Jan 2011


Start the new year with insights on resolutions from a gardener, information about radon in your home, seed catalogs, and 10 tantalizing soups for cold winter days.

Now is a great time to think about how to make gardening easier during 2011, says Connie Lowndes, UNL Extension. 


Becky Versch, UNL Extension Educator has information on the importance of testing your home for radon. 


Sarah Browning, UNL Extension, gives ideas on how to get the most out of those welcome seed catalogs.


Nancy Urbanec has 10 soups for comfort food during the cold winter.


Deicing Chemicals
By Bobbi Holm, UNL Extension Educator

It's winter, it's Nebraska, it's freezing. What's new? In the battle with snow and ice, some of the weapons are chemical deicers. Chemical deicers work by lowering the freezing point of water. In other words, they melt ice and snow at temperatures below 32° F. That makes it easier to remove any icy buildup. Chemical deicers include sodium chloride (rock salt), calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, and calcium magnesium acetate. The drawbacks are that they can be harmful to plants and damaging to metal and concrete surfaces. And they can affect water quality because these salts dissolve when doing their job and can end up in stormwater runoff.

Image of melting snow

 Rock salt is generally the most common and least expensive deicer. The real advantage of the other chemical deicers is that they increase the efficiency of rock salt and so reduce the amount that needs to be applied. Common deicers are often a mixture of chloride salts and the label should tell you the contents, working temperature, and cautions for use around plants or surfaces. Because all deicers can be harmful to the environment when applied in excess, use the smallest amount needed to do the job.

  • Try to clear driveways and sidewalks of snow before it turns to ice. Salt and deicers are not effective when more than 3 inches have accumulated.
  • Check the temperature and read the label. Some deicers are not effective at very low temperatures.
  • When snow or ice is forecast, you can apply deicers before the storm begins. If the storm doesn't happen, sweep up unused material and reuse for the next big storm.
  • Focus on high-use areas and places where traction is critical.
  • Use sand for traction and to reduce the amount of salt used.
  • Store deicers in a dry, covered area to avoid polluting stormwater runoff.


Some "Not So Common" Fruit Crops for 2011
By Vaughn Hammond, UNL Extension Educator

January is a difficult month to think about gardening. It is generally one of the coldest months of the year and it's really pretty hard to turn one's thoughts toward planting fruits and vegetables in the garden 4 to 5 months in the future. A great way to get through the drudgery of January is to dream and plan about planting something you've never tried before, and do all the homework needed to make to help make it a success.

There are several "not so common" fruits that are well adapted to grow and produce a crop here in the Midwest. Some of these were more commonly grown in the past while others have rarely if ever been grown in the Midwest. Two types of bush fruits that were more commonly grown in the past are Nanking Cherry and Western Sand Cherry. Sand Cherry is actually a native to parts of the Midwest. Another type of bush fruit that is a newer introduction to production is the Honeyberry.

The Nanking Cherry, Prunus tomentosa, is also known as the Korean cherry, Mountain cherry, Chinese Bush cherry, and Hansen's Bush Cherry. It is native to parts of China, Korea and Mongolia and was introduced to the United States in 1892. Hardy to Zone 2, it thrives in a variety of soil types and is very drought tolerant. It is a deciduous shrub that can grow to 6-8 ft but more commonly only reaches a height of 4 ft. The plant can be allowed to form it's natural bush shape or trained into a small tree. The shrub is very beautiful in the spring when it bears an abundance of white to pink flowers prior to leaf set. The flowers are self- fertile meaning they do not need to have a separate pollinator for fruit set to occur. The fruit is very edible and reminiscent of 'Montmorency' tart cherries in size and taste. The fruit can be used in juice, jams, jellies,wine, pies and pastries.

Western Sand Cherry, Prunus besseyi, is a native Midwestern plant and was part of the early settler's daily lives. Also known as American cherry or Beach plum, the Sand Cherry is hardy to Zone 3 and well adapted to sandy soils, which results in it's common name.  When planted in fertile, well drained soil the plant will respond by producing an abundance of vegetative growth. The shrub is a relatively small plant growing to 4-5 ft at maturity.  It's very drought tolerant and prefers less frequent, deep watering rather than a more regular watering schedule. The plant is relatively short lived, rarely reaching 20 years of age.
Image of western sand cherry

Western Sand Cherry
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/ Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota Tree Handbook. USDA NRCS ND State SoiUSDAl Conservation Committee; NDSU Extenison and Western Area Power Administration, Bismarck.


