Gardens Good Enough to Eat
Local experts offer tips for growing edible gardens.
Remember when putting in a home vegetable garden meant clearing a big space, amending the soil, and putting up stakes and tomato cages that made your property look more like a farm than a home? Today, edible gardening is burgeoning in backyards and fits right in with the well-tended suburban landscape. You can grow a fine crop of fruits and veggies in nothing more than a few containers. This season, you will find advice on getting started and a heaping helping of edible plant varieties from garden centers and growers. Public gardens, too, provide education as well as bountiful inspiration.
Start with container gardening
If you are a first-time gardener of edibles, starting with a container or two of fruits, herbs or vegetables may be the easiest option. Virtually every garden center professional suggests that beginners start small with containers or with a raised bed if planting in the ground.
“People don’t have the space or they don’t want to use the space for vegetables,” says Diana Stoll, retail manager of The Planter’s Palette in Winfield. “It’s so easy to grow almost any vegetable in a container.” She notes that many suburban yards don’t have a lot of sun, so the ability to move containers into the sunniest spots is a plus. “Vegetables work very well with flowers. You can fit in a broccoli plant with the flowers,” she suggests. Using a container also means you don’t have to contend with the clay soil that makes gardening in the western suburbs such a challenge. At Wasco Nursery in St. Charles, grower and designer Mark Levandoski suggests starting planting early, with crops that thrive in the cool weather, such as lettuces and leafy vegetables. “It’s a great time to start plants from seed. You can do it indoors with simple types of seed-starting trays,” he explains.
For small spaces, Levandoski recommends a potato pot with a liner that lifts out, allowing you to grow fingerling or red potatoes easily and harvest them without digging down to the bottom of the container. “You can get a couple of pounds of potatoes out of a 12-inch pot,” he says. For larger yards, he suggests putting a row of plants in the ground and trying different herbs and vegetables.
Pick your favorite foods
As edible gardening has grown in popularity, garden centers are stocking an abundance of vegetable and fruit plants, most of which are annuals. The selection can be overwhelming.
“When new gardeners come in, I ask them to think about what they want to eat, to narrow their choices down before they go to look at the vegetable plants, and to figure out how much space they have,” says Christa Bormann, manager of Heinz Brothers Greenhouse and Garden Center in St. Charles. In addition to vegetable plants, Heinz Brothers and other garden centers stock an array of seeds. “Certain plants we only recommend growing from seed, such as radishes, carrots, and beets, so you don’t disturb the roots,” she explains.
Donna Van Evercooren, who runs the vegetable teaching garden at The Growing Place in Aurora, recommends that families involve their young children in gardening. “Lettuce and carrots are easy to grow. Cherry tomatoes are also good. If you make it fun for kids, you can create a life-long gardener,” she says. Van Evercooren recommends trying a themed vegetable garden in a container or in the ground, such as a pizza garden with tomatoes, basil, green onions and sweet peppers. Last year, The Growing Place offered a salsa garden in a 16-inch diameter pot filled with tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
To accommodate small space gardeners, plant breeders like West Chicago-based Ball Horticultural Company with its Burpee line of plants, are developing new, smaller varieties of popular fruits and vegetables that produce a lot of fruit all season long. “The varieties are more compact and really high yield,” says Scott Mozingo, product manager for Burpee Home Gardens’ plants, which are sold through retail garden centers.
With tomatoes the most popular homegrown edible, Burpee has developed Take 2 Combos, combining plants that have been tested to grow well together. You can buy a cherry tomato and a slicing tomato in the same container. All you have to do is take the pre-planted container home and put it in a spot with full sun (more than six hours of sun a day).
Burpee’s Berries Galore line of strawberries can also be grown in a container. The plants sport flowers in rose or pink colors and berries that keep coming all summer long. The Sweet Kiss variety of strawberries produces fruit from June until the
first frost and is considered among the tastiest. Mozingo points out that Burpee varieties are naturally selected with no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The breeding process includes attention to disease resistance, making the plants easier
to grow without chemicals.
