When it comes to growing vegetables for the dinner table, it seems to be a no-brainer that you'd want varieties that are easy to grow. But for some of us, knowing the easiest varieties is an absolute necessity. Nurturing plants that bear fruit for eating is fraught with potential problems—from unfavorable weather to messing up the watering schedule to losses from squirrels and other hungry critters. It just makes sense to choose plants that minimize the struggle, so you can actually reap—and eat—what you sow. Fortunately, there are plenty of good vegetable options you can grow right from seed.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Carrots
Carrots are easy on many levels. They don't need careful watering or much feeding (fertilizer); they like full sun but are OK with partial shade; they grow in the ground so they're protected from most pests and are generally resistant to disease; and they can even survive a frost and actually like a little cold weather, so you don't have rush out and cover them if the temperature dips or an early snow is on the way. Carrots are also fun to harvest, digging them up one by one like a treasure hunt. All of these characteristics make carrots a great first vegetable for beginners and kids to try. For best results, be sure to follow three rules: plant them in loose, sandy or loamy soil, space the seeds and rows carefully, and don't be afraid to thin the sprouts so they aren't overcrowded.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Zucchini and Squash
Zucchini and yellow squash are common types of "summer squash" and are harvested throughout the summer. In the peak of the season, you can almost watch them get bigger. In fact, it's best to check your crop daily and pick the fruits when they're still young and tender. If they get away from you, they can easily grow to 2 feet long and won't taste very good. Plant summer squash seeds in moist but well-drained soil that is at least 60 degrees F and in full sun. Choose a bush variety if space is limited; squash leaves get huge and can quickly take over a small garden.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Cucumbers
Cucumbers are a good option for those seeking instant gratification, or at least relatively quick results, since the plants grow quickly and the fruit can be ready in as little as six weeks. Vining varieties grow up a trellis or fence and keep the fruit off the ground. Bush varieties stay on the ground, spreading quickly, and need a little less maintenance. Cucumbers like warm soil and shouldn't be planted too early. They also need consistent watering to stay plump and healthy. If you miss a watering or two, the fruits might let you know by puckering or changing shape.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Lettuce and Spinach
If anything in a garden grows "like a weed," it's lettuce and its cousin, spinach. Both are prolific producers and won't take over a small garden like zucchini or cucumber. In fact, many varieties of lettuce and spinach like protection from heat—if not full-shade—so they're great for growing in the shadows of taller plants, making them space-efficient. But perhaps the best trait of lettuce and spinach is that you can harvest a little or a lot: pick a few leaves from various plants for a quick salad (leaving the rest in the ground, where they'll stay as fresh as possible), or trim an entire plant about 1 inch from the ground, and it'll grow back.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Kale
Kale looks like crazy, frilly lettuce but is actually part of the cabbage family (if you look closely, you can see a resemblance to cabbage leaves). It likes the cool sides of the seasons, so you can plant it earlier than many other vegetables, as well as late in summer for fall harvest. Many varieties are frost-tolerant. In some climates, kale can even grow through winter. The plants stop producing when the temperature drops below 20 F. Like lettuce, kale leaves can be harvested without killing the plant or stopping its production. Regular harvesting helps ensure that you enjoy the leaves at their peak (and not overgrown). Most types of kale get a bit sweeter after a light frost or snow.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Radishes
Like kale, radishes are another good option for early-spring and late-summer planting. They don't do well in the heat of midsummer and should be harvested before it gets too hot. At the end of summer, you can plant radishes as late as one month before the first frost and you'll still get a fall harvest. Radishes are fun to plant with carrots; you can even mix the seeds together. When the radishes get pulled up, they'll leave space and nicely loosened soil for the carrots to thrive in.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Peas and Beans
Peas are popular plants for kids to grow because they're fun and easy to pick, and they never taste better than when eaten right out of your hands in the garden. If you just can't wait to start gardening in the spring, plant peas; they can go in the ground up to six weeks before the last frost in spring (as long as the soil is 45 F or warmer). In plant hardiness zone 5, for example, you might plant peas just before flying someplace warm for spring break. Peas grow upward and must be supported by trellises or poles. This makes them easy to harvest and creates an attractive vertical backdrop in the garden. The three most common varieties are sweet peas (don't eat the shell) and snow peas and snap peas (eat the shell).
Beans are similar to peas in that they grow vertically, produce lots of fruit and are great for picking (regularly) and eating right away. They like warmer weather than peas and can be planted after the last frost. Once they start producing well, you can start picking beans off the vine every day.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow: Beets
Beets are flexible about temperature and can be planted in any month from March to September, except for May. They need plenty of water but are otherwise low-maintenance, although they should be thinned (like carrots) to prevent overcrowding. Beets can be harvested almost anytime, depending on your preference. One of the best things about beets is that you can eat the whole plant. The bright-colored bulb is the root, and the greens are just as tasty. Sautéed beet greens taste like a cross between spinach and Swiss chard.
Philip Schmidt is author of Install Your Own Solar Panels, The Complete Guide to Treehouses, and 18 other home-related how-to books. A former carpenter, he has been a full-time writer and editor for over two decades, teaching DIYers about houses and everything we do with them.