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Herbs all winter: Growing them indoors

Published November 19, 2018
Scissors cutting basil

URBANA, Ill. – While winter can give gardeners a nice break from their usual garden maintenance, they undoubtedly miss the ability to harvest and enjoy the fresh garden bounty. “Grow fresh, flavorful herbs indoors this winter to add some green to your home and zest to your recipes,” says Brittnay Haag, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Many herbs are native to the Mediterranean area and require certain conditions for optimal growth and flavor,” Haag explains. “Herbs that can be easily grown indoors include chives, basil, sage, parsley, thyme, oregano, mints and rosemary.”

Herbs grown in your home can be started from seeds or transplants from a garden center. When growing herbs indoors, use well-drained potting soil and at least a 6-inch-diameter container with a drainage hole.

To ensure the plants do not get leggy and spindly, high levels of light are necessary. Most herbs will need at least six hours of direct sunlight. Plants can also be grown under fluorescent lighting for 12 to 14 hours a day, located 6 to 12inches above the plant. Plants grown in natural light should be rotated every few days to allow for even plant growth.

Temperatures and humidity around the plants should be monitored to allow for adequate growth. Optimal growing temperatures should remain between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Like any plant grown inside a house, avoid growing plants hear heat vents which may dry out the plant. One way to increase the humidity around the plants is to place the pots on a shallow tray of pebbles and water. A small fan in the room can provide adequate air circulation to avoid the spread of disease.

Herbs should be watered according to the requirement of the plant. Some should never be allowed to completely dry out (e.g., rosemary), while others prefer the soil to dry - but not so dry that the leaves wilt - before watering again (e.g., sage). Herbs should be fertilized every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer, following directions on the manufacturer label. Over-fertilizing herbs can result in decreased aroma and taste.

Just like herbs grown in the garden, trim the plants often to keep plants compact and to prevent flowering, which will decrease the flavor of the herb. When cutting the plants to add to a dish or salad, cut a few inches down the stem rather than picking off individual leaves. Parsley and cilantro stalks should be cut at the base of the plant. The general guideline when using fresh herbs instead of dried herbs is to use three times the amount specified.

Growing herbs indoors this winter can be fun for all ages. “Get kids involved in caring and maintaining the plants and experiment with new recipes using the fresh herbs,” Haag recommends.

For more information about growing herbs and new recipes to incorporate your harvest, visit the University of Illinois Extension herb website at

News Source:

Brittnay Haag

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Illinois moving ahead with Feed Technology Center

Published November 16, 2018
Schematic of the new feed technology center
Schematic of the new Feed Technology Center

URBANA, Ill. – The University of Illinois has entered a public-private partnership to build a new state-of-the-art Feed Technology Center near campus for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. The highly anticipated new facility will not simply replace the 1920s-era feed mill at the corner of St. Mary’s Road and 4th Street in Urbana; it will cement Illinois as a nationally recognized innovation hub in animal nutrition.

“The new Feed Technology Center will significantly expand our capabilities in the animal nutrition space, which is critical for developing new diets that utilize novel ingredients, improve production efficiency in livestock and poultry, and enhance the health and wellbeing of animals, including dogs and cats,” says Rodney Johnson, head of the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I.

The facility will be capable of delivering 8,000 tons of specialized small-batch research diets per year, along with numerous interdependent capabilities integrated to provide full system services. These include production and storage of grain and forages; storage of specialized diet ingredients; precise diet formulations; milling; ingredient processing; and pre-mixing, mixing, pelleting, extruding, crumbling, bagging, and delivery of animal diets for research.

Researchers in the Department of Animal Sciences, as well as other units across the university, will use the facility to prepare and test animal feed ingredients. The Feed Technology Center will also serve as a launch pad for bigger-picture work designed to advance precision animal agriculture throughout the industry.

Johnson’s vision includes using detailed, frequently collected data on feed ingredients to enable dynamic diet formulation, and on animals to make appropriate management decisions in real time. He says the Feed Technology Center is an integral part of that goal, but other campus assets will help make the vision a reality. For example, by-products of raw materials processed at the new Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory can be incorporated into diets at the Feed Technology Center, and meat products from livestock fed these diets can be studied at the Meat Science Lab.

