University of Illinois Extension

Spring Garden Tips

Bleak winter days seem endless, but soon we will see the first robin and crocus will be poking through the snow: sure signs of spring, said Ron Wolford, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“So grab your shovel, rake and hoe and get ready for spring with the following tips,” Wolford urged.

Save the mesh bags that oranges come in and use them this summer to dry herbs and gourds. Save pantyhose to enclose individual veggies like melons, corn, cabbage, cucumbers and small pumpkins to protect from birds and insects. Tie the pantyhose off at both ends of the veggie to keep insects out. The pantyhose will stretch with growth and dry off quickly after rain.

“Save orange juice and tuna fish cans to use as barriers around newly transplanted plants to protect them from the cutworm” he said. “Cutworms will chew through the stems at soil level. Cut both ends from the cans and push cans about an inch into the soil around the plants.

“After two to three weeks, the cans can be removed because the stems will have thickened enough to withstand any cutworm damage.”

“Don’t rush the growing season,” he cautioned. “The frost–free date for Chicago is around April 25 near the lake and May 15 away from the lake. The term frost-free means that there is still a 50-50 chance of frost on the frost-free date.

“Be prepared for late spring frosts. Cover tender plants with row covers, cardboard, blankets, hot caps, or newspaper. Do not use metal or plastic for protection; they can conduct cold to plants. We have had frost as late as Memorial Day.”

In the spring, never work your soil when it is wet. Tilling or digging when the soil is wet will cause it to dry into concrete-like clods. Pick up a handful of soil before digging and squeeze. If it crumbles easily, it is ready to be tilled. If it doesn’t crumble, it is too wet. Allow the soil to dry for a couple of more days and test again before digging.

“Don’t apply a nitrogen fertilizer to your lawn too early in the spring,” Wolford said. “Research has shown that in the early spring grass roots thrive forming a network of deep roots. Deep roots will help your lawn survive hot, dry summer weather. Applying fertilizer too early will promote grass shoot growth at the expense of root development. If you usually apply a pre-emergent crabgrass killer combo with fertilizer in April, try to find a crabgrass killer without fertilizer to apply and wait until mid-May to put down a nitrogen fertilizer to the lawn.”

Prepare lawn for the mowing season. Rake away all twigs and debris. Have the lawn mower blades sharpened, replace the spark plugs and change the oil. Apply the first application of fertilizer in early May.

“Seed bare spots in the lawn,” he said. “Dig up the soil and add a starter fertilizer. Sprinkle on a good seed mix of bluegrass and fescue. Rake lightly to mix seed with soil. Tamp to assure seed-soil contact. Keep well watered for two to three weeks until the seed has germinated.”