We’re on the cusp of springtime and you gardeners are just itching to get outside and turn over some dirt. But before you dust off the shovel, take some time to stop, plan and think. Here’s what you need to consider.
The cusp of spring is near and we’re eager to get outside and turn over some dirt, but we know it’s not quite time for that. Why not use these last weeks of winter to do some planning and bone up on basics that will make the 2016 growing season more successful?
Here, five local green thumbs from local nurseries and greenhouses offer some points to ponder in the quiet weeks before spring breaks loose. These folks know how to handle most any obstacle a gardener could face, and can steer you clear of pitfalls. They’re ready to answer your questions and help you get off to a good start; some, like K&W Greenery in Janesville, offer free presentations on gardening topics.
Many other wonderful resources exist as well. For example, the University of Illinois Extension Service (extension.Illinois.edu, click on “program”) offers a wealth of information suited to our region and a list of soil testing labs. On March 31 it will offer a session on attracting birds, bees and butterflies to the garden. On April 7 the subject will be growing summer bulbs like dahlias and cannas. Both events take place at the Cherry Valley Library at 6 p.m.
The community of folks at Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden are another great resource. Gardening for Food & Fun 2016, on March 5, is a one-day event at Klehm. And you can always meet lots of friendly gardeners at Klehm’s Botanica luncheon on April 8. On May 6 Klehm will hold its annual sale of plants culled from member gardens and Klehm’s grounds.
Other good resources include Rotary Gardens in Janesville, the Natural Land Institute, Rockford Park District’s Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens and forest preserve districts such as Byron and Winnebago. There are also terrific continuing education classes offered through community colleges like Rock Valley and Highland.
Area farmers markets are another good source of plants and plant knowledge.
Whether you’re a serious gardener or you just want to spiff up your landscape and grow a few tomatoes, putting hands to dirt and watching things grow is one of the simple joys of life. Read on for 10 expert tips and tricks.
1. Think Before You Plant
Gardening is both art and science. Science dictates that a tomato plant will never grow well in the shade and a large tree won’t thrive in a crammed space. Don’t waste time and money trying to bend the will of the universe.
“It’s really important to carefully select the right plant or tree for the location you want to fill,” says Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers, 8938 Newburg Road, Rockford. “I just hate to see a tree butchered into submission because the owner didn’t think through the location before planting.”
Most plants come with tags that predict the plant size at maturity. Read and believe them, says Carlson.
Along with space requirements, consider the light, soil and moisture conditions of a location before planting, says Sean Ducey, plant manager at Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, 8401 S. Ill. Rte. 31, Cary, Ill.
“If you can tell us which way your house is facing, where any large shade trees are located and whether there are any soggy areas in your yard, that’s great information that will help us to help you make a good selection,” says Ducey.
“Otherwise, if you’re looking for a shrub and you see 500 kinds, you may be tempted to just pick one because it’s blooming or because it’s on sale. Resist emotional buys.”
2. Mother Nature Rules
“The hardest thing for people is not jumping the gun too early,” says Scott Gensler, owner of Gensler Gardens, 102 Orth Road in Loves Park, Ill., and 8631 11th St., Davis Junction, Ill. “Certain plants need temperatures that don’t go lower than 45 degrees at night. If you plant too early and temperatures dip, those plants will start to go down hill.” A stressed plant is more vulnerable to pests and disease.
“You can’t just buy plants and stash them in a dark garage for five days, either,” Gensler adds. “If you don’t take them out daily to get light, you’re inviting disease. You really can’t rush Mother Nature. She has the last word. You’re much better off waiting for a safe planting date and putting healthy, unstressed plants in the ground.”
Kim Hartmann concurs. As a master gardener and landscape designer at Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center, 5301 E. Terra Cotta Ave., Crystal Lake, Ill., she often sees gardeners get ahead of themselves. And there’s more than just air temperature to consider.
“Soil needs to warm up and dry out from the spring thaw for plants to thrive,” says Hartmann. “Some people plant tomatoes in April and that’s a mistake. In four of our past five springs, we’ve had a hard frost in May. Go ahead and start seeds indoors, plan and lay out gardens on paper, do pruning and cleanup, but don’t put things in the ground too early.”
Frost kills plants by causing moisture inside cells to freeze and expand, thereby bursting cell walls.
Observe what’s happening in nature, such as when the forsythia bushes are blooming, says Hartmann. “When they bloom, it’s safe to plant certain cool-season crops like spinach, lettuce, peas, carrots, chards, beets and radishes. Don’t go by holiday dates; Both Easter and Mother’s Day come early this year.”
There are exceptions, but most annual plants and tender vegetables shouldn’t go into the ground before mid to late May, she says.
