As an individual starting her own garden for the first time after years of helping in my family’s garden while growing up, I had a pretty good idea of which plants would be best to grow with the limited space I had that would As an individual starting her own garden for the first time after years of helping in my family’s garden while growing up, I had a pretty good idea of which plants would be best to grow with the limited space I had that would still produce a lot of food for us to eat and preserve.
I soon realized though, that a lot of people start their first garden and while they plant some of the same plants I would recommend, they often grow too much and become over whelmed or they grow some plants that need some “extra” care and become discouraged when they don’t thrive. Obviously, I’m still learning new tricks of the trade everyday as well, but here is a good starter list that I’ve grown up seeing succeed year after year to stock my family’s pantry.
When you’re first gardening, in order to feel successful and not discouraged in the first year, its best to plant things that tend to be prolific, easy to care for, and hardy in your garden zone. I have always resided in zones 4-5, so most of my recommendations are for that general growing season and frost dates (if you need more info on grow zones & frost dates, check out my blog post on it!). You also should consider what you’re going to eat. If you don’t like green beans, you probably shouldn’t plant them even if I recommend them… Remember, these are just suggestions!
The plants I would recommend for a first-time gardener are:
- Green beans
- Winter squash types
All of these plants are either relatively easy to care for, tend to produce a large harvest, or both! The only plants that don’t produce a lot of substance are the cabbage, broccoli (depending on type), and cauliflower because these plants tend to produce a “head” rather than multiple fruits/roots.
So let’s start with green beans. You can choose to plant a bush variety which will reach a determined height or a pole bean that can climb a trellis. My family tends to choose bush beans because when trying the pole beans, they didn’t seem to maybe produce as much as the bush variety (this is just our experience with one variety). If you’re tight on space though, the pole bean will take up smaller square footage in the garden allowing you to plant more overall.
My best recommendation for a trellis is a cattle panel that you can place next to your row of pole bean seeds. When the direct sow seeds sprout and begin to grow, they’ll grow up the trellis (maybe with a little coaxing)!
Green beans tend to be pretty prolific and you can snap the beans and can them (if you have a pressure canner) or eat them fresh after you boil them. Once the plants start producing, you do have to pick the bean pods off the plant about every 2-3 days so that it keeps producing, so keep that in mind.
Tomatoes are a huge favorite in a lot of people’s gardens and it’s no surprise. Depending on the variety, they can produce lots of fruits for either canning, eating fresh, or even frozen. The great thing about tomatoes is that they can be canned in a water bath canner rather than a pressure canner simply because they contain a good deal of acid. If you do wish to can your tomatoes, then I suggest you choose a red or pink variety as these are the most acidic and will be the safest to can at home. Regardless, when canning you should add some extra acid of some type.
We most commonly use Romas, Early Girls, Amish Pastes, etc. Try to pick types that have a decent amount of disease resistance! A common tip for tomatoes in the garden is to give them support to grow up and also for protection from harsh winds. Not only will this keep your fruit off the ground but your plants healthier. This year I plan on using my mom’s trick and placing a cattle panel on both sides of my tomato plant row. The plants can grow up while still having support.
If you live where there is a shorter growing season, you probably want to consider either starting your own seeds inside 8-10 weeks before transplanting or picking up a few plant starts when the time comes to plant your garden. If you don’t have these starts and try to plant from seed, the plants might not mature in time to produce fruit for you… If you only plan to plant a few plants (and aren’t quite ready to start your own seeds) than purchasing from a greenhouse might be your best option. But if you want a lot of tomato plants, then starting seeds early might be the most cost effective route.
Potatoes are just easy. You can get seed potatoes from a lot of different garden supply stores. Then you just pop them in the ground while following the planting instructions, water to keep them alive, and at the end of the year you should have a bounty under each plant. Each seed potato has several “eyes” which is where the sprout comes up. If you want to get multiple plants from one potato, you can cut the potato into pieces that each contain an eye and plant them separately therefore multiplying your assets!
When you go to dig up the potatoes at the end of the growing season, try your best not to stab any potatoes by giving plenty of clearance around the base of the plant (about a foot) and then sink your garden fork or spade into the soil and turn up the dirt. Don’t wash them but do keep them in a cool dark place for storage. We’ve kept potatoes all winter and well into the next summer before!
Cucumbers are a wonderful first-time choice. They are prolific, fairly hardy, and can be eaten fresh or canned into pickles (if you choose the correct variety). I suggest choosing a pickling cucumber for this reason – they’re multipurpose. And these are easy to plant because all you do is purchase the seed and direct sow them into the ground!
My best tip is to plant them in a mound doing 2-3 seeds per mound. They are water hogs so make sure not to underwater! The reward though is lots of cucumbers. These can also be grown up a trellis, however I haven’t tried that yet… it’s in my plans for this year so stay tuned!
Zucchini are probably the easiest thing to grow and get lots of fruit from. Many people enjoy “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) and shredding the gourds to put in breads, muffins, and other baked goods however I’ve also seen casseroles with zucchini as a main ingredient and we have enjoyed eating fried zucchini chips.
To plant them, place about 2 seeds at the appropriate depth in a small dirt mound and give plenty of water. They are a bush plant, so they won’t care much for a trellis. I’m not going to lie… it’s pretty hard to mess up zucchini…
Winter squash, like zucchini, are kind of hard to mess up. You plant them the same way and as long as you give them space to vine out and water, they tend to produce lots of squash that can be kept in a cool dry place and used throughout the winter. You tend to harvest these squashes in the fall, hopefully before the first solid freeze, and usually after the stems are dry and brittle. A caveat with these is that they really do like to vine out so be aware… My favorites are acorn squash and butternut squash but there are a lot of great options! I’m trying pie pumpkins this year and can’t wait to be making fresh pumpkin pies!
Any type of lettuce and greens are also really easy to grow. Many lettuce types you can grow in a row and cut/harvest as needed and as they grow. These types are different than head lettuce and tend to be less crisp but still a delicious option (in my past experiences). They also do well in pots! Head lettuce is also fairly easy to grow, you just don’t get quite as much overall bounty per square foot. They tend to be cool weather crops so planting early is your best option, but you can plant later in the growing season and harvest more towards fall as well depending on when your last frost date is and how cold hardy the variety you choose is.
I really hope this all helps! Getting into the gardening world can be so overwhelming at first. Don’t get hung up on everything being perfect. Grab some seeds or starts, follow the basic directions on the package, and don’t quit after one year. My best advice is to start with some basics and grow from there!!!