I’ve been there, the seed catalogues come in January and you get all excited about what to grow this year in your garden. It can be hard to figure out where to start, so I thought I’d share my recommendations on five easy vegetables to grow in your garden in your first year. The biggest mistake new gardeners make is not starting small: They have too big of a garden, they try to grow too many things, and in the end they get burnt out.
My advice after teaching people how to start gardening for years is to only start with a few things. Three to five types of vegetables in a single variety of each. This will give you a really good foundation to start your gardening journey.
Grow What You Eat
A very common this that I see newbie gardeners do is get excited by what they could grow, but they may not really like things or they try new stuff before they find out if they really like them. If you were to look in your kitchen right now, what vegetables are you purchasing from the store? Many of those could be good contenders for your first year’s short list.
There will be some things that you buy that aren’t in season or are more complicated to grow, but many of what most people like will be on our list below. So consider what you eat, choose the easier ones to grow and let’s stack the deck in our favor!
Get Your Garden Prepared
It’s important to not just think about the vegetables that you’re going to grow, but to also think about growing good soil. Have good soil is really what makes a garden go from okay to amazing, so don’t skimp on this step. If you have never gardened before, check out our post on how to prepare your soil for a vegetable garden.
From Seeds Or From Seedlings
There are some things that do really well from seeds and some things that starting with a seedling is the way to go for first time gardeners. Seedlings are simply very young plants that have been started ahead of time indoors, that you later transfer outdoors into your garden.
It can be tempting in your first year or two to in addition of starting a garden to also raising seedlings indoors, but my advice is to avoid this. Your first few years to learn gardening is a lot, to add learning to start seeds into seedlings is too much and you’ll just burn out.
Below I’ll mention which ones I’d start from seed and which ones I’d start from seedlings.
What Plants To Start With?
Here are a few of my favorite plants to start with. These are pretty easy, widely available and you can find lots of knowledge from local people and online. Start with three to five of these in a single variety. It will be tempting to choose a bunch of types of vegitables and a few varieties of each, but doing so will bring complexity, stress and a greater chance of failure. We don’t want that!
There is an old joke that I like to tell. In the city people lock their doors so people don’t steal their stuff, in the country they lock their cars so someone doesn’t leave them a bag of zucchini and squash in their front seat. What is really great about this plant is that it grows really fast, its very simple and it produces a ton of vegetables.
I’d suggest starting out with three plants of zucchini if you have a family. There will come a point where you can’t eat anymore (trust me), at that point I usually just pull the plants out of my garden and compost them. For your first year I’d start these from seedlings, they’re easy to find, cheap and makes it easy to start.
One piece of advice that I give is I’ve found that there comes a point when I start to see squash bugs on my plants. When I see more than 2 or 3 of them on a plant, I pull that plant right then and there. New gardeners will often be hesitant to prune or pull out plants, you can’t be afraid to. Squash bugs are very difficult to combat, every trick I’ve read online doesn’t do anything for my garden. So I plant a few extra than I need and then just pull the plants as soon as I see the bugs and am content with whatever squash I got to that point, usually I’m sick of it by then anyways!
These are a favorite for most people and a garden tomato can’t be beat. I would absolutely use seedlings for tomatoes. The two varieties I suggest are “Early Girls” or “Roma”. If you have short growing season I’d suggest Early Girls because they produce pretty quickly and earlier than most tomatoes.
A few notes about tomatoes: If you find that you are getting a lot of flowers, but they’re not really translating into tomatoes it’s often because they aren’t pollinating well enough. This could be because they’re aren’t enough natural pollinators like bees or Humidity is binding up the pollen. Tomatoes will often stop fruiting when it gets really hot, then start back up when summer temperatures start to wind down.
If you live in a very hot and humid area and Early Girls aren’t working for you, consider the variety “Pink Brandywine”. They produce great tomatoes that are huge and tend to fair a bit better in higher heat.
Finally know that you will need to support the tomatoes in some manner. This could be a cage, it could be a be a steak or string. My favorite way to stake these is get a 6 foot pole that is durable metal coated in plastic and then use the rolls of twist ties you can buy at the store. I find other options just don’t hold up over the years or are too cumbersome.
I’ll be the first to say these aren’t my personal favorite, but they are super easy to grow and they open up the soil some as they grow. I’ll plant these for the chickens to peck out of the dirt and for friends who like them. Radishes take between 14 and 21 days to grow full which is very fast and they are a cooler weather crop so early spring or fall is a great time for these.
These are very easy to grow from seeds and they’re very cheap to buy a lot of seeds. The seeds are very small, so what I will do is prep my bed nice and even, then just scratch the surface a little bit with the back of a garden rake. The rule of thumb for seed depth is 3 times the length of the longest dimension of the seed.
In the case of radishes this means you barley cover them if at all, just make sure you keep them nice and moist with a fine mist (not a spray). It can be easy for these to dry out, but since we plant in the cooler parts of the year it’s a little easier. For spacing I follow the same approach I use with lettuce, so read below to find out how I do it.
There are a million varieties of lettuce so it can get overwhelming. Ask around locally to see if people have favorites that do well in your area. I often just get a lettuce seed mix which is several kinds all mixed together. You loosely broadcast the seeds over a smoothed and prepared bed and lightly water.
Since we are starting from seeds, we need to know how to space them so they’re not so close that they crowd the others, but not too far that we allow for weeds or wasted space. For lettuce I typically just shake the seeds out over the entire bed as evenly as I can, then when they start to grow up to about 2 inches, I go in and pluck out some of them to make enough space. I typically go for about four inches apart from other plants, but I also try to choose the strongest ones. It doesn’t have to be perfect!
Lettuce is grown in cooler weather, so spring or fall, the heat of the summer is often too much for most varieties, but there are some options for those who live in hot climates. From seeding to harvest is about 3 weeks and you often can cut the leaves right above the soil about an inch and the lettuce will grow back another two times or so.
The two main types are “bush” or “pole” beans, the only difference really is that the pole beans need something to climb. I often just stick with bush beans because it’s less poles and structures I have to deal with. These are a great plant to start out with in your first garden.
Beans are easily started from seed and are a larger seed. Because we know the rule of thumb: plant three times the longest part of the seed, they typically get buried about an inch or so below the soil. I usually take my rake and with the handle side make a little divot, drop the seeds about 6 inches apart and then lightly brush the soil of the trough back over the seeds. Again, we don’t need to get out our ruler here!
So those are my recommendations on how to start a garden the easy way, to stack the deck in your favor and keep it all fun. In the comments let me know what you’re going to try.
- What’s on your list to plant this year?
- What tips do you have for first time gardeners?