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.

All images courtesy of iStock

What Do the Terms on Energy-Saving Light Bulbs Mean?

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

There's a reason your parents used to scold you for not turning off a light when you left a room. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an average American household uses up to 5 percent of their total energy expenditure on lighting. Living rooms get flooded with light. Dining rooms and dens are full of lighting accents. Motion lights, hallway lights, bathroom vanity lights, lamps—we like our lives to be nice and bright.

Fortunately, energy-saving lighting sources have largely replaced the conventional incandescent bulbs that once used up a substantial amount of power. Those bulbs heated up a coil, or filament, of tungsten wire that gave off light. Roughly 90 percent of the energy they passed on was in the form of heat, which siphoned off energy and kept utility bills inflated. Today's bulbs brighten without the waste. That's the good news. The bad? The varieties of bulbs can be confusing. If you've ever been lost in the fixtures section of the hardware store, here's a quick primer on what these terms mean.

Halogen Incandescent:

These are incandescent light bulbs that contain a halogen gas-filled capsule around the filament to help increase energy efficiency. While cheaper to operate than a conventional incandescent bulb—they use 25 to 30 percent less energy—they don't produce as much of a cost savings as other options. On the plus side, they reach full brightness immediately. Other choices may take time to warm up.

Compact Florescent Lamp (CFL):

When you see a coiled light bulb, it’s likely to be a CFL, which is simply a downsized version of the tubular florescent lighting seen in commercial spaces. Instead of an electric current traveling through a filament like in an incandescent bulb, the current goes through a tube containing argon and mercury vapor. The resulting ultraviolet light activates phosphor inside the tube, which emits light. It uses one-third of the energy of a halogen incandescent. The downside? They can take a little time to warm up, especially if used outdoors. They also contain mercury, a potential health hazard if the bulb breaks. (See the "mercury" entry below.)

Light Emitting Diode (LED):

This type of bulb uses a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. In addition to being energy-efficient, they usually last eight to 25 times longer than halogen incandescent bulbs and four to eight times longer than CFLs—perhaps as long as 18 to 46 years. You'll probably pay more up front, but the expense is offset by their durability. Most LEDs are compatible with dimming switches, too. Most CFLs aren't, so if that's important to you, you'll want to stick with LED.

Energy Star:

A bulb with an Energy Star label was evaluated by a third party to make sure its energy-saving claims are accurate, and they'll typically have a longer warranty than bulbs without the endorsement.

But what about the "nutritional label" style information box that appears on light bulb packaging? Let's take a closer look.

An example of a label that appears on energy-efficient light bulb packaging is pictured
Federal Trade Commission

Brightness:

You have probably inferred that brightness refers to the light output given off by a bulb. This is measured in lumens and rounded off to the nearest five. (A bulb will never be 822 lumens. It's 820.) The higher the number, the brighter the bulb. Since you're probably used to shopping by wattage, consider that a bulb with 800 lumens is roughly the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent. A 1100 lumen bulb will resemble a 75-watt bulb.

Estimated Energy Cost:

This is a rough estimate of much it will cost an average household to operate the bulb. What's average? The wattage of the bulb is calculated with three hours of daily operation at a cost of 11 cents per kilowatt. Your actual cost will go up or down whether you use it more or less or pay your energy supplier a different amount.

Life:

This is how long the bulb is expected to last based on the same usage estimated for the energy cost and rounded to the nearest tenth of a year.

Light Appearance:

This refers to the color temperature of the bulb measured in Kelvin, a temperature scale measuring light color. The range is from 2600 K (yellow and warm) to 6600 K (blue and cool). Bright white is about 3500 K. You should probably avoid anything above 3000 K for any interior room.

Energy Used:

This is how much energy the bulb will require and is measured in watts. The lower the wattage, the cheaper it costs to operate. This is where the energy savings materializes, as a 10-watt LED bulb may give off as much light as an old 60-watt incandescent.

Color Rendering Index (CRI):

It's not on all bulb packaging, but if you see it, it refers to how accurate colors will appear under the bulb's light on a scale of 0 to 100. Halogen incandescent bulbs score high. CFLs and LEDs aren't quite as accurate, though they may still get the job done. Try to get a high CRI if you'll be using the bulbs in a bathroom, as skin tone can appear off with lower CRI numbers.

Mercury:

You might see some CFL bulb packaging with a mercury disclosure. This isn't an issue if the bulb remains intact, but if it breaks, it might release potentially hazardous mercury vapor and the introduce the very small possibility of mercury poisoning. Avoid using CFL bulbs in kids' rooms if there's potential for knocking over a lamp or light. Broken bulbs that contain mercury should be cleaned up by following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines—picked up with tape, not vacuumed—and disposed of properly. Old bulbs should be recycled.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

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iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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