The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Fooling Mother Nature

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Remember the margarine commercial several years back. It finished with a clap of lighting and a stern voice stating, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." As gardeners we are always trying to fool Mother Nature. We want tulips in January or tomatoes in December. It may not be nice to fool her, but it sure is fun when it works.

We often modify the growing environment of our plants. We add sulfur to the soil for acid loving plants and lime to the soil for alkaline plants. We add organic matter to the soil in the form of compost to improve drainage and add nutrients. We build boggy areas and ponds for the water loving plants. We build raised beds and berms for the plants wanting "dry feet."

We suffer from zonal envy so we grow plants beyond their winter hardiness zone. We use winter mulches of leaves or rose cones. I have even seen elaborate contraptions of chicken wire and carpeting to protect tender plants.

Gardeners love to extend the season. A quick indication of our obsession is the spontaneous appearance of bed sheets billowing across landscapes with the first fall freeze warning. Some gardeners have graduated from bed sheets to floating row covers. This is spun polyester of polypropylene material that transmits light, air, and water. Row covers can keep plants 5-10° warmer than outside air temperatures. Row covers are also used to slow water evaporation, prevent wind and rain damage and as an insect barrier to keep out nasties like Japanese beetles.

Cold frames are more advanced forms of this season extending obsession. Cold frames can be used year around, but they do take management. In spring use them to start seedlings, grow early crops or harden off seedlings. In summer cold frames can be used as nursery beds for fall crops or perennials. In fall they can extend summer crops and grow cool crops longer into winter. In winter cold frames might be used to force bulbs, store root vegetables or tree and shrub propagation.

Gardeners also seem obsessed with having flowers out of season. We manipulate light so poinsettia, chrysanthemum and Thanksgiving/Christmas cactus will have 13 hours of dark per 24 hours to bring them into bloom. We bring in branches of forsythia or pussy willow to have them bloom early.

We force spring flowering bulbs into bloom by storing them in the refrigerator for 12-13 weeks just so we can see the first tulip of the year.

Fooling Mother Nature? I'm not sure we ever really fool the old gal. I think she just humors us for a while. Just when we think we have it all worked out, she gives us snow in March or tornadoes in November. It's enough to keep a gardener humble.

If you would like to serve homegrown lettuce for Thanksgiving, have tulips blooming in midwinter, and successfully grow tomatoes in your basement then the program "Fooling Mother Nature" is for you. University of Illinois Extension is offering a program on advanced gardening methods that anyone can do. "Fooling Mother Nature" presents tips and techniques to modify temperature, soil, light, or season to change plant growth.

"Fooling Mother Nature" will be repeated for your convenience. Mark you calendars for Tuesday January 14 at 7 p.m. or Thursday January 16 at 1:30 p.m. There is no charge for the program but registration is requested to provide handout material. Programs will be held at U of I Extension auditorium, 801 North Country Fair Drive, Champaign using the University of Illinois Extension telenet distance learning system. To register call 217-333-7672 or email champaign_co@extension.uiuc.edu

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