Care and How-To Articles

Spring Garden with Redbud in bloom

As winter fades and spring arrives, several things can be done to prepare the garden for the upcoming growing season.

Below are tips for the perennial garden, vegetable garden, annual containers, trees & shrubs, and lawns.

sample of microgreens

Microgreens are easy to grow – even indoors in winter in Iowa.  All that is needed is a few supplies, some microgreen seeds, and a sunny window. 


Like many seasonal houseplants, shamrocks appear in floral shops, garden centers and other retailers for a short time.   While many seasonal plants are discarded after flowering, shamrocks can be long-lived houseplants with proper care.  

pussy willow

Gardeners can brighten up the last few weeks of winter by forcing branches of flowering trees and shrubs indoors.  Forsythias, pussywillows, serviceberries, crabapples, magnolias, redbuds, and many fruit trees can be coaxed into early bloom indoors, helping revive the spirits of winter-weary Iowans. 

Manure is the oldest fertilizer known to civilization. Many gardeners feel manure is superior to synthetic products. Careful and appropriate use of manure, especially in vegetables gardens, is important. 

Petunias have been one of the most popular flowering annuals for years. Their popularity can be attributed to several desirable traits. Petunias are easy to grow, bloom reliably all summer, and are available in a wide range of colors, flower forms, and growth habits. 

Most gardeners buy petunias at their local garden center or greenhouse in spring. However, petunias can also be started indoors in late winter. 


Sow petunia seeds indoors about 10 weeks before the intended outdoor planting date. (Petunias should be planted outdoors after the danger of frost is past.) Late February or early March is an appropriate sowing date in Iowa. 

Impatiens are excellent plants for shady areas in the home landscape. Impatiens are ideal for flower beds, planters, and hanging baskets. Their versatility and adaptability to shade have made impatiens one of the most popular annual bedding plants in the United States. Impatiens are relatively easy to grow from seeds.


Impatiens are slow growing. Home gardeners should sow seeds in early to mid-February to produce stocky transplants by spring. 

Used plant containers

Reusing plastic, clay, and other containers is a great way to save money and reduce the amount of plastic waste that goes into landfill.  Plastic containers cannot be recycled in traditional single-stream home recycling programs and, unfortunately, programs to collect and recycle plastic pots are not common.

Proper cleaning and disinfecting of pots requires just a minimum amount of effort, yet can mean the difference between the success or failure of containerized plants, plus it allows you to reuse containers and reduce plastic waste. Follow the steps below to clean and disinfect used containers.

Blueberries Photo by Andris Tkachenko AdobeStock

Iowa soils are very diverse and so are the chemical characteristics that make up these soils.  Soil pH is one property that can vary widely across the state both naturally and due to how we manage the field or garden.  It is also one of the most cost effective and easy to manage soil properties that can be modified to improve plant health and crop production.

Steps to Decrease Soil pH  |  Steps to Increase Soil pH  |  More Information

Mum Photo by Hanna Tor Adobe PhotoStock

Many florist's plants can serve as long-lasting flower arrangments in the home and make excellent gifts.  What distinguishes florist's plants from other blooming indoor plants is their length of time in the home.  Florist's plants (like mums, poinsettias, and azaleas) are intended to be temporary indoor plants, whereas flowering houseplants (like African violets, orchids, or holiday cacti) are intended to remain in the home season after season.

Learn more about how to care for your florist's plants below.

Shrub Rose Carefree Beauty

Roses have been cultivated in gardens for centuries.  Gardeners have a long history of loving and growing this thorny perennial. Its sentimental appeal as a cut flower and in the garden has never wavered.

Roses in the Fossil Record

Our love of roses is rooted in several thousand years of admiration, cultivation, and hybridization. Fossil records show roses existed 30 million years ago in Europe, Asia, and North America. While these predecessors to today's Valentine's roses were less showy and floriferous, they were equally appreciated in many cultures through their long history.


Geraniums have been a popular bedding plant for many years.  Most gardeners purchase plants from garden centers and greenhouses.  However, geraniums can also be grown from seeds.  Se

Daffodils forced indoors

Bulb forcing can bring the bright colors and fragrances of spring indoors during winter. Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and other spring flowering bulbs can be forced indoors from December through March.  Learn how to force bulbs indoors below.


