January - Rest & Planning

What you can do to start planning for 2024

  • January to do’s: Dream and rest. Nature has to rest. Our bodies need to rest.
  • Listen to the season. With climate change, previously predictable dates like frost are harder to plan for. So be mindful of how the weather might change during the growing season and be prepared to cover crops or water more frequently.
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones have changed! This affects what is best to grow in which regions. Links to more information provided below.
  • When it is cold, the soil is preparing for Spring. Snow is important to help with this process. Snow provides the water reserve for Spring, so the less snow the more the plants might need watering. Soil will do its thing, so keep a close eye on how the climate is changing and its impact on what the soil is doing.
  • Pay attention to the lack of snow and be concerned. The soil that needs a certain amount of cold chilling hours won’t get them all. Some plants might come up earlier than previously, but then there might be another chill that can influence plants’ behaviors.
  • Keep an eye on early frost dates – they often predict April, but sometimes it’s not until May
  • Keep Notes – unexpected things might happen – Nature is dope

Questions to be asking as you are planning your garden:

  1. How many people are you growing for? – you might not need 6 tomato plants, or if you want to grow more can you connect with others growing and share? Limit waste
  2. What do you like to eat? Maybe don’t grow chard just because it’s pretty.
  3. How much space do you have? To learn more about growing in small spaces and containers check out the links to CGF’s resources pages.
  4. How much time are you going to dedicate to it? – July will come and it will be hot, will you be able to potentially water twice a day.
  5. Where are you getting your water from? – with less snow, plants will need more water care.
  6. What is worth it? – Strawberries usually get one nice harvest, do you feel they are worth the time?
  7. Consider nutrient density – “More bang for your buck”. If you are looking for something simpler that will be filling and healthy consider kale, chard, collard greens (but remember question 2)

Is there free compost? Interested in growing in compost


  • Research with biosolids is completed with animal waste, Chicago biosolids come from our systems including toilet waste and hospital waste
  • Use biosolids on ornamentals only! – don’t want Chicago waste into food – We don’t know just how bad Chicago biosolids are
  • Chicago Grows Food orders our Soil & Compost from https://www.cowsmocompost.com/, R & R will do testing and has compost, Midwest Compost

I have a strawberry patch, they come back every year, but they were small this year, what can I do to make them larger? Also 2 pear trees with smaller pears.


  • Soil Test (information for free Soil Testing below)
  • Better to use slow release fertilizer than liquid fertilizer – can get the slow release from different plant stores – Kings (only open for growing season).
  • Thin out strawberries

When do you prune an apple tree


  • Spring & Fall – gearing up for growing season and for rest
  • If they are at schools Openlands can do a demonstration to show you how to prune trees.
  • Connect with Tree Keepers – can potentially get volunteers to help – Al Dereu – https://openlands.org/people/al-de-reu/

Collected rainwater should not be used to grow your food


  • No, it is recommended that you don’t, rainwater contains pollution and radiation, if it’s coming off the roof there is animal waste and other possible contaminants. Could filter and purify
  • Side note in chat: don’t garden in the topsoil. It’s full of lead and other contaminants that get in your food

If a seed has dried out can you revitalize it?


  • If the embryo part of the seed is damaged, then no, but if the starch part is damaged then it should still be okay.
  • Side note: try planting it anyway! You can grow small plants and trees indoors for a while too; you don’t have to plant directly into the ground.

How long can you keep seeds? 


  • You can keep them for a while, but germination diminishes every year. 

Can you Grow in a Container?


  • Yes! Check out reusable fabric grow bags – learn more on the CGF website, links to resource pages below. Not recommended to use clay pots


February - Garden Scheduling

Don’t overthink it

  • Go outside, let plants do their thing
  • Connect with lots of different kinds of growers
  • Need more guidance? Use the internet, use social media, find local growers and ask questions


Suggestion: invest in a good grow light – will help us grow different things throughout the year and will provide good quality produce and a fuller harvest

What can you grow year round:

  • Microgreens (tender new shoots of vegetable plants, which are harvested before they reach maturity)
  • Can feed yourself for a long time – lettuce, spinach, head lettuce, dill or cilantro,
  • Full tray of microgreens with a grow light can create a salad, be added to enchiladas, tacos

What is passive Hydroponics? 

