I have to admit – I know nothing about gardening. Shopping for tomatoes – yes. Growing a tomato – no. It seems very complicated and time consuming, but I really want one day to be a proud owner of backyard raised cucumber. What do I need to know about gardening if I know nothing? Meet Seneca Kern – a man, who speaks garden.
Gardening is a lot easier than most think. It becomes increasingly difficult the more you complicate an already incomprehensibly complex web of systems. Keep it simple and there’s little to fear.
A soil test, particularly here in Chicago is a MUST. Go to UMass – Amherst Soil Testing Lab and in about 3 wks you can get a full analysis (nutrient count, pH, heavy metal contaminants, and even recommendations based on your results) for under $15 with shipping. For faster results, check out University of Illinois Extension Soil Testing.
Find a space with at least 6-10 hrs of direct sunlight (8 hrs is the ideal minimum for most favored veggies like tomatoes and peppers). North of the equator, southern exposure is best for longer harvests.
Build a raised bed to make things easier in the long run (fewer weeds, pests, and diseases, easier to access, manage and protect).
Quality, healthy soil (or compost) and seeds (organic and heirloom, if possible) usually result in a great garden.
Well-cared for seedlings can be critical to getting good yields on some of your favorites (tomatoes, squash, melon, etc) during Chicago’s short and increasingly erratic growing season.
Grow your own seedlings (if you fail, then go buy some, costs are much lower when you start your seedlings yourself.
Use square foot gardening is a useful way to start and track your crops.
Learn how to water!
Automated irrigation has a bit of a learning curve, but a timer, drip tape, soaker hoses, or drip line can be a lifesaver for those that travel, work long hrs or will simply forget to water their plants regularly (daily and sometimes twice daily depending on weather conditions)
How small can the place be for small space gardening?
All you need are a couple feet to get something growing. Herb pots or boxes are a great way to get the freshest, organic herbs at a fraction of the price. A number of them are perennial so they will continue to grow or return after winter without re-seeding. Container gardening has been gaining popularity in recent years as more folks are trying their hand at gardening. Pots, boxes (wine boxes can be a quick and cute solution), inverted planters (Plantopia, upside-down tomato planter), and SIPs or self-irrigating planters (pg18) are being used regularly by gardeners with limited space. Raised beds can be designed in a number of shapes and sizes to fit your needs (typically no wider than 4ft, as reaching crops without stepping on your precious soil can be difficult), to fit your needs. Straw bale gardens are even a great solution. Finally, an amazing innovation for space saving has been vertical gardening, which has taken on many forms. My favorite being the vertical pallet garden. Be creative, but be sure not to use materials that can leach into your soil and possibly contaminate your crops. Do your research and have some fun experimenting. Don’t be afraid to fail (it’s a major cornerstone of gardening) and share your outcomes! Most gardeners are happy to share their experiences and not-so-top-secret techniques. Just ask!
Is there an advantage of shopping at a nursery vs a Big Box store for garden related products?
When buying from a Big Box store, there’s no telling where the seedlings have come from or how well they’ve been taken care of. Generally, the practices that drive prices down on the non-living items are still applied to your precious baby plants. This can mean huge swaths of industrial cultivated seedlings coming from great distances, often not given the attention they need to become the strongest plants possible they can be. Similarly, in this environment pests and disease can thrive as they do with the monocultures we find just outside of Chicago. When only one type of crop is grown in a large area, this becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet for the agriculturalist’s archrivals. In fact, in 2009, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Home Depot’s seedlings were a part of a devastating tomato blight that swept across the US northeast, wreaking havoc on not only those who purchased the tainted plants but also those in the vicinity! The answer to these problems is typically the most unfavorable: chemicals and genetic modification. These are the last things you want to see with your future food. This is not to say that your local garden center is free of all of the above issues – in fact, they can see more or less quality control depending on the store. However, given that it’s much easier to form a relationship with staff, management and even the owners of these local enterprises, there can be greater overall accountability. Not to mention supporting local business is a huge part of true sustainability. Find a nursery where you can meet and get to know (if you choose) the folks that work there. Find out where their plants come from, check for pests or diseases, and be sure to let them know if and when you have any problems as they may be more receptive to fixing them. If they aren’t growing the seedlings themselves, ensure these plants, at a very delicate and critical stage of development, are getting all the TLC they need. If you choose a nursery, work with them and there’s a good chance they will work with you.
Having returned to his hometown of Chicago, Seneca Kern has incorporated his experiences working in the community and his grandmother’s garden with a love of food to take on the role of Community Outreach Coordinator at Growing Home and co-founder of WeFarm America. Focused on of the issues surrounding the environment, health, social justice and community development, Seneca, and the WeFarm team have set out to establish gardens around the city, big and small and re-energize the food movement with the most local, organic, and sustainable food possible: your own.