Tips for starting your spring garden off strong

Cloudy, cold winter days may seem endless, but as the weather warms, bulbs will bloom and grass will green, giving way to sure signs of spring.

Grab your trowel and get ready. Spring is just days away.

Starting seeds

Keep in mind how last year the pandemic saw new gardeners flood garden centers and increase demand for products sold by online seed companies. Buy your summer-flowering bulbs, seeds and transplants early. Last year, many seeds and transplants were in short supply or out of stock. This spring, order your seeds early and purchase your transplants as soon as they are available.

It’s also important to avoid damping-off disease when starting seeds. Damping-off will cause seedlings to wilt and die. Use a pasteurized soil-less medium. Keep the temperature around 65 to70 degrees Fahrenheit for best germination and provide bottom heat if possible. Most of all, avoid overwatering. 

Soil preparation

Prepare the soil before planting. This means removing rocks and debris form the soil. Dig in a 2- to 4- inch layer of organic matter, which helps to breakdown heavy clay soils and improves drainage.

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 dug. If it doesn’t, it is too wet. Allow the soil to dry for a couple of more days and test again before digging.

Late spring frosts

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, because these can conduct cold to plants.

We have had frost close to Memorial Day in Illinois. The latest spring frost occurred in Rockford on May 27, 1992.

The growing season between the last spring frost and the first fall frost ranges from around 160 days to 190 days from northern to southern Illinois.


Buy healthy transplants. Leaves and stems should be green and healthy without any signs of yellowing or browning. Gently remove transplants from their pot and check the root system. Roots should be white with visible soil. Check for insects such as whiteflies or aphids. 

Harden off transplants. Before exposing transplants to cool, spring temperatures, wind and sun, gradually introduce them to the outdoor environment over a 10-to-14-day period. At first, place the transplants in a shaded area for a couple of hours. Gradually increase their exposure to sunlight each day until they are outdoors for 24 to 48 hours before planting.

Perennials and ornamentals

Divide perennials. Dig around the plant and lift the clump out of the ground. Break the clump into sections. Larger sections will re-establish quicker than smaller sections. Keep the clumps moist until ready to plant. 

Cut back. Cut back ornamental grasses to about 4 to 6 inches. Not removing the foliage will delay the warming of the crown of the plant and will slow new growth. Ornamental grasses should be divided in the spring if the center of the plant has died out or if it has become overgrown.

Article By Ron Wolford, Horticulture Educator

Source: Gardeners Corner Spring 2021: University of Illinois Extension

Author: Dennis Hickey

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