You’ve decided to take up gardening as a new hobby – first off, props to you!
The backyard vegetable garden was a staple of North American homes just a couple generations ago, and the fact that we’ve largely abandoned this practice as a culture is a detriment to us all.
Today the backyard grower and the hobby farmer are a rarity on the landscape, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the quality of commercial produce has plummeted at the same time.
If you’ve never had a homegrown handful of spinach, how could you know that the stuff from the store is bland, limp, and discolored?
If you’ve never plucked a spicy-hot turnip straight from the ground and taken a bite, how would you know that the root veggies from the supermarket are shriveled, tasteless, and months old?
Getting started as a new gardener can be very intimidating; after all, there is a lifetime of knowledge to acquire, and it’s hard to figure out where to begin. But once you’ve tasted your first fresh veggies from your own garden, you’ll kick yourself for not starting sooner, and you’ll want to double down in your efforts. Good – you should!
In your first season as a gardener, your focus should be on the small wins, the crops that perform well with minimal care and cultivation required on your part. Many of these quick-growing crops will allow you to obtain a yield in just a month or two, but most importantly, they’ll help you build confidence in yourself, and trust in your abilities to care for your tender baby plants.
With that in mind, I’ve compiled this list of my 6 favorite vegetables to recommend to the first-year gardener. Each of these crops can be direct-seeded, meaning you don’t have to start the seeds indoors before planting; and none require any kind of pruning, trellising, or complicated harvesting—all you have to do is sow the seed, wait, and eat! What could be simpler than that?
1. Swiss Chard
If you ask me, Swiss chard is the very first leafy green vegetable that every grower ought to start with.
Chard is a hardy, hearty green that can tolerate hot and cold weather very well, and it won’t “bolt”—produce seeds—when the heat of summer sets in, as other more tender greens will. There also aren’t many pests or diseases that will mess with it.
You can plant in spring, summer, and fall, and in more mild climates you can even let it over-winter and watch it resprout for you the following spring (though as a biennial it will soon go to seed after reappearing, at which point you’ll want to ditch it and plant more).
Chard isn’t picky about the soil that you grow it in, and it also does exceptionally well in pots, if your growing space is limited.
Sow the seeds directly in the garden two or three weeks before your last frost date in the spring. You can plant again in midsummer for a fall crop, and early in the fall for a winter crop.
Each “seed” is actually a pod that contains many tiny seeds within it, so you’re almost guaranteed to get a viable seedling out of every pod you sow.
Plant each pod about 3 inches apart to start, roughly 1/4” deep (don’t stress too much about the depth—just make sure it’s underground, not too deep, but fully covered).
Once your seeds sprout and your seedlings are a couple inches tall, it’s time to thin them – while eating the plants that you cull, of course. As they grow larger and closer to one another, continue to thin them out until you reach a spacing of about 10-12 inches. From there, your only job is to harvest leaves as needed.
Harvest by picking or cutting the outside leaves and work your way inward. If you only harvest as needed, the plant will continue to produce new leaves from the inside out, and the central stalk will slowly grow taller and taller.
The mighty (and often misunderstood) radish may just be the fastest and easiest plant you will ever grow.
They germinate and mature in as little as three weeks’ time, and take up so little space that it’s not even necessary to devote a space in your garden to them – simply interplant them between slower-growing crops, and you’ll end up harvesting them before they get in the way.
In addition to being a simple and nutritious root crop for you, radishes—particularly the long and fat ‘daikon’ types—are also great for helping to break up compacted soil. This makes them especially useful in new garden spaces.
Radishes are primarily a cool-weather plant, but their super speedy life cycle means that you can grow several crops in quick succession in spring and fall.
As with other root crops, radishes prefer loose, somewhat sandy soil with plenty of organic matter that will allow them to grow and swell underground – but they’ll grow just about anywhere you sow them.
Plant your seeds about 1/2” deep, 1or 2 inches apart, early in spring as soon as the soil can be worked. When plants reach a couple inches tall, thin them to 4-8 inches, depending on the size of the specific variety you’re working with.
There’s a plethora of radish varieties out there, and they can vary pretty widely in terms of size and taste. So don’t be afraid to pick up a few different varieties to find out what you like best!
And don’t limit yourself to just the roots: radish greens are great for sautéing and stir-frying, and if any of your plants go to seed, you can harvest and eat the seed pods as well.
Few vegetables come in as many varied shapes and sizes as lettuce, which makes it a fun—and easy—crop to experiment with each season.
Lettuces are cool-weather crops that do best in spring and fall – they’ll start to bolt once temperatures climb up into the 70s, and then the flavor becomes much too bitter to enjoy.
