Jan 2014

Life Outside the City Limits

Image of snowy path

Preventing Septic Systems from Freezing
By Jan Hygnstrom, UNL Extension Project Manager, and Sharon Skipton, UNL Extension Water Quality Educator

Image of ice dam on slate roofCold weather is here. Do you need to do anything special to keep your septic system from freezing this winter?

When thinking about septic systems, a heavy snowfall that stays all winter is a good thing, because it insulates the system from the cold. In addition, household wastewater tends to be warm to hot which keeps the system from freezing. Under "normal" winter conditions, septic system freezing is not a problem. However, bitterly cold temperatures for a week or more with little snow cover can lead to a frozen system. There are a few things you can do to reduce the chances of a frozen septic system.

Use water, the warmer the better. Do at least one warm/hot-water activity per day, such as a load of laundry, using your dishwasher, or taking a hot bath. Even better, do at least one warm/hot-water activity in the morning and another 12 hours later in the evening. Never leave water running all the time, as this will overload the system with too much water. Keep all types of vehicles and high traffic activities off the drainfield to avoid pushing frost down toward system components. This is a good idea year-round, to reduce compaction of soils in the drainfield, but is especially important in winter to prevent freezing.

If it is a seasonal home or you plan to be gone for a length of time during bitterly cold temperatures, you can take steps to hold heat in the system so it doesn't freeze. New tanks serving seasonal homes can be insulated. If your tank is not insulated another solution might be to have a Nebraska certified installer install a tank heater. If neither of these are viable options, a simple solution might be to ask a neighbor or friend to use the system by running the washing machine or dishwasher while you are away.

While it is too late to implement the following option now, it might be a good practice to use in future years. You can place an 8 to 12 inch layer of mulch over the entire system to provide extra insulation. This mulch could be straw, leaves, hay, or any other loose material that will stay in place and will not compact. However, the mulching should be done when the soil is still warm in the fall, not after the soil temperature has dropped.




Happy New Year! To start the new year, we have videos about upcoming Extension gardening webinars, fruit tree selection, and tree hazards.

Nicole Stoner, UNL Extension, invites you to the Gardening at Lunch webinars the first Tuesday of the month. 


Trying to decide what fruit trees fit your needs and appetite? Vaughn Hammond, UNL Extension, has some ideas.


With leaves off, now is a good time to look at your trees for hazards and weakness. The information was written by John Fech and narrated by Jan Hygnstrom, both with UNL Extension.  

Gray Season Finery

The following information is excerpted from a 2005 Chicago Tribune article by Beth Botts.

Shrubs bring brilliance to the garden, especially in the barren months of winter

Winter in Chicago is the season of gray and brown and sometimes white. Many simply give up on the garden, surrendering it to the jarring sights of plastic rose cones, stacked resin chairs and burlap-wrapped arborvitaes. Ignored, it becomes invisible.

It doesn't need to be. Annuals may have gone to the compost pile and perennials been cut to short stalks. But much can remain: the graceful shapes of well-chosen statuary under snow, the strong lines of well-planned paths and walls, the forms and details and sometimes brave green of shrubs.

Shrubs are necessary in the winter because they keep the shape of the garden, recalling where summer plantings flow. Tall trees slash black marks against the sky. But shrubs are on a human scale, holding close the details, often subtle, that tell of past or coming bloom or leaf, closing the circle of the year.

When it comes to choosing shrubs for the winter landscape, says Sara Furlan, landscape architect with Mariani Landscape Inc. in Lake Bluff, the key point is to select those that are right for your conditions: hardy enough to make it through the winter without the hard work and unsightliness of severe pruning, hilling or wrapping, and planted in the right amount of sun so they are not thin or scraggly or slanted. If you have a lust for plants you don't have the conditions for, "enjoy them in someone else's garden," she says. "We have to accept what our garden has."