  • Passive hydroponics provides water only beneath the plant roots and doesn’t recirculate. The nutrient-rich water remains in the system until it’s used by the plants.
  • We can grow and feed ourselves in small spaces in different ways.
  • Typically use winter to build the quality soil we need


Growing 7 years ago is different than today; things are now shifting. Be prepared to adjust seasonally when planting.

March: Start thinking about what meals you want to eat, what meals you want your garden to help you cook and enjoy. Check out January’s discussion for questions to ask yourself as you plan your garden.

  • Making your list. Example: Davíd likes to make enchiladas so they would want tomatoes, tomatillos, and cilantro in their garden.

Start Seedlings (sowing seeds directly in the ground) in March to make sure you have a harvest in June. 

  • Lettuce, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage.
  • If you have the capacity, start your seedlings indoors
  • Can also try starting outdoors as seeds are resilient and will sometimes still sprout.
  • Cilantro, carrots, and beets will take longer because they want the sun.

Start acclimating your seedlings to prepare them to go from indoor to outdoor (hardening off).

  • Make sure they are tough, can handle the sun well, eaves and stems are standing up right, move with the wind, and can survive harsh conditions of living outdoors.
  • Giving them mild conditions to slowly get exposed to the environment
  • Always want to put them in shady areas, areas where they will still get exposed to the sun and get some sunlight.
  • If plants die or get sun damage they can sometimes still come back, they are resilient (If they are absolutely gone, you can compost them. Daviid or CGF can help supply more and new seedlings)

Many flowers can also be started in March/April


Start around May to acclimate plants to the outside. Planning ahead and slowly working your way into the garden so it is a nice full abundant garden

Summer loving plants are delicate to their environment

  • Pay more attention to sun exposure, where they are being acclimated, they should be cozy and well protected
  • Goal: Strong and healthy to harvest later 

KEY! Directly sow your seeds and transplants

Succession Planting (When your first crops are finished, make the most of the limited space and plan out second or third plantings. After all, your bed’s already prepared) – https://www.almanac.com/video/succession-planting

  • When planting cilantro – be prepared for planting more cilantro, more dill, more basil. As you harvest, you will continue to get more.

Companion planting can help with pollination, soil nutrients, pest management, and more. Companion Planting Guide.

Seeds from plants which season after season can adapt and grow better in the garden. Intentionally plan for seed saving through the season. Plants can give you the next generation of seeds.

Starting seedlings in July indoors or outdoors so you can get an October or November fall harvest.


During the fall still succession plant your radishes

Starting seedlings in July indoors or outdoors so you can get an october or november fall harvest. 

During Sep & Oct – good time clean up and remulch

December January – going back to growing inside

  • Hydroponics, growing food indoors, etc
  • Sharing harvest, sharing seeds, going on throughout the growing season
  • Keep feeding soil with compost – at least every 2 years
  • By the end of the growing season, soil will likely lack nitrogen so make sure you are feeding your soil
  • Continue nourishing and taking care of soil
  • Cover the garden with leaf mulch in spring and fall to allow it to slowly decompose and add nutrients to the soil.

Questions Posed During Discussion

What features make a “good” grow light?

  • “Cheap ain’t good, Good ain’t cheap”
  • The red and blue light bulbs do different roles – want to make sure you have both spectrums
  • Some are better for larger plants like cucumbers, tomatoes
  • Some only give ability to grow nice leafy greens, microgreens
  • Better lights will require more energy
  • Can use a combination of grow lights and light from windows
  • Can use smaller grow lights or grow lights with 4 wands, move the wands around – but it likely won’t be able to grow as much

I’m curious if we can / should start seeds earlier this year since Spring will be coming earlier? And how do we plan for that

  • Planning Resource: Old farmers almanac
  • Great grow guide
  • Great calendars
  • Might need to experiment a little
  • It’s okay if plants bolt because they can help bring pollinators and provide seeds.

Does non-soil grown food have the nutrition of soil grown food? – it’s complicated 🙂

  • Good soil is always good, but the nutrition benefits of soil grown food is still unknown. 
  • Generally better to grow and eat home grown food than none at all.
  • Nothing wrong with hydroponically grown.
  • Keep in mind that fertilizers are not healthy either, in the process of using soil you might end up using other materials.

