Giving Gardening a Go: Plants for Beginners
If you are thinking about starting a garden this year, go for it! Here’s my list of easy, forgiving plants that will give you a warm welcome into their world.
When I was young, both my grandfathers had gardens. One was filled with tiger lilies, herbs, and climbing berries. Here I watched in wonder as Grandpa H plucked a honeysuckle blossom and showed me how to pull the stamen ever so carefully until a drop of nectar emerged. “Try it," he said. I let it drip onto my tongue, sugary sweet. He laughed and handed me mint leaves to crush between my teeth and showed me where to pick mulberries, softly white and plump. He was the first to teach me that there is food all around us. Now, Grandpa M was a little less Romantic of a gardener. My memories of him include his reclining figure sitting in a chair with a shotgun defending his cabbage patch from a groundhog. He took seriously the business of growing food, and had a deep reverence for farming. He used to bring my mom bushels of squishy summer peaches screaming to be made into pie, and wouldn't turn down an invitation to have a slice. He taught me to respect labor and its fruits.
It’s funny how our early initiations can end up playing out in the people we become. My own parents never kept a garden, and it wasn’t until I had my own apartment with a sunny balcony that I considered buying some pots and dirt and attempting to plant something. Those first little fledgling sprouts tapped into something deeply rooted in me: I love to watch things grow. There is a primal satisfaction in coaxing life out of the soil; it is nourishing for body and soul. Our vegetable garden and the flowers in our yard bring me such peace.
But I don’t want to spend too much time waxing lyrically about the joys of gardening! I want to give you some useful, practical advice if this is an idea you’ve been toying with but maybe don’t know how to begin. Take that trip to the nursery! Don’t get overwhelmed with the selection. Keep it simple with these suggestions for some easy growers, and remember that the same rule of watering applies to all plants: make sure whatever container you use has drainage holes at the bottom (most plants will die if they are drowning in water), but keep the soil from getting too dry by watering regularly. The plants on this list don’t necessarily need fertilizer to grow and aren’t particularly susceptible to pests, so they’re a good place to begin.
Herbs. If you want to try growing some of your own food, start with herbs. Here in NJ, rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint are perennial. Plant them in a sunny spot, water them in the summer, and they come back year after year. There is not much maintenance, but all herbs benefit from harvesting. Snip some off occasionally even if you don’t plan on using it in a recipe (although I recommend working herbs in as an opportunity to experiment and add some extra nutrients). You can even put bunches of fresh herbs in a little vase of water on your countertop for a pretty, fragrant addition to your kitchen. The only thing to remember here is to give mint its own pot. It is invasive, which means it will spread like crazy if given the room. You don’t want it taking over (unless you do!) so plan accordingly. These herbs will do fine in the ground or in pots or even on a sunny kitchen windowsill! For first timers, I would maybe stay away from parsley, cilantro, and basil. These herbs are delicious but can be finicky with their growth habits.
Chives. These too are perennial and are easy to grow. It’s so nice to be able to snip a handful to top a baked potato or add to dips and salads. In the spring you’ll get chive blossoms, which are whimsical purple puffs that can be harvested to make chive vinegar! You simply cut and wash the blossoms, put them in a mason jar, top with white vinegar, and let sit for a couple weeks. It transforms into a gorgeous magenta color and its oniony zing makes the best addition to potato salad. Trust me, this will feel like a serious homesteading skill but making this homemade condiment couldn’t be easier!
Cherry or Grape Tomatoes. These can be grown in a pot on your patio as long as you have a cage to support the tall stems (you can also use stakes - even sticks - and loosely tie them up). Buy an established plant at any gardening center in late spring, set it in a sunny spot, and keep it moist. If you notice any yellowing leaves toward the bottom of the plant, just snap those off at the base and toss them in the pot. They will break down and enrich the soil. These little gems ripen quickly and are so fun for kids to pick. They are warm, sweet little bursts of juicy glory. If you don’t devour them straight off the vine, try tossing with a little olive oil and fresh garlic and roasting under the broiler for a quick burst-tomato sauce to spoon over pasta.
Lettuce. For a buck or two, you can buy a pack of mixed lettuce seeds, sprinkle in a pot in early spring, water regularly, and in a few weeks have your own ever-replenishing salad source. The more you snip, the more it grows. One downside: lettuce doesn’t like the hot weather, and so it will start to take a turn for the worse by July. If you do nothing, it will bolt and drop its seeds which will hang out in your pot until next spring when they pop up and surprise you!
Knockout Roses. Roses are notoriously complicated to grow. There are many different varieties to understand, fertilizers to use, pruning to master. But knockout roses are for everyone. As their name suggests, their profusion of blooms will knock your socks off, and, truth be told, all I do is water mine. I haven’t fertilized or pruned them, ever, and they’re still going strong after ten years. If you want to give your yard that English cottage feel, they are winners.
Impatiens. If you pick up a flat of these annuals (I like the New Guinea type), you’ll have colorful blooms from May to October. They clump and spread, so you end up with ten times the amount of blooms you started with, and there’s no primping or deadheading to worry about. Best of all, they do fine in sun or shade, pots or ground. They are cheerful, easygoing little crowd pleasers.
Last year, I lost both of my grandfathers. I like to think, as I look down at the dirt underneath my fingernails, that I'm keeping part of them with me in my garden. They'd love to know that our little backyard is teaching our kids to respect the Earth and wonder at its miracles. Think small, nurture a few sprouts, and when that giddy feeling that comes with knowing you grew something takes hold, you’ll be eager to try more. Don’t be afraid to fail, because each turning season teaches new lessons. If we give nature a little bit of our time, we are handed so much back so much in return.
No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.
- Thomas Jefferson