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Tips for Spring Gardening

BY JEFF RUGG

Wow, we made it to spring. The meteorologist counts the seasons in whole months, so March 1 is the first day of spring. If you like plants or animals, the next three months are wonderful months to be in North America. This is the season most plants bloom and most animals have babies, so plan on getting outdoors as often as possible.

I have been getting a lot of gardening questions, and although gardens are getting planted in the south, they won’t be planted for a month or more up north. I decided to skip the questions and add the answers as gardening tips, so here we go.

When planting seeds directly into the garden, use a string to make straight lines. Follow package recommendations for planting depth and spacing. Use sand to cover the seeds. The soil should be kept damp until the seeds sprout. As they begin to grow, let the soil dry out enough to keep any fungus from growing.

When buying garden vegetables, look for short stocky plants with dark green leaves and healthy root systems.

Some crops can be planted every other week to produce successive crops. Sweet corn is best eaten fresh, but it has a limited season from each plant, so plant a few at a time over a couple of months. Crops on trellises as well as tall crops (corn and sunflowers) go on the north side of the garden to avoid shading smaller crops.

Long before spring arrives, most gardeners want to till the garden soil. Do not rush things in the spring — trying to till soil that is too wet will destroy its structure and water-holding capacity. For an earlier start and better results, adding organic matter and rototilling the garden should be done in the fall when the soil is dry. Garden soil is tillable if you can gently squeeze it into a ball, but it still breaks apart when gently poked. Sandy garden soil does not hold enough water to cause this problem.

Before tilling, add several inches of compost and 1.5 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 10-foot by 10-foot area; till them both into the top 10 inches of the soil. Do not use a fertilizer that already has herbicides or insecticides in it. Avoid adding lime, gypsum or sulfur without a soil test showing a need for them.

If you have ordered garden plants or bare-root trees and shrubs through the mail, be prepared to take care of them until you can plant them. Always open and inspect the shipment when it arrives. Check for damage and the health of the order. Make sure you received what you ordered. It is critical to keep the root system moist. Put the plants in a cool and not too bright location and plant them as soon as you can.

Checking the garden every day is the best way to keep ahead of problems. Weeds are easy to pull when small. A few aphids on the end of a branch are easier to kill compared to when the whole plant is engulfed. Start a notebook about the garden. Make a plan and keep the plant packets for reference. You will want to know estimated harvest times later on.

Add a flower border for beauty, butterflies and pollinating bees. Make a path out of mulch. Use lots of mulch or a weed barrier cloth to conserve water, reduce weeds and keep fruit off the soil, where it often rots.

Know what kind of plants you are going to use. Annuals bloom this season, produce fruit and then die off with the first frost. They should be put in new locations each year to slow any chance of diseases and insects over-wintering and harming them. Most garden vegetables are annuals.

Biennials live two seasons and only bloom in the second season. They must be left in place if you want flowers. Most biennials are grown for leaves in the first year. Lettuce, cabbage, caraway and parsley are biennials.

Perennials are long-lasting plants that come up from the roots each spring. They bloom each summer after they are established. Some, like asparagus and rhubarb, are grown for their stems and leaves. Since perennials won’t be moved, they should not be planted in the middle of the garden. It is hard enough to use a rototiller without having to try to go around plants.

Perennials also need good soil conditions before they are planted. It is best to mix organic matter into the soil a couple of feet deep and for several feet in all directions. It is a lot of work, but it will pay off with much better growth for many more years.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, University of Illinois Extension at jrugg@illinois.edu. To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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