By Shawna Coronado • Illustrations: Michael Hill
I discovered my happiness and my soul standing in middle of a garden with muddy knees and a mouthful of sweet cherry tomatoes. For me, gardening represents health, wellness, and joy. Illinois has been my home for over 20 years, and after I moved to the Naperville area, I began gardening every square inch I could get my hands on—I ripped out my front yard, planted on right-of-way and sidewalk areas behind my property, and smothered my fences with vertical gardens. Before long I found myself building gardens all over my community.
Indeed, a garden is more than a plot of resourceful land—it is an incubator for a positive wellness lifestyle. Growing a garden encourages a more connected neighborhood and community, and nurturing plants that create healthy food is particularly important—who wouldn’t enjoy sharing the love with a few tomatoes and cucumbers? Edible gardens also encourage pollinators to come to your neighborhood, helping the environment and your household at the same time. The act of working outdoors with your hands in soil is good for one’s mental health, and it encourages positive exercise patterns for people of all ages who choose to garden regularly.
The bottom line? Gardening is good for you, your (sub)urban community, and the environment. So use our garden plan that features edible herbs and vegetables to begin a wellness journey for you and your family in 2019 that will last a lifetime.
Full-Season Edible Garden Plan
Three seasons of fresh vegetables and herbs are included in this layout,
which can be modified for space and food choices
Local Plant & Soil Suppliers
- The Growing Place Aurora & Naperville
- The Aurora location is hosting a Seed Starting Workshop for $25 on March 16 at 1:00 p.m. Call 630.355.4000 to register.
- Hinsdale Nurseries Willowbrook & Plano
- Lizzie’s Garden Naperville
- The Planter’s Palette Winfield
- Wannemaker’s Downers Grove
- We Grow Dreams West Chicago
Heirloom and organic seeds
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com
Botanical Interests, botanicalinterests.com
High Mowing Organic Seeds, highmowingseeds.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com
Seed Savers Exchange, seedsavers.org
Territorial Seed Company, territorialseed.com
Planning becomes the key to success for the most successful ornamental and edible garden. Plan your layout and plant seasonally, choosing the right plant for the zone and sun location, then amend and improve soil for best growing success.
Fundamentally, a gardener needs to understand the basic needs of a plant—be it a flower, a vegetable, or a perennial. All full-sun plants need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Part-sun plants often prefer filtered light during the day, but still need four hours of sunlight per day. Shade plants can live with little or no sunlight, and prefer indirect light.
It’s best to group plants with similar needs together, so that everything has the same light and watering requirements. For example, Mediterranean herbs and vegetables—such as eggplant, lavender, oregano, and rosemary—require a hot, sunny, dry site, while lettuce and other leafy greens do better with cooler temperatures.
Most herbs and vegetables require full sun; however, there are many shade-tolerant edibles to consider: arugula, basil, beet greens, collards, endive, kale, leafy herbs, lettuces, Malabar spinach, mustard greens, pak choi, rhubarb, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnip greens.
Good soil is the secret to edible gardening success. Use a testing kit, test your ground soil for PH and chemical needs, then add amendments as your test results suggest. Soil improvement and positive microbial growth starts with amending existing ground soil with organic matter. No-cost options include leaf mold, dried grass clippings, and chopped leaves. You can also purchase rotted manure and compost in bagged form at your local garden center.
Starting seeds can be done in a sunny window or under growing lights inside four to six weeks before planting. Seed-starting kits make this easy—moisten the soil mix, fill the potting cells, and place a single seed in each cell according to seed packet directions. Keep moist until germination, then water regularly. Plant the seedlings in the garden bed once the danger of frost has passed.
Once you’ve amended the soil and it’s time to plant, dig a hole, add a scoop of organic fertilizer (following package directions), plant your root ball just below the soil surface, then water in well.
Digging techniques with short-handled tools become easier if you use smaller strokes while digging and less soil per trowel scoop.
|Hori Hori knife ($24), barebonesliving.com
Fantastic for weeding, digging, and planting
|Welldone hand fork ($20.95) and serrated trowel ($35.95), seedsavers.org
All have a lifetime guarantee and are blacksmithed from extra-strong tempered Boron steel.
|CobraHead ($24.95), cobrahead.com
A great dandelion and deep tap root weeder, perfect for flagstones
|Ergonomic trowel ($9.99) and cultivator ($9.99), radiusgarden.com
Easy to wash off and find in the garden, with a unique curved handle that offers an ergonomic handshake grip
Heavier long-handled tools do more of the work for you, using the weight of the tool in your favor.
|Ames round point shovel ($14.97), Home Depot
This easy-grip shovel is a good choice for deep digging.
|DeWit perennial fork ($40.99), Home Depot
Effective at digging up roots at the end of the season, while allowing soil to remain
|Root Slayer ($49.99), radiusgarden.com
Simply the best tool for any planting situation, cutting roots and heavy clay like butter
Support structures provide a much-needed assist in edible gardens.
|Texas Tomato Cages ($88–$169), tomatocages.com
Super strong cages that fold up for storage during the off-season
|Titan teepee trellis ($29.95) and large cucumber trellis ($49.95), gardeners.com
Support for beans and cucumbers
What seems to grow the most in any garden is weeds. Regular mulching is probably the number-one way to control weeds, as it smothers weed seeds. By using natural mulch in your vegetable beds, as well as perennial beds, you are contributing to a stronger soil structure in the landscape. As the mulch breaks down, it is integrated into the soil and creates a system that helps better support the plants you install. Natural mulches, which have a lot of organic matter, are best: leaf mold, shredded bark, pine needles, straw, wood chips, and grass clippings.
