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Gardening in Northern Illinois

Article by Ann Dennis


Beginner Gardeners:
If you've ever wanted to 'garden' did you ask yourself the questions that you should have? Like; Do you want pretty flowers like the lady down the street? and Do you want big beautiful bouquets like she sets on her dining room table every other day during the summer months?

The first question to ask is - How does she do it?

The answer: She has garden SPACE. She knows what each flower is and what it needs to grow, bloom, and look nice. She probably also knows when each kind flowers and can coordinate several varieties to flower in overlapping sequence. She may also have floral arrangement skills.

Don't give up if this sounds like a lot of mental work - it is, but you can start small. First, you must have SPACE for six to eight hours of sun. How do you know if you have the needed sun?

Look at your yard and find that space where you want to plant flowers. I suggest you start with annuals. Annuals are plants that grow and flower in one growing season. If you make a mistake you can always start over again next year with a clean slate.

Now, go out to that space and stick a easily seen object on the eastern most side of your plot. A bright kid's toy ( if they leave it alone long enough) or a stick or big rock. Do this is the morning and make sure the object is in the sun. Now, go about your usual routine. Check your marker at noon. Is it still in the sun? Check it again about an hour later to see if it is still in the sun. If you have three or more hours in the morning then you need at least three hours in the afternoon. Now, do the same the next day on the western side of your plot. Adjust your borders to get a minimum of six hours of sun each day. You may find that you can make a bigger plot, but you might want to resist this until you gain a little more experience.

You have several other questions to ask yourself. Do I want only flowers? What else would be useful to me, my family. Will I have help? Will my family at least leave my space alone so things will grow there?

If you still want to have that garden where do you get your information. The cooperative extension in Winnebago county is in Rockford. They have a Master Gardener program. The program is made up of volunteers trained to help gardeners with their questions. They help everyone from the person with one little house plant to the commercial growers. The phone number is 815-987-7379. Tell the secretary you'd like to speak to the Master Gardener and she'll connect you to them. The Master Gardener program starts sometime in April and runs into September.

Another way to get lots of information is to get seed catalogs. When you get on the mailing list of one company, by the following year you'll probably receive two or three more. Eventually, you may get as many as twenty seed catalogs a year. Catalogs will tell you a lot about the seeds you want to grow and will help you decide if you want to bother with seeds or go straight to the local nurseries for plants.

The next article will tell beginners about how to set up their gardens. This is another area where you will have to make a choice based upon what you know about yourself and your family.

Intermediate Gardeners:
You are probably the people who raise a few tomatoes and peppers for salads. You also have annuals and bulbs. You probably are the main caretaker of the lawn and have planted a few shrubs and trees in the ground. Maybe you've gone a little beyond that and grew some sweet corn to impress your family.

Are you looking for an easier way to grow more food? Maybe you have grown enough food in your garden to actually see your food bill go down. There are several health reasons for growing your own food. Your emotional health will get a boost and your children will gain some self esteem when they see radishes and / or lettuce seed grow into something that the whole family can "ooh and aah" over. (And if you don't ooh and aah over your kids garden accomplishments - shame on you!) They need it and you should expect it from them, too. (As well as your spouse.)

In our house, if we grow it we get to announce it at the table. We stop before digging in and point out Elizabeth's carrots, my pickled beets and all the neat lettuce Paul planted. Paul also plants several varieties of potatoes. How would you like to see a potato salad sitting on your dining table with yellow, blue and red fleshed potatoes? And just to be a little different, there's likely to be a decoration on top of three or four daylily blossoms to be eaten with the salad.

If you have limited garden space and want to grow more of your own food - think about raised, permanent beds with fences to grow your food up rather than out. Consider the concept of edible landscaping or growing red oak leaf lettuce as a border in your flower beds. As long as they can get sun they'll do fine. Try cucumbers, gourds, or melons. Make sure the plant gets support when they get heavier or they will fail. Another decorative container idea would be a salad mix called Mesclun. It's a mix of different lettuces and other leafy plants for salads. Plant it in a container by your door and harvest it as you feel the need.

If you can give up some space (and control), give your child a space of his/ her own. The rules should be simple and the space gauged for the child's age and interest. A three year old might need only a square foot to grow some lettuce or a couple strawberry plants. If they want to grow radishes, get a mix called Easter Egg Radishes. Then they will have the thrill of the many colors even if they don't want to eat the roots themselves.

The following are suggested rules to make gardening more fun for your children.

Rule #1:
This spot is for your child and no one else should interfere. Sit down and talk to your child about what he /she wants to grow and try to accomodate them. Be realistic.

Rule #2:
The child has to keep the weeds cleaned up. Mulching the bed will help and keep the job easy. This will keep your child from growing the county's largest Lambe's Quarters and staring in awe at it as you are on your knees pulling it's offspring out of your share of the garden. Do this with your child.

Rule #3:
If you plant it you harvest it. Of course, chidren need to know that they have to harvest their plot but they must also help with the rest of the garden because they benefit from both activities.

Rule #4:
For Mom and Dad: Don't push it! The best way to keep your children out of the garden is to insist that they help. If you want them there - make it pleasant for them. Let them come out and have places where they can sit and talk to you while you work. It's surprising how much you can do with your garden and your children if they just talk. Of course, this is the "Tom Sawyer" approach. And yes, it works.

Advanced Gardeners:
Have you gotten the greenhouse bug yet? When we did we were shocked at the cost of those wonderful little buildings. We found a solution. It's not a beautiful solution but we screen our hoop greenhouse by reinforcing our perimeter plantings so people can't see into our yard. The hoop greenhouse is reasonably easy to put up - but it is a two-person job. We built ours with rebar, metal pipe, plastic water pipe, and we went to the expense of getting our plastic cover from a greenhouse supplier. If anyone wants to build one I'll put directions in a future article, if there are enough requests.

If you're looking for something new to do while you're waiting for the ground to warm up enough to put out your plants, try going to a conference with a gardening theme. Call the Cooperative Extension office and they can tell you about their gardening for food and fun conference held at Rock Valley College in early March.

If you're a confirmed "crazy gardener" like my family you might be interested in a small farmer's conference that is held in southwestern Wisconsin, also in early March. This conference is put on by a group of small farmers. The facilities for this year and in the past have been the Sinsinawa Mound Center. It's a retirement home for an order of Nuns and is a beautiful place to explore if you get the time.

The last conference had sessions including:
Permaculture     Establishing native grasses and prairie
Stawberries    Producing excellent organic potatoes
Soil and spirit    Small farm equipment
Living mulch    Biological effects of pesticide fertilizers
Fame weeding    Farming with horses
Buying a farm    Astrology and agricultural rythyms
Flower farming    Turning profit on your wool crop
Soil health    Growing edible beans and soybeans
Earthworms    On-farm processing, and others.

Of course these sessions are aimed at the small farmers and truck gardeners that choose to produce their products organically. Yet, we have found that some of the ideas we learn there help us raise our own food easier and with more fun. We got the Hoop House idea there and enjoy meeting all the people. They even provide daycare for a reasonable charge.

If you go next year, contact Faye Jones N7834 County Road B, Spring Valley, WI 54767. Her Email is fjeoc@win.bright.net - Do it now and she will put you on the mailing list to receive an announcement / registration form for next year.


Ann Dennis is a former Master Gardener for cooperative Extension. She has a two year degree in Greenhouse Management and a life-time of experience in the garden and with her children. She also assists her husband in growing and selling water lillies. Together they have raised some things that the "experts said could not be grown in this area" by creating micro-environments for some borderline plants.