Guest post by Susan Dieterlen
I should know better, but I’ve planted radishes again. In this my 40th year of growing vegetables, I can count on one hand the number of times my efforts have yielded good radishes. Look at them there in the photo: vibrant red orbs, bursting with sweet-spicy radishness. You know why I took a picture of that crop? Because it was like Bigfoot strolling through the garden: so unlikely you can’t believe your eyes.
Radishes are inevitably included in the “for beginners” or worse, “for children” collections in seed catalogs, a statement I can scarcely type without snorting. Weather too hot, too dry, too cold then too hot, or just too…wrong? You’ve got atomic mothballs or wizened red curlicues. Usually with lush tops, to taunt you. But at least they are a fast crop, sometimes over and done within a month, which provides you with multiple chances to fail with them before frost. What fun.
What’s worse? Carrots. Another of the usual suspects on the “easy to grow” list. Only a real sadist would encourage growing carrots with children. Notoriously slow to sprout, carrots may eventually deign to grow promising frilly tops, suckering you into believing orange treasure waits below ground. Spoiler: it doesn’t. What’s underground may be a shriveled yellowish stub, or even a fairly reasonable looking carrot that hides its tough chewiness and utter lack of sweetness until you get to the kitchen.
The best reason to grow carrots is actually artistic, which is the most charitable way to describe the contorted octopus that you’ll find at the end of those lush carrot greens, should your soil be less than 100% perfect: constantly moist yet somehow composed of loose sand.
For pure passive-aggression in the garden, though, you cannot beat dill and cilantro. Both self-sow with abandon, popping up everywhere – except where you deliberately plant their seeds with your own hands, lovingly tending them, weeding them, watering them. Last year I had five successive plantings of dill die. Five. Guess what’s just popped up in the garden on its own? Dill. If you listen close, you can hear that seedling snickering. Side note: I have no idea what it takes to keep dill bearing season long. Possibly some kind of incantation.
“But what,” you ask, “can my novice gardener friends grow, if not these?” Steer them toward these, my top unsung easy crops for the vegetable garden:
– Beans. All of ’em, but especially green beans. The seeds are big and easy to handle, the seedlings look like something important that you shouldn’t pull up, and there’s no angst about when a green bean is ready to pick. If it looks like a green bean, it’s ready. Your biggest problem with growing beans is rabbits eating the plants, but you can shoo them away while you’re out there cursing at the radishes.
– Zucchini. You saw this coming, right? Zucchini are nearly fool-proof to grow, which is why every fool is trying to give them away come September. (No one ever tries to sneak a bag of homegrown carrots onto your porch, do they?) Don’t be that fool: one plant is plenty, unless you are truly zucchini-mad. But again, they have big seeds, big don’t-pull-me-up sprouts, and they grow fast, which is a delight until they start churning out monster zukes overnight.
– Special mention to mustard greens and all their Asian kin, like tatsoi and mizuna. They sprout almost before you’ve got the seed in the ground, are harvest-sized in a flash, and are happy to grow in any weather short of a polar vortex – but they are also host to a legion of insect pests that are nearly impossible to keep at bay. My best advice is to grow these plants, and anything else in the cabbage family, in cold weather, which will work, even though it sounds crazy. Failing that, you must embrace the obsession of picking the creepy-crawlies off them, either in the garden or in the kitchen. Or spray them. Or develop a strong stomach for getting plenty of accidental protein with your greens. A two-for-one dish: what could be easier than that?
Susan Dieterlen is a lifelong gardener, in addition to/in spite of having been a professional landscape architect for 20+ years. When she’s not cursing at carrot sprouts, she runs DeftSpace Lab, a consulting practice for sustainable communities, and “30% Wild,” a podcast about scary wildlife near people.