What could be more glorious in Chicago than that first burst of heat, chasing away winter blues with a shock of sunlight and sprouts shooting up out of nowhere?
Spring took her time to get here, but as the high temperatures of early May mellow into more typical weather for the season, eager gardeners can spend a little time ahead of Memorial Day weekend prepping for the coming months of planting, weeding, mowing and more.
Whether you’re a first-time homeowner looking to lay some groundwork, or a seasoned pro exploring new ideas, here are our top tips for garden and lawn care in the Chicago area.
Take note of what type of soil is in your yard, be it sandy or claylike, as well as the sunlight exposure and degree of shade. It’s vital to consider these conditions when choosing the best plants for your garden, which will also change with the season.
Draw out your space on paper so you can plot out your vision for a garden. Consider things like where your utilities are located, or how you can use plants to create some privacy in your yard or bolster home security. The microclimate within a garden can also affect plants. Use the color wheel to help you understand the basic relationships between the colors and to gain an understanding about how to mix them more effectively.
If you’re planning to start a garden in the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street — whether you call it a parkway, berm or hell strip — there are additional considerations to make.
Use plant catalogs or get information through the Morton Arboretum Plant Clinic and Chicago Botanic Garden to figure out which plants will fit your needs and the time of year, then order from a nearby garden center. Chicago Botanic Garden also offers a free smartphone app for advice on the go.
The city and suburbs have a wealth of garden centers with a sweeping range of offerings. In Chicago, garden centers include Adams & Son Gardens (Humboldt Park), Christy Webber Farm & Garden (East Garfield Park), CityEscape (East Garfield Park), Farmers Market Garden Center (Irving Park), Gethsemane Garden Center (Edgewater), Growers Outlet (Gresham), and Old Town Gardens.
In the suburbs, check out Chalet Nursery (Wilmette), Meinke’s Garden Center (Niles), and Ted’s Greenhouse (Tinley Park).
If you’re starting fresh, you’ll need to measure your garden bed to determine how much soil, compost or mulch you’ll need. There are tips below for choosing the tools that suit your needs, as well as how to care for them.
Start your own compost pile to provide nutrient-rich compost for your plants, while also reducing waste. Composting at home is easy to do by simply finding a discreet spot to pile up landscape waste or purchasing a free-standing plastic composter.
For growing plants from seeds, growing cells or jiffy pots will help get sprouts going before they’re strong enough to plant outside. (Not all seeds can be started in pots, so check the package label or website.)
For indoor plants, look for pots with drainage holes, as trapped water can lead to root rot. Use plastic inner pots inside slightly larger terra cotta, clay or other decorative pots, and fill them with indoor potting soil or, for succulents, a cactus blend.
If your pots do not have holes, fill the bottom with small stones to keep the soil from becoming too soggy. For plants that need more humidity, you can place stones in the saucer and fill it with water, or mist leaves regularly.
You may also need fertilizer after your new plants settle in. Garden centers will usually provide advice for how best to care for your plants, and some are offering online help during the pandemic.
Hardiness zones help determine which types of plants will thrive in your garden’s climate. The Chicago area is generally 6a or 5b, and gardening catalogs will include that information for each plant (you can read more about hardiness zones here).
You’ll need to wait until fall to plant most spring-flowering bulbs, but early spring is the perfect time for violas and pansies, wildflowers and mild-mannered native plants.
Shrubs can add visual texture and shade coverage. Arborvitaes are a popular choice and are available inexpensively at nearly every garden center and home store. In many Chicago-area neighborhoods and suburbs, yew shrubs are ubiquitous.
Early spring weeds are already sprouting, but you can act now to lessen the spread. It’s also a good time to rework garden bed edges, which will improve the overall appearance of your garden and be much easier to mow along.
You might be considering some changes to your garden, like adding native prairie plants or paying some extra attention to those lush hydrangea bushes. If last year’s gardening didn’t go as planned, consider the shade and soil conditions, and whether the type of plant you selected match up. For spots that didn’t get as much sun as you expected, consider switching to plants that thrive in dry, shady areas, such as hostas, wild ferns and wild columbine.
If you’ve planted anything new in the past two or three years, the young plants will likely need supplemental watering, especially during hot weather.
Consider the amount of daylight each room in your home gets, as well as factors like proximity to radiant heat (which dehydrates air and fluctuates temperature) or access for curious pets to nibble. Be sure to get the right soil, or soilless medium, for the type of plant you select.
