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Midwest: January/February Gardening

A Chicago Master Gardener shares winter tips and local news

Top 5 “to do’s” in January and February:

  • Check the outdoor garden on a frequent basis to make sure that plants have not heaved up out of the soil due to freeze-and-thaw cycles, and to make sure that the insulating mulch cover you laid down in the fall has not blown away.
  • Inspect trees and shrubs for deer or rabbit damage. If signs of chewing are apparent, carefully wrap vulnerable plants and tree trunks with fine-mesh chicken-wire fencing to protect them.
  • Hunker down in front of the fireplace with a few good garden catalogs, and plan for the upcoming garden season. Order an assortment of vegetable and flower seeds to start indoors, and replenish seed-starting supplies.
  • Give houseplants a midwinter cleaning in the shower. The increased humidity will help keep spider mites at bay, and removing dust from your plants' leaves improves their general health by facilitating the respiration process.
  • Force paperwhite bulbs in pots on the kitchen windowsill. The view outside may be bleak and snowy, but the paperwhites will perfume your kitchen and remind you that spring will be here eventually!

The biggest recent challenge to Chicago gardeners: Gardeners in Chicago have become increasingly concerned about environmental issues and the challenge of reducing our carbon footprints. As gardeners, we should be leaders in the Green movement, but ironically we have been lagging behind when it comes to green technology, sustainable practices and protecting scarce resources. There are a number of changes we can and should make in our gardens and in our communities to preserve our green spaces, and to ensure that future generations will still have the ability to enjoy them.

Among urban environmental issues, water usage is perhaps of paramount concern, even for those of us in Chicago who are fortunate enough to be located on the shores of Lake Michigan. To reduce water consumption, our city government has offered financial incentives to install water gardens and rain barrels. These capture rainwater that might otherwise have gone to waste down the sewer system.

We are spreading the word about the importance of native plants, especially prairie plants that are drought-tolerant. For inspiration, we look to the native plantings in our downtown's Millennium Park, and the exciting example of the gardens surrounding the Smart Home. At the other end of the scale, we are helping the public identify and remove the predominant invasive plants in our area, such as purple loosestrife, garlic mustard, and common buckthorn. We also recommend that gardeners replace some of that water-hogging space known as "lawn" with perennial plantings, wildflowers, or vegetable gardens. Yes, even in the front yard.

About MaryAnne: I have been a Master Gardener since 2003 when I retired from the working world. My first MG volunteer project was working in the gardens of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, the largest free urban zoo in the country (thanks to the large corps of volunteers). I currently manage the Chicago Master Gardeners' Electronic Plant Clinic (EPC), working with a staff of a dozen MG's who research and answer gardening questions emailed to us from around the world. In recognition of the high standards of our EPC—which includes carefully researched and fact-based responses, and a typical turnaround of three business days or less—we won a 2007 Illinois State Master Gardener Teamwork Award. I am also a Master School Gardener (described above), and am in my first term as a member of the Illinois Master Gardener State Advisory Committee, which advises on MG policy and educational programs statewide. As a complement to my EPC responsibilities, I write articles for the Chicago MG website and our state newsletters, and have appeared on the leading Chicago gardening radio show, answering questions from callers.

About gardening in Chicago: We have very little land here in downtown Chicago on which to garden, and most of that is part-shade to shade. I orchestrate a collection of over 100 containers on a deck we built above our garage. Up on the roof I grow tomatoes, peppers, okra, lettuce, strawberries, and hundreds of annual flowers, most of which I start from seed in my basement under lights. I love giant plants, such as colocasias, alocasias, sunflowers, and castor beans. However, it would be very hard for me to pick my absolute favorite plant; that would be like picking my favorite worm. In 2005, I entered Mayor Daley's Landscape Award contest, and won First Place, Rooftop Gardens Citywide. As a result, I was invited by the Horticultural Gardening Institute to be a reviewer of student projects in their online Art and Science of Container Gardening course, and my container garden was featured on their website. I love gardening, and I love the Master Gardener program!!

University of Illinois Extension Chicago Master Gardeners