As a first-time gardener, it's all too easy to walk into the local nursery and walk out with an armful of vegetable crops that have already been started and nurtured by somebody else, some that are even bearing fruit for you to pick. We get it, instant gratification.
But if you want to get the most out of edible gardening, it's worth it to start some of your own plants from seed. You don't need to invest much other than your time and attention; you can start seeds indoors with your garbage, or scour the dollar store for seed starting supplies that will last several seasons.
The best varieties to try for the first time are quick growing and highly productive plants, with radishes, squash, and bush beans ranking high on the list. These varieties have easy-to-handle seeds that won't fly away or require a deft hand to sow. Almost all of them will germinate (if purchased from a reputable supplier) and you can easily save more seeds from the plants or vegetables for future plantings.
Shop for seeds from one of these local California companies — the fun part is trying to decide which colors to get!
#1 Radishes For a first-time gardener, radishes are a no-brainer. Quick to germinate and quick to grow, spring radishes (such as French Breakfast, Early Scarlet Globe, and Purple Plum) mature in just 20 to 30 days (sprouts appear within just a few days). Large winter types (such as daikon, watermelon radish, and black radish) fully mature in 60 days, but can be picked at any time if you prefer smaller roots and don't plan to store them for long after harvest. You can also grow radish just for their highly nutritious sprouts, and harvest them in 7 to 10 days after sowing the seeds.
For a steady harvest of radishes all season, sow seeds every couple of weeks, up until early summer. They don't tolerate heat well, so start sowing seeds again in fall when the weather's cooled down.
To save radish seeds, leave a few of your plants in the ground to the point where the roots are way past their prime. The plants will bolt (produce a flower stalk) with delicate white or lavender flowers. The long, skinny seed pods will start to form after the flowering stage; collect the seed pods once they've dried up.
#2 Squash Anyone who's said they've never been able to grow food has never tried growing squash. Large seeds make them incredibly easy to sow; sprouts appear within a week and the seedlings grow quite rapidly in a matter of weeks. A squash plant is a rather large plant when mature, so give it plenty of room to sprawl or a sturdy trellis to climb.
Summer squash (including zucchini) and winter squash (including pumpkin) grow the same way, the difference being that winter squash can be left to mature through the end of summer to develop hard, thick shells that make them ideal for winter storage. But both types of squash can be harvested at any stage, from little babies (no more than an inch or two wide) to more mature fruit (up to a foot or more long). A single plant can yield dozens of squash over the course of a season, and soon you'll be fretting about how else you can cook with it — or who else you can give it away to.
To save squash seeds, scoop the seeds from the centers of mature squash and gently wash off the stringy pulp. Let the seeds air dry over a few days, then store in a cool, dark and dry place.
#3 Bush beans Bush beans are the compact, bushy versions of pole beans — what green beans are called in the gardening world. They're ideal for people that don't want to put up trellises or worry about managing long vines. Bush bean varieties typically stay under 2 feet tall but produce lots of beans. They wait for no one; if you spot baby beans one day, they'll suddenly have a growth spurt as soon as you turn your head away.
Best tip for growing bush beans: choose colorful varieties with purple, yellow, or striped pods. Not only are they gorgeous, but they make harvesting much easier against an all-green plant. Purple beans don't stay purple when cooked, however, so best to pick them young and eat them raw.
To save bush bean seeds, let a few of the pods dry out naturally on the plant. Before they split open, collect them and save the seeds inside.