Homegrown fruits & veggies rule!
As a kid, nothing was better than picking fresh raspberries, pears, grapes, tomatoes and string beans from our backyard. Without a doubt, my grandmother began the edible gardening tradition in our family. Although Gram grew up on a farm, it surprised me to find out it wasn’t until the 1940s Victory Gardens that she started a small garden in her Chicago 2-flat backyard. It amazes me that back then 20 million homeowners had gardens to support the war effort and produced nearly 40% of the nations fresh vegetables! Gram loved it so much, her garden kept expanding, especially after she moved to the suburbs. Luckily my mom followed her lead. Sadly, many Americans after WWII turned away from garden fresh toward convenient, processed, store bought foods. Over the past few years, however, a movement by locavores, slow foodies and green thumbs has brought kitchen gardens back in style. In Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise, Michelle Williams makes a compelling and entertaining case for homegrown edibles. She brilliantly observes that gardens offer cost savings, better flavor, healthier food, fun with kids, self reliance, environmental sustainability, beauty, non-stop learning, connection with nature and happiness. I couldn’t agree more with these gardening rewards. So why are yards typically viewed only to display ornamentals? In our new home, we intentionally set out to design a landscape that is lovely, family friendly, wildlife sustaining and edible. It’s so wonderful to walk out our door and pick something fresh! And my kids love poking around in the garden, and sharing our bounty with visitors. More and more kitchen gardens have been popping up throughout North Shore neighborhoods and in local schoolyards. Hopefully, the edible possibilities presented here will inspire you to grow more of your own too.
Hoping to create a productive and pretty vegetable garden for our family, I enlisted the help of Jeanne Nolan from the The Organic Gardener. For many years, she has been supplying our organic vegetable seedlings and helping us build our soil (nutrient-wise). Despite a yard full of shady mature oaks, Jeanne helped us design a lovely, rabbit-proof vegetable garden where we have successfully grown broccoli, kale, romaine, arugula, pole beans, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, beets, edamame, green onions, and tons of herbs. Having many clients throughout the North Shore and directing the Edible Gardens at the Lincoln Park Zoo,
Jeanne has been featured in many publications from Food & Wine to Gwenyth Paltrows Goop. Her amazing organic gardening journey will be told in the forthcoming Random House memoir From the Ground Up: A Food Growers Education in Life, Love and the Movement Changing the Nation released this July (learn more about Jeanne in wren’s MAD LOVE FOR GREEN WOMEN). I asked Jeanne to share a few tips on overcoming some common North Shore gardening hurdles…
“My yard is too shady”
Jeanne: While full sun plants require 8 hours per day, several vegetables can successfully be grown with 5-6 hours of sun accumulated throughout the day. Pay close attention to the suns
patterns in your your garden, and place plants accordingly. Locate more shade tolerant plants such as salad greens, peas, spinach, kale, and cherry tomatoes in partial shade, and place heat lovers such as peppers, squash, eggplant and big tomatoes in the sunniest spots. Also, planting with large seeds and seedlings works best in shadier gardens, as smaller seeds may have a harder time germinating without stronger sun.
“We don’t have any space in the backyard”
Jeanne: Keep in mind a small 4 x 8 garden can be a worthy space! And don’t overlook opportunities for a garden in your front yard if that is where you have available space and sun. I’ve installed several front yard gardens in Winnetka, Evanston and Glencoe. Making these gardens attractive is an important focus. And interestingly, front yard gardens seem to become a community builder. Neighbors love to stop by, chat and check on your progress. I’ve actually seen these gardens become contagious. See The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler for growing edibles with curb appeal. Another way to get around shade and space limitations is with containers on patios, window boxes and balcony/rooftop gardens. Containers can be used for herb gardens, many vegetables such as broccoli or lettuces, fruits such as strawberries and melons, and even dwarf fruit trees (with some winterizing and occasional repotting). See McGee and Stuckey’s Bountiful Container to learn more about growing practically everything edible in planters. Going vertical is another space innovation, such as pole beans climbing along a fence or cucumbers up a trellis. See Vertical Vegetable Gardening by Chris McLaughlin. Also, check with Logic Lawn Care that now provides modular vertical LiveWall products.
“I’m not sure it will look good”
Jeannie: We need to expand our mindset. Gardens can be incredibly beautiful, from simple structures to more elaborate designs. They needn’t be made from chicken wire and rusty
posts. I like starting with cute fencing, since you will see it all year long. We’ve also reimagined the typical rectangular plot by using geometric patterns, symmetry and decorative obelisks or sculptures. Adding in flowers and highlighting the striking foliage of herbs and vegetables can also add interest. Eggplant, for example, is a gorgeous plant. Of course more elegant infrastructure will cost more money. It’s evident North Shore folks are willing to invest in their landscapes, why not integrate edible gardens as well? For aesthetic inspiration, see Designing the New Kitchen Garden: The American Potager Handbook by Jenniffer R. Bartley.
