CookingLight diet CookingLight diet

Plus, eight edible plants you can try growing at home.

Jennifer Kushnier
April 17, 2018

As the final remnants of snow melt and the outdoor temps begin to climb, you might have a hankering to get outside and dig in the dirt. Gardening has plenty of benefits, too. It’s good for your mind, the planet, and your wallet (hello, homegrown veggies!). But it has another surprising benefit: it’s good for your waistline.

A 2018 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when older cancer survivors started an at-home vegetable garden, they boosted their daily produce intake and kept inches from creeping in. Similar results were found in a separate study with first-year college students: those who gardened ate significantly more fruits and vegetables than those who didn’t. In fact, the more they gardened, the more produce they ate.

It makes sense. Eating more fruits and vegetables has been shown to help us lose weight and improve BMI—plus, just 30 minutes of weeding and cultivating a garden burns about 170 calories.

Luckily, you don’t need a large backyard or even a green thumb to start an edible garden. Some of the easiest fruits and vegetables can be grown in large pots on a patio or balcony. You should plant what you like to eat, but some fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to icky-sounding things like squash vine borer beetles, fire blight, and smut. Others are more difficult to grow. Since each region of the country falls into different garden zones, specific planting times will vary; refer to the instructions on the backs of seed packets.  

Here are a few suggestions that will make you happier and give you confidence in the garden. They will grow easily, yield copiously, and take care of themselves (to an extent).

Peas

One of the easiest veggies to plant, peas come in three types: shelling (inedible pods), snow (flat, edible pods), and snap (plump, edible pods). Since they grow vertically and don’t take up much space, try planting various types. You can also stagger the planting for continued harvest.

When to Harvest: Early spring and fall, within 2 months of planting. Shelling pea pods should be plump with the peas just touching; snow pea pods should be 3 to 4 inches long, before the seeds swell; and snap pea pods should be bulging and bright green.

Tips for Success: Plant them on a trellis, tomato cage, tepee frame, or fence in full sun. The more you harvest, the more you’ll get, and be gentle to the vines when harvesting. The yield is smaller in pots, so shoot for 3 to 6 plants per 5-gallon container. Check out our guide to peas for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Snap Pea Salad with Whipped Ricotta, Tortellini with Snap Peas and Pesto, Fresh Pea and Garlic Gazpacho, Pea Shoot Salad with Radishes and Pickled Onion, Indian-Spiced Pea Fritters

Spinach

Nutritious spinach is a terrific blank slate in salads or smoothies, but it becomes especially flavorful when it’s cooked. Choose flat-leaf or savoy (dimpled) varieties, and plant in early spring or late summer.

When to Harvest: Early spring and fall, about 6 weeks after planting, once the plants have enough large leaves so you can harvest no more than half the plant at a time (if you want it to keep producing).

Tips for Success: Pay attention to the sun (and heat), as spinach does best in cooler weather. If using containers, they should be movable or receive partial shade. Plant a new batch of seeds every 2 weeks for a continuous supply. If space is limited, plant seeds around pea plants, as these veggies are garden friends. Check out our guide to spinach for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Ricotta-Spinach Dumplings, Spinach and Feta Stuffed Chicken Breasts, Spinach-Walnut Pesto, Sauteed Spinach with Garlic and Red Pepper, Spinach Smoothies  

Radishes

There’s so much more to the unassuming radish than those red orbs with limp tops at the grocery store. Long slender breakfast radishes, giant white daikon, pink and green rainbow radishes, or coal-dark black radishes all deliver a signature peppery bite. The whole thing can be eaten raw or cooked (when the root becomes a bit sweeter).

When to Harvest: Early spring and early fall, 3 to 4 weeks after planting. Pull radishes as soon as their “shoulders” pop through the soil, when they’re 1 to 1 ½ inches in diameter. Daikon radishes take about 2 months to mature.

Tips for Success: Because they’re a root, radishes prefer loose soil. Plant a new batch of seeds in full sun every week for a continuous harvest. Check out our guide to radishes for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Radish Salad with Buttermilk-Herb Dressing, Radishes in Browned Butter and Lemon, Sauteed Leeks and Radishes, Radish and Carrot Salad, Radish Carpaccio, Warmed Buttered Radish and Edamame Salad, Radish and Turnip Saute

Beans

From yellow to green to purple, snap beans add terrific texture to salads, are great on the grill, and are perfect pickled. Snap beans (rather than shelling beans) have edible pods; choose pole varieties that will climb. If your summers are very short, however, select bush varieties, which take less time to mature.

When to Harvest: All summer long, when the pods are large, 4 to 6 inches in length, but not bulging, about 2 months after planting in full sun.

