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Container gardening

Published March 8, 2016
Container gardening in a shoe
As long as there is adequate drainage, any container can be planted.

URBANA, Ill. – Many would-be gardeners may be discouraged by a lack of available outdoor space. The solution may be container gardening, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Ken Johnson. 

“Anything that you can grow in the garden can also be grown in a container,” Johnson says. “You just need to provide your plants with a few basic needs: a container, growing media, water, nutrients, and light.”

When growing plants in a container, a number of factors should be considered.

Anything that can hold soil and has drainage can be used to grow plants. According to Johnson, this can be a pot from the store, a bucket, a milk carton, or even a shoe. “But if you’re going to be growing something you plan on eating, it may be best to stick to a more traditional pot,” Johnson suggests.

Containers must have drainage holes, but these can be added easily to any container type. It is also important to consider the size of the plant, and to ensure that the container will offer ample space for the plant when fully grown.

When choosing a growing medium for your container, the best choice is something that is well aerated, drains well, and is able to hold enough water for the plant to grow.

“The best and most common growing media for containers are called soil-less media, because they don’t actually contain any soil,” Johnson says. “They are made up of things like peat, vermiculite, bark, coconut coir, and perlite.” These can be purchased commercially as all-purpose potting mixes, or you can make your own.

Because soil in containers dries out much faster than soil in the ground, it is important to keep containers well-watered. “Plants vary in their water requirements, but a general rule of thumb is that plants should be watered when the top inch or so of your growing medium feels dry,” Johnson says. 

Water plants thoroughly, until water starts to trickle out of the drainage holes. In warm, dry weather, containers may need to be watered more than once a day. Unglazed ceramic pots also tend to dry out faster than glazed or plastic pots.

Johnson explains that soil-less media are usually low in nutrients. Because of this, container-grown plants may need to be fertilized at some point. “You can use either slow release or liquid fertilizers,” he says. Make sure to follow the directions on the label when applying fertilizers, to avoid damage to your plants. 

It is also important to know the light requirements of container-grown plants (i.e., full sun, partial shade, or shade). Most vegetables and annual flowers need at least six hours of full sun to grow properly. Other plants can be damaged by too much bright light. Most plants come with labels that indicate their light requirements.

Before planting, it is recommended that growing media be thoroughly moistened. Johnson notes, “Leave about one inch of space between the rim of your container and the soil. This will help prevent water from overflowing your container.”

If growing plants from seed, plant at the depth indicated on the seed package. “It is usually a good idea to overseed and then thin the seedlings to the spacing indicated on the package, as not all seeds may germinate,” Johnson says. “If growing from transplants, use plants that look healthy and make sure to thoroughly water your container after they have been planted.”

To learn more about container gardening check out the U of I Extension’s Successful Container Gardens website at


News Source:

Ken Johnson, 217-243-7424

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Expectations for the March 1 corn stocks estimate

Published March 7, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – On March 31, the USDA will release the quarterly Grain Stocks report containing an estimate of the stocks of corn that were in storage as of March 1. The information in that report may be over shadowed by the estimate of producer planting intentions released in the Prospective Plantings report on the same day. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good, the corn stocks estimate will still be important as it allows a calculation of the magnitude of feed and residual use of corn during the second quarter of the marketing year. In turn, that calculation will provide the basis for evaluating likely feed and residual use for the entire year and the likely magnitude of year-ending stocks. 

“Anticipating the magnitude of the March 1 stocks estimate begins with an estimate of the supply of corn available during the December 2015-February 2016 quarter,” Good said. “Stocks at the beginning of the quarter were estimated at 11.212 billion bushels in the December Grain Stocks report. Census Bureau estimates show imports during December 2015 and January 2016 totaling 14 million bushels. Imports for the quarter, then, may have been near 20 million bushels, resulting in a total available supply of 11.232 billion bushels.”

Next, an estimate of exports and domestic processing uses of corn during the quarter can be made based on weekly and monthly data available to date. 

“An estimate of exports is based on cumulative weekly export inspection estimates available for the entire quarter and Census Bureau estimates for the first two months of the quarter,” Good explained. “Cumulative marketing-year export inspections through the first half of the marketing year totaled about 603 million bushels. Through the first five months of the year, cumulative Census export estimates exceeded cumulative export inspections by 34 million bushels. If that margin persisted through February, exports in the first half of the year totaled 637 million bushels. Exports in the first quarter were reported at 303 million bushels, leaving 334 million bushels as an estimate of second quarter exports.”

