Growing your own food dates back thousands of years to when it was a necessary task for survival, not a hobby. In post-World War II America, however, interest in vegetable gardening waned as more fresh vegetables became available in grocery stores. But today, scores of homeowners are going back to that age-old activity and their reasons vary.
Some see it as a way to save money. Others enjoy gardening and see it as a fun challenge. Still others are avid environmentalists who want total control over what they eat and don't want to add toxins to the air by having their food trucked in over long distances.
But no matter what their reasons, homeowners are increasingly choosing to plant, carefully water and eventually harvest their own food to put on their tables. Garden centers around the area are responding to this interest by offering more and more vegetable plants and fruit plants, shrubs and trees, as well as organic seeds and other supplies to facilitate this movement.
Many gardening novices probably do not realize that there are cool weather vegetables and warm weather vegetables/fruits and that in the Chicago area, you can easily get two seasons each year out of the cool weather varieties. It is also important to understand that some fruits and vegetables are annuals which need to be planted each year and others are perennials that come back year after year. And then there are the fruits that grow on shrubs and trees. Those, obviously, live for many years and bear fruit annually.
According to Jean Bragdon, operations manager at Lurvey's Garden Center, 2550 E. Dempster St., Des Plaines, cool weather fruits and vegetables that can tolerate cool evenings like we have been having this spring include leaf lettuce, snow peas, cabbage, broccoli, kale and Swiss chard.
"You can plant these now and harvest them in June and then you can plant them again in late August and harvest a second crop in the fall when the nights are cool again," Bragdon said.
Warm weather items that cannot tolerate cool nights include tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and other squashes and herbs. They need to be planted later in the season and can be harvested in late summer.
Homeowners may choose from a wide variety of tomatoes including grape, cherry, heirlooms and Tumblin' Toms which drape over a container. All have their own unique flavors and uses.
"I recommend that a first-time gardener start with the new 'Mighty Matoes' grafted tomatoes. They are grafted onto a root stock so they are hardier, grow higher and take more abuse. When you watch a tomato grow and ripen, only to have something bad happen right before you pick it, can be very discouraging. These are easier to grow," Bragdon said.
"Both peppers and tomatoes are good things to grow in containers on your deck or patio or balcony. Some even perform well in hanging baskets," she added. "And you can easily grow herbs in window boxes."
Melons like watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew can also be grown here, but they take a long time to mature. Luckily, Bragdon said, our summer season is long enough to allow them to grow and be harvested in late summer.
"They will be the last thing to ripen," she explained.
Bragdon advises against trying to grow your own corn. Pollination is necessary for it to be successful so you need to devote a lot of space to it, planting at least two rows of corn, about 10 feet long each. And since wild animals also like corn, it attracts hungry critters to all of your growing food.
Perennials that come back year after year include strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb. Plant them once and they feed you annually.
Homeowners can also harvest food from certain trees. Apples, pears, sour cherries, Bing cherries and peaches can all be harvested from trees growing in the Chicago area. Even crabapples can be used to make jelly.
Unique "urban apple trees," which grow in straight columns similar to the way arborvitae grow but still bear fruit, have been developed for smaller city lots and "espalier" apple trees which have been trained to grow flat on trellises and walls have also been cultivated. The espalier trees bear fruit but also double as garden art and need constant tending, Bragdon said.
Tropical lime and lemon trees can also be grown here, as long as they are brought inside during the winter. They do best in sun rooms where they get sun from three sides, according to Bragdon. Fig trees are much more winter hardy because they go dormant in the winter, but a sheltered place is best.
Goji berries, raspberries (red, black and yellow) and blueberries all grow on bushes and they are winter hardy, especially the new "Brazzel Berries" which are more compact than other such berry bushes. Everyone knows about blueberries and raspberries but not everyone is familiar with Goji berries. Sweet Lifeberry Goji can be eaten with other fruits and the Big Lifeberry Goji are often added to smoothies for their antioxidant benefits.
"If you don't want to rototill your garden before planting, consider an earth box. It is a raised bed that will accommodate vegetables or flowers. You can move it around in your yard from year to year or you can even use it on your deck," Bragdon explained. "And when planting edibles, you should also consider organic seeds (gathered from organically grown plants) and Omri-rated soils to make sure that you are growing the healthiest produce possible. Lurvey's carries it all."