Spring is early. Well, technically, it arrived on time. It’s just that the plants arrived before it, instead of waiting the normal four weeks they should. It goes without saying we didn’t have much of a winter, and plants decided to take advantage — to our great pleasure.

Spring is early. Well, technically, it arrived on time. It’s just that the plants arrived before it, instead of waiting the normal four weeks they should.

It goes without saying we didn’t have much of a winter, and plants decided to take advantage — to our great pleasure.

Daffodils have popped. Most minor bulbs, such as grape hyacinths, squills and crocuses, have come and gone, liking bright sunny days but cooler temperatures. Above 60 degrees, they show up and depart fast.

Star and saucer magnolias have been in full bloom. The saucer magnolias, sometimes mistakenly called tulip trees, are blooming before the star types, which is backward from normal; usually the star magnolias bloom about four weeks earlier than the saucer types and get nipped by a late frost, causing them to turn black. Come to think of it, the star types are blooming on schedule.

Forsythia has never been as brilliant yellow or as full from top to bottom — unless you massacred your plant by shaping it like a poodle.

The ornamental pears have really popped, attracting bees that are also out and about due to the unseasonably warm weather looking for nectar.

Interestingly, the crabapples and lilacs are still relatively tight, though both have produced some leaves and the flower buds are noticeable.

Is this global warming? Who knows? Most gardeners don’t care. It’s different every year.

Less than five years ago, the same thing happened. Gardeners were feeling the same exuberance they feel now. We can get those tomatoes in, and maybe by Memorial Day we’ll be eating BLTs.

We cranked up the mowers and buzzed the lawns. We applied dandelion killers and crabgrass preventers. We opened up windows and allowed warm spring breezes to blow through the house. We laughed that the power companies weren’t going to get our dollars.

Of course, Mother Earth had other plans, which usually occurs when gardeners start feeling superior. Smack! By the first week of April, the temperatures plunged to the mid-20s for 10 days. The power companies smiled as furnaces kicked back on.

Hostas that had unfurled their leaves turned brown collapsed and died back to the crowns. Peach trees aborted any flowers and fruit that started forming, resulting in a terrible crop in the Midwest that year. Daffodils and tulips turned to mush. Anyone who planted tomatoes and peppers probably had to replant unless they were covered every night.

On the other hand, few plants died, though the vast majority of Japanese maples did, or had major dieback, ruining their shape and making it almost better to remove them anyway. Any of the blue or pink flowered hydrangeas also suffered.

Even better, many of the trees that were flowering, just about to, or just finishing lost those flowers. In the case of sweet gums, oaks and silver maples, that meant hardly any seed that year which was great for those who have to deal with that mess in our gardens, driveways and sidewalks but bad for squirrels looking for food to stash away for the following winter.

The $64,000 question is what will happen in the next few months. You can be the cheerful Pollyanna or the boy who cried “wolf.”

If anyone could predict it with certainty, he/she would be better off with one of the lottery games. No forecaster goes out on a limb with an actual prediction. They repeat what the weather models are saying.

That means gardeners have to be prepared for the worst, or at least be prepared to combat the worst like a Boy Scout.

Some success can be had with double layers of sheets or thin blankets over the desired plants. That’s great when you are talking one or two plants, or you have lots of sheets available.

Plastic is a great transmitter of cold. Don’t use it, especially if you lay it directly on the plants.

You can find some spun polyester “floating” row covers at garden centers, nurseries and some box stores. This material allows some soil heat retention and protection from minor freezes.

You might have to cut the material into several pieces to cover various plants, or clip pieces together since you won’t find pieces usually wider than four to five feet. You can leave the covers on during the day as they allow water, air and light to get through.

Ideally, you want a gap between the protection and the plant, and not have the material lie directly on the specimen. Leaving the air gap adds a little insulation.

Some will start saving plastic milk bottles and filling them with water and putting them next to plants. The water acts as a heat sink, providing some warmth for the plants. The Wells-of-Water plastic cylinders to put around early tomatoes do something similar.

Some orchardists and strawberry growers will turn on their sprinklers, creating something similar. You might consider large fans or propane heater, but neither is practical for the home yard.

Choose the plants to protect wisely. Annual flowers and vegetables can be replanted. Prized trees and perennials are worth more. Save them.

And keep your fingers crossed.

David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.