U of I Master Gardeners provide some green-thumbed guidance
Gardening season, if not already underway, soon will be. To take advantage of this time, Master Gardeners from the U of I Extension shared advice to help local gardeners toward beautiful blooms and a bountiful harvest.
“Spring gardening brings beautiful birds, butterflies, newborn critters, budding plants, warming breezes and the colors of flowers. Everything greening up and being outdoors are my favorite parts of the spring,” Sharon Gallup, U of I Extension Master Gardener, said.
While browsing seed catalogs and shopping from what’s available in local stores is a fun part of the upcoming season, there are a few projects to do before any digging begins.
“Clean and sharpen your tools. Afterwards, add a light coat of oil and store them in a bucket of sand to keep them rust-free and sharp. Also, check your garden gloves to see if they’re in good condition,” Gallup said.
She advised to repot indoor plants and gather containers for seedlings.
Another essential project to ensure the health of delicate seedlings is to prepare cold frames — the small, greenhouse-like coverings that protect frost-sensitive plants.
Seedlings planted too early or left unprotected can be nipped by a late frost or killed by a hard freeze. The best way to know when it’s safe to plant is to use a soil thermometer and make sure it’s reached at least 35 degrees.
“When you plant early, have a plan for covering plants with floating row covers or old sheets when the temperatures below 32 degrees are predicted for the night,” Gallup said.
This time of year is also a good time to go to the shed and garage to see what equipment is ready for maintenance.
“Once the equipment is ready, assessing your garden’s design and finding ways to improve it is a good step. Look around for any open areas and see what you could add,” she said.
Gallup said to consider the characteristics of your yard, and a garden diary, journal, calendar or notes from previous years will help you know what was planted where and remind you of any problems.
Common problems that can be forgotten without a diary are various difficulties with plants, yields, frost and harvest dates, pest problems, and fertilizer or soil amendments.
“If you didn’t do a garden journal, then start one this year and put your plans on paper. Make notes in the beginning and during the entire season to be used in the future. A simple calendar will even work,” Gallup said.
“You also don’t want to forget our beautiful birds and animals, so make sure feeders are stable and secure for them,” she added.
One easy mistake to make, especially by anxious gardeners, is to work or remove mulch too soon and expose everything to a late frost.
“You can step on the crowns of plants you can’t see and compress the air pockets in the soil that plants need to thrive and take up water. Don’t work the soil too early, either, and avoid tilling when the soil is too wet. You also don’t want to over-mulch as you can rot the plants,” Gallup recommended, adding that excessive pruning should also be avoided.
She said cleanups are best done in the fall, which is when annuals should be pulled up and the dead growth of perennials should be cut back. It’s also a good time to weed and remove garden thugs and old mulch.
“Some perennials also put on a flush of growth late in the season, so this fall growth should be left on to help protect the plant,” she added.
During the early spring, debris cleanup is best gently done by hand before any seedlings break through.
Soil testing is a valuable way to find out exactly what nutrients your garden is hungry for, and fertilizing properly helps flowers and vegetables grow to an optimum size.
Gallup recommended using a fertilizer application schedule for each type of plant, i.e., vegetables, woody shrubs, trees, bushes, flowers, lawns, etc.
“An umbrella rule is to apply in early spring. This encourages leafy growth and production of flowers and then fruit. Early spring may still have a late frost, which can harm the new growth forced by fertilizing. It’s best to wait until the date of the last frost, which on average, is May 15. Check forecasts and adjust your planting to the predicted last frosts,” she said.
According to Gallup, vegetables benefit from slow-release fertilizers throughout the season, and they gradually feed the plants for months. Avoid fertilizing new plants until they’re established, and it’s important to follow the application methods and rates recommended by the manufacturer.
Before planting in new garden beds, wait a couple of weeks after adding compost so the nutrients can acclimate the soil. Existing gardens may require less than a quarter inch of new compost.
Some plants do better with an early start and others prefer more warmth, such as tomatoes and peppers.
“Early spring or very hardy vegetables would be greens and root vegetables with seeds that will sprout in cool soil, and to a seed, it’s soil temperature, not air temperature, that matters,” Gallup said.
She added spinach and lettuce seeds can germinate in soil as cold as 35 degrees and a larger portion of vegetables will sprout from 45-70 degrees. Beets, kale, peas, cabbage, radishes and onions are some that can follow a couple of weeks later.
“Most early spring crops are best directly sown into the soil. Sow each in two to three batches and staggered a week apart, so they’ll be likely to catch the best conditions for each kind of plant,” Gallup said.
Some hardy annual flowers that can be planted in the early spring are alyssum, dusty miller, and snapdragon, to name a few.
“Prepare for spring, just don’t get too excited because gardening work can be overwhelming. Start small and increase your garden’s size over time. Keep it fun, not a terrible job,” added Barb Dahlbach, a Master Gardener with the U of I Extension.
Dahlbach advised when planning a flower garden to consider yearlong bloom times by mixing perennials and annuals.
“Get out last year’s pictures and see what was blooming when and see during what season color needs to be added. We usually buy plants in spring, and the fall plants aren’t blooming, so we forget about them,” she said.
Dahlbach said annuals normally bloom all summer and can be easily mixed into a perennial garden to help achieve year-round color. Additionally, buying mums as small plants in the spring allows them time to grow and establish their roots before providing a burst of fall color.
“If you wonder why your fall mums never come back, it’s because they didn’t have time to set their roots before the freezes,” she said.
Gardening success always requires a bit of experimentation, and it is hoped these tips will help plant fanciers toward a brightly colored, fragrant and bountiful growing season.
For additional information and a schedule of educational programs, visit www.web.extension.illinois.edu/state/programs.php.