“The Feed Technology Center is a game-changing asset that will elevate our ability to conduct innovative research while training the next generation of experts in feed science and animal nutrition,” says Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES. “This facility, along with increased capacity in precision animal management, will advance our capabilities to perform industry-relevant research designed to support food production while ensuring animal wellbeing.”

In addition to serving as the site of faculty research, the Feed Technology Center will offer opportunities for students to safely gain hands-on experience with the latest feed technologies, positioning them as strong contenders for leadership positions within the industry. New undergraduate and graduate courses are being created to expand the curriculum in animal nutrition, including a new undergraduate concentration in feed processing technology.

The Feed Technology Center has been in the works for more than two decades, but traditional funding strategies kept it from going forward. A novel public-private partnership, similar to a lease-to-own arrangement, will enable this long-awaited construction project to proceed quickly. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2019 and the entire project is expected to be completed in early 2020.

The University of Illinois and the College of ACES are making a $6 million financial commitment toward the facility as part of a longstanding commitment to the Illinois livestock industry. Approximately $14 million in private contributions are still needed to reduce the financial burden of the construction on the department and college.

“Our donors are making an investment in the livestock industry in Illinois, and are committing to continuing the university’s preeminence in animal nutrition and feed manufacturing,” says Kimberley Meenen, assistant dean for advancement in the College of ACES. “But this facility won’t be just for us. Together, we will move the industry forward. This facility will make possible animal nutrition innovations that may not have even been considered at this point.”

News Source:

Rod Johnson, 217-333-2118

Illinois scientists recognized for research and extension efforts to improve regional water quality

Published November 16, 2018
NCERA-217 group receiving award
NCERA-217 group receiving award

URBANA, Ill. — Two University of Illinois scientists, along with research and extension collaborators across 13 states, have received a national honor for improving water quality in relation to agricultural drainage. 

The 2018 National Excellence in Multistate Research Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture was presented to the group officially known as the North Central Extension Research Activities (NCERA) 217 Committee on Drainage Design and Management Practices to Improve Water Quality.

The award was presented Nov. 11 at the annual meeting of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU) in New Orleans.

Representing Illinois on the NCERA-217 team are Laura Christianson, assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, who chaired the committee in 2017-2018, and Richard Cooke, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at U of I.

“The committee came together over the issues of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, as we all became more aware of the Midwest’s contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus coming from drainage systems in the Upper Mississippi River watershed,” said Dan Jaynes, USDA ARS scientist in Iowa and one of the founders of the NCERA committee. “We needed more research to understand the extent of the problem and to learn what we can do to redesign drainage to help solve the problems.”

Drainage is important to agriculture in the Midwest, where excess moisture on crop fields can threaten crop production. Extensive drainage networks have been in place for a century to boost crop yields and reduce year-to-year variability. However, these subsurface drainage systems that remove excess water from fields often carry crop nutrients and bacteria that end up as pollutants

The goal of the multistate committee’s research is improved drainage management to maintain crop productivity while significantly reducing water quality problems. 

“NCERA-217 truly embodies what extension and research committees like this were intended to do. Several new conservation practices that allow both good in-field crop productivity and good water quality outcomes have been developed through research by committee members, and then have been promoted and adopted across the Midwest due to committee members’ great outreach activities,” Christianson said. “These include bioreactors and controlled drainage, living mulch, and nutrient management practices.”

The team has helped develop federal USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service standards for several conservation practices, including denitrifying bioreactors. These are wood chip-filled trenches installed at the edge of an agricultural field. As drainage water flows through the trench, bacteria housed in and fueled by the wood chips clean nitrate from the water. Cooke was the first to trial the technology in the U.S. in the late 1990’s, and over the past decade, joint efforts by Cooke and Christianson have led to important advances in the design and operation of this practice.

“Our committee members think beyond research to true application. We have strong ties with the drainage industry to make sure our work stays grounded,” Christianson said. “We also have a vision for the future by making concerted efforts to involve graduate students in our meetings.”

The team has won two awards for multistate extension publications. One of these, “Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest,” was co-authored by Christianson and received a national American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers Blue Ribbon award in 2017.

