The Best Places to Start Your Spring Work

Timing is everything when it comes to gardening. So, while there’s still a threat of frost here are a few ideas to release your excitement and get prepared for warm days ahead.

Spring is here, and many a Midwestern homeowner is beyond ready to head outside, spruce up the yard, plant some greenery and get out the grill.

But not so fast! A successful spring landscape is all about timing. It helps to know when it’s best to start seeds, set plants and otherwise dig in. Start too soon, and Jack Frost might have the last word. Get it right, and you have a rewarding setup to enjoy throughout the spring and summer months.

So, as you get started on planning your own backyard oasis, it may be worth a visit to some of these local experts, who know more than a few things about timing it right.

Flowering Success

Springtime means flowers at family-owned Gensler Gardens, a local garden center offering a large selection of hanging baskets, premium annuals, flats, perennials, vegetable plants, patio containers, shrubs, patio trees and more. Thousands of varieties are grown in the 95,000-square-foot greenhouse in Davis Junction, Ill., and sold at 102 Orth Road in Loves Park, Ill.

“We are known for the number of varieties we produce, and we are truly a ‘grower,’” says owner Scott Gensler. “We grow all annuals and perennials ourselves, and we use a slow-release fertilizer in 95% of our plants and flowers. It will last all summer long.”

Gensler is always on the lookout for new varieties that exhibit abundant color, varying habitats, disease-resistant genes and low maintenance.

“Everyone wants a beautiful yard, but most people prefer not to spend a lot of time getting it that way,” he says. “What makes for a beautiful yard means something different to everyone, depending on their space they have to work with, their budget and individual tastes.”

This year, Gensler Gardens has brought in dozens of new varieties of flowering and non-flowering plants.

Among the new items this year are two-toned New Guinea impatiens that want heat and sun. This new variety has been available for a few years in an array of colors, but it’s the first season for the two-toned flower.

Lantana, which is a popular choice for outdoor hanging baskets or as ground cover, is known for its rounded clusters of small, brightly colored flowers in shades of yellow, orange, white, red, pink, blue and purple, oftentimes mixed within the same cluster. The newer Shamrock Lantana is more uniform in color and branches out wider and higher for different pot sizes and hanging baskets.

Although the Gensler crew starts planning and planting many months in advance, it’s important for consumers to keep an eye on the weather before planting anything outdoors. A late frost in May can undo or damage what has been planted too soon.

“I always tell people don’t start too early,” Gensler says. “By early May, we will have a good idea of the ideal time to plant that year. Meanwhile, container plants can always get their start indoors at any time and hanging baskets can be brought inside at night until the weather warms up.”

Most plants, especially impatiens, begonias, and tropical plants, need temperatures above 40 degrees both night and day. To keep those flowering hanging baskets and plants at their optimum beauty, it’s important to water them daily. On hot and windy days, watering twice a day is recommended. Only when the temperatures are in the 60s can you skip a day watering, Gensler says.

Add Some Shade

When it comes to locating high-quality trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers, J. Carlson Growers, 8938 Newburg Road in Rockford, has been a trusted source for more than 40 years.

“Upon visiting our nursery for the first time, it is evident that this is a special place,” says owner Jon Carlson. “Majestic oaks underplanted with redbuds, weeping hemlocks that call attention to themselves, and Japanese maples that have been pruned into beautiful forms.”

He sees his role as helping people make the right choices when landscaping their yards. It’s important to identify the right location for a tree or shrub, and that means careful attention to whether it needs a dry, shady, wet or sunny spot. His team is trained to ask the right questions and guide shoppers through the selection process.

“We are not landscape architects, but we can give good landscaping advice. And although we sell plants and many unusual varieties, we are all about service,” Carlson says. “Unique and unusual plants can work out well in the Midwest, if in the right surroundings and in the right conditions.”

Carlson graduated with a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University and went to work right away for nurseries in Portland, Ore., that supplied plants to other nurseries throughout the U.S. and the world, he says. It was while working in the Pacific Northwest that he discovered what he wanted to do for his life’s work. Carlson began his business in 1982 on a 79-acre family farm where he’s still helping people.

Today, J. Carlson Growers specializes in shade and ornamental trees, shrubs, ornamental and dwarf conifers, broadleaf evergreens, flowering shrubs, groundcover, perennials and vines, and native plants. The business also carries bulk materials for pick-up or delivery, including landscape materials such as mushroom compost, aged double-processed hardwood mulch, Northern White Cedar, playground mat and granite boulders. Landscape supplies include ball carts, bamboo fencing, bulldog plant tarps, cobra edging, King of Spades, Felco Pruners, burlap squares, two and three-ply sisal twine, nursery pinning nails and hand-carved granite lanterns.

