Whether you’re working with a single pot, a kitchen garden, or substantial outdoor space, somewhere along the journey of becoming a good #plantparent, you are going to wind up killing at least one of your children. You will drown it with over-watering, or scorch it beyond resuscitation in a sunny window, or toss it in the trash when it starts looking raggedly. No judgement here. So what if your green thumb is a little black around the edges? It’s fine! Buy a new seedling. Let it grow!
But here’s the thing: If you *are* ever going to manifest an inspiring bounty of fresh herbs and edibles, you need to get some things straight about how to make it happen. Read on for tips on how to minimize the veggie carnage and maximize the at-home harvest. Once you get the hang of it, it’s still not…always…entirely…predictable! But after you start making salads with your own tomatoes, there’s no turning back. Trust me—as someone with 20 veggie plants on my deck at the moment, I should know.
Part I: Herbs
Most herbs thrive in warm weather—otherwise known as right now, summertime—and won’t survive outdoors when temps fall. Rosemary, chives, and thyme are exceptions, in that they can even withstand a blanket of snow. Whatever the herb, if you’re planning on keeping your garden outside, full-day sun (six to eight hours) is required. And if you’re going the indoor route (as in, kitchen countertop, not greenhouse) park them near the brightest window to give them the best chance to survive.
Sowing seeds. Some people swear by sprinkling seeds in biodegradable pots, carefully moistening them, and diligently monitoring the conditions until they germinate. (If you’re gonna go this route, follow the directions on the package for spacing—they need room to thrive!) But the DIY approach can be a bust if you’re not providing the perfect amount of light and hydration, so a smart garden can help if you’re trying to get seeds started indoors, whatever the season. Because it has a built-in watering system and an LED light, your seeds get everything they need to sprout; which means you get your countertop microgreens; which means everybody wins.
Related: How to Grill Like a Pro
Buying herbs. Not interested in sowing your own? Mature plants are hardier (and better looking off the bat). They’re also easy to source in the summertime—you can likely find little pots of basil, dill, and parsley in the produce section of your grocery store, or at garden centers, farmers’ markets, and plant shops. Once you’re home, give them a good soak before transferring them to a vessel that’s an inch or two bigger than the one they came in: Plants like to be slightly snuggled, but don’t pack the soil in too tight so the roots have room to spread out. Make sure their new home has drainage holes, too, since soupy dirt can lead to root rot and a (possibly fatal) infestation of annoying little bugs.
Watering well. Over-watering is worse than under-watering, so apply your powers of observation and stick to a schedule. Plan to give your indoor herbs a drink weekly to start (for instance, check them every Sunday); outdoor plants should be checked and watered early or late in the day, as needed. From there, inspect the response: droopy, yellowing foliage is often a sign that you’re drowning your plant, while wrinkly leaves and hard soil indicate that your plant is parched. (Wet soil means wait.) And while the amount of water really depends on the size, I like the kitchen sink approach: As in, stick it under a steady (not splashy!) faucet stream until water drips from the bottom hole, which confirms hydration has reached the roots.
Part II: Vegetables
There’s a reason farm stands are packed full of lucious produce in the summer but not in the winter: They reflect the harvest happening in real time. Garden prep typically begins in springtime when the weather starts to warm up, but just because you didn’t get everything together back in March doesn’t mean you’re out for the season, either. Cruise the edible section at your local garden center or farmers’ market to see what seedlings they have on hand—those are the plants that can go in right now.
Mind the season. Hot weather veg seedlings (think tomatoes, peppers, squash, cukes, and more) won’t survive a sudden chill, especially if they were grown in a greenhouse and haven’t been “hardened off” outdoors. On the other hand, some veggies—kale, spinach, peas, sturdy greens—are happy in cooler temps but don’t do so well once it’s super warm out. (Want to learn more about growing edibles all year long outdoors? Check out Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman to learn more.) Beyond that, research your planting zone and zero in on proper timing to give your plants the best chance to survive. This is another reason to get in at your local garden center: Buddy up to a staffer and ask when they plan to plant stuff. Also keep an eye on whatever is cycling through their edibles section, because that’s what’s going to actually grow right now.
Soil (and sun) matters. All dirt isn’t made equal, and because raised beds (and pots) tend to dry out more quickly than the stuff that’s in the actual ground you’re going to want to invest in a few flower-and-veggie grade mixes. Adequate sunlight is also essential, both in terms of where you’re putting the plants—full sun, by the way, means six to eight hours per day—and how it shines through. Plant crops too close to one another and you’re blocking light and airflow, which can lead to mildew and disease. Google the plant spacing for specifics and remember, they’re gonna fill out, so actually follow the recommendation.