If you can’t start your seedlings, are there places locally you would recommend?

  • Shared in chat – when I buy seedlings, I have enjoyed purchasing from Seguin Gardens in Cicero, Gethsemane and Farmers Market Garden Supply, as well as pop-up seedling sales like the Garfield Park Conservatory annual tomato seedling sale, the Tomato Man, buying at farmer’s markets, and trading with my friends who are growing perennial medicinal herbs as well
  • Urban Growers Collective has seedling sales as well. Reach out to them for more information. We will have seeds and seedlings available from the African Diaspora Collection and Southern Exposure collard varieties. Will be offered in the spring. 
  • Farm on Ogden does seedling sales as well!
  • Go to a nursery and ask questions:
    • Do you spray with pesticides or fertilizers? What do you use?
    • Where do the seeds/seedlings come from?

Do you do succession planting with microgreens during the winter as well?

  • Because of the one-cut nature of microgreens, succession planting is necessary to produce a steady supply of this crop. Sowing dates and quantities of seed sown should be based upon customer demand, delivery schedules, and varietal growth rates. As noted, different varieties grow at different rates. Keep records and modify your system as needed. (Source and More Info)

I heard it only makes sense to save seeds from heirlooms since they’re the most similar to their parent. But have you had success from 2nd generation hybrids?

  • Yes. Anytime you see seeds, do a germination test. Collect seeds season after season. They might not all grow, but it is worth trying. 

Does succession planting look the same for all plants?

  • Depending on your growing zone and how long your gardening season is, you can succession plant just about anything.
  • Guide to Succession Planting

Glossary of Terms –  Feel free to let me know if there was terminology you were unfamiliar with and we can build on this. 

  • Succession Planting: Succession planting, sometimes called successive planting, is the intentional staggered planting of the same crops in your garden that will allow you to harvest continuously throughout the season. This way of planting will also help you extend your season and allow you to grow different varieties appropriate for various parts of the season.
  • Grow Light: A grow light is an electric light to help plants grow. Grow lights either attempt to provide a light spectrum similar to that of the sun, or to provide a spectrum that is more tailored to the needs of the plants being cultivated.
  • Hardening Off: “Hardening off” is the process of getting your indoor-grown seedlings accustomed to life outdoors.
  • Brassicaceae: belonging to the broccoli family – broccoli, radish, cauliflower, arugula, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, mizuna, cress, broccoli raab, etc.
  • Microgreens: Microgreens aren’t a special breed of vegetable: They’re just ordinary vegetables, any kind, that are harvested very young. Among the vegetables that are popularly eaten in micro-form are: peppery radish and arugula; tangy sorrel; ruddy beets; alfalfa; broccoli; and peas; as well as herbs such as basil and parsley. 
    • What’s the Difference Between Microgreens and Sprouts? – When a seed is sown in soil, it germinates, sending out a single shoot, tipped with a proto-leaf (or pair of leaves) called a cotyledon. Properly nurtured, it can grow an inch or more in a week until it eventually becomes a full-grown plant, but we have other plans for it. We can eat it before it gets any new leaves, when it’s just an inch or two long that’s called a sprout. Once it gets a pair of true leaves, it’s considered to have graduated from sprouthood: Now it is a microgreen. If it grows further, it will become a “baby green,” and finally a full-fledged vegetable.
  • Bolting: While plants do not “run away” physically, their growth may run away rapidly, and this is basically what this phrase means in the gardening world. Plants, mostly vegetable or herbs, are said to bolt when their growth goes rapidly from being mostly leaf based to being mostly flower and seed based.
    • Why Do Plants Bolt? – Most plants bolt due to hot weather. When the ground temperature goes above a certain temperature, this flips a switch in the plant to produce flowers and seeds very rapidly and to abandon leaf growth almost completely. Bolting is a survival mechanism in a plant. If the weather gets to be above where the plant will survive, it will try to produce the next generation (seeds) as quickly as possible. Some plants that are known for bolting are broccoli, cilantro, basil, cabbage, and lettuce.
    • Can You Eat a Plant After it Bolts? – Once a plant has fully bolted, the plant is normally inedible. The plant’s entire energy reserve is focused on producing the seeds, so the rest of the plant tends to become tough and woody as well as tasteless or even bitter. Occasionally, if you catch a plant in the very early stages of bolting, you can temporarily reverse the process of bolting by snipping off the flowers and flower buds. In some plants, like basil, the plant will resume producing leaves and will stop bolting. In many plants though, such as broccoli and lettuce, this step only allows you some extra time to harvest the crop before it becomes inedible.

