Fool’s Spring Survival Guide: Expert Tips for a Thriving Midwest Garden

tomatoes, kale, and raspberries on a wooden surface
An autumn harvest of tomatoes, kale, and raspberries from a home garden in Wisconsin. Photo by Nathan Jandl.

Variations of a popular meme list the midwest’s new seasons of climate change: winter becomes “fool’s spring,” which becomes “second winter,” which becomes “spring of deception,” which becomes “third winter,” until the real true verifiable spring triumphantly arrives. While the memes joke about the despair-provoking, illusive cold months—a midwestern tradition—they also describe the effects of climate change, which has led to warmer, wetter, and more unpredictable winters. The weather in Madison this April affirmed the sudden turns of fortune, beginning at 18 degrees, soaring to record-breaking 80 degree days, then crashing to the mid-20s, gray skies, and snow.

We can adapt with coats and shorts, but what about the insects and the trees? In search of answers, and advice for both aspiring and experienced gardeners, the Office of Sustainability spoke with two local experts. Lisa Johnson, an educator for the UW–Madison Department of Extension and provides responses to queries submitted to the Ask A Gardening Question portal, is a member of the Dane County Tree Board and Tree Canopy Collective and publishes a weekly column of gardening advice in the Wisconsin State Journal. Isaac Zaman, the horticulturist at Allen Centennial Garden, studied horticulture at UW–Madison (like Johnson) before working as an intern and apprentice at Allen Centennial. His garden offers guided tours and a summer concert series, while Extension provides a digital guide to gardening.

In wide-ranging conversations excerpted below, Johnson and Zaman offered advice on topics ranging from beginning a garden, crafting pollinator gardens, using herbicides, planting vegetables, combatting the effects of climate change, and maintaining hope in that fickle, challenging, enlightening, and inspiring practice known as gardening.

Jump to a topic:


On starting a garden on campus

A student on campus could grow many vegetable crops in pots: you just need to make sure that you have drainage in the pot, and you need to have ideally eight hours of sun. Six hours will do in a pinch, but vegetable gardens need to be located in areas with good sun. Also make sure you have a good water source nearby. —Lisa Johnson

On tips for new gardeners

I would get a soil test to find out what you’re dealing with in terms of pH, which is alkalinity or acidity. You can get that through the UW Soil [and Forage] Lab, and they will tell you not only pH but what your organic matter content is, so you can add organic matter if you need to.

A new gardener might want to start with transplants that you can buy at a local nursery or garden center instead of gardening from seed. Once you get comfortable with the transplants, then you can start with seed. 

Also make sure you mulch the plants. Not too heavily: two or three inches is sufficient. Ideally something like clean straw would work really well because that will help keep the temperature consistent, keep the moisture level consistent, keep the weeds down, and, in the case of tomatoes, will also provide a barrier between the soil, which contains various fungi that like to attach tomatoes, and the leaves of the tomato plant. 

Mulching, proper siting of the garden, good organic matter content, and water would be the things that I would think of. —Lisa Johnson

On learning and experimenting

Horticulture is a very big learning experience, no matter where you are skill-wise. Even if you know every plant, you’re still going to be learning how to put those plants into different scenarios and situations. Really playing with it and experimenting is one of the best tools a gardener can have, and having the confidence to explore is really important because it’s what gets you to the point where, when you grow a plant, you really start to know a plant—and it makes a difference later.

At a home garden, you might just focus on the things you really like, and it’s easy to get stuck on your habits. It’s fun to experiment: learn new things, go to workshops, have a fun time in the Community Gardens, talk with people. That is one of the biggest things: you will find a lot in books and a lot online, but if you talk with people who actually grow plants, then you’re going to be better off with the tips that they give you. —Isaac Zaman

On growing pollinator gardens

Most of them should be located in the sun, if at all possible. You can do part shade as well, as there are insects that will like that kind of environment. But the big key is you need to have things that are blooming all season long—that means very early in the season, whether it’s bulbs or woodland wildflowers like bloodroot, or some of the trees and shrubs like the witch hazel that is the spring blooming one and is not native here, or conversely the fall blooming one that is native here. Many of our ornamental trees support a lot of pollinators as well as trees that you might not think of like wild black cherry. —Lisa Johnson

