Grow a great produce garden

It doesn’t matter how pretty the plant is, if Mary Buschmann can’t eat it, she’s not going to bother with it.

  Peter Buschmann doesn't
  mind eating vegetables when
  they're from the garden.

  (Provided photos)

The Flossmoor resident plants a produce garden every year, drawing ingredients for summer cooking and freezing vegetables to use all year long. In early March, Buschmann was still using up last year’s garden goodies, tomatoes from the freezer and carrots her husband, Joseph, had in the fridge since September.

“When my husband and I are talking about what goes in the garden, whatever it is, we have to be able to cook with it,” Buschmann said. “If I can’t use it in the kitchen, it won’t go in the garden.”

Garden-grown vegetables offer a flavor that’s completely unlike what you get in the story, Buschmann said, and it all starts with the dirt. Each year the family gets a dump of soil mixed  with mushroom compost — Buschmann swears by the stuff. She starts most plants from seed inside the house, using grow lights to get them going.

Radishes, greens, peppers, peas, zucchini, beets and bunches of fresh herbs make their way from the Buschmann’s garden and onto their dinner plates. 

  Mary Buschmann said her
  daughter, Emilia, treats the
  family garden like a personal
  buffet, munching on goodies
  right off the plant.

Sometimes the veggies barely make it past the plants before being gobbled up by the Buschmann’s children, 9-year-old Emilia, who “treats the garden like her personal buffet,” and 5-year-old Peter, who forgets how much he dislikes vegetables when picking them himself.

“My son hates vegetables, but he’ll go in the garden and eat peas right from the plant. He’ll grab a cherry tomato and pop it right in his mouth,” Buschmann said.

“I remember doing the same thing in my grandmother’s garden, how good things tasted. 

There’s a satisfaction you don’t get when you open up a bag from the fridge. It’s a full sensory experience. The smell, the warmth of the sun and how it changes the taste. It’s so satisfying.”

  Emilia Buschmann holds a
  handful of fresh tomatoes
  from the family garden.

Keeping a garden journal helps Buschmann plan her garden each year, referencing past entries to remember what grew poorly, what came in well and what overwhelmed the garden. She aims to answer three questions: Do I like it? Do I want to grow it again? How much do I really need?”

“I grew a ton of butternut squash last year. I don’t know why I put so many seeds in the garden, but it took over,” she said. “So this year, I can plan to do one butternut squash plant because that’s too much.”

Another year, she noted the heirloom hot chilis she planted were just too hot. The journal also stores favorite garden recipes, such as the pickled zucchini she loved. 

Buschmann, a PhD who oversees cellular and cancer biology research at University of Chicago Hospital, said her work inspires her to eat a healthy diet packed with plant-based dishes. 

“There’s no question; when you work in medicine, you see how important it is,” she said.

“Now, I also find drinking a glass of wine while looking at my garden is very satisfying.”

Produce garden tips:
Mary Buschmann said cultivating a produce garden is easier than you think. She offers some tips to get you started, no matter what your experience level.

  • Just plant it. Throw some seeds in the ground and see what does well.
  • Plant things you like to eat. Start small. You can always plant more.
  • Timing isn’t necessarily that important. If you’re itching to get something in the ground, peas like cold weather.
  • Take a chance on one veggie you’re uncertain about. Buschmann doesn’t like store-bought radishes, but eats homegrown ones all summer long.
  • End up with too much at the end of the season? Freeze tomatoes. Can pickles. Stick squash in the basement. Don’t let veggies go bad; find ways to use them all year long.
  • Research to learn something new each year. Use free garden planning tools, such as at

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