What delicious things should I plant? (Absolute beginner edition)
April 17, 2021 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I, an utter novice gardener and notorious possessor of two black thumbs, would like to (slowly, carefully) ease into the world of edible gardening. I have a newly installed raised bed of approximately 8 ft x 2.5ft that gets full sun in Seattle. I have an endless appetite for vegetables and herbs. I also have zero knowledge and skills. What (and how much) should I plant??

I have a book on organic edible gardening that (I think?) has some good information, but it’s a bit overwhelming and beyond my level (even though it touts itself as being for beginners), so I’m hoping for some concrete advice about what to plant right now in this raised bed, and how much of it to plant. I have heard the advice to “grow what you want to eat,” but since I want to eat pretty much anything that is not a melon, that doesn’t reduce the options much. My biggest criteria is EASY TO GROW/idiot-resistant. Ideally, I’d like to try a couple of veggies/herbs in the bed at once (which I think is possible?), but I don’t have a ton of space to work with.

So, green thumbs of metafilter, what would you advise an absolute beginner to plant in their raised bed this weekend that would maximize the chances that they, a bumbling fool, might successfully retrieve something edible at the other end of the process? The more specific you can be, the better (I.e. there are about seven zillion varieties of cherry tomatoes at my local garden store). How many plants/seeds/whatever can fit in an 8x2 bed/what kinds of plants might play nicely together? What things am I likely not considering that I should be aware of?
Any and all newb-specific advice gratefully accepted!

posted by Dorinda to Home & Garden (42 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I am a very half-assed lazy gardener. I prefer roma-type tomatoes and green peppers. They survive a certain amount of neglect. :)
posted by heathrowga at 10:04 AM on April 17, 2021

Definitely some kind of tomatoes — full sun is right, they’re pretty easy, and it’s the biggest difference between your own garden and what you get in the grocery store. Might as well grow basil with the tomatoes, also easy and they go well together.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:05 AM on April 17, 2021 [8 favorites]

Zucchini and peas!
posted by gakiko at 10:10 AM on April 17, 2021

Cherry tomatoes are easier to grow, produce faster and more fun to eat than the big ones
Growing herbs (lots of parsley chives and cilantro, a little bit of thyme and oregano) will have a huge impact on your cooking. If you plant mint, do it in a pot!
posted by genmonster at 10:13 AM on April 17, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Tomatoes for sure, but in our Seattle climate, it's best to stick with cherry toms so that you get some to actually ripe before the clouds come back. I've tried a lot of kinds and have the best luck with Sweet 100's or Sweet Million; some luck with Sungold.
posted by The otter lady at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

Honestly, your best bet is likely going to the garden store, describing your space, and asking for some advice and not worrying too much if you are selecting the right variety. Gardening generally involves a bit of trial and error. You can plant the same variety multiple seasons in a row and get different results.

That said, cherry tomato plants tend to be a safer bet than larger varieties, but you can still get one or two larger plants and see what happens. Herbs are generally all easy, basil though can be more finicky. Bush beans or pole beans are also generally fairly easy. Cucumbers, zucchini, lettuce, and strawberries have also generally been reliable. Less reliable: peppers and eggplant.

But again, I think the key to getting good at gardening is to enjoy it, and the key to enjoying it is not stress about whether everything works all the time. At least for me.
posted by coffeecat at 10:17 AM on April 17, 2021

Grow things together that require similar amounts of water. That means if you plant tomatoes, strawberries, basil, parsley, and chives (all require a moderate amount of water and are easy to care for), don’t plant rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano (low water, probably not great in Seattle winter rain) in the same bed.

Mint is really easy to keep alive, especially in the Pacific Northwest, but plant it in its own container or it will take over your garden.
posted by A Blue Moon at 10:18 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can grow a sweet bay tree in a pot; the fresh bay leaves are great in cooking and the tree itself is a really nice little plant. Herbs for sure; tarragon will die back in the winter but sprout up again in spring. Mint does really well, it's so invasive you may want to keep it in a pot but in a few years in may get sickly from being cramped in there. Nootka rose is a kind of garlic that's adapted to our climate and is great. If you can get plants from a knowledgeable local nursery instead of a big box store, you're more likely to get things that do well here instead of generic bestsellers.
posted by The otter lady at 10:19 AM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Chives. Once established they'll come back year after year and like it best if you just plant them and ignore them. Thyme is also super fool proof to grow and keeps coming back.

