If you are a gardener with limited space and time whose primary goal is the largest amount of tasty, organic food for the smallest amount of effort, these crops are winners: easy to plant, easy to care for, easy to pick, easy to prepare and in some cases, all four:
* Indeterminate Tomatoes, so named because the vines keep getting bigger and producing new fruit until they are felled by frost. The choice of varieties used to be small for those who were starting with purchased seedlings, but these days there's quite an assortment at farmers' markets and garden centers. I even saw baby Brandywines at our local Shaw's supermarket last year, so something is definitely happening.
In fact, the market for painless exotica has become so large it's spawned a whole new industry: mail order tomato -- and pepper and eggplant -- seedlings from nurseries like Laurel's Heirloom Tomato Plants and Cross Country Nurseries. Choices galore, more than enough to thrill most gardeners, at prices that may also keep them from getting too thrilled for the space available. (The whole idea of mail-ordering annuals takes some getting used to; and importing instead of buying local costs green points as well as dollars. Call a few likely local sources to find out what they plan to offer before ordering from away.)
* Non-Hybrid Pole Beans. Like indeterminate tomatoes, old-fashioned pole beans keep growing and producing 'til frost -- assuming you keep them picked. They may seem like more work than bush beans because you have to provide supports, but bush beans peter out much sooner; picking them is arduous (there's a reason stoop labor is a synonym for work nobody wants to do); and unlike pole beans, the bush kind must be washed. If they're mulched, most of them don't get dirty, but at least a few in every picking need a rinse, so it comes to the same thing.
Lois is picking Rattlesnake pole beans, our favorite for some years now. Vines are disease resistant, drought tolerant and hugely prolific once they start bearing. The purple speckled green beans have great flavor. They stay tender even when quite large, so any given bean can hang in there lookin' good for at least a week -- depending on the weather, of course. And as if that weren't enough , rattlesnakes hold their quality in the 'fridge far longer than most snap beans, a virtue that comes in handy at peak season, when the beans are really cranking and there's a lot of other stuff to eat. All these encomiums apply to Maine and the Hudson Valley, but most catalogs describe the beans as good for growing in the south. From (among many) JL Hudson.
* Zucchini. Everything they say about avalanches of zucchini is true, especially of hybrid varieties, none of which unfortunately is as delicious as Costata Romanesco. This heirloom takes longer to start bearing than modern zucchinis; it has the prickly leaves characteristic of "unimproved" varieties; and it makes big sprawly plants instead of tidy bushes. Not good for containers or planting beside the front walk. The high return is the flavor; if space is tight pass it by and go for a hybrid -- most of them are fine if you pick them young.
* Swiss Chard. Plants hold without bolting from spring through fall in all but the hottest summer areas. There's no need to harvest whole plants; you can keep breaking off outer leaves for months and every picking will be tender as long as plants get enough water. Unlike, for instance, curly kales, even the crumpled-leaf varieties tend to grow clean because they grow so stiffly upright. Break the leaves off carefully and place them in the basket ditto and all you have to do is rinse the bases maybe.
You are supposed to wash everything, btw, even if you have grown it organically and there is not a smidgeon of dirt anywhere to be seen. (We don't do this; we never have; we are not young. We may just have been lucky, however, so don't say I didn't give you the official advice).
* Garlic. You plant it in the fall, after most of the garden chores are over; you can get a lot of it into a small space; and it's beyond simple to plant: Just separate the garlic cloves, shove 'em into the prepared soil, root end down and mulch the bed with straw. Come spring, weed once and renew the mulch. First come beautiful curly green garlic scapes, good both for the kitchen and in bouquets, then presto bingo in mid-summer there's the garlic, just in time for the tomatoes and basil and beans.
* Tall varieties of Snow Peas and Sugarsnaps squeeze onto the list because they're so easy to pick and prepare, plus the homegrown ones are SO much tastier than any other kind, including the ones in farmers' markets. But they take the same setup work as pole beans without having nearly as long a season and they're done in the middle of the summer, so you have to take down the supports ... unless you want to take down the spent vines and replace them with the baby morning glories you grew in peat pots so you would be ready when the time came.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.