I like to talk about beginning gardening this time of year. In the Chicago area, we will be planting the garden soon as the threat of frost is all but over. We are in zone 5 so our planting date is May 15, but I’ve had to cover plants too many times to plant that early. So that’s the first thing to do: find out your zone and frost date. The zone will guide you in choosing plants. Of course, your garden center will have plants for your area but with so many mail order options out there, it’s good to know what will work in your area.
When choosing a space for your garden, don’t just find an empty spot. Many people plant along their garage, then realize there’s not enough sun. Most vegetables, especially tomatoes, need 6 hours of direct sunlight. But others do well with less; like peppers and cucumbers. Check and see where the light falls all day long. My garden has a shady spot that gets good morning light . The less light and heat loving plants go in the shade and the tomatoes go in the sunniest spot. Another thing when choosing a spot: make sure it’s visible from the house. Out of sight means out of mind. Your garden will need daily care, especially in the hottest part of summer. Whether it’s weeding, watering, or tidying up; you should check it every day.
Unless your soil is great, you will need to augment. You could add 8 inches of new topsoil but it’s a little easier to add about 3 inches of a good garden soil like Miracle Gro. Till it in until you have about 10 inches of workable soil. You can frame the garden to hold the new soil, using treated wood or plastic edging.
Plants are to your tastes, but don’t be too ambitious. If you love tomatoes, choose 3 or 4. A good selection includes an early crop, cherry tomato, medium size, and a beefsteak. Green, red peppers, and jalapeños are good too. Try some lettuce between plants in a shadier spot. Cucumbers and green beans can crawl up a fence behind the peppers. There are a few things you should be cautious about planting. Zucchini squash tends to take over and no one can ever eat all these vines produce. Any small garden will have a hard time with ground vine plants like hard squash, pumpkins, and melons.
Make sure your water source outside is close enough, so watering isn’t difficult. You might want to invest in a soaker hose. This slow watering method is great in the heat of summer. It directs all the water right to the soil, so you lose very little to evaporation, and save water. Watering is like the lawn, 1 inch per week. You’ll need more in the heat of summer. Adding mulch will keep down the weeds and retain water. Leave a few inches around the stem of the plant. After plants are well established (about a month) you can begin feeding. I use Miracle Gro, but any garden vegetable food will do. Every three weeks is good.
With a little work and care, your garden should be taking off. Before too long, you’ll be enjoying your own home-grown vegetables. Good luck!
KATHLEEN WEAVER-ZECH & DEAN’S TEAM CHICAGO