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The Homeowners Column
Fooling Mother Nature
Extension Educator, Horticulture
A clap of lighting and a stern matronly voice proclaims, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature". According to the TV commercial from several years ago Mother Nature doesn't like it when her butter is replaced with margarine. With our recent winter weather I'm thinking she is ticked off about something beyond margarine. 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 needing "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. Some gardeners go to extremes with elaborate contraptions of chicken wire and carpeting to protect tender plants. We adore pushing the envelope of what we can grow.
Gardeners also love to extend the season. A quick indication of our obsession is the spontaneous blossoming of bed sheets billowing across landscapes with the first fall or late spring 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. They are also used to slow water evaporation, prevent wind and rain damage and as an insect barrier to keep out nasties such as 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 and forethought. 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 into winter. In winter cold frames can be used to force bulbs, store root vegetables or to propagate trees and shrubs.
Gardeners are also 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. This time of year we can trim branches from forsythia, redbud, crabapple or pussy willow to have them bloom early indoors.
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. Often perennial plant seeds need a cold period before they will germinate. Enter the gardener's Mother Nature fooler - the refrigerator.
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 thunder in December or tornadoes in November. It's enough to keep a gardener humble.
Check out UI Extension website http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/vegguide/ Also UI publication Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest available online at https://pubsplus.uiuc.edu/ or phone 1-800-345-6087.