The group meets annually and has organized educational symposia and field days. Related collaborative efforts include the Transforming Drainage Project, aimed at assessing and developing new water storage practices and technologies for drained agricultural landscapes.

More information on the impacts of NCERA-217’s Multistate Research Committee is at:

The National Excellence in Multistate Research award comes with a $15,000 grant for committee activities. The committee also received the North Central Region’s Experiment Station Section Award for Excellence in Multistate Research in 2018. The NCERA-217 committee is supported in part through USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture by the Multistate Research Fund, established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (an amendment to the Hatch Act of 1888) to encourage and enhance multistate, multidisciplinary agricultural research on critical issues. Additional funds are provided by contracts and grants to participating scientists.

In addition to the University of Illinois, the NCERA-217 member institutions and their representatives are:

  • Iowa State University, Matthew Helmers and Ramesh Kanwar (administrative adviser)
  • University of Georgia, Gary Hawkins
  • Purdue University, Jane Frankenberger and Eileen Kladivko
  • University of Kentucky, William Ford
  • Michigan State University, Ehsan Ghane and Tim Harrigan
  • University of Minnesota, Jeff Strock, Gary Feyereisen and Gary Sands
  • University of Missouri, Kelly Nelson
  • North Carolina State University, Mohammed Youssef and Robert Evans
  • North Dakota State University, Xinhua Jia and Aaron Daigh
  • Cornell University, Larry Goehring
  • South Dakota State University, John McMaine
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Zachary Easton
  • USDA Agricultural Research Service (Iowa and Minnesota), Dan Jaynes and Gary Feyereisen
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (Oregon), Clarence Prestwich

Division of Nutritional Sciences at Illinois receives USDA training grant for gut-brain axis research

Published November 16, 2018
Rod Johnson and Elvira de Mejia
Rod Johnson and Elvira de Mejia

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA and the University of Illinois have announced nearly a quarter million dollars in new funding to support seven doctoral students in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, an interdisciplinary graduate program within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I.

The USDA operates its National Needs Fellowship program to boost expertise in scientific topics of national priority, including, in this case, human nutrition. More specifically, the students will receive interdisciplinary training in the area of nutrition and the gut-brain axis, focusing on development and healthy aging.

“Interactions between nutrition, the microbiome, and cognition are among the most rapidly emerging areas of scientific investigation, driving demand for qualified trainees for positions in academia and industry,” says Rodney Johnson, head of the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, and program director for the training grant.    

Scientists are only beginning to understand the links between gut microbial communities and brain function. As microbes break down food, they release chemicals that circulate in the body and influence our brain chemistry, which, in turn, influences everything from our mood to our immune response. Scientists at U of I have found that these relationships can even influence brain development during gestation, as well as healthy aging in the brain. 

“DNS is renowned as an outstanding graduate training program – it ranks among the top five nutritional sciences graduate programs in the country. This training grant demonstrates the highly interdisciplinary nature of DNS. It will bring together 13 outstanding faculty members from three different colleges and four departments to train doctoral students who will become leaders in this exciting emerging area of research,” says Elvira de Mejia, DNS director and professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I.

During the past 20 years, DNS has trained 38 graduate students and four postdoctoral fellows on seven institutional training grants from the National Institutes of Health and the USDA, totaling over $7 million. DNS plans to enroll three new doctoral students in fall 2019 and four in the fall of 2020. For more information on the program, prospective students can visit

Breeding corn for water-use efficiency may have just gotten easier

Published November 16, 2018
Measuring water use efficiency
Measuring water use efficiency

URBANA, Ill. – With approximately 80 percentof our nation’s water supply going towards agriculture, it’s fair to say it takes a lot of water to grow crops. In a climate with less predictable rainfall patterns and more intense droughts, scientists at the University of Illinois are working to reduce water consumption by developing more efficient crops.    

“There’s a study from many decades ago that shows the amount of water transpired and lost to the air in an acre of corn is 3 to 4 thousand gallons per day. At 90 million acres of corn in the U.S., plus the length of the growing season, that’s lots and lots of water. So there are a lot of improvements that need to be made,” says Tony Studer, assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I, and author of a new study in The Plant Journal.

previous study from Studer’s group suggests corn could become 10 to 20 percent more efficient through breeding improvements, which would mean that plants would be less stressed during short-term droughts. Theoretically, this could add protection for farmers, given uncertain weather patterns. But to make that a reality, according to Studer, the breeding process itself needs to become more efficient.