3. Know Thy Grower
It’s a cliché that holds especially true in gardening: you get what you pay for. In general, local growers want to you to succeed at gardening so you’ll come back each year; big-box stores want to move product.
“A few years ago, one of the big-box stores had a sale on tomato and pepper plants in the last week of March,” says Gensler. “That’s just inviting people to fail. On our family farm, we don’t put them in the ground until sometime in May.”
At a reputable local greenhouse, plant stock tends to be healthier and better adapted to our local climate.
“My whole goal is to carry only varieties of plants that are going to perform well for people,” says Gensler. “There are thousands of varieties of petunias and we carry maybe 70 or 80. It’s up to me to select the kinds that are going to do well here in our region. That shouldn’t be the customer’s problem.”
Gensler visits trial gardens in various states and confers with industry peers. “The advantage for customers coming to a place like ours is that we do the research,” he says.
Likewise, there’s an advantage to buying plants that aren’t shipped in from other climates across the country. K & W Greenery, 1328 US Hwy. 14 East, Janesville, Wis., grows about 80 percent of its own stock, says Chris Williams, plant manager.
“That way we can harden off the plants outside so they produce more flower buds and develop more vigorous root systems,” he explains. “We can control the quality better that way.”
4. Get the Dirt on Dirt
While soil may not seem important, it is, says Gensler.
“A lot of the hanging baskets sold by big-box stores are loaded with fertilizer to produce short-term results so the plants look great when you buy them in May,” he explains. “But by July 4th you’re wondering what’s wrong with them. We use a premium soil mix with slow-release fertilizers and moisture retention materials that give plants the best chance of looking great all the way into fall. There’s definitely a cheaper way to go.”
Premium soil costs Gensler 25 to 30 percent more than cheap soil. “But it’s just the right thing to do. We want people to be successful and return next year.”
Too, soil requirements differ from plant to plant.
“Again, that shouldn’t be the customer’s worry. We use the right mix of soil in a container for the particular plant,” says Gensler.
In your landscape, it may pay off to have your soil tested if you’re doing specialty gardening such as vegetables, roses or cut flowers, says Williams of K&W.
“For general sprucing up it’s not necessary to get an in-depth soil test,” he says. “Shrubs and trees are pretty forgiving about the soil they’re in.”
For smaller plants, however, a soil test may help. It’s a simple process to collect a soil sample and mail it to a lab. You’ll get results back in about two weeks. There may or may not be a fee, depending on the lab you use.
“A good place to learn your soil test options is the U of I Extension Service,” says Williams.
Results will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements are in your soil so that you can determne what may be a beneficial addition, either organic or inorganic. If you’re not sure what to make of the results, google the subject or go ask a greenhouse professional.
“For a vegetable or specialty garden, you want to make sure those plants have everything they need right there in the soil before you plant,” says Williams. “Then they can do their thing to the best of their ability. The healthier a plant is, the better equipped it is to resist disease and pests. Pests always go for the weaker plants. Soil composition makes a big difference in promoting plant health.”
5. Minimize Risks
Your garden is coming along nicely until, one sunny day, you notice a bug infestation.
“Don’t just go buy a bunch of pesticide and start spraying,” cautions Ducey. “You could be wasting your time and money, hurting your plants and contaminating water run-off. Pesticides are a bad idea, generally, but if you really have a serious problem with a pest, bring a sample to your garden center and we’ll help you to identify it and choose the right product to treat it. We’ll also explain how to apply a product.”
Gardeners often have an idea of what pests to expect in a given year, based on weather patterns.
“Before this winter we had two winters that were extremely cold,” says Hartmann. “The good news is that we tend to have less insects and wildlife damage because of this. But if we have a very cool, wet spring, we expect to see more disease and fungal issues.”
Some plants are simply more prone to problems than others and simply can be avoided, says Williams.
“For example, downy mildew has been decimating impatiens in some places near us. You can choose to be on the safe side by buying New Guinea impatiens, which are not affected by mildew, instead of traditional varieties. Or, if you’ve had a problem with Japanese beetles, maybe don’t plant a ton of roses. We know they really love roses.”
If you’re not sure which problems have been surfacing in our region, recently, ask someone. Gardeners tend to be friendly people.
6. Keep it Real
Williams has seen plenty of well-intentioned gardeners begin the season with gusto and collapse mid-season. Don’t take on more than you can manage or more than you’ll enjoy maintaining, he suggests.
“Start small and build up. Especially if you’re new to gardening, there are so many tried-and-true, no-brainer plants available. Start with them.”
Working in a greenhouse all day, Williams limits his own home vegetable gardening ambitions to one salsa garden.
“In late May I plant two Roma tomato plants and 12 kinds of peppers,” he says. “The Romas mature more quickly than larger tomatoes and give me plenty of fruit. The peppers come in at different times all summer long.”
