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Easy To Grow Vegetables For A First Time Gardener, Part One

Which are easy to grow vegetables for first time gardeners? The question is debatable, partly because the answer depends on which climate you live in. But unless you live at one of the poles or in a tropical area, there are several vegetables that are generally easier to grow than others.

In this article, I’m going to talk about the three that beginning gardeners should start with. Why only three? Because when you start small and slow, then you have much more success, and you’re much more likely to keep gardening next year.

Get the basics down first

If you’re serious about growing your own food, you have to prepare your garden correctly before you sow any seeds or transplant any seedlings. If you don’t, trying to grow even the most forgiving of vegetables can end up being an exercise in frustration.

The first thing to do is to make sure your vegetable garden site will receive at least six hours of sun for fruiting plants (tomato, squash, cucumber, pepper, etc.), and at least four hours of sun for leafy plants and root vegetables such as carrots and turnips.

The second thing is to make sure your soil is well-amended. Avoid tilling it at all cost, because that disturbs the soil biology which help your crops to be healthy and produce the best they can.

How do you avoid tilling? Cut the grass or weeds covering your garden site as short as you can, then layer cardboard or several layers of newspaper over the area. Water this paper layer, also known as “sheet mulch”, then on top of that pile six to twelve inches of whatever kind of organic matter you can get your hands on – dried leaves, grass clippings, compost, kitchen scraps, seed-free weeds, and so on.

Water every time you’ve got three to four inches piled up, and water again just before covering it.

Cover it up with either more cardboard, or biodegradable black plastic mulch, using rocks or bricks to weigh them down. This will keep weed seeds from falling into the organic material, and will keep mice from building nests inside it.

If you use the black plastic, it will have the additional benefit of helping the organic matter underneath it to break down more quickly.

After a four- to twelve-month period, depending on whether you used the black plastic and what kind of material you used on top of the sheet mulch, the organic matter will have turned into soil. This soil will be rich with nutrients and soil micro-organisms, as well as be easier to work than the native soil.

Now that you know how to prepare a garden bed that will produce happy plants, let’s get onto the first three easy to grow vegetables for first time gardeners.

#1: Lettuce.

Red romaine lettuce in raised bed.

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, and will take a freeze down to about twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a mild-summer climate, you may be able to grow crispy, sweet lettuce all summer.

If you live in a hot-summer (mostly 85-degree-Fahrenheit and hotter temperatures) climate, you have to plant the lettuce two months before the consistent eighty-degree-plus temperatures hit, or it will bolt and get bitter before you have a chance to harvest it.

On the other hand, you’ll be able to grow lettuce from late fall to early winter, and late winter to mid-spring. Years when you have a mild winter, you’ll be able to grow lettuce all winter long.

Sow seeds or transplants three to four inches apart. If you sow seeds, sow them one-fourth to one-eight inch under the soil’s surface. Also, you’ll need to keep the top of the soil moist until they germinate. This is true of any kind of seed that you sow.

In addition, until they’re about three inches tall, seedlings of any kind of plant need more frequent watering than the larger plants (say, when the top half inch of soil or less has dried). So do transplants. Since they need a week or two for their roots to get established, water them the same as for small seedlings.

The one trick to growing lettuce is to keep the soil slightly moist at all times, even when the plants get mature. If lettuce doesn’t get enough water, the leaves might turn bitter even before the plant begins to bolt. So every day or two, go out and test the soil where your lettuce is growing, and give your plants some water if the soil has gotten dry a half inch deep. Mulching around the plants with wood chips will help keep the soil moist.

If slugs are a problem where you live, sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the plants once or twice a week, or after it rains. Or you can use the old beer trap. Sink shallow containers (such as lids to storage containers) into the ground and fill them with beer. The slugs like beer better than anything you have in the garden, and will drown themselves trying to consume it.

#2: Kale.

Volunteer kale plant under one of our peach trees. I had already harvested several leaves before taking this photo.

Kale is one of the easiest vegetables for beginning gardeners because it is so low-maintenance. It is cold-hardy, somewhat drought-tolerant and has only three pests that I know of: grasshoppers, aphids, and cabbage worms. I’ll get to them in a minute.

In my experience, kale can survive temperatures as low as the mid-teens (F), and can tolerate warmer temperature than lettuce before bolting. If you live in a hot-summer climate and want to grow kale in the summer, you may be able to prevent it from bolting by planting it in an area where it won’t get afternoon sun.

