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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Don’t Despair!: Planting Season Will be Here in No Time (So Plan Now!)

Mar 26, 2013 09:27AM ● By Megy Karydes

Photo by Andrew Alguire

Longer and warmer spring days are making many local gardeners itchy to get outside and start digging in the dirt.

LaManda Joy, founder and president of Chicago’s The Peterson Garden Project (, notes that the amount of money consumers spend on landscape gardening overall is down, but backyard and community food gardening investment is skyrocketing. “Urbanites are finding interesting ways to grow food anywhere they can, including vertically in small spaces, and a lot of products are coming out to facilitate this,” she says. “But you can also get creative by reusing everyday materials as garden containers to save money.” For those without much space or that want a more social approach to gardening, community gardens like those managed by Joy are something to consider. City neighborhoods, suburban communities and even corporations are installing community gardens at an increasing pace.

While April is too soon to plant most crops outside in the Chicagoland area, experts say it’s the perfect time to plan the garden’s layout and prepare the soil to get it conditioned for summer vegetables.

Plan Now

“Are you going to add a vegetable garden? If so, where is the best place and what needs to be done to make it work?” is what Lindy Westerfeld, president of Green Gardens Smart GardenerLandscape & Installation, Inc. (847-670-7370), asks her clients when they start wondering how their garden will look this season.

Carl Alguire, CEO of Smart Gardener (, recognizes that some gardeners can use some help when it comes to the planning process, so he developed a free online tool that teaches how to plan, plant, manage, care for and harvest an organic fruit and vegetable garden. “Smart Gardener helps you create a highly personalized weekly plan for your new or existing garden, keep detailed records with your online garden journal and share it all with your friends on Facebook,” he explains.

Local park districts offer a wealth of resources, like Chicago’s Kilbourn Park and Organic Greenhouse (, to help both budding and seasoned gardeners plan for the season. “Kilbourn is the only park with a teaching greenhouse,” says Park Supervisor Julie Thompson. “The greenhouse is open Tuesday through Saturday for gardening educational programming that ranges from seed starting basics and water conservation to cooking demonstrations that highlight recipes using the bounty from the garden.”

Seeds in HandPrep the Beds

The next step is to prepare the growing beds. A thorough spring cleanup will get things going in the right direction as early as April, weather permitting. Westerfeld cautions to hold off if the ground is too wet because standing on the plant bed soil will collapse the voids that hold oxygen, water and roots in the soil, negatively affecting plant growth.

The best thing you can do is keep your plant bed areas properly hydrated, even in spring, as the last few seasons have been very dry,” says Westerfeld. If April and May are dry, be sure to break out the hoses early enough and consider using drip hoses to keep trees and shrubs properly hydrated.

Select and Plant the Seeds

Plan to place all but the hardiest cold-weather vegetables in the garden after the last frost, which is about typically in mid- to late-May in the Chicago area ( Westerfeld recommends starting seeds indoors in early April for such veggies as ornamental basil,

Photo by Smart Gardener
Photo by Smart Gardener
kale, cabbage, chard, broccoli and tomatoes, or flowers like cosmos, sweet peas and zinnias.

Joy says interest in open-pollinated and heirloom seeds is becoming more common, and as this trend becomes more ingrained in the gardening culture, gardeners are getting adventurous with unusual crops like New Zealand spinach, ground cherries, black-eyed peas and heirloom sweet potatoes. “There’s a never-ending supply of colorful, fun and flavorful open-pollinated vegetables out there, and growing new things can get quite addicting,” Joy adds. She catalogs her own heirloom tomato obsession on Pinterest (

Westerfeld recommends purchasing most heirloom vegetable and herbs as seeds from specialty growers on the web or in catalogs, or from seed savers’ exchanges. “It is much more cost-efficient to start your own herbs from seed, especially for herbs that you use a lot of or that you would like to preserve,” she

Photo by Smart Gardener
Photo by Smart Gardener

“Sow in plantable (peat or similar) pots under grow lights and use a fan to blow air across the seedlings. This will strengthen the tender stems,” advises Alguire. “Make sure to look for untreated seed if you are growing organic,” he adds. “You will have better success using a seed starter soil mix than a compost of garden soil for indoor seed starts.”

Watch the Soil

The make-up of the soil is an important ingredient for a successful garden. “This is where a good soil test comes in,” says Alguire. “Nothing so much enhances success as knowing what your garden soil needs. Once you have a recommendation, natural additives like blood and bone meal, fish emulsion or lime may be needed. The life in your soil is the most important aspect for growing healthy food. Organic practices and additives encourage the layers of nematodes, worms, healthy bacteria and chemistry that supercharges your vegetables with nutrients and flavor.”

For a thorough testing, contact the University of Illinois Extension Service for professional test labs ( Less extensive test kits are available from some local nurseries and online outlets.

Opinions differ on the use of compost, so it tends to be a personal decision. Alguire recommends working in a layer of well-aged compost in the spring to enhance the soil. Westerfeld, however, doesn’t recommend using compost for a vegetable garden. “Use a vegetable/garden mix from your local supplier,” she says. “Then follow up with regular feedings, preferably organic. Organic will help increase the beneficial microorganisms and bacteria in the soil. I’ve also spread or recommend my customers spread their used coffee grounds into beds to help increase the worm population and therefore increase natural aeration and nutrients in the soil produced by the worms.”

Get Some Help

Companies like Westerfeld’s Green Gardens Landscape & Installation, The Organic Gardener (, which specializes in the design, installation and maintenance of organic edible gardens, and Smart Gardener Backyard (, which can also build, fill and manage gardens, offer services to help gardeners that may need extra help. They can also build custom raised beds, fill them with organic soil mix, plant what their clients want, care for and then harvest the finest, freshest food available—leaving the bounty on their client’s back porch with recipes for how to enjoy them. Others, like Fern’s Flower Farm (, will prep and look after perennials all season long.

Megy Karydes is itching to get her hands dirty in the garden and finds the smell of springtime morning dew more intoxicating than her morning coffee. Find her at

Mark Your Calendar!
Each spring, the Kilbourn Park and Organic Greenhouse hosts a popular plant sale for community gardeners, selling more than 150 varieties of organically grown vegetable, herb and flower seedlings for $2 to $5 each. Customers leave the park grounds ready to plant a wide variety of open-pollinated and heirloom tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, as well an assortment of greens and onions. This year’s sale will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., May 18 and 19.

The Peterson Garden Project’s annual plant sale on Mother’s Day weekend offers organic veggie and herb starts well suited to smaller, urban growing conditions and a bake sale organized by local pastry chefs. The fundraiser is held May 10 to 12 at the Peterson Garden Project Learning Center, 4642 North Francisco (next to the CTA Brown Line Francisco Stop). All proceeds go toward furthering PGP’s mission to recruit, educate and inspire a new generation of gardeners.