Want to grow your own healthy food? Here are 9 tips from a Fort Wayne gardening pro

Last year, a record number of people turned to gardening—not only to grow their own food, but also to fill their free time during the pandemic and shutdown. With that trend (and the pandemic) continuing this spring, you might be considering planting a garden of your own.

We ask Camille Schuelke, a farmer at the Parkview Community Greenhouse and Learning Kitchen, to give us her best tips for a bountiful harvest.

You don’t need to till a garden. Vegetables can be grown in pots, hanging bags, window boxes—even in your existing flower beds. You can also try building a raised bed (using kits found in stores or online), which naturally have fewer weeds than a garden tilled in the ground. “My mom put vining green beans in a basket on a shepherd’s hook,” Schuelke says, and they just cascaded down.

2. Look for smaller plants or varieties. Herbs can fit in a window box, for example, or carrots can easily be grown in bags or pots. You can even find smaller varieties of tomatoes. Schuelke discovered a cherry tomato plant that will only grow to be 8 inches tall. “It helps to start with a small garden to get the hang of growing and learn about your space,” she says. 

A bag or pot with some potting soil can be a great option to start a small garden. Shown are some green peppers growing in a bag.

3. Read the instructions. Plants should come with a tag that will tell you if they grow best in sunlight or shade. The tag should also tell you how far apart the vegetables should be planted. It’s a common mistake to place plants too close together, which will result in overcrowding, Schuelke says.
4. Get some fertilizer. Beginners can start with a basic fertilizer from any store and follow the directions for use. Advanced gardeners who want to get more from their garden can consider getting a soil analysis from a local lab or the Purdue Extension Office. “They can tell you exactly what you need,” she says.
5. Don’t let the weeds win. The trick, Schuelke says, is to stay on top of weeds while they’re small so they don’t take over. Get a hoe (so you don’t have to get down on the ground), and dedicate 10 minutes at least four times a week to weeding. You can also consider using landscaping fabric or growing your plants in pots or raised beds for fewer weeds. “You want to enjoy the bounty of your garden more while weeding less,” she says.
6. Water in the morning, if possible. By watering in the morning, you give your plants the water they need to make it through the heat of the day, she explains. If you must water in the evening, try to keep the water down on the soil and not on the top of the plants, as water left on plants overnight can lead to disease. 
7. Now is the time to start planning. Schuelke says mid-May is the earliest you should plant your garden. “Everyone says after Mother’s Day, but this year it’s a little early,” Schuelke says. Some of the best things to grow through the summer include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, herbs, squashes, and melons. Most of these varieties can be harvested starting in July.
8. Start with plants instead of seeds. Seeds are more economical, but they can also be more challenging. Beginners should look for starter plants at a greenhouse. The Parkview Community Greenhouse and Learning Kitchen will actually be holding a plant sale on Saturday, May 8, from 8 a.m. to noon. You’ll not only find some quality plants; you’ll also find Schuelke. If you need more tips, be sure to ask her! 

Starter plants will be available at the Parkview Community Greenhouse and Learning Kitchen plant sale on May 8.

9. Enjoy it. Gardening isn’t just an economical way to produce fresh, healthy food. It’s also a therapeutic hobby. “Being outside in nature, getting your hands in the soil … I love helping people learn about gardening because I hope it sparks an interest and introduces them to the serenity that comes with it,” she says.