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Missouri Botanical Gardens helps growers adjust to weather and climate change

Daria McKelvey is the supervisor of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at Missouri Botanical Garden.
Miya Norfleet
St. Louis Public Radio
Daria McKelvey is the supervisor of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at Missouri Botanical Garden.

Spring is here, and gardeners are ready to get back to their yards, porches and balconies to bring life back to their dwellings. However, many are hesitant to get started because of the unpredictable weather and a steadily changing climate that makes it hard to accurately predict the best time to plant their bulbs and place their seedlings.

Gardeners don’t have to face this struggle alone. The Kemper Center for Home Gardening at Missouri Botanical Garden is here to help.

Daria McKelvey, who is the supervisor of the Kemper Center, shared her bountiful knowledge and experience with St. Louis on the Air.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Elaine Cha: Matt Beitcher from the National Weather Service in St. Louis explained that “weather” changes rapidly and frequently, and “climate changes” happen slowly and over time. What do these changes mean for gardeners?

Daria McKelvey: It has a lot of implications. What we're concerned about is our temperatures are going to start warming up. In a way, that might be beneficial, because we will maybe be able to grow more plants. But the problem is that you also start getting other plants that shouldn't be up. Problematic pests, diseases and invasive plants can also come with that. It also means that there's going to be a disconnect between pollinators and their plants. For example, the plants may flower out, maybe they [usually] bloom around April. But if we start getting warmer, some of those plants actually start blooming earlier. But the pollinators are not emerging at that same time. So there's going to be a big, big disconnect for pollination discrepancy.

Cha: Are there any common mistakes that people make, and whether it is about the timing or the plants that they choose?

McKelvey: One of the biggest ones I get is planting your tomatoes way too early. I've gotten calls from people planting their tomatoes in January, which makes my heart skip a beat. Your tomatoes, transplants, seedlings should not be out until May — probably around Mother's Day — because they are so sensitive to frost. We're about to drop to the 30s this weekend, right? [If you] put those out, they're going to be toast.

Caller, Vicki: I would love to plant my milkweed and my bee balms and everything else I've put in my monarch butterfly garden. I was hoping to do that this weekend. But it looks like it's only going to be in the 50s. So I was wondering, when is it safe to plant milkweed and other plants for pollinators?

McKelvey: That's a really good question. I would say to start towards the end of Apriland getting closer to May is a good time. Temperatures are going to be much warmer towards the end of the month, and that will set them up for success.

Cha: As much as we might want to attract pretty pollinators like butterflies, changes in what we grow in our gardens — and the weather — can also change the pests and illnesses that will wreck our plant babies. What are some signs that something is wrong, and how can we keep them from killing what we've planted?

McKelvey: With those native plants are going to come some pests. For example, the caller wanted to plant milkweed. You're going to have things like aphids, and that's OK, that's part of the ecosystem. So it's recognizing not only our beneficials but also the other pests that share in that same connection with the plant as well.

Caller, Ann: I heard your guest talk a little bit about the value of native plants for not only pollinators, but birds and our larger ecosystem. [What are] specific benefits that we get when we choose the native species over something that's not really native to Missouri?

McKelvey: Native plants are adapted to our region. They can tolerate a lot of all of our conditions. And once they're established, they don't require as much [additional] moisture. So I do encourage you to plant native plants in your area. And we even have a list on our website of those that are more well-behaved — especially in urban conditions, as well.

For more about the right time to start seedlings, Missouri Botanical Garden’s “Plants of Merit,” and the region’s ever-changing plant hardiness zone, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

Missouri Botanical Gardens helps growers adjust to weather and climate change

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."