I'm partial to Tommy Toe cherry tomatoes, I last planted them 3 years ago and now just move the ones that self seed when they pop up in the spring so these guys are tough as long as you don't over head water them. They're not a sweet tomato but a super tomatoey tasting one.
posted by wwax at 10:20 AM on April 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

You can also Ask a Master Gardener!
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:42 AM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm a completely unskilled gardener in the same area. Every year, I buy a bunch of young tomato plants when they go on sale at Costco, and I stick them in the dirt. I water them in dry summer weather. I put tomato cages around them to prevent them from collapsing under their own weight. Do these things and you will eventually get delicious tomatoes. Also, tomato plants have an amazing smell when watering them on a summer evening.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:46 AM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd ask at a nursery since garden appendages of larger stores can be hit or miss whether you're talking to someone pressed into service from the paint department. A key thing you want is what plants you can put out now and what at another time. Stores will sell you tomato plants when it's too early and they'll get stunted. Ask an employee how to check if a pot is rootbound which is another common invisible "just doesn't grow".

To get started, keep it light. Try different plants, see what works for you, some will fail. Buy plants, don't mess with seeds (unless you particularly love green beans, bit late for peas this year). I normally love perennial gardens but annuals are good for experimenting, there's nothing worse than a flourishing perennial you don't like. (ok certain things worse)

Specific plants, co-signing cherry tomatoes and basil for taste above supermarket, also other herbs for having fresh on hand.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:06 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Plant and forget and watch them come back every year - rhubarb, chives, oregano, thyme & sage
Early and easy - radish, peas, spinach, swiss chard
Plant when warmer - cherry tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini

For cherry tomatoes these are the best. For the other seeds it really doesn't matter.

Start with those and see how you go. This fall (November) plant some garlic. Here's a good planting chart for your area.
posted by Cuke at 11:06 AM on April 17, 2021

If you like zucchini - there always seems to be too much of that.

Also: if I could grow lettuces here in NC, I would; your climate is much better suited to that. Lettuce is difficult to ship and not damage, so that seems like a winner.

If you take the time to understand your soil -- to the level that you know what plants use phosphorus for, why people put lime in soil, and what 'friable' means -- you'll be very likely to succeed. If you read a guide that teaches you those three things, the other things you need to know will be included too. And you will win gardening!
posted by amtho at 11:27 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Tomatoes; I love Brandywine for flavor, and Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I add tomato varieties by going to to farmer's markets and I buy seedlings that are cute or have interesting names, or the seller recommends them. Fresh tomatoes are the best. Peas; check planting times for your area. Green beans can be planted bi-weekly for successive harvests. Yellow summer squash is great in stir-fry. Lettuces/ greens - arugula, spinach, kale, and mesclun mix. Let some of the arugula flower and go to seed and it will self-seed. It likes it under my tomato plants. I love being able to pick salad, and I try to plant successive plantings so there are new crops. I usually grow some jalapenos or other hot pepper.

Your area has a Cooperative Extension Office and Master Gardeners who have good advice. Gardening is local.
posted by theora55 at 11:32 AM on April 17, 2021

Best answer: I would start with a lot of stuff that’s easier than tomatoes in Seattle. (Put a cherry tomato in the north or west end of the bed in late May, because they are so good fresh.)

The fastest to edible from seed: radishes and peas for short sprouts (3” or less). Plant radishes an inch or two apart and whenever the leaves start to touch carefully pull out and eat the smallest ones. Turnips can be grown the same way and the leaves are as tasty as the roots.

Lettuce is the next fastest one - eat the thinnings likewise, and when the plants stop getting wider, you can snap the bottom leaves off the stem and the plant will keep growing. Much easier to get steady snacks this way than succession planting.

