DOWNERS GROVE – When the weather warms up and growing season starts, many residents will bring their gardens out of hibernation, while some may get the itch to plant one for the first time.
Barbara Collins, gardening manager for Wannemaker’s Home and Garden in Downers Grove, said she helps out a lot of new gardeners. However, she said even for experienced gardeners, adding new plants to a garden is often trial and error.
“One thing I always tell my customers is to take the sentimentality out of it,” she said. “It’s always a difficult thing with customers because you feel bad when a plant fails. Plants are going to fail.”
Here are some tips for hopefully avoiding some of those failures and having a successful garden:
Location, location, location
Even though it’s too cold to start planting now, Collins said residents adding a garden can plan on where they want it to be located.
A vegetable garden should be in a spot that receives a lot of sun and elevated enough that it will not have water draining into it.
For the more shaded areas, there are types of plants that are better suited to grow with less sunlight. Low drainage areas also can be made into rain gardens.
Unless the plant is particularly resilient, it is not advised to plant anything outside until the weather warms up for good.
Some trees and plants can be put out in April, but vegetables should not be planted until past the last frost date, which is typically May 15.
However, Collins said now is the perfect time to start planting seeds in containers indoors in preparation for the spring.
“Seed starting is a great thing to do in the winter in Chicago,” she said. “You can grow a great variety of plants by seed [in containers].”
Know your zone
The ability of a plant to endure cold weather is categorized by numbered zones, with lower zones meaning heartier plants.
The Chicago area is in zone five, meaning the perennial plants that will best survive through winter are zone five and lower.
Though it may seem limiting, Collins said there are still thousands of plants that fit that category.
Collins said when she works with new homeowners planting their first garden, sometimes they plan for a big garden without knowing how much maintenance it will require.
She advises starting with a small garden and leaving room to grow.
“You can make your garden bigger every year,” she said. “Don’t start up so huge that by the middle of the summer it is more than you can handle.”
A lot of first-time gardeners also want to jump into planting a vegetable garden, but a perennial garden is lower maintenance, she said.
“A vegetable garden is something that you need to keep weeded, and every year is a brand new garden,” she said.
Don’t be smothering
Collins compares raising plants to raising children: gardeners can be overzealous in taking care of plants.
For instance, some gardeners will use so much pesticide that it burns the plant.
“You’re just annoying this plant to death,” she said. “I think we need to back off and let this plant grow.”
She said she also teaches customers to water deeply and infrequently.
Through processes such as drip irrigation, the water trickles deep into the ground, causing the roots to grow and strengthen the plant.
If a plant is watered too shallowly, it becomes dependent on the gardener watering it and less capable of surviving a drought.
Join a community
For those who want to learn more about gardening or do not have room for a garden, there are community gardens available.
The Downers Grove Park District has a community garden at Mar-Duke Farm, 6800 S. Main St. It is mostly used for vegetable gardening and planting flowers to attract bees to pollinate.
Residents who are new to the garden or who want to pick a new plot can register from 8 to 10:30 a.m. March 5 at the Lincoln Center, 935 Maple Ave.
Shannon Forsythe, manager of natural resources and interpretive services for the Park District, said registration remains open until June 1 and the lots are never sold out.
The Park District tills the land, provides water and picks up leftover plants at the end of the year to be composted. Residents are responsible for the materials and tools.
New this year is a mentoring program that will pair experienced gardeners with novice gardeners.
“Hopefully this will give new gardeners an opportunity to learn on site with somebody who has been more successful,” Forsythe said.
For more information, call 331-777-4355.
Wannemaker’s Home and Garden, 1940 Ogden Ave., Downers Grove, will host a Spring Home and Garden Show from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 5 and 6. The event will include seminars, demonstrations, special sales and giveaways.