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Eight Edibles that Are Easy to Grow

Growing edibles in your garden is a great xeric strategy, because you can add foliage that cools areas around your home, blooms and fruits for aesthetics, and mostly put water use toward growing food for you and your family.

Switching from caring for a few house plants to “having a vegetable garden” seems like a daunting task for home gardeners, especially those with limited space. But it doesn’t have to be, if you start small with one or two of your favorite, easy-to-grow edibles.

Before I start the list, let me say this: I can’t really think of any herb or vegetable that can’t be grown in a container. Sure, it might take a large container and cages or other supports to manage a spreading or vining plant, but why not try?

zucchini in Smart Pot

All three zucchini seeds I planted in this Smart Pot came up, but I’ve since thinned them to one plant. I love the Smart Pot, which is fabric, so it’s light enough to move around the garden for optimal conditions.

  1. Salad greens, which grow easily from seed. I vote for arugula (which is technically an annual herb), but any loose greens grow quickly. Just give them plenty of drainage and shade in warmer weather. Lettuces do best in cooler or moderate temperatures, which makes them a perfect starter plant. In fact, if it’s too late to start a garden in your area right now, vow to start some lettuce at the end of the summer season when all the other gardeners are tired of weeding and eating giant zucchini. Proudly display your home-grown salad in the lunchroom at work.
    salad greens in container

    A small container with salad greens (behind a tomatillo plant) was as pretty as it was convenient on our patio last year.

    arugula

    I need to eat up this arugula before the grasshoppers eat it all and the heat ruins it.

  2. Okay, I have to go ahead and suggest zucchini. I’ve got an area where I’m trying some vegetables this year – where the soil is not as rich as it is in our vegetable garden. The zucchini plant is thriving. Give them warm, moist soil. So well around the seed and plant. And pick them before they become giant!

    giant zucchini

    Even Missy and Buster are not impressed with a zucchini big enough to eat them. It was buried under leaves in last year’s garden; that’s just too big to taste good.

  3. Rosemary is the easiest herb to maintain. You’ll need to buy the plant, not start it from seed. But you can take cuttings from a pint-sized plant soon after placing it in a container. Don’t overwater it, and be sure it gets sun at least half of the day. In addition, rosemary is a perennial in all but the coldest zones, so you can enjoy it all year.
  4. Green beans. Bush beans take less space, but I prefer the pole varieties. We switch their spot in the garden each year so they’re near various fences, but I’ve seen plenty of clever teepees and other methods of support. I’ve had close to 95 percent success with green bean seeds, planted about six inches apart. They like lots of organic matter in the soil. I think harvesting green beans is one of my favorite activities, sort of like a hunt. They’re easy to blanch, ice and freeze for year-round dishes.

    garden with green beans

    Not everyone has space for a garden, but it’s great if you do. Last year’s green beans loved their spot between the two middle stakes in the foreground, climbing up the fence that faced north.

  5. Cucumbers. I have had a little trouble this year getting my cucumbers started, but I still maintain that they’re easy to grow. The first seeds didn’t come up because the weather turned cool, so we tried again and had great success. Once the seedlings come up, the plants grow quickly. My biggest problem this year is in the area near a rock wall – the rock wall that doubles as a snail hotel. I can see the slime trail on the dirt where the cucumber seedling used to be. Next up? Cucumbers in containers. And pickles, lots of pickles. That’s a great solution for kids who turn their noses up at cucumbers, but love pickles.

    vegetables-from-garden

    A photo from a day’s harvest last year, including perfect cucumbers. The cherry tomatoes were also good, but some of the green beans got a little large.

  6. Cilantro. Also easy to establish from seed (which is coriander). Just be sure to put the seed where you plan to keep it, because cilantro does not take well to transplanting. I think it’s really attractive in pots, resembling parsley with its bright green leaves. Keep it trimmed for good health, especially in hot weather. The best way to do that is to eat it.
  7. Carrots. Once you’ve eaten a fresh, home-grown carrot, you will never feel the same way about store-bought ones. They’re easy to grow from seed; the hardest part is thinning them because you just don’t want to give any up. They prefer full sun when possible and need deep soil with lots of organic matter. We grow most of ours in containers because our soil is so rocky. And because of gophers. It’s bad enough when they gnaw on a plant’s roots. It’s really awful when the root is the part of the plant I like to eat.

    carrots in container

    We’re even trying succession planting in this container. We planted a second set of seeds several weeks after the first batch; they later seeds are just coming up. Otherwise, all of the carrots would be ready to eat at once. And yes, I need to thin the first batch more… . That’s a green chile in the metal container to the left.