There are sturdy shrubs that offer everything from berries to bark to late-winter blooms. Consider these possibilities:

  • Image of crabapple berriesBerries: The fruit of the past season can be a joy long into winter. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a hardy native deciduous holly that holds its bright red berries for months, until the birds have had them all. Many crab apples, such as Malus `Sugar Tyme,' hold onto their red fruit, says Doris Taylor, plant information specialist with The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Bright hips are an attraction of many roses, especially the newer hardy shrub roses and old species roses such as Rosa rugosa and Rosa glauca. If you plant hardy roses, Furlan says, there's no need to prune the fruit off in fall to fit the plants into winter protection; it's better to prune in March or April and remove only the dead wood.
  • Leaves: Some viburnums and other shrubs hold their rustling leaves after other leaves fall. Peter Bristol, curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, especially likes a relatively rare Asian spicebush, Lindera glauca salicifolia that keeps its pale brown foliage all winter.
  • Buds: Look close, and you can see spring beckoning. "I like magnolias because they have fuzzy buds in the wintertime," says Bristol. Pussy willows (Salix discolor) are better-known, but need wet sites.
  • Image of viburnum leavesBark: Textured bark captures more attention when leaves are gone. River birch (Betula nigra), with its coppery peeling bark, actually is a small tree. But Bristol also suggests oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), both hardy natives, and `Winter King' hawthorn (Crataegus viridis `Winter King'), which also has red berries. Or look to bark color: Osier dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera) can be red or yellow and Kerria japonica is an apple green. They make their best show planted in masses against a dark background, Taylor says.
  • Blooms: The dried pale-brown blooms of the hardy Hydrangea arborescens `Annabelle' or of oakleaf hydrangea stay on the plant well into winter, Furlan says. "They're very bold in the landscape," Bristol adds. In February and March, vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) can startle with fuzzy yellow blooms along its branches.
  • Green: Evergreens, whether needled or broadleaf, are the stalwarts of the winter garden. Their enduring color is our clearest reminder that life goes on. It is easy to take them for granted, yet they are vulnerable to drying out and really need help -- in the form of steady watering in fall and during winter warm spells -- so they can store water in their roots and foliage. Boxwoods brighten many gardens, Bristol says, and there are several hardy cultivars, such as Chicagoland Green (Buxus `Glencoe') and Northern Charm (Buxus `Wilson'). Azaleas and rhododenrons, which are evergreen farther south, work here only in sheltered sites, Furlan says. Among the needled evergreens, she recommends junipers, prickly though they may be, for sites by sidewalks or driveways, because they are relatively tolerant of drying road salt. Yew tolerates shade and has red berries but is succulent to deer. There are dwarf cultivars of many evergreens with rounded, weeping or contorted shapes.
  • Image of wintercreeperWhite: Shape is what it takes to capture the whiteness of snow and make the garden seem to bloom with it. Fluffed along the branch of a thorny hawthorn or trailing down the lines of a pendulous pine, it is the greatest treat of the winter garden. The job of shrubs is to give it something interesting to cling to.

Watch your garden this winter and think about where you could use the structure or color of a shrub, to enjoy from inside the house or out. Then turn to these sources for help:



Winter Watering of Trees and Shrubs
By Nicole Stoner, UNL Extension Horticulture Educator

Image of sunscald injuryJanuary and February are often the snowiest for Nebraska, but just as often Nebraska experiences winter dry conditions with little snow.  Trees and shrubs also experience winter "drought" when the ground is frozen and roots cannot pull up water.   

Winter Watering
Most people believe that once winter weather begins, plants no longer need watering. And if we consistently have snow cover on the ground throughout winter, there is no need to worry about watering our plants.

However, if we don't receive much natural precipitation or snow, and the weather is warm enough to thaw the ground during the day then supplement water is beneficial.

Some plants that are most affected by winter desiccation include the following.

  • Evergreens like arborvitae, yew and white pine.
  • Broadleaf evergreens, including boxwood, holly and mahonia.
  • Deciduous trees with thin bark, such as young maple trees, lindens, dogwoods, willows, and paper birches.

It is most important to water newly planted trees and shrubs throughout the winter, versus watering all of your older, more established plants. However, if it is a very dry winter, all of your trees and shrubs would benefit from a watering at least once a month throughout the late fall and winter months.