Domestically, the USDA’s Grain Crushings and Co-Products Production report estimated that a total of 893 million bushels of corn were used for ethanol and co-product production in December 2015 and January 2016. Good said that based on weekly estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), ethanol production during February 2016 was 3.3 percent larger than during February 2105. The increase was aided by an additional day in 2016.

“If corn used for ethanol and co-product production in February 2016 also increased by 3.3 percent, use for the month totaled about 407 million bushels,” Good said. “Use for the quarter, then, is estimated at 1.3 billion bushels.”

The USDA projects that 1.37 billion bushels of corn will be used to produce other food and industrial products during the 2015-16 marketing year. “Typically, about 49 percent of that use occurs in the first half of the marketing year,” Good said. “If that pattern is followed this year, and the USDA projection is correct, use during the first half of the year likely totaled 671 million bushels. Use during the first quarter was reported at 331 million bushels, leaving the second quarter consumption estimate at 340 million bushels.”

For feed and residual use, the question is how large should use have been during the second quarter of the marketing year if use is on track to reach the USDA’s projection of 5.3 billion bushels for the entire year?

“The historical seasonal pattern of feed and residual use should be helpful in answering that question, but that pattern has fluctuated over time,” Good said. “For example, during the 15 years ending with the 2009-10 marketing year, use during the first half of the year ranged from 61.6 percent to 70.3 percent of the marketing-year total, with an average of 65 percent. For the four years ending with the 2013-14 marketing year, use during the first half of the year ranged from 72.9 percent to 75.6 percent of the marketing-year total, with an average of 74 percent.”

Based on recent USDA revisions in the estimated amount of corn used for ethanol and co-product production during the 2014-15 marketing year, Good said that feed and residual use during the first half of that year accounted for about 69 percent of the marketing-year total.

What pattern is being followed this year?

“If last year’s pattern is being repeated this year, and the USDA projection for the year is correct, feed and residual use during the first half of the year should have totaled about 3.657 billion bushels,” Good said. “Based on revised estimates of corn used for ethanol and co-product production during the first quarter of the 2015-16 marketing year, feed and residual use totaled 2.199 billion bushels during that quarter. Second quarter use, then, would be projected at 1.458 billion bushels. Adding that use to the estimates of exports and domestic processing uses, results in a projection of total quarterly use of 3.432 billion bushels. That total would leave March 1 stocks at 7.8 billion bushels, 50 million bushels larger than stocks of a year earlier.

“The dilemma in interpreting the March 1 corn stocks estimate to be released on March 31 is that the seasonal pattern of feed and residual use for the current year will not be known until the year is over,” Good concluded. “Based on the historical fluctuation in that pattern, a stocks estimate within 150 million bushels of 7.8 billion bushels probably should not change expectations that feed and residual use is on track to reach 5.3 billion bushels for the year.  Nevertheless, the corn market will likely react to a stocks estimate that reveals a pace of feed and residual consumption that is much different than that of last year.”


NRES Alumna Develops Certified Master Beekeeper Curriculum

Published March 7, 2016
Beehives in a watermelon field
Many farmers use beehives to pollinate their crops.

NRES alumna, Dr. Moneen Jones, received her PhD from NRES in 2010. Her advisor was Dr. Richard Weinzierl, Professor of Entomology and NRES Departmental Affiliate. Dr. Jones has developed a Certified Master Beekeeper curriculum, and the brochure for the program has been nominated for a literary award. 

Courtesy of the Daily Dunklin Democrat newspaper:

For that person who may have thought about being a bee charmer and making honey, but they really did not know where to begin, the Fisher Delta Research Center (FDRC) in Portageville has the answer. They are teaching a beginners course, Bee Pollinator Advocate, a first four-hour course in the newly developed Certified Master BeeKeeper curriculum developed by Dr. Moneen Jones, University of Missouri research entomologist at the FDRC.

On Sept. 2, 2015, at the Annual Field Day at the FDRC, Jones talked about the importance of bees to the area, as well as the new Certified Master Beekeeper Pilot Program that was being offered by MU. Before the meeting, she designed a brochure about bees and the apiary (bee yard) at the center and distributed them on field day. Since that time, her brochure has been nominated for a literary award and has helped to increase the number of individuals interested, producers, beekeepers, and pesticide applicators by 248 percent. "So far, the program is going in a positive direction," she said. "Nebraska, Florida, and Texas have a Certified Beekeeping Program, and I've seen their beekeeping courses, but this class has two purposes." First, it is designed to offer interested individuals some type of background on beekeeping, so that when they join a beekeeping group, they already know a little about what they are getting into. The second purpose is so that people will be able to determine whether they want continue in it. She added that many certification classes do not offer any hands-on training, but the second part of the certification program will offer that. Read the entire article on the newspaper's website:

News Source:

Laura Ford, staff writer, Daily Dunklin Democrat

NRES Fall 2015 Teachers Ranked as Excellent

Published March 7, 2016
Blue and Gold Column

NRES congratulates the following Teachers Ranked as Excellent for Fall Semester 2015:

The asterisk * indicates that the faculty member or TA was rated Outstanding.

