GARDEN: An Herban Winter

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

Keep it fresh this winter with homegrown produce. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018

How to garden in the city, Chicago urban farming guide

STORY / Dana Driskill

With a few simple steps and the right plants, you can turn that outdoor space—balcony, patio, rooftop, whatever sliver of sunlight you've got into your own little urban produce stand this winter. (Too cold outside? Put on a jacket already.)


Located in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, Herban Produce began in 2014 with several goals in mind: employing residents of Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods, educating the community about food sourcing and nutrition, and championing the importance of environmental sustainability and stewardship. Herban Produce is well on its way to meeting and exceeding each of those objectives.

Today, the nonprofit has grown to include a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse and a farm stand. Like all urban gardeners, Herban Produce relies on different growing tactics depending on the crop and season (winters in Chicago are notoriously tough, but they can still be fruit-filled). Among its tricks: a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic system to grow both sturdy and delicate greens (including Swiss chard, Rouxai red oakleaf lettuce, and cilantro) and a fodder system to help microgreens flourish (from Bull’s Blood beets to marigolds). The nonprofit also hosts nutritional seminars for Garfield Park families to help inform them of healthful eating habits and provides produce for Marillac House, a local food pantry (its produce is a first in the pantry’s history), giving people in need access to a greater variety of food options beyond traditional nonperishables.

Barry Howard, Herban Produce’s founder, has several ambitious plans for the nonprofit over the next two years: expanding its CSA delivery program, installing solar panels and launching a weekly produce market at the farm, and growing the farm to encompass an additional seventeen city lots (while renting out space for fellow urban agricultural farmers as an incubator farm).

Howard also wants to continue partnering with different chefs in a “Know Your Grower” program (you can already find Herban Produce at various restaurants in Chicago). Local chefs and Herban Produce gardeners would work together beyond the typical wholesale arrangement (restaurants order and choose seasonal produce based on availability) to create a seasonal menu inspired by what the farm is able to grow during that particular time of year.

Visit to find out what seasonal varieties are available and for upcoming events.

Urban farming, Chicago gardening


Still using that half-broken pot you salvaged from the neighbor’s recycle bin? It’s time to upgrade the size of your containers to allow roots to thrive. Also consider switching to freeze resistant pots, or rearrange container locations so plants get maximum sunlight as the days shorten.


It’s critical to re-up your soil with a nutrient boost after a long, and hopefully bountiful, summer. (Tomato hornworm disaster? Screw it. Roasted broccoli rabe with Parmesan awaits.) Be sure to replace the potting soil in all of your containers; a generous amount of mulch will also protect against the cold. Talk to your local garden shop about the best mulch varieties for the plants you choose.


Unless you live in a warm climate, delicate herbs like basil and sun lovers like tomato plants need to call it a season (pasta party!). Classic fall favorites like broccoli, onions, winter squashes, and even peas and radishes enjoy cooler weather and have higher frost tolerances.


Do consider when the first frost may hit your city. Work backward to figure out which vegetables to plant first. The goal: Your plants need time to mature before the cold fully settles into those planters.

Humidity and sunlight are also important players in the success of fall vegetables and herbs. For instance, lettuce prefers some sunshine, but not too much, while cauliflower can be temperamental and likes moderate climates with lots of moisture. And it may be cold outside, but keep the soil hydrated throughout the growing season, and add in compost to help these veggies flourish.


If temperatures fall faster than expected this autumn, you can always bring those containers inside for a few days. (See how easy this is?) Place them by a sunny window for an instant reprieve from the cold and make yourself a steaming hot Tom & Jerry.


A few of our favorite winter garden varieties. Got your own crops to share? @IngrainMagazine

Urban farming, Chicago gardening, broccoli


Broccoli enjoys cooler weather but can take two to three months to mature; if you live in a cold climate, plant as early as possible in the fall (later in warmer climates). Plants should be spaced about two feet apart and watered regularly and deeply. Before the heads appear, make sure to use a fertilizer to help growth. Many varieties of rapini (also known as broccoli rabe) mature more quickly (some in as few as forty days).

HARVEST Broccoli is about as straightforward as crops get: After the heads are grown and full, the plant is ready to be cut. Rapini should be cut just as the flower bulbs form for the best flavor. Pull out the good olive oil and fire up the sauté pan.

Urban farming, Chicago gardening, onions


Onions are hearty cool-season plants with some frost tolerance. As they don’t need much room to grow, they are a good choice if your gardening space is limited. Onions prefer loose soil, so make sure your containers are well tilled and place seeds roughly half an inch apart. You’ll want to thin seedlings (an inch apart for scallions or four inches for larger bulbs). Water often, and incorporate a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer every three weeks.

HARVEST Pull those scallions when they are roughly a pencil-width thick, and harvest bulb onions when their leaves turn yellow and start to droop. Let bulb onions dry in a cool, dry spot (dirt, stems, and all) for up to two weeks, until the papery skins shrink around the bulbs and the roots shrivel and dry out; trim and store in brown paper bags or bins.

Urban farming, Chicago gardening, peas


If you already have climbing trellises or tall poles, try growing peas this fall; shelling, snow, sugar, and snap peas are among the many different varieties, and most grow well in cooler weather. Plant pea seeds about one inch deep and two inches apart in well-drained soil and water sparingly (peas don’t like too much moisture).

HARVEST Peas are fun to pick but require patience. Ideally, harvest in the early hours of the day when the peas are at peak crispness and flavor. (Is that a slight cough we’re hearing? Better call in sick just to play it safe.) Use one hand to steady the vine and pick the peas with the other hand. Plucked right off the vine, they are incredibly crunchy and sweet.

Urban farming, Chicago gardening, radishes


With varieties like White Icicle (an intensely flavored white radish) and Black Spanish (a black-skinned variety popular among chefs), it’s hard to go wrong with radishes in winter. These root veggies grow quickly, so you can wait to sow the seeds until one or two weeks before the first frost. Make sure the seeds are about one inch apart and half an inch deep; when the seedlings begin to grow, thin them so the plants are two to three inches apart.

HARVEST With radishes, flavor determines harvest. Radishes become tougher and more peppery the longer they remain in the ground; some varieties will be ready to pull up as soon as three weeks after planting, so taste young radishes regularly. Does the neighbor’s kid have a rabbit? Save those tops for the furry fella.

Urban farming, Chicago gardening, spinach


Plan on six weeks for those spinach plants to grow, so plant seeds roughly a month and a half before the first frost, if possible. To sow, place seeds half an inch deep and two inches apart; be careful to give rows plenty of space, as spinach tends to crowd. Thinning seedlings once they are three to four inches high will help prevent overcrowding. (Urban problems.)

HARVEST You can pick the younger, lower spinach leaves first before the plant fully develops. Leave a few inches on top if you want to grow a second crop.

See what else is happening in the yard over in our Urban Garden section.

Recent Posts

See All