Holy Awesome Garden, Batman!

Well, fair readers, as the May weather turned warmer here in Chicago (read: super hot, 100 degrees on Memorial Day weekend), it became clear that it was time to start the garden.  The wisdom on when to start your garden in Chicago varies, from people who get stuff out the first week of April to those of us who are a little bit more realistic about the weather here and wait until May.  Over years of gardening myself, and watching my mom do her planting for approximately 30 years, the well-worn advice of “wait until at least Mother’s Day in Chicago to plant” has great meaning.  There have been numerous years that the call of flowers has been too much for me in April, and I pick a moderately warm spring day to plant them, only to have a freeze come in and undo all my hard work. Please note: as I write this blog post up on the morning of June 1st, JUNE 1ST, it is 50 degrees and rainy in Chicago. We don’t really need to get into the fact that it was 90 for 5 days straight last weekend.  Raises fist at unpredictable Chicago weather.  With my edible garden, I’ve had to learn to stomp down the desire to start planting in April and hold out until Mother’s Day weekend.

This year was a year of a lot of new things we are trying in the garden.  First up, and the biggest change of all, is that Patrick and I have moved our garden plot to a new area of our yard. In years past, I’ve always put our garden in the western plot in the yard that backs up to the garage. We would get pretty decent sun, and it was a decently sized area (approximately 2.5 feet deep, and 18 feet wide). You can see lots of pictures from last year’s garden here.  This past winter, however, our landlord and his girlfriend ripped out a HUGE evergreen bush that was on the southern side of the yard. Not only did this open up a huge new area for gardening, but the sun exposure is amazing, as it does not have a garage or our building blocking it.

After several discussions with Jan about how we wanted the garden to look this year, our crop goals and the available space, we decided to get down to work.  Jan, who is a landscaping afficianado and has done some beautiful work with perennials in our yard and in her yard, was kind enough to buy us a cedar, raised garden box from Home Depot. It looks great, it smells great, and it is also part of a component system, so anytime we want to expand with additional pieces it’s a breeze to do so. Since we hadn’t planted in this area of the yard before, though, there was a lot of soil preparation to do. I was very lucky that hubby agreed to help out with tilling the soil so that I didn’t end up in painful back spasms, screaming on the ground with tears streaming down my face.

Once we prepped the soil, we figured out what plants we wanted to do this year, taking into considerations our successes and failures from last year.  In our raised bed, we have 16 individual square foot plots to fill (4×4 raised bed), and there is a lot of space around where we placed the raised bed to plant directly into the ground.  We’ve also learned a few things from last year–namely, that zucchini and cucumbers both need a LOT more room than we read that they did. Our zucchini plant alone spread out over about 8 feet….it was great because we got so much zucchini, and it was annoying because we weren’t expecting it to get that big. Lesson learned. This year, we decided to plant the following items:

  • Zucchini squash
  • Cucumber
  • Red bell pepper
  • Green bell pepper
  • Orange bell pepper
  • Yellow bell pepper
  • Mammoth fajita bell pepper
  • Yellow straight neck squash
  • Boston Bibb lettuce
  • 4 plots of bush beans
  • 4 plots of sugar snap peas
  • Sweet mint
  • Orange mint
  • Jalapenos

That was the haul of plants that we got from Home Depot and got into the raised bed, and in the case of the zucchini, the 8 foot plot area to the left of the raised bed so it has room to grow.

Now, before you freak out my darling readers, have no fear, we ARE PLANTING TOMATOES! After much consultation with tomato growing experts, lots of off season reading and lots of review of what has worked and not worked in the past, we made a big tomato decision.  This year, wait for it, we decided that we were going to skip tomatoes at Home Depot, where we’ve gotten pretty much crap the past few years, and they didn’t grow well, and would spend a little bit more money to get nursery level tomatoes. [Note: A few years ago in the Chicago area, tomato plants across the state were hit with some sort of disease that took out all of our plants.  Last year, we had 3 gorgeous tomato plants going in our stand-alone, upside down container, only to have a bad storm knock over a planter with 150 pounds of dirt in it–needless to say, our tomatoes that were growing along so beautifully were battered and broken. All we were able to salvage was half a cherry tomato plant.] This year, we were all set to head off to Gesthemane Garden Center, our local awesome nursery on Clark Street, when the Peterson Garden Project announced they were having their plant sale fundraiser and would have TONS of heirloom tomatoes. We got up early the morning of the sale and headed out!

Success was ours at the Peterson Garden Project sale!!! We got 5 heirloom tomato varieties, 2 cherry tomatoes, 1 tomatillo and a mammoth basil plant. All for $31! And the best part, of course, is that all the funds go to support the PGP, which is a local organization that creates urban gardens in abandoned areas, unused lots, etc.  You can read up on the Peterson Garden Project, how to help and how to volunteer here.  Even our Mayor and his family have their own garden plot! It really is a wonderful organization to get people in the city involved with gardening, especially when they don’t have space at their homes to do it.

We headed home and got started with our planting, making sure to give each plant the required amount of “square foot” space, as recommended by Mel, the square foot gardening guru.  His book is great, and he really shows that you can grow a lot in a small space — check it out!  After several hours of work on Mother’s Day weekend, this was what our garden looked like!

The raised bed, zucchini and the tomatoes all spaced out in the area in front of the bed.

Tiny tomato plants that I hope are going to blow up and take over that entire space with their heirloom gloriousness!

Our mammoth basil and orange mint (smells and tastes delicious).

The sweet mint and our jalapeno.

I faithfully watered our garden and kept an eye on the plants, and added in the necessary tomato cages in the week after the garden went in. Let’s face it, after spending almost the entire weekend gardening, even I needed a break from going to Home Depot! Subsequent trips to the Depot included purchases of tomato cages and several stepping stones to create a walkway through the fenced garden area so I can prune and weed without ending up ankle deep in mud.

After less than two weeks, this is how fast stuff started growing:

And then, about 2 weeks ago, it happened. This goddamn, morbidly obese bunny that has been feeding on gardens on our block for the past year ate the entire zucchini plant. He then tried to go after my tomatoes. Well, game on, bunny, game on. Patrick and I researched how to get rid of the bunny and found advice that ranged from hunting the rabbit with a BB gun in the middle of the night in cammo fatigues, to sprinkling coyote urine around the garden.  Yes, because I just happen to have an abundance of coyote urine on hand. Please note, after researching the urine option further, it turns out you can get it quite cheap on Amazon. Unfortunately, waiting for my urine to get shipped to me would still leave too much time for the bunny to destroy my garden. So this past Sunday, I set out with my trusty green mesh fencing that we had used to block off the large part of the yard where we seeded early this season. I cut the fencing down to size to go around each tomato cage and individually wrapped each one, tying the fencing shut and creating a 12″ tall barrier to the bunny.

Well, I got your number you little bastard bunny.  My fencing is working and I actually got to witness the look of frustration on that animal’s face when he tried to get past it, only to realize he couldn’t. Now, my tomatoes can grow without that little monster trying to eat them, and I have hope that I’ll get some awesome heirloom tomatoes this season.

It’s also now been raining pretty heavily the past two days here, which is awesome for the plants. When I went out into the yard first thing this morning, the plants looked like they had just grown by leaps and bounds overnight…the peas are even finally starting to wind around the supports so they can grow tall and plentiful.

What do your gardens look like this summer? What yummy things have you planted to enjoy???

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