There are over 100 genera in the Gesneriaceae or Gesneriad family. Most are tropical plants, such as African violet and gloxinia, and are native to Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Approximately 300 species are cultivated, many as houseplants. All are excellent houseplants with showy flowers or foliage.  A few of the most common cultivated species are listed below.

purple African violet bloom

African violets are one of America’s most popular houseplants. They belong to the Saintpaulia genus and are one of the most commonly grown members of the gesneriad (Gesneriaceae) family.  Under the proper growing conditions, they will bloom almost continuously indoors. Care and hoe to address potential problems are covered below.

red anthurium flower with yellow spadex (rod in middle)

Aroids or arums are members of the Araceae family.  The Araceae family is large, with more than 100 genera and 3700 species of mostly sub-tropical monocots.  Many species are popular as houseplants, and a few are distinctive landscape plants. 

pruning saw on tree

February and March is the best time to prune most trees and shrubs in Iowa.  The absence of foliage at this time of year gives you a clear view of the tree and allows the selection and removal of appropriate branches.  Also, when pruned in the late dormant season the walling-off, compartmentalization, or sealing of wounds can begin as soon as growth starts in the spring giving the tree the most time to recover from the pruning cut.

Iowa State University has many resources available to help with pruning all your woody plants.

Apple trees need to be pruned throughout their lives. The most important period for pruning and training fruit trees is the first 4 to 5 years after planting. Proper pruning and training of young apple trees should produce strong, well-structured trees that yield a large crop of high-quality fruit.

Best Training System

For home gardeners, the easiest training system for apple trees is the central leader system. The central leader system produces a vertical central leader or main stem with tiers of strong, properly spaced limbs or scaffold branches. These scaffold branches grow about 30 to 45 above horizontal. This system of training results in a "Christmas tree" shape or pyramidal-shaped tree.

Currants and gooseberries (Ribes species) are berry- producing shrubs which have been grown in the United States since colonial times. There are three types of currants typically grown in the home garden: red, white, and black. American and European are the two types of gooseberries grown.

Reasons to Grow  |  Growing Conditions  |  Varieties  |  Care  |  Pruning

Old, neglected apple trees that haven't been pruned for several years are often tall, densely branched, unproductive, and may contain a large number of dead branches. The fruit produced on neglected trees is generally small, poorly colored, and misshapen with low sugar content. (The misshapen fruit is caused by insect and disease pests.)

Though trees may be old, structurally sound trees can produce good-quality fruit if properly renovated and managed. Pruning increases fruit size, promotes better color development, increases sugar content, and decreases insect and disease problems by allowing better spray coverage and faster drying following rainfall. Pruning also makes it easier to harvest the fruit.

While raspberries and blackberries are not the same species, the growth and fruiting characteristics of blackberries are similar to raspberries. The blackberry plant's roots and crown are perennial, while its stems or canes are biennial. Blackberry canes are strictly vegetative during the first growing season. These first-year canes are referred to as primocanes. The following year, these same canes (now called floricanes) flower, produce fruit, and then die. 

Types of Blackberries for Iowa

In Iowa, the canes of most blackberry varieties suffer extensive winter injury. As a result of this damage, plants produce little or no fruit. 

Proper pruning of raspberries is essential. Pruning produces higher yields, helps control diseases, and facilitates harvesting and other maintenance chores. Pruning procedures are based on the growth and fruiting characteristics of the plants. 

Pruning is Based on How Raspberries Grow

The growth and fruiting characteristics of the raspberry plant are rather unique. The plant's roots and crown are perennial, while the stems or canes are biennial. Each spring, purple, black, and red raspberries produce new canes from buds located at the base of the previous year's growth. Red raspberries also produce new shoots from buds located on their roots. The individual canes live for 2 years and then die. 

For some home gardeners, pruning grapevines is a difficult, confusing chore. However, it's not really difficult if you understand the basic pruning principles and have the right tools. 

Grapevines produce fruit clusters on the previous season's growth. Before pruning, a grapevine may have 200 to 300 buds capable of producing fruit. If the vine is not pruned, the number of grape clusters would be excessive and the grapevine would be unable to ripen the large crop or produce adequate vegetative growth. 

The purpose of pruning is to obtain maximum yields of high-quality grapes and to allow adequate vegetative growth for the following season. 

formal hedge

There is something special about a healthy, well-maintained hedge. A symmetrical wall of green creates visual and physical limits in the landscape and provides a softer effect than wood or plastic materials. Hedges are an effective backdrop for flower beds and borders or may stand on their own in a diversity of shapes and sizes. Shrub plantings can be allowed to grow into a natural, informal hedge or they may be pruned (sheared) into a formal hedge.

