Chicago Urban Garden

tyrus_urbanApril 3, 2008

Okay, new at this so please be patient. I live in Chicago (city dweller) and have some room on my roof deck for a vegetable garden. I've purchased 12 Earthboxes and will build a staking system for some plants as well. I'm planning on tomatoes, onions, lettuce, spinach, strawberries, green beans, green peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and broccoli.

Two questions:

-Does anyone know where I can buy starter plants for the above mentioned in the Chicago area (Farmer's Markets, Nurseries, Garden Centers, etc.)?

-Does anyone see a problem with any of the "crops" above? I'll have significant sunlight all day and understand that the lettuces / spinach / peppers may need some shade, so I 'll figure something out soon.

Thanks for any help you can provide.

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sherriseden(z6 IL)

Used to be a Chicago city dweller myself! Now in the northwest burbs. As to your questions -

1. There's a great garden center in the Andersonville area called Gethsemane. It's about 5900 north on Clark. Lots of good stuff. I actually started gardening since moving to the burbs about 16 yrs ago, so don't know much else in the city, BUT - you can get some great value in starters at your local Home Depot!

2. Rooftop gardening, with all its sun is great for all the crops you mentioned. You're right - lettuces and spinich need a bit of shade, but it's mostly "cool"they're after. Peppers actually need lots of sun, just like tomatoes. Trellis the beans (unless they're bush beans), zuchs and cucs. And if you can grow broccoli, God bless you! My plants never turn into anything that looks like broccoli.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2008 at 8:23PM
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I used to garden in the city. Now I garden six blocks north of it. Are you downtown? Or elsewhere? Almost any nursery, including those belonging to Home Depot and the like will have vegetable seedlings. If you're far north, I'd recommend driving an extra mile or two to Evanston for Anton's tomato seedlings. I also remember seeing some awesome tomato plants at the Oak Park farmer's market. If you're downtown, I'm wondering if the City Escape garden center/market that's near Garfield Park on Lake Street might be a good bet--I don't know for sure, but it's probably worth checking out.

I bet your peppers especially will love living on the roof!

    Bookmark   April 8, 2008 at 8:45AM
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I am a Chicago gardener too. You'll be able to find veggie plants everywhere (Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Home Depot type stores, Jewel stores), it's a matter of who puts their out the soonest.

I would direct plant the cukes and beans. In warm weather they'll be up in just a few days. When you factor in transplant shock, you'll do just as well with the seeds.

Psssst. The dollar store sells a pack of seeds for ten cents. A four-pack of plants will cost about 1.49.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2008 at 11:14PM
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I was up at Gethsemane this morning - they have a lot of herbs, but most of the vegetables they said would not be in until after our "safe date" of May 15th. HomeDepot, etc. do have plants right now. Cover them if you put them out this weekend - next week we are supposed to be in the 40s at night.

Sure, in warm weather seeds will "be up in a few days". Here in Chicago, though, that means waiting until June. For most veggies, seeds are false economy. Buy plants, you'll get four weeks more vegetables for just a little extra $$ spent. If you want the thrill of watching new life sprout (it's fantastic), buy seeds and start them indoors.

Tip #1 for early results - buy the biggest plants you can get. Usually you can find tomatoes and cucumbers that are already blossoming. Tip #2 - get plants in peat pots so you can bring them home and just bury the whole thing. Prevents transplant shock, not to mention damage getting the plants out of plastic trays/cups/pots.

As to your choices... peppers will not need any shade, particularly the spicy ones. My neighbor's habaneros were intense last year - hot peppers like it hot!

Strawberries are perennials, and won't produce a good crop until they have established themselves for a year or two. I would be concerned whether the plants would make it over the winter in a box. Anyone have experience with this?

I have never bothered to grow onions in the garden. They produce little (one per plant!) and they are inexpensive at the grocery store. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are well worth the effort. A single $5 plant will easily yield 15-20 pounds of fruit that is better than anything you will ever find at the store.

Make sure you get determinate tomato vines, or they will overgrow those cute little EarthBox staking systems. My indeterminate vines regularly get to be 10' tall by September. No, that's not a typo - ten feet tall. It will say on the label whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate.

