Successful Vegetables: Our Top 10 Crops for Beginner Gardeners
There’s a lot of information on the back of seed packets that can help you get started with your first garden season, but it won't tell you which crops to grow as a beginner, and comparing all the options can still be bewildering. Don’t worry, you’re in good company—gardening is on the rise, and there are lots of folks out there just like you, asking themselves the same thing: What should I grow?
My first piece of advice is, grow what you like to eat. Not a fan of broccoli? Don’t grow it. Crazy about fresh salads? Start with lettuce. Never grown a leaf in your life? Try the crops on this list, omitting any that you don’t have space for or don’t like to eat.
My second tip is to keep it simple. It might seem ideal to have a huge variety of vegetables and something new to try every night, but each crop has its own preferences and needs, and it's easy to become overwhelmed trying to keep track of it all. To avoid this scenario, keep it simple: Start with just 4, 5 or 6 crops you really dig, learn as much as you can about how to grow them well, write important dates on the calendar, and keep notes along the way. By next season you’ll have some real data to work with, and will have a much better sense of what to grow and how much garden you can handle. Ready to get started? Make a grid like the one below to plan what, when and where to sow, then check out our 10 best crops for beginners.
1) Peas & Pole Beans are very simple to grow, and can be great fun for kids. Simply install your trellis (like a teepee of bamboo canes or a piece of chicken wire), plant your seeds and keep watered till you see them pop out of the ground. Once they’re producing, harvest daily to lengthen the harvest. Peas should be planted as early as possible in the spring, while beans shouldn’t be planted until the soil has warmed to 60 degrees. Try Cascadia snap peas and Blue Coco, Rattlesnake or Kentucky Wonder beans.
2) Chard & Kale are great, easy-to-grow sources of cooking and salad greens. You can direct sow them in the ground in the spring, or start transplants 4 weeks before planting out about 2 weeks before your last frost date. When the plants are about 1 foot tall, you can start harvesting the outer (older) leaves, and continue harvesting long into the fall! You can even grow these in spots that have partial shade (with only 4-6 hours of sun per day). All are equally easy to grow—try large Lacinato kale for soups and salads, Vates for a compact curly leaf and Red Russian for a tender steaming green.
3) Radishes are one of the most gratifying garden crops because they germinate and grow so rapidly. Simply direct sow any time of year, water well, and harvest in 30 days! Want to grow carrots? Mix some radish seed with your carrot seed when you sow – the radishes will mark where the slower-growing carrots were planted, and will help with thinning when you harvest them. Radishes also act like the “canary in the coal mine” of soil health—if you find your radishes are growing thin and spindly roots without forming radishes, your soil is nutrient-deficient. Pull them up, add a balanced compost or seaweed fertilizer, and sow again. Try classic red Cherry Belle or gourmet favorite D’Avignon.
4) Baby Lettuce and Salad Mixes are another satisfying garden crop. Just direct sow seeds in a 2-3” wide band, water well, and harvest in 30-40 days. To harvest, take a sharp knife or scissors and cut the leaves about 1” above the soil line (you might even be able to harvest a second cut off the row if the weather is cool and you allow the plants to re-grow.)
5) Basil is an easy and delicious herb to grow. Simply direct sow in containers, or in the garden once the soil has warmed to 60 degrees. Allow the plants to grow to about 8” tall before harvesting individual leaves starting from the bottom up. Once the plants are about a foot tall, you can clip the tops of the plants for bigger harvests and to encourage a bushier growth habit. Try compact Genovese, larger Aroma 2 or Sweet Thai for a pretty and exotic treat.
6) Scallions are wonderfully easy to grow – just direct sow (but not too thickly – they’ll grow thin and spindly), water well, and begin harvesting in around 60 days. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil and harvest whole clumps at a time. They store exceptionally well in the fridge, and can be left to grow in the garden for months, even years at a time, especially varieties like Evergreen Hardy.
7) Summer Squash often ends up the butt of garden jokes because it’s almost too easy to grow—many gardeners have accidentally ended up with squash the size of baseball bats and had to bring their over-abundant harvests to the neighbors (this is probably how zucchini bread was invented). Simply direct sow 2-3 seeds in a mound with plenty of compost, keep well watered, and check the plants daily for ripe fruit (the fruit can grow to enormous sizes in just one or two days, so harvest early and often!) Tip: To moderate the harvest, pick unopened zucchini flowers, stuff with ricotta & parmesan and deep fry whole for a gourmet treat known in Italy as fiori di zucca.
8) Eggplant is surprisingly easy to grow, either in the garden or in large containers. The key is plenty of sun and choosing varieties that are earlier with smaller-sized fruit—we recommend Snowy, Little Finger, and Ping Tung Long for beginners. They’re convenient to cook, as well, since the non-bitter flesh can be quickly sliced for Middle Eastern dishes and Italian favorites like eggplant parmesan. We recommend starting these inside at least 6 weeks before planting out (which can start anytime after your last frost date).
9) Peppers are also quite easy, requiring little in the way of fertility or care, and they have almost no pests that bother them. The array of choices is huge—but it’s generally easier to ripen Italian-type sweet peppers and hot peppers than the bigger Bell peppers. Some of the earliest, easiest varieties to grow are Purple Beauty, Sweet Chocolate, Oranos F1 and Stocky Red Roaster. Hot peppers, like Ring-O-Fire, Hungarian Hot Wax, and Early Jalapeno are also very productive and easy to grow. We recommend starting peppers inside at least 6 weeks before planting out (which can start anytime after your last frost date).
10) Tomatoes come with a caveat—they can be very easy, if you choose varieties and methods that are easy. The simplest varieties to grow are disease-resistant and determinate, which means they grow to a particular height, produce a bunch of fruit, and then stop. They don’t require pruning, and can make do with just a stake or tomato cage for support. In this category choose Gold Nugget, Bellstar or Iron Lady F1. For a bigger, longer harvest, choose cherries like Esterina F1, Black Cherry or Bing, and salad-sized varieties like Glacier, Moskvich and Crimson Sprinter. For these semi-determinate and indeterminate varieties, try the World’s Best Tomato Trellis. We recommend starting tomatoes inside at least 6 weeks before planting out (which can start anytime after your last frost date).
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