How To Start Gardening No Matter Where You Live

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One of my favorite memories growing up is gardening with my mom. Whether we were picking tomatoes for our salad or plucking oranges off the tree to make fresh OJ, I was happiest outside in the sun and rain (and growing up in Orlando, FL there was plenty of both!), with dirty hands full of fresh produce. But after leaving my sunny home for college in the frozen tundra, I lost touch with my plant-loving soul. That is, until I moved to Chicago and my classmate-turned-best-friend convinced me that we should start a community garden.

Over the past three years, we’ve spent our summers building the Healthy Hood garden, quite literally from the ground up. And while we are by no means garden experts, we have definitely learned some lessons along the way. Here are my top five pieces of advice for the novice green thumb:

1. Just start.

For me, the biggest challenge to starting a new project is taking the first step. Do I know enough about this? Do I have everything I need? What if this is a complete and total failure? The inner dialogue goes on and on. But, luckily for me, my gardening buddy and best friend is quite the opposite.

So on one chilly spring day during our first year of medical school, we found ourselves at Home Depot with shopping carts overflowing with soil, mulch, seeds, and gardening tools. We were nervous and excited, novices in this strange new world of indeterminate vs determinate tomato varieties. But with countless phone calls to mom, internet searches on gardening blogs, and a tremendous amount of help from a Family Medicine professor who became our closest mentor and teacher, three years later we are pretty dang proud of what our garden has grown to be.

So my first piece of advice to build the garden of your dreams is to just start. You really need very little – a handful of seeds that you can find at your neighborhood home goods store, a little corner of your backyard/balcony/kitchen windowsill (more on that in just a hot second), and a free afternoon. Plants are pretty resilient creatures, and once they sprout they will tell you what they need.

2. Know your space.

For us, this was a row of empty flower beds in the heart of Pilsen, Chicago. Being in the city, we did some research and found that soil lead levels can be high in urban areas. Root veggies (carrots, beets, turnips, or anything with an edible part in the dirt!) concentrate lead, so we decided to plant those in separate containers. Our favorite container veggies that we grew last year were blue and gold potatoes in these nifty potato bags – the bottom flap allowed us to pull out potatoes without disturbing the plant and soil, and each baby potato we planted gave us up to ten or fifteen colorful spuds to add to our harvest!

We also knew that our garden got plenty of sun during the summer months. The garden beds with the most sun were perfect for our zucchini and cucumbers, while the shadier, cooler areas were perfect for herbs, peas and lettuce. To keep the soil cool on those hot summer days, we laid down mulch to trap in moisture and regulate the ground temperature.

No matter where you are starting your garden, knowing your space is key to success. Have a backyard? Clear out a space that gets plenty of sunlight AND shade, close enough to your spigot (or buy extra long hoses, like we had to!). Live in the city? Think about lead testing before planting any root veggies in the ground. Renting an apartment with a porch or balcony? Consider a planter box to hang in your outdoor space. Have a sunny kitchen window? Start a potted herb garden with your favorite spices to use all year round. The options are endless, and with a little creativity, you can turn whatever space you have into a home for your future veggies.

3. Plant veggies that YOU are excited about.

During our first growing season, we had a wide variety of veggies and herbs, including tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, jalapeno peppers, corn, peas, lettuce, kale, cilantro, and basil. Pilsen is the heart of the Mexican community in Chicago, so the cilantro, tomatoes, corn and jalapenos were by far the fan favorites. Basil on the other hand… let’s just say we had enough basil leftover to eat pesto every night for at least a few months.

The moral of the story here is that your garden should be filled with foods that you are in love with! Herbs are easy to grow in containers and make yummy additions to your favorite dish (basil and tomatoes for an easy caprese salad), cocktail (like this rosemary margarita), or tea (peppermint and lemon balm, yum). Having trouble deciding which veggies to start with? Think of your favorite summer salad or pizza toppings and start there!

4. Go organic.

Organic is in these days, but what does that even mean? Chemicals are often used in horticulture to kill weeds and pests and to add nutrients back to the soil. While organic gardening avoids the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, for us it also meant cultivating our produce in a way that sustainably supported our little micro-ecosystem.

To prevent weeds, we laid down landscaping fabric on top of the soil at the beginning of the summer and pulled any weeds that popped up along the way. Marigold flowers, which are known for repelling insect pests, were a colorful addition to our garden beds. When powdery mildew struck our zucchini leaves, a quick Google search lead us to a DIY solution with a mix of milk and baking soda. With a few spritzes, the mold was gone within a few days! To keep our soil fertile and avoid having to use chemical fertilizers, we planted nitrogen-fixing beans in the fall months. These pretty little plants aren’t edible, but they do add essential nitrogen back into the soil.

You don’t need chemicals to make your garden grow, and the organic farming movement is much more than a trendy fad. By knowing a few tips and tricks to keep your veggies healthy and your soil full of yummy nutrients for your plant babes, you can go organic too.

5. Enjoy the process.

Some of my favorite moments to date at our garden include bringing high schoolers from around Chicago to help out at our spring planting day and hearing many of them say they had never planted a seed before. Celebrating the tiniest sprouts and mourning said sprouts that we accidently pulled while weeding. Spending hot summer afternoons chatting for hours while we watered, picked, and weeded. Connecting with community members about their favorite recipes. Kiddos eating fresh corn and the elderly woman who asked to take home the sunflower head quite literally as big as her head to roast the seeds.

Seeing a common theme here? Eating fresh produce is just one part of the bountiful harvest that a garden gives: spending time outside, connecting with nature, sharing your harvest with your community, to name a few.

My biggest piece of advice to the novice green thumb looking to start a garden is to enjoy every step of the process, from the tiniest seed to the prize-winning squash, and every moment in between.

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Gardening connects us to the earth, to our neighbors, and to our community. If you are a novice like we were (and still are!), that’s okay! After all, plants are just like humans. Give them a little water, sunlight, and lots of love, and they will grow.


Do you have any tips for starting a garden? Share with us in the comments below!

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