Catalogs give ideas about summer gardens

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January begins the annual flight of vegetable, flower and fruit tree catalogs to your mailbox or inbox. Depending on your level of gardening, catalogs start arriving frequently and in droves.

“Before, you either got a vegetable catalog or a fruit catalog or a flower catalog,” says Richard Hentschel, a horticulture educator at the University of Illinois. “Many catalogs now contain something for everyone, including garden gadget addicts.”

Illinois gardeners should start by looking for plants that thrive in USDA plant hardiness zone 5. Many catalogs offer ancient vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. These heirloom varieties may be some of the tastiest and/or most unusual fruits and vegetables we can eat.

“They are called heritage because they have had no or very little traditional breeding,” says Hentschel. “That can mean they will have more health issues and often less production as well.”

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With all the plant breeding work going on, vegetables can take on new colors that are a bit off the beaten path. Consider a blue potato or perhaps the most acceptable colors of green peppers being yellow, red, purple, and orange. These look great in salads and other dishes. Previously Swiss chard was green, but now it is also available in shades of pink, orange, yellow, gold, white and purple. Newer varieties have a thinner stem and can be used to jazz up salads or cooked like you would spinach.

Small fruits like strawberries now come in a variety of shades of red. More berry options are also now available. Plant breeders have successfully transformed smaller fruiting shrubs such as currants, gooseberries, and aronia into high-performing plants for the home garden. Rhubarb and asparagus are great additions to the garden.

Technology has transformed gardening. There’s a garden gadget for everyone. Gardeners who start their own seeds will find a variety of pots, seed starting mixes, markers and more.

“You can start your seeds in individual cell packets like you see when you buy your annual flowers, or even expanding pellets,” says Hentschel.

Planting can be done in plastic pots, bio-renewable materials or organic fiber. Additional accessories that make starting seeds easier include heat mats in sizes from a six-pack to a full tray, plant stands with grow lights and self-watering trays, or a variety of outdoor structures to be used to grow and harden off vegetable plants before they go into the garden.

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Hand tools are constantly evolving, each with their own unique characteristics.

“Choose wisely and choose what works best for you,” says Hentschel. “Your gardening style changes with age, and so do your tools.”

If your mailbox isn’t full enough, go online and sign up for a few more. It’s quick and easy.

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