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Mr. Smarty Plants - Ideas for first-time gardener in Chicago

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Monday - December 01, 2008

From: Schaumburg, IL
Region: Midwest
Topic: Propagation
Title: Ideas for first-time gardener in Chicago
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I am a first time gardener, so I know very little about planting. I live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Can you give me some flower ideas that I can plant that are easy to maintain? I don't want high-maintenance plants and flowers on my first time planting.

ANSWER:

Down here in Texas, we don't know a whole lot about gardening in areas as cold and snowy as Chicago is right now. But we have some articles about native plant gardening to help you get started, and we can go from there. Since you are in USDA Hardiness Zone 5a (average annual minimum temperature -20 to -25 deg. F) to Zone 5b (average annual minimum temperature -15 to - 10 deg. F) you shouldn't be planting anything for a few months, and will have time for your "garden class" before you begin.

The first thing we want to urge you to do is to garden with plants native to North America and to the area in which you are living. Because they are native and well-adapted to your environment, they should do well and with less water, fertilizer and maintenance. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is focused on the care, protection and propagation of native plants. So, we would suggest you first read our How-To Article on Using Native Plants.  Next class assignment, read A Guide to Native Plant Gardening. And, finally, Gardening Timeline, which will give you ballpark dates for various garden chores. You will probably want to set the "begin" dates back a month or so, since you are in a colder climate, but the guidelines are valid in terms of when they should be done. To get a little closer to information on your home turf, see this Illinois Native Plants Society site Links for Using Native Plants in the Landscape. It has many suggestions for books and links to other lists and information. Another very good place to go for help, plant suggestions and even classes in gardening, go to this website of the University of Illinois Extension Cook County Extension Office, Urban Horticulture and the Environment. They give you contact information, have articles on gardening in your part of the country, and can put you in touch with Master Gardeners who know what you're talking about when you ask questions. 

Now, to get down to specifics on what to plant, and when and where, let us introduce you to our greatest resource of all, the Native Plant Database. Since you did not tell us how much space you had, sun or shade, kind of soil, etc., we will have to set up a hypothetical garden and tell you how to search for the kind of plants you want and get information about them. In your Pretend Garden, you will want to have some flowering plants, including some shrubs, in a space with sun (6 or more hours of sunlight a day) to part shade (2 to 6 hours of sun a day), and the soil is usually moist. Follow the link above to the database. Scroll down on that page to COMBINATION SEARCH; under the drop-down menus, click on Illinois for state, Herb (herbaceous or flowering plants) for habit, All Durations for duration, both sun and part shade for Light Requirements, and moist soil. Click on Submit Combination Search. This will give you 307 possibilities, most with pictures. Click on the scientific name of one of them, say Agalinis purpurea (purple false foxglove) and it will take you to a webpage with information and pictures of that plant and, at the bottom of the page, further links to information on that plant. 

Since that's a whole lot to look through, here's another way to get the information. Go to Recommended Species, click on Illinois on the map, again, use the same criteria for NARROW YOUR SEARCH, and find 59 choices. You can play with this to your heart's content, selecting for shrubs, trees, grass and grasslike plants, etc. After you have done that, if you still have questions about selections and care, get back to us with the amount of light in the garden, if the soil is usually moist, and what kinds of plants (trees, shrubs, flowering plants, etc.) you want, and we'll help you with a list of our suggestions. 

WARNING: Gardening is habit forming!

 

 

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