Chard, spinach, kale can be treated the same way.

Take LOTS of notes! You’ll figure out what works for you and what plant-cues to pay attention to. E.g., on any particular day one of your plants is most drought-sensitive. Keep a sharp eye on it for the faintest signs of deficit, keep it watered, water elsewhere as you’re there, and the less demanding plants will also be fine.
posted by clew at 11:34 AM on April 17, 2021

I love growing herbs. I use them so much on food and muddling for cocktails.
posted by ReluctantViking at 11:36 AM on April 17, 2021

Carrots and onions are both pretty much sow/plant and forget. Unless you're having an especially dry spell, they probably won't need much watering either.
posted by pipeski at 12:10 PM on April 17, 2021

Best answer: I find root vegetables difficult to get right as a beginner; they care a lot about having loose soil that's just right, and the difference in taste and freshness over store-bought just isn't as high. I don't recommend them for beginners.

Thyme should establish itself as a perennial and can then survive benign neglect.

Chives are fun and will reseed in the same location. Seeds for plants in the onion family are really bad at maintaining viability year to year, so if you start chives or another allium from seed, just use the entire packet.

Lettuce will also reseed, and in Seattle probably takes a long time for it to bolt from heat. Basil can be picky, but it's worth giving it a try. Pinching off new growth makes it grow bushier.

ONE zucchini plant or other summer squash. One cherry tomato plant. Realistically, these two plants may start small but end up taking over most of your entire box.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2021

Best answer: Put some stuff* in the dirt and see what happens. This is how you learn to garden - there's volumes of books and a million hours of content on youtube, and very little of it makes sense until you start to have experience. Expect to screw up, this is even more critical to learning.

*If you buy this stuff at a local garden center (like, not a chain unless it's a local chain, which is common to see, and not a hardware store garden center or outside your grocery store) you are most likely to only be offered varieties that thrive in your area. The hardware stores' selections are okayish at this, but I think the local stores are more thoughtful about timing and your real climate conditions.

A grown tomato plant will consume 2-3 square feet of footprint, peppers can be in .75 or 1sf and they like to rub up against each other when they're grown so crowding is okay. Eggplants are a little in between but they really love heat and may not be a great first-year choice in PNW. "Bush" type cucumbers (a great first cucumber) are compact and may need a stake (or tomato cage) but not serious trellising. Herbs can go among the other plants. Strawberries are better off in a tower than taking up square footage. Peas and beans are good in your climate and you can easily make a bean tent trellis from the inexpensive 6' bamboo stakes all garden centers carry in 6-packs.

These are the workhorse home garden crops to me, all pretty accessible and cooperative to new gardeners. You'll learn some things, battle some pests but not the most dire ones, and will get the experience of returning to the garden over and over to harvest as you need things. As others have said, root vegetables can be a little obtuse for a new gardener - almost everything happens underground. Cold-season vegetables can be cheated way out to the shoulder seasons in your region, but there are tricks to it and you should get some summer wins in before you go for it.

Don't put mint or close relatives (catnip, lemon balm, bee balm) in a raised bed, they'll take the whole thing. If you want them, put them in pots or grow bags in the garden.

I've just told you not to watch youtube but if you must, my go-tos are CaliKim, Roots and Refuge Farm, and Gary Pilarchik. They've all got beginner series you can watch, just expect a lot of it to feel baffling at first. It'll make sense later.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:24 PM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Nth-ing the suggestion to go for tomatoes, and it looks like you have some local recommendations (and definitely check out the UW gardening resources! I would try one "determinate"(aka bush) and one "indeterminate" (aka vine) version. Sun, support (stakes, ladders, cages), water, and fertilizer. I found this blog (now based in Oregon) to be helpful when establishing my container tomatoes.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, I would stick to two categories of vegetables, so you don't have a zillion things to read up on. I just got ambitious this spring re: houseplants, and my ability to keep track of which plant needs what kind of sun and what kind of soil and what kind of watering is sorely tested. I agree with the suggestion to plant things that need similar kinds of watering.