In the late spring the branches are covered with pure white ½ inch flowers. These flowers are insect pollinated and produce a reddish, purplish-black,  to black cherry like fruit approximately a ¼ of an inch in diameter. The fruit itself contains a rather large single seed or stone. These seeds are dispersed by birds and animals and readily sprout where planted. The fruit is highly prized for making jellies and syrups as well as for fresh consumption.

Honeyberry, Lonicera caerulea, is an edible form of honeysuckle, also known as Sweetberry Honeysuckle. It is a very hardy shrub capable of surviving the conditions of hardiness Zone 2. Depending on the variety it will grow 5-6 feet tall with a moderate rate of growth and survive up to 20 years. It requires full sun to partial shade conditions with average moisture, but will not tolerate long term wet conditions. It is also very tolerant of a wide range of soil types and will flourish in a pH range of 6-8.

Image of Lonicera 'Blue Belle' Closeup image of Lonicera 'Blue Belle'
Image of Lonicera caerula 'Blue Belle' from the University of Saskatchewan

Flowering takes place in early to mid spring. The flowers themselves are small, approximately 2 cm long and cream to light yellow in color. The fruit ripens in July - August and is elongated to round depending on the variety and bluish like a blueberry. The taste has been described as a combination of blueberry and raspberry. Each berry can contain up to 20 small seeds.The fruit can be used as a substitute for blueberries in any recipe. The fruit can also be made into jams, jellies, juices and syrups and added to many baked goods.

Any or all three of these "not so common" fruits would be a good choice if you are looking for something new to try in 2011.


Tree Squirrels and Rabbits are Active in Winter
By Barb Ogg, UNL Extension Educator

Many animals seem to disappear in the wintertime. Some animals, like opossums, skunks, ground hogs and bats hibernate or go dormant so they can survive when there is no food for them to eat. When animals hibernate, their heart rate slows, body temperature drops and breathing slows down. Hibernating animals don't need to feed. Instead, they live off stored fat they gained during the late summer and fall. Two common animals active during the winter are tree squirrels and cottontail rabbits. These animals don't hibernate, but use other behaviors to survive winter.

Image of adult fox squirrel in the snow

David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org
Tree Squirrels
Even though ground squirrels hibernate, tree squirrels don't. During the winter, they are active between dawn and mid-day, but limit activities by staying in their fur-lined nest, called a drey, until the next day. During winter storms, or severe cold, the squirrel may stay in its nest for days. An adult squirrel normally lives alone, but will share its nest with other squirrels to conserve body heat. Once the temperature rises, the guests will be on their way. During the summer and fall, squirrels provision their territory by burying nuts and seeds in the ground, often in the lawn and in flower beds. But first, the squirrel rubs the nut on its face. This seemingly nonsensical ritual applies a scent to the nut which helps the squirrel find it later-even under a foot of snow.

In the winter, the average adult squirrel needs to eat about a pound of food a week to maintain an active life. By early spring they have eaten their stockpile of food and often damage landscape plants before there is other food for them to eat. Clipping and feeding on tree buds is a common behavior. Sometimes damage is even more severe. In the spring of 2007, we had many reports of squirrels stripping the bark off maple trees. We've even had reports of squirrels chewing the coating on automobile electrical wires; some of the newer wiring has coating made from soybean meal.

In the late winter, squirrels become more active because this is when the mating season begins. The males will chase females, as well as chase off other suitors. This ritual of chasing, occurs through the trees at top speed while they perform some of the most breathtaking acrobatics imaginable. In the early spring, the female gives birth to her babies-four or five is an average-sized litter. The male squirrel plays no part in the rearing process.

Squirrels have truly learned to co-exist with humans and survive well in urban settings. They find natural food, but also take advantage of human handouts. They are active at bird and squirrel feeders. In the summer, they may help themselves to your garden produce. When hungry, they may chew their way into plastic garbage cans for scraps of food.

Cottontail Rabbits
The range of the Eastern cottontail rabbit includes the entire United States east of the Rocky Mountains; it's found in both urban and rural areas in Nebraska. Cottontails in rural areas spend their entire lives on just a few acres, while cottontails in urban areas may not venture far from a single backyard.

