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Six Things to Plant in the Ideal Starter Garden

Garden illustration
Illustrations: Vidhya Nagarajan

These six edible plants are just right for beginners who have outdoor space, whether a backyard, a community garden plot, a deck, or even a fire escape. The only place you don’t want to plant is directly in the ground—Chicago’s soil tends to be too toxic and compacted to yield safely edible food. That’s why even gardeners lucky enough to have a yard in the city should opt for raised beds (like the one shown), which can be purchased at most garden centers and filled with soil.

As for where to buy your plants and seeds, Home Depot has plenty, and for cheap. Want something more exotic? High-end spots like Jayson Home in Lincoln Park and Gethsemane Garden Center in Edgewater carry harder-to-find plants, as well as ornate pots and planters.

For watering, the rule is to keep the soil moist but not saturated. If you stick a finger in the dirt, and the first inch is dry, time for a drink.

Finally, a simple tip: Arrange your plants from tall to short, north to south, so the smaller plants don’t get overshadowed.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes illustration

Growing conditions:Tomatoes like full sun, and we mean full: six or more hours a day. You’ll need a minimum 12-inch pot or three-gallon grow bag for even the smallest varieties, one seedling per container. In raised beds, start with just two or three seedlings, planted two feet apart.

Before you buy:Read the label. It’ll tell you whether the variety is determinate or indeterminate. Determinates reach about four feet and yield a single crop; indeterminates top six feet and produce fruit all season. (More bang for your buck, but they require large support hoops.)

Varieties to try:For containers, stick to determinates that produce little tomatoes, such as Patio Princess, Baxter’s Bush, and Tumbling Tom. In beds, you can go big: Early Girl, Big Boy, Better Boy, and Big Daddy are great for slicing and salads.

When to plant:After the last frost, usually mid-May.

When to harvest:Late July through September.

Peppers

Peppers illustration

Growing conditions:Full sun. Minimum 16-inch pot or five-gallon grow bag, one plant per container. Plant seedlings at least 12 inches apart in raised beds.

Varieties to try:Like it hot? Try jalapeño, poblano, and habanero chilies. Prefer sweetness? Try Gypsy, Lipstick, Baby Belle, pimento, or Carmen peppers.

When to plant:Peppers have almost no tolerance for cold, so play it safe, Chicagoans: Wait until June.

When to harvest:Most plants will yield ripe fruit by mid-August, but the trick is to let color be your guide. You want green-going-on-red for jalapeños and poblanos; yellow-orange to red for serranos; and orange or red for habaneros. Most sweet bell peppers ripen by late summer.

Fun fact for bell pepper lovers:Yellow, orange, and red peppers are just green ones that have been left on the vine. Less fun fact: Chicago’s season is too short to get much past green.

Bush Beans

Bush beans illustration

Wait, what are bush beans?That’s the name for a range of pod beans that grow low to the ground, like a bush, rather than on a pole. They’re incredibly easy to grow.

Growing conditions:At least six hours of direct sun. Sow seeds two inches apart in a container or raised bed. Once they sprout, thin the plants to six inches apart (or one per gallon pot).

Varieties to try:Bush beans bring gorgeous color to a Chicago garden. Try cream-and-purple Dragon’s Tongue, buttery Pencil Pod Golden Wax, and Royalty Purple Pod, which turns green when steamed.

When to plant:After the last frost.

When to harvest:Early and often. Snip off pods when they’re the size of a pencil. Frequent harvesting encourages the pods to continuously produce. Don’t wait for seeds to form in the pods—that means the beans are overripe.

Leafy Greens

Greens illustration

Growing conditions:Half a day of sunlight is fine for most edible greens. Heat-averse kinds, like spinach and arugula, actually thrive in the spring and fall. Most seeds can go directly into a shallow container—greens don’t grow deep roots—and should be spaced according to the label instructions.

Varieties to try:Little Gem romaine and Buttercrunch lettuce can stand up to summer heat. So can chard. And yeah, its proponents are obnoxious, but kale also does well in Chicago.

When to plant:For arugula and spinach, either four to six weeks before the last frost or six to eight weeks before the first one of fall. Kale and chard are less picky—they can wait until mid-May.

When to harvest:As soon as the leaves are the size you like on a salad fork; young greens are tastier and more tender. Snip a few at a time, and they’ll keep growing back. Romaine and radicchio grow as heads; just cut the plant at the soil line when it’s time to harvest.

Carrots

Carrots illustration

Growing conditions:They may live underground, but carrots need at least half a day of direct sun. Whether you’re planting the seeds in pots or a bed, you’ll want to make sure the soil is at least 10 inches deep for standard-size carrots (less for shallow-growing varieties).

Varieties to try:Tender Danvers and sweet Paris Markets are great for shallow raised beds. Container gardeners have success with Little Fingers. For color, try Burpee’s Kaleidoscope Blend.

When to plant:In mid-April, and again in mid-July for short varieties. When the biggest sprouts reach an inch, yank out the scrawniest to give the others room to grow.

When to harvest:Most varieties will be ready to pull up roughly two and a half months after planting. No rush, though. You can leave mature carrots in the dirt well into the fall. In fact, carrots are tastier after a frost or two.

Strawberries

Strawberries illustration

Growing conditions:Full sun. Make sure your container or bed has good drainage—a sublayer of gravel helps—and eight inches of soil. Strawberries dry out fast. Water often at the base, and avoid splashing the leaves and fruit.

Before you buy:Strawberries come in June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral varieties. June bearers will produce big berries in, yup, June, then they’re done. Everbearers will produce two to three crops of medium-size fruit. Day neutrals will bear fruit at varying times.

Varieties to try:June-bearing favorites include Delmarvel, Seneca, Allstar, and Earliglow. Fort Laramies and Quinaults are popular everbearers. As for day neutrals, which are great for containers, try Seascapes and Tributes.

When to plant:Late March to early April, so the seedlings establish themselves before hot weather hits.

When to harvest:As soon as the berries are fully red.

 

Got Pests? Here Are Some (Nontoxic) Solutions


For birds

Extend mesh netting over frames or stakes to protect seeds and ripening fruits from airborne attack.

For squirrels and rabbits

Stretch chicken wire around and over beds using stakes.

For aphids, earwigs, spider mites, squash bugs, grasshoppers, whiteflies

Organic insecticidal soap spray contains natural potassium salts that kill these small pests. Apply directly to plant leaves and stems. Avoid spraying in peak sun.

For beetles, gnats, locusts, cabbage worms, mealybugs, leaf miners

Neem oil, pressed from the fruits and seeds of the South Asian neem tree, can be safely sprayed directly on plants to repel these uninvited guests.

For almost anything

Hot pepper wax spray, made from cayenne extract and paraffin, builds a barrier that deters an impressive variety of pests (some hate the heat, others the wax). Unlike other sprays, it stands up to rain.

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