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Illinois Country Living

David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois

Yard & Garden

Getting dirt under your fingernails
Start by planting cool season flowers and vegetables

Winter roared through Illinois this year. Cabin fever brings about an itch to haul out the spades, hoes and shovels with visits to the garden centers and nurseries.

You could argue that April’s weather is all over the board, from the potential of snow and sleet to sunny and bright 70 to 80 degree days that cause convertible cars to lose their tops and shorts to come out of the closets.

Since inconsistency is April’s motto, it’s easy to get swept up with warm weather and the “Ah, I can get in the garden and plant” mentality, thinking you can get a jump on the tomatoes, peppers, marigolds, geraniums and other plants.

Reality slaps you in the face, though. In this case, reality is the lack of uniform temperatures. The good news, though, is that it doesn’t prevent you from putting some plants in.

The main plants are the ones that can tolerate the fluctuating temperatures. Typically they’re called cool-season plants, compared to those that demand warm temperatures such as tomatoes, cucumbers, marigolds and impatiens.

Cool season crops can generally tolerate some colder conditions. A severe freeze in the high teens to low 20s may knock them back, but temperatures in the high 20s probably won’t affect them.

There are more cool season vegetables than cool season flowers, but there are enough of both to satisfy anyone with that burning desire to get dirt under their fingernails.

Cool season vegetables include lettuce, spinach, mustard and turnip greens and radishes. All can be planted by seed. Potatoes can also be planted, but a warmer drier soil is preferred.

With the first group, since you are starting by seeds, the ground dries quicker to prevent rot. With potatoes, either hill the soil into mounds or add lots of organic matter to allow the potato pieces to grow.

Many of the cole crops, which are not related to Nat King, Natalie or Ol’ King, can also be stuck in the ground. You might want to hill the soil up slightly so it stays dry and warm. These cole crops include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale. Cauliflower likes it just a tad bit warmer, but you could attempt it if you have the patience.

Some of the other root crops would prefer much warmer air and soil temperatures. You need to wait until the end of April or the first of May to avoid any serious problem.

For the flowers, look to pansies, snapdragons, Martha Washington geraniums, blue lobelia, bachelor’s buttons and surprisingly petunias. Most of the annuals are native to temperate zones and thumb their noses at cool temperatures.

It’s not that some of them will die with cool spring temperatures. It’s just that they sometimes sit there like the proverbial bump on the log, which makes them more susceptible to the spring diseases, insects and four-legged furry hopping creatures that come along and say “Wow! A good meal.”


More Information:

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.


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