Lastly, if you don't yet have a composting set up, may I recommend a worm bin in one corner of your raised bed?
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:31 PM on April 17, 2021

I forgot herbs! Fresh basil = pesto, fresh cilantro is wonderful, parsley. Sage is a perennial. If you can grow rosemary where you live, it's amazing fresh.
posted by theora55 at 12:32 PM on April 17, 2021

Growing up in Vancouver with a back yard with good sun exposure, the plants that I recall growing really well were:

strawberries (I have very fond memories of these)
peas and scarlet runners
cherry tomatoes

There were a couple of unseasonably warm summers where corn and sunflowers did well.

Other easy stuff were green onions, parsley, cilantro, radishes. The Thai basil did better than regular basil but I think they grow better with some shade (and lots of water).
posted by porpoise at 12:37 PM on April 17, 2021

Rosemary does great here but it will be fine in any sunny non-raised-bed space you have too, so it doesn't take over the bed!

If you grow beans from seed you will face The Slug Problem (truthfully it's the snails at least as much but slugs sound wickeder). I find that growing beans in big pots gets more seedlings surviving to climb out of peak slug zone. The pots are far from 100% but some of the slugs seem to get bored during the climb and wander off, also you have the opportunity to build baroque anti-slug parapets that don't work if that's your bag.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:56 PM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Radishes are one of the easiest things to grow, and first to harvest. You can plant them between other plants as well.
posted by mortaddams at 1:05 PM on April 17, 2021

Best answer: Lettuce is great. You plant it and in a few weeks every time you want a salad, you go tear leaves off it. This is the first year I'm planning to plant lettuce starts staggered - I just planted some last week, and plan to plant more in about a month, to get a longer growing season. I'm in Seattle, too, and I get my lettuce starts at PCC for something like $1.99 per pot (which has six plants).
posted by ShooBoo at 1:33 PM on April 17, 2021

Best answer: Grow any monocrop. Or 2-3 companion plants at most. The hardest thing about gardening, in my opinion, is keeping track of all the different plants with their different timing needs.

- Do not grow rosemary. It takes up a lot of space. Someone else has a rosemary bush and they are happy to share all the sprigs you can use.

- If you go for tomatoes, it's late enough in the season that you should get starts. Get plants with the shortest growing season possible. Unless you really really like green tomatoes.

- Personally, if it were me, I'd be growing an 8x2 bed of garlic. Garlic is expensive, space-efficient, does well in PNW, and is delicious.
posted by aniola at 1:34 PM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think a major failure point for new gardeners is finding the complexities of gardening too challenging, and then getting overwhelmed and abandoning the whole project. Monocropping is perfect for beginners because it addresses this concern.

When your mini monocrop is harvested (or maybe even slightly before), you can plant your next monocrop. Then you get to learn about crop rotation without having to make it a Major Project.

Add more diversity after you get comfortable with understanding the cycle of one set of plants.
posted by aniola at 2:01 PM on April 17, 2021

I'll have to disagree. Rosemary is easy to manage with occasional pruning. And pruning, of course, provides delightful sprigs of rosemary which goes great with chicken or any tomato-based dish.

Both tomatoes and strawberries are excellent plants to grow in pots. Be aware, however, that any fruiting plant is attractive to mice and other rodents. Consider if you have room to place an enclosure over your plants. Of tomatoes, you should consider determinate varieties (ie, cherry tomatoes) over indeterminate varieties (ie, beefsteak tomatoes). Indeterminates are climbers and will require caging in order to thrive. Of strawberries, consider everbearing vs annual varieties. Annuals are easier to cultivate: they have one big fruiting period per year and can be pruned heavily in preparation for the following year; everbearing strawberries will produce smaller amounts of fruit in varying quantities from spring to early fall, and are a bit fussier to prune. Neither tomatoes nor strawberries are fond of freezing temperatures, so keep that in mind.
posted by SPrintF at 2:12 PM on April 17, 2021