  8. Cherry or grape tomatoes. I hesitated to put tomatoes on the list because I think they’re sort of picky. But there are so many varieties today that I think the trick for the home gardener is to either choose the best variety for their location and situation (in our case, a short growing season; for others, it might be heat or shade). But to have success with your first tomato plant and not have to worry about splitting and other problems, I suggest growing a cherry or grape tomato right on your patio. Because the fruit is smaller, you don’t have to wait as long for it to ripen. I think that makes these smaller varieties less susceptible to problems. The best part? Pick it right off the plant and pop it in your mouth or add it to that salad you’re taking to work.
tomatoes in containers

This plant is a short-season cocktail tomato we’re trying from Burpee this year (called 4th of July). It’s got blooms before the 4th, so we’re on our way! The pot in the background holds red cherry and yellow grape tomato plants.

High-desert Succulents

They’re the ultimate in low-water gardening. Succulents store water and grow slowly, making them adaptable to the dry climate of the desert Southwest.

Cacti are succulents that usually are small and round and have spines, branches or leaves. You’ll only find cacti in the Western hemisphere. The picture that so often comes to mind is the saguaro surrounded by blowing dust in the dry, hot desert.

And that’s often where you find cacti, especially here in New Mexico and neighboring Arizona. My husband loves succulents and we enjoyed a trip a few years ago to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where we saw so many varieties, most of which couldn’t take the cooler temperatures we have at our higher altitude.

barrel cacti in Phoenix

There’s at least one yellow bloom left on one of these great barrel cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

But who says you can’t have succulents at 6,000 feet of elevation? Several natural varieties of succulents thrive in the high desert. Hens and chicks, ice plants, several varieties of agave, and several native plants come to mind, such as prickly pear and devil’s head (also known as horse cripplers).

devils head or horse crippler cactus

The devil’s head blooms in spring with light pink, papery flowers full of seeds. It’s native to southeastern New Mexico.

And you can have all kinds of fun inside your house, assuming you’ve got a good south-facing window, sunroom or greenhouse to winter over potted succulents. I think I mentioned how much my husband loves them? I have a geranium on this wall; the rest of the plants are succulents. He’s even propagating some new ones. We need a greenhouse soon!

succulents on south wall

Yep, that’s a light layer of snow on the ground outside, but the succulents are toasty warm.

In case you think succulents are boring, think again. Aside from the many shapes and growth patterns, many of them flower. I’ll try to get some good photos of the devil’s head flowers, but for now, enjoy the delicate blooms on this crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which blooms all year long in a sunny location. It started out as a tiny plant from a big-box store and now is about two feet tall (after a nice trim to keep it bushy). There are a few propagating on that trombe wall, too!

crown of thorns flower

The delicate flowers of the crown of thorns.

euphorbia milii

This crown of thorns started out just a few inches tall.

Four low-water Container Plants

I love pots! Actually, I love any kind of container that will hold a plant. We’ve been known to grow herbs in a claw-foot tub and annuals in an old washer. When you grow plants in containers, you increase your flexibility – you can move the container with the sun (maybe not the claw-foot tub so much…) and have color in a shady location by your front door. You also can practice “flower arranger,” creating a few new containers with each season’s annuals, or putting together a group of perennials you can keep outside all year or winter over.

Here are a few favorite low-water plants that grow well in containers:

Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Verbena species vary, but the warm-zone, low-water species can grow with very little water. They came up through the gravel pathways in our rock garden, re-seeding from previous years. I’ve planted small varieties of red, white and rich purple verbena in containers. Once established, verbena will spread and using it in container groupings helps tie them together or add pops of color. Verbena requires no deadheading, though removing spent flowers can prolong the bloom period, which usually runs from spring through frost, depending on your zone.

purple verbena

Verbena looks great alone or as part of a group planting. This magelana violet variety, and the photo, is courtesy of PlantSelect.

Chocolate flower (Berlaniera lyrata). Great in a rock garden or container, a chocolate flower always pleases. And in case you’re wondering, it really does smell like chocolate. I ought to know. Anyway, chocolate flower is a wildflower that produces delicate, daisy-like flowers with a light, almost red, center. Its leaves are a pale, almost silvery green. It’s extremely drought tolerant. Planting it in a container means you can enjoy its scent right on your patio or outside an open window.

chocolate flower

I love the chocolate flower buds; they’re delicate and different. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary is equally pleasant smelling and actually edible! I grow it every year in a container, and have several plants growing as ornamentals in our garden. It has evergreen foliage, so if you live in zones 6 to 8, you probably can keep it alive all year in the garden. In zone 6, it also might make it in a container, though I’ve had creeping rosemary burn from cold or snow even in zone 7. So either protect your container or bring it in, depending on the hardiness of the variety you choose. But back to enjoying rosemary! Plant it all alone near your kitchen for easy fresh cuttings, or in a group container. And if you decide not to take cuttings for cooking, your rosemary might eventually bloom lovely lavender colored blooms. At any rate, put it where you can frequently walk by and just rub your fingers over the leaves.

