In the calm and cold of the new year, it's tempting to hibernate and rest up for the tilling and planting to come. But January is prime time for another kind of preparation: learning all you can to make this growing season your best ever.
Sure, you could stay home and read books or browse websites. But a winter or spring class or workshop is a better place to start. You can ask questions, get guidance for further research, and meet other people who are interested in the same topic or have the same garden challenges.
A class at the Chicago Botanic Garden will be taught by staff or local experts who know what works in your own climate and conditions. And there aren't many better places to watch a gentle snow fall than through the windows of the Regenstein Center, while you're warm indoors planning hydrangeas or tomatoes or garden mosaics.
Good preparation will help you get the most out of your garden learning experience.
The first and most important step is to make sure you're in the right class, says Jill Selinger, manager of continuing education. It's not just the topic that matters: the Garden offers instruction pitched at different levels, from basics for beginners to certificate programs for professionals. The class that is right for you depends on your own knowledge and experience.
A gardener who hasn't taken the prerequisite botany course is likely to be lost in an intense, weeks-long certificate-level class on small flowering trees, but will be enlightened by a two-hour-long class on "Success with Trees and Shrubs." An experienced watercolorist who might be bored with six "Beginning Watercolor" classes could immerse herself in three intensive days with a workshop.
"You have to read the description carefully," says Selinger. "If you have any questions about whether the class is appropriate for you, just call."
Before choosing a class, assess yourself and your garden.
Do you have time to devote to a multiple sessions? Or is a single Saturday session all you can realistically squeeze in? Do you like to sample different topics or do you dive in deep? Are you willing to do some reading? Do you have space at home and a budget for equipment to devote to a new hobby such as botanical drawing or macro photography?
What are the basic conditions of your yard — shade, sun, soil? What didn't work last year? What would you like to try? Collect those thoughts — or refer to your garden journal — as you browse the course catalog. You might even make some preliminary notes to bring to the first class, along with something to write on and something to write with.
It's especially wise to gather some basic data before taking a design class: Collect some photos of your garden from various angles and at various seasons. Jot down things you love and hate about it and features you wish you had or techniques you'd like to try. Take at least some rough measurements; the plat of survey for your property — the diagram made by a professional surveyor — is a fine tool, but it's not necessary the heart of your planning.
Classes are a sure cure for Chicago-winter cabin fever, especially if they involve gardening you can do indoors, such as the "Glass Jar Terrarium Workshop," or "Grow Orchids on Your Windowsill." When you attend any class where you make or plant something, be sure to bring all the required materials and tools listed in the class description.
You may approach a new skill with more confidence if you see the process close-up in a class such as "Starting From Seed." Take the chance to touch and feel — what is the texture of seed-starting mix and what does it feel like when it's properly moist? Don't be shy about asking questions or asking to have terminology explained. Or ask the instructor afterward. Teachers want you to succeed, so they'll be happy to clear up any confusion.
Taking a class is an excellent aid to thinking through a big project before you plug in the power tools. For example, the two-Saturday series on "Raised Bed Gardening" could prevent a lot of regrets and headaches.
The Garden's family classes offer ways for children and grownups to have hands-on, out-of-the-house fun while learning about where food comes from and how where plants grow affects how they grow.
For those whose special interest is vegetables, the Garden's Windy City Harvest program offers Saturday workshops at the Arturo Velasquez Institute, 2800 S. Western Ave. in Chicago.
Not all classes are about gardens.
It can be especially rewarding to take a winter bird walk or nature walk with someone who really knows his stuff and can point out subtleties you might miss. It's most enjoyable if you're snugly dressed. Selinger points out that even indoor classes may include a walk outdoors, where you may see familiar garden features with new eyes in light of what you've learned. "We use the whole garden as a campus," Selinger says. So check class descriptions carefully and be sure to wear the right shoes.
The most important advice about taking Garden classes, though, is to register early. Classes are popular and fill up fast. If you don't get your first choice, consider something completely different. There's always something new to learn.
Beth Botts is a garden writer and speaker who lives and gardens in Oak Park, Illinois.