If you like them, plant green beans, really easy to grow. Steam them, roast them and make dilly beans. Be sure to get bush rather than vine just make sure it doesn't say vine anywhere on the package. (vine is fun but start with bush) Carrots are also fun and easy and so delicious. Zucchini- just plant only one or two plants and keep a sharp eye on them they can get huge really quickly.
All the greens are pretty easy, lettuces, kale, Swiss chard, collards. Arugula is really fast snip it before too long because it gets very spicy in it's older age.
posted by starfish at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2021

You can't go wrong with chives and mint. They need no care. In fact, left alone, they will take over your yard.
posted by Splunge at 3:23 PM on April 17, 2021

I'm not a great gardener, but here are the things that have been real easy!

beets! planted them from seed, and then I never even looked at them and just threw water on them when I was watering and then totally forgot to harvest them until after the first frost and they were still gorgeous and delicious!

Zuchinni and Pattypan - one plant of each because they grow huge and you get a lot of harvest. Go ahead and pick the zukes when they're pretty small because otherwise they'll turn into monsters and then you'll have too much zuchinni to deal with! But zuchinni is a GREAT plant to get some gardening confidence from. It's easy to grow and is very prolific!

Butternut squash is also easy to grow, but after you harvest them they need to age for 2 months or they'll be gross!

strawberries! If you don't net your garden you'll be sharing them with the birds and squirrels. they're perennial and they send out babies so they're a great, easy crop. Mine are planted over the root system of my asparagus plants (one of my friends is a permaculture goddess) and it's a very cool bed with its dual crop of asparagus coming up through strawberries.

Jerusalem artichokes/Sunchokes - they grow like a weed, and they taste kind of like potatoes.

Peas and beans are easy and can be seeded directly outside (about now for you I bet) and herbs are easy but I prefer them in pots to in the ground, for easier access and a lot of them are invasive in garden beds.
posted by euphoria066 at 3:44 PM on April 17, 2021

I tried and failed many times to actually get a vegetable garden going. What helped me is watching a zillion gardening videos that actually show you how to do things step by step. Gary Pilarchik/The Rusted Gardener for example has "A Complete Guide for Growing Tomatoes & Peppers - Seed to Harvest: Every Step!/Table of Contents". I now have 5-week old pepper and tomato plants grown from seed that will actually make it outside thanks to this video (and many of his other videos, and many other videos from other gardeners like Epic Gardening). I also planted basil from seed and they grew super fast and smell so good. Keep in mind though that I started these from seed inside using grow lamps; I tried once growing basil just on my windowsill and they got super leggy and basically failed.

So I would take a look at what folks have listed above as the easiest to grow (radishes, peas, various herbs) and then look up videos on YouTube to walk you through them for extra info. It's just wildly useful seeing people actually go through the process, tell you what soil is appropriate, the pot sizes, and so on!
posted by thebots at 4:20 PM on April 17, 2021

Best answer: You’re in luck, living in Seattle Tilth Alliance Has everything you need, including a (COVID-safe) plant sale May 7-14th. Great deals to be found there, as they specialize in things that grow in our climate (waving from Bremerton).
They also offer classes, and their book Maritime Northwest Garden Guide is simple to follow, and well-organized. They also have a hotline you can call with question. A really wonderful resource.
posted by dbmcd at 4:53 PM on April 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you're open to Asian greens, crown daisies are very easy to grow. Leave one plant to flower and go to seed and you'll have more than enough seeds for next year.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 5:05 PM on April 17, 2021

If you can find green zebra tomatoes, those suckers are awesome - tart, firm, and very prolific. I'm a few hours south of you and ended up with tons of these tomatoes last year.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:41 PM on April 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Do not grow rosemary. It takes up a lot of space. Someone else has a rosemary bush and they are happy to share all the sprigs you can use.