Many of today’s flowers are disease-resistant and easy to grow in the landscape. For sunny locations, Williams suggests Angelonia, also called summer snapdragon.
“It never has to be deadheaded and it doesn’t require a ton of water,” he says. Other good bets include lantana and trailing petunias, which spread across the ground quickly and provide masses of season-long color.
Easy-to-grow shade plants include torenia, also called the wishbone flower, in shades of blue, white or yellow. New Guinea impatiens, such as the reliable Sun Patience or Bounce series “do fine in shade or sun,” Williams says.
If you start small, keep things manageable and ask questions along the way, you’ll find it’s not difficult to expand your gardening prowess year by year, he says.
7. Consider the Bigger Picture
Your garden may seem small, in the grand scheme of things, but it can have a big impact. Sticking a few milkweed plants in the ground will support monarch butterflies, which are entirely dependent upon it to survive.
Similarly, planting for pollinators like bees, bats, moths and hummingbirds can help to reverse the decline of species we all depend upon. It’s estimated that one of every four mouthfuls of food we eat is a direct result of pollination. Disappearing habitat, agro-chemical use, disease and the cultivation of ever-larger one-crop fields are taking a big toll on pollinators.
Planting with birds in mind provides native and migratory species with a place to rest, nest, reproduce and find foods like fruits, nuts, berries and bugs. You’ll enjoy gardening all the more for the birdsong and companionship they bring to your garden.
On the flip side, your lawn and garden can damage the greater world if care is not taken to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides. If you must use them, always consult your garden center first and read directions thoroughly. Better yet, learn about alternative ways to combat pests and weeds.
Many greenhouses conduct free classes, such as the focus on Gardening for Pollinators that K&W will host this year. Check websites for schedules.
8. Contain Your Enthusiasm
People with busy lifestyles often contain their gardening impulses – literally.
Containers, hanging baskets and raised-bed gardens make it easier to control soil composition and weed infestations. Containers kept near the house may be harder for critters to raid and easier to cover when frost threatens. But it’s vitally important to keep plants in hanging baskets and containers well fed and watered.
“The soil doesn’t hang onto nutrients as well in containers,” explains Williams. “They dry out faster in the sun and wind than ground soil does, so they need to be watered often. The water pushes soil nutrients to the bottom of the container and eventually out the drainage holes. That’s why it’s important to add fertilizer on a weekly basis.”
Most plants do fine with a general-purpose fertilizer, but some need specific types of food to thrive. “For example, superbells, calibrachoa and other petunia varieties need more iron to keep foliage green and blooms strong,” says Williams.
9. Diversify Your (Plant) Stock
Investors know it’s risky to put all eggs into one basket, and so do growers, says Carlson, of J. Carlson Growers. Right now ash trees are falling faster than the stock market, due to a recent infestation of the emerald ash borer.
“In some cases, an ash tree that’s of high value can be saved but it requires a lot of work,” says Carlson. “In Rockford, the city is treating significant ash trees and taking down the rest. The city is trying to diversify its tree species and planted 1,000 trees in 2015.”
Good replacement options include ginkos, maples, oaks, Kentucky coffee trees, Alaskan cedars, bald cypress, red pine, dawn redwood and various kinds of spruce, Carlson suggests.
He also recommends the wintergreen arborvitae over more common arborvitae because it’s less likely to perish in extreme cold.
“It has single leader, which makes it more sturdy than the kind with multiple leaders that separate into pieces when heavy snow falls,” Carlson explains.
A well-chosen variety of trees and shrubs provides good contrast of texture and something interesting to see in your landscape all year ’round.
“You want trees that offer fall color, trees that look like beautiful sculptures when their leaves have fallen, some evergreens and conifers for variety, trees that flower in springtime and support wildlife,” says Carlson. “You want it all.”
10. Take Notes, Take Photos
During the splendor of summer, it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever forget what’s happening in your landscape, but you probably will. By next March you’ll be asking yourself, “What’s the name of that new hydrangea we planted by the fence?” It’s an easy task to snap photos of your yard at regular intervals, including the tags that arrive with new plants. Download them to your computer, label the year and keep them with the notes you took in your garden.
Likewise, if you find it difficult to plan a garden that always has something in bloom, visit garden centers at regular intervals to see when things bloom, make notes and snap photos for your reference next spring. If nothing much was happening in your late July garden, research plants that bloom then.
“Jotting down when you planted something and how it did can really help from year to year,” says Hartmann. “Make note of when a plant bloomed or faced a challenge.”
Gardening can be as simple or complex as we choose to make it. “One reason people love to garden is because there’s always something new to learn, no matter how long you’ve been doing it,” says Ducey. “It can really hold your attention for a lifetime.”