I hope you have an easy way to get water up to the roof of your condo. I am talking about a garden hose, or a system to collect rainwater up on the roof. Even with the fancy EarthBoxes the biggest challenge is keeping the plants from getting too dry when it is hot.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2008 at 4:10PM
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I do get a thrill watching new life sprout and nursing my "babies" along. I also like the fact that I can take a ten cent pack of tomato seeds and get as many plants as I have room for. The satisfaction of being there from day one and the economic value are driving forces for me, but if you're buying 12 EarthBoxes, economy is probably not your biggest concern. Maybe next year, Tyrus, you'll want to feel that special thrill too.

I've started pansies, bachelor's buttons, cabbage, collards, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, bell peppers, sweet potatoe slips and started chitting potatoes (the winter blues were getting to me). I've planted the collards, cabbage and some lettuce. The pansies are in pots (1 single lonely bloom). The cukes are blooming in 20-ounce cups. I put a couple of the tomatoes out maybe three weeks ago when the weather was warm and tried to cover them, but they're not looking too good and I may have to pull them.

Brian, have you started your garden yet? If not, Chicago weather being what it is, when do you think it's safe to put the warm weather veggies in the ground? Any comments on tomato plants where the lower leaves are fine and large, but on the newer growth the leaves look like they're not unfurling?

Also, do you have any experience with the EarthBoxes. I've looked it up on the internet and made the knockoff version and intend to try one of the watermelons in it.

Tyrus, just F.Y.I, as far as the watering situation, the city sells rain barrels for about $30.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2008 at 8:58AM
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You never know when the weather is going to turn here - or turn back. We don't really have spring, just a period of indecision between winter and summer. Tommy Skilling has lost his ability to predict the weather, even hours in advance, so you have to take it one day at a time.

I got suckered by the really warm weather a couple of weeks ago, and put a 10" tomato plant in the ground. Since then I have put plastic over the cage, and a light bulb on some of the really cold nights. It is doing well, now 12" and blossoming.

P.S. the plastic from the dry cleaners is very transparent and just the right size to go over a large round tomato cage. They even have a convenient hole in the top so it doesn't get too hot inside. Tuck the tail under the bottom ring then push the cage down against the ground to hold the plastic.

I thought the conclusion on your seedlings over in the other forum was that they are suffering from too much love, er, I mean - water?? :-) Seriously, I don't really know anything about seedlings. I actually use a lot of Preen in my garden to keep the weeds from sprouting.

Never seen or used an EarthBox. Looks to me like a lot of great-sounding marketing for people with wallets that are greener than their thumbs. Of course the hours that I have put in my little patch of (real) earth would easily buy a dozen EarthBoxes...

    Bookmark   May 4, 2008 at 11:06AM
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I was hoping to hear, "Oh, no problem. I had the same thing happen last year and I still got great tomatoes from the curly-leafed plants."

I did the exact same thing with my tomatoes (minus the light). I used a white garbage bag instead of the cleaning bag. No blooms on mine...yet.

We had close to 70-degree weather today and I had spare time. I went ahead and transplanted four more tomatoes, a couple cucumbers, broccoli, peppers, a squash and white potatoes. Hopefully we won't have another freeze.

Yes, I bought the hype with the EarthBox, but my "economically savvy" version only cost seven bucks fully constructed. The potting mix cost more than the box. Wish me luck!

    Bookmark   May 5, 2008 at 12:22AM
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Hi Tyrus, I have family in Oak Park area, their suburban garden does great! I'm gardening on an 8 story southfacing balcony, and a 5&7 patch about 1 mile south of Lake Erie. I have an earthbox type system. Check out the Balcony Gardening Forum and Container Gardening forum (especially the latter for earthbox style growing). I'm trying the self watering containers for the first time this year. Mostly windowboxes, except for the tomato box. I've converted a deck box and one window box to the self watering system and bought the rest. I'm running out of room, so I may be moving some of my seedlings to the garden patch. So far I plan on 2 tomatoes and one cuke there, plus various beets, lettuces, swiss chard, carrots... whatever I can fit in! My biggest problem is wind and trying to figure out windbreaks since I'm not allowed to put anything up (I'm hoping they won't notice a lucite panel). I've found several good books on balcony/rooftop gardening, often written by people in NYC high rises, so check out your local library.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2008 at 8:42PM
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Thanks for the interesting replies. I especially liked the ones that focused on the cost of the Earthboxes (marketed to people whose wallets are greener than their thumbs) and the economy of buying seeds that won't be of interest if I'm buying 12 earthboxes - BTW, I don't need the "special thrill" of waiting for seeds to germinate - I need to maximize my growing season and ensure that these plants take the first time around (i.e. brian_swift's note).

Economy is always an issue and there really isn't a need to bring up the cost of these particular boxes. I'm in a unique situation, living in a city where square feet are a precious commodity. If I wanted to try my hand in gardening, I have limited options. Spending hours building a knock-off earthbox isn't very economical either, especially when you do some simple math and figure out what your time is worth to you.

For those who wanted to hear back, I did finish planted my earthboxes and have tomato, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, onion, broccoli, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, strawberry, bell pepper, and hot pepper. So far, the starter plants are taking to the boxes really well.

I didn't use "those cute little earthbox staking systems." Instead, since wind is an issue, I built a framing system for the boxes, in rows, and used a homemade staking system that can be extended if need be. The watering isn't a problem (yet), as I have a water source on the deck with a hose. I may eventually switch to an automated watering system in the future.

Believe what you want, I like these boxes. I've tried for the past few years, to grow in containers. Evaporation is always a problem and you end up watering a lot. This type of box (commercial or "homemade") uses less water and keeps the moisture in. Plus, once the initial investment was made ($27/box), they will last longer than a Rubbermaid tote and it'll be much easier next year.

Thanks msaunt, I'll post some pics on the other forum.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 7:14PM
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sherriseden(z6 IL)

Wow - You built a framing and staking system? You got it goin' on, Tyrus Urban! And you've got your starters outside already? I'm not brave enough for that. All I've done so far is transplant the tomatoe starters into larger quarters - buried down to the first set of true leaves, just like I was taught, by whom, I don't remember - and I'm just watering them and my peppers. My onion starts just turned into floppy strings, like Brian Swift predicted. So they went in the compost pile. I've been brave enough to open the window in their little growing room the last few nights and harden them off outside over the next week. Let us know how your guys take to this cool upcoming weekend! (I know - you probably have cloches over everything! You're a good gardener!)

    Bookmark   May 8, 2008 at 9:03PM
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Thanks for the note. I posted a picture on the container gardening forum's gallery page. I know it's supposed get cool this weekend but not frost (at least not in the city). One nice thing about the Earthbox (okay - I'll stop talking about them now) and boxes like it are that they have a plastic cover that keeps the soil warm from what little sun there is. Although I still may drape a dry cleaning plastic cover over them (perfect size for the boxes - even comes with a hole on top for air). Good luck!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2008 at 9:56PM
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Hi, Tyrus:
No insult intended regarding the EarthBox and cost of plants. While I want to maximize the growing season too (I started my seeds under lights in February...way too early I now know) and I respect the availaility of space for gardening (I constructed three raised beds after running across the square foot gardening method over the winter) I get a great amount of pleasure nursing the plants along. It's kind of like your natural kids and your adopted kids. I know you'll love your adopted "kids" as well as I love my "natural born" kids.

Again, no insult intended. Remember, gardeners are good people.

Now that that's out of the way, I looked at your picture in the other forum and I couldn't tell what you used to stake your boxes with. Care to share?

It took me a minute to build the knock-off version of the EarthBox. Can you share how you converted a window box to the self-watering system?

    Bookmark   May 9, 2008 at 7:57AM
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sherriseden(z6 IL)

Hi, Tyrus Urban - I couldn't see the pix on the container gardening forum gallery, but I'm sure they're beautific!! Let us know how they do after this crazy "early spring" moms day weekend!!

    Bookmark   May 10, 2008 at 9:27PM
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The chilly weather isn't hurting the plants too much because of the black cover on the boxes (same principle as black plastic mulch for the garden or homemade boxes). It keeps the soil warm. The thing that is hurting my plants is the wind. On the fourth floor, it gets pretty windy. I've had my tomatoes staked and tied to twine already. Some of the other starters are tied to small stakes (plastic forks - they don't move at all) but the wind is killing the leaves. I may try to think of a wind guard of some sort.

The staking system is working really well and I think it could be successful in the summer, when the plants get larger. I bought black plastic stakes at Home Depot for about $1.50/each and fastened them to the wooden frames for my EBs. They can also be extended because these particular stakes have alternating half circles that would hold a 1/2" rod in place (along with a hose clamp). The whole set-up is very sturdy and (I think) looks attractive enough.

To view pictures, I'll divert you to another link ( because posting pictures to this forum is very difficult and you can't post more than one at a time - at least I can't figure it out. The other link is a Chicago food site that has a small gardening section for food only. Since that is where I heard of this site, I think all is fair. I'll be posting follow ups to that site as well. My screen name there is just "tyrus."

If you have any other questions about the staking system, please let me know. Thanks.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2008 at 9:06PM
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Well, I wandered around my local discount drug/department store and got creative (this was the same store where I found self watering windowboxes). I took pictures, but I haven't finished the roll (Gasp, yes, I'm NOT digital yet!). When they're ready I'll scan and post. I ended up with a little plastic basket, and a piece of snap in gutter screen and foam pipe insulation. I had to shorten the basket, and cut off the top. I also drilled some more holes in the bottom and side (get a drill bit that will work on plastic) to maximize the dirt to water ratio. I I had to trim the gutter screen a little, but it's thin plastic. Shears and a hacksaw did fine.

I put the basket in the middle and cut a hole in the screen so that the screen hung over the basket a little. The dirt goes down into the basket. I cut two corners off the screen, and stuck a piece of pipe insulation in each corner. I cut the bottom at an angle so the water would flow out easily into the reservoir part. I propped up the other corners with a short piece of pipe. I tried watering it the other day, and soon had water coming up the sides of my box! I should probably drill a couple of over flow holes just above the gutter screen line. I planted wildflower seedlings and threw in a bunch more seed. I figure I'll thin them later. This box is my 'will wildflowers create a windbreak on my balcony?' experiment.

For the Deck box (plastic, bigger than a windowbox), I did not do a bottom screen. I'll use the gutter screen next year. I had not done enough studying yet when I did this one. I used BIG chunks of styrofoam torn up and jumbled with lots of air spaces inbetween. Again I put the angle cut pipe in two corners. I covered the top with a black garbage bag. This contains bush beans, and I think I've had to water it once in 2 months? It is still inside, in front of my 8' patio door. I've had beans! The neighbors couldn't believe it. MY WORD, those things are tasty! I've just planted new seeds inbetween the current plants. These plants are pretty leggy from being indoors, and once the new ones come up I'll probably pull these out, and maybe keep rotating like that all summer. I plan to move it out to the balcony in a week or two, and I hope they'll be sturdier when grown outside. I know beans like some heat, so I may need to wait til mid-June at this rate!

I don't know how safe the pipe insulation is, but I didn't see anything else to use (looked all around HD too) without getting into buying a big, expensive, roll of something. If anyone has any suggestions on what to use for tubing, let me know. Maybe some medical supply item? I heard PVC pipe isn't very safe either, and I wasn't sure I had the tools to trim it. I don't have much storage. I need all my pots and supplies to stack within each other and hide under my balcony table/chair set in the winter. That all gets covered with multiple vinyl chair covers, and strapped down with bungee cords so it doesn't all blow away in the gale force winter winds.

Anyway, it was fun to wander around the store and think creatively!

Tyrus urban, where did you find Earthboxes for $27? I have a different brand which I think was $30ish on sale at QVC. I put my tomatoes in there a week ago, and of course the temp dropped immediately. It's too heavy to pull inside, so I've had a white poly fabric shower curtain clamped aroung my home made trellis system ever since. Light goes in, rain rolls off. I check them every day and they are surviving. I plan on planting the garden this weekend, but I'll be rigging some cover around the tomatoes and cukes. I may just put a paper leaf bag over the cages at night. If the leaves end up laying against plastic they get frosted. I think I'll put down some black trash bags for a day or two to try to heat up the soil some more.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2008 at 8:00PM
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Sorry, I don't check this thread to often since there isn't a lot of activity. It sounds like you've had some good luck in homemade pots and that's fantastic. I bought my earthboxes from their website and they were $27 plus shipping - so about $34 each altogether (I bought 12 at one time). The garden is going great and I've had more lettuce than I could eat. I've been giving it away and it's still not enough. Also, the broccoli is ready to harvest and had some last night. The zucchini is flowering and will be ready soon. Little tomatoes have started as well as peppers. I've posted a bunch of pictures on some other sites but have not posted here because it's too confusing. If you follow this link, you should see them: Best of luck.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2008 at 11:37AM
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Wow, your garden is doing great! Look at that broccoli. I may try that next year.

I've had a lot of wind damage, even in the downstairs garden. I moved all the peppers to the garden, they seemed happier there, and I lost a couple to wind on the balcony. The lettuce I bought at the nursery is doing great, I'm on my second harvest of that. The stuff I grew from seed has only just been big enough to harvest. Cukes and tomatoes are starting to bloom. Nasturtiums, beans, beets, etc have been blown to heck. Between the wind, heat, and now cold, my poor plants don't know which end is up, as evidenced by my dahlia bulbs, which I caught trying to grow through the bottom of their hanging basket, LOL! Everytime we do get some warm days I'm amazed at how fast they grow. If I haven't checked them in a couple days I'm surprised at their new heights.

The items that have done the best are the Pak Choi (I think because the leaves are so thick they didn't dessicate like the other plants), carrots, sunfloweres, and the lettuce that was started at the nursery. The beans, beet seedlings and spinach ketp getting blown off at the soil level because they were whipping around so much.

I may still put up more lucite panels. I was holding off due to the expense, but I've recently found some panels I can 'recycle' for free. Moving all the boxes and pots from the railing side to the window side to give them a little more protection helps.

Oh, I just found some more small baskets at Walgreen's on the dollar aisle, 3 for a dollar, that should be great for more containers next year!


    Bookmark   June 18, 2008 at 10:03PM
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Hi, Tyrus:

I just looked at your pics on the Earthbox forum. Your garden is absolutely gorgeous. You are a testiment to the Earthbox system. I planted water melon, sweet potato and tomato in my knockoff on the 17th of May, and the tomato has outgrown those planted in the ground.

Again, your garden is gorgeous. You have much to be proud of, and I'm a wee bit jealous.

Love the pictures too.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2008 at 1:53AM
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I meant you are a testament. Spellcheck challenged here :^)

    Bookmark   June 23, 2008 at 10:36PM
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Thanks for the notes. The EB system is working pretty well but I also have a couple of rooftop vegetable gardening friends here in the neighborhood that do the same with homemade boxes and pickle buckets. They've had great results as well.

Some of the drawbacks to the EB are pretty obvious once you start experiencing some challenges. The major ones are a lack of a trellis system that comes with the box (I've made my own), the fact that they can tip over with large plants (I've made my own solution as well), and the wind can be pretty damaging at times. If you check the flickr site, the forms I built for the boxes allow me to stake and build trellises, are heavy enough not to be blown over, and enable me to create a wind blocking system. The lucite panels are a good idea and I may try to incorporate glass or another plastic tarp contraption that hopefully, will extend my growing season by a month.

As far as veggies go: it took a while for my peppers to start growing in the boxes. Just now, I'm starting to see some fruiting. The zucchini, broccoli, onions, lettuce and strawberries have all done really well. The eggplant is just now coming in as are the tomatoes and peppers. I've transplanted the lettuce with herbs for the summer and looking for one more plant to try before the fall, when another cycle goes in.

My goal is to figure out what works best in containers, when to plant on my roof, and to continually have some sort of production throughout the season. I would also like to get a scale to measure production and keep a journal. Although container vegetable gardening isn't new, there's not a lot of information beyond the basics of "yes you can do it.."

Like I said, I don't check this often so sorry for the late reply. I'll try to check it more often...thanks again...

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 2:21PM
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I'm writing to share a project I started to introduce my son to gardening. It's a garden on wheels that I built because I live in a condo complex that has no yard, only a paved common space.
The garden is on wheels because it's kept in a common area that is used for parking cars, kids playing and parties and BBQs. So I need to be able to move it out of the way.

I started a blog about it to get input and hopefully inspire people to try something similar.

Here's the blog:

I would love to hear your input and hope that you'll share it with other people looking for ideas.

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden On Wheels

    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 8:35PM
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