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10 Easy-to-Grow Plants for First-Time Gardeners

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Gardening is more than a hobby. The act of cultivating veggies for your dinner table and flowers for your lawn has numerous health benefits. Research has indicated that regular gardeners are less likely to suffer from heart attacks or come down with Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, spending time with your backyard crops is an excellent way to relieve stress. Now that spring has sprung, why not get your hands dirty? If you’re new to the game, here are 10 tough plants that you won’t need a green thumb to take care of.

1. PANSIES

These hardy flowers are tough to kill—in most areas of the United States, pansies are resilient enough to survive winter temperatures. More than 300 varieties of pansies exist, including several that have been specifically bred for really hot or really cold environments.

The ideal time to plant pansies is when the soil temperature is around 50 to 60 degrees (August for the northern parts of the country to October in the southern), but you can also set yours out in the early spring. Fully-grown plants can be purchased at most gardening stores and deposited directly into the ground. If you plan on growing some from seeds, deposit each one in moist soil spaced 7 to 12 inches apart. In colder states, pansies do best in direct sunlight, but if you live in a warm state like Georgia or Texas, give the flowers some shade and strategically plant them so that they can spend three to four hours in the shadows per day and see that they get an inch of water each week.

2. TOMATOES

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According to the National Gardening Association, nearly nine out of 10 American household vegetable gardens have at least one tomato plant. Germinating tomato plants need a constant soil temperature of 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and seeds should be planted six to eight weeks before your area’s projected last frost date. Given these requirements, you'll most likely have to start indoors (or buy tomato plants from your local garden center).

First, you’ll need one container for every two seeds. (While it’s possible to raise all of the seeds in the same pot, this makes the young plants harder to remove when the time comes to transplant them.) Plastic or Styrofoam cups work well; make a couple small holes in the bottom of each one for drainage and fill it with a good potting mix. Then, place the seeds about a quarter of an inch beneath the surface. Mist the dirt with water (make it moist, but not soggy) and maintain a constant 70 to 80-degree room temperature, and within 10 days, the little plants will sprout. They'll need plenty of sunlight; if possible, put the plants by a south-facing window or, in windowless homes, use artificial grow lights.

As soon as the plants sprout four leaves apiece, move them into bigger containers; pots with a height of 4 to 6 inches will be perfect. Meanwhile, find a nice, sunny section of your garden outside. One week before the last frost date, till the soil until it’s nice and loose. Then, dig a trench about 6 or 8 inches deep. After the last frost date finally arrives and the dirt has warmed, throw in 3 inches of compost. Cover that with some extra soil and then transplant your seedlings there.

Like pansies, tomatoes come in many varieties which offer fruits of every shape and size. Depending on what kind you're growing, you’ll want to arrange the young plants anywhere from 12 to 48 inches apart. Consult the seed package or a neighborhood gardening store for an exact number. By the way, novice gardeners may want to choose varieties that yield smaller fruits (like cherry tomatoes). If left to their own devices, medium or large fruits may rot prematurely. Preventing this will require tethering your plants to stakes or cages for support. That’s not too difficult, but it is an extra step.

3. BASIL

Tomatoes and basil make for a great combination in spaghetti sauces, and in your garden, the two plants may help each other grow. According to many amateur and professional gardeners, basil serves as a natural bug repellent that drives off unwanted insects that might otherwise eat the herb—or munch on your tomato fruits; some speculate is that planting the two near each other somehow gives the tomatoes a much better flavor. Garden-raised basil needs plenty of sunlight and should be arranged accordingly. Plant the seeds at least 12 inches apart six weeks before the last frost comes along. Water them lightly whenever the soil feels dry and you’ll have a healthy plant that will keep giving you delicious leaves all summer long. Mangia!

4. MINT

Another hardy herb, mint is ridiculously easy to grow. In fact, mint does so well outdoors that the biggest challenge associated with it is keeping the plant from taking over your whole garden. But before we get into that, let’s talk logistics. Mint needs damp soil with good drainage, and it tends to do best when kept in an area that receives a moderate amount of shade during the day.

Under favorable conditions, the herb’s specialized stems—known as “runners”—shoot out in all directions. Left unchecked, the runners will devour every inch of available real estate, sometimes conquering entire lawns in the process. For this reason, many people grow their outdoor mints in clay pots from which the roots can’t escape. But if you want to put yours in a multi-species garden, plant it on the inside of a long, tubular container with an open bottom and thick walls. An 18-inch metal stove pipe buried vertically with its uppermost inch poking out above the surface would be perfect. Patio edges and driveways can also be effective root barriers.