On No Mow May

The idea is that if you have a weedy lawn that has a lot of flowers in it, that you leave those flowers/weeds up for early-season pollinators. There are problems with that: I would prefer to just tell people to plant native plants and take care of your lawn as normal. One of the problems that occurs with No Mow May is, when you let all your dandelions go to seed, then you end up with a lot of dandelions, but so do your neighbors. And sometimes your neighbors are not really thrilled with that. Also, I think there are better plants that could be used, like the bloodroot, or dutchman’s breeches, or a lot of different native plants. Violets often end up in people’s yards, and those are native. Another thing that can happen is, when you let your grass get super long it can be hard for your mower to deal with. There was a joke going around that No Mow May leads to Replace the Mower Blades June. If all you have is grass, it’s not going to do anything because the pollinators don’t use grass for nectar purposes or pollen-collecting purposes. Probably, unless your lawn is super weedy, it’s just not going to help enough. —Lisa Johnson

On electric mowers and how to mow sustainably

Here’s the cost for the person: whether they can afford one of the new battery-powered or electric mowers. The electric mowers are certainly going to be better for the environment; you won’t have to worry about needing to buy gas for them or worry about what to do with the leftover gas at the end of the season.

You don’t want to cut any more than a third of the height of the grass blade at any one time. For people that cut it really short, there are a number of disadvantages, which is the shorter the [grass] blade, the shorter the root system underground, which means it’s more vulnerable to drought. If you have a taller grass plant, the roots are longer and more able to deal with drought. A shorter-mowed grass is also going to need more water, and it’s going to be less effective at shading out weed seeds, so there is an incentive to mow less often. You can leave clippings on the lawn—if they’re an inch or so—and that can take care of one fertilizer application. —Lisa Johnson

On killing weeds

Roundup had some bad press, but glyphosate, which is the active ingredient, is still considered one of the safer herbicides to use. It does have drawbacks: it’ll kill both broadleaves and grassy type monocot plants, so you can’t use it in your lawn like you can a broadleaf killer, which will leave the grass alone. 

I tend to use chemicals as the last defense. There are other things you can do if we’re talking about lawns. A thick lawn that’s mowed at a high height, like three and a half to four inches, will shade out weed seeds, so that can be one approach. The thicker your lawn is, the healthier your lawn is: if you fertilize it a couple times a year, or just one time a year, that can help get rid of some of those weed problems. If you don’t have very many of them, you can certainly dig them out by hand and re-seed that area.

Different techniques [are required] depending on how bad your problem is and what your weed is. The thing with [weeds like] thistles is they have a very long taproot, but they also have a horizontal root, so that will pop up more thistles everywhere. So with those, an herbicide might be the best way to go because just by digging you don’t always get rid of that. —Lisa Johnson

On leaf mulch and a healthy earth

We use a lot of leaf mulch here in the Garden and we raise our organic matter material very high so that all of our plants have a lot of resources to give us fresh blooms every year. As a result, we may have to weed more than others because our leaf compost is very broken down, but it’s also extremely good for our plants, and it shows in our work that things are looking beautiful. We’re not really at a loss if we use a more composted material because we’re building up our soil profile and we’re doing healthy things for the earth. 

Especially in a city like Madison where you might have a lot of compaction, you have a lot of people moving around, maybe people cross through your lawn because they’re walking to school, then those gardeners should be a doing a lot to increase the organic matter and keep the earth healthy so that they’re able to nourish their gardens further. —Isaac Zaman

On trends and the garden planning game

There’s a lot surrounding new gardening styles and reaching back into native landscapes and trying to make pollinator-friendly things and reclaiming nature. Since we live in such an advanced technological world, this is a hard thing to get in touch with, especially since we’re in a city like Madison. I’ve noticed people trying to naturalize their spaces, have things that come back. But I think that it’s very hard to get into because a lot of those things are very specialty, and some of them are perennials that get sold off the first two days they go live on the internet or at any nursery.

Find the things that you like in one season, then go off and look for those things in the winter following that season, and you will be ready to buy what you want for the next season. It’s very much a planning game with the gardening styles that are popularized right now. There is quite a bit of competition, and it’s okay to explore other things and go your own pace. —Isaac Zaman

On sustainable gardening practices

We use compost and leaf mulch, which is a lot better than using wood mulch, which saps some of the nitrogen out of the soil when you apply it. Sure it looks nice, and you can get it in a lot of different colors for the fronts of buildings, but it’s not the best thing horticulturally. 

