8 Foods Great for Beginner Gardeners

Skip the produce aisle. These herbs and veggies are easy to grow in small outdoor spaces

June 12, 2013
growing healthy herbs and veggies at home
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Take your nutrition to the next level by filling your plate with healthy herbs and veggies you grew yourself. "When you grow your own food, you know where it came from, that it's pesticide free, and as fresh as it can be," says Stacey Hirvela, gardening expert and author of Gardening Outside the Plot (January 2014, Rodale). Even if you don't have a lot of outdoor space, you can plant food in pots, window boxes, wall planters, and hanging baskets. "Most vegetables take readily to being grown in containers--you don't have to start a full-on vegetable garden to start growing edibles," says Hirvela.

Where to begin? Consider how much sunlight your outdoor space gets. Most crops need at least 6 hours of direct sun to thrive and produce well, says Hirvela. Although light is the most important factor, a shaded porch or balcony doesn't prohibit you from growing healthy foods, since some edibles can thrive in shaded areas. To help you get started, Hirvela shares eight foods perfect for beginner gardeners, plus tips on how to make them flourish.

Related: Grow a huge harvest of tumbling tomatoes, a wall of lettuce and armfuls of herbs from your balcony, deck or porch!

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Chives taste delicious fresh and can be used in a variety of summer meals, says Hirvela. Although they tolerate shade, the more sun the plants get the more productive they'll be. Chives can be grown from seed, but you'll get a bigger harvest sooner if you start with a plant from a garden center, she says. 

Sunlight: As much direct sunlight as possible; 6 to 8 hours per day is best. 
Water: Only water when the soil has dried out.
Planter Size: You can grow a single chive plant in an 8-inch pot.
Tip: Cut the plant as needed. Just remember to leave 1 to 2 inches to help it grow back.

growing kale
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"Kale is very easy to grow and can be productive all summer long," says Hirvela. A single kale plant will provide only a few leaves per week, she explains, but if you plant five or more, you can yield enough for one meal per week. 

Sunlight: Kale can grow in as little as 4 hours of sun each day. In hot climates, some shade is good.
Water: Two to three times per week is best. Water more frequently in very hot and dry climates.
Planter Size: Opt for a 16-inch wide pot, which can easily fit three plants.
Tip: Pick kale any time there is foliage. It's best to cut, rather than pull, it off to minimize damage.

growing spinach
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Baby spinach is great in salads or tossed into pastas. Go with the window box method to grow the plants in smaller spaces, suggests Hirvela. 

Sunlight: Four hours of sun each day. Spinach doesn't do well in heat, so a shaded location can help prolong the harvest into late summer. 
Water: Three or four times per week.
Planter Size: A standard 24-inch-long by 8-inch-wide window box can host 16 spinach plants, with eight per row down the length of the planter.
Tip: To help with growth, regularly fertilize the plant. Hirvela suggests using an organic liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion.

growing basil
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Basil is a great herb for beginners because it's a prolific producer and useful in salads, sauces, seafood dishes, and more, says Hirvela. Though basil is easy to grow from seed, it's often better to purchase the plant at a garden center so you can smell the different types and see which one you like best, she explains. 

Sunlight: Five hours minimum per day of direct sun
Water: Basil requires regular watering, but be sure to plant it in a well-drained container to prevent standing water.
Planter Size: An 8- or 10-inch pot is ideal.
Tip: Basil, which grows in pairs, should have at least three sets of leaves on it before you cut it. To trim, don't pluck individual leaves. Snip off a section of the stem just above the next lowest set leaves of leaves. 

growing marjoram
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This Mediterranean herb is related to oregano but much more fragrant and delicate in flavor, says Hirvela. "It's a perfect seasoning for roasted summer vegetables or in meat marinades." 

Sunlight: Direct daytime sun. 
Water: Marjoram doesn't require a lot of water, but the soil should never be dry.
Planter Size: Use an 8-inch pot for one plant. 
Tip: To make marjoram last longer, dry it for later use. Simply cut the stems, bundle together, and hang it in a cool, dark place.

growing cherry tomatoes
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Cherry Tomatoes

Perfect for sauces, salads, and sandwiches, cherry tomatoes grow quickly in small outdoor spaces. Cherry tomato plants are very productive; at the height of the summer, you'll be able to pick about a dozen tomatoes per day, says Hirvela.

Sunlight: Minimum of 6 hours of sun per day
Water: Regular, steady watering is required. Uneven watering or overwatering will dry out and kill the plant.
Planter Size: A single cherry tomato needs a 14-inch wide by 16-inch deep pot. Tomatoes are vine plants, which means they naturally grow along the ground. Use a tomato cage (about $3-$5) to keep the plant neat and contained.
Tip: Homegrown tomatoes don't typically look like grocery store tomatoes, with full red skin. Even when they are ripe, homegrown cherry tomatoes will have green coloring on the skin. 

growing green beans
Green Beans

"Green beans are super easy to grow and look quite pretty," says Hirvela. There are two types of green beans: Pole beans climb as they grow and require a trellis, and bush beans grow downward and are lower maintenance, she explains. 

Sunlight: A minimum of 4 hours per day
Water: Approximately three times per week. 
Planter Size: A 14-inch pot can fit five to seven bush green beans.
Tip: Pick ripe green beans and store them in a produce bag in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. With five to seven bush green beans, you can get about a pound of beans a week at summer's peak.

growing lettuce
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Salad Greens

"If you have a shaded patio or balcony that gets peeks of sunlight, you can grow salad greens," says Hirvela. She suggests using a mixed salad greens seed packet from Johnny's Selected Seeds. These come with a mix of leaf lettuces, such as red lettuce, green lettuce, and arugula. "The mixes are fun to eat and grow and offer a more interesting, gourmet salad," she says.

Sunlight: Salad greens are shade tolerant. Moderate daily sunlight is sufficient. 
Water: If the plant is in a shaded location, it doesn't require as much water. If it's in direct sun, the soil should never completely dry--the surface can get dry but the soil below the surface should never be arid. 
Planter Size: An 18-inch window box can grow two rows of seed. A 12-inch pot also works.
Tip: Cut lettuce above the base of the plant leaving enough room for regrowth.