Home Gardening

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
  • 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! chicagogrowsfood@gmail.com

Preparing to Set Up Your Space

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. 


  • Hand tools: shovel, rake
  • Twine, stakes and plant cages
  • Hose and nozzle or watering can 
  • Gardening gloves (optional) 
  • Wheelbarrow, tarp, or large bin for mixing soil (optional)

Keep tools clean and store them properly so they will last for longer


Full SunPartial Sun / Partial Shade
6 full hours of direct sunlight

Those six hours could be from 9am – 3pm or 12 – 6pm; 

Full sun crops: include tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplants and cucumbers
3-5 hours of sunlight each day

Partial shade means morning and early afternoon sun

Requires relief from intense sunlight in the afternoonShade can be provided by a structure or a tree 

Part sun/part shade crops: chives, cilantro, leafy greens, parsley, peas, scallions
Full ShadeDappled Sun
Less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day, best if it’s morning light 

Even in the absence of direct sunlight, full shade can be a bright light

These crops will bolt in full sun; shade allows them to grow in hotter weather

Shade crops: broccoli, carrots, cabbage, beets, and some greens such as spinach and lettuces
Dapple sun is similar to partial shade.

Plants get partial sun as it makes its way through the branches of trees. 

Dappled sun crops: beet greens, cabbage (small head varieties), endive, leeks, lettuce, radishes, spinach, turnip greens


  • Plants get water from rain or from us providing it
  • Always consider where you will get water from before establishing your garden 
  • Check your seed packets or seedlings information for water requirements
  • Containers will dry out more quickly than raised beds and in-ground gardens 

Types of 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 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 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.
  • In-ground vegetable gardening is discouraged
    • Chicago is a rust belt city. The rust belt is where industries were located in the United States, and as a result these places often have soil polluted with heavy metals including lead. 
    • Soil testing is required to determine heavy metal presence and concentration 
    • In addition to learning about pollutants, soil tests can help you determine the quality of your soil 
  • Soil testing resource for contamination
    • Stat Analysis Corporation | 2242 W, Harrison, Suite 200 Chicago IL 60612 | (312) 733-0551 | The test for homeowners and home gardeners is $60.00


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 

Decide What You Want To Grow

Considerations: required container sizes, seasonality, sunlight, nutrient density, food preference





  • Pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, and hummingbirds increase the health, fertility and productivity of our garden 
  • Pollinators are responsible for 70% of the food we eat 
  • Include plants around and within your garden to attract pollinators 

More information here: https://www.chicagobotanic.org/pollinators

Set Up Your Growing Space

  1. Construct raised beds as needed
  2. Obtain grow bags or containers
  3. Purchase or make your own soil
  4. Add fertilizer


Big Box Stores

Home Depot and Lowe’s offer gardening supplies such as tools, seeds, seedling and potting soil mixes

Grocery Stores

Jewel Osco, Whole Foods and Dill Pickle Co-op often have garden centers during the main growing season.  Check to see if they allow folks to use SNAP benefits to purchase seeds and seedlings 

Local Garden Centers 

Offer gardening supplies and staff are often very knowledgeable 

Recommended locations: Growers Outlet Co., Adams and SonsFarmers’ Market Garden Center; Gethsemane Garden Center (more expensive!); Christy Webber Garden Center 

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ markets will often have seedlings at the beginning of the growing season.  The farmers will be knowledgeable about requirements for the plants.  Check to see if they allow folks to use SNAP benefits to purchase seedlings 


What Is Soil?

  • Soil is a living thing
  • A mixtures of minerals, water, air, organic matter, and countless organisms
  • Forms the “skin of the Earth”

How Does Soil Form Life?

  • Provides nutrients to plants
  • Absorbs water, which plants can access through their roots

Sources: Dr. Akilah Martin from the School of New Learning at DePaul University, https://www.soils4kids.org/about, http://whitefeatherarts.com/event/mother-earth-healing-prayer-circle-3/

Soil for Container Gardens
  • You must purchase or make your own soil blend specifically for containers – topsoil will not be suitable
    • Make your own soil recipe
      • Supplies: measuring container, shovel or trowel, large garden tub, wheelbarrow or tarp, water (if ingredients are dry)
      • “Ingredients”: 2 parts premoistened coco coir (or more peat moss), peat moss or potting soil; 2 parts composted soil or composted manure; 1 part perlite; ¼-½ parts vermiculite 
      • Instructions: Fill your measuring container the correct number of times for each ingredient (i.e. 2 coco coir, 2 compost, 1 perlite, ¼ vermiculite) 
  • Fill containers almost to the top since soil will settle over time 


