Urban Herbs: My Venture into Urban Gardening

I’ve always been enthralled by the idea of urban gardening. I like the thought of growing something from the soil and ultimately enjoying it on my dinner plate. I romanticize the idea of cooking slowly with natural, local foods (and it doesn’t get much more local than a balcony).

I bought a book about urban gardening when I moved to the city six years ago, but I always had excuses: I don’t have time; I don’t have a green thumb; I don’t have a balcony; I can’t take care of something else because I can barely take care of myself! Okay, maybe some of the excuses were valid at the time.

For the first time in a long time I have time, and I finally have a balcony. It’s admittedly luxurious. I dusted off the urban gardening book that had been patiently waiting for an older, more committed me.

I wanted to start BIG. I had ideas of ripe tomato plants growing against the window, eggplants in the corner… really ALL OF THE PLANTS, EVERYWHERE. I wanted my nine feet long by three feet wide balcony to become a jungle – but then I realized I also like to stand on it, even sit on it on occasion – and I still don’t have a green thumb. I also realized that mid-July was a little late to the game for most plants.

Eventually, I decided to start with herbs – and even that was a bit difficult. After calling three stores, only one had some herbs left to buy, but they were, and I quote, “slim pickings.”

When I decided to start looking at gardening supplies, Menard’s was the first stop. Even though I knew they didn’t have any herbs available, I thought I’d meander in the gardening center to see if anything caught my eye.

Everything caught my eye, but when I started reading some of the tags of these plants and realizing they can grow one to two feet each year, I knew I was in the wrong spot. I can’t have a tree on my balcony, …can I?

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After deciding that having baby trees on my balcony was a ludicrous idea, I eventually moved inside to become overwhelmed by seed options.

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Look at all these!

After reading some of the seed packets, I realized I was a little too late to start planting seeds for most of these vegetables – and, realistically, I didn’t trust that I could successfully grow any vegetables from seeds on the first try. I picked up a few for next year, so now I have some #gardengoals to aspire to.

urban gardening

I thought about buying a few planters while I was there, but since I didn’t have a car and my main mode of transportation was my own two feet and Divvy, I decided to wait to see what the herb selection was like at the next place before committing to planters.

Seeds in tow, I made my way over to Fertile Ltd on Diversey. What I thought was going to be a small flower shop ended up being a sizeable garden oasis in the middle of Lakeview. Within a few minutes, the people running it could see I was a newb in panic mode.

Catherine at Fertile Ltd walked me through everything I needed to know to become an herb mom – starting with where the herbs were at (in the back left corner, apparently). Thankfully, they had a bigger selection than what they originally thought when I called earlier, so I had my choice between several kinds of herbs.

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I walked out with five: rosemary, oregano, lemon thyme, sage and basil. I was able to put the first four herbs in a long planter together. Basil can get aggressive and overpowering with other herbs, so I decided to buy a separate planter for that one. Basil is also one of the herbs I find myself using the most, and by planting it separately, I gave it more room to grow.

Before I left, Catherine gave me a few tips and tricks to keep my new herbs alive. Herbs need a lot of sunlight, and they also need a lot of water. I have a knack for accidentally overwatering things, so she told me to cut some holes (with a wine corkscrew!) in the bottom of my long planter to save myself from drowning them. She told me to check the top inch of soil (by putting a finger in until I hit the first knuckle) and if it was dry, it was safe to give the herbs more water.

I called an Uber to help me bring back my five herbs, two planters and 18-quart bag of soil. My driver commended my ambition and admitted he had failed and tried to keep herbs alive before, so we were off to a great start. Right before we took off, Catherine gave some water to my basil plant so it survived on the journey home (which made me more nervous – I thought herbs were easy?!), but to my surprise it perked up within the hour.

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It’s been a whole five days since I bought these herbs and they are still alive, so I am counting this as a victory and I’m basically an expert now. I’m already plotting my next herbs to add to the collection: mint, cilantro? Maybe I’ll actually venture into vegetables soon? Until then, I’m going to try to keep these herbs alive and find some recipes to use them in – if you have any favorites, please send them my way.

urban gardening



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About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.