If you’re a new gardener, or even a seasoned master of the edible landscape, there are many things you can do and specific vegetables you can grow to make your gardening experience easier. It’s not so much what you’re growing that will make the most difference, but how you are growing it.
With that in mind, let’s explore the how of growing first by looking at some of the biggest challenges and their solutions for new and long-time gardeners: weeds, water, nutrition, and pests. Then we’ll get into some of the easier to grow vegetables that can help you overcome these challenges.
• Don’t Pull Weeds – I’ve hardly done any weeding in the past 12+ years of gardening, including the past 4 years of running an ecological landscaping company, and my gardens still have very few, if any weeds. When you pull most weeds, especially perennials like dandelions, chicory, or grass, not only do they come back in short order, sometimes they come back stronger than ever (e.g. every piece of tiny grass root you leave in the soil turns into a whole new plant). Not only that, but weeding can ruin your soil structure, which can lead to less water and nutrient holding capacity.
• Solarize, Smother, Mulch – The only effective way to kill weeds is by smothering them, and a good way to do that is through sheet mulching, topping it off with a good, thick (3-6 inch) layer of mulch. You can also start off by covering the weedy area, or new garden bed with a black tarp when the weather is warm and sunny (called solarizing), and after 1-2 months, everything under the tarp will be dead, including the weeds.
As soon as you take up the tarp, get some good compost and mulch on the soil, which will also add nutrients, and slow water evaporation, while creating healthy conditions for plants, which in turn will make them more resistant to pests and disease. Another method is to spot smother weeds with newspaper (1/8 to 1/4 inch thick) or cardboard, followed by mulch to hold it down.
• Create Rich Soil: Many weeds are a response to nutrient deficiencies in or compaction of the soil. Building rich soil by adding organic matter through continual ground covers, green manures, composts, compost teas, and chop and drop techniques will ensure that the soil is healthy, making them less ideal for many weed species, especially if you keep it heavily mulched. It also dramatically increases the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity, leading again to healthier, more disease and pest resistant plants.
• Fill the Soil with Diverse Plants – If you plant close together using plants with complimentary root depths (some more shallow, some deeper, some spreading, some clumping), you can make the most of your soil space while also crowding out the weeds, creating a more efficient nutrient cycle, and supporting habitat and food for beneficial insects that will help control pests.
Think of your garden as an ecosystem and make sure there is a diversity of plants that will inevitably form beneficial connections. This will create a healthier environment for your plants, leading again to less disease and pests (something I’ve seen first hand in my gardens, which have had very few pests and diseases over the years). Having more deeply rooted plants also helps with water and air infiltration into the soil, both of which boost plant growth, as well as supporting plant allies like fungi, bacteria, and other beneficial microbes.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow
Now that you have a place to start with how to grow your new garden, here are a few of my favorite easy-to-grow vegetables:
1. Perennial Brassicas (Brassica species) – Perennial brassicas like Sea Kale, Five Star Perennial Broccoli, and Tree Collards are a lot easier to grow than their annual cousins, both because of the need to only plant them once, and due to their deeper root systems which make them more drought tolerant and nutrient self-sufficient. Brassicas need full sun (8+ hours), and a soil rich in organic matter and nitrogen.
2. Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) – This common vegetable is actually one of the lower maintenance annuals you can grow. They’re drought tolerant, and although they require fairly fertile soil, they’ll usually produce something even when neglected. They need full sun, and if they’re a vine variety, they’ll need to be staked up using a stake and string.
3. Perennial Onions (Allium species) – Another perennial makes the list due to ease of maintenance, but also because they’re super tough, highly drought tolerant and hardy. Species include Egyptian walking onions, perennial bunching onions, and wild garlic. Most do well in full sun and prefer good, well-drained, loose garden soil.
4. The Mallows (Malvaceae family) – You’ve probably heard of marsh mallow (once used for flavoring the popular fireside treat), and you may have heard of hibiscus, but the cool thing is, they’re related. And the even cooler thing is that their leaves are edible. My favorite mallows are Rose of Sharon (a shrub with edible young leaves, best steamed), and musk mallow, a flowering plant with more tender, mild-flavored leaves perfect in a salad. Plants in this family prefer rich, moist soil and full sun to reach their full potential (which includes producing lovely flowers), and are super low maintenance and easy to grow, as long as you mulch them well.
5. Japanese Parsley or Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) – The leaves of this green can be eaten raw or cooked, and have a parsley-like flavor and usage. Seedlings and young leaves can be used in salads, but care must be taken when cooking since flavor will be lost if overcooked (more than a couple of minutes). The stem can also be blanched and used as a celery substitute, and the seeds can be used as a seasoning. It prefers shade or part shade, succeeding in most soil types, and is perfect under trees, where it will tend to self-seed.
6. Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) – This perennial green has a long time relationship with gardeners and is experiencing a bit of a comeback after falling out of favor for a hundred years or so. As with all perennials, plant it once, and voila, low effort salad greens for many years. It needs moist, fertile soil, so add compost and then mulch when planting (as with all plants). It grows best in part shade but can tolerate full sun, and does not like being transplanted once planted.
7. Sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus) – This sunflower relative and potato alternative has a delicious edible root and gorgeous towering flowers. Be careful though, the plant can spread aggressively by root, so should be contained in its own garden bed. As well, you’ll need to start off slowly when eating them, as they contain compounds that your body must learn to digest properly, kind of like beans. I recommend the smooth rooted varieties as they are much easier to clean after harvesting. They like full sun, and deep, well-drained soil, which will make for better yields and easier harvesting.
The above gardening tips and plants will get you started in an easeful gardening experience, but don’t be afraid to learn about and try other plants and low maintenance techniques as well. If you liked this article, or want to share some of your own easy to grow plants, leave a comment below.