Your garden variety
Study up and get inspired to start your first garden.
Assess your light Plants such as basil, chamomile, oregano and chives need six hours of direct exposure to sunlight; others such as mint, thyme and nasturtiums require four to six hours of partial sunlight. If you find yourself in a shady spot, see if you can get involved with your local community garden by checking out neighbor-space.org.
Buy your supplies Click here for the tools you’ll need.
Pick your plot If you lucked out and scored outdoor gardening space, know that your soil could be contaminated with heavy metals or other unsavory elements. Rather than risking it or troubling yourself with a soil test, pick up a raised bed (basically a wood crate) or make your own using any large container. Landless? Snag a window box. Fill both with soil from your neighborhood garden store and compost from Brew & Grow (3625 N Kedzie Ave, 773-463-7430, altgarden.com).
Watering tip: If you poke your finger into soil and it feels dry an inch down, you need to water. Make sure your container allows for drainage so the roots don’t rot.
Before the final frost (around April 24—this weekend)
For every one to two feet of soil in your container (window box or raised bed), add a cup of compost. Plant seeds for greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale and nasturtium, a vine with peppery-tasting edible flowers. Water daily until the seedling starts to emerge; then use the finger soil test to ensure the plant isn’t thirsty.
Two weeks after the frost date (around May 1)
Window box Vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes, which have extensive roots, will need at least a 16-inch deep container, so stick to herbs that require only about nine inches. For a surefire, impossible-to-kill combo, try mint, thyme and nasturtium. Dill, basil and chamomile work well, too. Prune the basil (from the top) as it gets bushy throughout the coming months. Just make sure never to plant basil and rosemary together. They’ll kill each other.
Ground garden Newbies, start your veggies as plants rather than seeds. Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are easy starter plants. For a solid summer combo, try tomatoes, basil and oregano. Secure the tomatoes with stakes and plant them as far down in the soil as the first level of leaves (then trim the leaves) to allow for more roots to grow. They like to sprawl, so place them two feet apart. Plant the herbs between the tomatoes to keep the soil moist. Throw in a plant that invites good bugs, such as borage or marigold. If you’re interested in flowers, try sunflowers, flax or cosmos in mass plantings. They will reseed on their own the following summer season.
In the mid- to late summer
By midsummer, your lettuce will start to get bitter after bolting (seeding prematurely) from the heat. Remove it from your patch, and compost the remains. Otherwise, enjoy the fruits and vegetables of your labor! The best fertilizer is your hands, so give your plants TLC.
After the first fall freeze
Most everything will die off. Bring the herbs inside and experiment. If you enjoyed planting the lettuce, spinach and kale in the spring, try them inside by a sunny window for the fall. Now’s the time to plant bulbs for crocus, daffodils and tulips in the yard to enjoy in the early spring.
Meet the expert
Truth be told, we’re not green thumbs yet, either. We turned to Illinois master gardener Ellen Bunch to get the 101 gardening scoop. Too timid to totally DIY? Get a leg up by e-mailing Bunch with questions or for a consultation at email@example.com, or visit her website, more-organics.com.