Garden fabric is not recommended as a mulch, because it prevents all that delicious organic matter from melting down into the soil and supporting the natural microbes (and chances are, weeds will grow on top of the fabric anyway). In its place, try placing a thick layer of newspaper under your mulch as a way to block out existing weeds as you are building your garden beds. The newspaper will gradually disintegrate, and this technique also helps extend the life of your mulch, making it break down more slowly.
After your space is planted and mulched, it’s time to build a consistent and regular watering schedule and system. Whether you hand water or use a drip system, planting in zones according to water requirements will help you save water and water less. Generally speaking, watering heavily once or twice per week is far better for your garden than daily shallow watering.
Bolting is a term that describes when herbs and certain vegetables start to flower in order to begin producing seeds. This is most likely to happen when the summer garden weather turns hot, and a fully bolted plant is often inedible. When plants begin producing flowers, they often abandon leaf and vegetable growth. Gardeners should then pull out their trusty pruning tools and cut back the flowers. This will extend the life of an herb, such as basil or cilantro, enabling you to have the herb plant in production for a longer period of time during the summer.
March is the perfect month to plan your edible garden and purchase seeds to start indoors in late March/early April. The Chicago area is in Zone 5, which has a medium-length growing season, with a last frost date of May 15 and a first frost date of October 15. Dates vary by a week or two, so watch the weather before planting. For crop-specific growing guides—including videos on planting, growing, and harvesting—visit almanac.com/plants.
Once your plants are grown, you need to harvest them. Cutting only one-third of an herb plant at a time enables the plant to continue growing throughout the season, while providing a consistent crop. Most vegetables do not regrow once you have harvested them; however, picking every day can stimulate more flowers, which in turn can stimulate new vegetable development.
Harvesting herbs and vegetables at the peak of ripeness guarantees you a true benefit of growing your own garden: the strongest level of vitamin content. Eating fresh-cut vegetables is the best way to absorb the most nutrients from your garden bounty.
How do you judge fruit or vegetable ripeness? It depends on the vegetable, of course. Zucchini, for instance, taste best when they are no more than seven inches long. If you wait too long to harvest a zucchini it can grow to enormous sizes and become very seedy—bigger is not necessarily better. To find and pick the fruit or vegetable at its peak flavor and ripeness, take a basket out and harvest daily.
Be sure to follow seed packet directions for harvesting. Yardlong beans should not be picked at the same size as pole beans, for example, because they grow to different lengths. Some melons are 20 inches across, while others are only six. Save your seed packets to understand the growth cycle of each vegetable.
Preserving Fruits, Herbs, and Vegetables
There are multiple ways to preserve your bounty to extend your garden-eating season into the cold depths of fall and winter.
Storing—If properly cured, root vegetables such as potatoes, rutabaga, and beets—as well as winter squash and pumpkin varieties—can last for months. Once harvested, let these vegetables sit in a warm, dry location for 10 days. At that point the vegetables will be ready for long-term storage in a cool, dark location, such as a drawer, cabinet, or root cellar—50 degrees F is optimal. Set the vegetables in the storage area and separate them a bit so they do not touch each other for the greatest success. Check regularly throughout the storage season; if you see bruising or softening, pull the vegetable and toss it in your compost bin.
Freezing—Herbs can be preserved through drying or freezing in ice cube trays. If freezing, chop the herbs, removing any stems, then place in ice cube trays. Drizzle olive oil over the herbs, covering completely, then freeze. Remove the olive oil herb cubes and place them in containers, storing in the freezer up to three months. Add to sauces and soups as flavoring. Vegetables and fruits can be chopped, placed in bags or containers, and stored in the freezer immediately upon harvest.
Canning—Fruits and vegetables that have been canned can be stored on shelves for many years, if needed. There are a couple of canning methods: pressure canning for low-acid vegetables, which uses high heat to eliminate botulism bacteria; and water-bath canning for high-acid fruits and vegetables.
About the author Shawna Coronado (shawnacoronado.com) is an author, blogger, photographer, and media host who focuses on wellness by teaching green lifestyle living, organic gardening, and anti-inflammatory culinary. In her books The Wellness Garden and 101 Organic Gardening Hacks, Coronado campaigns for social and community good.