This blog post is guest-written by Growing Solutions Farm lead grower Tucker Kelly. This past season (2021) was Tucker’s third at the farm. He manages everything related to the farm (landscaping, scheduling staff, students, volunteers, and farm stands, as well as ensuring the safe handling of produce). Tucker has worked on urban agriculture projects since 2010, including a position at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Windy City Harvest as a trainer. He holds a ServSafe certificate and is working on a GAP (Good Agriculture Practices) Certification (2022) for Growing Solutions Farm. Tucker also works closely with young adults with autism and related challenges from Chicago public high schools who visit and work at the farm.
Hello readers, and welcome to part three of our farm FAQs series. And in case you're wondering, there will be a part four where we focus on houseplants, so stay tuned! Let's get right into your questions...
What is the difference between morning and afternoon sun? Isn’t it all the same?
You’d think that all sunshine is created equal, but it isn’t. Most vegetable gardens require what’s known as “full sun.” That’s at least six to eight hours of direct sun each day. If you think about a typical summer day, the morning sunshine might feel great, while in the afternoon it feels much hotter, in part because the air has had a chance to warm up.
Afternoon sun can be great for plants that love the heat, but it can also be very intense. If you can choose the location of your vegetable garden plot, one that receives full morning sun and dappled afternoon sun with a little bit of shade is best. For those of us that can’t do much about the location of our gardens, just knowing that afternoon sun can be powerful, and more watering might be required on hot days is just good to know.
It’s always a good idea to take the time to observe your potential garden sites before choosing where to put your garden. You’ll notice where there is sun and shadow throughout the day, and if you can watch across seasons, you’ll see how the pattern of light changes as the sun’s angle increases and decreases throughout the year.
ABOVE: Raised beds at Growing Solutions Farm.
Can I plant my vegetable garden directly into the soil in my yard or should I construct raised beds?
This question can go a lot of different ways, but let’s start with soil.
Soil is composed of inorganic particulates of different sizes, organic matter, air, soil creatures and microbes and when wet, water. Soil can be very porous, allowing water to pass through quickly, or if it has a high percentage of very small particulate matter, it can be less porous, hold water and exclude oxygen. Soil can have different levels of needed micronutrients, and different pH levels as well. Soil science is both fascinating and complicated, but for the purposes of growing a vegetable garden, we can concentrate on a few key soil characteristics.
It’s always a good idea to get your soil tested before starting a vegetable garden for the simple reason that contaminants in your soil can get into the vegetables you eat. If your soil contains lead, you definitely want to know this. But a soil test can also tell you if your soil is lacking certain nutrients, what its pH is, and its general composition. A list of soil testing facilities throughout Illinois can be found here: https://web.extension.illinois.edu/soiltest/
If your test shows your soil is free of contaminants, that’s great. You can plant vegetables directly into your yard. If pH needs to be adjusted or nutrients added, that can be accomplished through amendments and compost. Some crops, like blueberries, require low soil pH levels. For much more on soil amendments, visit here: https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing/2020-04-01-starting-garden-soil-management
If you cannot afford or find access to a soil test, the rule of thumb is to construct raised beds and bring in soil if you are growing on a plot that has been developed at any point in the past. Chemical and physical contaminants from past development can limit the success of your garden and come with some health risks.
If you are constructing raised beds, remember to use untreated wood that has not been painted or stained. Cedar is commonly used for raised bed construction because it is dense and relatively affordable. Pine is less expensive but will deteriorate much faster.
Even if your soil is safe, you might still want to consider raised beds, which allow you to plant into soil that you choose. Soil in the Chicagoland area is what’s known as clay soil. This means that it has a high proportion of clay particulates, which are very small and do a great job of retaining water. However, it's also very dense and can be really hard to work with. It can also be tough for young roots to penetrate. Sometimes just getting a shovel into clay soil can be a real challenge. If you are able to construct raised beds and fill them with a good garden soil, I definitely recommend that. You can get bagged garden soil from a garden center or order topsoil by the yard that can be delivered to your home from landscape supply companies.
Let me just say that clay soil isn’t “bad.” Many trees, shrubs and perennials, especially native prairie plants, thrive in clay soil. But for a vegetable garden, clay soil is not ideal and should either be amended or avoided when possible.
I’m a total beginner gardener. What are some of the easiest vegetables I can get started with growing?
If you are growing in nutrient-deficient soil, the easiest things to grow will be salad greens like lettuce, arugula, and spinach. Brassica, like kale and arugula, generally have high yields in adverse conditions--poor soil, limited sunlight. Garlic is an excellent crop for those with limited time and looking for a low-maintenance food crop, and sunflowers will brighten your garden in nearly any condition.
You can break up a head of garlic from the supermarket into individual cloves, and bury them about 3 inches below the soil. Garlic is planted in September or October in our region – it takes about nine months for a clove to become a new head of garlic. So, this one is incredibly easy, but the payoff takes a while.
On the other end of the spectrum are lettuces, which can be sown directly into the soil in early spring. Most can be harvested within just four to six weeks and can be grown through to the first frost. To have a continual supply of lettuce, sow a new spot in your garden every 2-3 weeks.
Other easy vegetables are peppers, radishes and beans, although some beans require a trellis to climb.