Rather make your own produce? Expert advice on starting first veggie garden

Maybe it's because you're bored while stuck at home. Or worried about not having enough money to buy food. Or now shiver at the thought of buying produce other people have touched.

For whatever reason, seed companies are reporting record orders this spring: People want to grow their own vegetables.

To keep seeds of hope from becoming weeds of despair, here are tips for first-timers, from University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ken Johnson.

Where to plant: Vegetables need full sun at least eight hours a day, Johnson said. You can get away with a little less sun for leafy greens.

Don't have a yard? You can grow some things in containers: If you want tomatoes, look for a plant labeled as “determinate.” That means it will grow to a certain size and produce tomatoes all at once.

“When you get in to cucumbers and squash, they take up a lot of space,” Johnson said. There are some varieties, however, bred to grow compactly, if you must.

What to plant: “Pick something that you like to eat. You will take better care of something you like,” Johnson said.

Start small. “In the spring we have these grand ideas,” he said. But by July, the heat has rolled in, making watering and weeding hard labor. It can get discouraging.

“Don't start off trying to grow everything,” Johnson said. “Don't get in over your head.”

Speaking of tomatoes: You've missed the opportunity to grow them from seed this year, even if you start them indoors. Johnson advocates buying plants. But don't put in seedlings until late May, he said, because of our cool climate. And don't bother planting tomato seeds directly in the ground, he said. The season will be mostly over by the time they are ready to produce fruit.

You can go ahead and start cold-season crops such as lettuce, peas, spinach, cabbage and greens in your garden now.

What's easy to grow? Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, lettuce, peas and green (“snap”) beans, Johnson said.

Water: Put the garden close to a water source, he said. “You don't want to be lugging buckets of water” or dragging a garden hose a long distance, he said.

Weeds and pests: Accept that you are going to have them. Even Johnson is plagued. Last year, squirrels ate about a third of his tomatoes, he said.

“Don't get discouraged” if weeds and insects show up, Johnson said.

And when you find yourself in a pickle? The Extension stands ready to help. Extension is a nationwide program created in 1914, educating consumers and businesses about health, horticulture, nutrition, finances and more.

Local offices, in Chicago, St. Charles, Grayslake, Woodstock and Naperville, are closed now because of COVID-19, but webinars, videos, and other resources are available online. Visit

  Julie Szimon of Naperville looks over some plants at the Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn's first plant sale of the year last weekend, where people can buy plants to transplant to their own gardens. There may be increased interest in growing your own vegetables this year due to COVID-19. Brian Hill/
  A long line of people wait to look at plants at the Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. It had its first plant sale of the year last weekend for people to buy plants to transplant to their own gardens. Brian Hill/
  The Geneva Community Garden is ready for planting. Brian Hill/
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