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Midwest: March/April Gardening

An Illinois Master Gardener shares tips and gardening news for early spring

A common question

In northcentral Illinois during March we are still battling winter winds, snow and ice storms. Most questions pertain to ice damage to trees and shrubs. April can still bring hard frosts but the wind can do further damage to a limb or branch if it was broken previously by the weight of heavy ice or snow. So a common question is “What should I do if my evergreen trees are loaded down with ice and snow?”

Answer: If the shrub or evergreen tree is small to medium, warm water, not hot, can be poured over limbs to free it from heavy ice; then carefully clean off ice or snow slowly to avoid breaking or snapping. If a limb is broken, prune off as soon as possible. A clean cut will heal faster come spring than a ragged tear.

Top 5 to-do’s in March and April

  1. Walk my property and pick up sticks, limbs, rocks or debris collected during the winter months or leftover from the fall.
  2. Aside from spring tree pruning, I cut back ornamental grasses that are brown from winter. I tie stems together and cut them about 2 inches from the ground to allow the sun to reach inside and promote spring growth.
  3. Exercise to get my body into “gardening shape.” Curled up in a chair drooling over garden catalogs is sedentary and sudden death to muscles.
  4. Get garden tractor, grass mowers and string trimmers in shape also. Sharpen blades, check spark plugs and buy supplies such as trimmer string, oil, etc. I buy enough for the whole season while supplies are plentiful. Sometimes by July the stores are out of these supplies. I also inspect my gloves to make sure spiders are not hiding from winter in them.
  5. Attend seminars and classes (or teach them) before the spring gardening chores pile up. The classes help to inspire new and innovative gardening techniques.

Recent gardening trends

We are beginning to see more interest in “green gardening.” IPM (integrated pest management), organic gardening skills, rain barrels, rain gardens and water features are becoming trendy here in Illinois. Our public seminars are attracting more and more people lately. People are also contributing to the PAR (Plant a Row for the Hungry) program. In Ottawa, Illinois, alone, our Master Gardeners and other community gardeners contributed approximately over 13,000 pounds of produce to the local food pantry this year.

People are also looking for ways to garden smarter, cheaper and more efficiently. Many of my students want to know more about pesticide usage and how they can eliminate use of commercial chemicals in their gardens. Bagworms and the emerald ash borers are a big problem here, as is oak wilt disease. There’s a growing trend towards more awareness of these pests and the “greener” preventions and cures.

The biggest gardening challenge in this area

Every year seems to bring a different insect infestation or weather conditions that promote different diseases and damage. Storms, drought, too much rain, wind, late frosts, tornadoes or bumper swarms of insects are always a surprise and are hard to plan for. That’s where the challenges are. We can get it all—and on occasions all in the same day. Illinois gardeners must be tough and flexible. As the saying goes, if its 70 degrees and raining in the morning, stick around, it might be snowing by noon! Time is a challenge and the windows of opportunity to complete necessary chores can be cut short in an instance. Mother Nature can be tricky in Illinois.

Favorite volunteer activities

March brings our annual all-day Spring Seminar for the public and Master Gardeners at our local Illinois Valley Community College. We conduct several classes on various gardening subjects by horticulture experts, guest speakers, Master Gardeners and University of Illinois instructors. Vendors are invited to set up booths to sell gardening-related products, tools and books. This event is a great “welcome to spring” program.

We also begin plans for planting flowers in gardens around city buildings and municipal landscapes and parks. Vegetable plants are started indoors for the Plant A Row program for city gardens, where the produce grown is donated to local food pantries. Master Gardeners use their own seeds and start them in their own greenhouses or basements. We encourage the community and children to do the same.

Telenet programs on gardening are offered twice per month at extension offices. The public is invited to watch educational classes via a live Telenet class (produced over the phone line) and shown on a movie screen. As Master Gardeners we are dedicated to educating the community as much as we can.

About Darlene

I’ve been gardening since I was seven. I grew up in Chicago where I had a very limited and tiny garden. Ten years ago my husband (Black-Thumb Tom) and I moved to the country and have two acres to garden. I love all plants but especially herbs and vegetables. I have been a Master Gardener for seven years. I also teach adult gardening mini-courses at the local Illinois Valley Community College and do speaking engagements and lectures on gardening.

I’ve combined my other passions of humor and writing with my love of gardening and I write a humor gardening column in addition to a (more serious) Master Gardener newsletter for the extension office, and I am a local daily newspaper correspondent. Two acres, a husband, two daughters, six grandchildren, four large dogs and six arrogant cats give me plenty of writing material.

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