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Grow Your Own Food: 5 Gardening Tips For Early Spring

By Anthony Todd in Food on Apr 11, 2013 3:00PM

Sprouts are just beginning to pop up - time to start garden planning! Photo by Sara B.

Over the last few seasons, we've become avid gardeners, both in a community garden plot and on our porch. This season, with the help of an expert, we're going to take it to the next level. No more tiny window boxes of flowers for us — now it's time to see how much food we can pack into our small urban spaces.

If you look outside right now, you won't see a lot of food growing, unless there is some sort of new variety of grey squash that is blending in with the sky. But that doesn't mean a home gardener has nothing to do. Beds need to be cleaned out, seeds and starts need to be ordered, and a lot of decisions need to be made. What can you grow in a container? What is best saved for a garden plot or bought at the farmers market?

To get answers to these questions (and tons more throughout the season) we turned to gardener extraordinaire Sara Gasbarra. Gasbarra is the owner of Verdura, a company that designs and maintains restaurant and residential gardens. We aren't talking ornamental shrubbery — this woman grows food. She graciously agreed to help us through the growing seasons of 2013. To begin, here are some tips to get you through that early spring, pre-planting time when most of us are itching to get in the garden if only it would stop raining.

1.) Make sure you know which plants to start early and which can wait, and start planning now.

Not everything gets planted at the same time. This was a rude awakening to us the first time we tried to plant a garden. We assumed we could just plant tomato seeds and lettuce seeds next to each other on the same day in June and everything would just ... work out. Gasbarra puts us right:

"Home gardeners need to consider the plant and veggies that are “long term” and those that are “short term” — and in this case, we’re talking days to maturity.┬áIf you are growing radishes, the days to maturity is about 25 days, so you can plant these early in the season (as soon as April, they do well in cool weather), but if you get a late start (say June/July), you’ll be okay too, because their growing cycle is so short.

"The varieties you need to be wary of as far as timing goes are the long-term veggies: the ones you plant in the spring that stay put all season long: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, brussels sprouts, cucumbers, summer and winter squash, cauliflower, etc. These guys need the entire season, so you want to get them in the soil as early as you can. For brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts) — they can handle cool weather, so mid-late April is best. For the rest, mid- to late-May. You can plant these guys in June, but it's already risky. If you get a very late start on your garden, say July — I'd skip the long-term plants and just grow root crops, greens and herbs.

Also be sure to distinguish which plants can grow from seed in the garden and which need to be started indoors/bought from a store. If you're a fan of technology, there are plenty of online apps to plan your garden that come with all of this information built-in. We've been playing with Smart Gardener, but there are plenty of others.

2.) Some things just might not be worth growing in your urban garden.

When we first started gardening, we used the "square foot" method — you break the garden plot into squares and divide the crop up that way. The upside: it seems like you have so much space! The downside: one head of cauliflower or broccoli is a whole square, and it takes all season to grow. This goes double for container gardeners, who have even more limited space. Are there some things that are best to leave to farmers with more land?

"Some big stuff takes up lots of space and has a very long growing life — cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, pumpkins, summer and winter squash. If you have the space for them — go ahead! But these guys require a ton of space. In addition, summer squash and winter squash are more prone to disease (powdery mildew) and pests (squash vine borer insect) — you’ve got precious real estate in the garden, these plants take up tons of space and if a plant becomes infected and eventually dies — you’ve now wasted lots of space.

Our tip? Support your local farmers who know what they are doing and maximize your own land to grow the things you can grow well.

3.) Some plants are better for porch gardens than others.

We're lucky enough to have a beautiful garden plot with the Peterson Garden Project where we will be growing our tomatoes and cucumbers. But we also have a porch, and many of our garden buds have nothing but a porch. Should we just throw any old plant in a pot on the porch and see what happens?

"You want to stick to plant varieties that stay small. In the spring I like growing baby greens from seed (arugula, mache, broccoli raab, mustard), non-trellising snap peas, radishes and scallions. In the summer, I then include tomatoes, herbs (basil, tarragon, thyme, mint, lemon verbena, anise hyssop, rose geranium, savory, rosemary and sage are my favorites!) and chile peppers."

You can always be ambitious (this year, we're going to try to trellis cucumbers on our porch railing) but don't try anything too crazy, or it'll just end in tears and wasted space.

4.) Make sure you get the right containers.

The first time we tried growing things on our porch, we just bought random pots from Home Depot and lined them up. Things grew, but we didn't really maximize our yields — and the shallow depth of the soil combined with the crazy heat of last summer meant that our plants had to be watered practically every 20 minutes. Gasbarra plants in hundreds of containers per year, so she knows what to buy.

"Earthboxes are great — they are extremely lightweight and have a water reservoir in the bottom of the container that helps feed the plants from the bottom, in addition to being watered from the top. I recently came across a company called Gronomics based out of Minnesota which has a great selection of easy to install/construct cedar boxes, which are very attractive."

5.) Buy seeds and transplants from reputable sources.

We have nothing against your neighborhood hardware store, but if you're looking for heirloom varieties, organic seedlings or other specialized plants, you have to know where to buy them. We buy all of our tomato and pepper seedlings straight from Seed Savers Exchange (they ship them live) and Gasbarra has some favorite sources of her own.

"I buy most of my veggie starts at Green City Market. The farmers who sell starts in May and June have some really cool stuff and unique, unsual varieties in addition to the more popular, common stuff. Leaning Shed Farm, Radical Root, Tomato Mountain, Genesis Growers, Growing Power, Nichols Farm and Orchard and Smits Farm all have wonderful starts.

As added bonus from buying starts at the market, if you run into an issue mid-season, you have a whole bunch of “experts” you can reach out to or visit on Wednesdays and Saturdays to get advice! The farmers are happy to answer questions. In addition to GCM, I love Anton’s Greenhouse in Evanston — its a funky little place tucked away in a residential neighborhood in southwest Evanston with a beautiful selection of plants (ornamental and edible) and they are extremely friendly and helpful."

In addition to these locations, Gasbarra suggests Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company as good sources for seeds.

Start planning your garden now! A few hours of planning on a rainy Saturday can go a long way towards sating your garden urges.