You can start lettuce seeds indoors to get a jump on the season, but it’s really not necessary. They will tolerate temperatures down into the 20s, so you can direct seed in the garden about as soon as the soil can be worked in late winter/early spring.
Spacing will vary between varieties, but one foot is pretty standard. Of course, as with other leafy greens, you can eat ‘em as you thin ‘em, so don’t worry if you plant too close together.
I tend to plant lettuce in the same way that I plant radishes, which is to say that I don’t designate a “lettuce-only” bed in the garden. I just stick ‘em in any open spot where I know they’ll have enough room to do their thing: in between broccoli, in the spaces where tomatoes and peppers will go later – wherever!
Lettuce doesn’t mind some shade, and if you want to grow it into the summer then you will likely need to shade it from the full heat and sun of the day.
Beyond being a simple, confidence-building crop, lettuce is also great for learning about succession planting because you probably won’t want to harvest all of your lettuce at the same time.
Try planting a handful of seeds now, then wait a few weeks and plant again. Timing your successions is an art that changes with the seasons, but don’t be afraid to play around and see what happens!
Its trendiness as a “superfood” may be wearing thin, but kale’s nutritional value and ease of growing make it a staple in just about any garden, and an excellent plant for the beginning gardener.
Like lettuce, kale is a cool-weather crop that can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked in early spring. Sow your seeds about 1/2” deep, and plan on spacing your plants about 18” apart. You’ll be tempted to crowd them when they’re small, but give them enough space and your kale plants can grow surprisingly large.
It takes two months or less to mature, and you’ll want to time this so that your kale reaches maturity before summer really sets in. Many varieties can survive the summer in most North American climates, but in hotter places the leaves will become rather tough and not quite as palatable.
It’s a good idea to mulch around your kale, because the roots are fairly shallow and can dry out quickly. This is also a good idea for helping your crop survive later into the winter – and if you don’t pull ‘em out of the ground at the end of the season, there’s a good chance the roots will overwinter and resprout first thing next spring.
Harvest just as you would chard, by picking the outer leaves as needed.
If you can grow chard, lettuce, and/or kale, then you can definitely grow spinach. It’s a cool-weather crop and so it does best in spring and fall, but unlike the more tender greens, spinach is well suited to overwintering in the garden.
You can plant directly into the ground as soon as the soil is thawed in late winter/early spring, or you can get a jumpstart on the spring by sowing a crop of spinach in late fall.
It will sit patiently in the ground through the winter, not growing much but not dying either, until the landscape begins to thaw out. When the weather warms in late winter, simply pick off the leaves that have been damaged by frost and watch your spinach spring to life!
Whether spring or fall, sow your spinach seeds about 1/2” deep and around 2 inches apart. Once they develop their first set of true leaves, you can thin them to 6-8 inches. (You are eating all of these baby plants that you’re thinning, right?)
As with lettuce, spinach is great for learning about succession planting. Try planting your successive crops at two-week intervals, and tweak from there as needed. Once May arrives you won’t want to sow any more spinach, because it will most likely bolt before it reaches maturity.
For harvesting you’ve got two options: pluck off the outer leaves like you would with chard or kale, or cut right at the base of the plant like head lettuce and take the whole thing with you back to the kitchen.
The trusty turnip is perhaps one of the most overlooked and underappreciated vegetables out in the world today. As I pointed out in the introduction to this article, I think the turnip’s bad reputation is mostly due to the sorry excuse for a root that we find at the supermarket these days, which scarcely resembles what this delicious and nutritious veggie can be.
In fact, turnips were the first crop that I ever harvested in my first season as a gardener. I watched as my gardening mentor plucked one out of the ground, wiped some dirt off, and took a big meaty bite right there in the field. I didn’t even know you could eat the things raw back then – such was the depth of my ignorance! – and I was nothing short of amazed when I bit into one myself and discovered a sharp, peppery sweetness unlike anything I’d ever tasted before.
Turnips are cool-weather crops that can be planted as early as you care to work outside in the spring, but they do especially well in fall and even early winter plantings.
Like other root veggies, they really appreciate a loose, well-draining soil that’s high in organic matter, so definitely work some compost and/or peat moss into the planting site if you have any available.
The seeds are incredibly tiny and not much fun to work with, but you will want to plant them about 1/4” deep and space them about 2 or 3 inches apart if you can manage.
Thin as needed until you get to an ideal spacing of about 8-12 inches, depending on the variety. When it's time to harvest (give 'em at least 4 weeks, or more in cooler weather), don't ditch the greens! They're great sautéed or in soup.