Cottontails are vulnerable in the wintertime. To withstand cold temperatures and predation, they find shelter under brush piles, dense shrubs or buildings. They cannot dig, but will hide in cavities dug by other animals. Cottontails are more vulnerable to predators when there is snow on the ground because the grey-brown cottontail does not turn white, like their cousin, the snowshoe hare.

Rabbits have unique digestive systems allowing them to get nourishment when only low nutrient foods are available during winter. Rabbits have a unique, somewhat disgusting, behavior, known as "coprophagy," in which they eat their own feces to gain nutrients that weren't absorbed the first time through.

Unlike squirrels, cottontail rabbits do not hide food for the winter. When the ground is covered with snow for long periods, rabbits often severely damage home landscape plants, orchards, forest plantations and park trees and shrubs. Young plants may be clipped off at snow height, but large trees and shrubs may be completely girdled. If they survive the winter, they eat flowers and vegetables in spring and summer. The most commonly eaten plants are: tulips, pansies, impatiens, hybrid lilies, hostas and asters. A rabbit's tastes in food can vary considerably, but they do like to eat plants in the rose family. This very large family includes berries (strawberries and raspberries), pome fruits (apples and pears) and stone fruits (plums and peaches). A few ornamentals in this family include potentilla, spirea, crabapple, serviceberry and hawthorne. Many reports of rabbit damage to burning bush, Euonymous alatus, where recieved in spring 2010. 

Cottontails begin mating as early as February and continue throughout the summer. They are very prolific. The average production is three or four litters a year, with four or five young per litter. In urban settings, dogs and cats are their primary predators.

Exclusion is the most effective method of preventing rabbit damage to trees and shrubs. For more information on exclusion techniques, read Managing Rabbit Damage, NebGuide G-2019.


Putting Your Christmas Tree to Good Use
By John Fech, UNL Extension Educator

It is always a melancholy time when the excitement of the holidays is over and the tree is taken down. Most of us hate to just throw out the tree that has provided so much enjoyment. There are several ways the old trees can be used by gardeners, mentions David Robson, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, Springfield Center.

One thing you should not do with the old tree is to burn it in the fireplace. A dry tree will burn with intense heat and may buckle a steel fireplace, crack the flue in a brick chimney, or could start a chimney fire. If anything, use the small twigs for kindling. If you want to use it for firewood, season it a year outdoors first.

Decorate a Tree for the Birds
An old tradition dating to the Middle Ages is to move the tree outside and set it up for the animals, decorated with various kinds of foods. Birds will appreciate suet cakes with seeds, strings of popcorn or cranberries and fresh pine cones with seeds still inside. Squirrels will appreciate strings of peanuts or apple slices.

During inclement weather, the tree can provide protection to animals who will roost in it or huddle under it as long as the storm persists. Birds such as cardinals and jays, which stay here all year, are much more likely to take up permanent residence in your yard if invited there for the winter. If you are already providing for the animals, there are other ways the old tree can be put to good use.

Mulch It
In the Midwest, where there is always the danger of alternate freezing and thawing, perennials should be covered, not to keep them warm but to keep them cold. For this reason, you always need to wait to mulch the garden until after the ground has frozen. The ideal mulch is light enough to permit air to penetrate but substantial enough to shade the soil and keep it from thawing every time the sun shines on it.

A good mulch to use for this purpose, easily available after Christmas, is the left over Christmas tree. Branches from your tree can be cut up and laid over your perennial bed. Two layers of bough, crisscrossed, should suffice. They admit air to the ground, but keep out the sun.

If you have extensive perennial beds or strawberries, you might run out of branches from your own tree, but you can be sure there will be a ready supply as neighbors, up and down the street, discard their trees. Also, after removing the branches, save the trunks. They make good beanpoles or tomato stakes.

In the spring, remove the boughs in two stages, three or four days apart, just as the first new sprouts appear. This permits the tender new growth to become gradually acclimated to the still chilly spring air.

Image of Winter ContainerDress Up Your Containers
Finally, if you have all-weather containers, stick some branches in the pots, add a few interesting branches such as red or yellow-twig dogwood or burning bush, some berries and other decorations. Containers do not have to be emptied of soil, though the pots stand a better chance of not breaking if there is no soil in them.


