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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Spring Into Vegetable Gardening

Mar 28, 2018 09:28PM ● By Lisa Hilgenberg

Photo Courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden

Spring is here, and seasoned gardeners know that it is time to get out into the vegetable garden. Growing our own food can be an empowering experience, allowing us to control what goes into the soil and onto the plants. For those new to gardening or planning their first veggie garden, knowing how to start can be daunting. New gardeners can ensure a successful start in the vegetable garden by following a few simple steps. Here are a few rules of thumb to get growing and harvesting homegrown vegetables.

        Start by selecting a site for the garden. A location close to the back door means it is likely to be well maintained and we will use it more often if it is handy. Snipping a few herbs at dinnertime will be convenient and quick. Water is needed for seeding, transplanting and all throughout the plant’s life, so locate wisely in close proximity to a water source, but avoid low, poorly drained areas in the yard where puddles might form. If drainage is a problem, consider using raised beds. It can be reassuring to remember that few gardeners have the perfect location and conditions.

        Select a site for the garden in full sun away from large trees and shadows cast by the house or garage. Vegetable gardens require Photo credit: Lisa Hilgenbergas much sunlight as possible—leafy salad greens need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Cool-season crops like beets, parsley, green onions, cabbage, radish and Swiss chard can tolerate a bit more shade than warm-season fruiting crops such as tomatoes, peppers and squash that require eight to 10 hours of light per day. A south or southwest exposure is ideal, allowing vegetable plants to capture as much sunlight as possible.

        Well-drained, fertile soil is essential for a productive vegetable patch. Perform a soil test, especially in a new garden bed. Soils with pH readings between 6.0 from 7.0 are about right. Additions of organic matter, including composted cow manure—a gardener’s “black gold”—is an efficient way to add nitrogen on a slow-release basis.

            Sources of organic matter found in home gardens such as leaves and grass clippings can be used to amend garden soils by layering an inch or two on top and loosening the soil to at least eight inches deep. Adequate organic matter in the garden improves drainage in our heavy clay soils, provides sites for nutrient storage and encourages soil organisms, earthworms and mycorrhizae to promote plant growth. Paying close attention to the quality and condition of garden soil will reward us with a bountiful harvest.

        Start small, selecting vegetables that we like to eat or that are expensive to buy. Growing interesting heirloom varieties not readily available in grocery stores is a brilliant idea. It is easy to build on successes if we are not overwhelmed by too large a garden space to begin with. Select a few easy-to-grow crops, six or seven frost-tolerant varieties for the spring and the same number of warm season/summer varieties for planting in June.

Lisa Hilgenberg is the horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden, in the Chicago Botanic Garden, located at 1000 Lake Cook Rd., in Glencoe. For more information, call 847-835-5440 or visit Follow her on Twitter @hilgenberg8 and on Instagram @hilgenberg8. Follow the Chicago Botanic Garden on Facebook @Chicago Botanic Garden and on Twitter and Instagram @ChicagoBotanic.

Pea seedlings photo courtesy of Lisa Hilgenberg



The average last frost date in the Chicago area is April 27 and can vary two weeks in either direction. Here is a list of vegetables and their ideal times to sow or transplant, along with Lisa Hilgenberg’s recommendations for new varieties that will be grown at the Chicago Botanic Garden this year.


Cool-season vegetables:

Very hardy, direct sow seed as soon as soil can be worked*

  • Radish (Early Scarlet Globe, Rudolf and Crunchy Royale)
  • Spinach (Covair, Bloomsdale)
  • Peas (Super Sugar Snap, Sugar Ann, Blue Podded Shelling)

Transplant into the garden a month before last frost

  • Broccoli (Arcadia, Blue Wind, Di Ciccio)
  • Collards (Flash, Vates)
  • Kale (Lacinato, Scarlet)
  • Parsley (Giant of Italy, Titan)
  • Cabbage (Early Jersey Wakefield)
  • Green Onions (Evergreen Bunching)

Frost-tolerant vegetables:

Two weeks before last frost date


  • Beets (Bull’s Blood, Touchstone Gold)
  • Swiss Chard (Five Color Silverbeet, Rhubarb Red)
  • Carrot (Yaya, Bolero)
  • Mustard (Garnet Giant, Golden Frills)
  • Thyme (German Winter)


  • Lettuce (I grow 70 varieties each year! This spring, we are planting heirloom lettuces with interesting stories)
  • Cauliflower (Snow Crown, Veronica)
  • Chinese Cabbage (Bilko, Tokyo Bekana)

Warm-season vegetables:

Plant mid to late May


  • Snap beans (Provider)
  • Corn (Silver Queen, Oaxacan Green Dent, Two Inch Strawberry Popcorn)
  • Squash (Summer squash- Yellow Crookneck, Jaune et Verte, Dunja)


  • Dill (Fernleaf)  
  • Oregano (Greek)
  • Sage (Common sage and Berggarten)
  • Sunflowers (We have many sunflower varieties growing this summer in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, come to have a look and select a favorite! Teddy Bear-small plant, double flower. Moulin Rouge-burgundy. Buttercream.)

Heat-loving vegetables:

Plant after all danger of frost has passed


  • Basil (Genovese, Mrs. Burns Lemon, Cardinal)
  • Cucumber (Snow’s Pickling, Lemon, Northern Pickling)
  • Winter squash (Winter Luxury, Rouge Vif D’Etampes, Waltham)
  • Lima beans (Fordhook 242)
  • Watermelon (Moon and Stars)


  • Eggplant (Rosa Bianca, Patio Baby, Fairy Tale)
  • Peppers (Fish, Marconi Red)
  • Sweet potato (Beauregard)
  • Tomatoes (Fred’s Tie-dye, Cream Sausage, Dejena Lee’s Golden Girl, San Marzano)

Direct Seeding Versus Transplants

Directly sow means the seeds are planted in a row in the garden. Large-seeded peas and beans are best directly sown into the garden. Direct sowing is best for root vegetables like carrots, beets and radish, and for those that do not like their roots disturbed, like corn, squash and cucumbers.

Transplanting means the seeds are started indoors, and then the “starts”, or small plants, are planted out in the garden. Transplanting helps gardeners get a jump on growing longer-seasoned vegetables or those that are tricky to germinate, like broccoli, cabbage, peppers and tomatoes.


Seed Sowing Tips

Mark straight rows on finely raked garden soil. Space the seeds uniformly in the row after reading the recommended spacing for individual veggies on the seed packet. Plant them carefully at the proper depth. Cover the seeds and tamp them down to ensure the seed has contact with the soil. Gently water on mist setting and keep moist under germination. Thin plants to give them room to grow when they are young—an inch or two tall is the right time.

*Tomato seedlings photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden