Last Updated on July 9, 2021
Food tastes better when you know where it came from. There’s something satisfying about biting into a steak or pork chop you know is the product of a sound, sustainable animal husbandry. And while proteins are the highlight of any meal where they make an appearance, there’s a reason our parents always reminded us to eat our vegetables.
That same principle—that they somehow taste better when you know their origins—applies. And here’s a little secret: Growing your own produce is pretty easy.
These five veggies are easy to grow in almost any climate. Small outdoor space? No problem. These are all happy growing in containers; no garden bed required. And it’s not too late to get started: Each of these requires a fairly short amount of time to start growing and bearing fruit, so there’s no need to start seeds in the dead of winter. Ready to impress your friends with a little “this came from our garden”? Here’s what you need to know.
Get Your Greens with Baby Kale
Like many leafy greens, kale will happily grow in a container. It doesn’t mind the cold, and it’s great for the impatient gardener. Baby kale, which is just kale that hasn’t reached its full size yet, is ready to harvest two to three weeks after planting. Red Russian kale is a nice variety for salads—its leaves stay tender and retain a nice lavender hue at the baby stage.
Water well and keep shaded after planting (kale germinates at temperatures between 65° and 75°F), and when the leaves have reached your desired size, simply snip them off their stems. With sweet, tender greens like baby kale, a Caesar salad makes a hearty-yet-refreshing dinner. Complete the meal with grilled wild salmon filet.
Tackle the Haters with Fairy Tale Eggplant
Eggplants like warm weather, so there’s no rush to get these plants in the ground early. A long, slender variety like the Fairy Tale has a lovely pattern and makes for easy prep and grilling, but there are countless types, and several (like the Patio Baby) do well in containers—give each plant its own five-gallon pot. A stake or bamboo pole will keep the plant upright as its relatively heavy fruits develop. When your eggplants’ skins are glossy and the fruit doesn’t bounce back when squeezed, it’s ready to harvest.
Get Juicy with Heirloom Tomatoes
Sweet, juicy, and bursting with a surprisingly strong flavor, an heirloom tomato—like the Cherokee Purple or Kellogg’s Breakfast—practically begs to be sliced, sprinkled with a little salt, and sent down the hatch. You can start tomato plants indoors from seed, but for the simplest route, grab a couple of starters from the local hardware store or nursery. Once the fruits reach a deep red (or in the case of the Cherokee, dark purple) color and give just a little when you gently squeeze—think the same amount of pressure it takes to depress the tip of your nose—they’re ready to harvest.
Keep the preparation super-simple to avoid masking the flavor of your homegrown tomatoes. Slice a tomato and brush it with good olive oil, then place on the grill until they blister (about five minutes). Otherwise, go with a straightforward caprese hors d’oeuvre: stack a slice of tomato, a slice of fresh mozzarella, and a basil leaf; drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Either dish pairs well with a mild protein, like grilled chicken or white fish.
Crunch out with Carrots
Once you’ve grown your own (lumpy, twisted, gnarled) carrots, you’ll see those tapered, uniform veggies in the supermarket with new eyes. But here’s the thing about carrots: Even when they’re really ugly, they still taste like carrots and they’re satisfyingly easy to grow from seed.
If you’re growing your carrots in containers, choose one that’s deep enough for the roots to grow nice and long, at least 12 inches—a five-gallon bucket works great. Sow the seeds just a few inches apart; when greens reach three inches, thin the carrots so there’s about two inches between each. You’ll know they’re ready to harvest when the tops of the roots are just visible above the soil. Grated carrots make a refreshing summer salad, a perfect side for burgers or grilled chicken sandwiches.
Delight Your Neighbors—and Your Family—with Zucchini
Zucchini is notoriously easy to grow, so much that it’s a time-honored tradition for green-thumb neighbors to try and foist gigantic squashes off on one another all summer long. They germinate quickly, meaning you’ll start to see little leaves just about a week after planting. Containers are fine, though since the plant itself gets huge, you’ll want something at least 24 inches across and 12 inches deep.
Start looking for fruits when you see beautiful yellow flowers; in hot weather, zucchinis can grow an inch or two a day, and the plants will keep producing all season long. Don’t let them get too big before harvesting; five to seven inches is the sweet spot before they start to get bitter. A quick batch of zucchini fritters makes a delicious addition to any meal where you’re serving barbecue sauce—ribs, anyone? Bonus: these are so tasty, kids—and adults—won’t even realize they’re eating their veggies.
Emma Walker is a freelance writer and editor in Boise, ID. A reformed vegetarian, her writing on food and travel has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Outside, and Alaska. She lives on a little urban homestead with a lot of homegrown veggies, a handful of backyard chickens, and a very bad dog. You can follow her on Instagram @emma.r.walker or check out more of her writing at www.emmarwalker.com.