While most vegetables are not hard to grow, there are some that are easier than others. What determines an easy-to-grow vegetable? The easiest vegetables are reliably productive with minimal effort in fairly limited spaces. This means that you are using your time and space wisely and efficiently. They also tend to be popular vegetables that are staples in cooking.
There are a couple of things to consider when growing your first vegetable garden as well. All vegetables prefer full sun and well-drained soils. Vegetables perform best when receiving at least 1 inch of rainfall or irrigation a week. And vegetable gardens need to be regularly weeded to prevent competition from weeds for light, water and nutrients. And lastly, most vegetables have fewer disease problems when rotated to a new site each year. Therefore, all vegetable gardens require planning prior to planting and regular maintenance each week during the growing season to be successful.
I should note that this list is somewhat subjective and based on what I see most novice gardeners growing well. The nice thing about growing your own vegetables is that ultimately you decide what you want to grow based on what you like to eat. If you want to grow your own radish or sweet corn (both not on my list), go for it! Otherwise, the plants that make my easy-to-grow list are tomatoes, peppers, green beans, potatoes, and zucchini.
Tomatoes are the most popular home garden vegetable. They are available in many sizes, shapes, colors, and tastes. Home-grown usually taste much better than those purchased at the grocery store. One of the hardest aspects of growing tomatoes is selecting a cultivar or two that you like. Pick a processing type like Roma for use in sauces or for canning. Select a beefsteak or similar large tomato for slicing. Plant a cherry or grape type for additions to salads. Tomatoes are grown as transplants. Transplants can either be started indoors from seeds several weeks prior to planting outdoors or purchased at garden centers and other retailers. Tomatoes are planted approximately 2 feet apart in rows. After planting, stake or cage your tomatoes. Staking or caging tomato plants helps support the plant as it grows, makes it easier to harvest the fruit, and prevents the fruits from resting on the surface of the soil where it is more susceptible to rotting. For more information on growing tomatoes, check out Tomatoes (link) from ISU Extension and Outreach.
Peppers are also incredibly versatile. There are sweet, mild, and hot types of peppers. There are red, yellow, orange, or green peppers. Once again, pick cultivars based on their intended use; stuffing, salads, sauces, salsas, etc. Many home gardeners grow bell peppers. Bell peppers are a type of sweet pepper. Bell peppers are often harvested when green and immature.
However, if you allow peppers to remain on the plant another few weeks, they will eventually turn (or mature) to red, yellow, orange, or even purple. Transplants of bell peppers are planted outdoors starting in mid-May at 1.5 to 2 feet apart in rows. Peppers benefit from small supports or staking as they often produce abundant and heavy fruit. For more information on growing peppers, check out Peppers (link) from ISU Extension and Outreach.
Green beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow. You can choose to grow a bush type or a pole type of green beans. Pole types require support or trellising while bush types do not. An advantage to growing green beans is that you can stagger plantings for a prolonged harvest. Sow seeds directly in the ground (3-4 inches apart in rows) every two weeks from mid-May to late June for a continual harvest from late July into September. Pods should be harvested regularly, every couple of days, when they are approximately pencil diameter. Plants will remain productive for several weeks if harvested frequently. There are many other types of beans that are relatively easy to grow as well. One example is dried beans which grow much like a bush bean except they are harvested at the end of the season as the pods dry on the plants. Dried beans can then be stored for months indoors.
Potatoes are grown from seed pieces, which are cut-up sections of potato tubers or small potatoes. Seed pieces or small potatoes are planted 4 inches deep and 1 foot apart from early April to mid-May. There are several cultivars of potatoes that produce small or large potatoes with white, yellow, red/pink, or purple skin or interior flesh. Potatoes can be harvested when young – for new potatoes. Or they can be harvested when the plant tops turn brown and die in late July or August. After harvest potatoes should be cured in a warm, well-ventilated environment. This allows the tubers to develop a thicker skin so that they can be stored longer. For more information on growing and curing potatoes, check out Potatoes (link) from ISU Extension and Outreach.
Lastly, most gardeners are successful in growing a summer squash called zucchini. With the popularity of zucchini noodles and zucchini breads, this is a great vegetable for novice gardeners. Zucchini can be green or yellow and it is grown from seed. Three or four seeds are sown together in “hills” directly in the garden from mid-May to early July. Hills are spaced 3-4 feet apart within rows. Home gardeners generally plant one or two extra hills as one might succumb to insect or disease before harvest. The trick with zucchini is frequent harvesting, every couple of days, while the squash are small and immature. It is amazing how quickly the zucchini can become too large and seedy. One or two zucchini plants can be incredibly productive which is why so many gardeners have zucchini to give to friends and neighbors by late summer.
There are many other vegetables that can be considered relatively easy-to-grow for novice gardeners like leaf lettuce, kale, sweet corn, winter squash, radish, and herbs like basil and cilantro. These vegetables and many others should be considered when starting your first vegetable garden.
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