Missing that green thumb? No need to miss out on fresh, homegrown produce. Look to proven winners, such as tomatoes, summer squash and bush cucumbers. These hearty, foolproof vegetables deliver great produce with little to no maintenance -- and they don't need a lot of space.
"Tomatoes are the easiest things to grow. They can grow almost anywhere and (they) grow like weeds," says Michael Podlesny, author of "Vegetable Gardening for the Average Person: A Guide to Vegetable Gardening for the Rest of Us" and owner of Mike the Gardener Enterprises, home of the Seeds of the Month Club. "You have a wide variety to choose from, so there is sure to be a kind that you and your family enjoy."
"My top picks are the compact, small-space varieties like Tumbling Tom tomatoes," says Eleanor Rose, author of "The Naked Truth About Gardening, The Bare Essentials: The Anyone Can Grow Plants Guide to Hobby Gardening Indoors & Outdoors" and creator of ANakedGardener.com.
"They grow well in containers, saving time and effort," Rose says. "Their dense, compact growth pattern reduces the need to weed so maintenance is reduced to watering and harvesting. Plus, they transport easily out of reach from critters or frost."
Because of their size, Tumbling Tom tomatoes are well suited to container gardens; just one plant grown in a 12-inch hanging pot will produce dozens of delicious cherry tomatoes. Available in both red and yellow varieties, Tumbling Toms produce fruit early and throughout the season. Their natural trailing habit makes for a stunning hanging display on the deck or patio.
Rose also recommends bush cucumbers and Eight Ball zucchini because of their ability to thrive in small spaces.
Bush cucumbers grow just a few feet tall and are right at home in a 5-gallon pot on the patio, unlike their vining counterparts, which require ample space to flourish. Salad bush cucumbers produce 8- to 10-inch fruit that's great for slicing, while bush pickle varieties produce smaller cucumbers for pickling and canning.
Eight Ball zucchini, as the name implies, is a round softball-sized summer squash that remains compact rather than sending out vines. It's a favorite among chefs, as it can be stuffed like peppers or sliced and used in place of eggplant.
To get the best results from your first foray into gardening, start small. "When a new gardener tries to take on too much, they get discouraged and invariably have very little in terms of results," Podlesny says.
A container garden is a great way to test your green thumb, but don't be intimidated by a traditional garden; a small plot is easily manageable with proper planning.
"A good-size beginner vegetable garden is about 10 feet by 16 feet," says Mare-Anne Jarvela, senior editor with The Old Farmer's Almanac. "A plot this size has room for about eight to 10 different vegetable varieties and can feed a family of four for one summer, with a little extra for canning and freezing -- or giving away."
Whether you're setting up a container garden or picking out a small plot for veggies, select a convenient, easy-to-see location. You're more likely to keep up on watering, weeding and harvesting if the plants are in clear view. "If the garden is in sight, it is on your mind," Podlesny says.
Be sure the location gets plenty of direct sunlight.
"Vegetables love the sun," Jarvela says. "Most vegetables require at least six hours of sunlight each day -- continuous, if possible. Vegetables also need lots of water, at least 1 inch of water a week."
To save on watering and weeding, add mulch to the garden in early summer. It's a little extra effort in the beginning, but you'll save time in the long run.
"For mulch, use organic materials like wheat straw, shredded leaves or grass clippings. This will keep the weeds down and help retain moisture in the soil," Jarvela says.
Finally, be realistic about the time, effort and space you are willing to devote to gardening, and select veggie varieties accordingly, Rose says.
If you can't stand the heat of midsummer, look to early-maturing plants such as Early Girl tomatoes, which are ready to eat within eight weeks of transplanting. If you go on vacation at the end of August -- when tomatoes typically ripen -- look for late-season varieties, such as beefsteak tomatoes.