“There are too many pests to deal with”
Jeanne: First, fencing is typically necessary in our area to keep out pets, rabbits and deer. Second, the best weapon to keep away garden bugs and disease is to build good soil. When roots can travel well through light and fluffy aerated soil, especially compost from your bin, it’s easier to find nutrients and build stronger plants. Bugs seek out weaker plants. As another line of defense, include diversity in your garden. Companion plants repel destructive insects and can benefit plant health and flavor. Preventive natural garlic sprays can also be used to keep insects away. We’ve found these methods to counter most of the problems around here. See Deardorff and Wadsworth’s What’s Wrong With My Garden book for more advice on growing healthy plants and treating problems organically.
“We have little time”
Jeanne: If your garden is set up right, with fencing to keep out nibblers, proper irrigation, appropriate sun, healthy soil and plants, and walking paths, you may need to spend only
1-2 hour per week on maintenance during the growing season. The great thing about gardening in the North Shore, you can do as much or as little as you like. Some people like to do everything by themselves… installing the garden beds, picking out seeds, growing seedlings indoors, building the soil, spring planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and taking down the garden at the end of the season. Others like to have some assistance. We have over 60 families that we service every other week. Gardening really is easy, a great way to spend outdoors, and the perfect chore to share with your kids. Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail offers useful advice to simplify gardening.
More than growing great vegetables and herbs, we can successfully grow many wonderful varieties of fruit here in the North Shore suburbs as well, which seems to shock some local folks. Keep in mind, even Johnny Appleseed started orchards in Illinois! In the same spirit,
I told my 4-year old daughter, maybe I’ll become Amanda (Honeycrisp) Apple Tree for nudging everyone to plant this marvelous tree in their yard (seriously, plant some in a sunny spot as soon as possible – you will not be disappointed!) Thanks to rising interest, garden centers, such as the Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, offer a variety of fruit trees, shrubs, vines and brambles to bring some more joy into your yard.
Fortunately many apples, pears, sweet and sour cherries, plums, peaches, apricots and
nectarines are hearty in our area. In the past few years, the Chalet Nursery helped us install Honeycrisp apple, Granny Smith apple, Bartlett and Anjou pear, Reliance peach, Santa Rosa plum and Bing cherry trees in our southern facing side yard. The Midwest Fruit Explorers, an organization of amateur backyard fruit growing enthusiasts living in Chicagoland, has produced a fruit & nut tree list of recommended varieties that grow well here, including more unusual fruits such as Asian pear, persimmon, paw paw and almond. Dwarf fruit trees need as little space as 7-8′ in diameter and espaliers, that can grow on a sunny wall, take up even less space. Finding a
sunny location helps trees thrive and develop better flavor, although some can take part shade. Also fruit trees may either be self-pollinating or need need another tree for cross pollination. Check out Chalet’s Fruit and Edible list here, indicating many varieties available along with requirements for growing, spacing and pollination. After planting new trees, it may take a few years for fruit production and proper upkeep is essential for better yields. While several landscaping and arborist firms can assist with this, Jacqueline Kotz of The Organic Gardener helps us with the pruning, fertilizing and pest management of our fruit trees and shrubs, using only natural, organic products. Growing Fruit Naturally and Landscaping with Fruit by Lee Reich are excellent resource guides as well.
Shrubs, brambles, vines and plants
One of the most pleasant surprises in our yard has been our small serviceberry trees.
Many people in our community enjoy this shade and drought tolerant native that boasts ornamental white flowers in the spring and striking fall color. What most don’t realize is the dark purple berries that appear in June are incredibly delicious, tasting somewhat like blueberries. I’ve also been told that our gorgeous Kousa and Cornelian Cherry dogwood shrubs have tasty fruit, but so far the birds have beat me to it. The excellent book Wild Berries and Fruit by Teresa Marone helps identify both delicious and dangerous fruit found on shrubs. I’m always careful to warn kids that some berries are poisonous and never to eat anything without adult approval! Better known, we also have red raspberry, thornless yellow raspberry (Fall Gold highly recommended!) and blackberry bushes, Concord grapes on a trellis, watermelon vines, strawberry patch along with several perennial asparagus plants in our “fruit corridor”. In addition to all these fruits, blueberries (needing more acidic soil), kiwi vines and gooseberries can also be grown locally and are available at Chalet. Fortunately edible shrubs and plants can take up little space and easily be folded into planting beds. Check with your garden center for their planting recommendations.
An edible landscape can serve as a wonderful outdoor classroom for kids to learn where their food comes from. I’ve found when it comes to gardening, most kids are enthusiastic, endlessly curious and wondrously willing to eat almost anything fresh picked! For fun garden themes and projects, check out Grow Your Own for Kids by Chris Collins and Lia Leendertz and Roots Shoots Buckets and Boots by Sharon Lovejoy. Also be sure to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden’s new Children’s Growing Garden and the main Fruit & Vegetable Garden. You can learn more about starting a vegetable garden or growing fruit by taking classes and workshops at Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe, Wagner Farms in Glenview, New Trier Extension in Northfield, and Green City Market gardening workshop series at Lincoln’s Park Zoo’s Edible Garden. Also, members of The Organic Gardener will be presenting at The Power of the Organic Landscape Garden at the Chalet Education Center in Wilmette on March 27, 10:00 11:00 am.
Go for it & grow something good to eat!
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Written by Amanda Hanley. Updated in April 2013 from the original May 2012 post. Dedicated to Margaret Ruddy, the best grandmother ever, 1910 – 2012.