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Ten spring gardening tips

Published February 8, 2012
Winter storms and cold cannot go on forever, "So grab your trowel, rake and hoe and get ready for spring," said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ron Wolford.

Wolford offers the following tips:

Prepare for frost

Be prepared for late-spring frosts. For Chicago, the frost-free date (which means that there is still a 50-50 chance of frost) is around April 25 near the lake and May 15 away from the lake. Cover tender plants with row covers, cardboard, blankets, hot caps, or newspaper. We have had frost as late as Memorial Day.

Prune trees and shrubs

The best time to prune trees and shrubs is in the spring, when they are dormant. Without leaves, it is easy to see the plant's framework. Complete the pruning before the buds break. For general pruning, remove dead or diseased branches and all water sprouts (stems that grow at right angles to the branches) and suckers (growing from the base of the tree.

Prune out crossing or rubbing branches, always cutting back to back to a bud or a branch. When pruning back to a bud, make sure it is facing outward so that new growth will be on the outside of the plant. Shrubs that bloom in the spring, such as lilacs, spirea and forsythias, should be pruned after they finish flowering.

Soil Prep

Never work your soil when it is wet. Digging or tilling wet soil will turn it into clumps as hard as concrete. It will take several seasons of adding organic matter to the soil to rebuild its structure. To check if your soil is dry enough to work, take a handful and squeeze it. If the soil crumbles through your fingers, you can work your soil. If it stays in a ball after squeezing, wait a few days.

Lawn care

Prepare your lawn for the mowing season by raking away all twigs and debris. Have the lawn mower blades sharpened, replace the spark plugs and change the oil.

Seed bare spots in the lawn. Dig up the soil six to eight inches deep, add a starter fertilizer, and sprinkle a good seed mix of bluegrass and fescue on the area. Rake lightly to mix the seed and soil, and then tamp to assure seed-soil contact. Keep the area well-watered for two to three weeks until the seed has germinated.

Block those rabbits!

Protect your newly planted vegetable garden from rabbits. Purchase chicken wire fencing with one inch or smaller mesh, and make a fence that is at least three feet tall. Install it around the garden, bend it back six inches at the bottom, and bury this below the soil. This barrier will keep rabbits from crawling underneath the fence.

Divide perennials

Spring is a good time to divide most perennials. Do this when the flowers get smaller, the center of the plant dies, or the plant outgrows its space. Dig around the plant, lift the clump out of the ground, and break it into sections. Larger sections will re-establish themselves more quickly than smaller sections. Keep the clumps moist until you are ready to plant them.

Bulb care

Remove spent flowers from your spring bulbs, and allow the bulb foliage to die back naturally. Leaves make food resources that are stored in the bulbs for a repeat flower show next year.

Kill Creeping Charlie

Creeping Charlie has square stems, purplish blue funnel-shaped flowers, and round or kidney shaped leaves. Remove it in the spring, using a rake or by hand, after winter temperatures have weakened the roots and the ground is moist. It is important to pull it before new growth has started and it becomes established.

Houseplant maintenance

In the spring, longer days and higher light intensity cause indoor plants to grow more rapidly. Start fertilizing again using a half-strength solution at every other watering. Prune hard to stimulate new, bushier growth. Repot houseplants when their roots grow through the drainage holes, when the soil mass is filled with roots, when new leaves are smaller than usual, or when the plant wilts between waterings. Put the plant in a container that is one to two inches wider than the original pot.

Chicago Flower and Garden Show

The Chicago Flower and Garden Show will take place March 10 to 18 at Chicago's Navy Pier. With its "Hort Couture" theme, the show's 25+ gardens draw inspiration from textures and colors found in plants and fabrics and from alluring and beautiful elements found in nature. University of Illinois Extension will have Master Gardeners at the show answering questions, doing worm composting demonstrations, and introducing kids to insects with our insect petting zoo. Extension educators will be conducting gardening seminars. More information is available at http://www.chicagoflower.com/. -30-