Earth First Gardens

Find inspiration in these Chicago land gardens. From city plots to gardens by lakes, there is no garden too big or too small for Earth First Gardening.

Each garden, like the person who tends it, is unique. Earth First Gardening works with people to ensure that each persons unique visions come to life.

Winter Sowing

“Anyone who thinks that gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year. For gardening begins in January with the dream.” ~Josephine Nuese

Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is a fun technique that uses milk jugs or clear plastic containers as mini greenhouses to grow plants outdoors during the winter.  Plants grow when they are ready!

This process was created by Trudi Greissel Numeroff, a seed saver, who did not have enough room indoors to start all of the seeds she was collecting.  She thought about what seeds go through in nature and came up with the idea.

You can start winter sowing after the winter solstice, December 21.  Jugs can be put right outside!  To winter sow, clean and prepare containers.  Drill holes or poke holes with a hot glue gun to provide drainage on the bottom of your jug.  Make a cut around your jug about 4 in. up and about ¾ around so it opens up like a clamshell.   Then, fill with 4 inches of moist potting soil, sprinkle seeds, cover seeds with more soil, and seal your containers with Duct tape.  Water occasionally so that the soil continues to be moist.  When days get warm, open your jugs.  

You can winter sow cold weather vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, spinach, and beets.  You can also winter sow native plants and cold hardy perennial plants.  Herbs such as thyme, oregano, sage and mint are great for winter sowing too! Click this link for a comprehensive list of seeds recommended for winter sowing 

The plants you grow will already be hardened off and will have strong root systems.  You can break off clumps of plants to transplant in pots or in your garden.

Alyssa Tadelman 

Community Garden Coordinator and Educator at Wagner Farm

Memorial Gardens

Honoring your family and ancestors in your garden.

Everyone that enjoyed gardening at some point, usually learned and or was introduced to it by a relative. Many of my clients tell me about a family members favorite flower, or tool they use that has significance to them, and connect them to their family. Others share memories of themselves first learning to garden from a family members. Often gardening is generational and tricks, foods, seeds and tools are passed down from one generation to another.

One of our clients always has iris growing by her windows, and has carried this tradition started by her mother.

Often clients may choose to honor the passing of family member or pay tribute to them in their garden. This can be done in many ways, including specific flowers, and or in the design, or a special item such as an engraved stone or wind chime with a name. Some families have worked together to each purchase a plant and create a garden in honor of someone special.

Often times after loosing a family member, people need a peaceful place to grieve, and to remember their loved ones. A bench in the garden can provide that space, and can even represent a connection to that person.

A client recently included her mothers bench in her garden, and has enjoyed sitting on it with her mothers friends, and family members.

No matter what you choose to do, and how you do it, the garden can help you connect with your family on a spiritual level, and offer a place of peace, a place to grieve, and a place to connect with your family who are with you, and those who have moved on.

My love for gardening was given to me, like a gift, by my grandmother, who lived on a farm, and maintained a large garden. I have pictures of myself playing in the garden at a young age, and of her proudly standing next to her towering flowers at the end of a season. A gift she sent me years later, a ring I wear, connects me to her, and to all the gardens I work on, bringing her with me, and letting the soil connect me to her.

Soil Matters

The soil in a garden can determine if plants will grow successfully, and provide nutrients to ensure that the plants in your garden area healthy, and happy from year to year! The healthier your plants are, the less likely they will be affected by pests, disease and the more likely they will produce beautiful blooms.

In northern Illinois, many garden are filled with layers of clay underneath topsoil, and lack many nutrients plants, trees and shrubs need to survive. Most properties that have clay beds need some amending before planting can be done. 

Environmental Impact

Soil regeneration is a new topic among farmers and gardeners. Healthy soil doesn’t only help your plants, it helps the environment. Soil regeneration, as a particular form of ecological regeneration within the field of restoration ecology, is creating new soil and rejuvenating soil health by: minimizing the loss of topsoil, retaining more carbon than is depleted , boosting biodiversity, and maintaining proper water and nutrient cycling.”

Start with Soil Testing 

Listing of Soil Testing Labs in Illinois  

Before planting, we suggest testing the soil in your garden, to make sure it is suitable for the plants you are adding, so that you can purchase plants that will adapt well to that specific soil or make changes to the soil as needed. You can also purchase soil testing kits online, and test different areas of your garden

Planting in soil that is dry or wet can present its own challenges. If your soil is compacted from flooding and water doesn’t drain in an area of your garden, there are multiple things you can do to improve drainage. You can also purchase plants that are well suited for areas with standing water. This would be referred to as ‘Wet Feet’ and some plants thrive in these specific soil conditions. 

