Big ideas for small gardens

With proper conditions, it's easy to grow veggies and herbs in large containers

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

In places like Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest, Riverside and Brookfield, growing space can be at a premium for people who want to produce their own vegetables in a backyard patch.

This is especially true for apartment, condo or townhome dwellers, who sometimes give up without considering their options, according to Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Manager of the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield Avenue, in Oak Park.

Stewart suggests it's easy to grow veggies and herbs in large containers, given the right growing conditions, which includes fertile soil, enough sun, water and a little TLC, of course.

For instance, in a 24-inch square gardening box, budding gardeners can easily companion plant one large tomato plant, plus a few favorite herbs, and some edible flowers such as marigolds, pansies and nasturtiums for color…and to add sass to green salads.

"Actually, at home I don't have a lot of space to grow things outside in the soil, so I have three 18-inch planters in which I grow tomatoes, about a dozen different types of herbs, a number of different types of lettuces, and hot peppers to maximize the space by integrating multiple types of plants in one container," Stewart said.

Another one of his space-saving gardening tips is to utilize a sunny patch of flooring on a patio or porch to practice vertical gardening, a popular, and space-saving horticultural technique.

To do it, he recommends filling up a few proper "hanging" pots with good soil and planting in vining veggie plants, or flowers, whose nature is to grow up and entwine themselves on an attached or adjacent trellis --or sheet of chicken wire that has been affixed to a brick wall.

"You can actually 'grow up' a potted vining crop of tomatoes, squash and pumpkins, as well as just about anything you would think about growing in a traditional garden," he said.

Stewart adds that renting a raised bed via a local community garden such as Root-Riot Urban Network (, or the Forest Park Community Garden ( is another way to go.

Still, he is a huge fan of edible landscaping approaches, especially integrating easy to grow plants such as peppers and tomatoes into a sunny, in-place border of flowers and shrubs.

"For example, if someone has a bed of daylilies, or a bed of other sun-loving perennial plants, that is a perfect spot to add some height and different color into that planting bed," Stewart said.

Starting in June, there will be ample opportunities via pay-as-you-go classes to begin greening up a so-called brown thumb at the Oak Park Conservatory. Early on is Growing Your Own Mushrooms, led by edible gardener, Jill Neiwoehner on Sat., June 7. It will be followed by Containers for Summer, led by Patti Staley on June 14. More opportunities to get a leg up in the garden will be offered in July, and on August 16 Plants Gardens and You will be offered. It is a primer on the history of plants led by the Conservatory's own Dr. Scott Stewart.

"In August, we are actually running a class on how to build your own hydroponic system to grow herbs and vegetables year-round, as well as a course on sustainable agriculture," Stewart said. "So, there is some pretty exciting stuff coming out of the Conservatory in general, and more and more of our classes will be geared toward sustainable home landscaping."

Read more Summer Fun 2014 articles

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