Depending on where you want to be saving the planet, you can be saving water, you can be … [growing] plants that are native and root themselves deeper and infiltrate, you can plant a rain garden—you can do so many things that use less resources but are still ornamentally valuable.

Collecting rainwater [e.g., in a rain barrel] is a big one, but also using leaves from the pileup of the city. If you catch someone gathering leaves in front of your house, you can ask them, Give that to me, I’ll make my own compost. You just need to keep it in a pile and turn it every once in a while with a couple of food scraps. —Isaac Zaman

I encourage people to grow natives. I am a horticulturist, so I also grow non-natives, but we may find that the natives may be better suited for climate change. However, they may not be. There are some that are going to have an easier time adapting than others. I encourage people to plant trees: that can help people mitigate temperatures of their house, that can help save cooling in the summer. But if you have solar panels, then you’re probably not going to want to plant trees [to avoid shading your panels]. 

There are a lot of things that people can do to be sustainable. Lawns, although they have nice benefits, also require fossil fuels to keep them mowed, and a badly tuned lawn mower can create more pollution than a number of cars. It’s really important that, if you’re going to have lawns, that you think about the inputs of water, fertilizer, and fossil fuels. —Lisa Johnson

On sudden temperature changes

You do need to be careful about when you start seeding your vegetables or when you plant your vegetable transplants because a lot of them don’t take [cold snaps]. There are some cool season ones you can plant earlier, like spinach and lettuce and broccoli and cauliflower and so on, but even if they can take a light frost, they will often be damaged in more than a light frost, so I will encourage people to wait. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do for things that are already in the ground. If you have some early season perennials coming up, you could cover them on cold nights. Certainly if you have pots of plants you could bring those inside or cover them.

You also want to look at soil temperature. The key to growing vegetables outside from seed is making sure that the soil is warm enough for that seed to germinate. You can get a soil thermometer: they’re fairly inexpensive, you can either get them online or sometimes local garden centers or greenhouses will carry those. You want to measure a couple mornings in a row or towards midway at about two to three inches down. It’s handy if you can do it over a weekend so you can get at least two days because the soil temperature is going to go up and down. If you can get three days’ worth of data that will be very helpful for you. 

It is difficult to be able to give people advice anymore because of the wild changes in temperature, like we’ve seen this year, when we had 70s and 80s, then it took a nosedive. I used to be able to tell people that you can pretty reliably in the Madison area put out your tomatoes around the fifteenth of May, and now I’m saying, wait maybe until the twentieth if it’s a cold spring. And sometimes we get warm springs that fake people out, and they plant too early, and Mother Nature corrects. I used to be able to say pretty reliably that we would get a frost, at least a light frost, the second or third week of October. That does not happen anymore: it’s often into November now. —Lisa Johnson

If the temperature drops too low, below 25 degrees, that can be detrimental and kill a lot of your plants. So if you are worried, you should cover them. You should go and buy some [row cover fabric], buy some plastic containers, glass containers, and cover your plants so that things are not going to die. And hopefully as global warming takes more effect, we will see plants start to adapt a little more quickly. —Isaac Zaman

On the effects of climate change

It’s difficult to do gardening anymore. Not that I encourage people not to. But it’s been difficult to predict things, and we may have to change our methods of gardening, we may have to change the crops that we grow. It is a concern with food production; it’s also a concern with insects coming out of hibernation too early because it’s really warm, then their food source is not blooming yet or their food source is blooming but then it gets super cold and the insects should have still been dormant. —Lisa Johnson

On failure, optimism, and patience

If you’re experimenting and find something doesn’t work for you, that’s okay: it just means something wasn’t right for your space, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a complete failure, you just need to go and try experimenting with something else or maybe in a different way. It’s always something that requires a little bit of optimism and a little bit of patience, and sometimes it doesn’t pay off, but that’s okay because then you learned and then you can help other people around you and you can continue to hone in your skills. I’m a professional horticulturist, and I’m still learning every day. —Isaac Zaman


By: Marek Makowski