Rosemary_pot

My rosemary has survived sub-freezing temps so far up against the south side of the house. It still smells terrific, even after the wind blew leaves all over the container.

Creep_rosemary

Bees love this creeping rosemary, which requires little to no water in a container or landscape. This is all one plant; we had to cut some away in the middle after it burned. We should have knocked the snow off.

Ornamental grass (try blue fescue, silky threadgrass, or blue avena). Who says a plant has to flower to look great, especially in a container? I love adding a spike of height and texture with a grass, often in the center or back of a container full of colorful annuals. Most grasses need less water than flowering plants, and they look great blowing in the wind or adding height to a container, especially one placed up against the house. Many of them even flower. Just be sure to check the tag to see how high the grass normally grows before making your purchase.

And remember that plants always need a little more water when you first plant them, in extreme heat and when in containers than when in the ground. Containers usually dry out more quickly than ground soil – how much more depends on the container, soil you used to fill it and the location. And containers are microclimates, which means they might place your plant in colder, warmer or drier conditions than you realize.

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed

Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

apple_tree_well_web

Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies

This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.

Raindrops Kept Fallin’…

There’s always some irony in gardening. I’m writing about drought-tolerant plants several hundred yards from an area struck by fire no more than five years ago and under severe water use and fire restrictions all spring. We prefer many xeric plants and inherited a huge and well-planned xeric garden when we moved here in April. Most of the plants survived with no care or water, outside a little rain from Mother Nature, while the property sat on the market for a year. So we were ready to look for more drought-tolerant choices for a slightly cooler zone and purchase rain barrels in case the skies ever opened up.

early rain

Early summer rain. See how brown the grass is? What grass, you say?

People who live in rural areas know their weather. One reason is that they tend to pay attention to the skies, the land, the views. Another is that many grow lawns, crops, or feed for livestock. And one of the best reasons is that no television station, web site or app gets rural weather right. Our “local” weather is mixed in with several other communities in our county, some of which are 20 miles north of us or about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Considering that the temperature can vary about six degrees between our place and a neighbor who lives the equivalent of a block away but a little lower and closer the river, I figure the people in Atlanta or even Albuquerque really don’t get it.

But when various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day,” they were spot on: We had a hard freeze the Saturday before, and no other until October. When they said that the rains would start “on the Fourth of July,” they were close again. It started raining July 1 and pretty much kept raining for nearly six weeks. I have not asked about the need to tie weather events to well-known holidays, but if it works…

rain on patio

So then it really rained. Maybe because we were trying to pour a patio.

So, what do you do when your xeric garden gets rain, LOTS of rain? Well, most of the plants adapted just fine. They grew well and plenty of lovely annuals popped up from volunteer seeds. But guess what else happened? We got weeds. Every kind of weed known to man. Everywhere a weed could grow and some places I thought they couldn’t. In all of the gravel walkways, between rocks and pavers, inside cacti (those weeds are smart!). And pretty much all over the entire 4 acres.

These city folk did not yet have a riding mower; we had a lot of moving expenses and no grass worth mowing before July 1. Then the grass was too wet to cut most days. So by the time we got a mower to the back orchard, the weeds were up to my knees. We eventually conquered the mowing, but lost the battle in much of the garden. My thinking is that the yard and weeds had a year’s head start on us, and it will take us a little time to catch up.

weeds take over

Still raining Aug. 10. See the weeds in that front bed and all along the ditch bank in the background?

I also have been meaning to ask a neighbor what sort of event to expect on Thanksgiving. Maybe our first snow, though I think it might hit sooner. I just hope the snow doesn’t last for six weeks.

The High Desert Just Got…Higher

side view2

View of house from the northwest side shows apricot tree, garden and view toward river.

 

We live in New Mexico, and spent the past year preparing our house with its nice lawn, beds and straw bale wall to look nice for potential buyers. It sold in the spring and in April, we were fortunate enough to move from Albuquerque to an area just outside Ruidoso, NM.
Still dry? You bet! Still short on water? Of course! We have two acres of water rights with our 4 acres of property and a river that runs through about 180 feet of the back acreage. About three weeks after moving in, it was a dry river bed. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that xeric gardening still rules for the most part, and it’s made a little more fun by hard well water and no sprinkler or drip system.
Did I mention that we also changed zones? At about 6,300 feet in altitude, we’re close to USDA Zone 6, just below some gorgeous mountains but in a canyon with strong, dry winds, along with daily and seasonal temperature extremes.
These are all minor challenges, though, and the good news far outweighs any of the water and climate issues. We’ll take the views, the river, a passive solar home, and an awesome xeric garden already laid out by the talented former owners. I’ll talk about some of our solutions and document the seasons as we go. We’ve even got some ideas for more new plantings.
Yes, life is good even when it’s high and dry.