When attempting to improve a certain trait, in this case water-use efficiency, breeders grow a diverse set of corn lines and screen them to find natural variation in the trait. Once they identify promising individuals, breeders then try to locate key genes that will amplify the trait or integrate the trait into lines of corn with additional desirable qualities.

“It takes a lot of time, space, and effort to produce a productive hybrid,” Studer says.

Water-use efficiency is typically measured with an instrument that clamps to leaves and monitors the flux of carbon dioxide and water vapor moving into and out of the leaf. This process is time-consuming and expensive at large scales, as each measurement can take over an hour.

“If you’re going to study water use in a breeding environment or in a field at scale, you need something faster,” Studer says.

In their current study, Studer and his colleagues developed a new method to screen hundreds or even thousands of plants without the need for time-consuming field measurements. The method, which tests leaf samples in the lab, takes advantage of the fact that the carbon in carbon dioxide exists in two forms in the atmosphere: a more-abundant and lighter form, 12C; and a less-abundant and heavier form, 13C.

Once carbon dioxide enters plant leaves, the carbon is incorporated into sugars and plant tissues. Scientists can then measure how much 13C was incorporated compared to 12C. For many plants, the ratio of 12C-to-13C is indicative of their water-use efficiency. But until now, scientists didn’t know if the ratio could reliably reflect water status in corn. Studer’s study shows it can.

“We found significant variation in the 12C-to-13C ratio across 36 diverse lines of corn, and the 12C-to-13C signature is heritable across environments,” he says. “Proving that a trait is inherited and expressed across environments allows a plant breeder to select for this trait and is essential when developing new lines.”

The finding, derived from controlled greenhouse trials as well as three field seasons, provides the efficient method Studer was looking for. And it shows that inbred lines whose carbon ratios are within a certain range may have greater water-use efficiency, although it’s too early to say how this will play out in hybrids. Right now, it’s enough that the trait appears to be heritable – that alone will be a great help to breeders. But Studer has plans for next steps.     

“In a past study, we found there’s room for improvement in corn’s water-use efficiency. Here, we’re showing that the trait is measurable and heritable, and we can actually use it to try to make improvements,” he says. “The next step is identifying the genes in these regions of the genome that we can manipulate. We’ve moved all the way from a basic idea of developing the science behind these traits to the point where we can actually make improvements.”

The article, “Leaf stable carbon isotope composition reflects transpiration efficiency in Zea mays,” is published in The Plant Journal [DOI: 10.1111/tpj.14135]. Authors include Robert Twohey III, Lucas Roberts, and Anthony Studer. The work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

News Source:

Tony Studer, 217-244-5469

Natural pigment in purple corn fights diabetes, study shows

Published November 16, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – You may not find it on the list of typical “superfoods,” but bioactive compounds found in the pigment of purple corn are showing potential to prevent or improve complications related to Type 2 diabetes.

Purple corn is most often grown and used as the main ingredient in snack foods like colored-corn chips. But anthocyanins found in the outer layer of the kernel of purple corn—in the pigment that gives the corn its deep color—also have shown the ability to fight against chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes. How these compounds are able to aid in diabetes prevention has not fully been understood by scientists.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Illinois reports that in a cell study, anthocyanins in the pigment in purple corn activated novel biological markers related to enhanced insulin secretion and glucose uptake. When activated, these markers can improve health complications caused by Type 2 diabetes. The study is published in Plos One.  

“There is a huge concern about the number of people dying from consequences of Type 2 diabetes,” explains Elvira de Mejia, professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I, and co-author of the study. “We have been studying several bioactive compounds, trying to understand the mechanism of action and how the diet can decrease or prevent a pre-diabetic situation developing into a diabetic physiological problem.”

Previously, de Mejia studied anthocyanins in other materials like berries and black beans, before working with the commercially available purple corn, also called Maize Morado. After preliminary studies of purple corn, she and her team determined that the pigment was most concentrated in the outer layer of the corn kernel, the pericarp.

