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Over the Garden Fence

Answers for Early Spring FAQs

University of Illinois Extension and Master Gardener Help Desk phone lines have seen more action recently, especially when it comes to what can be done outside. Here are a few that may ring a bell for many homeowners:

Q:            I am going to start my own vegetable and flower transplants this year. Can you give me some best practices?

A:             Here are a few that will give you the best chance at success. Start by estimating your expected planting date in the garden and then read the seed packet label to determine when seeds should be sown indoors. Use fresh seed, use new or very clean seed starting flats, and use new seed starting soil mix (media carried over from 2019 can easily be contaminated). Media should be kept moist and never waterlogged to avoid seedling rots. Saved your seeds? Find out more here.

Q:            I am eager to get the yard cleaned up. I know it is early but what can I do on those mild weather days?

A:             Right now, hold off on any “heavy” cleanup. You can start by simply cleaning up the overwintering debris that has blown into the yard. Good examples are papers and plastics that escaped the recycle can, leaves that have blown in, and twigs and smaller branches that have come down too. Attempting to rake out the perennial or ground cover beds is a bad idea. Leave that alone so you do not disturb any buried new growth or accidently pull out valued plants that have heaved up over the winter. You could take a visual inventory of bed lines that will need adjusting or maybe weeds that will need to be managed later.

Q:            I have left over fertilizer and some spray from last year. How good is it?

A:             If your granular fertilizers have been kept dry, they should be fine. If moisture has been in the bag, it will be clumpy and not flow properly through the spreader. The fertilizer itself is likely still good, so using it for hand broadcasting in beds will be a good way to put it to work. Pesticides will be another story. If they are wettable powders and kept dry, they will last for several seasons. Products that are emulsifiable concentrates will often separate right in the container with age and not be any good. Products that are a liquid and have not been frozen also should be ok, but if there is any separation, they are a goner too. A good rule to follow is buy just enough to get through the season so you are using fresh products every year. Always use and follow label instructions.

Q:            Can I still do my fruit tree dormant pruning or is it already too late?

A:             Even though the weather has been moderating and we have had a few days of 40 degrees and above, those fruit trees have not started to come out of winter dormancy. That means they can still be pruned. Be sure to prune well before bud swell so you do not waste plant resources. Save the peach trees for the last, and you may even want to wait until they begin to flower to see which branches are going to have peaches before you start to prune.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.