Planting seeds in Chicago gardens: Expert offers tips on TikTok

For Ebony Jamison, who is known to have 70,000 followers on social media as BrownSkinBeautifulgardening started as a pandemic hobby.

The thirtysomething Chicago-area photographer and mother of two already considered herself a plant parent: She had 26 plants in her home. But after a friend raved about outdoor gardening, Jamison decided to try it himself in his suburban backyard.

“My kids got super involved and invested in gardening with me. It became our pandemic activity and a way to get some fresh air but also a learning experience for all of us,” said Jamison.

Ebony Jamison in her garden
Jamison’s advice for beginning gardeners is to start with small plots or a few containers so you can carefully control soil and fertilizer. Courtesy of Ebony Jamison

Jamison, who had previously made videos for fashion and beauty brands, started filming her successes and failures by making short reels on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, and soon, what had started as a way to stay active during the pandemic turned into an online community .

She began receiving messages from folks eager to share their own gardening experiences, and she soon found a new subset of followers on social media who were also beginner gardeners. Gardening tool brands like Little Burros took notice and signed her on for product campaigns. She’d happened to something surprising: Audiences were captivated by her adventures in gardening.

Jamison shares her trials, tribulations and tricks with her viewers. She started out small, planting tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers in a 4-by-8 raised garden bed in her backyard and suggests beginners and city-dwellers do the same (or in pots for things like tomatoes and cucumbers for example). “It’s easier to control as far as fertilizer and nutrition of the soil is concerned,” she said. “It also helps cut back on the amount of weeding I have to do which can be a real pain.”

Once her first harvest proved bountiful, she enlisted the help of family, friends and neighbors to take hundreds of pieces of produce from her hands — even after making, and documenting, salsas and homemade pasta sauce with the kids.

Jamison credited her first fruitful garden to research on what types of plants could survive in the conditions of a bed in her backyard. It also helped her not waste time trying her hand at “root vegetables like carrots, beets and potatoes. I’d love to grow them but the soil in my beds (and in my yard) is too shallow — their roots wouldn’t have room to spread.”

@brownskinbeautiful Fellow Gardeners this is what you need! This little burro has been great for cleaning out my garden for the end of season…. And you can grab it at @Lowe’s ♬ original sound – Brownskinbeautiful

Even when her family moved into a new home in the suburbs the next year, Jamison opted to replicate her garden bed model. Filming the process for her online followers, Jamison showed the entire process of her and her kids measuring the pieces, Jamison cutting them by hand, and the crew building the beds in their new backyard.

Beginning gardeners, especially, will find there’s a lot to learn from Jamison. Take, for example, the decision of when to plant.

Jamison says the most ideal time to start planting in Chicago is around Mother’s Day to avoid any chance of frosty weather. However, she acknowledged that she may not provide an ideal timeline for those who want to yield a specific plant at a specific time.

A plot in Ebony Jamison's vegetable garden
Jamison started her gardening adventure with tomato, cucumber and bell pepper plants, but has since expanded. Courtesy of Ebony Jamison

“Looking at the cycle of a plant and vegetable will help you have a better understanding of when you can expect a crop and whether you should do a seed or seedling,” Jamison said. “Veggies like tomatoes can take around 50 days to go from seed to plant, while produce like strawberries can take nearly 100 days.”

Jamison also gets candid about the parts of gardening he doesn’t particularly enjoy, like pests and weeding. After sharing in a blog about her experience and frustration with garden pests, Jamison secured a brand partnership with Pestie, a pesticide brand.

With the pest problem in check — and another brand partnership to boost her business — Jamison said gardening is still a practice that requires patience. Whether it’s waiting for a seed to sprout or carefully tending to pests and weeds, being patient throughout the process will result in a successful harvest.

“You have to be very patient. That’s my biggest tip,” Jamison said. “I know a lot of people who get discouraged because they don’t see rapid growth. Gardening is a very patient game. Like most things in life, you have to do the work, keep watering and be patient.”

Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her across socials @OnYourCallender.