Novice gardeners often choose tomatoes for their first garden. I can certainly understand why: there's nothing like the taste of a juicy, homegrown heirloom tomato, warm from the vine, reviving memories of childhood summers with the grandparents. Alongside friends, we turn Romas into beautiful sauce and salsa, canning them for winter eating and gifts. The challenge of trying to outdo last year's harvest can be quite fulfilling.
But there’s the rub: tomatoes can indeed be a challenge. In my opinion, they are some of the most finicky crops (although maybe not quite as difficult as celery and cauliflower) in blight-stricken regions such as Western North Carolina. Between trellising, suckering, the blight, blossom end rot, and extreme yearly variability due to the weather, they can make a beginner gardener's head spin. They need just the right amount of light, heat, nutrients and moisture—not too much and not too little—to thrive. Finding the best varieties for your area's weather conditions takes time.
I fully encourage gardeners to continue trying, as a good tomato year is very rewarding. But I also hope you experiment with some cool weather crops as they are a bit more dependable and can boost your confidence. I don't want beginner gardeners to give up, assuming all gardening is the same as tomato growing.
While almost every vegetable is nearly fool proof with healthy soil, with the correct timing, lettuce is especially so. The only issues I typically have with lettuce are slugs and aphids, but they are rarely so damaging that I need to use organic pest control products. I just give them a triple wash before eating. Parsley is another very reliable, undemanding crop, and it even lasts through a good part of mild winters. Most of the brassicas (such as kale, broccoli, collards) perform well as long as they are fed well, covered with a row cover and perhaps treated with DiPel (Bacillus thuringiensis) for severe cabbage worm infestations and/or pyrethrin for harlequin bug breakouts. In the fall, cabbage worms are less of a nuisance than in spring and early summer, however harlequin bugs can be a problem if not attended to.
Another benefit of the fall garden is the length of the season. With some season extension techniques (a row cover will do in mild winters) and/or succession planting, you can harvest through late winter. Fall greens are cut multiple times, especially chard, kale and collards. Little storage or processing is needed—root crops such as carrots, beets and turnips can stay edible in the ground in freezing temperatures as long as they have several inches of mulch to keep them warm. (I prefer to harvest them and keep them in my fridge to ensure they remain high quality.)
Last but not least—the nutritional value of fall vegetables is outstanding. If you peruse health magazines' and nutrition websites' "top ten nutritious foods," leafy greens and broccoli make pretty much every list. (Not to dismiss the benefits of tomatoes, which are said to have cancer-fighting properties.)
The tricky part of the fall garden is timing, i.e. finding the right window to plant when it's not so hot that the plants wilt or bolt, but they'll have enough time in the growing season to mature. In the Asheville area, I typically like to start seeding beets and carrots mid-July and finish up transplanting brassicas by mid-August, depending on the vegetable's number of days until harvest. Succession planting of short season crops like arugula lasts through September. For longer season crops, I make sure to plant where the sun hits for at least 6 hours (preferably more, especially for broccoli and cabbage) in the fall. The shadows grow long throughout the end of the summer as the position of the sun changes.
If you need help, please don't hesitate to set up a garden coaching lesson. I draw up succession plans so customers have a clear picture of when to plant what for a multiple-month harvest extending through winter. Just like each crop has its own specifications, so does each site so it's best if I offer advice tailored to your unique situation. Call me (Megan) at 828.333.4151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.