When you don't even know what color your thumb is, the thought of growing your own food for the first time can feel pretty intimidating. But not to worry—there's a wide variety of easy foods to grow if you've never gardened before. Here are seven fruits, vegetables and herbs that will go from seed to side dish with little help, along with growing tips, harvest know-how and must-try recipes.
Whether you have a few acres or just a few square feet, basil grows just as well in a large garden as in a small container. Plant outdoors after the threat of frost has passed, or indoors on a windowsill. Provide plenty of direct sunlight, and keep the soil uniformly moist. No fertilizer is needed; in fact, it can alter the flavor. To harvest, simply cut leaves starting at the top of the plant and working your way down. Sprinkle a few leaves atop your favorite Italian dishes or create a summery Spaghetti Squash with Roasted Tomatoes, Beans & Almond Pesto.
Historically, creating the right pH for blueberries has been difficult for many home gardeners, while raspberries and strawberries quickly spread and become unwieldy. However, new varieties designed to be grown in containers alleviate these pain points and make growing berry plants as easy as putting them in a pot. Simply follow the directions on the plant tag, place in full sun, keep the soil moist and harvest when the berries pull away easily from the plant. One plant will produce the perfect amount for topping cereal, snacking and making Mini Berry Cream Pies.
3. Green Beans
Green beans can grow virtually anywhere with at least eight hours of sunlight and 1-2 inches of water per week. Spacing requirements vary by variety, so follow the instructions on your seed packet. Flowers are your tip-off that it's almost time to harvest—wait a few days after they emerge, then pick. If you wait too long, the beans will become stringy and chewy. Enhance your green beans' fresh flavor in a Composed Bean Salad with Basil Vinaigrette.
Watch: How to Cook Fresh Green Beans
Growing lettuce from seed offers one of the quickest rewards in the gardening world: sprouts typically emerge less than two weeks after planting. Lettuce prefers cooler temperatures. Plant it in stages for a continuous harvest from early spring until early summer, then start the cycle again in late summer until frost. Simply space the seeds according to the packet instructions under roughly 1/4 inch of soil and water consistently (use a gentle hose setting so as not to disturb the just-barely-buried seeds).
To harvest, remove the entire plant at the base. Or, cut individual leaves with kitchen shears, working from the outside in, leaving the center of the plant intact to continue growing. Pair your crispy lettuce with bright, seasonal flavors in a Mixed Lettuce Salad with Cucumber Herb Vinaigrette.
Mint quickly creeps into other areas of the garden, making it a virtually can't-fail plant—the hardest part is managing your bounty. Keep it within its boundaries by harvesting frequently, cutting leaves and flowers as soon as they begin to bloom. If it does overproduce, too much mint isn't necessarily a bad thing—it means more Iced Mint Green Tea with a kick of sake, after all.
Adaptable, dependable tomatoes can thrive in large containers or in the ground. They prefer full sun and well-drained soil, and benefit from a tomato cage to keep them upright as they grow. Plant after the threat of frost has passed and give them an occasional boost of calcium to reduce the risk of blossom-end rot, a common tomato problem where the ends turn black.
Tomatoes are ripe when they reach their full color all the way around and pull away easily from the stem. Fruits harvested when green (to save them from imminent frost, for example) will eventually ripen but will lack the tangy, juicy flavor of their vine-ripened counterparts. Experiment with the wide range of heirloom varieties on the market today, and celebrate your success with a mouthwatering Herbed Tomato Gratin.
If your neighbors or co-workers bombard you with zucchini come late summer, that's because it's extremely prolific. Vines spread quickly, so be sure to plan your other plantings accordingly. Amend the soil with compost, then plant squash in mounds or clusters of approximately six seeds each, roughly two feet apart. When seedlings emerge, cut back any extras until you have just three plants per cluster, and keep the soil moist. Zucchini can be harvested at any length, but they reach peak flavor when just a few inches long. Spiralize and enjoy Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Pesto & Shrimp—and share all the extras with your friends.
Watch: How to Cook Zucchini 4 Ways