“When we look at the pigment in purple corn we find phenolic compounds, in particular anthocyanins, which are part of the pigment family—the ones that gives the reds, blues, and purples to fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanins importantly have been shown in human studies to aid the daily diet in decreasing various chronic diseases. In particular there have been studies with Type 2 diabetes,” she adds.

Before studying the compounds in the pigment, the researchers first needed to determine how to best extract the pigment from the corn pericarp. They found a method that is both clean and inexpensive.

“We concluded that pressure-assisted water extraction was the most appropriate method because you are not bringing in any potential external contaminants or using other kinds of solvents,” de Mejia says. “The pericarp is already a co-product of the corn processing industry. We are not going to change the methodology used in the extraction of this co-product, it’s being produced anyways.”

The researchers then wanted to find out exactly how the compounds found in the pigment are affecting insulin and glucose activity. The team started by looking at the bioactive compounds from biochemical assays, and then moved on to cell cultures.

Diego A. Luna-Vital, a post-doctoral researcher in de Mejia’s lab, explains that they looked at two novel biomarkers to determine if the anthocyanins would influence them. These included the free fatty acid receptor (FFAR1), and glucokinase.

“This free fatty acid receptor is located mainly in pancreatic cells and interacts with the fat—the free fatty acids that are circulating in our blood after a meal. The activation of this receptor (FFAR1) concludes in the secretion of insulin. This is the importance of this receptor. If we activate it, it can act as an alternative to secrete insulin in people who are diabetic and cannot utilize glucose as a sensor for secreting insulin on their own,” Luna-Vital explains.

They observed in pancreatic cells an increase in glucose-stimulated insulin secretion that mimicked a situation after a person eats a certain food and insulin is secreted. To see if it was because of the activation of these receptors or not, they added an inhibitor of this receptor, and then added the compounds.

“Interestingly, when the receptor was blocked, the corn extract was not effective at promoting insulin secretion. This suggests that the effect of the corn extract promoting insulin secretion depends on the interaction of the compounds in colored corn with the fatty acid receptor,” Luna-Vital says.

The enzyme glucokinase is the master regulator of glucose and carbohydrate metabolism in the liver. “So to reduce blood sugar levels, we need to promote the activation of this enzyme, which will, in turn, promote glucose uptake. And if that happens, there is less sugar circulating in the blood,” he adds.

Big picture, they found that the phenolics present in the water-extracted pigment activated both FFAR1 and glucokinase.

In a liver cell culture, they also observed an activation of the glucokinase. “Compared to a physiological state after a meal, this extract can increase the activation of glucose metabolism and glucose uptake by the liver cells,” Luna-Vital explains.

This effect has been further confirmed in an ongoing in vivo study where mice fed a high-fat diet had lower blood glucose levels when they were given the colored corn pericarp extract, compared to the mice with no extract. The mechanisms of action are still under investigation.

Though studies to develop drugs that enhance these same markers are underway, de Mejia cautions that drugs can bring adverse effects. “If you look at the list of drugs that have been used for Type 2 diabetes using different pathways, it’s just amazing. But when you pay attention, in detail, to the adverse effects that each one of these drugs brings, we ask if there are any dietary compounds, substances, or functional foods we can use, maybe on a daily basis, that are not toxic.

“In this case we know these anthocyanins have never shown toxicity—so that was the question here: Is there any way we could affect these two markers through diet and not through drugs?”

The current study stems from work de Mejia and colleagues did studying pigments in varieties of corn that could be used as natural food colorants.

“We concluded that being here in Illinois, corn is a very good venue to do that. So we started working with corn. From there, we studied stability of the pigments, methods of extraction, yield, what kinds of pigments are available, and then we went more into the potential biological activities of these pigments. So what we do in this study was to use water extraction of the most concentrated part of pigments in the corn pericarp.”

De Mejia and colleagues, including Jack Juvik in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I will continue to evaluate the chemical composition of the pigments, as well as agronomic aspects of colored corn to better understand the relationship between the chemistry, yield, and many other agronomic parameters they are measuring with potential health benefits.