Lentils Greens Microgreens


Very High Level Timeline based on discussion

  • January/February – indoor growing – microgreens, herbs, lettuces
  • March
    • Starting seeds in soil indoors
    • Getting outdoor soil prepared
  • April/May – Start hardening off seedlings and planting into garden
  • May/June – Finish installation with summer crops
    • Examples: Tomatoes, peppers, basil
    • Succession planting
  • July – harvest March/April crop
    • Succession planting
    • Contempo Farmer starts fall crops
  • August/September – installing fall crops
    • Succession planting
    • Amending soil
  • November – shut down gardens – leaf mulch 
    • Sowing seeds

March - Soil in your Garden

Soil Health definitions shared by participants

  • Compost, wood chips, food scraps
  • Soil that is beneficial to all living things and the people who tend to the soil.
  • A balance between what is being taken and what is being added to the soilI. 
  • I think of soil health as its nutrient density to nourish plants.
  • “When you change the composition of the soil, you change the composition of the community.”

Soil Health shared by Akilah

  • When you think about soil health, think about your health – Soil is one of our more important resources, and how we treat it is very important. The relationship we have with the soil is important.
  • What can we do now to sustain soil as a beautiful, living thing? 
    • It gives life, is always giving birth (it is a doula, a mother, a midwife)
    • What relationship we have with the soil will influence its health in the future

Soil has everything that we need – air, water, nutrients, minerals

Soil aggregate stability test (visit the CGF soil resource page to see a workshop about this). 

  • Let’s you know the stability of your soil 
  • With aggregates – you want to see a compilation of soil particles that are glued together (glued as in the microorganisms) – if it’s loose it’s easy to be dislocated.
    • We want the soil to be a stable as possible – roots help with this, as does the composition of the soil microbiology
  • Can also do a soil texture analysis by touch and feel with your hands
    • This assesses the density – the amount of clay, sand, silt affects water movement
    • If you have a lot of clay you have slow moving water, if you have a lot of sand, water will be fast moving

What soil can do & does

  • Regulates water – Soil helps control where rain, snowmen, and irrigation goes. Water flows over the land or into and through. – Soil is a Natural Filter
  • Sustains Flora and Fauna – The diversity and productivity of living things depend on soil.
  • Filter & Buffer potential pollutants – The minerals and microbes in soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal by-products and atmospheric deposits.
  • Cycles nutrients – Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients are stored, transformed, and cycled in the soil.
  • Provides physical stability and support – Soil structure provides a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide support for human structures and protection for archeological treasures.

What does Organic mean?

  • When we talk about organic matter we are talking about the element carbon – the organisms are providing carbon and other nutrients to the soil.
  • When we talk about organic labeling – we are talking about something very specific about what is in this particular product – it is important that we are able to read labels and ask questions about what it means to be organic. At this point do we have anything that is truly organic with all of the modifications we have done. 
  • Soil is the foundation of nutrition – Huge exchange of energy of nutrients that we all need/desire.

Additional Information

  • Soil organic matter increases as you move south and east in the Great Plains.
  • North to South – The warmer the temperature is of your region the more processes will happen, less organic matter, because microbes like heat, bacteria likes warm – processes are going out of control – a lot of breakdown
  • West to East – organic matter increases because you have more moisture.
  • We have a lot of organic matter in Chicago because we get a lot of rainfall and it doesn’t get too hot very frequently.
  • You can regulate the amount of moisture in your garden by regulating your soil mix. 
  • Fertilizing means you’re adding something to help with fertility – Amending means you are trying to transform your soil for longer sustainability.
  • Dr. Martin doesn’t like to use “testing the soil” – Wants to be more philosophical since people generally don’t want to talk about soil. And when they do it’s often about testing the soil and “fixing the soil”.
    • Make sure to check what your relationship is with the soil. Energies are real. What energies are you transferring and exchanging when you put your hands in the soil, whether it’s a raised bed, ground, or indoor plant. You feed off of plant energy like they feed off your energy – think about Soil health, think about your health and how they are connected.
  • Ph is really important in soil – certain things grow better. Typically have a neutral Ph in Chicago. But further west has more acidic soil. Ph plays a huge role in how nutrients become available for the plant uptake. When Ph is not aligned with the nutrients we want, people want to fertilize to change the composition.