There are a few factors you need to keep in mind when watering in the winter months.

  • Water only when the temperatures reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above, and the ground is not frozen.
  • Water during the middle of the day to allow it to soak into the soil prior to freezing at night.
  • Make sure to water only with a hose, watering can, or bucket.  Do not use your irrigation system or you will have to drain the pipes again to prevent them from being damaged due to freezing water.

Prevent Sunscald
If you didn't this fall, there is still time to wrap the trunk of young, thin barked trees to prevent sunscald. Sunscald is a problem that occurs when tree bark on the south and west sides of thin-barked trees are warmed by winter sun. The bark can be warmed by direct sunlight shining on the tree, or reflected light from snow.  The bark cells warm up and become active, losing their winter hardiness.  At night, when temperatures drops, the active cells are killed. Sunscald causes a dead section of bark to develop on the trunk of the tree the following summer.

Fortunately, wrapping the trunk of thin barked, young trees can help prevent this problem, by keeping the bark cooler, and shaded on warm, sunny winter days.  It's particularly important for trees planted or transplanted in fall.

More information:

Abiotic Problems of Trees, Nebraska Forest Service
Fall and Winter Watering, Colorado State University
Winter Dessication Injury, UNL Extension
Winter Injury of Ornamentals, Purdue University




Extending the Vegetable Growing Season
By Kelly Feehan, UNL Extension Horticulture Educator

Image of homemade hot capsSeason extenders are methods used by vegetable gardeners to extend a crop's growing season. If you have ever wished you could plant earlier in the spring or hold off a killing frost until later in the fall, read on.

Home gardeners might use season extenders for fun, to have bragging rights for the first ripe red tomato. For commercial growers, season extenders are economically beneficial. A higher price can be charged for the first sweet corn or ripe tomato available at farmer markets. Used correctly, these methods can increase yields and quality.

Following are brief descriptions of season extenders. If you would like to plant up to four or more weeks earlier than Mother Nature allows, or extend the harvest season up to four weeks later in fall, spend time this winter researching these methods before using them in the garden.

Season extenders include the use of plastic mulch, row covers, or structures such as low or high tunnels, cold frames and hot caps. They speed soil warming and basically protect plants from cold temperatures.

Plastic Mulch
As a season extender, clear or black plastic is laid across the soil of a planting bed to warm the soil for earlier planting. To work, the plastic must be in contact with moist soil and all edges of the plastic anchored so it forms a tight blanket over the soil. After the soil is warmed, holes are then punched into the plastic to plant.

Plastic used this way does not protect plants from frost. For frost protection, floating row covers, low tunnels or hot caps need to be used along with plastic or alone. When used alone, these methods need to be put in place earlier than planting to allow for soil warming first.

Row Covers
Floating row covers are lightweight fabrics placed over plants. Row covers are permeable, allowing sunlight, water and air to penetrate. They are loosely draped over plants with the edges anchored; but can be supported on frames to protect plants from abrasion by the fabric.

Light and medium weight row covers are typically used as insect barriers and provide minimal frost protection. Heavy row covers, those that are one ounce or more per square yard, are primarily used for frost protection providing two to eight degrees of protection, depending on the weight of the fabric.

Low Tunnels
Low tunnels are hoop supported clear or white polyethylene plastic. A low tunnel is usually 14 to 18 inches wide and as long as the planting bed. Two types are slitted or punched row covers to allow for ventilation. Low tunnels may withstand wind and snow loads better than high tunnels.

Unlike floating row covers, these are not permeable to air or water and are more labor intensive. They must be managed so as not to overheat plants on bright, sunny days; and are used mainly with warm season crops like tomatoes, green peppers and melons.

Hot Caps
Hot caps include plastic milk jugs, waxed paper hot caps and water filled plastic tubes placed individually over or around plants. They are limited in frost protection and can have negative effects on plant growth due to lack of light and heat build-up inside the hot cap. They are best used to protect young transplants from frost, rather than as long season extenders.

