Gardening Basics

Grounding Yourself

The Gardeners Journey

Even if we follow the planting instructions, sunlight requirements, and feed and water our plants… 

  • Gardening is a journey, be patient and be willing to learn from your mistakes
  • Find your support network 

…Remember the seeds and seedlings are the result of thousands of years of activity; they are full of genetic codes that make them what they are.  They want to grow and reproduce to continue life on this planet.

Why Garden at Home

  • Cost savings 
  • Requires movement that makes us healthier 
  • Soil, water, sunshine and air can improve our mental health and wellbeing
  • Intergenerational interactions – people of all ages can come together to garden 
  • Beautifies spaces 
  • Builds self reliance and resilience – Learn how to feed ourselves so we don’t have to rely on others
  • Set up a rain barrel –
  • When you grow your own food you are more likely to eat the fruits and vegetables you grow! Growing food can help you eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables by:
    • Saving you money – they become more affordable 
    • Helping you know where your food comes from 
    • Helping you grow vegetables that are the most nutrient dense like leafy greens 
    • Helping you always have fresh fruits and vegetable on hand for you to eat
  • Let us know why you like gardening!

Places to Buy Seeds


Plant Hardiness Zone

It can be helpful to understand how well plants grow in the area you live. The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. *please note that these zones change as our climate changes, so be mindful that this may no longer be exactly accurate*

Nutrient Density

We recommend growing the most nutrient dense foods that you can including (in order from most nutrient dense to less nutrient dense – all have LOTS of nutrients though): Watercress, Chinese cabbage, Chard, Beet green, Spinach, Leaf lettuce, Parsley, Romaine lettuce, Collard greens, Turnip greens, Mustard greens, Endive, Chives, and Kale 

Plant Spacing When Planting


Think of plant spacing as a circle around your plant. From where your plant is planted in all directions, nothing should be within its spacing zone.

One way to visualize plant spacing is to use a ruler and string.

Visualizing plant spacing activity


  • Ruler
  • String
  • Scissors


  1. Reference the plant spacing table below and find your plant. Don’t see your plant – feel free to look up plant spacing information for your plant online.
  2. Once you know how much space your plant needs, measure a piece of string that length
  3. Hold the piece of string in one hand next to the stem of your plant
  4. Pull the string tight – you will be able to see how much space your plant needs. Remember that  it needs this much space on all sides. 

Plant Spacing in Grow Bags and Containers

Arugula3-4 inchesCollard Greens5-7 inchesPepper, hot1 plant per container
Bush Beans2-3 inchesCucumber14-18 inchesPepper, sweet1 plant per container
Pole Beans2-4 inchesEggplant1 plant/  containerRadish1 plant per container
Beets 2-3 inchesKale10-15 inchesSquash1 plant per container
12-18 inchesLettuce4-6 inchesTomato1 plant per container
Carrots2-3 inchesGreen onion2-3 inchesTomato, cherry1 plant per container
Cabbage12-18 inchesPeas3-4 inchesTurnip2-3 inches
Swiss Chard4-6 inchesZucchini1 plant per container

Succession Planting

Succession planting is a way to harvest more fruits, vegetables, and herbs by planting different plants based on the date when they are ready to harvest. There are several ways to succession plant.

Option 1: Same vegetable planted at different times

Many vegetables produce less that we can harvest after their initial production. For example, lettuce will produce fewer new leaves after it produces its first larger leaves that we harvest. 

To use this method, plant the same vegetable every 2-4 weeks during the time in the season when it can grow. 

Option 2: Different vegetables planted one right after the other

This option is based on the idea that some plants have very short life spans. Once they move through their life cycle you can remove them and replace them with another plant.

For this method, pick a plant with a short growing season. Once it completes its life cycle replace it with a later season plant.

Option 3: Same vegetable, different maturity rates

Each type of vegetable has different varieties (types). The types may look slightly different and often take different lengths of time before they are ready to harvest. This method will allow you to eat different varieties of the same vegetable for a longer period of time.  

For this method, pick different varieties of one crop (i.e. carrots) and plant them together.  

Option 4: Paired vegetables in the same spot 

This option is based on the idea that certain fruits, vegetables, and herbs grow during different times in the growing season.

For this method, plant a spring crop first and a summer crop right after or a summer crop first and a fall crop right after. 


Types of Gardens

The size of your space and your budget will determine how much food you can grow and which way to grow makes the most sense. 

Container gardens

Container gardens, including grow bags like those in your Grow Your Groceries kit, are one way to grow food. 

  • Just a few bags or containers can yield a nice amount of food
  • Containers must be food grade (i.e. restaurant buckets, grow bags) or you could ingest plastic unknowingly
  • Can be moved as needed 
  • If you rotate crops, you can grow a variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs in just a few containers 

Raised Beds

Raised beds are another way to grow your own food.

  • While they might allow you more space to grow, they require more space and cannot easily be moved 
  • Raised beds are more expensive to set up

In Ground Gardens

In ground gardens are one other way to grow your own food

  • In ground gardens may allow you more space to grow but cannot be moved
  • In Chicago and the surrounding areas, soil is often contaminated so you must get a soil test before your grow in-ground or you could be exposed to toxins 

Soil Testing Resources

OrganizationAddressPhone numberCost for home gardeners
Stat Analysis Corporation2242 W, Harrison, Suite 200 Chicago IL 60612(312) 733-0551$60.00
A&L Great Lakes Laboratory3505 Conestoga Drive, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46808(260) 483-4759Depends on type of tests. See costs here.

The table below compares the pros and cons of the different methods of growing. 

Container GardensRaised BedsIn-Ground Gardens
Pros– Convenient
– Avoids contaminated or low quality soil
– Grow in any location
– Extend growing season
– Accessible for kids, people with disabilities 
Allows plants to cohabitate togetherFewer initial start up costs (if you’re soil is okay to begin with)
Cons – Not suitable for all plant varieties
– Need to make sure container is food grade
More resource intensive to set up
Not portable 
Need to soil test before you can grow 

Additional Information


Fertilizer replenishes the nutrients in the soil that plants absorb over time. These nutrients act like food for the plants. If you add compost to your osil, you may not need additional fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can harm the plant, so it’s better to add less than too much.

Apply an organic all purpose fertilizer. Select an organic fertilizer because non-organic may have compounds that have not been proven to be safe for human health. Head to your local garden center and ask them to help you select an all purpose organic fertilizer if you’re having trouble finding one.

Organic Pest Management

ProductUseMake or Purchase?
Neem OilApplied to the soil, then absorbed into the plant – Effective in controlling insects, rusts, and mildews Purchase
Insecticidal SoapSprayed onto plant foliage Eliminates soft bodied insects like aphids, whiteflies, spider mites, and mealybugs Can also remove some leaf mold and fungiMake your own by combining 1 cup oil with 1 tablespoon pure soap (one without degreasers or bleach).  Mix 2 teaspoons of the above mixture with 1 cup of warm water.  Mix only what you will need for a given time.  
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)Spray onto plant foliage – Eliminates caterpillar species but takes several days because it relies on insects eating the compound Purchase