The paper, “Anthocyanins from purple corn activate free fatty acid-receptor 1 and glucokinase enhancing in vitro insulin secretion and hepatic glucose uptake,” is published in Plos One []. Co-authors include: Diego A. Luna-Vital and Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia, both in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois. De Mejia is also director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences in the College of ACES at U of I.

Funding was provided the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, HATCH 703-6099-1010.

Lessons from my vegetable garden

Published November 15, 2018
squash bugs
Squash bugs

URBANA, Ill. – This summer marked the fifth year for Jennifer Fishburn’s vegetable garden’s current location. “Besides the okra, this was the least amount of produce that I have ever harvested,” says the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Squash bugs killed the squash plants, tomato plants succumbed to disease and lack of fertility, and rabbits ate all the green bean plants.” 

So what is a gardener to do? Some conditions are out of a gardener’s control, such as temperature and the timing and amount of rainfall. However, there are steps that can be taken to have a more productive vegetable garden. 

Plants need an optimum pH for good growth. For example, most vegetable plants grow best in soil with a pH range of 6.0 to 7.0. A soil test will determine the current levels of phosphorus, potassium, organic matter, other important minerals, and pH. Soil test results can help gardeners determine the amount of fertilizer or organic matter to apply to the soil. Vegetable gardeners should get their soil tested every three years, according to Fishburn. 

“Soil can be collected for a soil test when soil temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Late summer or fall is the best time,” Fishburn says. “Take several random soil samples in your garden at 4 to 6-inches deep. Mix samples together and put about 2 cups in a bag for testing.” For a list of labs, visit the University of Illinois Extension soil testing lab website at

Tomatoes grow best in a well-drained, loamy soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. “Tomatoes are heavy feeders, but don’t overdo it as too much fertilizer is as problematic as too little fertilizer,” Fishburn says. “Follow soil testing result suggestions for applying fertilizer.”

Fishburn says many gardeners dealt with tomato diseases this year. Gardeners who experienced tomato diseases should sanitize cages and stakes with a nine-part water to one-part bleach solution. Purchasing disease-resistant cultivars is a good idea, but does not guarantee immunity to a disease. Space plants correctly to allow for good air circulation. If possible, rotate the planting location on a three- to five-year rotation.

Squash bugs prefer to feed on squash and pumpkins but will also eat other members of this plant family, such as cucumbers and melons. Adults suck the sap out of leaves, disrupting the flow of water and nutrients causing a yellow spot that eventually turns brown. They also can feed on fruit. Adult squash bugs survive the winter in sheltered places such as under plant debris. In June, females begin laying their eggs. Eggs hatch in about 10 days and mature in about four weeks. 

The key to squash bug management is early detection of egg cases and nymphs, Fishburn says. Adult bugs are difficult to kill. Cultural controls include maintaining healthy plants through proper fertilization and watering.  Mechanical controls include crushing eggs that are attached to the underside and stems of leaves. You can also trap squash bugs by laying out boards. At night, the bugs will hide under the boards and can be disposed of in the morning. Insecticides are another option. They should be applied in early morning or at dusk, to minimize impact on pollinators. Be sure to spray underneath leaves, as this is where most squash bugs feed.

For vegetable gardeners, the best approach to keep rabbits from eating young plants is to exclude them from the garden with a fence. Wire poultry netting with 1-inch holes works well to protect plants from rabbits. Bury the bottom edge of the fence about 4 inches below ground.

“Now it’s your turn. Have you thought about what went well and not so well for your vegetable garden? My steps to growing a more successful vegetable garden are to get the soil tested, add organic matter, install poultry netting around the rows of green beans, and fertilize and water tomato plants,” Fishburn concludes.

News Source:

Jennifer Fishburn

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

2019 Perennial Plant of the Year

Published November 14, 2018
Stachys 'Hummelo'
Stachys 'Hummelo'

URBANA, Ill. – The Perennial Plant Association has selected Stachys ‘Hummelo’ as the 2019 Perennial Plant of the Year. Sometimes called betony, this well-behaved perennial offers a neat basal clump of glossy, dark green leaves and rose-lavender dense spikes atop mostly leafless flowering stems. The flowers are arranged in verticillasters (false whorls). Bloom time is July to September, so ‘Hummelo’ offers lovely color in the heat of the summer. 