January To Do's for the Acreage
By John Fech, UNL Extension Educator

Provide Supplementary Light for Houseplants
In winter, low light levels in homes cause plants to suffer. Supplementary lighting is usually the easiest and least expensive way to provide enough light for plants that don't receive enough natural light. Incandescent lights produce light, but also heat, which can cause damage. If they are used, be sure to place them several feet away from plant leaves.

Instead, use a combination of cool white fluorescent tubes along with warm white or "plant growing" tubes. Usually, a mix of two cool whites and a warm or plant growing tube will work just fine. Experiment with the distance between the light source and the plants. Start with 10 inches, and give it two weeks. If the plants look yellow and stretchy, place the lights closer. If the plant leaves look burned or scorched, pull them back a few inches.

Consider Your Evergreens...
Indoor evergreens such as door swags, wreaths and Christmas trees should be recycled into the landscape as additions to the compost pile or coverings for strawberries and perennials.

Outdoor evergreens need some attention, too. If the outdoor temperatures rise above 38 degrees F, water newly planted evergreens a bit to keep the root system moist....especially if your acreage has not received much snow thus far. Dry roots will cause the plants to fail in the spring.

Anti-dessicants such as Wilt-Pruf and Forever Green should be applied periodically in winter, when temperatures are above freezing. A schedule of applying a product at Thanksgiving (too late now, but keep in mind for next year), Christmas and Valentines Day usually provides good results. These applications will keep the drying winter winds from causing foliage burn.

Growing On Holiday Plants
Keep holiday plants displayed in optimal conditions for each species; poinsettia - medium to bright light and warm temps, Christmas cactus - moderate light and moderate temps, cyclamen - moderate light and cool temps, and amaryllis - medium light and temps.


Cluster Flies and Face Flies- A Winter Nuisance
By Barb Ogg, UNL Extension Educator

Cluster flies and face flies overwinter as adults. In the late summer, these flies begin to crawl into small cracks and crevices of structures. These small openings are often found around window frames, door frames, and under siding or eaves. The flies hibernate in the walls or attics to survive until springtime. These sluggish flies appear during warm periods in the winter or when sun heats up exterior walls where the flies are hibernating.

Once these flies crawl into cracks and crevices, they cannot be prevented from entering the structure. Sealing cracks and crevices is the best and most permanent solution to this insect problem. This effort will also help keep out Asian lady bird beetles and boxelder bugs. These flies buzz around windows because they are attracted to outdoor light. They can become a problem in virtually any structure, but older homes that have ill-fitting windows and siding are especially at risk.

Catch these flies with fly tape or other fly traps in front of uncurtained windows. In attics or other unoccupied portions of the house, a fogger may be helpful in killing exposed flies.

Cluster Flies
These flies are larger than a house fly and recognizable because they are very slow moving and sluggish. They are dark gray and have irregular lighter patches on the abdomen. The wings overlap at the tips when sitting on a surface.

Cluster flies are earthworm parasites. Throughout the spring and summer, they lay eggs singly in cracks in the soil. After an egg hatches, the emerging maggot penetrates the body of an earthworm. There are several generations of cluster flies each summer.

Face Flies
The face fly is nearly identical to the house fly. Homes with face fly infestations in the winter are often in rural areas near livestock pastures, because this fly breeds in animal manure.

For more information on common flies, including pictures and control techniques, visit "Flies in the Home"


Goats in WinterBody Condition Scoring Useful Tool for Livestock Owners
By Sara Ellicott, UNL Extension Educator

Body condition scoring is an important and useful tool for most livestock species. Body condition scoring is a way for a livestock owner to determine if the animal is getting an adequate amount of nutrition during various times of the year and stages of production.

Observation of livestock daily is key to being a good manager; if observation is made routine, then changes in body weight and condition will alert a manager that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Many times, this is due to diet. The body weight and condition are so important is that if livestock are not in the appropriate condition score at certain stages of production, then it is often difficult for them to make it to the next stage successfully. For example, if they are not at the appropriate score going into breeding season, then it may be difficult for an animal to breed successfully.

There are excellent body condition scoring resources (with pictures) on eXtension. They can be accessed at the links below:

There are other resources as well, so take a look and try to incorporate them into your management. Be sure to take time each day to observe your livestock, and determine the appropriate times of year to take body condition scores to help you gauge if they are being managed appropriately.