For three seasons of the year, the tasks of a gardener are pretty easily outlined. But spring, and early spring in particular, can be a bit perplexing.
Often cold and wet, and maybe even still snowy, April is a month typically reserved for such routine housekeeping duties as clearing out, raking up and trimming back.
We’ve spent months anticipating spring so eagerly from behind the glass and under blankets – dreaming of getting our hands in the dirt.
And when temperatures finally start to warm and days get sunnier, we are stuck sharpening our lawn mower blades and – well – cooling our heels. But the weeks between the official start of the season in March and the last frost (for us that is around mid-May), don’t have to be a waiting game. This is where cool season annuals come in. When it’s still too chilly for many of our tender favorites, this group of cold hardy flowers and vegetables step in to bridge the gap.
As soon as the ground begins to warm and soil is workable, cold tolerant plants like arugula, beets, lettuces and onions can be started.
You can even sow spinach seeds over frozen ground, and they will germinate as the soil thaws. (Yes, you read that right!) About four weeks before the last frost you can direct sow broccoli, radish and English peas. Kale and kohlrabi can be planted now as well. Once we get a little closer to our frost free date (about two weeks out), veggies like Swiss chard, turnips and carrots can go in.
If you would like to see some early spring color in the garden, but forgot to get your bulbs in the ground last fall, don’t despair! There are a number of pretty flowers that will do a wonderful job of brightening up your pots and flowerbeds through the weeks to come. Cold hardy annuals include pansies and violas, sweet alyssum, dianthus, snapdragons and calendula.
Acclimate plants to cooler temperatures by keeping them outdoors during the day, and bringing them inside at night. After a few days of this, they should be ready to handle a light frost. Some cold, hardy annuals, such as calendula, pansies and violas, actually perform best in early spring before the weather heats up. Once temperatures really start to climb, blooming will slow, and they can be replaced with something more appropriate for summer.
Now, while everything mentioned here is cold tolerant, a drastic drop in temperature, or a freeze, still has the potential to ruin all your hard work. Be mindful of the weather report, and if a cold snap is expected, simply draping plants with an old bed sheet, a blanket or some newspaper overnight should do the trick. Happy planting!
• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for information.