Spring is here: Time to discover the joys and tasty rewards of food gardening

  Vivian Lewis, 2, proudly
  displays carrots harvested
  from her family's garden.

  (Photos by Rachel Lewis)

The calendar tells us spring is here! 

If you are toying with the idea of growing your own produce or expanding your existing garden, local gardening enthusiasts suggest you go for it, get your hands in the dirt and celebrate what grows in your garden.

Prepare the soil
Kate Duff, a lifelong gardener and co-owner of Homewood Kitchen Gardens, suggests: "Start small and don't over plan. Be prepared to invest some dollars into soil amendments. The topsoil in Homewood is naturally rich in clay. You'll want to break that up and enrich it with peat moss, mushroom compost and sand."

Glenna and Dudley Elvery, owners of Homewood's The Cottage on Dixie restaurant, are seasoned gardeners. At home, Glenna amends the soil with her own blend of topsoil, peat moss, vermiculite and horse manure to break down the clay.

Brekke Bounds, the gardening expert at Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center, advises, "Compost is the way to go. It's the easiest, least expensive thing. Compost is really art. It's a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of talent and a little bit of magic."

If you don't already have a compost site going, Bounds suggests adding micronutrient-packed kelp meal to enrich the soil, as well as fend off plant diseases.
 

  Homewood residents Dan
  and Megan Brackin work in
  their handmade three-bin
  compost system.

She recommends Nature's Care, an organic soil by Miracle Grow she calls a great value. Dr. Earth, an organic soil, is another recommendation but with a higher cost.

Going with raised beds or containers can save space and also allows gardeners to create their own soil concoction.

"In the spring we break up the soil in our raised bed and work in any compost that may be ready," explains Megan Brackin of Homewood who gardens with her husband, Dan. "We are still very novice and have a lot to learn about soil preparation and nutrients. That will be our goal this year."

The summer is a great time to begin working on a compost pile for use the following season. There will be no shortage of readily available yard waste and come fall the endless leaves turn into quite the coveted ingredient.

Plant what you enjoy
When planning your garden, the first questions to ask are: What do I like to eat? What do I want to eat more of?  

If you like to cook, plant a variety of fresh herbs. They grow great in containers and make it easy to snip a few sprigs as needed.  

Location will have a major impact on what you grow, according to Duff.
 

  Glenna and Dudley Elvery,
  the owners of The Cottage on
  Dixie restaurant in Homewood,
  pose in their bountiful
  greenhouse.

"Figure out your garden location and then plan accordingly. If you have less than five hours of sun each day or mostly afternoon sun, look for plants that can tolerate some shade, like kale, or plants that can grow toward the sun, like beans."

Duff has an extensive gardening set-up.

"I try lots of different things, but I focus on tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, chard, kale, salad greens, garlic and squash varieties," she said. "Herbs I grow include lavender, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage and parsley. I have apple, cherry, mulberry and serviceberry trees, also raspberries and strawberries. "

If you are just starting a garden, Duff suggests starter plants rather than seeds.

"Definitely do a container/raised bed and plant more densely than you would otherwise to prevent weed growth. Adding organic mulch for ground cover will also deter weeds," she advises.

The Brackins started their food garden out of a desire to save money on organic and local produce. They had no prior experience.

"When we started our garden we really had limited knowledge on how to begin," Megan Brackin said. "We googled a little, asked grandma, asked friends and just dug in. We looked at it as an adventure and an experiment. We were surprised at how much actually grew without endless hours of work."

That was three years ago. Now they plan meals around what they harvest from the garden.
 

  Brekke Bounds, gardening
  expert at Irons Oaks, does
  a demonstration about
  vermicomposting during
  a class at the environmental
  learning center in Olympia
  Fields.

"We plant cucumbers, two to three varieties of tomatoes and peppers, zucchini, radishes, green beans, endive, arugula, broccoli, cauliflower, basil, thyme, cilantro and spinach," she said.

The couple uses seedlings from Bloomberg Gardens, a south suburban organic gardening company. 

The 2015 planting season was the first time they tried growing potatoes in a big plastic garbage bag filled with sand and the bottom cut out.

"The potatoes were a lovely surprise," she said. "It was our first year with them so we kept our expectations low, but the yield was about 50 potatoes!"

Gardening for the Brackins is a family affair. Their three-year-old daughter, Sylvia, is involved in the entire process.

"We have loved watching Sylvia get excited about the garden. Our first year was fun for her to play in the dirt and help water, but last year she really enjoyed helping harvest plants," Megan Brackin said. 

The Cottage on Dixie boasts an impressive greenhouse that provides year-round fresh herbs for both cocktails and menu selections.

Glenna Elvery's picks for beginning gardeners are basil, sage, rosemary and chocolate mint — hearty herbs that will keep on giving.  

"Just make sure you keep the mint in its own pot," she warns. "It will take over pretty much anywhere it can."

Timing is important
Duff starts her seeds indoors in late February.

"Timing is important. You need to resist the urge to start too soon. I like to get plants out into natural sun as quickly as possible. Plants grown under grow lights have a tendency to get too leggy," she said.

"In Homewood, the start of the gardening season is traditionally Memorial Day weekend. Don't rush your summer vegetables in (to soil) too soon, or if you do be prepared to protect them if we get a late frost," Duff advises.

For their home garden, the Elverys start seeds indoors in early March. They suggest taking the starters out for a few hours a day near the transplanting time to help acclimate them to outdoor conditions.
Elvery is adamant about the planting date.

"I never plant anything before Mother's Day," she said.

Gardening is special
Duff says it best: "I love how gardening meets so many basic human needs — the physical need for food and also the intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs.

"On the intellectual side, it requires planning and problem solving. On the emotional side, it's a very contemplative and relaxing activity that connects you in a very deep way with the circle of life."


This story first appeared in the March print edition of the Chronicle.

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