By Teresa Gale
By January most of us have settled in for the long haul. While you’re stuck indoors daydreaming about warmer temperatures, why not imagine and plan your garden for the spring?
Location, Location, Location
Location is critical, so consider it carefully. Most crops need “full sun” in order to thrive, which means six or more hours of direct sunlight a day. Less sun will slow plant growth. Still, some vegetables can do well in “part sun,” meaning two to four hours of morning or midday sun, while others will tolerate dappled shade under a tree or lattice.
Survey your outdoor space, keeping in mind that sun exposure changes throughout the year. In midwinter, the sun is much lower in the sky than it is in summertime. Areas that are now blanketed in shade might actually enjoy full sun at the height of summer. Observe how the sun moves over the course of a day, then project where your sunniest spot will be. Areas facing the south will have more exposure, and the more sun the better.
Situate your garden in a place that’s convenient to you—preferably somewhere close to the house or garage. You’ll be more attentive to an area that you see and pass by regularly. It also should be near your water supply and tools, which you’ll need to use on a daily basis. You want gardening to be an enjoyable experience, not a chore.
What to Grow
As you ponder what to plant, time and space will be your main considerations. Since our growing season in Chicago is relatively short, we recommend focusing on high-yield and continuous-yield crops, such as tomatoes, beans, peppers and leafy greens, which will continue to produce a harvest throughout much of the season. These crops will net you the most for the space they occupy.
Be selective about planting space-hogging crops like squash, melons and cucumbers. They’ll grow rapidly and produce creeping vines that can easily take over your garden. The best way to accommodate a vining plant is to grow “up” rather than out. This means securing the vine to a vertical structure such as a trellis, cage, fence or even a tree, as it grows. A plant growing vertically will cast a shadow, so make sure not to plant other sun-loving crops too close—at least not directly to the north where they’ll be shaded.
If you’re growing food to save money, you can measure a crop’s value in terms of price per pound, bearing in mind that vegetable prices vary depending on region, season and where you shop. You can also determine value by how much a crop yields relative to the space it takes up. Of course, taste buds and sentiment might win out over economics. It’s always OK to grow something for the sheer joy of growing it!
As you finalize your plant list, consider how much space each plant will take up once it reaches maturity. Then start planning your garden layout. An effective technique is to divide your bed into a grid, with each square measuring one square foot, then organize your plantings per square foot. So if you have 12 square feet, you’ll have 12 squares in which to plant.
Plant spacing is determined by mature plant size, which varies widely. Cabbage and tomato plants, for example, are large and should be allotted one square foot each, at minimum. On the other hand, beets and spinach are small and can be planted up to nine per square foot. This method of planting is often called “intensive” because it yields high productivity in a small space.
Now is a good time to sketch out a simple garden map. This will be your guide as you start planting, and it will be especially handy when plants are young and it’s hard to identify what’s what. Your map will also serve as a historical reference for future garden planning.
Excerpt and illustrations from “Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland” reprinted with permission from the Peterson Garden Project. The book is available for purchase at petersongarden.org