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Gardening in Chicago Year-RoundJuly 1st, 2021 by
Looking to save some money and start harvesting your produce right from your own backyard vegetable garden?
Making the move from recreational spring and summer gardening to growing a high percentage of your family’s fresh produce year-round requires careful planning. But the end results are well worth the time and effort.
For example, depending on the size of your family and your current vegetable garden layout, you may need to add more planting real estate to accommodate the crops you intend to grow. This is especially true when prepping for cold, Illinois winters. You’ll want to grow while you can.
In this article, we’ll cover all the basics you need to know if you’re seriously considering feeding your family year-round with veggies you’ve grown yourself. We’ll walk you through …
- Recommended garden size
- which crops to plant
- how to get the most from your plot
- How to preserve your extra harvest so nothing goes to waste
It’s time to make your green thumb a little greener.
How Big Should Your Vegetable Garden Be?
Good question. And the unsatisfying answer is … it depends.
Generally speaking, 200 square feet of garden space per person will allow for a harvest that feeds everyone year-round.
For an average family of four, plan for an 800 square-foot garden—a plot that’s 20 feet by 40 feet in size should do the trick. If your family is larger (or smaller), scale up or down as needed.
Also, keep in mind that some crops take up more space than others. If you’re planning to grow Brussels sprouts, asparagus, or large varieties of melons or squash, plan on a few extra square feet.
How Much Should You Plant?
How much to plant depends on the specific types of veggies you and your family like. A single plant can produce a lot or a little, depending on the type.
That said, here are some things to consider as you plan out your garden.
Plant More of What Your Family Likes
This first tip is a little obvious, but worth including. If you know your kids love carrots, plant plenty of them.
Focusing on the things you know your family likes makes it far less likely that you’ll end up with wasted produce.
Branch Out a Little
While you should definitely plant things you know your family already likes, don’t be afraid to branch out a little into some more exotic varieties, too.
This is sound advice, even if your household includes some picky eaters. After all, turning gardening into a family affair often convinces veggie haters to try new foods.
Consider the Climate
With the cold winters in Illinois, you won’t be able to depend on a winter harvest. Instead, you’ll need to can or freeze part of your late-summer yield. To do this, add a few extra plants to of each your summer crops. You can preserve the extra produce for winter consumption.
How Do You Get the Most from Your Garden?
Seasonal yield depends on several factors, including the quality of both the seeds and the soil, proper plant spacing, adequate water and the weather.
You can’t control the weather, but there are things you can do to maximize your garden’s production.
Plant Again and Again
As soon as one crop is harvested and is no longer producing, pull it out of the garden and plant something else in its place.
Stagger plantings by two or three weeks to extend the harvest, and plant different varieties of the same crop that mature at different times. This is known as succession planting.
In the Chicago area, outdoor planting can start as early as March. The growing season lasts until the first frost, usually around the end of October. With a long growing season, you may have to be strategic in choosing a second (or even third) planting.
In your second planting, opt for cool-weather crops, such as leafy greens, broccoli or root vegetables. Look for varieties that will grow quickly for a good harvest before the first frost.
Intercropping, or planting crops of varying sizes and growth rates together, is a vegetable garden design technique often used by gardeners who are trying to maximize yield in a small space.
Give it a try in your larger garden.
While your Brussels sprout plants are maturing, for instance, make use of the ample space between them to grow a quick crop of radishes or salad greens.
Harvest Early and Consistently
Gently harvesting produce early typically results in higher-yielding plants. Get in the habit of picking vegetables once per day or every couple of days.
Grow Vegetables Suited to the Midwest
Be mindful of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map when you select seeds and plants for your garden. Some of the best plants to grow in the Chicago area include summer squash, spinach, carrots, tomatoes and beans.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne is another great resource. They have a wealth of information for new and experienced gardeners. You can also talk to other gardeners nearby or contact your county extension for advice on tried-and-true crops.
How Can I Preserve My Harvest to Last Through Winter?
There are plenty of ways to preserve your harvest to ensure homegrown vegetables through the winter and early spring.
This is the easiest option, and it doesn’t require any special equipment.
Freeze diced vegetables and fruits in a single layer on a baking sheet. Then divide them up into individual serving sizes before transferring them to freezer bags.
A time-honored food preservation method, canning requires some know-how to do it safely.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to teach you what you need to know—you may even be able to find an in-person class near you.
Although a little less common, drying is another simple way to preserve your harvest.
Dried foods are lightweight and don’t take up much space. Plus, you won’t have to worry about them if your power goes out for an extended period of time.
Gardening to feed your family year-round is incredibly rewarding.
The key is to start early and have a plan in mind. If all goes well, you’ll be enjoying garden-fresh produce until it’s time to plant next spring’s seedlings.