8 Ways To Make Sure Your Chicago Garden Thrives
By Anthony Todd in Food on May 2, 2017 8:42PM
Photo via Shutterstock.
Though our recent monsoon-like weather might make it seem otherwise, it's prime garden-starting season in Chicago. Chicago's last frost day isn't technically until mid-May, but for plenty of crops that can tolerate slightly cool weather, now's the time. But if you've never gardened before, it can be a bit intimidating!
The Peterson Garden Project is committed to teaching people how to grow their own food, with six different community gardens around the city and a ton of educational programs. They also sell some of the plants that you'll need to make a great garden. I sat down with LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project, to get some tips on how novice gardeners could improve their gardening skills.
Plant what you want to eat
It's simple advice, but it's great for motivation and excitement. Plus, Joy points out, you're actually going to recognize the food as it grows, which is part of the fun. In my own garden I've occasionally tried new, experimental crops and realized later that I didn't want to eat them. That's a recipe for neglect.
Don't be afraid of bugs!
"If you garden organically, the good bugs control the bad bugs," explained Joy. Don't run for the spray bottle of pesticide just because a fly lands on your chard, and if you see a few aphids or other harmless pests, don't go crazy. Joy uses ladybugs in her garden for natural pest control, and if you run into an actual infestation, there are plenty of natural solutions that you can use to fix the problem without murdering every pollinator that comes within 100 yards of your garden.
Use the right soil
It's easy to get obsessed with mixing things into (or "amending" in fancy gardener speak) your soil, with entire catalogs devoted to gravels and fertilizers. You probably don't need to worry about it that much. Start with good organic veggie mix, recommends Joy, not "dirt" from a landscaper which might not have much growing power. Don't ever turn the soil, as much as you might want to, and every year, top it off with a little organic fertilizer, leaf compost or mushroom compost. It's that simple.
Montalbano Farms seedlngs, almost ready for the plant sale. Photo via Facebook.
Don't over-love your garden
As a new gardener, I was definitely a perpetrator of this particular crime. It's important not to overwater your garden, over-weed your garden (it's not always easy to tell seedlings from their tiny weed cousins) or overdo it with the fertilizer. Make sure things stay moist and fresh, but other than that, don't be afraid to leave your garden alone occasionally.
Stop worrying about other people's gardens
Especially if you're in a community garden, it can be easy to look at neighboring gardens with a lot of envy. If you're gardening on your own, garden Instagrams can be your best friend or your worst enemy, as you wonder why your plants aren't as full, colorful or perfect.
"I was at one of our gardens, and a woman had a pepper plant full of beautiful peppers," remembered Joy. "She was sad because the leaves didn't look good! Martha Stewart doesn't garden here."
Slow down and enjoy yourself
Gardening is a fun, contemplative experience that can transport you to an almost meditative state. But occasionally, it can turn into a chore that you want to rush through, and you can get into trouble. "Nasturtiums are my favorite, I love them," said Joy. "But once in a weeding frenzy, I took all of them out because I wasn't paying enough attention and going too fast."
Plant easy stuff at first, with lots of bang for your buck
If you're a new gardener, here are Joy's recommendations for plants that will take a little punishment and provide great results: cherry tomatoes, green beans, tomatillos, herbs. Conversely, don't try to grow artichokes and lemongrass—they just don't do well in Chicago.
Did a transplant die or a seed never sprout in your garden? It happens. Joy has a favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson: "But though an old man, I am but a young gardener." Nature, weather and plants are complicated and unpredictable, even for experienced gardeners. Don't assume that even if you do everything "right" that you're going to have a perfect garden—that's part of the fun—and don't feel bad about it. "The systems of plants and how they grow are sometimes undefinable. People need to embrace it," said Joy.
Want more great Chicago gardening tips? Get Joy's book, Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland.
The Peterson Garden Project plant sale is this Saturday and Sunday. In addition, they're hosting a fundraiser on Thursday night for PGP's refugee-related fundraising, and you get early access to the sale.