While I have wanted a summer garden for what seems like forever, I never made the time to build one until we moved into our current home four years ago.
That first year, I was insanely pumped for all the goodies I planned to grow. After borrowing a rototiller from a neighbor and carefully sectioning a garden spot with adorable picket white fencing, I was off to Lowe’s to stock up on seeds and plants.
Sadly, I didn’t do a ton of research ahead of time. And the stuff I bought to plant didn’t really mesh well, either. Across a tiny plot of land (maybe 8 by 10 feet), I planted everything from tomatoes to squash to strawberries, cilantro, cucumbers, onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage, basil, and eggplant.
Basically, I went a little overboard.
Over the course of the summer, some of my plants grew rather well. The tomatoes did okay, for example, as did the zucchini… which is easy to grow anyway. I also did okay with the cabbage heads I grew (although they never got very big), and my cucumber plants were absolute breeding machines!
But, the strawberries lived a short and rather sad life. The cilantro turned a crazy color and died shortly after. The eggplant and carrots I planted failed to launch.
And the sweet potatoes… why did I plant those again?
After picking what I could at the end of summer, I spent an entire day digging beneath the ground to find randomly sprouted sweet potatoes that were delicious, but still not worth all that work.
- Related: Eight Ways to Use Expiring Produce
Why I Only Grow Four Plants in My Garden
Keep in mind, I’m not a professional gardener, nor do I want to be. I have no desire to spend my summers meticulously creating ideal plant habitats, testing soil samples, or watering my garden by hand.
And while my initial goal with gardening was to save money on produce, our main objective now is fun. Not only do I enjoy having a little garden, but my kids get a kick out of the process, too. They love picking plants or seeds, watering them with the hose extension, and watching baby plants grow into hearty, fruit-bearing adults.
But, after our first go-round with gardening, I realized something important – that perhaps, as I’ve found in many other aspects of our lives, less is more.
If I could focus on just a few plants instead of 10, I thought, we could enjoy the benefits of gardening without the hassle of figuring so much out – or the stress of plants dying all the time.
So, my thought process was this: I would eliminate plants that didn’t work well that first year, along with plants that didn’t produce enough to justify the work. I would also eliminate vegetables that are relatively cheap to buy.
For us, that meant getting rid of:
- Cilantro, because I killed it.
- Strawberries, because they never had a chance.
- Cabbage, because one head doesn’t cut it.
- Onions, because I use them infrequently and they’re cheap.
- Sweet potatoes, because all that digging.
- Eggplant, because I only got a few.
That left us with:
- Basil, because it’s easy to grow and I use it almost daily.
- Tomatoes, because they’re easy to grow and reproduce the entire summer.
- Cucumbers, because they are easy to grow and we eat them often.
- Zucchini, because it grows like hot cakes and I can prepare it at least eight different ways.
How I Maximize My Four Favorite Plants
While growing fewer things has made our garden a lot less diverse, I believe it’s been a smart move. With only four vegetables brewing at any given time, my gardening life has become a lot simpler.
That first year, for example, I would get a random eggplant or cabbage and wonder what the heck to do with it. Then, I would struggle to build a meal around it, and potentially buy more ingredients just to use it up.
With just tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and basil, on the other hand, I never have that problem. Why? Because we eat these foods all the time. For example:
Meals we make with tomatoes:
- Pasta sauce
- Caprese salads (using the basil, too)
- Tomatoes on sandwiches (or tomato sandwiches alone)
- Cucumber and tomato salad with oil and vinegar
- Tomatoes cut up in salads
Meals we make with zucchini:
- Zucchini pasta (with my spiralizer)
- Roasted zucchini (with Rancher’s Steak Rub from Wildtree)
- Zucchini appetizers, with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes
- Zucchini dipped in ranch dressing
- Zucchini boats, with tomato sauce, cheese, and basil
Meals we make with basil:
- Homemade basil pesto
- Caprese salads
- Adding herbs to nearly any summer dish
Meals we make with cucumber:
- Pickled cucumbers and onion
- Cucumbers and ranch dressing
- Cucumber and tomato salad
- Cucumber toast with salt
Basically, we’ll eat cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and basil in about a million different ways. We’ll eat them as a main dish, use them to create a side dish, or cut them up and eat them plain. And no matter what, I can always find a way to use these four foods if a bunch of them become ripe at once.
Further, I believe that farming only four foods probably saves us money. Because we’re growing only foods we know we’ll inhale, we never, ever have any waste from our garden. These last few years especially, we’ve almost always harvested and eaten our fresh vegetables all on the same day – as in, I’ll walk out to the garden before dinner, see what’s ripe, and make a meal or side dish out of it daily.
The Bottom Line
If you’re someone who wants a garden but finds the idea overwhelming, consider a gardening shortcut. By growing only what grows easily in your climate — and what you know you’re sure to eat – you can have access to fresh foods minus the hassle and stress.
For us, this strategy has been a real game-changer. Instead of trying to be good at everything, I decided to learn how to grow four easy foods well. And now that summer is approaching, I can’t wait to do it all again.
Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of . Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at .
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- The Surprisingly Versatile Vegetable You May Be Ignoring (and Nine Creative Ways to Cook It)
- How to Start a Simple Garden – Even in an Apartment
What do you grow in your garden? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all your options?