Allan, Kingsley                    NRES 454

Arai, Yuji                             NRES 351

Gracon, Renee                   NRES 594

Green, Eric                         NRES 285, TA

Happel, Austin                   NRES 201, TA

Hunter, Dane                     NRES 201, TA

*Matthews, Jeffrey            NRES 285, 419

McSweeney, Kevin             NRES 471

Molina, Miriam                    NRES 201, TA

Mulvaney, Richard              NRES 201

Stickley, Samuel                 NRES 454

Straker, Kaitlin                   NRES 426, TA

Suski, Cory                         NRES 285, 409

Taft, John                           NRES 415

Ward, Michael                    NRES 348

Yannarell, Anthony            NRES 219

Congratulations on a Semester of Excellence, Teachers!!!!


News Source:

Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, 217-333-3490

Clematis pruning 101

Published March 4, 2016
Clematis integrifolia
Clematis integrifolia

URBANA, Ill. – Some gardeners may make pruning mistakes in their haste to tidy up their gardens in the spring, according to a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“The old adage is ‘you prune when your pruners are sharp’,” says Sandy Mason. “Many plants can be pruned in the spring. But wait, take a deep breath, and step away from the shears. If flowers are the goal, take a moment to determine how the plant grows.”

The primary factor is whether the plant produces flowers on old wood (last year’s stems) or new wood (this season’s new stems). Mason explains, “As a general rule, plants that bloom before June 15 bloom on old wood and plants that bloom after June 15 bloom on new wood.”

For plants that bloom on old wood, it is best to prune right after they flower. For other plants, as a general rule, it is best to wait and do severe pruning in spring just before the plant’s active growth.

“Incorrectly pruned plants usually don’t die from pruning mistakes,” Mason reassures. “Worst case scenario, flowers are delayed until later in the season or until next year.”

Some plants are more foolproof, such as ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangeas and reblooming roses. They bloom on new and old wood; therefore, they should flower no matter when they are pruned. 

Determining when to prune clematis plants can be a little more difficult, due to the many different types of clematis. Confusion also arises in early spring because all the stems appear to be dead.

“If you are new to pruning clematis, wait a couple weeks and prune when the buds start to show green growth, so you can tell the dead from the living,” Mason suggests.

Clematis cultivars are placed in groups according to pruning needs and flowering periods. Designations vary depending on the author. Groups include: A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3, or little pruning, half pruning, or hard pruning. 

Group 1 or A is composed of the early flowering species that bloom from late April to late May and require little pruning. These flower on old wood. In spring, only the dead stems need to be removed.

Group 1 includes Clematis alpina ‘Constance’ and ‘Pamela Jackman’; Clematis macropetala ‘Lagoon’; and Clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’.

Group 2 or B clematis are early, double and, semi-double mid-season cultivars. They bloom in mid- to late May and, if healthy, will bloom again in September through October. These flower on both old and new wood. Prune lightly in spring when buds begin to swell, removing dead and weak stems and reducing size, if needed. The largest flowers will be produced on the old wood, while new growth will provide blooms for the late season. Group 2 can be pruned again immediately after flowering, if needed.

Group 2 includes hybrid cultivars ‘The President’; ‘Vino’; ‘Anne-Louise’; ‘Arctic Queen’; ‘Bees Jubilee’; ‘Crystal Fountain’; and ‘Rosemoor’.

Group 3 or C clematis are the late large-flowered cultivars and other late blooming clematis species. These vigorous vines are easy to prune and require a hard annual prune. They bloom on new wood, so it’s hard to go wrong. Cut to a pair of healthy strong buds at the base of the plant in spring as the buds swell. If unpruned, flowers are produced at the top of an unattractive and leggy plant.

Group 3 includes hybrids ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’, ‘Rouge Cardinal’, ‘Duchess of Albany’; C. tangutica; C. viticella cultivars such as ‘Etoile Violette’, ‘Polish Spirit’, and ‘Madame Julia Correvon’; and some of the non-vining clematis, such as Clematis durandii and Clematis integrifolia. The sweet smelling, late blooming hybrid ‘Sweet Autumn’ is also in this group.

