Four Favorites for First Time Gardeners

We wanted to get advice for first time gardeners out there. Maybe you just moved into your first house, or you have a balcony you want to put to good use, but you’ve never tried growing your own food. So we reached out the nicest neighborhood farmer we know, horticultural consultant Jay Szabo. Known for his incredible farm in the middle of the city at Dunham Tavern Museum, he shared a few tips for those just getting started . . .


Now that spring is almost official, the sun feels warm enough to finally push away the chill of winter. And, perhaps, first time gardeners are considering a kitchen garden in that muddy patch next to the back door, or making use of the idle pots stacked in the garage.

My advice is to start small, prepare the soil, and select vegetable varieties that remain at peak flavor for a longer window of time.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Select a garden location with at least four hours of direct sun.
  2. Prepare the garden by adding compost or bagged leaf humus to improve the texture of the soil and raise the bed at least a few inches.  Roots can always grow to where they need more moisture but if the soil is soggy, dense and wet, there is little the plant can do to thrive.
  3. Many vegetables grow well in pots, so a collection of pots on a patio, porch, or balcony could be great place to get started. If you are going to use containers, purchase a good potting mix (not soil) for your plants.

So what should you plant? Here are four of my favorite performers:


Mesclun Salad Mix:  There is nothing like the taste of a fresh salad mix.  The seeds are small and require light to germinate, so plant in pots or wide bands and barely cover with soil or compost.  The seeds begin to germinate in a few days.  Harvest by trimming the young leaves to an inch above the soil.  The roots will sprout new leaves for successive harvests.  Some mixes remain productive all summer.  If the leaves get woody, pull up the plants and sow a second crop.

Red Radishes

Radish:  Ready to harvest 22 days from planting, I select varieties that remain crunchy and do not get too spicy, such as ‘Cherry Belle’ or ‘Rover.’  Radish grow well in containers.  Chilled, sliced, and served with sweet butter, a pinch of salt and a baguette is the perfect way to savor the taste of home grown radishes.


Kale:  A fantastic crop for early or late season, kale has skyrocketed in popularity.  A superfood, kale can be grown easily from seed.  For a small garden, it might be easier to purchase a few plants at the local garden center.  One plant can produce a lot of leaves.  Kale can be harvested as a whole plant, but I prefer to harvest the leaves, as they mature, from the bottom up.  The plants will look like small palm trees by the end of the season with a long stalk and rosettes of leaves at the top.  The most popular varieties at my farm are ’Toscano’ (a Lacinato type) and ‘Winterbor’ a curly form with sweet flavor, cold tolerance, and great for making kale chips.


Beets:  A great early crop that is easy to grow.  I like the leaves as much as the root.  Red varieties, such as ‘Red Ace’ or ‘Detroit’ have the best flavor.  Beets do not like to have their roots disturbed, so plant in the ground for best results.  Thin to three to four inches apart.  Beet “seeds” are actually a small fruit with a few seeds inside, so if all the seeds germinate, you will need to select the strongest and thin out the other seedlings so the beet develops a nicely formed root.

This is just an example of vegetables that are easy to grow and are not prone to pests. The best advice to any new gardener is plant what you like and the pleasure of the harvest makes the routine of gardening a relaxing diversion from the daily routine.

Happy Spring!