When Thoughts Turn to Spring Gardening

We’ve begun wearing out the pages of our colorful seed catalogs, hoping and praying that spring will arrive soon. We’re patiently waiting for the first tender green shoot of a crocus or daffodil. We want to start our urban garden—now. Patience, young grasshopper. Spring is coming, and while we can’t force those early bulbs to appear any sooner, there are things we can do now to prepare for the best veggie garden ever.

Use this time to contemplate how your garden will look and what you want to grow, recommends Ramon Gonzalez, a Chicago-based garden writer of the blog, Mr. Brown Thumb (MrBrownThumb.Blogspot.com).

LaManda Joy, founder and president of Chicago’s the Peterson Garden Project (PGP), (PetersonGarden.org), understands all too well the itchy feeling we get around this time of year. For those that might nedd a little guidance on how to plan their garden, she swears by the Kitchen Garden Planner online tool available at Gardeners.com (Tinyurl.com/KitchenGardenPlanner). “[The Kitchen Garden Planner] is a great way for gardeners to not only fantasize about their spring garden, but also get a lot of useful information specific to what they want to grow,” says Joy.

The PGP’s newly released book, Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland, also was designed for those learning how to garden. The book is organized month-by-month and gives specific advice for the Chicago growing region, perfect for newbies and seasoned gardeners alike.

If saving money is a goal, don’t discount finding seeds in unusual spots, such as discount stores, or at seed swaps in your area, adds Gonzalez. “Sure, you can buy seed-starting materials like pots and labels from your local garden center, but you can also upcycle things like plastic bottles and egg cartons, and learn how to fold newspaper into origami pots.”

Raised beds are easy and convenient for many gardeners to use because they allow control of the soil, help keep critters away and appear visually orderly. But there are plenty of DIY solutions that can help both maximize our growing space and be kind to Mother Earth. Many gardeners consider upcycling used construction material, growing vertically or using odd spaces for hanging gardens.

Chicago backyard grower Philip Bunting decided to use old rain gutters that he and his wife replaced several years ago, and installed them on a fence to create a unique vertical garden. Because he knew he wouldn’t have enough soil depth to grow most produce, he opted to plant lettuce from seeds as an experiment. “I didn’t let the lettuce grow too much, as I was afraid it would dry out before they grew fully, so I adopted a micro green method and cut them when they were a few inches,” says Bunting. To keep the soil moist, Bunting covered the gutter with a material to shade the mid-afternoon sun on very hot days, which he feels helped the lettuce grow.

Any gardener worth their salt knows that if the soil is weak, the plants will be weak. Warrenville resident Shawna Coronado (ShawnaCoronado.com) is an expert in green lifestyle living who teaches people how to garden through her blog and YouTube channel filled with how-to videos. “The most important thing people need to know about gardening is that the soil is the most critical part and the secret to good gardening,” she says. “Amend your soil appropriately and you will have success!”

Another way to create rich compost for the garden? Worm poop. Amber Gribben, co-owner of Urban Worm Girl (UrbanWormGirl.com), teaches residents how easy it is to keep a worm bin in a home or business. “Worm bins are an easy and efficient way to process kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich compost for your garden or houseplants,” she says. “It can be managed in small spaces and is done without odor, which makes it perfect for indoor use.”

Worms require a climate between 40 to 80 degrees F, adds Gribben, so any area of the home that maintains this temperature range can be perfect for worm composting. Kitchens, basements, laundry rooms or wherever there is the space and climate will work. The worms are contained in a closed bin, so most people won’t even know they are sharing quarters with a few hundred red wigglers.

Fearless Food Gardening in ChicagolandSarah Best, content and social media director at Mightybytes (Mightybytes.com), a full-service creative firm for conscious companies and a certified B Corporation (and an Illinois Benefit Corporation), helps to manage her firm’s vermicomposting (fancy word for composting with worms) which has been based in their office kitchen since 2011. Their bin, which they affectionately call URL (pronounced “Earl”), produces rich compost that goes home with members of their crew that have home gardens.

The worm bin doesn’t smell and it fits in a small space, says Best. “You basically just need to remember what you can and can’t feed URL (no spicy food, no citrus, no veggies that have been coated with salad dressing) and regularly feed the worms and add bedding,” she notes.

If one doesn’t have their own garden or likes the camaraderie of other gardeners, joining a garden club is another way to learn more about gardening, and now is a good time to research one that is close to home. Membership in the PGP provides gardeners with educational opportunities, some supplies and a four-by-eight-foot garden plot in one of its organic Pop-up Victory Gardens located throughout the Chicago area.

In Kane and DuPage counties, The GardenWorks Project (GardenWorksProject.org) maintains several garden projects aimed specifically to relieve hunger in Chicago’s west suburbs by providing undernourished families with home vegetable gardens and coaching.

“Many suburbs have garden clubs you can join,” explains Coronado. “It’s amazing to get emotional support and guidance from fellow gardeners. Contact local city offices and ask how you can be connected with your local garden clubs so you can learn all kinds of cool tips for growing.”

“The Connecting Chicago Community Gardeners page on Facebook [Facebook.com/ConnectingChicagoCommunityGardens] is another excellent resource for connecting with gardens all over the city of Chicago,” says Joy. “And the American Community Gardening Association has lots of resources in the Midwest for community gardeners (CommunityGarden.org).

Gardening isn’t foolproof. It’s always an experiment, and it’s never too early to start.

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