Certain houseplants thrive on neglect, so if you haven’t had good luck, try a low-maintenance plant like a ZZ plant, a parlor palm, a pothos or a monstera. Succulents and air plants also tend to require little care — in fact, watering them too often can do more harm than good.
Most garden centers sell young plants, so you don’t have to start from seeds. Certain plants, like a pothos or spider plant, are easy to propagate, meaning a cutting can grow roots and become its own plant, or be added back into the pot for a denser look. Ask friends if they have cuttings to spare, or check plant care or trade groups on social media for fellow enthusiasts in your area.
If you have pets, consult experts on which plants would be toxic or poisonous for your animal. While mild toxicity can result in minor side effects, these plants should be kept out of reach of curious critters.
Do a routine check for any pests or diseases, like spider mites, aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, black fungus gnats or mildew. If your houseplant is inside a plastic container, give it a squeeze, or gently lift the plant up without harming the root ball, to see if it needs to be repotted (many do after being dormant in winter).
If the plastic container doesn’t have much give, or if roots have started forming in the shape of the pot or are growing out of the holes at the bottom, it’s time to repot. If a plant is too large to repot, add fresh soil to provide nutrients.
Lower leaves on some plants, like dracaenas and palms, will start to brown and wither as new growth begins. Prune dead leaves, but take a closer look if the entire plant is affected.
If you’ll be planting any new trees this year, consider species that are native to the Midwest, which are likely to handle the local weather and can feed the local wildlife. Dogwood, oaks and tupelo are a few choice options.
For already established trees and shrubs, make sure you’re selecting the right kind of mulch as you start your springtime garden TLC.
Prune dead or broken branches on deciduous shrubs. If you didn’t give them a major pruning when they were dormant during the winter, you can still tidy them up a bit. It can be tricky to tell which branches are deadwood, but decay, cracks and other clues can help.
At this point in spring, don’t prune spring-blooming shrubs such as forsythia, viburnum, lilac and quince, or you’ll be cutting off their buds.
If pruning, be sure to research best practices — too steep of a cut or too much weight on the branch could be fatal to your tree. If a tree suffered damage over the winter, a professional arborist might be able to recommend ways to save them.
Take stock of damage to shrubs and your yard as well. Pesky deer might have munched on evergreens and caused browning bottoms, while burrowing voles could carve runways through your yard under winter snow.
If you’re a first-time homeowner, we’ve got a rundown on what to look for when buying the gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers and weed wackers you’ll need this summer.
Don’t bother with power raking at this point in the year, and only consider it if you’ve got an excessive buildup of thatch under your grass. But measures like core aeration and using a mulching mower are preferred maintenance alternatives.
Proper mowing practices can have a big impact on the health and appearance of your lawn. Cutting at a height of 3 to 3 ½ inches helps grass develop a deeper root system and be better able to withstand stress when the weather gets hotter and drier. The taller grass will also help discourage weeds.
It is OK to cut at a shorter height in the early season, when growing conditions are typically ideal for bluegrass. Cutting at a lower height, around 2 to 2 ½ inches in early spring allows you to neaten up your lawn as it is starting to grow and before it broadly passes the 3-inch height mark, and then again for the last cut in late fall.
Full sun is best for a vegetable garden, and if you’re new to the process, start small. The end of April is the right time to plant cool-season vegetable crops like peas, cilantro, lettuce and radish, but most vegetables, including tomatoes and squash, should be planted in late May, after the final frost of the season.
The University of Illinois Extension has a vegetable guide and lots of advice on troubleshooting for vegetable gardens, while Chicago magazine has a great guide on easy-to-grow vegetables and windowsill vegetable gardens. Growing microgreens is a fun option for indoor enthusiasts, and they only take a couple of weeks until they’re ready to harvest.
For self-water, ready-to-go herb kits, Chicago-based company Modern Sprout puts seeds, soil and other growing materials into a mason jar. Aside from a variety of herbs, the company also makes kits for cactuses, flowers and vegetables, plus equipment like grow lights and hydroplanters.
Some gardening centers also sell young herbs or kits, as well.
There are lots of resources for gardening enthusiasts. The Tribune’s Homes section includes a weekly Q&A for gardeners, and local experts like WGN’s Lou Manfredini offer advice on a wide range of gardening topics. You can also send questions to the U. of I. Extension expert gardeners, who usually respond in a couple of days.