Best Shrubs for Formal Hedges

Shrubs suitable for small hedges (less than 5 feet in height) include:

Bypass Pruners Photo by butus AdobeStock

The keys to pruning trees and shrubs are a basic understanding of pruning techniques and knowing when to prune plants. It's also important to have the right tools. There are various types of pruning tools. The best tool for the job is determined by the size of the plant material and the situation.

When buying pruning equipment, select high-quality tools. Good, high-quality tools are not inexpensive. However, if they are used and cared for properly, they will perform better and far outlast the poor-quality, less expensive choices.

healthy oak leaves

Oak trees are valuable assets in the home landscape.  Occasionally oak trees need to be pruned for health, safety, and appearance reasons.  Pruning oaks makes them more valuable to infection from the fungus that causes oak wilt. By pruning oaks properly, you can reduce that risk and keep trees healthy.

Young or newly-planted trees require special care to ensure their establishment and rapid growth. Young trees must be protected from the careless operation of lawnmowers and weed-trimmers, from vandals, and from harmful construction activities. They also must be given appropriate amounts of water and essential mineral elements (fertilizer) and may benefit from staking, trunk wrapping, and mulching. But pruning may be the most important post-plant maintenance task to perform on young trees if they are to live up to our expectations. The time and expense invested in training a young tree will always be much less than costly and time-consuming corrective pruning of neglected mature trees.

Pruned Tree

Pruning is a common garden task and proper pruning is important.  

Many gardeners have questions regarding the pruning of trees, shrubs, fruits, vines, and other woody plants. 
Get answers to your pruning frequently asked questions (FAQs) below.

cut flowers

Cut flowers are a welcome gift in any home, whether you receive a bouquet for Valentine's Day, a Birthday, Mother's Day, or you just decided to treat yourself to something beautiful.

When buying them from a florist, there are several things you can do to prolong the life of cut flowers. 

Spring, summer, and fall are a great time to bring the garden indoors with cut flowers.  No prior experience is necessary to harvest flowers for bouquets.   
If you cut flowers from your own garden, there are several things that can be done to condition those flowers to ensure they stay fresh, colorful, and vibrant for as long as possible.

Harvest & Conditioning  |  Care  |  Good Species from the Garden for Cut Flowers  |  More Information

Although herbs are commonly used for their medicinal and culinary uses, they can also be very ornamental. Ornamental perennial and annual herbs offer the added benefits of varying leaf color, texture, fragrance, and flowers. These multifunctional plants make wonderful additions to any garden from spring to fall.

Herbs are a wonderful addition to any garden. They can be grown in vegetable gardens, flower gardens, or in containers. Growing herbs in containers is a great way to have fresh herbs close to the kitchen for cooking. Some container-grown herbs can then be moved indoors when the growing season is over for further enjoyment.

basil, chives, thyme growing indoors on a sunny windowsill

Even while the weather is cold outside, it is still possible to enjoy fresh herbs for cooking. Taking advantage of a sunny window in your home can allow for herbs to thrive all year. Learn more below about how to grow herbs indoors. 

herbs in containers

Herbs are plants valued for their flavor, fragrance, and medicinal uses.  An enjoyable group of plants to grow, herbs require little space and care. Herbs have few insect or disease problems and generally require only moderate soil fertility levels. They can be grown easily in an apartment-sized plot, among flowers, as part of the vegetable garden, or in containers on a patio or windowsill.

Learn more about growing, harvesting, drying, preserving, and using herbs in your garden.  Details about your favorite herb are also included.

cut flowers

Nearly every sentiment can be expressed by flowers. It’s been said that, “Flowers are a perfect replica of human life: Planting, growth, bloom, withering.”

The following list includes some of the most common flowers and their meanings, realizing there are multiple sources with this information and sometimes flowers can have multiple meanings.

Next time you give flowers to someone, consider selecting particular ones to express your sentiment.

Cut flowers

Valentine's Day is a day to recognize our loved ones.  Many different plants serve as wonderful gifts to show that special person how much you love them!  Cut flowers, orchids, and florist plants are just a few of the plants that are popular gifts on February 14th and the rest of the winter season.

Below are a few resources to help keep these special plants healthy and attractive all season.

Variety of Seeds

The late growing season is a good time to collect seeds from vegetables and flowers. Seed saving allows gardeners to preserve heirloom varieties or their favorite plants from year to year.  Below are the basics of harvesting, preparing, and storing seed from your garden.