“We pride ourselves in providing gorgeous Japanese maples, colorful rhododendrons and azaleas, as well as hardy ornamental and garden conifers,” Carlson says. “Our staff is dedicated to sharing their knowledge and helping you choose the perfect plants for your landscape.”

To ensure customers receive plants in their best condition, Carlson offers delivery to a home or business for a nominal fee. Mulch and compost can also be delivered in bulk.

Once that tree, shrub or perennial is in the ground, a few smart maintenance tasks will keep it healthy for years to come. In the springtime, clean up debris from the lawn and landscaping, including leaves missed from the fall and sticks that have fallen during the winter, Carlson says. It’s also a good idea to prune bushes and shrubs before the active growing season, however that does not include flowering shrubs and bushes with buds about to open. If you didn’t get perennials trimmed back in the fall, now is the time to remove old growth.

Patience Goes a Long Way

Jordan Boyce is a second-generation co-owner of K&W Greenery, 1328 U.S. Hwy. 14 East in Janesville. This time of year, she advises gardeners to be patient.

“Mother Nature is very clear on her instruction into the spring season and no amount of early raking will change that,” she says. “Spring will arrive when it arrives. Planting, raking and just plain walking on our lawns in these early months can be very damaging. Let spring come and then start your activities.”

K&W helps those with spring fever to satisfy their green thumbs through classes and workshops that are scheduled throughout the year. This March, specialists talked about plant-eating insects, bringing butterflies to the backyard, finding new varieties of plants, and planting and maintaining a perennial garden. Those attending all four workshops got a $15 gift card to spend at the store. See upcoming event and workshop schedules online at

Of course, K&W experts are always on hand to answer questions and dish out advice on planting, growing and more.

“Just come in and hang out,” says Boyce. “The greenhouse is always gorgeous. There is plenty to look at, touch and smell. Planning ahead for the spring season is always a great idea. We are here to help. We have lots of handouts and great tips for gardeners on all skill levels. We always say there is no dumb question when it comes to gardening.”

Meanwhile, the staff has been getting ready for spring.

“At the greenhouse, we are busy behind the scenes,” Boyce says. “We grow 90% of all the annuals and perennials that we sell. This takes a lot of preplanning. So, while the snow is still falling, we are busy potting up annuals for spring.”

Turn up the Heat

Although you’ll find Midwesterners grilling outdoors year-round, warmer weather is nature’s invitation to get outside and start cooking more.

“Grilling outside is what people think about when it’s spring and summer,” says Brad Vander Heyden, president of Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr. in Rockford. “They may grill steaks, chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers through the winter, but it’s all about just getting the job done. In the summer, barbecuing is about entertaining family and friends, enjoying the good smells of something cooking all day long like brisket or a rack of ribs, and then enjoying it at night in a great atmosphere.”

Grills aren’t the only way to improve your enjoyment of the backyard. Advanced Chimney Systems specializes in grills as well as fireplaces, fire pits, heating stoves and gas logs – each of which has an ability to gather people around a common space.

Flickering flames at an outdoor fireplace or fire pit have a way of capturing people’s attention and are relaxing, Vander Heyden says. They help people let go of the day’s tensions while creating a great ambiance and interesting surrounding.

“Fire pits and fire tables can give an outdoor space an entirely different look and atmosphere,” he says. “They give you a focal point to arrange furniture around, give attention to landscaping, or add interest to a deck and patio.”

Portable fire pits are a newer option on the market, and they have the advantage of being movable, so they can go to the park, the campground, tailgate parties, a friend’s party or the ideal spot in your own backyard.

“They are very unique and can fit in a car and be taken anywhere,” Vander Heyden says.

And although most people think of charcoal grills or gas grills when they think of cooking outside, pellet grills are gaining in popularity. Available for more than 30 years, this option is lately getting notice because of the improved technology, convenience and versatility.

Pellet grills are electric and fueled by hardwood pellets that also add flavor. The temperature is regulated by a digital control board that uses an algorithm to calculate how many pellets are needed to reach and maintain temperatures. A rotating auger automatically feeds the pellets from the hopper to the fire, where a fan stokes the flames and distributes heat and smoke throughout the grill. A diffuser plate between the grill and the fire prevents flare-ups. Some grills have a direct grilling option for cooking on an open flame.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Vander Heyden says. “You don’t have to monitor the grill to maintain temperature, and at low temperatures, the grill can cook for up to 16 hours. Pellet grills, which vary in size, price and features, are the fastest growing segment of the outdoor cooking market.”

Some of the most popular pellet flavors are hickory, apple, cherry, pecan, oak, maple, mesquite and peach. Flavors can be combined or layered for a unique result.

“I love the taste, being outside, and the convenience and efficiency of using the grill instead of heating up the kitchen on hot summer days,” Vander Heyden says.