These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.
Use Garden Catalogs Wisely!
January 1, 1998
Watch your mailbox in the coming days. Not for sweepstakes, but for the 1998 garden catalogs. With the growing season months away and winter just getting into full swing, it can be very tempting to order without thinking everything out. As always, it pays to be a wise shopper.
Start with a plan. For vegetable gardens, calculate what and how much of various vegetables the family will actually use. Why grow and harvest a crop nobody plans to eat? Sketch out the actual garden area, including dimensions. Then roughly figure how much space the vegetables will need.
When considering vegetable or fruit crop plants, make sure specific plants will have enough time to produce a crop in our relatively short growing season. The average last frost date for the McHenry County area is about May 5; with the average first fall frost about October 6. These are average figures to consider. 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.
Related to the season length is plant hardiness for trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants. Hardiness zones include both USDA (zone 5a for our area) and Arnold Arboretum (zone 4 for our area). Check which is being used by the catalog you are using.
Another key element in ordering plants (especially ornamental or landscape) is to know exactly what the plant is. Look for the Latin or scientific name. If not given, you may not get the plant you think you are ordering.
Ornamental plants need to fit into the overall landscape scheme. Consider the amount of sun or shade needed, 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.
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 1998 catalogs!