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This is the Year to Start Growing Food at Home

Apr 30, 2020 ● By Lisa Hilgenberg

Photo credits: Robin Carlson, Chicago Botanic Garden

by Lisa Hilgenberg

There may never have been a better time to grow our own food. Along with a few ideas and straightforward tips, here’s how to economize and capitalize with two practical DIY gardening projects.

Grow Herbs in Pots

Herbs are expensive to buy in the store, so given the necessity of limiting our trips, grow fresh herbs in pots. They’re easy, inexpensive and simple to preserve. The flavors add depth and a taste of summer to any meal.

Plan: Plant culinary herbs, adding style to your garden and flavors to your kitchen. Sow seeds of basil, dill and cilantro directly into the soil once the weather warms and nighttime temperature stabilize above 50 degrees. Transplant small plants of flat-leafed and curly parsley, garlic chives, peppermint, lavender and rosemary.

Plant: Spiff up this summer’s herb planting simply by popping a generous collection into a shallow bowl or a repurposed basket located right outside the back door for an easily accessible harvest. Herbs have similar horticultural needs, so it makes sense to plant four or five different varieties together in the same pot such as parsley, chives, oregano and thyme planted closely together. If individual herb plants are preferred, select a smallish pot for each. Generally, herbs don’t mind being rootbound in terra cotta pots, as the moisture is pulled away from the roots. Grouping pots together is a sophisticated English style, and pot displays create a sense of abundance.

Grow: Make sure to plant in well-drained soil and avoid overwatering. Herbs need plenty of sun each day. Eight hours or more will do. Soil of low to average fertility is preferred. Guard plants against legginess by trimming them, keeping herbs bushy and productive. An herb snip is a useful tool for precision cutting. Running the woody stems of rosemary, thyme and lavender through a stripper between the blades removes the leaves while retaining essential oils.

Harvest: Flavor oils and vinegars with Greek oregano or chives to drizzle over salad greens. Punch up drinks with rosemary, lemon thyme, spearmint, stevia, Italian flat parsley, sweet basil and garden sage. Jazz up a cocktail with muddled herbs or garnish a spritzer by floating an edible flower. A sprig of rosemary as a swizzle, mint and basil in sangria and dried, powered stevia sweetens teas and lemonade, all without leaving the house.

Grow a Tiny Salad Garden

Homegrown produce satisfies the senses, is easy on the pocketbook and provides tonic for the gardener’s spirits.

Plan: Succulent, seasonal salad greens in a low bowl may be Peter Rabbit’s dream or an epicurean’s prize—it’s an easy project for a cool spring day. Gather a few seed packets of heirloom lettuces, then diversify by adding red mustard, radish, mache, tatsoi and arugula to the mix.

Plant: Fill a container with a high-quality seed germination mix. A depth of four inches works because salad greens are quite shallow-rooted. Moisten with a mist of water, and after checking the seed sowing instructions on the back of the pack, sprinkle seeds an inch apart and lightly dust with a quarter-inch of the seed starting soil. Tamp down with your palm and moisten well.

Germination is dependent on temperature and moisture, so move to a warm spot and keep moistened, not soaking wet. Once the seeds germinate, usually within three to five days, back off on the watering to every two days or as needed.

Grow: Add sunshine. Gradually acclimate planting to weather conditions outdoors. Start with the pot in a protected area out of the full sun and wind for a few hours each day, moving back inside for freezing nighttime temperatures. After a few days of hardening the plants off, the pot can be left out in a sunny place. Salad gardens need six hours in the full sun each day. Cool season salad plants can take a bit of shade when the weather warms up later in the month.

Harvest: A diverse salad garden can be grown as a mix to harvest as a cut and come again crop. Snip baby leaves leaving one to two inches of the plant to regrow and produce a second harvest. A mix of greens and reds is as beautiful as it is delicious, with texture, crunch and flavor.

Repeat: Sowing a pot of salad greens each week provides a consistent supply of delicious salad greens.

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.