10 Edible Garden Plants Anyone Can Grow


I had given up and admitted defeat. Gardening, I assumed, just wasn't for me. Plants either withered, were destroyed by bugs, or devoured by deer. Anything that lived was tiny and barely edible. I definitely fit the "black thumb" description, and assumed I was doomed to forever forage at the grocery store for produce.

And then, we moved. The climate was different. All around me, people were growing fruits and vegetables. Why not give it another shot, I wondered? And so I did. First, I did some research and talked to neighbors. This was followed by years of keeping a garden journal to see what grew, and what did not. Here are my 10 guaranteed successes. (See also: 10 Gardening Lessons Learned the Hard Way)

1. Radishes

If you cannot grow radishes, just give up gardening. Oh, sorry, that's a little harsh. My point is, they will grow unless you just don't water them. If you are an apartment-dweller, they fit nicely in pots.

Favorite use? Slice good bread, butter it, and slice radishes over the top. Sprinkle with salt. This is known as a "tartine" in France. While it sounds a little odd, it's really good.

2. Herbs

Coming in at number two are herbs. Grow them indoors, outdoors, in pots, on your fire escape, wherever — they are programmed to grow, and grow they will. Try chives, dill, cilantro, parsley, basil, and rosemary. Fresh herbs in your cooking (even just tossed into your morning scrambled eggs) makes a huge difference in flavor, and are very inexpensive. I have yet to encounter an herb that refused to grow. (See also: How to Keep Herbs Fresh Longer)

Favorite uses? With basil, make pesto. Chives are great in rolls and scrambled eggs. Parsley, I love in Italian food, and of course cilantro in Asian and Mexican dishes. Dill is good with potatoes or salmon, while rosemary is a natural in a pork roast. I keep herbs going year-round. They can also be frozen or dried if you get carried away and plant too many. (See also: Delicious Recipes to Use Up Your Herbs)

3. Squash

Of course, zucchini has become a joke (poor zucchini). Open a door in California in September, and you might find a bag of zucchini that someone has kindly "shared" with you. I have indeed made that mistake of planting too much of it. My father-in-law razzed me for years about my massive zucchini plantings. Well, live and learn, right? If you plant zucchini, my mother-in-law made one of my favorite things, ever. She let the zucchinis grow until they were very large. She then thinly sliced them, dipped them in an egg wash, then cracker crumbs, and fried them in butter. It is one of the best things on the planet.

There are many varieties of squash, and they are easy to grow. My main problem with squash are bugs, so I have learned to be vigilant. I currently have starts for kabocha squash going, which are very sweet and versatile. My favorite use of kabocha squash is in a Thai red curry. This recipe is very good (add some chicken, if you like), but you may want to dial back the red curry paste.

Squash also takes a lot of space. A neighbor solved this problem by showing me how to grow it near a fence. They climb! Squash hanging off of a fence are sort of funny, but it also discourages the bugs, which get to them when they are on the ground.

4. Eggplant

It is a shame that so many people associate this vegetable with soggy, overly-greasy eggplant parmigiana. After reading about some tasty eggplant recipes, I planted more of it and it's really the gift that keeps on giving. I have had nearly five months' production from my plants and they show no signs of slowing down. I planted three varieties as an experiment; all are thriving. I never have staked mine, as they are very sturdy and no fruit hangs on the ground, but that is recommended.

What to do with an eggplant? See the article above. Some people recommend salting the slices to get rid of the bitterness before cooking, but I have not done that and have not noticed any problems. You can make a much healthier eggplant parmigiana that isn't so oily, but my favorite use is this Crock-Pot ratatouille.

5. Green Beans

My husband built a trellis in the garden area, and so I planted pole beans. It was important to me to have a garden area that is aesthetically pleasing. Pole beans are pretty, and once the beans get going, need to be picked frequently. If the beans get too big, they aren't as tasty. Pole beans take a little bit longer than other green bean varieties, but I think they are worth the wait. I love green beans with bacon, served alongside some corn bread and stewed tomatoes.

6. Beets

Scarred by bad childhood beets memories, I didn't try them again until I was in my 30s. Now, I love them. I still like the canned ones, but a freshly roasted or boiled beet is a different matter. Roasting especially brings out their sweetness.

If you like kale or spinach, do yourself a favor and cook some beet greens (or "tops," as they are also termed). It is a shame that many grocery stores cut off the tops. Beets are also a very pretty vegetable because of their deep purples and golds. There is even a variety that is deep pink and white. My favorite roasted beet recipe uses goat cheese and balsamic vinegar. Be diligent about thinning them in the garden, because they will need room to grow. They also like mulch.

7. Lettuces

I have had the best luck with Boston lettuce, and it is so easy. You will want to make sure your soil has plenty of nitrogen, and that you have partial shade. After your first harvest (in about 30 days), you can look forward to a second round in a few weeks. Don't get carried away planting — a small seed packet will produce about 50 pounds of leaf lettuce!

Your main issue with lettuce will be bugs. Try spraying with a solution of dish soap (just a couple of drops) and water. You will have to repeat after a heavy rain. Fresh lettuce from your garden, or container, is so nice to have on hand.

8. Rainbow Chard

Not only does this vegetable grow easily, but it looks just beautiful in your garden with its stems of vibrant hues. I am looking at mine right now and I can see gold, purple, red, orange, and pink. It is almost too pretty to eat, but not quite. They prefer full sun, but I have grown chard in partial shade. They like grass-clipping compost. My favorite preparation of rainbow chard is to chop off the tough stems, sauté, and drizzle with red-wine vinegar. I think it's also really good in a chard quiche.

9. Carrots

Successful carrots took me a few years, but that is because I learn things the hard way. They love compost and loose soil; I had too many rocks and tough soil. They grew, but in very strange shapes. I also tended to sow too thickly, which did not give them enough room. Although they take a long time to grow (95 to 100 days), they are much sweeter than grocery-store carrots and you'll quickly become spoiled. You will need to weed around the plants, because weeds just really like to hang out with carrots.

How to eat? A German friend taught me this method. Melt butter into a saucepan, and add carrots. Sauté for about four minutes, then add ¼ cup of beer and cover the saucepan. Cook until just tender and add fresh dill. Delicious!

10. Bok Choy or Chinese Cabbage

My best bok choy year was also my best carrot year, which was no coincidence. Bok choy also enjoys rich, loose soil. It is best grown in spring or fall, because it doesn't like hot sun beating down upon it. As with the carrots, though, be prepared to weed around the plants. I like bok choy at its simplest: Sauteed in a little oil, with garlic.

To Ensure Success

Before planting, we had a soil analysis done at the local university. These can also be done at your local agricultural extension. This was very helpful, and told us just what we needed to add to our soil. We took our print-out to a farm store, where we could pick up bags of recommended nutrients. Our print-out also recommended the best plants to try (which proved completely correct, although I did experiment with others).

If you plan to do a big garden, you might as well start a compost bin, since you will need it. I do end up buying cinders and chicken manure every year, but that's not terribly expensive. If you are container-gardening, just be sure to get a good brand of potting soil.

My garden journal has also been very helpful. Each year I sketch out what I want to plant, and where. I keep notes about how long things took to grow, and how successful (or not) they were. I also kept photos in the journal so I could have a visual reminder of where plants did particularly well.

Gardener-readers, with what plants have you had the best luck?

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