Summer meals are best when full of bright, ripe produce: stone fruit, juicy tomatoes, and fresh herbs. As the days and nights heat up, surviving off fruits and veggies (and popsicles) makes perfect sense. It also makes perfect sense to fuel our produce-forward menus with vegetables grown in our very own backyards.

Best enjoyed on a comfy Outer sofa

Growing edible gardens comes with a host of health benefits, from inspiring kids to eat more veggies, to getting hands in the dirt and breathing fresh air, to being more aware of the foods we put into our bodies. It’s also incredibly rewarding.

Fresh asparagus grills beautifully in just a few minutes

To get started, we spoke to Holly Carpenter from The Growing Experience, an extension of the Carmelita Housing Project in Long Beach, CA, that hosts classes and farm stands, and distributes CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes in their local community. Here, she tells us how — and why — to turn those baby seedlings into bountiful summer meals.

Why do you think growing your own food is important?

From an environmental and sustainability perspective, conventional agriculture in the U.S. today is very damaging to the environment. Toxins, pesticides, and other foreign chemicals are often used to protect crops and end up in our food and in waterways. Industrial farming practices, as well as distribution methods, contribute to greenhouse gases. Eating food that’s locally grown helps reduce that overall impact.

Nutritionally, it’s better to have food picked when it’s fully ripe, or grown without pesticides or other fertilizers that might be carcinogenic. You control what’s going into your body on a very direct and basic level.

Are there any entry-level fruits or vegetables you'd recommend to new gardeners?

Lettuce greens. They’re super simple, and salad is really expensive in the store, so it’s a really easy way to save money. They last for multiple seasons typically, so you can harvest several times.

Lettuce greens are a great place for beginning gardeners to start

For a family of four, I would grow four or five different varieties, and then once the plants get established, you can harvest the largest leaves off of each one. You’ll maximize your lettuce crop by planting multiple kinds and then clipping off the largest leaves.

Once the middle stock of the lettuce shoots up a flower (called bolting), it’s time to harvest from the root.

What are some vegetables that do really well in summer?

Tomatoes (like cherry tomatoes) do amazingly well. Radishes, zucchini squash, corn, and hot peppers are all really easy to grow, and you can get multiple rounds out of them — either in a container or in the ground.

Eat the rainbow. Different colored produce contain a variety of different nutrients.

For year-round crops, opt for lettuce greens, herbs, and kale.

Check out your regional planting guides for the best times to plant specific types of produce throughout the year, as it depends on climate.

What are some of the common mistakes people make when starting an edible garden?

Not amending the soil. A rule of thumb is you have to feed the soil to grow plants. When starting out, you want to mix compost or organic soil amendment with whatever soil you’re planting in.

For a potted plant, you’ll want to add compost or organic soil amendment with potting mix. If you’re gardening in the ground or in a larger planter bed, you’ll use whatever local soil you have and compost or soil amendment. As the season goes on, you can add organic fertilizers like fish emulsions, compost, or worm castings.

Another mistake I see is not watering enough at first and then watering too much later on. Keep the soil moist as plants get established. Typically, you should wait 3–4 weeks for the plant to have a good root system, and then you can water 2–3 times per week. When it’s a baby seedling, water every day and keep the soil moist.

Are there any eco-friendly ways you can keep bugs away from produce plants?

Companion planting is a big one; choose plants that grow well together. Growing aromatics like mint, basil, parsley, and oregano alongside vegetables helps keep bugs away. Same thing goes for flowers.

Fresh herbs can help keep bugs away from produce plants

The bugs will go after the flowers rather than your vegetables. With herbs, they don’t really like the fragrance. You can also try DIY insecticides using garlic or pungent spices.

Our summer meals await. If you need some inspiration for what to do with your abundant tomato crops, we recommend checking out this tomato and sausage pasta recipe or this tomato soup recipe (delicious hot or cold) for a delicious dinner al fresco.

Most things are better outside.