Highbush Blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum → They require little space, but much patience and attention: Planted bare-root, it takes six to eight years before they’re fully productive (two to three years in a container). Remove flowers for those first few years to generate shrub growth. Blueberries need acidic soil quite unlike our native loam, so plan to amend the soil and make adjustments. Few Ohio insect pests threaten these berries, but have netting at the ready to fend off hungry birds.
Fig Tree, Ficus carica → You can grow fresh figs near the Ohio River, not just the Mediterranean Sea. Plant trees in well-drained, not-too-rich soil on the south side of your house—providing max sun and protecting it from nasty northern winter wind. Use a trellis, or train it into an espalier for added support. In winter, prune the tree down to four feet tall, tie young limbs to the main trunk, wrap the trunk in burlap, and mulch extra-well around the base. Unlike many fruits, figs will not ripen after they are picked, so hands off until the neck of the fruit wilts a little.
Strawberries, Fragaria x ananassa → This scarlet summer favorite is low maintenance, easy to grow, and produces two crops—spring and summer. They’re also not actually a true berry, but a member of the rose family. Plant in well-draining soil, ideally in raised beds, and put down a wood or straw mulch to retain moisture and prevent weeds. They prefer full sun but can be grown in light shade. Bonus: They’re a perennial, returning year after year. the neck of the fruit wilts a little.
Peppers, Genus Capsicum → Not only are peppers tough, but the more you abuse spicy varieties, the more heat you get. Whether you’re seeking Scoville Units in the six digits or are a sucker for sweetness, buy starts or start seeds indoors under lights, as this tropical/subtropical plant has a long growing season and needs warm soil. Peppers like a loamy, neutral soil, and it helps to put a couple of matchsticks in the hole. Water them one to two inches per week—and be wary of heat waves.
Tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum → Thought by early American colonists to be poisonous, one of the first North Americans to grow them, Thomas Jefferson, called tomatoes “Love Apples.” Start them indoors and transplant out when there is no longer a threat of frost. Bury seedlings to their upper leaves to encourage rooting along the stem; leave plenty of space; and be prepared with stakes or cages for support. Unless you’re cooking up a skillet of fried green tomatoes, wait until they redden to harvest.
Bibb Lettuce, Lactuca sativa → No store-bought lettuce will ever touch homegrown bibb. Start it indoors and transplant the seedlings, or direct seed after the frost is gone. Stagger your starts four to seven days apart to have a rolling harvest. Better conditions mean better taste: Till your soil well for drainage, enrich it with nitrogen fertilizer or compost tea, and time your crop to mature before the heat sets in (lettuce likes cool weather). Plants take 55 to 60 days to mature, but you can start plucking young leaves for use in salads as soon as they’re big enough to eat.
Soy Beans, Glycine max → This major Ohio farm crop is also easy to grow in your yard (boil, salt, and presto: edamame). Plant the seeds in full sun at a depth of about one inch in warm, slightly acidic, moist soil. Keep the soil wet until the seeds germinate. Avoid handling the low-growing, bushy plant when wet: this can spread fungus. But overall, soybeans are resistant to pests. Harvest when the pods are plump and a couple of inches long, usually 45–65 days after sowing.
Sweet Potatoes, Ipomoea batatas → Believed to be one of the oldest domesticated vegetables, they grow from “slips,” the sprouts on a “mother” potato. Get slips growing by suspending a spud in a jar of water with toothpicks, and plant them in late May/early June, one foot apart in raised ridges. Water well for the first week (later: when the plants seem wilted) and harvest four to five months after planting. Cure in a warm, dry place for several days and store in a dark, ventilated container.