Gardening at Home

Benefits of Gardening At Home

When you grow your own food you are more likely to eat the fruits and vegetables you grow!

  • Builds self reliance and resilience – Learn how to feed ourselves so we don’t have to rely on others
  • Soil, water, sunshine and air can improve our mental health and wellbeing
  • Requires movement that makes us healthier 
  • Cost savings 
  • Intergenerational interactions – people of all ages can come together to garden 
  • Beautifies spaces 

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. 

Sunlight Exposure of Your Garden Location

One of the most important factors to consider for vegetables as well as flowers—if not the most important factor—is sunlight exposure. To thrive and do their best, most vegetables need “full sun,” which is defined as “at least 6 hours of unobstructed sunlight per day.” In most cases, more light (8 hours) is even better.

Some crops, such as broccolilettucespinach, and other greens, can tolerate less sunny spots (described as being “partial sun” or “partial shade”). In general, the more sunlight your garden receives, the greater the quantity and quality of your crops.

Tip: In cooler climates, a suntrap or cold frame is ideal for tender crops. In hot climates, growing under shade cloth or in the shadow of taller climbing plants, such as pole beans, helps to expand the choice of what you can grow in these conditions. 

Water Accessibility

Be sure water is nearby and readily available near your gardening site. Nothing burns out a beginning gardener faster than having to lug water to thirsty plants during a heat wave. Plus, having water nearby means that you’re a lot less likely to skip out on watering if you’re feeling a bit lazy one day!

Extra water is likely to be necessary during dry spells, so locate new garden beds close to an outdoor water source. The soil near walls, fences, and overhanging trees tends to be too dry for good plant growth, which is why an open area is best.

Water conservation should also be something that you take into account when planning out your garden. Read more about watering here.

The Garden Site’s Protection From Wind

Be sure your location is protected from heavy wind. Shelter from winds is helpful for most crops, especially those that grow upright and produce abundant amounts of fruit, such as tomatoespepperseggplantpeasbeans, and any other climbing vegetables.

Strong winds dry out plants and soil and can topple extra-tall plants like corn and sunflowers. Wind also causes most plants to reduce transpiration and growth. Cold, dry winds are the worst, as they suck moisture from plants, searing leaves and causing wind burn, which destroys leaves and flowers.

Bear in mind that solid walls or fences may provide shelter, but they can also cause the wind to form destructive turbulence on the sheltered side, so don’t plant too close to them. Hedges and open or woven fences are more effective, as they filter wind rather than deflect it.

Soil Quality of Your Garden

The ideal garden location has rich, loamy soil. If you have lousy or too-thin soil, you are out of luck, or you’re going to need to do some work to prepare the soil for growing (see below). One quick way to judge the quality of your soil is to look at your yard, especially if you have a lawn. If it’s lush and healthy, then you probably have decent soil. 

“Loamy” soil is composed of almost equal amounts of sand and silt with a little less clay. A good ratio is 40 percent each of sand and silt and 20 percent of clay. This is the ideal composition for growing most plants. If your soil has too much clay or too much sand, this will be a problem, and you will need to amend it with organic matter. Clay soil that remains wet for too long will suffocate plants, while sandy soil may drain too quickly, parching them. Both conditions inhibit nutrient absorption by plant roots.

Good soil drains well. If you wish to test the drainage in your garden soil, dig a test pit about 1 foot deep, wide, and long. This pit will reveal if there is standing water under the surface. It will also allow you to observe how the soil drains. To test, add ½ gallon of water to an already damp pit and time how long it takes to drain. If it takes a number of hours, that’s OK, but if it takes days, water may pool under the surface in the summer when you irrigate, suffocating roots and creating anaerobic soil conditions.

The very best way to figure out the quality of your soil is to get a soil test done. Many university extension services will test your soil for a small fee (or for free), providing you insight into its structural quality (sandy, loamy, or clayey), as well as its pH level (acid or alkaline?) and its nutrient health (considering nitrogen, potassium, and other necessary elements that plants need to grow well).

Of course, if you’re growing in containers or raised beds, you do not have to worry as much about the soil under your gardening area. For raised beds, however, you should still consider getting your soil tested, as plants’ roots may eventually extend beyond the raised bed itself. This is especially important in urban and suburban areas, where lead and other harmful materials may be a concern.

→ Learn more about preparing soil for planting and soil amendments.

Types of Gardens

Container Gardens
Raised Beds
In Ground 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

Decide What You Want To Grow

  • Space

    How much space the plant will need when it's fully grown.

  • Climate

    Whether the plant can tolerate your local climate and growing season. For example, plants that thrive in warmer climates prefer sun, while plants that can handle cooler weather are hardier.

  • What you like to eat

    Consider what you'll use the plants for, and whether you actually like to eat them.

  • Seeds

    Use a guide like the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to help you choose varieties that will grow well in your area.

  • Plant health

    When choosing a plant, look for signs of insects on the underside of leaves, and avoid plants that show signs of drought stress, like yellow leaves.

  • Lighting

    How much light the plant will need, which can affect its growth rate, watering schedule, and placement.

  • Other

    Soil conditions, weather patterns, and market demand.

Set Up Your Growing Space

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


Planting seeds is the first step to starting the plant cycle. There are a few ways that you can plant seeds.