Areas where soil is dry and hot, and or compacted with clay a gardner is presented with other challenges. Planting in these areas may not allow for root growth as roots will look for water, where it does not distribute evenly. Adding fresh top soil with sand, as well as compost can help break down clay, revitalize dry soil, and allow for water to drain properly throughout the bed. Plants in hot and dry areas should be labeled as drought tolerant, and require little to no watering. Drought tolerant and native plants can flourish in these environments with little to no support or outside water once established. 

Flooding is a common threat in the northern Illinois area. As humans have developed and utilized urban areas, we have limited the areas, and plants that can consume rain water. As developed areas, cities and homes look for solutions to local flooding, soil regeneration, and native planting, can help deter flooding, and provide a way to decrease watershed problems.

Soil is also important for good plant & tree health as some plants require specific soil types, acidity levels and nutrients. If you can adjust your soil to fit the needs of the plants/trees/shrubs in that area, you will get a better overall result in your garden.

We Put The Earth First! Can You Dig It?

Earth First Gardening Organic Approach

  • (IPM) Integrated Pest Management: We work with property owners to reduce the activity and reproduction of pests, deterring them from plants, removing them, and if needed, applying safe pesticides, while improving conditions for plants and overall plant health. The healthier your trees and plants are, IPM can include many different tools and techniques, including the introduction of predatory insects, applying natural products and traps for pests.   
  • Organic gardening: We do not use and will not apply any chemical and synthetic fertilizers, and encourage clients to increase their organic gardening practices and knowledge. 
  • Soil First: Soil is the most important part of your garden. Without healthy soil, your trees, plants and flowers will not be able to grow to their potential. With every garden we work with the soil first. We encourage everyone to have their soil tested, share resources, and educationion on the importance of soil health.
  • Native Plants & Trees: We always encourage the planting of native plants and trees, and removal of invasive plants and trees. We want people to be educated about the importance of the replanting of native plants in the Chicago land area and creating natural habitats. From reducing flooding and helping with watershed problems, to supporting pollinators, we believe native plants are a good investment for your property and the earth.

*Organic Horticulture Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and heirloom variety preservation.

Releasing ladybugs in your garden is best done at dawn, after a good watering.

Avoid Invasive Plants

Invasive Species of Concern 

There are plants that I often advise our gardners to avoid, and in some cases removed from properties. If you are considering installing new shrubs/trees, or looking to plant new perennial plants we recommend checking with your local nursery to see what specific plants are invasive in your area. 

In Northern Illinois, there is a major problem with invasive Buckthorn, which spreads easily through seeds carried by birds or wind. These seeds can turn into shrubs and small trees if allowed to flourish in an area, and are being found and removed in many forest preserves in Cook, Dupage and Lake County Illinois. Removing buckthorn can be difficult as the plant has thorns and can drop seeds, so be careful if you are planning to remove it. 

One big problem with Buckthorn is that it suffocates other plants in the area, killing off native plants,  taking water, nutrients, and sunlight away from native plants.  Erosion is a major concern and is found in areas where Buckthorn has taken over. While they do not produce long roots and soak up water, increased flooding and erosion in soil is the result of this plant taking over. 

Learn more about getting rid of buckthorn by visiting OPENLANDS: Getting Rid of Buckthorn

Burning Bush is a common find in northern Illinois gardens but it has been recently named an invasive plant, and is no longer being recommended for planting. As these plants begin to grow in local nature areas, and woodlands, gardeners should be wary about planting new bushes, and consider removing them from their gardens to avoid them being spread to other places. 

Invasive plants can often travel from one area to another fairly quickly. While you might not notice it, birds and animals can help seeds travel for miles. Sometimes, planting invasive plants in your garden can affect your neighbor’s garden if the plants are left unattended and go to seed, or begin to multiply over a number of years. Ferns can jump from garden to garden, as well as some grasses and perennials, and neighbors may not always appreciate the new additions to their garden. Make sure to learn about the plants you are choosing to add to your garden area, read the tags, and consider which plants would travel to a neighboring property before planting.