Potted plants on a cart at the garden center spring, many gardeners will be at nurseries, greenhouses, and garden centers looking to buy plants. Selecting the right species and cultivar of a plant for the landscape by matching sun, water, soil, winter hardiness, and other growing requirements is important. Equally important is selecting high-quality plants. Below is advice on how to purchase high-quality plants from the garden center.

storing seed in an air tight container

Storing Seeds

Proper storage conditions for seeds are essential to maintain viability and good germination at planting time. Seeds should be kept dry and cool.  A sealed glass jar can keep excess moisture out and protect seeds from pests like mice or insects. Store jars in a cool, dry location such as a cool closet, root cellar, or refrigerator. Test the germination rate on the seeds about one month prior to planting.

Sowing Seed in Plug Tray.  Photo by Adobe Stock

Mid-March is the best time to start many vegetables and annual flowers indoors for transplanting outside once the threat of frost has past. 

Regardless of what type of seed you're growing, to have the best success follow these basic tips:

  • Start with fresh seed and clean materials. 
  • Consult the package to determine how early to start the seed indoors - do not start seed too early. 
  • Provide abundant light. 
  • Do not over or under water.
  • Raise the humidity during germination.
  • If possible warm the germination mix/soil. 

More details about starting seeds indoors can be found below.

peat pots for seed starting

There are many different options for containers that can be used to start seedlings. 

sowing seeds photo by Adobe Stock

For many home gardeners, starting seeds indoors is great fun. Successfully growing seedlings indoors requires high-quality seeds, a germination medium, containers, lights, and other supplies.

sowing seeds photo by Adobe Stock

For many home gardeners, it's fun to get a head start on the upcoming garden season by starting seedlings indoors. Growing quality seedlings indoors requires high-quality seeds, a germination medium/potting mix, containers, proper temperature and moisture conditions, and adequate light.

Learn all of the steps to successfully start seeds indoors for your garden.

poison ivy

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native vine common to woodland areas but found frequently growing in gardens and along fence lines.  This vine causes an allergic reaction (dermatitis) in most people when their skin comes in contact with urushiol produced by the plant and present in all parts of the plant including leaves, stems, and roots on both living and dead plant material. 

Control of this weedy vine requires special consideration.  When working around this plant, gardeners should wear long sleeves and pants with waterproof gloves to protect the skin from the urushiol oil. 

Perennial grassy weeds die back to ground level in the fall but send up new growth from the same root system in the spring.  These weed species have long thin leaves with parallel veins.  They are often in the Poaceae (grass) family or a closely related family and are botanically classified as monocots.  Perennial weeds reproduce by seeds or may spread by creeping above or below ground stems or by spreading root systems. Examples of perennial grassy weeds include quackgrass, nimblewill, orchard grass, and in certain cases bermudagrass and zoysiagrass.

Keeping ahead of weeds and controlling them when they are small is essential for good weed management. This requires persistence throughout the entire growing season to remove weeds as they emerge. 


Perennial broadleaf weeds die back to ground level in fall but send up new growth in spring.  These weed species have leaves that are wider and often have a major vein running down the center of the leaf with secondary veins branching off of it.  They are typically botanically classified as eudicots (dicots).  Perennial weeds reproduce by seeds or may spread by creeping above or below ground stems or by spreading root systems. Examples of perennial broadleaf weeds include dandelion, thistle, pokeweed, plantain, violet, and creeping Charlie.


Annual weeds grow rapidly, flower, set seed and die in a single season. New annual weeds, such as crabgrass, velvetleaf, purslane, knotweed, lambsquarter and foxtail, germinate from seeds each year. Before they die, most annual weeds produce large quantities of seeds. If annual weeds are controlled every year before producing seeds, they will eventually become less of a problem as the seed population gradually decreases. 

Annual weeds like crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis​​​​​) grow from seed each year.

Flame weeding is the use of intense heat, usually produced by a propane torch or other fuel-burning device, to kill weeds.  This organic option for weeding causes the water and sap inside the plant cell to boil and expand rupturing the cell walls and causing the plant to wilt and die.  

Flame Weeding is Not Setting Plants on Fire!

The goal is not to ignite the weeds on fire.  Instead, plants are subjected to a brief, intense heat that causes the cell walls to burst.  Immediately after exposure plants will turn a dull green and wilt slightly.  Over the next several hours to days weeds will wilt completely and die.  

Managing weeds in the vegetable garden is important for growing healthy and productive plants.  There are several methods that can be used to manage weeds and in most cases using several methods together will produce the best results.  All of these methods can be considered "organic" except those that utilize herbicides.  

germinating seedling photo by adobestock

Germination requirements (light and temperature) vary among the different annuals and vegetables. The various crops also differ in the length of time from seed sowing until the seedlings are planted outdoors.  Below is germination and growing information for commonly grown annual flowers, herbs, and vegetables.