5. SUNFLOWERS

Whether you’re hungry for their seeds or just like to look at them, sunflowers are a terrific choice for first-time gardeners. They don’t need much in the way of fertilizing, they can thrive in all but the soggiest soils, and they’re extremely adept at weathering droughts. As the common name implies, these flowers do require direct, unimpeded sunlight. Plant yours out in the open, and be sure to keep them a fair distance away from any other plants you might be cultivating, as a row of tall sunflowers can throw unwanted shade onto neighboring veggies. To get started, wait until the last frost date has passed in the spring and then plant your seeds in 1-inch holes. For best results, space these at least 6 inches apart—or, if you’re dealing with a larger species, up that figure to 24 inches. Water well after planting.

6. RADISHES

An ideal cool-weather crop, radishes develop spicy bulbs during the chillier months of spring and autumn. Arrange the seeds at least an inch apart in half an inch of loose, moist, and well-lit dirt. They'll grow fast: Certain radishes may be ready for harvest just 22 days after planting, although other varieties may need up to 70. Once yours begin sprouting leaves, thin out the rows by plucking every other radish. A new row may be planted in early spring or late summer, depending on when you plan to dig yours up and eat them.

7. POTATOES

The average American eats roughly 114 pounds of them per year [PDF]. With spud cultivation, you don’t have to worry about planting seeds. Instead, the objective here is to find a potato tuber that’s grown a few buds that are around one quarter to one third of an inch in length. Cut the potato into chunks, leaving at least one bud on each segment. Before you move on from there, store these wedges indoors at room temperature for 48 to 72 hours.

If you’ve got a lot of space to work with, potatoes can be grown in vast rows across your backyard. (For instructions on how to do that, go here.) But if space is limited, potato plants can be cultivated in bottomless half-bushel baskets. Alternatively, as Janice Stillman of the Old Farmer’s Almanac explains in the above video, a trash can with some holes drilled into the base also make for effective containers. In any event, you’ll need to start out shortly after the last spring frost. Take your barrel or basket and place it in a sunny locale. Fill it with loamy potting soil and bury the chunks 2 to 4 inches beneath the surface. Give them an inch of water every week and they’ll be ready to harvest by midsummer. Home-made French fries, here we come!

8. SPINACH

Popeye’s favorite food is one of the best cold-weather crops a gardener could ask for. Four to six weeks before the last frost date in your area, you'll need to kick things off by following a process called priming: Soak some seeds in water for 24 hours. Take them out and let them dry off on a paper towel for a day or two, then seal up the seeds in an airtight zip-lock bag and keep them in a cool room for up to one week. When their week-long stint in a cool room is up, sow the seeds in an inch of tilled soil that has a temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You can start harvesting your spinach leaves whenever they reach the desired size.

9. MARIGOLDS

As far as flower-growing is concerned, marigolds definitely fall into the idiot-proof category. Wait to plant their seeds until after the spring frosts have come to an end. Just about any bedding type will suit them, although moist, well-drained soils are preferable. Marigold enthusiasts usually get their seeds by purchasing them in packets, which come with specific instructions about spacing and other topics. Cover the seeds with a small amount of dirt, don’t let the soil get too dry, and uproot some of the seedlings as needed. In exchange for this minimal effort, you’ll get vibrant flowers that will stick around until football season.

10. ZUCCHINIS

Not only are zucchinis super easy to grow, they’re also amazingly prolific. Within a few short weeks, your garden will be churning out enough to feed a small army. To get going, dig a row of inch-deep holes in the earth at some point between early spring and midsummer (although in practice, one or two plants will probably be enough). The depressions should be spaced about 3 feet apart, with each crater housing two or three seeds. Make sure the dirt is warm and keep it moist at all times (regular mulching will help you with that). Six to eight weeks later, you can start harvesting. And because new zucchinis sprout to replace the squashes that’ve been plucked, you’ll soon have quite a yield on your hands. Within a single season, a solitary plant can generate 10 pounds’ worth of zucchinis.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Live Smarter
All National Parks Are Offering Free Admission on April 21
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Looking for something to do this weekend that's both outdoorsy and free? To kick off National Park Week, you can visit any one of the National Park Service's more than 400 parks on April 21, 2018 for free.

While the majority of the NPS's parks are free year-round, they'll be waiving admission fees to the more than 100 parks that normally require an entrance fee. Which means that you can pay a visit to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, or Yellowstone National Parks without reaching for your wallet. The timing couldn't be better, as many of the country's most popular parks will be increasing their entrance fees beginning in June.

The National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, maintains 417 designated NPS areas that span more than 84 million acres across every state, plus Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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