Tips for Success: Compost your harvested peas plants and put the beans in their place, offering them a lot of twine on which to climb. Harvest often for greater yield. Water well but not to the point of sogginess, and don’t water the leaves and flowers directly. Check out our guide to beans for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Sweet and Sour Pickled Green Beans, Green and Yellow Bean Salad, Herby Potato, Green Bean, and Tuna Salad, Garlic and Sesame Green Beans, Green Beans with Lemon Oil, Herbed Green and Wax Beans

Cucumbers

There are snacking cucumbers and there are pickling cucumbers, so be sure you have the type you like best—or try both!

When to Harvest: All summer long, about 2 months after planting in full sun, when 4 to 8 inches long and entirely green. Pickling cucumbers will mature a bit sooner. Harvest with snippers rather than pulling on the vines.

Tips for Success: Put them on a trellis! If you’ve never seen cucumbers hanging from their vine, you’re in for a treat. Raising them off the ground prevents certain diseases, but it does make cucumbers more susceptible to drought, so water thoroughly and regularly. Check out our guide to cucumbers for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Cold Sesame Noodles with Chicken and Cucumbers, Greek Cucumber and Chickpea Bowl, Dilly Cucumber Salad with Yogurt, Sesame Shrimp with Smashed Cucumber Salad, Pea and Cucumber Cooler

Potatoes

Toss a seed potato into a hole, mound it with dirt, then enjoy hunting for the tubers in the fall. Potatoes are also suitable for growing in large containers, such as a 30-gallon trash can. Give purple, blue, gold, or sweet potatoes a whirl.

When to Harvest: Anywhere from 3 to 5 months after planting, depending on when they’re planted. Shortly after the blossoms fall, about 2 months after planting, you can harvest thinner-skinned “new” potatoes, or wait until the foliage turns brown and dies back before digging them up. They’ll also “keep” in the ground for several weeks, before the first frost sets in.

Tips for Success: Do not plant with tomatoes or cucumbers. Because potatoes are susceptible to disease, plant only certified seed potatoes, which means they’ve been inspected for diseases that could ruin your crop. As they grow, it’s important to keep all but the top 5 or 6 sets of leaves (3 to 6 inches of the plant) under dirt, compost, straw, or pine needles until the plants flower. Though the plants need full sun, if sunlight hits the growing tubers, they’ll turn green (and slightly toxic). Water generously until the leaves start to yellow. If using pots, plant three near the bottom, adding layers of dirt as the plant grows (and don’t forget that drainage hole).

Recipes to Try: Parsley-and-Dill Potatoes, Spanish-Style Roasted Potatoes, Potato and Leek Gratin, Fingerling Potato Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette, Sweet Potato Medallions with Almond Sauce and Chickpea Salad, Smoked Potato Salad

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the true stars of summer, and there are thousands of varieties to choose from. Tomatoes are perfect for containers, but if you give them a large cage, they’ll greedily use it.

When to Harvest: All summer, into October if you’re lucky, 2 to 3 months after transplanting seedlings. Best when allowed to fully ripen on the vine and have a firm skin. When it's super hot out, pick them a little on the underripe side and let them ripen on a bright windowsill indoors (but out of direct sunlight). In late season, pick the green ones before the first frost, wrap in newspaper, and keep in a cool dark place—they’ll ripen over several weeks.

Tips for Success: Give your young seedlings a gentle brush with your hand twice a day to encourage stronger stems. Snip off smaller branches; pruning will send more energy to the bulk of the plant and result in more ‘maters. Plant them where you planted your peas (especially if you put the peas on a tomato cage); the peas put nitrogen into the soil, and tomatoes will lap it up. If going the pot route, plant one plant per 5-gallon container. Check out our guide to tomatoes for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Seared Cajun-Style Steak with Green Tomato Relish, Fried Green Tomatoes, Blistered Tomatoes with Kale, Southern Tomato Salad, Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, Tomato and Avocado Stack, Tomato Gratin Lasagna, Chard-Stuffed Trout with Charred Tomato Vinaigrette, Cherry Tomato Confit

Kale

Step outside the curly kale box and try red Russian or dinosaur varieties. Slightly bitter, it mellows when it’s cooked or “massaged” in a salad.

When to Harvest: Late summer into early winter, about 2 months after planting. Leaves should be about 8 inches long, but you can harvest earlier for “baby” kale. Fall and early-winter varieties will get a bit sweeter if they see some frost or snow.

Tips for Success: Harvest leaves from the lower and outside of the plant, and they’ll practically regenerate overnight. The wider apart they’re planted, the larger they’ll grow. Don’t plant kale near tomatoes. Check out our guide to kale for even more tips.

Recipes to Try: Air-Fried “Everything Bagel” Kale Chips, Rigatoni with Kale Pesto, Creamy Kale Caesar Salad with Soft-Boiled Eggs, Kale and Mushroom Frittata, Ham, Kale, and White Bean Soup