Fruit lovers may want to try dwarf bushes of raspberries, thornless blackberries or four types of blueberries from the BrazelBerries line, available at most garden centers. They can be grown in containers or in the ground. Be aware, though, that fruit bushes grown in containers need some special overwintering care to ensure they survive for the next season. The best protection is to bring the containers inside the house or garage for the winter.
Garden centers and growers alike are seeing greater interest among home gardeners in growing edibles organically. “People don’t want chemicals, even on their lawns,” says Levandoski of Wasco Nursery. “All of our seeds are organic. We use organic potting soil and fertilizer. The main thing is pest control, and there are a lot of botanicals and oils you can use.”
If you are buying edible plants, be sure to get them from a source that grows them organically, as many local garden centers and growers do. Heritage Prairie Farms in Elburn is offering organic plant sales on April 8 for spring plants and May 6 and
13 for summer plants. Spring transplants include such cool-weather-loving plants as chard, kale, beets and lettuces, as well as herbs like cilantro and sage. Summer transplants, like tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon and squash, must wait to be planted until after the traditional frost-free date of May 15.
To help you learn more about organic edible gardening, Van Evercooren at The Growing Place is offering a seminar on the topic on April 1. In addition to sharing basic organic gardening principles, she will inform gardeners about the need
to keep beneficial insects, such as spiders and ladybugs. They help by eating the bugs that can infest vegetable plants and their roots. “I encourage people not to use any chemicals,” she adds.
Gardeners who want to make an edible garden into a thing of beauty will find inspiration at our area’s public gardens. For a historic perspective, Naper Settlement’s Paw Paw Post Office Flower and Vegetable Gardens demonstrate how early settlers in the 1800s grew kitchen gardens close to their homes. “It’s a nice little old-fashioned garden,” says Nancy Carroll, one of many volunteers from the Cress Creek Garden Club who have maintained this garden since it opened in 1979. She explains that people in Colonial times followed European traditions of having their kitchen gardens right outside their doors in both the front and back yards. This year, the Paw Paw Gardens will be planted with such staples as tomatoes, beans, cabbages, kale and squash. The area also includes a cutting garden, which used to be a popular way to supply cut flowers for the home and little bunches or “nosegays” for friends and visitors.
An avid home gardener, Carroll invites children in her neighborhood to sample everything she grows, allowing them to pick flowers in the spring and baby pumpkins in the fall. “I love to encourage kids to discover gardens. One day a week, I let them run around and pick what they want. It’s like an Easter egg hunt,” she says. “Gardening is for sharing.”
At Morton Arboretum, a series on edible gardening includes a workshop on April 8 by Nick Michaud on French kitchen gardens, admired for their beauty as well as their function. Michaud is head gardener for a 50-acre estate in Long Grove, which includes a formal French garden lined with clipped boxwood. What makes a French “jardin potager?” “For me, it’s the combining of vegetables, fruit, cut flowers and herbs all together in the same garden,” Michaud says. He likes traditional planting principles, including companion planting —“growing plants together so one plant helps another” — inter-planting ornamentals and edibles, and succession sowing to make sure the garden produces over the season. In garden design, he says, “You always want to add some height to your bed,” including tall plants that require supports like tomatoes, bush beans and pole beans.
At Cantigny Park, the Idea Garden typically contains some unusual edible cultivars and multiple types of popular herbs. “A lot of people love rosemary but probably don’t realize how many varieties there are. We grow seven different kinds. Some have straight stems that can be used for barbecue or to skewer meat in shish kebobs. Others are weeping or cascading and are good for containers,” says Liz Omura, horticulturist for Cantigny.
Cantigny’s Spirited Botanist series features cocktails made from plants grown at the park. One of Omura’s favorites is the Asian butterfly pea plant, whose bright blue flowers are dried to make tea. The flowers turn liquids blue and form the
base of the “Mood Ring” drink that shades into lavender when lemonade is added. Her advice for home gardeners: “Try at least one new thing a year.”