If we didn’t have the technology we have today, would you feel comfortable planting in Chicago soil?

  • One thing you can do that doesn’t involve technology is conversations with people who were there to understand how the land has been used. Quick way to gather knowledge of what was there before to understand what has been left there. 
  • Also just knowing the topography of Chicago – the glaciers – most of our soil downtown is land filled in from the debris from the Chicago fire.
  • For a house that is over 100 years old, how much is the soil damaging the food? – Lead is definitely there

Is it more difficult to get nutrients from plants grown through hydroponics?

  • Would need to put in the nutrients. 
  • Microgreens usually have a more complex flavor profile when grown in soil versus hydroponics. 
  • This is a more controlled environment – the human would need to have more inputs into this system. Ideally, you create a soil structure that is working effectively. Soil doesn’t want you touching it/manipulating it.

Is there a right balance based on where you are growing from the USDA or are we winging this thing? Definition of what is organic as it relates to gut health?

  • Just as nature is diverse, we are diverse, not everything can thrive in just one environment. We need to see things shifting and evolving with soil, earth, and ourselves.
  • We want a diverse rhizosphere – We want to be able to see a plethora of fauna and flora
    • If you see a diversity of the fauna coming to your area, you are doing something right. Including creepy crawlers and rodents.
    • Rodents help aerate soil – insects do this too, but rodents create bigger spaces

How do you know when to amend vs/ fertilize?

  • Are you in a hurry? – fertilizer to make sure you are adding everything the soil needs nutrient wise
  • Or are you in it for the long haul? – if you want something sustainable over a long period of time, trying to increase and enhance soil structure, make sure that you have soil permeability, high cation exchange capacity.
  • Can do both at the same time. Start with amendments and then do fertilization as needed.

How has recent changes in weather affected soil health and how do we respond to that?

  • We need snow – the snow melt supplies the water to our trees
  • Two seasons have been down on snow which will impact our lakes which will limit our water access
  • Huge impact – we can’t create water, and we will continue to be in droughts. 

What are some beneficial plants that can encourage or amend soil health?

  • Make sure you have continuous living cover throughout – always something growing
  • Peas
  • Beans (provides nitrogen to the soil)
  • Clover
  • Oats
  • Alfalfa

How do we think long term about our region’s soil health? What practices can we start as a food system that will reap benefits for our soil health?

  • Continuous living cover – make sure that we have something always growing. Living roots in the soil.
  • Need to maximize biodiversity
  • Minimize our disturbance of the soil
  • If you own property, you are responsible for taking care of the trees on your land.

Question about deep watering to encourage strong root growth: What happens to the microorganisms in the soil if you don’t let the soil aerate and dry? I understand letting the soil dry between waterings helps to prevent mold and disease along with promoting a robust root system but are there any more resources that can help me learn more about the importance of letting your soil dry?

  • Don’t till, but aerate soil
  • Want to keep microorganisms in the soil

April - Working with Insects & Animals in you Garden

Guests in the Garden – Wanted & unwanted

Gardening with urban wildlife – We are lucky to live in an urban environment co-existing with creatures of all kinds. These animals and insects are essential parts of our urban ecosystems

