Easy plants for beginners

GardenersSo you want to garden? If you have your garden (or containers) set up, here are some great plants to start with. Please note, I’m writing from southern Michigan, so your results will best match mine if you live from New England through Ohio and west at about the same latitude (the light and dark green stripes on this map).

Best plants for a beginning garden (including container gardens):

  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Curly kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Hot peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Herbs, especially basil and chives
  • Squash, including zucchini, take a lot of space but are pretty reliable producers

Some plants that I don’t think are a good bet for a first garden:

  • Carrots and beets (very picky about water until they’re established)
  • Corn (takes a lot of space for a few ears; must be picked at exactly the right time)
  • Cucumbers (fairly picky about water)


  1. TeacherPatti said,

    February 6, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks, Emily!
    Can you start any of these inside and move them outside? Sorry if that’s a dumb question, but I have heard that some things can be started indoors so long as you have good light.

  2. Emily said,

    February 7, 2008 at 12:09 pm


    Herbs generally do well indoors. Onions and potatoes do not. The other things can all be started indoors and moved outside – but be sure to “harden them off” by taking them outside for the day and bringing them back in at night for a couple days before planting them outside. This reduces shock, as does planting them in peat pots – you can drop the whole pot in the soil, so less risk of damaging the plant by taking it out of the pot.

    Green beans and peas are terrific kid plants, in my opinion. They are large seeds, and very dramatic when they sprout. They’ll be 6″ tall with a couple big leaves in a week or ten days, and if you have enough sun, you can grow them indoors. Fix up a string trellis – maybe a broomstick or curtain rod with strings tied on, going down to a pencil stuck in each pot – and they’ll grow 6′ tall!

  3. TeacherPatti said,

    February 7, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks, Emily! I want to do a unit on local food/food production (I have no textbooks, so I’m kind of winging it!!) The beans/peas would be cool 🙂

  4. Emily said,

    February 8, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Patti- e-mail me from my professional web site http://www.drgndrop.com/ – I can help with this unit! My day job is instructional design, and I’ve done units for the Kalamazoo Nature Center and a Boys’ and Girls’ Club garden.

  5. March 10, 2008 at 1:38 pm

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  6. Gina said,

    March 8, 2009 at 4:03 pm


    I have a big back yard that gets lots of sun. I would love to start a garden, however I must say I am very intimidated by the whole possess. What words of encouragement do you have?

  7. Emily said,

    March 8, 2009 at 6:07 pm


    Sounds like you have a perfect gardening spot! I’d say prepare/get some good soil and jump right in. The process of experimentation is part of the fun. All the books on gardening – all the advice online – every word of “wisdom” written here…these are refinements.

    Gardening is simple: seeds want to grow. Give them soil, light, and water and the seeds will do the rest! Want more instruction? Just this:

    Start small. 8’x4′ is a great first garden size. I love raised beds for first gardens because you fill them with good soil, which really increases your harvests.
    Find out when the last frost of your winter is likely to be. (Try this map). That’s the date to plant your first garden.
    Plant big seeds directly into your garden. Peas, beans, and squash are really easy to grow!
    Buy tomato and pepper plants at a nursery – one cherry tomato and three pepper plants should be plenty.
    Water deeply about once per week. This can be rain, watering can, or with a hose with a sprayer attachment. Ideal dirt looks like moist chocolate cake.
    Pull the weeds out when they are small.
    At the end of the summer, make a note of what grew well, what you wish you had more of, and what was not worth the fuss.

    Next year, you can try something new – early spring plants that go out before the danger of frost is past, improving the soil, starting your own seedlings…but you don’t have to do all these things right off the bat. Do the fun stuff first – planting and harvesting – to get a feel for it, and add other aspects later.

    And remember – there’s never a garden where everything works perfectly every year! I generally have 2-3 thing that just bomb every year, or I give up or lose patience. Just celebrate the victories and enjoy the miracles each day in the garden brings!


  8. allison said,

    March 9, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    When starting a raised bed, should I till the ground I put fresh soil on? It seems like hard soil. Thanks.

    • Emily said,

      March 10, 2009 at 8:41 am

      Nope. If you put at least 6″ of “garden blend” mix (half soil, half compost – don’t use just one or the other) it’ll smother the grass and start to soften the soil. The worms will do all your tilling – by the end of the season, you won’t know the difference between the in-bed soil and the under-bed soil.

  9. April 7, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    […] Easy plants for beginners […]

  10. Terri said,

    November 4, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I have heard that there are some flowers that you can plant in or around your garden that will keep bugs away. Do you know what they are? I really don’t like the idea of having to use any kind of chemicals.

    FYI – I live in south Texas on the Gulf Coast

    • Emily said,

      November 4, 2009 at 1:15 pm

      Try looking up “companion planting” – here’s a really nice overview: http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/complant.html

      Also keep in mind, the healthier your soil, the fewer pests you’ll have. Use lots of compost to keep nutrients and organic matter and beneficial microbes in the soil, and you’ll have far fewer bug problems.

  11. Mandy said,

    March 20, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I am attempting to start my first garden! How far apart should I plant the seeds and in a 4’x8′ garden is the limit to the variety of seeds I can plant?

    • Emily said,

      March 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm


      Each type of plant needs different spacing. See my drag-and-drop garden planner. https://eatclosetohome.wordpress.com/2008/02/07/drag-and-drop-garden-planner/ Each dot represents one plant. Big plants, like tomatoes, need more than a square foot each. Medium things like kale and broccoli need one square foot. Small things like beans you can put 4-9 in one square foot, and tiny things like onions can sometimes get 16 per square foot.

      4×8′ is a great starter size. Be sure to plant enough of each thing so you get more than a mouthful. If you like all these veggies, try planting one tomato, one squash (planted at the corners so they can climb out of the bed), 4 square feet of green beans (you need that much to get a meal’s worth at once), a square foot of onions, 2 squares of greens (lettuce, kale, etc), 3 squares of potatoes, a pepper plant or two. Plant things you like to eat, and maybe one or two experiments to see if you might have new favorites!


  12. debra wise said,

    April 10, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I am attempting to start my first garden but i dont have a lot of space so would a raised beds work / here what i would like plant tomatoes,sweet potatoes.collard greens.pepper,onions, i,m i trying to much for a beginner thanks debra

    • Emily said,

      April 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm

      As long as you have sun, any size space is good for raised beds. Sweet potatoes will take the most space of the things you list. You could put 2 tomato plants, 3 collards, 4 peppers, and a couple dozen onions in a 4’x8′ bed, easily.

  13. August 23, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    […] Easy plants for beginners […]

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