Stachys ‘Hummelo’ is an easy-to-grow perennial for moist, well-drained soils in full sun to light shade.  Deadhead spent flower spikes to regenerate foliage and boost plant vigor. It is relatively pest-free and deer leave it alone. Also, this perennial can be grown near walnut trees since it is not affected by walnut wilt. According to University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Martha A. Smith, ‘Hummelo’ is hardy throughout Illinois and deserves a space in your sunny border.

One may be hard pressed to associate this plant’s glossy, dark green scallop-edged foliage with its silver/gray, fuzzy-leafed relative, Stachys byzantine, commonly called lamb’s ear. ‘Hummelo’ grows 18-24 inches tall and wide. It is a relative of mint and eventually the clumps will spread by stolons or runners, but not as aggressively as some mints we grow. 

There is some debate as to its exact Latin name. Often listed as Stachys officinallis, it also appears in print as Stachys monieri. Therefore, the PPA decided on the name Stachys ‘Hummelo’. The genus name comes from the Greek stacys, meaning ear of corn, in probable reference to the verticillaster arrangement of flowers.

Stachy’s ‘Hummelo’ received the highest rating out of 22 Stachys varieties evaluated at the Chicago Botanic Garden between 1998 and 2004. It received this rating based on strong flower production, plant health, overall good growth habit, and winter hardiness. To read more about the trial, view the report on the Chicago Botanic Garden website.

Good companion plants include coneflower (Echinacea), Leucanthemum ‘Becky’, sea holly (Eryngium), Russian sage (Peroviskia), catmint (Nepeta), hardy geranium (Geranium), and stonecrop (Sedum). Plant it against golden arborvitae for a striking color contrast!

News Source:

Martha A. Smith

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Weekly Outlook: Corn prices show lackluster response to smaller crop

Published November 13, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - The USDA reports released on Nov. 8 contained a lower corn yield, significant revisions to Chinese corn data, and a downward revision of some major corn consumption categories. Corn prices failed to respond despite the smaller crop size projection, explains University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs.

The United States corn production forecast decreased to 14.63 billion bushels, down 152 million bushels from the October forecast. At 178.9 bushels per acre, the yield decrease of 1.8 bushels came in below pre-report estimates. Over the last 20 years, a reduction in yield close to this magnitude between the October and November occurred in 2000 (-1.9 bushels), 2007 (-1.7 bushels), and 2010 (-1.5 bushels).  In each of those instances, the final yield estimate decreased from the November forecast with an average decline of 1.6 bushels per acre. 

Hubbs says yield reductions were particularly sharp in the northwest region of the Corn Belt. Iowa and South Dakota corn yield projections decreased by six bushels per acre, and Minnesota projections fell seven bushels per acre. In conjunction with lower corn production, projections of corn consumption fell 75 million bushels to 15.08 billion bushels. Ending stocks for the 2018-19 marketing year reduced to 1.736 billion bushels and placed stocks-to-use projections at 11.5 percent, down from 12 percent in the October forecast.

“A significant development in the WASDE report involved the revision of Chinese corn production, consumption, and stocks over the last 10 years,” Hubbs explains. Ending stocks in China now sit at 8.17 billion bushels, up from 2.3 billion bushels last month. China currently holds 67.5 percent of world corn ending stocks. 

“This new development should be familiar to wheat market observers as China held a large percentage of global wheat ending stocks over the last several years. World stocks-to-use exploded to 27.2 percent in the November report, up from 14.4 percent,” Hubbs says. “The removal of Chinese data from the calculation places world stocks-to-use at 11.7 percent. Since Chinese corn exports are minimal, the global demand for corn looks to remain strong for U.S. exports.”

The November WASDE report projects 2018-19 marketing-year corn exports at 2.45 billion bushels, compared to 2.438 billion bushels during last marketing year. The current export projection decreased by 50 million bushels from the October projection on the expectation of increased competitiveness in global markets, particularly from the Black Sea region. “A strong start to exports this marketing year moderated in mid-October,” Hubbs says. Census Bureau estimates of corn exports for September came in at 207 million bushels, 48 percent above last year’s export total during September. 