Cold Frame
Cold frames are rectangular shaped frames with glass or plastic lids used for early spring and late fall planting. Many are made by building a wooden box and covering it with a storm window. They can be made by stacking a perimeter of bricks or bales of straw and covering with a window sash. Cold frames are typically used with cool season crops like lettuce, onions and radish.



Starting Onions from Seed
By Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Horticulture Educator

Planting onions from small bulbs or "sets" is not the best way to grow large onions for storage. Plants grown from sets often begin blooming in mid-summer and stubbornly refuse to stop. Once that happens, onion bulbs don't increase much in size. ??

Image of drip irrigation on onionsOnion Sets
This happens because onions are biennials. They grow foliage and a bulb the first season, then bloom and set seed in their second growing season. Growing the sets counts as one growing season, although it was definitely a short one, and the plants are primed to reproduce by setting flowers after you plant them in the garden. This makes onion sets a great way to grow green onions, but not the best way to grow onions for long term storage.

Because of onions biennial nature, plants grown from seed or transplants don't bloom and can develop larger bulbs. Many mail-order companies and garden centers now carry onion transplants in spring, but you can also grow your own.

Growing Onion Transplants
Onion transplants can be grown in approximately 10-12 weeks. Sow seeds in late February or early March for planting outdoors in early May. Plant seeds ¾ inches deep in a seed-starting soil blend and keep them evenly moist. Once they sprout, provide the seedlings with bright light from a sunny, south-facing window, or better yet, provide supplemental light with fluorescent fixtures placed a few inches above them for 12-14 hours each day.

Transplant the little, grass-like seedlings outdoors as soon as garden soil is dry enough to work thoroughly and daytime temperatures reach 50° F. Onion transplants will tolerate light frosts. Place them 4 inches apart in wide row plantings. When using "wide" rows plants are not placed single file on one long row, but spaced through a row ranging from 6 to 36 inches across. Use a row width that is convenient for you to reach fro both sides, to make harvesting and weed control easier.

Direct Seeding
Onions can also be direct seeded. This is a good option if you can't find your favorite cultivar as a transplant. Plant seeds as soon as the soil can be worked, usually from mid to late March. Wide row spacing also works well when planting onion seeds. Plant the seeds 1/4 - 1/2 inch deep in the soil. Space rows 12-18 inches apart. Once the plants have 5-10 leaves, they can be thinned so the remaining plants are spaced 3-4 inches apart, and the harvested plants used as green onions.

Growing On
Onions grow best in well-drained soil, 6.5 pH, with a high level of organic matter. Raised beds, 4-6 inches high, work well to provide good soil drainage if the native soil is heavy. They also need plenty of sunlight, and regular watering. The installation of drip irrigation the length of the rows makes watering easier and more uniform.

Don't be concerned if a large portion of the bulb develops above ground.

More Information

Onion, University of Illinois Extension
Onions and Garlic in the Home Garden, University of Nebraska- Lincoln Extension



Make Disaster Preparedness a Priority for the New Year
By Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Livestock Educator

Image of moonset on acreageHow many acreage owners spend time developing a disaster plan for their families, home, property or livestock? Nebraska, along with neighboring states suffered catastrophic events in 2013; flooding, fires, blizzards, and drought. A disaster plan may not have saved acres of corn, pasture, or livestock, but it may help people move forward, and be ready if there is a next time.

Create an Emergency Contact List
A disaster plan may help protect property, facilities, animals, and people. A good starting point in developing a plan is creating an emergency contact list. Some emergency numbers that you may want to include would be: employees, neighbors, veterinarians - both local and state, extension service, trucking company, brand inspector, highway patrol, and a contact person outside of the disaster area. It seems that we all know these numbers off of the top of our heads, but those stored in a cell phone may not be accessible; and in a high stress event, you may not be able to recall these numbers from memory. Also, think through where your livestock will go if they need to leave your premise; possible locations may include the local salebarn, the vet, or the neighbor's place.

Livestock Readiness Checklist
A livestock emergency readiness checklist may be a useful tool to develop. Some things to consider may be a backup source of power, sufficient fuel supplies - for a generator, equipment, and vehicles, fire extinguishers, livestock water and feed (enough for two to three days), on-farm veterinary aid, and access to livestock records and/or insurance policies - if needed. Often times, disasters are not covered by insurance companies, unless specifically listed in the policy. This may be a good time to review your policy.