Sow seeds about a quarter inch deep, or plant transplants, about a foot apart for bushier kale varieties. Dinosaur, or lacinto, kale can be planted four inches apart because their growth habit is more narrow.

If you’re an urban or suburban gardener, the only pests you’re likely to have with kale are aphids and cabbage moths. Both urban and rural gardeners can prevent an aphid infestation in one of two ways.

First, they can make sure not to grow kale into the hot summer weather. Or, as I stated earlier, grow your leafy greens in a place where they will get morning sun but afternoon shade.

Second, grow sunflowers around the edges of your garden. Above all other plants, aphids love sunflowers the most. Even better, aphids can’t harm sunflowers as they can your dark, leafy green crops.

If all else fails, you can spray the plants with a liquid soap solution (one tablespoon soap per gallon of water) every day until the aphids appear to be under control.

Grasshoppers are the bane of a rural gardener’s existence when it comes to the cabbage-family crops such as kale…especially for vegan gardeners, who won’t have any chickens around to eat up the bugs. If you’re vegan and live in the country, your young kale will probably be eaten down to the ground before it even has a chance to grow.

How to prevent this destruction by the tiny green bug? Cover your kale.

We have three two-by-three-by-three-foot cages made of PVC pipe and beetle netting. This covers six square feet of kale and will keep both the grasshoppers and cabbage moths away.

Protective cage made out of PVC pipe and beetle netting, covering broccoli that’s going to seed.

Or, you can bend 1/2-inch PVC into hoops, attach them to sides of a raised bed (or insert them over pieces of rebar stuck into the ground), then cover the hoops with lightweight row cover.

Once the plants grow to at least five inches high and the leaves start to grow to hand-width proportions, you can uncover them if you want. The grasshoppers will still eat them, but you’ll end up with just a hole here and there rather than the entire plant disappearing overnight.

You may, however, still end up with cabbage worms if you uncover them. Then you’ll need to either check for them every three days or so, and if you find any, either pick them off by hand or spray them with peppermint or orange essential oil diluted in water.

#3: Potatoes.

Potato plant in mulch.

If you’ve read a typical gardening book that explains how to grow potatoes, you might not think it’s a particularly easy to grow vegetable for a first time gardener. Well, that’s because most gardening books make it sound like rocket science, with all the constant digging and hilling to make sure the greens don’t overgrow to the detriment of the tuber production (because if you don’t reduce the green growth, the plant will put its energy into producing more greens, rather than tubers).

The same books tell you not to plant potatoes until all danger of frost is passed.

But there’s another method that make growing potatoes a piece of cake. That method is to bury the seed potatoes in mulch. Here’s how you do it.

First, set an entire seed potato on top of the soil.

That’s right, you don’t need to cut it up.

And when I say to set it on top of the soil, I’m assuming it’s well-amended and therefore nutritious. If not, you should put a couple inches of compost on the soil first, then set the potato on top of the compost.

Second, cover the potato with eight to twelve inches of straw or wood chips (definitely twelve inches if you’re using straw, as it’s not as dense as the wood chips and will decompose more quickly).

Third, walk away.

That’s it. No watering, no “hilling.” After a month or so, start checking to see if any green growth has emerged from the mulch. About two months from piling the mulch on top of the potato, carefully pull back some of the mulch to see how big the tubers are. You can harvest them as new, small potatoes, or let them grow larger.

Speaking of frost…When you plant potatoes under mulch, you can plant them before the last average frost date. In fact, in some areas you can bury the potatoes in mulch in the fall, and then harvest them the next spring.

You just have to be careful if you plant them while your area is still experiencing freezing temperatures. If the greens pop out of the mulch, a freeze will kill them off, and that may or may not destroy the sprout. More greens may grow back once it warms up again, but it’s not a guarantee.

On the other hand, if you plant potatoes in late summer and they mature sometime around the first frost of the year, you don’t need to harvest them all, as you’d have to if you were growing them in soil. But you might want to throw some extra mulch on top of them to be sure they don’t get frost damage while they’re waiting for you to harvest them.

Perhaps the best part about this method of growing potatoes (also known as the “Back To Eden” method) is the harvesting. No digging into the dirt! No messing up your hands or gloves, no accidentally breaking potatoes with a shovel. All you have to do is remove the mulch.

Some potatoes may grow into the soil, but not many, and not very deep.

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There you have it! Three easy to grow vegetables for a first time gardener! But I’m not done. Click here to learn about five more easy-to-grow veggies!

Until then, happy homesteading. 🙂

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