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From Seed to Plate: Preparing a Backyard Vegetable Garden From Scratch

Jan 31, 2024 ● By Megy Karydes
Swiss chard growing in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Swiss chard growing in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Photo credit Chicago Botanic Garden.

By February, many people begin dreaming of warm spring days and spending more time in their gardens. This month is the perfect time to begin preparing outdoor spaces, which includes starting seeds indoors.

For those new to gardening or seed starting, Marlene Fisher, a Master Urban Farmer and Master Gardener trainee, recommends people first ask themselves what they like to eat and also discover where in their garden they can get six hours of full sun needed to grow many favorite vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. Then they can enlist the aid of other gardeners or neighbors to help.

A few years ago, Fisher repurposed a vacant city lot in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, on Chicago’s South Side, into a thriving garden that has won awards including several in the Chicago Excellence in Gardening competition.

“I offered to help people garden by beginning with my friends and the community,” Fisher says, adding that it all began with 24 tomato seeds. While she didn’t need 24 tomato plants, she decided to grow all 24 from seed so she could give away those she didn’t plant. Fisher’s efforts rapidly expanded into a community-focused garden she named Greasy Garden, and her plant giveaways, nicknamed Greasy Free, now serve more than 60 neighborhood gardeners.

Starting From Seed

According to Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Glencoe, the best way to decide what to grow is to focus on vegetables that people and their families like to eat.

“There are a whole slew of herbs, flowers and vegetables that can be started in February,” says Hilgenberg. During this month, gardeners can begin crops that have a slow germination time, so they can give them a head start and they’ll be sturdy plants by the time gardeners experience the last frost, Hilgenberg adds.

Due to germination and outdoor planting dates, not all seeds can be started the first week of February, and this is where using a sowing calendar can be helpful. Hilgenberg recommends the sowing calendar on Johnny’s Selected Seeds website available under the Grower’s Library and named Seed-Starting Date Calendar. The interactive calendar allows gardeners to input the last frost date, and the calendar will automatically calculate the date they can begin certain vegetables and flowers from seeds indoors.

In the Chicagoland area, this year’s last frost date is likely around April 17 to 23, according to Hilgenberg. Using April 17 as the estimated last frost date, gardeners can start seeds indoors for produce such as cabbage, collards and kale seeds the first week of February, followed by beets, eggplant and Swiss chard in the third week, according to the sowing calendar. Some tomato varieties with longer days until maturity (see the seed packet) may also be started the last week of February, although many Chicago-area gardeners choose to wait until mid-March, as seedlings may get “leggy” or too large before optimal outdoor planting time.

Gardeners shouldn’t forget annual flowers. Traditional favorites Ammi, commonly known as False Queen Anne’s Lace, and Centaurea, known more commonly as Bachelor’s Button, can be started by seed on or about February 21.

Prepping Your Seeds

Once gardeners determine which plants they want to grow for their gardens, setting seeds up for success indoors can make a difference in how they perform in the garden.

Local garden experts recommend starting with fresh, quality seeds. If not purchasing new seeds for 2024, try to use ones that were stored properly in dry, cool conditions and air-tight containers. Seeds stored for several years may or may not germinate reliably.

When seeking a wide variety of options to grow by seed, Hilgenberg recommends Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, among others. For seeds that will likely grow well in our area, she also suggests seeking out a local seed library or seed swap. “A seed library is a place where someone borrows a seed that will be grown and harvested and saved again, and then returned to the library—and thus their community members—for others to use the following season,” Hilgenberg explains.

Dave Whitinger, executive director at the National Gardening Association and owner of Victory Seed Company, recommends investing in a few important pieces to help seeds grow, including a waterproof heat mat designed specifically for seed starting and LED grow lights. Tomatoes, for example, love sunshine and once they germinate, seedlings need more sunlight than the Chicago winter season can produce regularly during winter months.

Hilgenberg recommends gardeners also invest in a high-quality seed-starting mix. “Seeds need a finely grained, sterile, free-draining medium that’s easy to grow in, and a high-quality seed-starting mix allows space for those small, fibrous roots to push down and anchor the plant,” says Hilgenberg. Look for a sterile mix that has a nice combination of vermiculite, perlite and peat moss, which can be found at local independent garden centers, as this helps in moisture retention and seed germination.

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Some seedlings grow into major plants including many indeterminate tomato varieties that need to be supported to accommodate their height and fruit.

Whitinger recognizes outdoor space is limited for some, while others just don’t have enough time to grow a lot of plants, even if they can start the seeds indoors. Victory Seed Company introduced the Dwarf Tomato Project varieties, which typically grow 3- to 5-feet tall instead of 8 feet. They make great plants for containers because of their compact nature.

And if one desires something even smaller for indoors because they don’t have an outdoor space to grow, Whitinger recommends micro tomatoes, which max out to about 12 inches in height and produce little cherry tomato fruits. “They’re just a lot of fun to grow and they’re great to grow in little containers. You can grow them indoors all year long.”

Whitinger grows them inside under grow lights during the winter because he likes to have fruit to eat in the off season.

Gardening Successes and Failures

If seeds don’t germinate within the expected time frame—or if the seedlings or plants die—don’t be afraid to start again. “It’s not like you’re adopting a kitten or a puppy when you grow plants,” Whitinger jokes. “You know, if the plant doesn’t make it, it’s okay. A lot of people need to be given permission to fail.”

Even if a plant doesn’t make it and someone spent a little bit of money to try it, they’ll have learned from the experience and can apply their learnings to their next attempt. This is another reason Whitinger feels container gardening is a great option for people new to gardening since it allows them to control things more easily. If the temperatures dip unexpectedly, they can bring a container indoors briefly, for example, which is not possible with larger garden beds.

Megy Karydes is a Cook County Master Gardener, writer and author of 50 Ways to More Calm, Less Stress: Scientifically Proven Ways to Relieve Anxiety and Boost Your Mental Health Using Your Five Senses.



Photo credit

Chicago’s Plant Hardiness Zone Has Changed

The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its plant hardiness zone map in 2023, and the Chicago metro region is now Zone 6a. Microclimates also exist within zones, so conditions like urban heat islands and lake effect can affect homes within those areas. The American Horticultural Society also has a heat zone map that should be consulted because the effects of extreme heat can slowly damage and kill plants in the same way as severe cold.