Start Your Garden!

Harambee Community Garden in Chicago's Austin Neighborhood

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year.  Time to go through the seed catalogs, if you haven’t already placed your orders during the dreary winter days.  Time to think about preparing the soil, investigating best planting techniques to ward off summer pests, and draw up some plans for this years delicious yields. (Pictured: Harambee Community Garden in the Austin Neighborhood of Chicago)

Article prepared by Eloise Reimer/Contributor.  Originally posted Spring 2012.

As the Brown Line was coming to my stop not long ago, I noticed a woman sitting with a flat filled with brown colored dirt on her lap.  So, being nosy I asked her what was in the flat and she said seeds of onions and peas, and the brown colored substance was actually ground coconut shells.  When I asked her where she was taking this growing project, she said to her apartment.  I was surprised.

But why should I be?  Why not grow food in window boxes, and on back porches and roofs?  And certainly why not grown them in small little plots in yards and parks?  Why not grow vegetables in the city?  Go to the web site of the American Community gardening Association – Michelle Obama is there on a video extolling the virtues of the White House Kitchen Garden, and how her idea has caught on much more than even she expected.  Not that community gardening wasn’t in existence long before the latest trends, but her example has probably helped nudge the idea a little further into mainstream urban culture.

So, it’s Spring 2012, and here you are, wanting to grow something besides an African Violet on your windowsill this summer.  Something really tangible, something that maybe you can even eat.  Well, it’s a piece of cake, or let us say a ripe tomato to get your show on the road.

We’ve organized a comprehensive list of information below, to help you get started.   If you don’t have a yard to use,  there’s probably a community garden already in existence in your neighborhood, that you can tag on to.  If there’s not, and you and some neighbors want to start one, that information is provided as well.

Guide to Community Garden Sites in Chicago:

  • Chicago Park District.  Check out here for a complete and current list of community garden sites in Chicago’s Public Parks.  Gardeners take initiative and responsibility for the community garden and are able to grow ornamental and edible plants.  Also see forms for application to join a community garden, or start one.
  • Neighborhood Gardens.  Check out NeighborSpace for a list of neighborhood garden sites.  NeighborSpace owns property in a wide variety of neighborhoods and community areas throughout the City of Chicago. Their 76 community gardens in Chicago range from ornamental gardens, native plant gardens to standard vegetable gardens.


  • The Harvest Garden program gives children age 8-12, a three season in-depth experience with organic vegetable gardening.
  • Jackson Park Urban Farm.  In collaboration with the Chicago Park District, Growing Power manages the Jackson Park Urban Farm and Community Allotment Garden in Chicago. This half-acre site is used as a community garden for local gardeners and as a model-urban farm for Growing Power to supply fresh-produce to Chicago’s south side. At the farm, community members learn gardening basics from Growing Power’s staff and have the opportunity to farm their own plot.  The Jackson Park Urban Farm includes space for Growing Power to grow produce in raised beds, training and education of community residents who use allotment plots, youth development, community outreach through education programs and the availability of locally grown fresh, safe and healthy food that exceeds certified organic standards. (773)256-0903 – field house.
  • The Edible Gardens are located in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Farm-in-the-Zoo, presented by John Deere, and open to the public from April through mid-November. The Edible Garden is open to all, weather permitting, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10:00am – 1:00pm. The Edible Gardens program at Green City Market provides hands-on gardening education and activities to children, adults and school groups, and offer FREE Monthly Hands-on Gardening Workshops.
  • Angelic Organics Learning Center On Farm and Urban Chicago Classes,  experience directly on the farm or in an urban setting where food comes. Tours, workshops, and group programs on growing, beekeeping, raising poulty and more.  On the farm, you can use real tools, eat from the fields, milk goats, feed chickens, make soap, or build a compost pile.
  • Angelic Organics Learning Center CRAFT Field Days, free training events for beginning farmers, for Craft Members.  Craft Memberships are $25. for ‘Craft’, $30. for ‘Friends of Craft’.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden has an extensive line of lectures, classes and workshops available. They also have wonderful demonstration gardens of various types and designs.
  • Garfield Park Conservatory holds workshops, lectures and even has horticultural vendors onsite. They provide a wealth of information, ideas and resources for horticulture


  • Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a coalition of organizations and individuals interested in learning about, networking and advocating for urban agriculture in the Chicago area.
  • Parkways Foundation is the non-profit partner of the Chicago Park District. Parkways offers grant opportunities for community gardens registered with the Chicago Park District.
  • GreenNet is a coalition of non-profit organizations and public agencies committed to supporting community greening in Chicago. Their website lists guides, other community gardens, ideas, resources, organizations and potential funding
  • One Seed Chicago is an urban greening project. Yearly, residents vote for a favorite seed and One Seed Chicago mails you the seeds for free.
  • GreenCorps, which is found under the Dept. of Environment, City of Chicago, suggests grants, resources, and support
  • Friends of the Parks has mini-seed grants available
  • Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse offers workshops and lectures, as well as their annual plant sale and Harvest Festival. They provide horticultural ideas, resources, and programs: (773) 685-3359 or (under “Parks & Facilities,” look for Kilbourn Park)
  • Wicker Park Garden Club is a highly successful community garden that provides many resources, workshops, lectures and events
  • Openlands supports community gardens under their Urban Greening program
  • University of Illinois Extension website supplies a wealth of resources. They have a plant clinic based at the Garfield Park Conservatory where they can troubleshoot many individual plant/gardening problems. Master Gardener and Master Composter certification classes are also available.
  • American Community Garden Association works to create new resources for community gardens, coordinates an annual conference, and has online resources and informative lists of all topics involving community gardens.
  • National Gardening Associationpromotes the environment, is a resource of plant information, has a free newsletter, and provides links for gardeners. Periodically, they provide information about grants and other funds available.


Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that your soil is going to be the most important element in the growth of your plants.  I’ve planted great plants in bad soil, only to be dissapointed.  Make sure you start with good nutritious soil, or at least enrich it in the most organic ways possible.  There’s plenty of information out there about enriching soil; books, articles, workshops.  Here’s a few to help you power up on the subject.



    Seeds and Plants:

You can find plants and seeds anywhere from your local grocery store to your local hardware store.  If you buy seeds, make sure the seed packages are dated with the current year, so you are not buying last year’s stale seeds – old seeds are unlikely to germinate well if at all.  You can start your seeds indoors early in spring, but beware that not all varieties of plants are easily cultivated and transplanted – so not worth your while.  You can research these plant varieties, or just practice trial and error.  On the other hand some plants need a very long growing season to reach maturity, so starting them indoors is getting a great jump start on the growing season.  Growing the seedlings under lights is a plus, but a sunny window will suffice.

For the novice, you need to know to pay attention to the frost dates for your region, and know your zone.  Chicago is in zone five.  See chart below.  Annuals bloom only this year (they can’t survive our winters), biennials bloom only the 2nd year after planting and then die, and perennials (strictly speaking, plants that live more than 2 years) come back year after year if planted in a site they like, and usually increase in size over time to eventually need dividing.  This is when the fun part starts – you can swap perennial plants and seeds with your neighbors or even online, thereby expanding your garden’s varieties without spending a dime.

Also keep in mind that not all plants are put in the ground in the spring.  For example, garlic should be planted in the fall.  And asparagus crowns should be planted in the spring, but should not be harvested until their 3rd summer of growth.  Pay attention to the suggested planting schedule that accompanies the plant or seed.

Heirloom Seed Catalogs, Resources, Etc.:

Why heirloom seeds? Before the industrialization of agriculture (generally before WWII), a much wider variety of plant foods were grown for human consumption. In modern agriculture in the industrialized world, most food crops are now grown in large, monocultural plots. In order to maximize consistency, few varieties of each type of crop are grown. These varieties are often selected or genetically modified (GMOs) for their productivity, their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. Because flavor and authenticity is usually lost in genetically modified varieties, as well as lack of biodiversity in our crops, many people have turned to heirloom varieties.

Heirloom seeds on the other hand are not genetically modified. Many heirloom seeds have been handed down from one family member to another for many generations.  Heirlooms have adapted over time to whatever climate and soil they have grown in. Due to their genetics, they are often resistant to local pests, diseases, and extremes of weather.  That being said, some varieties of heirloom seeds may not be suited for all growing locations, and may take a more experienced hand to grow.

The wondrous and great thing about heirloom seeds is that you can save seeds from your crops for the following year.  Genetically modified seeds (hybrids) are not meant to be grown again – actually most won’t grow ‘true to type’ i.e. like their parent plant, or won’t grow at all, because of genetic modification branding them sterile for regrowth.  In fact, it is illegal for farmers to replant genetically modified hybrid seeds (see     ) – thereby making the necessity for the farmer to buy new seeds each passing year, and thus more dependent on monoculture global conglomerates.

  • Annie’s Heirloom Seeds. Only Heirloom varieties, no hybrids.  Family owned and operated.
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Over 1300 varieties of heirloom, non-genetically modified flowers, vegetables and herbs. Many asian and European varieties, as well as selections from the 19th century.
  • Bountiful Gardens.  Heirloom, Untreated, Open-Pollinated Sees for Sustainable Growing
  • Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Since 1975, members have been passing on our garden heritage by collecting and distributing thousands of samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners. Visit their 890-acre Heritage Farm to see the group’s gorgeous preservation gardens, the source of the largest nongovernmental seed bank in the United States.
  • Sustainable Seed Company.  Sustainably-grown organic heirloom, non-GMO, vegetable, flower, grain, herb and cover-crop seeds.
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds   Top-quality, non-hybrid products.
  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange  
    Though the group focuses primarily on plants suited to the Mid-Atlantic, it provides seeds, education and services for gardeners nationwide.
  • Terroir Seeds/Underwood Gardens
    Family owned and operated, Terroir Seeds and its associated gardens, Underwood Gardens, specialize in heirloom, organic and rare seeds, soil building and seed saving.

Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Hardiness zones determine which plants will survive in which regions. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the National Weather Service have identified these regions within North America.  The Map has been updated as of 2012.  Click on the map above to link to the USDA interactive site.

Zone Last Frost First Frost

Frost potential 365 days a year

2 May 1-May 31 August 1-August 31
3 May 1-May 31 September 1-September 30
4 May 1-May 31 September 1-September 30
5 March 31-April 30 September 30-October 31
6 March 31-April 30 September 30-October 31
7 March 31-April 30 September 30-October 31
8 February 28-March 31 October 31-November 31
9 January 31-February 28 November 30-December 31
10 January 31-or before November 30-December 31
11 No Frost


Always check with gas and electric companies before doing any extensive digging.  There could be underground utility wiring or sewer pipes that could be life threatening if disturbed.  Contact the following for more information:

  • Digger, for use in Chicago, 312-744-7000.  Call at least 2 days in advance of digging, to give utility companies a chance to come out to your site and mark the location of their lines.
  • J.U.L.I.E. , 1-800-892-0123.  Use J.U.L.I.E. for anywhere in the State of Illinois (except Chicago) to determine underground utuility and sewer lines before excavating.

 Recommended Reading:



Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: Premium WordPress Themes | Thanks to Themes Gallery, Bromoney and Wordpress Themes