  • Our gardens are also part of this ecosystem (or it is best if they are). When you plant a garden, you are sending out an invitation to other species. You are guaranteed to have guests.
    • Some guests we are excited to see
      • Examples: Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed, Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Dill, Ladybug on leaf, Bumblebee, goldfinch, squash bee, eastern tiger, rusty-patched bumble bee, monarch, cardinal, ruby-throated hummingbird, hummingbird month
    • Some guests we are not so thrilled to see
      • Examples: beetles, squash bugs, rabbits, squirrels, rats, raccoons
  • Many creatures are complicated. What might be considered a “pest” in some situations can also be or become an important part of our garden ecosystem.
    • Example: The Tomato or Tobacco Hornworm is the bane of tomato plants. But it is also a caterpillar who morphs into the Sphinx Moth – a very beneficial pollinator
    • We need the unpopular guests to attract the beneficial guests. 
      • Example: Chickadee eating a cabbage looper
  • How do we strike a balance – allowing some wiggle room for some unpopular, less beneficial guests to attract the more beneficial guests.
  • Like any thriving ecosystems, our gardens are all about diversity and balance
    • So how do we co-create a healthy balance in our gardens?
    • How can we grow gardens that are inviting to our wildlife friends and even to some degree our frenemies?
    • As organic gardeners, how can we avoid poisons and pesticides and implement natural solutions to garden with nature, instead of against nature?

Physical and preventative controls work best. When you see that the damage is done to your plants, then it’s probably already too late.

Walk through your garden as much as possible to not only ground yourself, but to also check for any issues. Look at plant stems and foliage, and under leaves where insects like to lay their eggs. Prune off and dispose of dead/diseased plant parts. Hand pick off insects.

Wrap duct tape, sticky side out, around your fingers and tap the insects or larvae. They’ll come off on the tape.


#1) Just say no to monocultures, plant a diversity of plants

  • A monoculture (aka too much of any one thing) is ripe for disease and destruction and more vulnerable to loss. Not to mention it robs the soil of nutrients and harms beneficial bacteria and microorganisms.
  • Biodiversity is key! The more diverse your garden is, the more resilient it will be.
  • A diverse garden:
    • attracts a greater variety of insects and wildlife – which in turn creates a healthier garden ecosystem.
    • creates habitat – which supports beneficial wildlife.
    • minimizes weeds and improves soil – which makes diseases less likely.
    • is a vibrant jungle of vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers – is more fun and has more flavor.

#2) Try Crop Rotation

  • This can be difficult in our small urban spaces, but it’s possible.
  • Different plants need different nutrients and a vegetable plant grown repeatedly in the same spot will deplete the soil of those nutrients over and over again.  
  • And sometimes an insect or disease will force your hand.
    • For example, Squash Vine Borers overwinter in the soil and once established, they will gut your squash vines year in and year out.

#3) Companion Planting

  • Plants need friends, too. Grow plants together that benefit and support one another. Companion plants can help increase soil nutrients, encourage beneficial insects, deter unwanted wildlife, and support pollinators.
  • Some examples for beneficial insects:
    • Lettuce & Sweet Alyssum (aphid control)
    • Broccoli & Cosmos (aphid control)
    • Cucumber & Dill (cucumber beetle control)
    • Squash & Nasturtiums (squash bug control)
    • Cabbage & Chamomile (cabbage worm control)
    • Tomatoes & Basil (thrip & hornworm control)
    • Peppers & Radishes (radish serves as a trap crop)
  • Some examples for native pollinator support:
    • Strawberries & Golden Ragwort/Common Cinquefoil/New Jersey Tea/Golden Alexanders (Mason Bees, Miner Bees, Hoverflies)
    • Blackberries/Raspberries & Jacob’s Ladder/Smooth Penstemon/various Indigos (Bumblebees, Sweat Bees, Carpenter Bees)
    • Tomatoes/Peppers/Eggplant & Tall Coreopsis/Obedient Plant/Purple Prairie Clover/Leadplant/Blue Wild Indigo/Wild Bergamot/Purple Coneflower (Bumblebees, Carpenter Bees, Hawk Moths, various Butterflies)
  • Some examples for native pollinator support:
    • Green Beans & Common Milkweed/Butterfly Milkweed/Prairie Blazing Star/Wild Bergamot (Bumblebees, Leafcutter Bees)
    • Squash/Zucchini/Melons & Common Sunflower/Tall Coreopsis/Purple Prairie Clover/Tall Thistle/Wild Bergamot/Leadplant (Bumblebees, Squash Bees, Eastern Carpenter Bees)
  • General Native Plants for Your Vegetable Garden: Partridge Peas, Purple Prairie Clover, Wild Bergamot, Pale Purple Coneflower, Purple Coneflower, Leadplant, Blue Wild Indigo
  • The Native American Three Sisters Garden is the perfect example of companion planting. Grow corn, beans, and squash together.
    • Corn = serves as trellis for beans
    • Beans = fix nitrogen back into the soil 
    • Squash = provides a living mulch to prevent weeds and also deters unwanted insects and animals