According to Mason, it is worth taking the time to do the homework on clematis to make the most of these attractive plants.

For more information, view the U of I Extension You Tube video entitled “Clematis Pruning Groups” as well as the many Extension gardening websites including “Vines: Climbers & Twiners” at

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Transition to child care easier when parents and providers form partnership

Published March 3, 2016
  • Study shows that a partnership between parent and provider makes transition to child care easier and helps in the child’s development.  
  • Mothers report that it’s an emotional transition for themselves as well as their child.
  • Researchers suggest that providers and programs think of the whole family’s experience to best help children make a smooth transition to non-parental care.

URBANA, Ill. – A new University of Illinois study reveals that the transition from home to child care is an important time for creating a partnership between parent and provider that benefits the child’s development.

In this mixed-methods study, researchers at the U of I report that several factors—including the child’s age, child temperament, and maternal depressive symptoms—may play a role in the ease or difficulty that mothers and their young children experience during the transition into child care. 

“Finding child care outside of the immediate family can be an emotional process,” says Nancy McElwain, an associate professor of human development and family studies. “We wanted to understand, from the perspective of moms, what challenges they and their children face when transitioning to a new care setting. We also wanted to know, again from the mom’s perspective, how providers may help families during these transitions.”

Rebecca Swartz, an early learning specialist with the Early Care and Parenting Collaborative at the U of I, and lead author of the study, says that having a strong connection with the child-care provider that began at the time of the transition or before the child’s first day made a big difference to mothers who participated in the study.

“That warm hello by the provider is really important in setting the tone for the relationship,” Swartz says

Swartz encourages providers to pay special attention to building relationships with families. “If parents bring their child to the center so they can get acquainted before they start care, it eases the transition,” she notes.

The researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with 65 mothers of 18- to 36-month-old children about their own and their child’s ease in transitioning from home to non-parental care. Mothers generally had a more difficult time with the transition than their children did, and mothers whose children had a difficult adjustment reported that they also had a difficult transition.

“For mothers, an easy transition was characterized by their comfort with the provider and the idea of returning to work, and also by the ability to exercise some control over when they returned to work and how many hours they would work,” says Kate Speirs, a U of I postdoctoral research associate and co-author of the study.

“When mothers valued being able to return to work or their child spending time in early care and education, that helped make the transition easier,” Speirs says.

Swartz adds, “Moms who reported some level of depression or having a difficult time coping with other people’s emotions, including their children’s distress, indicated that the transition was difficult for them,” Swartz said.

Just over 20 percent of moms experience some level of postnatal depression in the year following their child’s birth, and depression also affects dads. The researchers suggest that providers and programs think of the whole family’s experience to best help children make a smooth transition to non-parental care. “If a child is having problems or the teacher is having trouble communicating with parents, that family may need extra support from the provider during the transition period,” Swartz notes.

Children’s temperament mattered in a successful transition, as well, with socially fearful kids having a harder time adjusting to the new environment, she adds.

Early child care programs in the United States might also look to effective transition practices and policies in other countries. Swartz, who has visited child-care centers in Italy, said that Italian centers used photos of children and families placed at children’s eye level so children can “connect” with their parent throughout the day.

“When the child is looking at the photo, the teacher can say, ‘oh, maybe you miss them.’ Then the teacher is able to say to the mother, ‘your child missed you too. We were looking at your picture, and we talked about where you were, that you were at work.’ Those photos in the center may be reassuring to parents and give them a feeling of connection to the care setting,” she says.

The authors were inspired by practices in New Zealand, where the ministry of education stresses the idea of the families feeling a sense of belonging at the center. “There they believe that parents and the child-care center staff are partners in supporting children’s development. They use the term te whariki, which means a woven mat. They imagine that the intentions of the parent for the child and the efforts of the center will be woven together to make a strong foundation for the child,” Swartz says.

Managing transitions well means that a child is secure and ready for new experiences, the researchers say.

“We know that from birth to age three is a critical time for children’s development. If they have a secure foundation, they’ll be ready and able to learn when they start school. If a child is continuously stressed and anxious, she won’t grow as much, learn as much, explore as much,” Swartz explains.

“A Mixed Methods Investigation of Maternal Perspectives on Transition Experiences in Early Care and Education” is available online in Early Education and Development. Co-authors of the study are Rebecca Anne Swartz, Katherine Elizabeth Speirs, and Nancy McElwain of the University of Illinois, and Amy Johnson Encinger of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The U of I’s Family Resiliency Center funded the study.

