Friday, June 6, was planting day for Chicago Tonight’s garden. The two planter beds were constructed, the irrigation system was installed, and the soil was added the week before. 

But before we rolled up our sleeves to begin planting, we tested our irrigation system, which Jeanne Nolan recommends every gardener do before planting. It’s a good thing we tested our irrigation system because we discovered a leak.

After fixing the leak (reconnecting an elbow to a tee) and testing the system one more time, we were ready to plant. First, we installed plant support cages - four for our tomatoes and one for zucchini. Per Nolan’s recommendation, we used Texas tomato cages.

“Cages sold at hardware stores don’t really work if you’re growing an organic garden because the vegetables grow big and tall,” she said, adding she has grown tomatoes to be 12-feet tall.

Another reason she prefers using Texas Tomato Cages is because extensions can be added on top of the original cage to accommodate the crop’s growth.

As the cages were added to the planter beds, Nolan said gardeners should always put the tallest plants to the north of the garden so the taller plants will not block the sun from shorter plants.

Now, it was time to plant. While Jeanne brought gardening gloves and trowels, most opted to go gloveless and get their hands dirty, digging holes for the plants, starting with transplanting seedlings.

“I plant [seedlings] first because seeds are more flexible in terms of the space they need,” Nolan said. “I like to plant the seedlings first because it tends to work better in terms of the garden’s layout.”

“When you put a plant in the garden, dig a hole two times the size of the pot it came in whenever you’re transplanting,” Nolan said. 

Since the crops were grown in square containers, “their roots think they’re square,” she added. “We want to say they’re not stuck in that position.”

She directed the gardeners to gently loosen the plants’ roots from their square positions and to be careful not to damage them. Doing this helps the plants move into the planter beds, she added.

A seedling of each of our tomato varieties (Red Cherry, Sungold, Green Zebra, and Black Cherry) was planted in the center of its own 18-inch Texas Tomato Cage.

“Really tuck in the plants,” Nolan directed as gardeners covered the transplants with soil.

Seeds are planted in different depths and spaced differently from one another depending on the type of plant. Follow planting instructions from seed packets.

“Seeds need be tucked in so they don’t move if there is wind or rain,” Nolan said, adding after the seeds are placed at the appropriate depth, gardeners should cover them with soil and lightly pat the soil into place.

While we only plan to harvest one zucchini, we planted four zucchini seeds in the center of a 2-foot Texas Tomato Cage.

“I like to use a cage for zucchini because it contains them,” Nolan said, adding zucchini can become enormous and unruly if not contained. As the zucchini plants begin to grow, we will thin the plants and leave the healthiest to grow in the cage.

After our seedlings and caged crops were planted, we moved onto planting edamame and Haricot Vert seeds, which each required an extra step.

“When growing beans and peas, we use an inoculant, an organic bacteria microbe,” Nolan said, adding inoculants help the seeds get a better start. “There’s an inoculant for soy seeds (which includes edamame), and a different one for beans and peas.”

Each inoculant was mixed with water to create a slurry, which was used to coat the seeds before they were planted. Inoculants can be found in online seed catalogs

While Nolan recommends following the planting instructions on seed packets, there were several crops we intentionally overplanted.

These plants, which include beets and arugula, will be thinned and those thinnings can be consumed, Nolan said.

As each crop was planted, we added a label with the plant’s name and date next to the crop. Adding the date, Nolan said, helps make it easier to track when the crop will be ready for harvest.

After all the crops were planted, we topped the planting off with a drink.

“I water plants with a fish emulsion and seaweed concentrate, which contains micro and macro nutrients that will help boost the produce of plants,” Nolan said as she mixed the fish emulsion and seaweed concentrate with water. “Plants that are transplanted experience transplant shock. [This] helps with that.

“We’ll be using the spray every other week. If it’s cloudy, you can spray the mixture on the foliage. If it’s sunny, do a drench at the base of each plant, because the leaves of the plants can get sunburned. Don’t bother with watering the seeds because we’re going to run the drip line irrigation. Be sure to water in the morning or evening.”

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