Direct sowing means planting seeds directly in your grow bag, a container outside, or a raised bed garden. This way of planting seeds is necessary for root vegetables that grow underground like carrots, beets, onions, and potatoes. It’s also necessary for plants that don’t like to be transplanted, or moved from a smaller container where they first started growing to a larger container where they will continue to grow.

To direct sow, follow the directions on the back of your seed packet. Watch a video about how and why to direct sow seeds at

You can direct sow the following plants:

  • Arugula
  • Beets
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Chard
  • Cilantro
  • Collards
  • Dill
  • Kale
  • Mizuna
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Onion
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Purslane
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
Broadcasting – a type of direct sowing
Broadcast sowing is an easy way to plan a large number of very small or small seeds. You can broadcast sow beets, carrots, herbs, lettuce, and some other greens. After your seeds sprout, you will need to thin them. Watch a video about how to broadcast seeds at

It can be helpful to start some seeds indoors so the plants have a chance to grow before you plant them outside. This increases the chance that they will survive and helps them produce more food for you. If you don’t want to start your own seeds indoors you can purchase seedlings from local nurseries. Starting seeds indoors can take some special equipment and practice, but trying is a great way to learn. Watch the videos below to learn more
about starting seeds

The following plants need to be started indoors:

  • Basil
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Eggplants
  • Hot Peppers
  • Oregano
  • Pumpkins
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Sweet Peppers
  • Sweet
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes

The following plants can be directly sowed OR started indoors depending on the time of year:

Melons (cantaloupe, watermelon): Start indoors in the spring
Cucumbers: Start indoors in the spring. Plant outside in late July.
Kohlrabi: Start indoors in the spring. Plant outside in early September.
Lettuce: You can start indoors in the spring so your plants produce leaves that you can eat more quickly. Plant outside in mid-September.
Pumpkins: Start indoors in the spring. Plan outside in mid-June.
Zucchini: Start indoors in the spring. Plant outside in late July.

  • Seedlings are small plants. They can be purchased from a nursery or you can start your own. Make sure to harden them off, which means gradually get them used to the sunlight outside. If you buy seedlings, ask if they have been hardened off.

Watch a video at to learn about how to harden off seedlings.

Once your seedlings have been hardened off, they are ready to be planted in your container or raised bed. See page 13 to make sure that you have the right size container for your plant.

Watch the videos below to learn more about planting seedlings.

Instructions for planting seedlings


  • Fabric grow bag, raised bed or container (check page 14 to make sure you have the correct size)
  • Soil
  • Slow release fertilizer
  • Seedling
  • Hand shovel (optional)
  • Gardening gloves (optional)


  1. Fill your container 3⁄4 full with soil
  2. Read the instructions on your slow release fertilizer and add the correct amount based on the size of your container
  3. Mix the fertilizer into the soil
  4. Add the rest of your soil to the container so it is full almost to the
    top of the container
  5. Dig a hole in the soil that is large enough for your seedling’s
    container to fit inside
  6. Gently remove your seedling from the container by lightly squeezing
    the slides of the container and tipping it upside down so the plant
    slides out. Catch the plant so it doesn’t hit the ground.
  7. Gently loosen the soil around the roots of your plant by squeezing
    it lightly with your hands.
  8. Place your seedling in the hole that you dug
  9. Fill in the hole with the soil that you dug out of it
  10. Water your plant right after planting it. 
  11. If you would like to plant more seedlings in the same container,
    watch a video about plant spacing at

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.


How much space does my plant need to grow?

Your plant will be more than happy to continue to grow in the grow bag that we gave you. If you want to grow other plants in your grow bag once this plant dies or want to have more than one grow bag, it’s important to know what size grow bag your plant needs.

The table below lists required container sizes for a variety of plants. Root vegetables (carrots, beets, onions) will require deeper bags or gallons at a minimum of 7 gallons.

Tending To Your Garden

Just like humans, plants need water to survive. Plants get water from rain or from us watering them. It’s important to think about where you will get water from to water your plants.

Water sources:

  • Your house using a watering can
  • An outdoor hose with a spray nozzle
  • A rain barrel – please note that it is not recommended to use collected rain water for produce plants.

How much water do my plants need?

Check your seed packets or research online to learn how much water your plants need.

Fabric grow bags and containers dry out more quickly than raised beds.

Always consider where you will get water from before establishing your garden. 

Watering best practices

  • Water is a finite resource which means that we could run out of it some day. Because of this, it’s important that we conserve or use as little water as we can when watering our plants.
  • Ideally water your plants each morning before it gets too hot (establish a daily routine)
  • Before watering, feel the soil below the surface to see if it feels damp (stick your finger in up to the first joint). If it is still damp you don’t need to water your plants. You also don’t need to water your plants if it has just rained or is going to rain.
  • For more guidance on specific water requirements for your plant check the seed packet or email CGF.
  • Water your plants slowly, making sure the water doesn’t flow over the sides of the container. Stop watering once you see water flow out of the bottom of the container.
  • Always water at the base of the plant and try to not get the leaves wet. Wet leaves attract pests and can cause diseases.

Please Note: Containers will dry out more quickly than raised beds and in-ground gardens. 

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