Acreage Map
A map of your acreage may be of benefit to first responders and neighbors. This can be a basic outline of facilities with shop or barn names. Additionally, you may want to include bodies of running water (creeks, streams, rivers, etc.), fence lines, and power lines. If you need to dispatch help and those responding do not know where the birthing barn is, it will slow response times. On the map you should also include the storage locations of herbicides, pesticides, or fuel. The location of these may dictate how an emergency is responded to and with what equipment.

Share the Plan
Once your disaster preparedness plan is in place, communication is key! It should be shared with your family, employees, and others you think may be involved if a crisis strikes. While many of these things seem simple, they can be things that are overlooked in times of high stress. Additionally, having these materials in a location where others will know where to find them enables them to carry out your wishes if you are unable to be present. You should review this plan annually to ensure the information is current and relevant.

Some information that may be helpful in developing a disaster plan can be found at these links or by contacting the Nebraska EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network) representative.



Winter Survival Kit App
North Dakota State University Extension

Winter Survival Kit AppThe Winter Survival Kit smartphone app can be as critical as a physical winter survival kit if you find yourself stuck or stranded in severe winter weather conditions.

Winter Survival Kit will help you find your current location, call 911, notify your friends and family, calculate how long you can run your engine to keep warm and stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The app's "gas calculator" will help you estimate how long you can run your engine on your remaining fuel.  Winter Survival Kit will alert you every 30 minutes to remind you to periodically turn off your engine and to check your exhaust pipe for snow buildup. These alerts are critical in helping you avoid deadly carbon monoxide poisoning.

You can use the Winter Survival Kit app to store important phone and policy numbers for insurance or roadside assistance. You also can designate emergency contacts you want to alert when you become stranded.

Winter Survival Kit also provides NDSU Extension Service information on how to put together a physical winter survival kit and prepare your vehicle for winter driving, and how to stay safe when stranded in a winter storm.

The app is available for free on Google Play (download now) and the iTunes App Store (download now).

The app was developed by NDSU Extension Service and Myriad Devices,and funded with USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Smith-Lever Special Needs grants.

Download Winter Survival Kit:
Android or iOS (iPhone)



Plan Now to Attend the Small Acreage Conference in Fort Calhoun

Alternative Growers Group logo"Acreage Survival Skills" will be the theme for a Small Acreage Conference scheduled to be held in Fort Calhoun on Saturday, January 18, 2014. According to Alternative Growers Group spokesperson Jim Peterson, the conference will be held at Schwertley Hall on the campus of St. Johns Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Calhoun. Registration for the conference will begin at 8:00 a.m. with the concurrent session beginning at 9:00 a.m. and lasting until 4:00 p.m.

Paul Rohrbaugh of Steinauer, Nebraska will be the keynote speaker and also one of the concurrent speakers. Paul is the former Executive Secretary for the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, markets a variety of livestock products to direct markets in Nebraska and is very well known in sustainable agriculture circles in Nebraska. His keynote address will be entitled "How did we get it so wrong" with a concurrent talk on "Think your farm is full - Think again".

A variety of topics of interest to small landowners will be the focus of the conference. Beginning the conference will be a panel discussion by three Washington County acreage owners on the topic of "Acreage Survival Skills". Other concurrent topics will include "Growing and Using Herbs", "Farmers Markets", "Pastured Pork", "High Tunnels", "Bee Keeping", "Hops Production," and "Community Supported Agriculture" Washington County Acreage Owner Growers will be the predominant speakers during the conference.


A limited number of invited commercial and educational booths will also be a part of the conference. The Tri Ts will have a selection of food items for participants to purchase throughout the day.

A ten dollar registration fee is asked for those registering prior to the conference and $15.00 for those registering at the door. Registration forms can be obtained by e-mailing Jerry or Sandy Grove at wildflower@abbnebraska.com or by phone at (402) 468-5598.


The program is being funded in part by a grant from the Blair Community Foundation.