University of Illinois Extension

10 Spring Gardening Tips

Winter storms and cold seem to go on forever, but eventually that first crocus will pop, grass will green and spring rains will fall, said Ron Wolford, U of I Extension horticulture educator.

"So grab your trowel, rake and hoe and get ready for spring with the following tips," said Ron Wolford

Prepare for Frost
The frost-free date for the Chicago area is around April 25 near the lake and May 15 away from the lake. The term frost-free means that there is still a 50-50 chance of frost on the frost-free date. Be prepared for late spring frosts. Cover tender plants with row covers, cardboard, blankets, hot caps, or newspaper. We have had frost as late as Memorial Day.


Prune Trees and Shrubs
Spring is a good time to prune trees and shrubs while they are dormant. Without leaves; it is easy to see the framework of the plant. Complete pruning before buds break. For general pruning of trees and shrubs remove any dead or diseased branches. Remove all water sprouts and suckers. Water sprouts are stems that grow at right angles to the branches. Suckers grow from the base of the tree. Prune out crossing or rubbing branches. Prune back to a bud or a branch. When cutting back to a bud, make sure the bud is facing outward. This will cause new growth to grow to the outside of the plant.

Shrubs that bloom in the spring like lilacs, spirea and forsythias should not be pruned in early spring. Pruning would remove flower buds. Prune after they finish flowering.

Soil Prep
Never work your soil when it is wet. Digging or tilling wet soil will compact your soil turning it into clumps as hard as concrete. It will take several seasons of adding organic matter to the soil to rebuild its structure. Use the "squeeze" test to check if your soil is dry enough to work. Take a handful of soil and squeeze it. If the soil crumbles through your fingers, you can work your soil. If it stays in a ball after squeezing, the soil is too wet to work and you should give it a few days to dry.

Lawn Care
Prepare your lawn for the mowing season. Rake away all twigs and debris. Have the lawn mower blades sharpened, replace the spark plugs and change the oil. Seed bare spots in the lawn. Dig up the soil six to eight inches deep and add a starter fertilizer. Sprinkle on a good seed mix of bluegrass and fescue. Rake lightly to mix seed with soil. Tamp to assure seed-soil contact. Keep well watered for two to three weeks until the seed has germinated.

Rabbit Protection
Protect your newly planted vegetable garden from rabbits. Purchase chicken wire fencing with one inch or smaller mesh. Wire should be at least three feet tall. Install around garden and bend back six inches of fencing and bury below the soil. This will keep rabbits from crawling underneath the fence.

Divide Perennials
Spring is a good time to divide most perennials. Divide plants when flowers get smaller, when the center of the plant dies out or when the plant outgrows its space. 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.

Bulb Care
Remove spent flowers from spring bulbs. Allow bulb foliage to die back naturally. Leaves make food resources which are stored in the bulbs for a repeat flower show next year.

Kill Creeping Charlie
Spring is a great time to remove the weed Creeping Charlie manually with a rake or by hand. Creeping Charlie has square stems, purplish blue funnel-shaped flowers and round to kidney shaped leaves. Winter temperatures weaken the roots. So in March, after the ground thaws, when the soil is moist and before new growth has started is the time to pull the weed before it becomes established.

Houseplant Maintenance
Spring is a good time for houseplant maintenance. Longer days and higher light intensity will cause indoor plants to begin growing faster. Start fertilizing again using a half strength solution every other watering. Prune hard now to stimulate new, bushier growth. Repot your houseplants when roots grow through the drainage holes, when the soil mass is filled with roots, when new leaves are smaller than usual or when the plant wilts between waterings. Plant into a container that is one to two inches wider than the original pot.

Chicago Flower and Garden Show
Attend the Chicago Flower and Garden Show from March 10-18 at Chicago's Navy Pier. With its "Hort Couture" theme, the show's 25-plus gardens will draw inspiration from textures and colors found in plants and fabrics, as well as alluring and beautiful elements found in nature. The University of Illinois Extension will have Master Gardeners at the show answering gardening questions, doing worm composting demonstrations and introducing kids to insects with our insect petting zoo. Extension educators will be conducting gardening seminars. More information: