A basket of easy-to-grow garden goodness. Photo by Carole Coates
In my last article. I shared gardening tips for novice gardeners, and I promised a follow-up outlining some easy crops for gardening newbies. Some are not only easy; they are fast growers, too.
Let’s face it. Some plants are much harder to nurse. It takes great diligence to protect broccoli from pests, for instance. In my wet, short growing season, tomatoes are a huge challenge and, often, a disappointment. But other plants practically do all the work for you. (Think zucchini.)
As I mentioned in my last article, the smart newbie gardener will start small. Better to grow a few things happily and well than to overwhelm yourself. Consider selecting five vegetables to grow your first year, and go for easy-to-grow vegetables. Think, too, about what you and your family like to eat.
Let’s start by breaking down the easiest crops into five broad categories you can grow without being a garden guru. You might want to select one crop from each of the categories or choose several from one category and skip another.
For details about planting times and growing conditions, check the back of the seed package, read the details in gardening catalogs, follow one of the blog sites I referenced last week, or purchase a reputable book for beginning gardeners. One of my favorites is Niki Jabbour’s Year-Round Vegetable Gardening.
These are are quick, prolific, and most often cut-and-come-again veggies. In other words, harvest by cutting an entire plant slightly above ground level and it will grow again—and again. You may get three or four cuttings from one plant. Or you can pick the outer leaves while the inner ones continue to grow. Salad greens can be planted early in the season. In fact, they prefer things a little on the cool side. You’ll have baby salad greens in as few as three weeks. For a continual supply, plant a few plants now and a few more every two-three weeks.
Arugula is one of the quickest growing salad greens and it adds complexity to your dinner salad. If you like a little bitter in your salad, this one is for you. I like to plant a mix for the maximum texture, flavor, and color. You can find premixed seed packets in most gardening catalogs. For something a little different, try, claytonia or vit (also known as corn salad or mâche).
Swiss chard and kale produce all season long, too. I find chard easier to grow because it’s not as subject to insect damage, while cabbage moth caterpillars can demolish kale almost overnight, though those pests are not as fond of curly varieties. On the other hand, kale is extremely cold-hardy, and it is hard to beat this easy-to-make kale salad. Chard can tolerate some heat but generally prefers cooler weather. With the multi-hued stems of some varieties, it is simply stunning in the garden. Those stems are edible, too. Plant in mid-spring and you can be eating baby chard in a month or so, long before it’s time to plant many crops. Kale can be planted even earlier. Harvest individual leaves and both of these nutrient-dense powerhouses will keep you in leafy greens throughout the growing season.
Snow peas, sugar snaps, and green shelling peas can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. Plant again about two months before the average first frost date in your area for a fall crop. Trellising will save your back as well as valuable garden real estate.
If you’re looking for quantity, green beans will produce all season long if you pick them before seeds mature in the pod. Unlike peas, they shouldn’t be planted until after the last frost date in spring. Green beans are typically ready for harvest in 50-60 days. Broad beans, such as lima or fava take longer—75-80 days on average.
Unless you plant a bush variety, use a trellis. Trellising is as easy as making a tepee out of bamboo or even fallen tree limbs. Lots of items which no longer serve their original purpose can be upcycled to for clever and attractive vertical gardening.
Roots and Such
Like salad greens and peas, radishes can be planted early in the season and will reward you with crunchy goodness in about three weeks. To avoid toughness, harvest when roots are the size of large marbles. Tip: while we most often think of radishes as a salad vegetable, both the roots and young leaves can be sautéed.
Garlic is super easy to grow. And to make things even better, it is planted when not much else is going on in the garden. Plant individual garlic cloves in late fall, cover with a thick layer of mulch, and wait until early summer. Remove mulch and wait some more. When half the leaves have yellowed and fallen over, it’s time to carefully dig them up. What could be easier?
Root crops such as carrots and beets don’t need much help after you’ve planted them, either. You can sow in mid-spring and again every two or three weeks for a continuous crop, harvesting young roots throughout the season. Both store well in the refrigerator crisper drawer.
Potatoes take only a little more effort. Mound soil from either side of the plants a few times during the growing season to encourage growth and protect tubers from sunlight so they don’t develop the toxin. solanine. While you can choose to pick a few along the way as new potatoes, wait until foliage has died back in fall to harvest the main crop. A real time saver.
For root crops, read up on proper curing and storage techniques to protect your crop.
Zucchini is every bit as versatile as it is prolific, making it an excellent choice for a small garden. But unless you have a large family or really, really love them, you only need a couple of plants. The same is true of that all-time summer favorite, yellow squash.
There isn't much as exciting as seeing a new vegetable appear in your garden. Photo by Carole Coates
Don’t forget about winter squash. Packed with important vitamins, they will last for months in a cool, dark spot like a basement or unheated closet, though you should check on them regularly to cull any that are going bad. It happens. Butternut squash is the best keeper.
Pumpkins are fun to grow, and they’re not just for decorating—or even holiday pies. Like butternut and other winter squash, they can be used as hearty side dishes or even meat substitutes. But their vines take up lots of space, so plant just a couple and plant them near the edge of the garden.
You may not think it, but chili with winter squash instead of meat is both delicious and filling. Winter squash can be roasted, made into muffins and quick breads, and serve as the star in soups, stews, casseroles, and winter salads. A real winner.!
Next up—fun in the garden. Stay tuned.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, and modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.