Plan your planting. Back in March, I presented my husband with a plan for a 100-square-foot, walk-in vegetable garden and he kindly suggested we start small before committing to a construction project. Turns out, this was totally correct. Scaling back means I haven’t spent the entire summer weeding, but it also gave me time to learn how to cultivate and care for the plants I actually have. Ultimately I settled on a pre-fab raised bed called a VegTrug (VegTrug are you listening? ILYSM) containing around 10 plants at any given time; my herbs live in ceramics pots nearby, which makes watering easy. Having everyone on the deck mostly protects them from pesky critters, too.
5 GARDENING ESSENTIALS
Add these budget-friendly products to your cart immediately. Trust.
- Pine Tree Tools Bamboo Gardening Gloves ($14 on Amazon): You’re going to lose these somewhere in the dirt and poke holes in them and wind up with fingertips full of direct and that’s totally fine. But it pays to have a bunch of pairs handy and that’s why I keep re-ordering these.
- Soil Knife & Sheath Combo ($36 at Prairie Moon Nursery): There are cheaper versions out there but this (very sharp!) option is worth it, especially if you have stubborn weeds to yank or need to cut a piece of twine to tie up a tomato vine.
- Premium Drinking Water Safe Garden Hose ($80 at Eartheasy): Watering is definitely a chore, but if you have a lightweight hose that doesn’t kink, it’s a little less of a grind. After testing a ton of them, this option (which is 100% free from toxic chemicals) is my fave and comes in a bunch of fun colors.
- Low Profile Kneeling Pad ($25 on Gardeners.com): Spend an afternoon harvesting string beans or yanking weeds on your knees and you’ll understand why this is a necessity.
- PictureThis Premium App and Annual Subscription ($30 for iPhone and Android): While not strictly for edible gardening, this app is mindblowing in its ability to to accurately identify 10,000+ plants and diagnose plant diseases through AI tech and photos. You will start to annoy your friends with how much you use it. But it’s worth it, I swear.
Here’s what Elizabeth makes from her own garden in upstate New York.
Quick Sheet Pan Zucchini Bake
I love a set-it-and-forget it sheet pan dinner for an easy summer meal. This one is a little rustic and can be tailored to your personal tastes. It can also be tossed with pasta for slightly heartier fare! Serves 4 as a side dish, 2-3 as a main
- 2 zucchinis
- ½ cup store-bought, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
- Feta or goat cheese (packaged)
- ¼ cup bread crumbs
- Flaky sea salt and pepper to taste
- Using a mandolin or knife, slice zucchini into thin disks.
- Add sliced zucchini to a mixing bowl with sun-dried tomatoes, including the oil. Toss to coat. Gently mix in bread crumbs.
- Set the oven temp to 375℉. Line a sheet pan with parchment. Spread the zucchini and tomato mix on the pan, ideally in a single layer.
- Crumble cheese over the top of the layer. You’re the maestro here so you get to decide how much you want to use.
- Allow mixture to cook for 25 minutes or until the zucchini begins to caramelize. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle a pinch of salt across the top, add pepper to taste. Serve with crusty bread and good butter.
Super Easy Tzatziki
For convenience, I often make this recipe with my Cuisinart but it’s also totally doable with a bowl and a spatula, which is how I’ll describe it below. (If you’re going the machine route, start by emulsifying the liquid ingredients and salt and then add the rest from there!) It’s a delicious dip on its own or can be used as a condiment. Serves 4 with leftovers for future snacking.
- 2 large cucumbers
- 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- Fresh dill
- 1 carton of Greek yogurt (~16 oz.)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Using a mandolin or sharp kitchen knife, thinly slice the cucumber; from there, chop the slices into smaller strips. (You mandolin may have a shredder attachment that pulls this off perfectly, too.) Add to a mixing bowl and sprinkle with salt; selt to the side while the cucumber releases water.
- In another bowl, add the yogurt. Slowly combine olive oil, then red wine vinegar and a squeeze of lemon. (I like a lot of lemon so I use the whole thing, but your call here!) Incorporate the garlic powder in the mix.
- Remove fronds from stems and mince the dill. (Flat leaf parsley can also work in this recipe if you happen to have some lying around.) Add to yogurt mixture.
- Check the cucumbers, which should have released liquid by now. (Another way to make this happen: Pour them onto a clean cotton towel and squeeze.) Mix into the yogurt mixture. Adjust with salt and pepper to taste.
Elizabeth Kiefer is the features editor at Cosmopolitan. Follow her on Twitter.