University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Key Questions for Garden Catalogs

January 13, 2000

Even though winter has not been severe yet, gardeners start longing for the days of spring about now. Garden catalogs, which are filling the mailbox these days, make it very easy to order plants that may or may not be wise choices. To help make good decisions, ask yourself a few questions when considering plant material.

The first question, which sounds simple, what exactly is the plant in question? Most vegetables and flowers are pretty straightforward, but sometimes a plant is written-up to have outstanding and perhaps unexpected features. Common names may vary, so look for Latin or scientific names to be listed, in particular with ornamental plants. If not given, you may not get the plant you think you are ordering.

Next ask yourself, do I really need it? The plant may have outstanding characteristics, but could be a poor fit for an individual situation. For fruit and vegetable crops, make sure you actually have a use for the crop once harvested. When considering flowers, shrubs, or trees, they need to fit the site where planted. This means not only the right sun or shade levels, and soil conditions, but also fitting into the scheme of the landscape.

Question 3, will it grow here? Plant hardiness is very important selection factor for trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants. Hardiness zones include both USDA (zone 5a for most of northern Illinois except parts of northwest that are zone 4b) and Arnold Arboretum (zone 4 for our area). Check which is being used by the catalog you are using.

Related to hardiness is length of the growing season. Vegetable or fruit crop cultivars need to have adequate time to produce a crop in our relatively short growing season. On
average, the last frost date for most of northern Illinois is about May 5; with the average first fall frost about October 7. Vegetables that take well over 100 days to mature (such as some vine crops) are generally not good choices, as they may not ripen before being killed by frost. Finally, what are the needs of the plant? Needs include things such as fertilizer, water, light, pruning, and space. Again, consider whether the plant is really a good fit for your yard and garden and the amount of attention you plan to give. Also consider how pest prone a plant may be when making a decision as to buy it or not.

So, grab your favorite beverage, a handful of catalogs, and think spring!


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