  • Soil that has compost added to it may not require additional fertilizer
  • Too much fertilizer is not better, so go light
  • Apply an all purpose organic fertilizer
    • You can purchase this at a garden center 
    • Ask local garden center or U of I Extension for help selecting one if needed

Image source: https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/garden-fertilizer-zmaz06jjzraw 

Plant Seeds or Seedlings



  • Planting dates depend on the last spring frost and the first fall frost – these numbers are estimated each year
  • See this guide for information about when to start seeds indoors (if applicable) & when to plant seeds or seedlings outside


  • Method 1: Direct Sowing
    • Necessary for: Root vegetables, vegetables that don’t like to be transplanted 
    • How to video 
  • Method 2: Starting Seeds Indoors
    • Necessary for: Basil, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Eggplant, Pepper, Tomatillo, Tomato
    • How to video
  • Method 3: Broadcasting 
    • Good for greens that don’t require specific spacing 
    • How to video
  • See this guide for information about when to start seeds indoors (if applicable) & when to plant seeds or seedlings outside


  • Can purchase seedlings or start your own indoors 
  • Requires hardening off (how to video)
  • Planting seedlings how to video


  • Can purchase seedlings or start your own indoors 
  • Requires hardening off (how to video)
  • Planting seedlings how to video

Tending To Your Garden


  • Water daily for most systems unless it has rained 
  • When watering, water at the base of the plant to avoid getting leaves wet, which attracts pests
  • Water early in the day or in the evening


  • Pests are not always bad – they are part of the natural ecosystem
  • Having too many pests can be a problem 
  • Common pests: aphids, army worms, asparagus beetles, earwigs, psyllid leaf hopper, root maggot, spider mites, tomato hornworm 
  • Methods to control pests
    • Remove dead leaves and leaves that are touching the soil to deter pests
    • Water at the base of plants to deter pests
    • Remove pests by hand if appropriate 
    • Use organic methods to control pests when needed 

Image source: http://www.garden365.com/container-gardening/organic-garden-pest-control/

Pest Control


  • Weeds are part of the natural ecosystem, but should be removed because they will compete with your plants
  • You must remove the weed at the root or it will grow back 


Blossom End Rot
  • Cause: not enough calcium in the soil OR inconsistent watering 
  • Plants affected: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash 
  • Solutions: 
    • Water plants regularly
    • Select plant varieties that are resistant to blossom end rot
    • Test your soil to see if you need to add calcium
    • Avoid damaging roots by staking or digging near mature plants 
  • More information

Image sources: https://www.almanac.com/pest/blossom-end-rot; https://pender.ces.ncsu.edu/2020/03/why-are-my-squash-rotting/

Powdery Mildew 
  • Cause: fungus 
  • Plants affected: Cucumber, Zucchini 
  • Solutions: 
    • Cut off diseased leaves
    • Apply Potassium bicarbonate, Milk, Neem oil, Vinegar, Baking soda, Garlic, Sulfur, or Copper fungicides
  • More information 

Image sources: http://frontrangefoodgardener.blogspot.com/2010/08/telling-powdery-mildew-by-its-spots.html


  • Don’t assume that bigger is always better when it comes to gardening.
    • Often times plants and vegetables have the fullest flavor at their smaller sizes
    • Texture, tenderness, and taste are compromised when vegetables are not harvested at their peak ripeness
  • Check on your plants daily to ensure that they don’t become oversized. 
  • Harvesting doesn’t mean uprooting an entire plant from the soil
    • Pick and come back method: Pick outside leaves from lettuce, kale, and collards, leaving the small inside leaves to continue growing 
    • Fruit from tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, and eggplant should be picked directly off of the plant’s stem
    •  Herbs should be cut at the nodes, where the stems of the plant intersect
  • Use a clean shears or scissors to harvest 



  • Farming While Black, by Penniman, Leah, Chelsea Green Publishing (October, 2018)
  • The Kitchen Garden Growers Guide, by Albert, Stephen, Stephen Albert Publishing (November, 2011)
  • Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible, by Smith Edward C., Storey Books (February 2011)
  • Vegetable Container Gardening: A Quick Start Guide (Gardening Quick Start Guides Book 3), by Green, Martha, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 2014)

Preparing For Next Season

  • Document where you planted what during the current growing season – you will need this to plant crop rotations next season 
  • At the end of the season, remove plants including roots and plant debris from containers to reduce chances of overwintering disease
  • Add ½ to 1 inch of compost to the top of soil and mix in gently
  • Cover garden space  with leaves or straw (optional but helps to prevent soil erosion) 
  • Plan crop rotations – don’t plant the same things in the same spot
    • Keeps soil healthy – different plants need different nutrients
    • Prevents plant-specific diseases from transmitting if they overwintered in the soil 

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.