#4) Try Trap Crops

  • Every garden needs some sacrificial offerings. Trap cropping uses plants as decoys to distract and draw away insects and other wildlife from your desirable crops.
  • You can use the same species as your main crop to serve as sacrifice plants. Or you can use different species as decoys.
  • What are some good trap crops?
    • Radishes (flea beetles, Harlequin bugs)
    • Amaranth (cucumber beetles)
    • Nasturtiums (aphids)
    • Sunflowers (stinkbugs)
    • Zinnias (Japanese beetles)
    • Marigolds (nematodes)

#5) Plant for Pollinators, Predators, and Parasitizers

  • One of the best methods for deterring unwanted creatures is to provide food and habitat for the species you do want. When you plant for beneficial bugs, you create a healthier ecosystem as a whole and your garden will thank you. 
  • Pollinators = bees, butterflies, flies, moths, wasps, hummingbirds
    • Honeybees are pollinators, but they are not as efficient or specialized as our native bees. They rely on native plants for food and habitat, so planting native pollinator plants will attract them. They will ensure better pollination of your food plants and some will eat the detrimental insects as well.
    • For example, Hover flies are excellent pollinators and their larvae are aphid-eating machines. Plant Coreopsis, Coneflower, Black-eyed Susans, and Sunflowers to attract them
  • Predators = Ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantid, spiders, assassin bugs, soldier beetles.
    • They eat other bugs and you want them in your garden. Did you know ladybug larva can eat up to 40 aphids an hour?
    • Attract them with flowering herbs and pollinator plants like Dill, Cilantro, Butterfly Milkweed, Alyssum, Marigolds, Cosmos, Bee Balm, Yarrow, Goldenrod, etc…
  • Parasitizers = Parasitic Wasps
    • Like something out of a sci-fi movie, they lay their eggs on or in other bugs and their larvae feed on the host insects.
    • Brachonid Wasps like to lay their eggs on the Tomato Hornworm. Once the eggs hatch, the baby wasps chow down on the host.
  • Mosquitoes – The best way to control mosquitoes is to control their larval stage. Use mosquito dunks to do this. Mosquito dunks use a non-toxic bacteria (BTI) that targets mosquito larvae.
    1. In spring, get a bucket, fill it with water, add a handful of straw or hay, set it out in the sun, and add a mosquito dunk
    2. The female mosquitoes will lay their eggs in that bucket brew and the dunks will do their work
    3. Each dunk lasts a month

Rabbits, Squirrels, Rats, Raccoons

  • All of the general tips are great strategies for incorporating biological controls and creating a healthy ecological balance in your gardens—especially when it comes to insects. But what about those other garden visitors—rabbits, rats, squirrels, raccoons, etc.? How can we discourage them from chomping on our plants?
  • Here we can look to nature as well. The right plants are often natural deterrents for many of these furry garden munchers.
  • Interplant the following with your food plants or as a border around your garden:
  • For example:
    • plants with a strong scent can sometimes discourage wildlife
    • for rabbits try onions, garlic, lavender, sage, hyssop, sweet alyssum, catnip 
    • for squirrels try nasturtiums, mustard
    • for rats try onions, mint, echinacea, thyme
  • There are also old-time remedies passed down from elders.
    • My mom swears that hair keeps bunnies out of her garden so she hits up her hairdresser for bags of hair.*
    • predator urine (fox or coyote pee)*
    • cayenne pepper*
    • talcum powder*
    • dried blood meal*
    • hot sauce and dish soap
    • Irish Spring soap shavings*

*all of these need to be reapplied again and again as the rain washes away the scent or they loose their effectiveness

