality garden tools that are properly cared for will last for a long time. Not only will properly maintained tools last longer, but clean, sharp blades will make garden work easier. In addition, cleaning tools removes disease inoculum that can be in soil and plant debris left on the tool.
Before storing tools for the winter, first remove soil and debris. Use a strong spray of water, wire brush, or putty knife to remove caked on soil. Remove small soil particles and rust spots with sandpaper or steel wool. Lubricate tool pivot points and springs with machine oil.
Sharpen larger tools such as hoes and shovels with a #10 bastard mill file or power drill with a coarse grinding disk or wheel. “To prepare for sharpening, place the tool in a vice, wear a pair of leather gloves and don’t forget your safety glasses,” Fishburn says. The cutting edge should be sharpened to maintain the same angle as the original bevel. Start with the top edge of the tool, file away from you, and only file one way, maintaining a 45-degree angle. File the opposite side lightly to remove metal burrs. Finally wipe or spray metal parts with a petroleum-based lubricant and rust-inhibitor such as WD-40.
“If you haven’t sharpened a tool before, it takes practice. If you regularly file your tools, this job will be much easier,” Fishburn adds.
Now that the metal parts are clean, the handle needs some attention. Fiberglass handles simply need to be washed and dried. To prevent splinters, sand rough spots on wooden handles with a fine to medium sandpaper. Replace weak or broken handles. Most hardware stores carry replacement handles. Remove dust and rub linseed oil into wooden handles. Let it soak in. Apply until it doesn’t absorb into the wood any more, then dry off any remaining oil. Tighten nuts, bolts, and screws. Replace them if they are worn or rusty. Last but not least, apply a band of bright colored paint or tape to the handle. This will help you find tools that have been left out in the yard or in your neighbor’s garage.
Bladed tools such as pruners should be disinfected after each use with rubbing alcohol or a 10 percent bleach/water solution. Lubricate moving parts of clippers and pruning shears with oil yearly. Many pruners can be disassembled for sharpening. Use a whetstone to sharpen beveled blades and be sure to maintain the original shape of the bevel.
“Before disassembling, it is a good idea to take a picture of the item,” Fishburn suggests. “This will aid in reassembling the tool.”
Store tools indoors in a clean, dry area with blade ends off the ground. Hang tools or store blades upright.
“Don’t forget about chemical sprayers,” Fishburn says. “These should be cleaned after every use. Before storing for the winter, thoroughly wash and rinse all parts. Most chemical manufacturers recommend triple rinsing of sprayers. Check the owner’s manual for other maintenance suggestions such as applying oil to all moving parts. Hang the sprayer upside down until thoroughly dry.”
Garden hoses are often forgotten in the fall. Be sure to drain all water from the hose and store it in a dry location. In the winter, water left in plastic hoses will cause the hose to freeze and crack. Store hoses on hose reel supports or coil loosely.
Wheelbarrows, carts, and wagons should be thoroughly cleaned. Touch up paint-chipped surfaces with spray paint to prevent exposed steel from rusting.
Refer to the owner’s manual for specific instructions on cleaning and storing power equipment. Avoid costly mistakes such as storing a power washer in an outdoor shed. In general, power equipment such as lawn mowers, tillers, and chippers should be thoroughly cleaned. Remove caked-on soil, plant material, and grass clippings from equipment. Tighten loose screws and nuts. Sharpen blades.
If you don’t have the tools or know-how to sharpen mower blades or pruners, take them to a professional. It is best to do this in the fall when they aren’t as busy.
“Just think about how nice it will be next spring when you go to the garden shed or garage and find all you garden tools ready for use,” Fishburn says.