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The Crisper Whisperer's Edible Garden: 15 Easy Vegetables to Grow

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[Photograph: Carolyn Cope]

Last week in our series on how to grow an edible garden, we talked about the basics of getting ready to plant. This week, for beginning gardeners, here are 15 of the easiest edible plants to grow.

Your mileage may vary based on your hardiness zone, soil and sun conditions, and ability to control pests. But for at-home organic gardeners looking for a lot of bang for their time, energy, and knowledge buck, these 15 foods are a good place to start. Many of these plants do well when started from seed, especially in climates with longer growing seasons. That said, many are also easy to find as starters. Whether you're planting seeds or starters, they should come with specific instructions about soil pH, when and how far apart to plant, how much water and sun they need, and when to harvest.

1. Herbs

Herbs—especially basil, cilantro, parsley, chives, and rosemary—will grow well almost anywhere. They're easily planted in a good-quality organic potting soil in smallish containers (12 inches deep by 12-inch diameter is plenty big), or plant them right in the ground around the perimeter of larger plants. You can't beat herbs for livening up your cooking. And given the prices some markets charge for small quantities of herbage, growing them yourself will save a whole lot of money. You can't beat the grow-it-yourself bang for buck ratio.

2. Tomatoes

If you live in a slightly cooler climate, tomatoes do best when put in the ground as starters or small plants (which you can either buy or plant from seed indoors). Once they're in the ground in a spot with full sun, many varieties will be extremely prolific. For a strong root system, plant starters deeply, burying the stem up to the lowest leaves. The stems can sprout roots all along their length.

3. Radishes

Radishes grow quickly and easily in the spring and fall. They can be ready to eat in about a month from the time you plant seeds.

4. Zucchini

Zucchini grow so prolifically that they're the butt of many a gardener's joke. ("The only time we lock our doors around these parts is during zucchini season.") One or two plants should cut it for most people. The blossoms are as delicious as the squash.

5. Potatoes

To grow potatoes, plant a potato. Seriously. You can buy seed potatoes in many varieties or even choose an organic potato at the market, cut a few chunks that have eyes, let them dry out for a few days, and plant them. Potatoes do best in raised beds with lots of nutrients in the soil. You can harvest some when they're tiny or wait until the end of the season when plants start to dry out for larger potatoes.

6. Onions

Like potatoes, onions do best in a raised bed. You can grown them from "sets," small onions saved from the prior season, or from seedlings.

7. Peas

Nothing beats peas for growing with kids. Both shorter and taller varieties like to climb. Plant early in the season on both sides of a trellis, in well-draining soil. By the time it gets warm, you'll be shelling away.

8. Lettuces

Lettuce comes in so many varieties that you're sure to find one that meets your growing and eating needs. When it's very hot, most lettuces need some shade. Since they grow close to the ground, they're perfect to plant in the shade cast by taller plants like tomatoes and beans.

9. Beans

Like peas, most beans like to grow up. They can do well when seeds are planted directly into warm soil with something to climb. Many bean varieties produce for weeks and weeks. They need full sun and plenty of water at the base.

10. Kale

Kale prefers cooler temperatures and cool, wet soil but is otherwise unfussy. Start seeds more than a month before the last frost, since it takes a long time to produce full-grown plants. Start cutting leaves from the bottom, and kale should produce prolifically.

11. Tomatillos

Tomatillos like it hot, but they'll grow well in many climates and soil conditions, at least for a short season. If you live in a cooler climate, start seed indoors or purchase starters. Like tomatoes, they want something to climb.

12. Broccoli

Broccoli does well in climates with cooler nights and warm days. Since it is frost-hardy, you can plant it twice per season, putting starters in the ground once a couple of weeks before the last frost and again six to eight weeks before the first fall frost. It grows tall, so position it where it won't shade other plants.

13. Peppers

Whether hot or sweet, peppers do best when planted in the ground as starters. They like warmth. Pick peppers at any size. As long as you pick a few early, the plant should be stimulated to produce plenty of fruit.

14. Carrots

Grown in raised beds or even deep containers with loose, non-rocky soil, carrots do well. They like full sun but relatively cool soil, and consistent moisture.

15. Spinach

Spinach grows well in cool weather, both spring and fall, but not so well in the heat of summer. If you want a lot, you have to plant a lot. You can harvest it like lettuce, either by picking the largest leaves when you're ready to eat them, or by cutting all the leaves back to leave about one inch of plant in the ground. If you choose the latter method, spinach will grow back several times throughout the season.

What About You?

Which edible plants do you have good luck with? Share your thoughts in the comments!

About the author: Carolyn Cope writes Umami Girl and manages a CSA in New Jersey.

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