Growing asparagus at home

Published March 3, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Growing asparagus is best reserved for patient people, as the first crop cannot be harvested for at least a year after planting. This frustrates many home gardeners, and is one factor that can make asparagus relatively expensive in grocery stores. Commercial growers must spend time and money to weed and maintain plots before they yield any asparagus, says University of Illinois Extension Educator Jennifer Nelson.

“Expect to harvest asparagus 1,095 days (three years) after planting from seed – not exactly encouraging, but it makes sense if you know how the asparagus plant grows,” Nelson says. “The first year, the plant develops a crown, or growing point, with an extensive root system. The second year, the crown begins to produce a fern-like shoot above ground. It isn’t until the third year that the characteristic asparagus spears emerge from the crown in the spring and early summer.”

Most people choose to plant one- or two-year-old asparagus plants, commonly called roots or crowns, and only have to wait a year or two before their first harvest.

“My husband and I only harvested during the first month that the spears appeared,” Nelson says. “Plus, we only picked some of them in order to let the plants produce abundant above-ground growth. As our asparagus bed has matured, we can harvest for roughly six to eight weeks each spring. Nothing from the store matches the taste of home grown asparagus!”

When growing asparagus at home, look for male hybrids such as Jersey Knight, Jersey King, and Jersey Giant. These were developed in New Jersey, the fourth largest producer of fresh asparagus in the United States. Not only do these male hybrids yield more, they show resistance to rust and fusarium, common fungal diseases in asparagus. 

Asparagus grows best in well-drained, even sandy soil. Weed control is crucial to developing a good crop. Many myths circulate about applying table salt to asparagus plantings to control weeds. Although it is true that asparagus will tolerate higher salt levels in soil than most weeds, this is a poor weed management strategy. The excess salts inhibit water penetration into the soil, potentially stressing the asparagus plants. It is also very likely that excess salts will leach out of the asparagus bed and affect other plants.

Weeds can be controlled in an asparagus bed using a multi-faceted approach. Early in the season before asparagus shoots emerge, cultivate shallowly to eliminate weeds. Follow up with three to four inches of mulch. If desired, apply pre-emergent herbicides such as trifluralin (the active ingredient in Preen) or corn gluten meal (an organic alternative) at this time, as well. Pay special attention to avoid applying pre-emergent herbicides in garden areas where seeds will be planted, as these herbicides will prevent any seeds from germinating, not just weed seeds.

It is also possible to apply non-selective herbicides such as glyphosate to an asparagus bed before the shoots emerge, or after the last harvest, as long as all asparagus spears are removed, as glyphosate will potentially kill the asparagus if it makes contact with green portions of the plant. This method is particularly effective when perennial weeds are a problem. As with any type of herbicide use, Nelson cautions users to read and follow the label directions.

When choosing the placement of a new asparagus bed, Nelson suggests planting asparagus at the edge of the garden so the plants are not disturbed when tilling the garden in the spring. “A western exposure is the best place for asparagus. That way, the tall ferns that develop from the spears do not shade the rest of the vegetable plants during most of the day,” she says.  

It is best to leave the fern-like growth intact until it turns brown in the fall. Like spring bulbs, the foliage of asparagus helps generate energy for the following year. Asparagus beetles are a common insect pest on the foliage, but they can be controlled per label directions with an insecticide specifically labeled for these beetles.

Plants should be fertilized each spring before shoots emerge with 20 to 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet of a balanced fertilizer, followed by another treatment after the last harvest.

Leaving some shoots in the ground will maintain quality over time. Nelson recommends that home growers leave a portion to develop ferns, which will fuel the next year’s harvest. A well-maintained bed will keep producing each year for 20 years or more.

Asparagus can be harvested either by cutting or snapping the shoots near the base. Cut shoots will need to be trimmed before cooking to remove the tough fibrous ends. Trimming is not necessary if shoots are harvested by the snapping method, since they will have broken where the tougher stem material began. To do this, grasp each spear and gently bend it until it naturally breaks.

Nelson is regularly asked where white asparagus comes from. She explains, “White asparagus is regular green asparagus that has had soil loosely mounded over the top as the spears emerge. The spears remain milky white without exposure to sunlight. It’s a lot more labor intensive than regular asparagus, so it’s more expensive in the store.”

For more information on growing asparagus at home, visit University of Illinois Extension’s “Watch Your Garden Grow” website at

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension