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Lifestyle & Travel

5 Tips to Get Your Garden Growing This Spring

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For LaManda Joy, gardening brings together some of the best things in life: food, exercise, nature, and community.

“It’s a form of therapy,” says Joy, who is an Illinois Extension Master Gardener and CEO/founder of City Grange, a new, education-based garden center in Chicago.

Joy’s father taught her how to garden when she was growing up in Oregon in the ‘60s. Then and there, she says, gardening was a way of life. “Everybody gardened. Everybody composted. Everybody canned,” she says. “It wasn’t ‘hipster stuff.’ It was just what you did.”

When she moved to Chicago as an adult, she quickly discovered that people in the city were more disconnected from growing their own food. Some lacked access to a garden. Others seemed interested in the concept, but simply had no idea where to begin. She realized she had an opportunity to make an impact. “It was an epiphany for me. I felt like wow, for the first time in my life, I had something I could contribute that people wanted. This beautiful gift that my father had given me, maybe I could share that with others,” she says. “And that’s when it became my life’s calling.”

It started with a simple community garden. In 2010, Joy transformed an abandoned lot, that had once been a World War II victory garden, into a space called the Peterson Garden Project.

Chicagoans took to it like seeds to soil and, in nine years, that project has grown to eight different gardens, a learning center, and a teaching kitchen, all used by more than 4,000 people.

Through her work with Peterson Garden Project and City Grange, which opened this month, Joy aims to educate and inspire people and get them excited about gardening. “I believe the world would be a better place with more gardeners in it,” says Joy.

She shared her top tips with GetOld to get people ready for the spring planting.

You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s ok. If you’re new to gardening and you’re not sure where to begin, you’re not alone, says Joy. “When we started teaching people at Peterson Garden Project, we really invited people that knew nothing. We would put a seed in people’s hands, and they would sort of recoil in horror, like they were afraid of this,” she recalls. We have to get over our fear of perfection because nature doesn’t play that way. The weather doesn’t play that way. There’s just stuff beyond our control.”

Start small. New gardeners may not want to transform their entire yard into an edible oasis just yet. Start small so you can learn as you go. Joy recommends first-time gardeners should consider purchasing plants rather than starting from seed and opt for something relatively low maintenance. “Herbs are a good place to start or a tomato in a pot,” she says.

Focus on the three fundamentals. Light, water, and soil can make or break your harvest, she says. Make sure the plant is getting enough sunlight, and if it’s not, move it. Water it regularly so that the soil stays damp. And use a nutrient rich soil – Joy uses compost herself – to keep it nourished. For container gardening, she suggests a lighter soil, like one with perlite or peat moss, to help it retain water.

Make maintenance a part of your routine. Think about something you do on a daily basis –  whether it’s enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning or a relaxing beverage in the evening – and take that routine outside. That way, you’ll be able to monitor the daily changes (which is part of the fun of gardening) and stay on top of caring for your plants. “It makes it a little less onerous, work-wise, because you’ll be paying attention. If you see a dead leaf, you can pinch it off. You can pay attention to the water it has. You can see if it’s getting the light it needs, move it around if necessary,” Joy explains.

Get out and meet other like-minded people at your local community garden. If you’re looking for a more social form of gardening, find out if your town has a community garden you can join. Joy says that community gardens offer a great way to connect with new people, acquire gardening skills, and become a part of a green-leaning community. Plus, she adds, gardens can remind you of some important lessons on a broader scale. “People are good. They know how to take care of each other. They know how to work together. And gardens really allow people to do that,” she says. 

Joy likes to share a quote by Thomas Jefferson when describing her love of gardening:

"Though an old man, I am but a young gardener." It’s something to remember as we head into the spring. There are always things to learn, soil to till, and ways to contribute, no matter our age.

Photo credits: LaManda Joy and Peterson Garden Project

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