These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.
Plan Before Ordering Seeds and Plants
January 14, 1999
After battling the cold and snow, you relax and go through the day's mail. Colorful gardening catalogs have been arriving daily. Its tempting to start ordering away, but it pays to have a plan before doing so, whether using mail catalogs this winter or shopping the local garden center next spring.
Regardless of what plants are involved, start with a plan. For vegetable gardens, calculate what and how much of various vegetables the family will actually use. Why grow something nobody plans to eat? Sketch out the actual garden area, including dimensions. Then roughly figure how much space the vegetables will need.
Ornamental plants need to fit into the overall landscape scheme. Consider sun or shade requirements and mature size of the planting. Mature size of the plant should fit into your plan. Don't plan on constant pruning to "fit" a plant into the design.
Plant hardiness is very important selection factor for trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants. Hardiness zones include both USDA (zone 5a for most of northern Illinois except parts of northwest that are zone 4b) and Arnold Arboretum (zone 4 for our area). Check which is being used by the catalog you are using.
Related to hardiness is length of the growing season. Vegetable or fruit crop cultivars need to have adequate time to produce a crop in our relatively short growing season. On average, the last frost date for most of northern Illinois is about May 5; with the average first fall frost about October 7. Vegetables that take well over 100 days to mature (such as some vine crops) are generally not good choices, as they may not ripen before being killed by frost. Look for varieties intended for northern gardens, which have shorter season requirements.
Another key element in ordering plants (especially ornamental or landscape) is to know exactly what the plant is. Common names may vary, so look for Latin or scientific name to be listed. If not given, you may not get the plant you think you are ordering.
Finally, know the growing requirements of plants. Group plants with similar requirements together for the best results. Many plants may have problems with our heavy clay soils. Consider watering, pruning, fertilizing, and pest control needs of the species.
Enjoy the 1999 catalogs!