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How the month of April can make you a better gardener

By Jan Phipps, Master Gardener

It's spring! Let's talk about what you can do in your yard to prepare for the coming growing season. But first, there are a couple of things not to do. Don't work the soil or even walk on it when the ground is wet. There is an adage about planting potatoes on Good Friday, which is fine if the soil is dry enough that you don't make a lot of clods that will remain for the rest of the year. Walking on wet ground promotes compaction, another thing that is easier to avoid than cure. Also, wait to prune any spring flowering shrubs like forsythia and lilac until right after they bloom.

It is never too early to start weeding, especially winter annuals like henbit and chickweed. After they bloom, they will distribute their seeds, so the intelligent gardener eradicates them before then.

Cut down last year's growth from cool-season ornamental grasses as possible since they may already be sending up new green blades. You have a little more time on the warm-season ornamental grasses but cut them this month.

Cool-season crops can immediately go into a cold frame if you are desperate to plant something. Lettuce, mesclun, and spinach will germinate in a couple of days if it is sunny enough to warm up the soil through the glass top. These and other cool-season crops can go into the ground toward the end of the month. You can find a list of vegetable/fruit crops and their safe planting dates at

Don't give up on your subshrubs too early. Subshrubs are woody perennials that may or may not die back to the ground over winter and then send up new growth from the soil and the base of old stems. The stems may remain viable in milder winters, and new growth will emerge from higher up. Buddleia (butterfly bush) is notoriously late to show any sign of new growth, waiting until both days and nights are consistently warm.

When perennials start growing, divide them to get new plants. For most perennials, dig up the entire root ball, pry or cut it into sections, and immediately replant each section. Other perennials produce daughter plants that grow up from the soil around the mother plant's base. You can dig these daughters separately, leaving the main plant untouched. A bulb planter comes in handy for this job, and it removes the offshoot and an intact section of soil for easy replanting. Use the plug of soil removed from the new site to perfectly fill the hole left from removing the transplant.

April is a great time to distribute compost to your perennials and shrubs. Spread it around the base of the plants, but don't cover up the crowns. Some plants will grow right thru the compost, but most prefer unencumbered access to air and light. You can dump it right on top of the existing mulch. The April showers will wash it down to the soil, and the earthworms will take it from there.

The Illinois Extension Master Gardeners of Edgar County say enjoy your spring gardening chores. It is the perfect time of year with weather that is not too hot nor too cold, and the bugs aren't out in force yet. Call us with any horticulture questions you may have at 217-465-8585.

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