  • Some people even recommend clear glass jars of water, mirrors, or aluminum foil because rabbits and squirrels are scared of the reflection.
    • Speaking of foil, if you have squash vine borer problems, try wrapping your young squash stems in aluminum foil. This helps to prevent the larvae from burrowing into the stems.
  • Physical barriers are your best course of action against hungry guests in your garden. Fencing, screening, netting, row covers, wire cloches, etc.
    • Chicken wire fencing or 1/4 hardware cloth: Install this around your beds about four feet off the ground. Critters can still dig under so bury it six inches deep as well. – You can also wrap this around individual plants like a cylinder for protection.
    • For raised beds, install hardware cloth or wire mesh at the bottom of the bed to deter burrowing creatures like rats and gophers. 
    • Try wire cloches or even dollar-store waste baskets to cover young tender seedlings and other vulnerable plants like lettuce.
    • Netting is a good protection against many animals, including birds. But it won’t deter insects and remember, you want those birds to eat some of the insects on your plants.
  • Rats eat what we eat and they love messy areas and dense plantings where they feel protected. They also burrow to make their nests.

    1. Seal compost bins and garbage cans 
    2. Remove access to food and water sources, including pet food and fecal matter
    3. Remove clutter and cut down grass and weeds
    4. Rats navigate w/ their whiskers and they prefer to use walls, curbs, and foundations to get around. Cut back vegetation 2 feet from the sides of buildings. They won’t have as much cover and they’ll be less likely to travel through these exposed areas. 
    5. Last Resort – Traps. Check with the city before installing.

Cicada Apocalypse 2024

The 17-year periodical Cicada will be emerging in Northern Illinois. In central Illinois it will be synced with the 13-year Cicada emergence. For about 4–6 weeks (from around mid May to late June), millions of big, red-eyed insects will take over the great outdoors. It will be loud and it will be crunchy.

But guess what? They will be mostly harmless…mostly.

  • One thing to consider is that they can potentially harm young trees and shrubs, especially fruit trees. After the deafening mating calls, the females often make small slits in slender twigs to lay their eggs. Think 3/16” to 7/16” branches—the size of a pencil. The nymphs will hatch, fall to the ground, and lay low for another 17 years. But the egg-laying can pose problems as those small slits can weaken and damage young, vulnerable trees and shrubs. 

Some strategies to minimize damage:

  1. If you have smaller or newly planted trees or shrubs, consider wrapping them in fine-mesh netting before the May emergence. Make sure to tie the netting to the trunk at the bottom. Remove the netting after the emergence is over in June.
  2. Delay planting any smaller new trees or shrubs until after the emergence ends in June. Even better wait until fall (which is a great time to plant trees and shrubs anyway).

Organic pesticide alternatives:

  • Soapy water: mix 2 tsp of dish soap w/ 1 pint of water; spray on soft-bodied insects like aphids, mites, whiteflies, and thrips; for Japanese beetles, hand pick them off and drop them in the soapy water
  • Essential oils: mix 10 drops of oil with 1 cup of water in a spray bottle —try rosemary oil, lavender oil, lemongrass oil for some insect larvae like cabbage loopers
  • Try peppermint oil, orange oil for squash bugs, aphids, whiteflies
  • Last Resort – Neem oil?
    • Neem oil is from the seeds of the Neem tree. It has two active ingredients: Azadirachtin and clarified hydrophobic neem oil. It is used on both insects and fungal diseases. For insects the oil coats their bodies and suffocates them. It can be effective against aphids, beetle larvae, lace bugs, leafhoppers, leaf miners, thrips, and whiteflies. However, like all broad spectrum pesticides, it can also harm pollinators and beneficial insects.

Is it better to companion plant in the same soil or can you still get the benefits of companion planting when plants are in separate containers but in close proximity to each other? 

  • Yes, can do in containers near each other – does not need to be in the same soil

Where can you look up companion plant pairings?

Why do you need the straw and not just water for dealing with mosquitos?

  • Creates a brew that attracts the female mosquitoes to lay their eggs

I have a few young trees. Will they be ok not to plant until fall? They are currently housed in the small planters they arrived in

  • Should be fine, but will need to protect them if they are outside.

Is painting a tree’s trunk a good strategy to prevent damage from cicadas?

  • Not sure – probably not
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