These days many of my friends are either buying their first home or settling into rental houses for longer than a nine-month lease, and I get lots of questions about which edibles I’d recommend for gardeners who are just starting out.
- Snow peas and snap peas. In Seattle, you can plant peas in March, which means they do most of their growing while it’s still rainy out. This means that you don’t have to start watering them until June or July, and the vines will get pulled down in late July or early August. Snow peas and snap peas are delicious raw, so you don’t even need to know how to cook to enjoy these. Pea vines can get quite tall (7 feet), so stapling or nailing string or netting to a frame or a wall is necessary. Pea vines are OK with bit of shade, as long as they get direct sun at least a few hours a day.
- Green beans. There are reasons that second graders grow beans rather than some other plant- they sprout easily, and grow quickly. Bush beans don’t need a trellis, but pole beans need something to grow up. Beans climb by twining around some sort of structure, but aren’t too picky about the structure, as long as it isn’t too wide. String or netting is fine, tall skinny branches, or slender bamboo poles all work. Beans grow during the warmer months in Seattle, so they do need watering about twice a week.
- Lettuce (in Spring). Lettuce is easy to sprout from seed during the right time of year, which is around March-May in Seattle. I grow lettuce year-round, but getting lettuce to sprout during the summer or winter takes a bit of work. Lettuce can handle dappled shade, which is a big plus since city gardens are often bordered by tall trees. Lettuce can be grown for baby greens, where you clip out about a third of the leaves each week, and the plants keep producing new baby lettuce leaves. It can also be grown into full-sized heads, which requires a bit more patience. If lettuce gets a lot of sunlight near the summer solstice, or if it is drought stressed, it will bolt, which means that it grows tall and produces flowers, and then the plant dies. Some varieties are more resistant to bolting than others, so look for that attribute when choosing seeds.
- Tomatoes (from seedlings). Many people say that tomatoes are bad plants for beginners, but I disagree. Tomato plants need water about once a week, and require a bit of patience during the early summer months, but the satisfaction of harvesting a big bowl of tomatoes is worth it. Seattle has a short enough season that beginners should definitely buy seedlings from nurseries instead of growing tomatoes from seed. There’s no need to buy giant plants in gallon pots, though- a 6 inch tall plant in a 3-inch pot is just fine, if you’re buying it in May. Tomatoes do need full sun, which means that they shouldn’t be put right next to a fence or a wall that will shade them. Cherry tomatoes grow well in Seattle, and there are many shorter-season varieties of larger tomatoes bred for similar climates to ours, such as ‘Oregon Spring’. Good local nurseries and plant sales will carry mostly varieties that grow well in our climate. Most gardeners stake indeterminate (vine) varieties to save space, but if you have more sunny garden space than you do time, you can just let the plants grow along the ground.
- Potatoes. Potatoes seem to thrive with a bit of neglect- they don’t like to be watered too often, they can handle mediocre soil, as long as it isn’t rocky, and I can tell you from experience that the plant part can be repeatedly squished by a stray frisbee and still bounce back. They’re also really fun to dig up.
A few edibles that are more of a challenge, which I don’t recommend to new gardeners:
- Squash and pumpkins. Squash and pumpkins need lots of heat and direct sunlight, which isn’t usually in abundance in Seattle city gardens. They need warm soil to germinate, which means that they get started a bit later than is ideal here, which increases the risk of having green squash come October. They also take up a lot of space, for an uncertain yield. If I put my green beans someplace too shady, it will be obvious within a few weeks of sowing them, and I’ll just pull them out and replace them with some lettuce. If my squash don’t get enough light, I might not realize it (or admit it) for months, or my plants might get decimated by powdery mildew in August. Despite these issues, I grow squash and pumpkins anyway, but it can be a frustrating crop for the newbie.
- Carrots. Carrots need loose soil that’s not too acidic or too high in nitrogen. Neither Northwest native soils, typical building site top soils, or compost bought in bags at the hardware store meet these requirements. Carrots also have a widespread pest, the carrot fly, which means that seedlings should be covered with insect netting or floating row covers. Carrots germinate inconsistently, but supposedly don’t transplant well. Carrots are best to save until you have some practice with soil building and deterring pests.
- Broccoli and cauliflower. This is another plant that should be covered to avoid insect damage, this time from cabbage worms and cabbage moths (broccoli and cauliflower are closely related to cabbage). I’ll be writing more about these beasties soon.
As a side note, for ornamentals, I’d recommend fall-planted bulbs as some of the easiest flowers to grow. Pop some daffodil or tulip bulbs into the ground in October, and in the spring you’ll get flowers. It can be tempting to buy 4 different types of tulips, but bulbs really look best if you buy a bunch of the same ones and plant them near each other. Bulbs can get expensive, so if you’re on a budget, put clumps of daffodils or tulips near the front steps or front gate, or near where you park, so you’ll see them every day while they’re blooming.
If bulbs are a little spendy for your budget, nasturtiums are an easy flower to grow from seed. The flowers and leaves are edible, and they add a nice peppery zing to salads. Nasturtiums germinate easily once the soil’s warmed up a bit, and flourish in poor soils. They need to be watered regularly for the first few weeks after germinating, and then need water at least once every other week. They self sow, so you’ll get volunteer nasturtiums the next year, but they don’t self seed so prolifically that they’re weedy.
I also see a lot of beginner city gardeners tempted by inexpensive wildflower seed mixes, but I really don’t recommend these. Wildflower gardens look messy and weedy in the city, unless you have significant skill in designing and managing them. Flower mixes also make weeding difficult- if you plant a whole swath of poppy seeds, it will become obvious quickly what’s a poppy plant, and what’s not. If it’s not a poppy plant, you can call it a weed. If you sow 20 different flower seeds into one bed, good luck guessing what’s a weed until it’s already taking over the garden. Some wildflowers also spread so rapidly that you’ll decide that they are weeds.
Are there other plants you’d recommend for beginners, or are you wondering about the difficulty of growing certain plants? Let me know!