Whether one is an accomplished gardener or just starting out, sometimes deciding on the things that we want to dedicate our little garden sanctuaries to for the summer can be, well, a challenging decision!
I recall quite clearly my first season as a market gardener many years ago… I made the fatal mistake of washing away my mid-winter blue moments with a fantastic seed order catalogue where I literally ordered all the exciting varieties I could try. And then of course being left with a summer of feeling imminent pressure (and guilt) to try out all 60 different varieties of seeds I had excitedly ordered. Now, I’m not saying one shouldn’t get excited and get all out crazy and perhaps even order your 6 favourite seed company catalogues to peruse with a cup of warm herb tea in those frosty winter months. No no, please do! In fact, I would highly recommend it. It’s a real heart warmer dreaming up all the fantastic beauties one could be growing in the coming season.
What I am rather saying is it’s important as a gardener to try and be as realistic as possible about what it is that you can manage in the growing season. If you’ve never grown cutting flowers before and you want to try stick with something easy, then seriously heed the warning on those packets about ‘advanced skill set required’. There’s nothing more frustrating if you’re only starting out as a gardener and you order yourself some incredibly beautiful but very complex seeds, and then simply never succeed at germinating them- I’ve been here and done this and it really didn’t help my morale as a gardener.
Growing plants is meant to be fun and enjoyable, and is learnt with small steps, observation and moments of pure joy and achievement. I think ‘a green thumb’, is more of an intuitiveness that is developed over time. Ok, yes granted some people just have it from the start, but it can be developed as well. And therefore there is no reason to jump in the deep end of the lake before learning how to swim. So in addition to the advice about sticking with plants suited to your gardening experience, my other advice is to make a plan of what you want to be growing in the coming season, based realistically on your space availability, and a seasonal sowing, transplanting and harvesting plan. Make a list that is not overwhelmingly long, rather keep it specific and specialized. Then you will really have the chance to give your plants the time they need, and enjoy the process of learning through observation and doing what successes (and failures) you encounter along the way.
To help you on your way, we at The Green Conspiracy decided to write up a short list of 15 easy and satisfying things to grow. This list below I believe is a real winner as it gives you a nice selection of my personal favourites that are a cornerstone of my yearly garden planner. They range from super easy to medium skilled, and I hope they give you a nice starting point for inspiration.
Rocket aka. Arugula, Rucula
The easiest of all! The domestic rocket Eruca sativa is great for sowing in rows as a cut and come again variety, and gives you salad within a couple of weeks! So start this off early at the beginning of spring and the satisfaction will be guaranteed! Wild rocket Diplotaxis tenuifolia needs a bit more time, and therefore patience, but you can harvest individual leaves for months once it's established! If you pinch back the flower shoots it encourages side branching.
Definitely by far one of the easiest and most satisfying vegetables to grow- I love the rainbow Easter mix varieties you can get. Sown early and regularly you can have radishes from early spring as they only need around 6 weeks to mature in warm climates - so it’s a winner for a springtime gardening early fix.
I just love peas- the flowers and the small sugar snaps before they develop the pods in salads are one of my favourites. A note about pea shoots- they taste unbelievable in salads or you can use them to stir-frys. Also pinching the shoots out ensures a good bountiful pea harvest later. A good tip for those from cold climates is to start your peas early indoors, and by early I mean January, planting them out then at the beginning of spring as they can handle a bit of frost. In warmer climates, you can directly sow them into the ground near the end of winter.
Part of the leguminous nitrogen-fixing species, these guys are just amazing. They do two jobs in one, giving the soil nutrition and providing you with colourful beans! You can really get some beautiful varieties of both bush beans or climbers. Climbers though are my ideal variety for small spaces and home gardens, just because I love creating crazy structures for them to grow up, therefore using space that would otherwise be empty and creating beautiful vertical garden niches.
Tomatoes are incredibly easy to start from seed and transplant out. So easy in fact that many gardeners always end up with too many on their hands later in the season! I love having a variety, as I enjoy the colour splash they create, so I tend to then attempt to swap with friends for other varieties. But pace yourself- less is more, rather have a few well cared for tomato plants that get a lot of sun and pruning and a good amount of nutrition to start with then having too many that you can't cope with.
