What to Grow If You Are a New Gardener

Ah, it’s finally spring in Chicago! Or at least the ground is thawing out.

What I mean to say is it's time to start thinking about your garden. Yes, even if you've never gardened before.

What should you grow if you are a new gardener? Well, in my opinion, you should try growing what you like to eat! I understand that can feel a bit daunting, so I’ve put together a specific things that you’ll probably be able to grow successfully even if you’ve never grown anything before!

Don't know what to plant as a first time gardener? Try your hand at hot peppers!

OK, let’s go:

Green Beans - If you like to eat green beans, then you are in luck, because green beans grow like hot cakes in the Midwest. Follow the directions on the seed packet and you should be good to go. They are very prolific and hard to mess up. Just make sure you select “bush” varieties. Pop those seeds in the ground after June 1st!

Green Onions - It's hard to throw off these plants. They are natural pest deterrents, and they just keep growing, even if you ignore them for a while. They are sometimes referred to as bunching onions. You can start onions pretty much any time after the ground is thawed out. Go wild!

Herbs - Basil is a common beginner suggestion, and I would go along with that, but you might want to get it as a seedling/start*. Herbs like mint and oregano will come back year after year and will spread like wild, so only plant them in places where they will have room to expand or where you can keep them contained (like a big bucket or pot). Cilantro likes cooler weather and will quickly go to seed in the heat, so now is the best time to plant it, I promise.

Peppers - Sweet peppers, hot peppers, you name it. If you buy a plant that has been started for you, rather than attempting to start peppers from seed, they are relatively easy to grow. They don't require staking or pruning. They love to produce over and over again once it gets hot, like August/September. Peppers like warm soil, so wait until the first of June to plant them outside.

Peas - Peas are super easy to grow, but they like cool weather only. So, we should be planting peas like now. Which is to say you can plant them anytime after the ground thaws.

Sugar snap peas are a snap to grow, and great treat in your spring garden.

Salad greens - Salad Greens - lettuce, spinach, arugula, that sort of thing - come up quickly in the spring and stay with us for a while. If you like salad, they can be a good way to start growing now and get some food on the table before summer crops like green beans and peppers even go in the ground. You can plant this stuff as soon as the ground is thawed.

Most importantly, plants like their space - you know how seed packets list a recommended distance between seeds? Those recommendations are there for a reason. Follow those directions and your plants will thank you. Even if your garden looks a little barren or super spaced out while plants are growing, when roots and leaves have room to expand, it makes for better fruits and prevents disease. Remember this when you are putting plants in the ground!

(If you are uncertain about how many of a certain plant should fit in a space, this handy dandy square foot garden planner is a good resource.)

Have questions? You've got access to an urban farmer and horticulturist right here! Feel free to shoot me an email at sustainablyqueer@gmail.com.

*Seedling/start: People use these terms interchangeably to refer to plants that have been started from seeds in a greenhouse and are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Starts can be bought at hardware stores, plants sales, or greenhouses to help you avoid the difficult process of growing your own at home. Plants that are not grown from seedlings are either grown directly from seed (like green beans) or cuttings (like some herbs, try it with oregano.)


Garden Update: July 2013

Garden as of July 8th, 2013
Garden as of July 8th, 2013

Welcome back to the "Garden Update" segment, I hope you are excited, because we are! A lot has happened in the garden since the middle of June. We went on a vacation and left our garden in the hands of a friend and any folks willing to water over at Vedgewater. There are bright yellow paint sticks with the words "Water if Dry" written on them. This is an indicator that the plotholders are out of town and their water may need some love.  

We've been blessed with a good strong crop of green beans and a delightful team of kale plants. The kale is a Russian variety, and the leaves are coming out to be larger than your hand. The green beans are just getting started, and I'm pretty sure we will see a second flowering from them before they are done. We've eaten at least a couple dozen green beans each and I've been throwing them into stir fries and pastas for extra green crunch.

First picking of green beans!
First picking of green beans!

We have a couple square feet of beets which are not getting terribly large, but we pulled one for tasting last week and it was the sweetest beet you could imagine. It was slightly smaller than a ping pong ball, but totally worth growing for the flavor. I will probably pull the beets in the next week or so to make room for a fall planting. I had planted some little beets in and amongst the spring beets, but they were shaded too much and haven't done a lot. Hopefully, I can make some room for fall beets which will give us a little more sustenance going into the winter times.

Baby beets, almost ready to eat!
Baby beets, almost ready to eat!

Our tomato plants are really coming along, even the ones I thought were goners. We also recently discovered that our broccoli plants, which seemed basically worthless up to this point, are trying to flower. I'm pretty excited about the prospect of broccoli florets, but it's nice to know that if we never get traditional looking broccoli, we can still eat the leaves and the stem. Yum!

We have cucumbers, corn, peppers, and eggplant starting to bloom as well. It's a bit late for many of these plants, but for our first year out, we're pretty proud of what our little plants are doing. The cucumbers have taken quite a hit from the recent heat wave. Even when we water more than once a day, they are looking a bit wilted and sad. We had a couple days last week, when it was really hot, that it was pretty touch and go for a few of our plants. Some things really do not like heat. To help with keeping the ground cool and retaining water, we mulched with cocoa shells. I do not recommend cocoa shells to anyone who has dogs or has a garden frequented by dogs, as they can be dangerous to dogs (It's basically like feeding chocolate to your dog, if the dog tries to eat them off the ground). However, Peterson Garden Project does not allow dogs in their gardens, so we were able to try out cocoa shells for mulch. It seems to be going ok, but even with the mulch, the bed dries out pretty quickly. I'm looking forward to more rain and some slightly cooler weather.

These berries are better than candy.
These berries are better than candy.

The biggest surprise for me in this garden has been our volunteer strawberry plant. It has re-bloomed twice and continues to produce the sweetest and tangiest strawberries I have ever eaten. We were pleased to see that the previous owners of the plot had planted strawberries the year before, because strawberry plants do better after their first year. We have harvested a berry or two every couple days from this plant and the trend seems to be continuing. The heat did get to the strawberry plant a bit too, some of the berries appeared to be almost cooked on the bush, but I think this is mostly a lesson to think about how to provide shade for plants in a shade-less garden. Next year, I will probably add in a bit more infrastructure and plan my planting to have larger plants protect more delicate plants. In the meantime, we will continue to live and learn with the garden, and hopefully I'll be back in August with some gratuitous tomato porn.  Tomatoes are comin'!