By Nancy Traver
Spring is getting on here in northern Illinois, and now is the time to get going on your garden. Your effort will pay off later when you’re enjoying the fresh lettuce, radishes and — much later — delicious tomatoes from your garden. There is nothing better than going into your yard, picking your dinner from the ground, cleaning it and enjoying the feast. And it requires so little labor, you have to wonder why more people don’t do it.
But that brings up the challenges in gardening. Here is what I hear from most of my friends: I don’t have good sun, I don’t have good soil, I don’t have time, I don’t like dirt, worms, weeds, etc. All valid concerns!
A lack of sunlight is a serious issue in our northern climate and short growing season. A couple of years ago, a friend decided to put in a vegetable garden and planted it between two houses. It never received any direct sunlight! I was amazed that anything actually sprouted. What came up from her garden were lanky, spindly, unhealthy looking cucumbers, small green tomatoes and very sketchy zucchini. She put the tomatoes on her windowsill to ripen and, when she tried eating them, they tasted like mush! Even worse than the cardboard variety you get in the grocery store. That was her last attempt at gardening.
In northern Illinois, you need at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight to successfully grow a garden. I’m blessed with a backyard plot that receives full-day sun. Many of us don’t have that, however, with the older, beautiful shade trees in our yards. To get around this problem, I’ve seen many people in Evanston rent a community garden plot (cost: $37 per year!) or plant in their parking area alongside the street. Surprisingly, even though your crop of tasty tomatoes is highly visible to passersby, few people steal your yield. (I guess tomato theft is below most people.)
After you’ve found your way past the no-sunlight problem, there is the soil issue. Most gardeners in northern Illinois have too much clay in their soil. This must be broken up, but it’s easy to do. Go to any gardening center and buy bags of compost or manure. Manure is even cheaper than compost and it is wonderful for growing vegetables! Besides breaking up the clay in your soil, it will add vital nutrients. To grow vegetables, you have to enrich the soil every year. An even better way to improve your soil is to add compost from your kitchen, but you have to start making that before spring planting time. (Watch our composting video.) Simply shovel a layer of manure or compost on top of your planting area and then work it into your soil. Voila! You’re ready to plant.
Once your soil is prepared, the fun really begins. Plan your garden around what you like to eat. A friend recently was discussing this with me and said someone had urged her to grow lots of eggplant because it is a beautiful plant. The leaves are a delicate shade of purple, and the flowers are lavender. Only one problem: My friend hates eggplant! Instead, she planted chard (which I dislike), lettuce (and lots of it), green beans, snap peas and carrots. She has three children and those are the vegetables they like. Don’t let your produce go to waste: Pick the vegetables that appeal to you.
Early crops go in first: peas, lettuce, spinach and radishes. I call them my “winter crops” because it’s so cold in northern Illinois in April that it often feels like winter. These crops will sprout, however, despite the cold temps, rain and even snow. Spinach, especially, seems to like the cool weather. If you wait to plant till June, your spinach will not do well. It’s easily discouraged, it seems, by heat. All of these crops are planted by seed. You can also plant zucchini, squash, pumpkin and other vine plants by seed.
Some vegetables and herbs are best launched in your garden using small plants or seedlings. Go to any garden center and pick out healthy looking eggplant, tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, strawberries, etc. Other herbs such as rosemary and tarragon are also best to start with seedlings.
Some gardeners will tell you that the best-tasting tomatoes are the heirlooms. These include the Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and other types. While the heirlooms have some dazzling names and are growing in popularity, I’m still a fan of the hybrids. An especially good hybrid for northern Illinois is the Early Girl. Early Girls were developed to ripen in areas with limited summer heat like we have in northern Illinois. They are sweet and a bit crunchy compared to other tomatoes, which makes them perfect for tossing in salads and eating out of your hand with a sprinkle of salt. My sister is an heirloom fan and will plant only heirlooms in her garden. However, she enters her tomatoes in a taste contest every year and guess what wins: the hybrids every time. They are simply sweeter and have a higher sugar content. Go, Early Girl!!
As I said, there is nothing more satisfying than picking your dinner out of your backyard plot. You are feeding yourself, your family, and you are saving the planet by not driving your gas-guzzling car to the grocery store and buying food that has been trucked in from distant locations and displayed in plastic bags. So get with it and start gardening!