Signup to receive email updates

or follow our RSS feed

follow our RSS feed

Blog Banner

Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois
AG School Demo Gardens-23

10 Steps to Make Gardening Easier

Posted by Ron Wolford -

Gardening is an adventure, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist, but not one without challenges.

"I have been gardening for over 50 years," said Ron Wolford. "It all started with growing a bean plant in Mrs. Pratt's fourth grade class at Tyng School in Peoria, Illinois. Later I spent many hours with my four brothers growing vegetables on our family's two acre plot on my grandfather's farm near Hanna City. Even in my old age, I still marvel at the miracle of seeing a plant grow from seed.

"Gardening is an adventure complete with heat, rain, droughts, insects and diseases. The following are some of my thoughts on how to make that adventure a little less stressful and some resources for further information."

1. Improve Your Soil

"The foundation of your garden is your soil," he said. "Loose, fertile, well-drained soil will make your gardening experience a good one."

If you are a new gardener have your soil tested. A basic soil test will tell you if you need to improve the nutrient levels of your soil. Soil tests will run $15-$20. Test your soil every three to five years. If you live in an area with heavy, clay soils make a practice of adding a two to four inch layer of organic matter to your garden in the spring or fall and dig it in six to eight inches deep. Fall is probably the best time to do this because the organic matter will have time to start to breakdown before winter sets in.

Resources: Soil Testing Labs:

2. Choose the best location

"Another essential gardening task is choosing the best location for your garden," said Wolford. "Most vegetables and flowers need at least six to eight hours of full sunlight for best growth."

Choose a site for your garden as far away as possible from trees and shrubs to avoid competition from their root systems for water and nutrients. Select a site close to a water source.

Resources: Make Good Use of Your Location:

3. Water Properly

"Vegetables and flowers need at least one inch of water per week," he said. "Buy a rain gauge to check rainfall amounts in the garden. Water the soil to a depth of at least six to eight inches.

"Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day. You will lose 50% of moisture applied through evaporation when watering between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m."

Water at the base of the plant to avoid wetting the foliage. Wetting the foliage during each watering is just inviting disease. Use soaker hoses instead of overhead sprinklers for watering. If you use overhead sprinklers, try to water early enough in the day to allow plants to dry before nightfall. Use a two to four inch layer of mulch around plants to conserve moisture and to prevent fruit rot of vegetables.

Resources: Success with Watering:

Different Watering Methods:

4. Buy Disease Resistant Varieties

Wolford said the best way to control disease is to purchase disease resistant varieties. Verticillium and Fusarium Wilt are two major diseases that attack tomatoes. Tomato varieties like 'Celebrity' and "Better Boy" have a built in resistance to these diseases. Some annuals and perennials have a built in resistance to powdery mildew. Avoid working in the garden when plants are wet. Diseases thrive in wet conditions. Proper spacing of plants will allow good air circulation around plants allowing them to dry quickly after watering or rain. Keeping plants fertilized and growing vigorously plants will help them to withstand disease problems.

Resources: Perennial Plant Problems:

Common Problems for Vegetable Plants:

5. Use Integrated Pest Management Techniques for Insect Control

"Try to avoid using insecticides in the garden," he said. "If you must use them, use only as needed. Some insecticides will kill bees. Bees are needed for pollination in order for fruit production to occur. Identify the insect before you use insecticides or any alternative treatment."

Many local Extension offices will help you with insect identification. Monitor your garden on a daily basis for insects. Don't forget to check under the leaves. Insect populations can increase rapidly. Clean up your garden at the end of the growing season. Many insects will overwinter in debris left in the garden.

Resources: Pests and Disease:

Garden, Lawn, and Landscape Pests: Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - eXtension

6. Start a Compost Pile

"Composting is nature's way of recycling and is the key to healthy soil and a healthy environment," he noted. "It is a satisfying way to turn your fruit, vegetable and yard trimmings into a dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling soil conditioner.

"Composting saves you money by replacing store-bought soil conditioners, it helps garden and house plants grow by improving the fertility of your soil, it saves water by helping the soil hold moisture and reducing water runoff and it benefits the environment by recycling valuable organic resources, reducing air and water pollution from refuse trucks and runoff, and extending the life of our landfills."

Check with your local municipality about any regulations on composting before starting a composting project.

Resources: Composting Central

7. Use Mulches

"Use mulches in your garden during the growing season and during the winter," he said. "Mulches conserve moisture, prevent weed growth and help to maintain even soil temperatures."

During the growing season put down a two to four inch layer of organic mulch around plants after the soil has warmed up in the spring. Be prepared to replenish the mulch during the growing season as it will gradually decompose. Organic mulches can be turned into the soil at the end of the growing season. Plastic mulch can be used for warm-loving plants like tomato, pepper, pumpkin, cucumber and sweet potato. Soil temperatures under black plastic mulch will be 10 degrees higher than bare soil. Organic mulches applied around perennials in late fall after the ground has frozen will help to prevent freezing and thawing which can expose roots to cold temperatures.

Resources: Mulch to Conserve Moisture:

8. Do Some Research

Get to know your plants before you invest your hard earned dollars to purchase them. Checking out the growing requirements and potential insect and disease problems of plants before you purchase them can save you a lot of headaches down the line.

"Read your garden catalogs," Wolford recommended. "Most catalogs have a lot of good basic information on the seeds and plants they are selling. Check out your local library for gardening information. Do some research on the internet. You can't go wrong by checking on plant information provided by your local Extension Service."

Many Extension offices have Master Gardeners available during the growing season to answer gardening questions. Most state Extension websites provide a wealth of gardening information.

Resources: State Extension Offices:

Hort Corner: University of Illinois Extension:

All-America Selections:

9. Become a Master Gardener

Think about becoming an Illinois Master Gardener.

"Anyone can become a Master Gardener; you don't need a degree in horticulture," he said. "You do, however, need to have a sincere desire to learn and share home horticulture information, have practical experience or knowledge of gardening, be willing to follow U of I pest control recommendations and home horticulture information, be able to communicate effectively and to be able to devote time to training sessions and volunteering. The knowledge you learn in the training sessions and the practical experience you will receive from your volunteer efforts, plus what you will learn from fellow Master Gardeners will make you a better gardener."

Resources: Illinois Master Gardener program:

10. Learn from Gardening Challenges

"As I mentioned before, gardening is an adventure. All gardens will have problems," he said. "Every growing season is different with challenges and successes.

"Challenges from my gardening past in Chicago include the summer of 1988 with a drought and 47 days with high temps in the 90's and in 1999 we had temperatures over 100 degrees, topping out at 106 degrees on July 13. On that day I was driving around the Southside of Chicago checking out some of our garden sites and stopped by our community garden for seniors at a Chicago Housing Authority development and noticed a 103 year old senior in the garden hoeing. I never complained about the heat again. That was also the year we started collecting water in rain barrels at some of our garden sites."

In 1991 Wolford started a 1,000 square foot garden at the Cook County Jail. In July of that year there was a nine-inch rainfall, flooding the garden.

"People were swimming in low spots on the Dan Ryan Expressway," he recalled. "Many people were skeptical that the garden would survive. We replanted and had a small harvest. Today we will be starting our 19th year at the Cook County Jail Garden which has recently added a greenhouse and now grows vegetables on 15,000 square feet of land.

"So get ready to enjoy another growing season with both its challenges and rewards."

Please share this article with your friends!
Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter Pin on Pinterest


Email will not display publicly, it is used only for validating comment