A Guide To Planting A Family-Friendly Garden In Chicago

April 6, 2011 2:03 PM

Under Cover Mother

Aside from eating ice cream and going to the park, there’s nothing my boys love as much as digging in the fresh soil of our backyard, sinking their little hands into fresh pieces of damp Earth. Like most moms, I don’t love dirt, but I love the harvest – that of actual produce and that of learning and time well spent together — that can be gathered from kneeling down in a tilled section of the yard and getting my hands dirty with my boys.

As the Chicago winter fades into a memory and spring emerges on the Midwestern horizon, April is the perfect time to begin planning a family garden. The benefits of eating well, local and healthfully coupled with the authentic learning experience of gardening lure both veteran gardeners and those of us who have trouble keeping potted cactus plants alive in the house to plan and execute fruitful harvest spaces. Here’s a newbie gardener’s guide to planting a kid-friendly garden in the Chicagoland area from another novice who had an extremely successful family garden last year {and packed her freezer with the fruit of her labor for the winter}.

Consider Space:

Those of us in the suburbs often have considerably more space than the city-dwelling family, but both can grow successful, family-friendly gardens.
For families who have a large stretch of Earth that can be cultivated, mom or dad should pick a section that receives decent sun exposure, as many plants thrive best with copious sunlight. Additionally, it is helpful to place gardens close to an outdoor faucet or rain barrel for easy watering during periods of drought or little rain. {Keep in mind plants like squash, strawberries and beans need quite a bit of space to spread and grow – more on this below} Having the ability to section of the garden with a wire fence and then chicken wire around the base will deter larger animals from feeding on the fruits of your labor before your family has a chance to gather the harvest.

For families who have no actual space to dig and plant in the Earth, mom or dad need a space in the yard where potted plants or hanging baskets will be sure to receive enough direct sunlight – preferably a place on the porch or balcony that receives most of the day’s sunlight. {This will also help deter animals from eating your produce, as it’s closer to all the action of the humans running amok in your space.}

Consider Tools:

  • Gloves for both adults and children
  • Hand spade shovels for adults and children
  • Water can for children
  • A garden hose {lead-free} and sprinkler
  • Mulch {organic is our choice}
  • Adult-size digging shovel
  • A tiller and grass cutter {both can be rented or borrowed}
  • Rain boots for both adults and kids {perfect gardening gear}
  • Stakes and wire ties for tomatoes
  • Pots or hanging baskets and potting soil for those without backyard space
  • Chicken wire and simple stake fencing to enclose backyard garden spaces

Consider Produce:

These hearty, easy-to-grow plants require medium or little maintenance, are healthy, kid-approved produce and have even been known to withstand the accidental stompings of toddler feet – basically water, weed and tie the vines {tomatoes} is all that’s required to grow these babies. {I recommend the new gardener begins by planting already established plants from a nursery as it will help ensure success. See local nurseries below.}
Here are just a FEW of the plants our kids love growing during the May 15th – late October Zone 5 growing season.


Featuring a mild taste and great nutritional benefits, squash is a great pick for family-friendly garden! Squash is easy to maintain and fun to watch grow. It comes in many varieties including winter, butternut, zucchini and acorn. We love growing zucchini because it’s resilient and grows, literally, like a weed – without fail and with reckless abandon for the other plants around it.
Squash spread out quite far and have enormous leaves that block other plants, so give your squash plenty of room, as they will take over the rest of the garden. We plan to plant our squash separate from our other plants this year so as not to choke the other plants.


One of the most exciting plants in the garden is the pumpkin – they boast gigantic leaves, come in many different shapes and sizes and best of all, can be carved come fall by eager little hands. Easy to grow and packed with vitamins, just one small pumpkin can provide your family with as much as four cups of pumpkin puree perfect for pies, pancakes and adding to your sauces for added nutritional kicks.

Genoa Basil:

An easy-to-grow, medium leaf variety, this basil has a sweeter taste and it can be added to so many recipes. It’s easily picked by small hands and grows large quantities relatively quickly. My boys enjoyed adding it to dinner after picking it fresh from the garden and helping us freeze the end-of-the-year leaves for quick spice access in the winter. As an added bonus, it’s perfect for growing in a pot.

Cherry tomatoes:

Once these acorn-sized tomatoes ripen to red, it’s hard to keep cherry tomatoes out of the hands {mouths} that are picking them. Cherry tomatoes are sweet tomatoes that can be served as a side, added to salads or even eaten as a snack. They are typically kid-approved and one of our plants yielded close to 70 or so tomatoes. For those who are using hanging baskets or potted plants, cherry tomatoes are a great variety for growing in limited space. Take note that tomato plants must be tied up on a large stake as they grow if you want them to produce more than just a few fruits, which happens to be a perfect job for supervised children.


Once home-grown strawberries turn deep-berry red, these deliciously sweet snacks typically don’t make it out of the garden! Strawberries also have a tendency to spread like crazy over tilled land, so if you want a patch, plant and clear the way. {First year typically doesn’t produce a grand harvest.} Strawberries are also perfect plants for hanging baskets, so city dwellers can enjoy watching these grow and then eating them as fast as they ripen, too.

Local Nurseries:

Gethsemane Gardens
5739 N. Clark St. /Chicago, 60660
(773) 878-5915

The Country Bumpkin Garden Center
27691 N. Gilmore Rd. / Mundelein, 60060
(847) 566-2176

W & M Land Corp {Certified Organic Plants}
3004 Walkup Rd. / Crystal Lake, 60012
(815) 355 – 4534

Adam and Sons Gardens
1057 N. California Ave. / Chicago, 60622
(773) 235-0991

Hyacynth Worth is mother to two boys, one fur baby and a fruitful vegetable and fruit garden during the summers as well as wife to a master tomato planter. She is a novice gardener who began last summer toiling in the soil as a way to connect herself, her hubby and her kids to the land as well as to eat healthfully and locally. She writes about all things motherhood {including gardening with kids} at Undercover Mother.

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