Garden Guru

How to grow your own produce regardless of space

Sara Gasbarra is the woman Chicago chefs call when they want to grow their own produce.

With her new company, Verdura, the edible-garden expert develops rooftop gardens, window boxes and lush, harvestable patios for restaurants across the city.

We tapped her for advice on creating an edible garden anywhere, no matter the space--or lack thereof (click here to see the slide show).

For the apartment dweller, she designed a window box packed with a variety of sturdy herbs and plants such as rosemary, anise hyssop and nasturtiums.

Three square feet of space is enough for an Earth Box, which can hold a sauce-friendly duo of tomatoes and basil. The combination is more than mere culinary strategy: The herb’s scent is a natural insect deterrent.

Have access to at least a four-by-eight-foot patch of green? Follow Gasbarra’s layout for a raised-bed garden and you’ll be able to grow more than 20 vegetables and herbs in the space.

Her two final tips: Water in the morning or early evening (rather than midday) and, whenever possible, buy plants from farmers’ markets--so if something goes awry, you can talk to the farmer about what you’re doing wrong.  

  • Window Box

    Pack your box with compact, sturdy herbs. Any herb with a woody stem is easy to grow, stays small and lasts all season. Gasbarra especially loves chocolate mint, lemon thyme and nasturtiums, which cascade over the sides of the box (and the leaves of which are a peppery addition to salads). Look for Empress or Alaska nasturtiums, which stay reasonably compact. And most important, she says, water every day. (Illustration: Charrow)

  • Earth Box

    Gasbarra recommends small, high-yield cherry tomatoes such as Black Cherry, Smarty Grape, Sweet 100 or Sungold. She says that a staking system or tomato cage is a must for keeping plants upright, and organic granular fertilizer will exponentially increase growth. Add it to the surface of the soil every two weeks. 

    Arugula and lettuce are alternatives to the tomato-basil Earth Box combination. Once they've finished (midsummer), plant heartier varieties like kale and mustard greens, and then spinach in the fall. (Illustration: Charrow)

  • Raised Bed

    Gasbarra's layout is a mix of long- and short-term crops. Start radishes, lettuce and beans from seed; the radishes and lettuce will finish quickly, but tomatoes, peppers, herbs and hearty greens will stay in the garden all summer long.

    For garden advice at your fingertips, get The Essential Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. It’s packed with diagrams, outlines and essential edible-gardening advice. (Illustration: Charrow)

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