Seriously who doesn’t just love the sight of sunflowers in a garden or on a balcony! And you can save the seeds to add to salads (or for more sunflowers the following year). Also, they are big seeds, therefore super easy to sow and they come up quickly and are therefore easily spotted. These are such an easy flower to grow, I have them on my balcony usually (the small multi-coloured varieties), and the bees and insects love them!
Okay okay, this is not necessarily one of your typical go-to plants for growing I'm sure, but seriously, the bees love them and you can decorate your salads with them! If you really want to get deeper into things, borage is traditionally an old healing plant used in tinctures, for recovering from stressful times (used against adrenal fatigue and to combat the negative side effects of stress). But of course, for this, it's important to know what you’re doing- there are toxicity levels associated with borage so be careful!
Well, I just love having my own baby cut salad or a big head of lettuce. They can be tricky to grow from seed because they really only need a pepper sprinkle of soil on top of them and this is where many people fall short, sowing them too deep. I recommend sowing them in a flat and then pricking them out into individual trays when they have 4 leaves (for heads of lettuce), or you can sow them in rows as a cut-and-come-again baby leaf salad mix. My favourite sort? The oak leaf varieties.
Okay, I'm from South Africa and I admit I have a serious weakness for these as in midsummer you end up with mounds of flowering colourful nasturtiums everywhere that just exudes tropical summers and gardening. Also as the flowers and leaves are just amazing for some peppery flavour and colour, it’s always going to be a feature in my salad mix. These big seeds are super easy to grow and monitor, and with love and water, the plants will become huge fantastic creeping monsters of colour and tastiness!
Swiss Chard aka. Rainbow Chard
I love the colour variety of rainbow chard, for chopping up into a salad or for letting it get big for cooking as a spinach. Key tip: if you do want to harvest it as a spinach, don't be tempted to harvest it until it's become a huge, well established, tall chard plant. It’s a common mistake- if you pinch salad leaves early you will never have the amazingly big leaves that you could be getting with a bit of patience!
Zucchini aka. Courgette
Whilst heavy feeders and needing a good compost, rich soil and sun, these I found to be one of my first big bounty crops when I was market gardening. So if you have the sun and a big pot a zucchini or two even on your balcony will be greatly appreciated! You can harvest them small and delicate or let them get big and make raw zucchini noodles with them, or prepare a big batch of zucchini relish to bottle up for adding to your winter curries.
A great herb for cooking with and one of my favourite flavours. The seeds are bigger than other herbs and so easier to handle if you're new to self-sowing. I would recommend pinching out the flowering spikes to encourage side branching and help the plant really establish itself well.
A bit more complicated simply because these guys need time time time, and some serious patience. Start them very early indoors end of Feb/ beginning of March if you're in a cold climate – and don't forget they need heat and sun later on. I harvest by pinching out the top leaves and therefore encouraging side branching.
My favourite vegetable by far, heirloom varieties are incredibly exciting, and whilst they do need time and patience and a lot of compost, the reward of harvesting your own beets for me is one of the best. They also can do well on balconies and in small spaces. And last but not least the leaves are also great in salads and to cook so it’s a double winner.
Mint and Lemon Verbena
I love having herbs in my salad and making a big batch of dried herbs for my winter store tea mix. Also, I always find salad bags with mint in it somehow stays fresher for longer. So whilst sometimes for beginners, these can be tricky, as one can make the fatal mistake of sowing the seeds too deep, give it a try. They really only need to be scattered on the top of the seedling mix with no soil on top, then followed up with water and care, and then thinned or transplanted out into an intermediate container. The reward is well worth it.
Written by Natasha Weddepohl
Natasha has been involved in a plethora of alternative market gardening and food growing projects, for over 12 years. After a short flirtation with the more serious and stressful side of life, as an all-in-one octopus grant writer and project manager for a startup in London. She is currently hiding out in Berlin in order to return to the roots of her passion for sustainable food production and community gardening, and is the guardian of Cafe Botanico’s permaculture paradise, shares a 1000m2 garden with friends, and is completing an MSc in Horticultural Science. Besides being pretty much a plant geek, lover of the outdoors and ecology bookclubs, she thoroughly enjoys germination and propagation. Which is basically growing things from seeds or chopping them up and giving them love and nourishment to multiply.