“Weekly export inspections continue to outpace last year’s export totals thus far in the marketing year. During the first nine weeks of the marketing year, export inspections totaled 389.7 million bushels, 171 million bushels more than the same time last year. The pace of exports is on track to reach the USDA’s current projection,” he adds.

The forecast for corn use for ethanol stayed at 5.65 billion bushels. The projection is 45 million bushels larger than last year. The USDA’s Grain Crushing and Co-Products Production report found 449.2 million bushels of corn used for ethanol production in September, up 1 percent over last September but down 7 percent from August. Hubbs says weekly EIA estimates of ethanol production through Nov. 2 indicated a 1.15 percent increase over last year. “The pace of ethanol production is running marginally ahead of USDA projections. Numerous factors will influence ethanol production during the rest of the marketing year.  These include the pace of gasoline consumption and ethanol exports.”

Weekly gasoline demand thus far in the marketing year averaged 1.7 percent lower than last year through Nov. 2. Ethanol exports in September came in approximately 6.5 percent over last year, but down almost 25 percent from August levels. “Weaker gasoline demand over the previous few months requires monitoring as we move into 2019. A shortfall in gasoline consumption would place a greater emphasis on exports to meet the USDA projection,” Hubbs says.

USDA projects feed and residual use of corn during this marketing year to be 5.5 billion bushels, down 50 million bushels from October. At 202 million bushels over the last marketing year, the change in feed and residual usage is a 3.8 percent increase. 

“The lower-than-expected feed and residual use numbers during the previous marketing year may signal further revisions are forthcoming. The December Grain Stocks report, released during the second week of January, provides the first quantifiable indication this marketing year.

“The potential for an even smaller corn crop and continued strong consumption indicate support for corn prices as we move into 2019. Bearish soybean prices and the prospect of acreage shifts next year may prevent corn prices from reaching their full potential under tightening ending stock scenarios,” Hubbs adds.

Graphs associated with this article can be accessed at:

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Todd Hubbs

Scientists debunk potential link to crop cold tolerance

Published November 12, 2018
Stephen Long
Stephen Long. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

URBANA, Ill. – When temperatures drop, the enzyme that fuels plant growth and yield, Rubisco, gets sluggish. Many crops compensate by producing more Rubisco; however, scientists speculated that some crops may lack space in their leaves to boost the production of this enzyme, making them more susceptible to cold. A new study from the University of Illinois and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology refutes this theory but found these crops are far from reaching their photosynthetic potential.

Plant scientists knew soybeans, rice, and other C3 crops have room for extra Rubisco in their leaves. However, C4 crops--such as corn and sugarcane--use mesophyll cells to biochemically pump carbon dioxide into their inner cells, called the bundle sheath, where Rubisco resides amongst carbon dioxide concentrations that are ten times greater than atmospheric levels. More carbon dioxide makes Rubisco more efficient.

"But by isolating the enzyme to just one part of the leaf, would there be enough space for the larger amount of Rubisco needed at lower temperatures?" said Stephen Long, Ikenberry Endowed University Chair of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois and professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the study measured the volume of the Rubisco-holding chloroplasts that reside in the bundle sheaths of corn, sugarcane, and cold-tolerant Miscanthus. The team concluded that these C4 crops' chloroplast volumes are sufficient to hold more than enough Rubisco to conduct photosynthesis at low temperatures. Curiously, Miscanthus had the smallest chloroplasts, showing there was no connection between chloroplast volume and cold tolerance.

"Yet these plants are still not able to reach their maximal potential energy output," said lead author Charles Pignon, a postdoctoral researcher at Illinois, whose work was supported by the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell endowment. "Now that we've ruled out space as a limiting factor, we need to explore what other factors are impacting the cold tolerance of these important crops."

By unlocking the key to cold tolerance, plant scientists can extend the growing region and season of these crops to boost food and bioenergy production across the globe. Next, the researchers plan to compare the cold tolerance of Miscanthus varieties to pinpoint important differences.

The open-access paper, "Bundle sheath chloroplast volume can house sufficient Rubisco to avoid limiting C4 photosynthesis during chilling," published by Journal of Experimental Botany (DOI: 10.1093/jxb/ery345) is available online or by request. Co-authors also include Marjorie Lundgren and Colin Osborne from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.