Black thumb gardening

Some edibles to grow when you’re not much of a gardener

My first garden was a small plot of sunflowers in rural Missouri. With very little ground preparation, I dropped the black and gray speckled seeds into the ground, and by mid-summer, they’d shot up to 6 feet tall. My second garden was grown during my Peace Corps service in the Andes region of Ecuador. It was a place where the soil was fertile, the rain plentiful and the temperature didn’t waver much below 40 degrees or above 70. That year, I had enough spinach, broccoli and carrots for myself and my new neighbors. I was beginning to think I was a good gardener.

Then I moved to Nevada.

“Living here in Northern Nevada, you have to be a tenacious and patient gardener,” says Bill Carlos, horticulturist for the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden. “It’s not like living in Northern or Southern California, where you can put anything in the ground, and it grows. You have to work on it a bit, but don’t be discouraged. The little work you do have to do, it will pay big dividends.”

I’ve learned that becoming a good gardener is a years-long endeavor. Every failure and success is knowledge gained for the next season and for the giant late-summer harvest I will someday enjoy. But in the meantime, as I struggle to build the soil, increase drainage, and nurse seedlings with varying degrees of light and water, a little encouragement is necessary. When all else fails—as eggplants shrivel, artichokes grow heartless, and green beans turn spindly and off color—it’s important to have a few, dependable ego-boosting plants around.

Jana Vanderhaar, a landscape architect with Interpretive Gardens, and Bill Carlos suggest that gardeners working to turn their black thumbs green try the following, nearly fool-proof plants:

Squash. When all else fails, summer squash, patty pan and zucchini will pull through. Give them plenty of space, as their leaves get big and sprawly. Plant in May or June.

Cherry tomatoes. Many tomatoes grow easily in Nevada, but cherry tomatoes are some of the easiest. Plant in mid-May to early June or, as the local maxim goes, “When the snow melts off Peavine mountain.”

Corn. Plant at least four small rows for pollinization, or you’ll have to either hand-pollinate or suffer silly-looking corn. Plant mid-May to early June.

Garlic. Plant healthy-looking cloves from a head of garlic, pointy ends up, about two inches deep in the fall or early spring.

Herbs. Chives, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender, parsley, cilantro, basil, anything in the mint family—careful, mint will take over, plant it in a pot—all require little effort to grow, and most will return the next year. Check seed packets for best planting times.

Nasturtium. Edible orange and red flowers on a vine instantly beautify a salad and keep some pests away. They also grow well in poor, dry soils. Sow seeds after the last frost date.

Potatoes. Follow instructions when cutting these up, and make sure there are eyes on the seed piece, says Carlos, who recommends the Red Potomac variety. Plant in early spring.

Radishes. There’s a reason radishes are often used for elementary school experiments. A child can grow them. Plant in early spring.

For beginner gardeners, buying starts from a nursery to transplant into your garden is generally easier than starting seedlings indoors. However, some plants, like summer squash, easily grow by direct seeding.

Also, a poor harvest often has to do with poor soil and drainage conditions—problems you can control better if you plant in containers. Just make sure your container is big enough to suit your plants. Wine barrels can grow a surprising amount of food. And with most plants, Carlos says to choose varieties that mature within 90 days due to our short growing season.