Advice For Our Grewbies

Your first year gardening can be exciting and a little intimidating. Our goal is to teach you the basics of food growing and be there for you as you get over the GREWBIE hump… THERE ARE NO DUMB QUESTIONS! And we’re looking forward to answering them all for you.

Here’s a few tips and ideas to think about while we’re waiting to get in the gardens!


Call it dirt, call it soil… Whatever name you use it is the most important part of your garden. We will be using “The PGP Mix” from Lake Street Landscape Supply. Here are the details: Tested quality pulverized topsoil blended with organic compost and 10% liquified cow manure.  The compost/manure blend is OMRI-certified and also sold by Whole Foods at select stores.”

This fresh, healthy soil is good to go. You don’t have to worry about any amendments or additions to the soil. If you want to give your tomatoes/peppers/eggplant a little fertilizer at planting or top dress when the flowers bloom you can do that. We’ll have these supplies and instructions on how to use them at our plant sale May 11-13.

To geek out on how important soil is to human existence, check out the DIRT: The Movie .


Gardening in a raised bed is different than “farming”… many of the practices or tools you might use for farming (tilling or turning the soil, stepping on the soil, cover crops, big tools) are not necessary or advisable for a raised bed.

The most important maintenance for your raised bed – DO NOT STEP IN IT. We make the beds 4’ wide so they are easily accessible from both sides. You don’t want to step on your soil because in healthy soil a natural system of tunnels and air pockets exists that allows water absorption/run off and air for your plants. This condition is called being “FRIABLE” (if you REALLY want to geek out on this topic click HERE.)

And, yes, you can grow food in 8” of soil. And, yes, we are putting the beds directly on concrete in some of the gardens. And yes, the beds are made of untreated wood (except the corners). Yes, yes, yes. Raised beds work.


With this fluffy, wonderful new soil you don’t need much more than a trowel. And we provide those compliments of Corona Tools. We will also have wheelbarrows, larger shovels (for getting soil in the beds) and a few hand cultivators in each of the gardens. We’ll have some Cobrahead tools as well.




The simplest definition of organic gardening is avoiding the use of synthetic or harmful chemicals or materials in the garden. For a fancier definition, click HERE. Our gardens are all organic which means no pesticides, insecticides or other chemicals such as Miracle Grow. If you are in doubt about a product, check for the OMRI certification .

We will introduce and encourage organic practices throughout the summer with our education program.


Seed starting is fun. It can also be a little intimidating the first time you do it. Take it easy on yourself and consider just buying transplants. We will have healthy, heirloom starts available at our plant sale May 11-13 or you can go to a local nursery and get them.

One of the big questions we’ve been hearing lately is “if the transplants I buy are not organic, is that a problem?” – in the BIG picture it would be awesome to get everything organic but that isn’t always possible. With transplants it is more about your practices with the plant once you put it in the garden.


Our gardens will be in by mid- to late-May. Generally speaking it is not advised to put your “warm season” crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, squash, cucumbers) out until after the last frost date has passed which, according to the NEW USDA hardiness map is April 20. I usually wait until Memorial Day weekend to put these crops out just to be safe.

Most likely we won’t be able to get in spring cool season crops (lettuce, spinach, peas) but we can succession plant and get those in for fall harvest.


We have civilization because of agriculture so, clearly, there are many different methods you can employ to grow food. And, lucky for us, plants want to grow so we have a partnership with our gardens that make success easier.

Our mission is to teach people to grow their own food in urban areas which often means limited space. We advocate a modified version of the Square Foot Gardening  method which is a wonderful way to get a lot of food into a limited area. The element we focus on most is plant spacing. Using an intense planting method produces lots of food as well as reduces weeds (although with our new soil this shouldn’t be too big of an issue) and water evaporation.

Several of our volunteer staff members are certified SFG instructors. And we will be sponsoring a Square Foot Gardening Teacher Certification symposium this fall. More details on that later…

FUN FACT: Over the last two years, many of our gardeners have measured the output from their plots and the average amount of produce per square foot is 1.5 pounds. This is with a growing season from May-October.


Isn’t technology wonderful? The awesome people at Gardeners Supply have come up with a handy tool that allows you to plan your garden using Square Foot Gardening spacing. Not only does it provide a layout but also a primer of tips based on our selections.



Use the Kitchen Garden Planning Tool to design your garden. Think about what you like to eat and play with the garden design. Bring your homework with you when we have classes and our  instructors will provide advice to tweak your plans for success. NOTE:  beds are 4×8’ except at Montrose Green where they are 4×6’



There are a lot of confusing terms out there right now. GMO is probably the worst of them… Genetically Modified Organisms are why we have most of our heirloom varieties and all of our hybrids today. The GMO process is not a sinister one and can occur naturally or through human intervention. The “Frankenfood” issues that you are hearing about refer to Genetic Engineering which is human intervention to create something that would never happen in nature. Luckily for the home gardener, none of these crops are available for purchase on a small scale.

However, if this issue is important to you (it is important to us), check that your seed supplier has signed the Safe Seed Pledge and you can buy your seeds with confidence.


There are a lot of great seed companies out there and everyone has their favorites for good reason. We get donations from many seed companies including Territorial Seed, Renee’s Garden Seed, Ferry Morse and others. We are partnering with Seed Saver’s Exchange on the Edible Treasures Garden at the Field Museum and have great respect for their work for the past 35 years finding and keeping heirloom seeds so we can enjoy them today.


Watering is key to plant health. Duh. HOW YOU WATER is also key to plant health. We’ll teach this in the garden – actually we’ll teach the kids who become our “water ambassadors” and keep the adults in line. Essentially, you want to water at the base of the plant. Watering the leaves is like pouring water on your shoulder if you’re thirsty. Put the water in the plant’s mouth – the roots. Another good reason to water at the roots is because water can spread disease. If you have a plant that is sick and you water the leaves, the water picks up the contagion and spreads to other plants through splashing. Don’t argue with us on this one – just water at the roots.


Your garden will never be perfect. You will make dumb mistakes year after year no matter how experienced you are (click HERE for some of mine). Accept that fact before you start and things will be a lot more fun. Thomas Jefferson said “Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Like TJ, you can never learn all there is to know or practice every technique out there – let alone know what Mother Nature is going to throw at us weather-wise – and that’s part of the fun. Take it easy on yourself… learn this year, make mistakes this year, watch your friends do better or worse than you, marvel at your home grown awesomeness and rejoice. Finding the joy in all of it – the good and the bad – that’s what will make you a true gardener.

LaManda Joy is an award winning Illinois Extension Master Gardener, author of the popular urban gardening blog “The Yarden”, a Square Foot Gardening™ Certified Instructor and Founder of The Peterson Garden Project a community and edible garden education program in Chicago, Illinois. She is a board member of the American Community Gardening Association, member of The Culinary Historians of Chicago and a national speaker on Victory Gardens, both historic and modern, and other edible garden topics. Her recent lecture at the Library of Congress can be seen HERE.