If you do want to grow rosemary, don't grow it in a garden bed. Start it in a pot. When it's maybe a foot and a half tall, dig a pot-sized hole somewhere in your yard where you want a hardy aromatic bush to live, then transfer the contents of the pot into the hole, throw a shovel full of woodchip or a couple of double handfuls of pea straw over the planting site, water it in and then leave it to fend for itself. Rosemary is really hardy and it thrives on benign neglect.
posted by flabdablet at 1:37 AM on April 18, 2021

Purple Asian long beans. They have a wonderful, nutty flavor and grow like crazy, even when neglected. For a single person you probably wouldn't need more than 4 or 5 plants. Each bean grows to 12-16" long (yes, really) so even just a few beans can make a substantial side dish or main component to a stir fry.
posted by mezzanayne at 1:48 AM on April 18, 2021

Best answer: How many plants/seeds/whatever can fit in an 8x2 bed/what kinds of plants might play nicely together? What things am I likely not considering that I should be aware of?

The Farmer's Almanac website has a garden planner (requires free registration) that will help you with such details. As will most square foot gardening books or websites. Square foot gardening is a relatively easy entry point.

Also, find out what zone you are in. Once you know this, if you are growing from seed, the seed packet instructions should tell you when to plant, depth at which you should plant your seeds, and spacing. (Don't worry about starting seeds indoors in seed starting trays or stuff like that your first year.) If you are getting seedling plants from a garden center, they should be able to tell you about spacing and care instructions. (If they can't, find a different place to get your plants.)

The suggestion above to focus on one crop at a time is good advice. I would say two or three is fine, but if you try for too much variety, you're more likely to plant stuff too close together and/or have plants with different water and soil preferences right next to each other, and will likely have less success. Planting for a specific meal you know you'll like to eat a lot can be a good strategy. Eg. tomatoes and basil (various pasta sauces, Caprese salad, etc.). Or lettuce, radishes, and carrots (garden salad).

Things to get as plants: tomatoes, peppers, peas, bush/small tree type plants, or anything - there's basically no down side to getting already-started plants instead of growing from seed (well, cost, but for a new gardener with a small garden, it's a good route). Things that are particularly easy to grow from seed even as a novice: leaf lettuces, swiss chard, bok choy, most leafy herbs (basil, dill, cilantro), radishes, beets, turnips, carrots, green beans or other beans. Or focus on one favorite vegetable for half the space and a variety of herbs you use commonly to fill out the rest (herbs are smaller and can be heartier, so less worry about overdoing it on the variety).

Given the size of your bed, I would recommend against squashes or cucumbers - one plant will take up a third of your space. (Unless you want a cucumber and dill focus, perhaps. You could fit two high-yield cucumber plants and a patch of dill.)

If you want to get fancy, ask local gardeners as suggested above about companion planting for pest control. Eg. in the northeastern US, marigolds are generally suggested alongside tomatoes (eg. row of tomato plants in the back with a border of marigolds). But that sort of detail seems like it might vary by local pests and soils.
posted by eviemath at 7:09 AM on April 18, 2021

Oh, since it came up, Seattle is zone 8b, but it turns out you can't use any generalized zone 8b "when to do things" instructions. That zone is about how cold winters get, so Seattle's ocean-buffered climate is in the same zone as Austin, Texas -- but they can set their tomatoes out much earlier. And grow hot peppers successfully, the lucky dogs.

East Coast seed packets' timing relative to "last frost date" also should be tossed in favor of local advice.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:00 AM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don’t even read out-of-your-region seed catalogs while you’re learning. They will tell you which plants will struggle where you are, but you won’t recognize the codes yet. There are great Puget Sound resources for edible gardening- the calendars in the Maritime Garden Guide, veggie starts from local farms (the Tilth sale is huge but great), seeds from regional companies. Territorial is still the biggest seed company I think but there are another dozen at least.

I hope you’ve put some seeds in the ground to start the experiments! My overwintered greens are beginning to bolt, which tells me I can start slightly warmer crop summer greens.
posted by clew at 11:41 AM on April 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Native Foods Nursery is based in Oregon but carries many edibles native to Washington. They’ll ship you baby plants.
posted by a sourceless light at 4:15 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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