I want to try growing vegetables. What is an easy veggie to start with? I live in a climate with hot, dry summers and cool rainy winters.
Provided that you can provide enough water, tomatoes are not difficult to grow in summer. Just go to your local garden center and buy some varieties that look like you would want to eat them. If your weather is above 85 degrees, most tomatoes will flower but not set fruit. Find a variety that sets fruit in hot weather — perhaps something like HEATWAVE.
If you're new to gardening in general, you might start off trying to grow your own herbs. Basil, mint, thyme, rosemary, and sage are all really easy to grow and handle neglect reasonably well. Most of the perennial herbs will handle a wide range of climates, and the annuals will generally self-sow quite happily (that may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you feel about them growing everywhere).
There's nothing like cooking with fresh herbs that you picked right before they went into the dish.
Your cool wet winter will probably be a good time for the quick growing "spring" crops. The rain will make your watering job easier, and nothing is better for a beginner than quick gratification. For the hot, dry summers you are going to need to be diligent about irrigation, or else pick hardy plants. Most veggies really prefer consistent water.
Roughly in order of easier to harder:
- Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary, Curry, Cilantro, etc: many herbs can actually thrive on the stress of hot and dry summers. Pests almost always stay away from their strong smells, so they are good to plant near your other plants that might have pest problems.
- Radishes, Beets, Turnips: For a beginners garden, almost nothing can beat the nearly instant gratification of radishes. From seed to harvest in under four weeks is awesome. Beets and turnips take just a little bit longer. These root veggies are generally pest free (their leaves might get nipped at, but the roots are fine), and make great spring/fall crops (they won't like your hot summer at all). Don't let them go too long before pulling them.
- Basil, Sage, etc: herbs in general are easy and very forgiving. But some will require a little bit more water to keep from wilting during the summer than others.
- Leaf lettuce: Most varieties should love your cool wet winters, and you can easily plant enough for your salads all spring long, with very little maintenance beyond harvesting. The main pest is slugs, and they usually don't eat enough to ruin your day.
- Sugar snap peas: while your weather is still cool and wet, these should grow quickly and produce yummy treats for you to eat right off the vine. As a nitrogen-fixer, they are more forgiving of bad soil than other plants. You just need to make sure they have a trellis to climb.
- Swiss chard: Grows like a charm for me, and hardier varieties will make it through the summer (so long as you keep them watered).
- Onions (from sets), garlic: are very easy to grow, and have fewer pest problems than many more popular veggies.
- Tomatoes, Eggplant, Peppers, Squash: These will take a bit more care to keep properly irrigated and protected from pests or disease than the others listed above. But a good hardy variety can make this easier, and there are few gardening joys greater than biting into a juicy fresh garden tomato. And unless something goes awry, your squash will spoil you with abundance.
- Collard Greens, Kale, Cabbage, Broccoli: depending on the details of your climate, it's likely that these will thrive over your fall/winter/spring. Just watch out for pests like the cabbage worm.
Please note: my summers are hot and humid with occasional rain, so make sure to double check with local advice. Whatever you do, try to pick varieties that work well for your region. You should also take care to note the soil you will use (or amend) and the amount of sunlight your plants will get on most days. If you are buying your plants from a local gardening store, they should be able to give you detailed recommendations on which varieties will thrive with minimum fuss and when and where to plant.
Carrots are pretty easy. We planted some here (in Las Vegas) in February, then harvested them in mid-May. They like a steady amount of water and you have to watch out for aphids (soap spray works for those). I fed them every two weeks with an organic fertilizer and added coffee grounds and extra compost on occasion. They turned out great.
In California, my brother threw some cucumber seeds in the ground in April and we had nearly a cucumber every two days starting in July. They seem to grow extremely easily once established.
Other than cucumbers, like others, I would say tomatoes and Swiss Chard, which do decent in hot weather. I find other greens hard to grow since they bolt quickly in warm springtimes.
Your cool, rainy winters would be good for planting spinach and lettuce. Those vegetables like the cool weather, and if you have a lot of rain you won't need to worry about keeping them watered.
If you plant a small amount of lettuce and/or spinach every week or two, you can have a continuous harvest of salad greens for as long as the weather stays cool. Cut the leaves with scissors when they're the size of the "baby salad greens" mixes that you see in the store. If you leave an inch or two above the ground, it will regrow and you can get two harvests from them. (More than two harvests and they start to get bitter.) If you're planning to harvest baby greens, you can plant much closer than the instructions on the seed packet -- 2-4" apart instead of the 8-12" they may recommend.
What's "easy" will depend to some extent on what you have for pests in your area -- I've never had a problem with lettuce, but my spinach gets attacked by bugs a little bit, and the cabbage loopers will destroy my cole crops if I don't spray.
I have found the easiest to be spinach beet (perpetual spinach — it needs to be protected from slugs and well watered), followed by broad beans and sweet corn. Carrots can be difficult, as they are susceptible to a host of pests and diseases, including carrot fly and black rot. Onion sets are easy enough to grow, provided you avoid the red varieties, such as Red Baron, which have a tendency to bolt (go to seed) before they have fully swelled and, as a result, they don't store well.
peppers and tomatoes do well in warm weather as already suggested.
For cool, wet winters, you might have some success with potatoes if you do not get a frost. I've grown them in a Texas spring but it is a race to grow and water them before it gets too hot!
Beans and corn could also be worth trying. Corn is thirsty, but black beans don't seem to do too badly. I could never find the right time to pick corn (like eating pears, the window is very short!), but black beans seemed to be much more forgiving. I could also get two crops in a Texas summer by keeping half the first crop's beans and then planting them in August.
I live in Cape Town (mediterranean climate, hot dry summers, cool wet winters), and I have had success with Swiss Chard, tomatoes, bell peppers (sort of - they ripen too early), but these all need a quite a bit of watering. Fortunately, they recover from heat waves quite nicely. I've also got a blueberry bush in a large pot that seems to never need water (although its only ever produced 2 blueberries). Plants that seem to require less watering, and thrive in my garden, are: thai basil, common thyme, oreganum, sweet basil, lemon balm, mint, lavendar, lemon verbena, and a fig tree.
Unfortunately, I've never had success with salad greens - the slightest hint of a heat wave sends my lettuce and mustards bolting.