Our Basic Guide to Growing

If you’d like to try growing vegetables, herbs or flowers, but aren’t sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place. Starting from seed does take a little bit of work, and some things are easier to grow than others, but we’ve taken some of the stress and guesswork out of the equation by providing seeds, and these basics. For the most part, we’ll be talking about annual seeds (those that are planted every year and do not reoccur like perennials). While this brochure will give you general information, we have many gardening books you can check out for something more specific.

Expectations & Benefits

Start small—you don’t have to grow everything and it can be a learning experience. If you have kids, encourage them to participate. Having a garden is a labor of love because there is work involved, but it can create community, beautiful spaces, and help the humans and animals around you thrive.

Think Ahead
There are a few decisions you need to make simultaneously.

  • Would you like to grow herbs, fruits, vegetables, flowers, or a combination? Some start with herbs, since they’re generally the easiest to grow. Growing flowers together with your fruits and vegetables makes use of all your garden space and they’ll bring in your pollinators, so growing them together is a benefit.
  • Where would you like to grow? What are the conditions in that area? For instance, if you want to grow tomatoes, they need the sun and heat of the July afternoon to perform best. You may need to get creative. Do you have a deck or other area that gets a lot of sun? There are several varieties made just for containers. Think about growing in a community garden (Cary has one!) if you don’t have a yard.
  • Would you like blooms all summer or at different times of the growing season? Flowers that can be directly sown into the ground (like zinnias and marigolds) bloom for most of the summer.

Starting Seeds Indoors

When starting indoors, we have to help the seeds think they’re in the conditions they’d experience to signal to them to get growing: light, warmth, and growing medium. You can use special lights for growing or find a sunny (preferably south facing) window. You can use special seed starting materials: a tray with cells and a clear dome lid, various soil-less products you can plant your seeds in, and heating mats that go underneath seed trays. Or, you could reuse plastic containers, like yogurt cups and butter tubs. Punch 3 or 4 holes in the bottom and use the lid underneath to catch excess water.

Speaking of water, seeds need it, but not too much or too little. A spray bottle is a great tool to have, or, if you’re using cell packs and seed trays, you can water them from the bottom— just a little water is all they need. Seeds can rot if there is too much water for too long. Seedlings also need warmth, but again, not too much. A sunny window can get surprisingly warm, and if you’re using clear domes/lids on your trays, it gets even warmer and humid (condensation is normal). If you use heating mats, your seeds could germinate in a few days. Once there are seedlings coming up, the domes have to come off. It can get too hot for sprouts.

The biggest question is when to start seeds indoors. Each seed packet has basic instructions. For instance, tomatoes can be started indoors in late March or early April, and planted out in your garden after the last frost and nighttime temps are above 50°. Before you plant them outside, they will need to be hardened off, so they don’t suffer transplant shock. To do this with your seedlings, let them sit outside for small amounts of time, and gradually increase that time. Choose a spot that’s easy for you to get to, somewhat shady, and warm (it needs to be about 50°). The plants should be able to sit out there for an hour each day. A good gauge as to whether your seedlings can sit outside, is if you would sit out there for an hour. If it’s too rainy or windy, wait until the weather is better.

Starting Seeds Outdoors

Some plants love cooler days (pansies, cucumbers), and some prefer hot weather (zinnias, tomatoes, peppers). Seed packets will tell you when to plant your seeds outdoors. If it says “plant outdoors six weeks before last frost,” count back from our zone’s last average frost day. Cary is in zone 5b, but Illinois actually has five hardiness zones. You can access the zone hardiness map for Illinois on the U of I Extension website.

If you’re planting seeds in a garden or raised bed, the earth has to have thawed, and there may be some prep work that you need to do first: adding garden soil and organic matter, gently cleaning out last year’s debris, and labeling where your seeds/seedlings will go. If you’re growing in containers, you can fill them with fresh soil specifically for containers, vermiculite, organic matter, and rocks or broken pottery in the bottom for drainage, as well as drainage holes.

Care & Feeding

Definitely feed your garden! You can use compost or organic fertilizer. There are different types for different stages of growth, and usually applied every two weeks. Container plants need a little more attention because the nutrients are rapidly used or lost. Read the fertilizer labels for instructions. If you’re going to be growing things to eat, you’ll want to avoid using pesticides and herbicides. Allow insect predators and birds to take care of some pests, and in the case of summer squash, being vigilant with squishing bug eggs under leaves, works well. Consider letting some of the dandelions have their day. They’re the first flowers of the season, and they provide much needed energy as bees come out after winter. Bees go where there are flowers, and learn to return.

Seed Saving

We encourage you to harvest and save your seeds! Marigolds, zinnias and nasturtium are some of the easiest to save. Saving tomato seeds is a little trickier but can be done. Seed saving books in our collection.

General tips:

  • Select seeds from your best plants
  • Only save seeds from open-pollinated varieties
  • Clean dry seeds (remove any chaff) before storing 
  • Place seeds in an envelope and label with the variety and date
  • Store seeds in a cool, dry, and dark place
  • Read Saving Seeds: 7 Reasons Why and Dozens of Tips for How