When I started my first garden, I picked all sort of vegetables without really thinking about how much space they took up, whether they thrived in a Chicago climate, or whether I actually even liked the taste enough to invest in growing them. Sadly, my first garden was not that successful. But that first year didn’t stop me, and by now, in my sixth year of gardening, I’ve learned which veggies thrive in my small, backyard plot.
The following is a list of vegetables that any starter garden should have. They thrive in MOST climates, taste better than store-bought, and are easy to grow in containers in tight spots or in raised beds.
Of all the veggies on this list, tomatoes take up the most space and require the most care—some varieties can grow up to 12 ft tall (!) and the plants require staking, pruning and fertilizing. However, once you taste your own sweet home-grown tomatoes, you’ll never want to buy a grocery-store tomato again.
When to Plant: In Chicago and other locations in this region, plant tomatoes in mid-May to June. In warmer climates, gardeners can plant them earlier in the season—just be sure to plant them well after your last frost.
Growing Requirements: Many resources will tell you that you can grow tomatoes in three- to five-gallon containers—don’t believe them. Personally, I grow my tomatoes in 15-gallon grow bags, but you can get away with using a 10-gallon container per tomato plant. If you’re growing in a raised bed, limt to just a couple of seedlings and plant them at least 2-3 ft apart because they take up a lot of room. Tomatoes also need to grow in a space that gets FULL sun. If your back porch, balcony or yard is shaded in the least, your tomatoes won’t flourish; the plants need at least eight hours of direct sunlight a day. However, if you live in a super-hot and sunny environment, tomatoes may struggle in the heat so try planting them in shadier spots.
Varieties: One of the most important things to know about tomatoes is that there are two varieties: determinate and indeterminate. Though both are suitable for containers, determinate tomatoes, which include most kinds of Roma, Early Girl, and Celebrity, are more compact than indeterminate varieties. Referred to as bush tomatoes, determinates grow to about 4-5 ft tall and require less staking and pruning of “suckers” than indeterminate varieties. The fruit also ripen all at once, so you’ll get one harvest over a period of about two weeks. Indeterminate tomatoes are less bushy and more vining, require staking and pruning and need bigger containers because they are larger than determinate varieties. You can taste all that tender-loving-care in the final product, though, which is reminiscent of that old-fashioned tomato flavor that your grandparents wax poetic about. On average, the plants reach 6 ft tall and include heirlooms such as Purple Cherokee, Brandywine, Beefsteak and Sweet Million. Once they ripen, they will continue to produce fruit over the season until killed by frost.
Greens such as lettuce, mustards, kale and collards are the easy to care for and don’t take up a lot of space, which is always a premium for urban gardeners. Plus, the more you cut and eat them, the more they will produce for you.
When to Plant: Ideally a couple of weeks before the last frost. But in Chicago, who knows when that could be? It snowed in late April this year—should this have stopped you from planting greens before then? Heck no! Most greens are cool-weather crops, so I would suggest starting them in March in places with Chicago-like temperatures. This would be even earlier for gardeners who live in less-tundra-like environments. It’s still not too late to plant some greens; I just planted baby collards, which tolerate the heat more than other leafy greens like lettuce.
Growing Requirements: The best thing about greens is that most of them don’t need much space because they have shallow roots. There are exceptions (hello, Lacinato, aka Dinosaur Kale, and collards), but for the most part you can choose small pots—I like to use those long rail planters for lettuce, for example. They do like sunny spots in cool weather, but to extend the life of your leafy greens move them to a shadier, cooler spot in your garden once the summer heats up. This will help them to resist bolting, which means the plant has begun to flower and has given the signal to reproduce and stop growing. Some leafy greens are easier to grow than others (I’m really terrible at growing spinach, for example, and avoid it at all costs), but for the most part they are pretty idiot-proof.
Varieties: The other great thing about leafy greens is that they are best direct sown, which means you can plant seeds directly in a pot outside. This means you aren’t limited to whatever plant that your local nursery is offering. There are so many varieties of seeds for each kind of leafy green—you cannot even begin to imagine how many types of lettuce there are in the world!
Like tomatoes, peppers like it hot and sunny. There are so many different types of peppers with so many different flavors from candy sweet to fiery hot, you’re sure to find ones that all your family members can enjoy.
When to Plant: Chicagoland gardeners, don’t gamble with your peppers’ lives—wait and don’t plant them until at least June. The soil must be warm and the days sunny. I have learned my lesson.
Growing requirements: Again, most resources will say that you need smaller pots than you actually do for peppers. While it does depend on the type of pepper—sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers, and spicy Thai Chiles, for example, are small and can fit multiple to a pot—most peppers need a substantial size container if you want a good yield. I tend to use 10-gallon grow bags for each of my pepper plants, notwithstanding the smaller varieties. Just be sure to look up space requirements for the pepper you have; it won’t always tell you on the pot it comes in.
Varieties: If you like sweet or mild peppers, Shishito, pimentos, banana or bell peppers are good choices. If you like medium heat, try Anaheim, Poblano or Hatch chiles. If you like it roof-scorching hot, then Scotch Bonnets, Habaneros and Carolina Reapers are for you.
For container gardens, I recommend growing bush beans rather than vining types, which requires a trellis and can take up a good amount of space in an urban garden.
When to plant: I like to direct sow peas—the seeds are cheap, growing them inside is more trouble than it’s worth, and it’s less expensive than buying plants at the nursery. In Chicago, planting seeds directly in your pot outside in late May-early June is perfectly good timing.
Growing requirements: The thing to know about bush beans is that you’re going to need more plants than you think—a lot more. A good rule of thumb is to grow four to eight plants per person. Thankfully, beans don’t take up too much space, so you can get about five to six plants in a 10-gallon container. Beans don’t require much fertilizing because they produce their own in a process called nitrogen fixing. Though bush beans perform better in full sun, you can also grow them in partial shade.
Varieties: My favorite green bean is called Calima. It’s a slender, stringless French bean that gets pretty high yields. Other popular bush bean varieties include Contender, Dragon’s Tongue (LOVE these; plus, they are beautiful!), Kentucky Wonder and Provider.
Whenever I see the tiny, sad plastic packages of herbs at the grocery store, I smugly pat myself on the back because I am getting a great bang for my buck by growing lots of different kinds.
When to Plant: Some tender herbs like basil like it when it’s warmer out, so don’t plant those until late May early June. Other herbs such as chives, like it cooler, so plant them earlier in the year. It really depends on the herb.
Growing requirements: The cool thing about herbs is that you can usually tuck them into corners of pots that you’ve already planted other vegetables in. For example, I often grown basil plants along with my tomatoes in the same container. Otherwise, plant them in small pots that you can move around. Find out the lighting your herbs like best by testing out different spots in the garden.
Varieties: Once you’ve gotten growing basic grocery store herbs like basil, parsley, and thyme down, try fancier herbs. I’m growing multiple types of basil this year and experimenting with growing various herbs for medicinal purposes.