Adventures in urban gardening

Community garden season has come to Chicago, prompting city-dwellers to grow their own food and flowers in the spaces they call home.

May 22, 2013

Rahm Emanuel may not be everyone's favorite mayor in regards to improving our city, but his new plan to transform vacant lots on Chicago's South Side into thriving and profitable urban farms in just three years is definitely a step in the right direction. 
 
Farmers for Chicago will make up to five acres of city-owned lots available to local non-profits, who will in turn cultivate the land and create a network of area farmers to help relieve food desert-related issues.
 
Green-thumbed Chicagoans will also get the chance to build their own enterprises, as food from these farms will be distributed to more than a dozen local farmers markets, corner stores, restaurants and grocery chains.
 
The city hails this program as one of the first of its kind, but the idea of urban farming is nothing new. Community gardens have thrived in Chicago since the 1940s, and have experienced a newfound popularity in recent years thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Chicago Park District. And with city garden co-ops popping up in almost every neighborhood this summer (including the now nine-year-old Chicago Honey Co-Op, which offers chemical-free honey and beekeeping classes in addition to partnering with community gardens city-wide), helping hands are always welcome. 
 
Other awesome resources for potential volunteers include:
Interested in growing your own food and flowers at home? Here's a few tips to get started:
 
Shop local
 
Visit your neighborhood nursery or farmers market for an assortment of gardening delights that won't break the bank. Home Depot may have lower prices on tools, soil and fertilizer; but for plants (especially herbs and flowers) locally-grown is the way to go. You can also buy seeds and food-producing plants at most local stores through the Illinois Link Card system. Another way to save money when gardening is by making your own compost. Instead of throwing away apple cores, eggshells and coffee grounds, store them in a sun-lit container and then mash them into soil for a nutrient-rich plant base on a budget. 
 
Grow up
 
Don't have a lot of space? Get creative with plants that grow up instead of out. With a little pruning, vines like peas, beans and squashes can climb up a trellis or a pole, which can be leaned against the side of a sunny window if you don't have a balcony, porch or patio. Also, look for companion pairs that grow well together to control the insect balance in your garden and maximize cultivation in a tiny space. Alfalfa sprouts, lentils and garbanzo beans can thrive in small containers, while hanging pots for stemmy vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers can double as beautifully cascading décor. 
 
Stick with the sustainable
 
Consult the 2013 Farmer's Almanac for a list of Chicago-specific planting dates for certain edible crops. Heirloom tomatoes are a great starter plant, as they are relatively easy to grow and taste delicious straight off the vine. Fresh herbs like basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano are great for windowsills, since they require minimal maintenance and can flourish year-round indoors. Also, look for plants that don't need a lot of sunlight (think fall and winter produce like lettuce, peas, spinach, kale, carrots and potatoes) so that you can continue to grow your garden even after the few precious months of Chicago summer have come and gone.
 
Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr.