As the soil thaws and birds return, Lake County gardeners look forward to getting out of the produce aisle and into their own back yards. For budding gardeners, it's easy to get started no matter the size or type of available space for growing, according to local experts.
The country and Lake County are experiencing a renaissance in growing their own food, said Rory Klick, chair of the College of Lake County's horticulture program. Part of that is due to the economy as families struggle to keep food on the table and see growing their own food as a solution rather than just a hobby, she said.
"In the last few years, we've had a lot more people coming to the community plot [next to the horticulture building at CLC] to use their harvest to feed their family," Klick said.
"We think if you're hungry, you must be lazy. But you can be working hard and still have to choose between buying food and keeping the heat on," she said.
"We've passed the seven billion [population] threshold – how are we going to feed another two billion people on the planet?" Klick said. "We need a radical paradigm shift in how we address food. We need to localize and train a new generation of farmers."
Today, communities have seen the value in growing their own food to feed their struggling neighbors. The College of Lake County in partnership with Avon Township gives a months' supply of food to 150 families per week, who qualified for assistance. The produce is donated from CLC's community garden and Avon Township's production garden.
Many gardens grow the same foods, and the community gardens are developing a different strategy to approach community food security by offering different kinds of vegetables and fruits.
Klick said, "Food pantries don't always have the most nutritious food. I like that CLC has the means to give fresh fruits and vegetables to the community."
Community gardens are developing vacant land in more urban areas like Waukegan, said Giana Fazioli, local foods coordinator at the College of Lake County. "Overall, there's a growing awareness that to have a vibrant, vital community, people need to feel connected, and food is a great way to connect people."
Kiick said urban gardening is also growing because people are becoming more into cooking and aware of food's origins. Part of that awareness is realizing that some fruits and vegetables do not naturally grow year-round, and adjusting seasonal dishes to work with the natural growing seasons.
"We need to tell people, 'you can't have tomatoes 12 months a year'," Klick said.
New growers may find that planting seeds in their gardens offers a sense of confidence.
"After you spend a little time reading and learning and finally get started, it's tremendously empowering to feed yourself and your family," Klick said. "If you teach someone how to grow food, you have the potential to change their life." The local library is a great place to start learning, she said.
To get started, find a sunny location, then investigate your soil, Klick suggested.
"For subdivisions built in the last 20 years, the top soil has been scraped away," Klick said. "You don't need black top soil. Color has nothing to do with fertility. Most people have clued into the fact that chemicals and fertilizers aren't the best option. The best way to improve your soil is to start a compost – you want decomposed plant material that absorbs moisture slowly." Compost can also be made from food scraps such as vegetables and fruits, and dead leaves and trimmings.
"It's like making lasagna, just layer the soft and dry layers," she said.
Encouraging pollinators by planting flowers will help the garden. Some gardeners even take up beekeeping.
Cindy Julian, president of the Gardeners of Central Lake County, said the success of local gardens depends on planting native plants that do well in this area and attract birds, wildlife and beneficial insects.
"Our club focuses on the beneficial insects, birds that eat the bad insects and how to preserve the balance of nature," Julian said. For ideas on which local plants to use, she recommends Chicagoland Gardening Magazine.
"For a lot of us, gardening is year-round. In the cold of winter, someone is going through seed catalogues, and starting seeds inside that you can plant closer to the first frost-free date. For our area, that date is most likely in mid-May," she said.
Julian recommends beginners plant cool-season crops such as sugar snap peas, lettuce and cabbage, which are easy to grow. "A pack of seeds is really inexpensive," she said. "All gardeners enjoy trying something new, even if we've been doing it a long time. We talk to other gardeners and try to figure out why something didn't grow – was it too cold? Were the seeds planted too deep? Was it too shady? You'll learn from your failures. We're always looking for that perfect tomato or the rose with the most exquisite bloom."
For small spaces, container gardening is a great alternative, Julian said. "Someone with a small shady balcony can still plant flowering plants or vegetables bred to be smaller for containers," she said. "It's a great way to get started gardening, because you can control the soil and water more easily. For me, growing basil is easier in a big pot by my door."
Julian said, "At our upcoming plant sale [May 11] , we dig up plants from our own yards and pot them and sell them. People get to buy fairly priced plants that do well in our area, and can talk to the gardeners themselves."