In my post Growing Some Green in the Garden, I talked about why the boyfriend and I garden. Hint: We don’t do it to save money on food. But does that mean you can’t save money by gardening? Of course not!
To me, gardening can be as frugal or expensive as you make it. It all depends on your goals, your tastes (both aesthetic and food based), your budget, and your climate. I’ve done raised beds, with soil amendments and specially ordered seedlings (expensive), and I’ve tossed some seeds in the ground and let it go (cheap). Time is also a huge factor in how you garden.
Gardening for me is usually more about having a hobby, and accomplishing something. When I was living on my own, with my own garden, I usually delighted in growing more unusual plants: Unusual varieties of tomatoes. Spaghetti squash. “Lemon” cucumbers. That isn’t exactly the way to save money in the garden.
So how do you save money by growing your own food?
First and foremost, you should find out from fellow gardeners what grows well in your area. In my area, your best money is on tomato plants. Start seeds cheaply a month or two before the last frost, or buy seedlings just about anywhere from $1-4 each, depending on their size when you buy them. Toss them in the ground, water them occasionally, and watch them grow. I’d recommend cages of some sort, to keep the fruit from rotting on the ground. Just about everyone likes tomatoes, and they are super versatile; You can eat them raw or cooked, and you can easily can or freeze them.
If you aren’t careful, tomatoes will grow like weeds in my area. Literally. Every year I have problems with squirrels and raccoons carrying off fruit, and without fail by the next year I’m pulling new little tomato plants out of all of my flower beds. We didn’t plant anything at my house this year, but found a patch of tomato plants growing where my garden had been last year when we went to mow one day, despite the fact that the boyfriend mows every week. Since I mainly grew grape and cherry tomatoes last year, and the boyfriend refused to plant any this year (he feels they produce too abundantly), we decided to let them go and see what we ended up with.
Which brings up another good point; On heirloom plants, you can “seed save” from one year to the next. I’ve never personally done this, but there are tips and tricks all over the internet on how to save seeds from one year’s crop to be replanted the following year. The plants have to be of the heirloom variety though; Hybrid plants won’t reproduce from one year to the next. And the majority of plants you buy at “big box” retailers are hybrids.
Although we’ve never seed saved ourselves, the boyfriend has a good “old-timer” buddy in his 70’s who’s been doing this for decades. It was something he and his brother always did together; They’d save seeds from their heirloom tomatoes, and then start hundreds of seedlings the following year, giving away many to their friends and family. Actually, most of our tomato plants came from this friend, as he gives the boyfriend 20-30 seedlings every year to plant and share. And they grow some amazing, gigantic tomatoes! Like I said in my last post, gardening is as much about community as anything!
Aside from what you plant, HOW you plant is another place where you can save money. You can plant in the ground, in raised beds, or even in pots. When my Mom lost her kidney, planting a whole garden was out of the question. So, she bought a couple of bags of dirt, stood them up on the ends outside, cut the tops off, and stuck a tomato plant directly into the dirt. Enough light and water, and voila! The ultimate Hillbilly container garden!
Each way of planting has its pluses and minuses. Planting directly into the ground requires you to till the ground. I always did this by hand, using a plain old shovel. I’d remove the sod first (with a shovel), to make it easier to turn. The boyfriend borrows a tiller from a friend, and usually just sows everything into the soil, grass, weeds and all. You may or may not need to add amendments to your soil. I always added peat moss and compost to my garden, just because I felt like I should. I’m not sure how much good it did; The boyfriend doesn’t add anything, and our garden grows just fine.
In raised beds you’ll need the materials to make the beds, along with the soil to fill the bed. It’s usually recommended that you add compost, etc. to the soil in raised beds. You don’t have to worry so much about tilling the soil in a raised bed, and the soil tends to thaw quicker in the Spring than the ground does. But raised beds tend to not hold water as well, so you’ll have to pay more attention to watering your plants.
With a container garden you’ll need a container of some sort, and soil. Your container can be as fancy as a cute pot, or as economic as a bucket (or the bag the dirt came in). It’s also recommended that you fertilize your plants in containers, since nutrients will drain out more quickly. Some gardeners fertilize their plants regardless, but we’ve never bother. But then, depending on your soil, you may have to fertilize no matter which way you plant. Container gardens also require more diligence in watering, since the water will drain more easily.
Another way to get more “bang for you buck” is to get the most out of your growing season. Tomatoes are a great example of this. When I was growing up my Mom would plant a ton of tomato plants every year. Usually anywhere from 50-75 plants. As soon as the fruit would turn from dark green to light, we’d start making fried green tomatoes. I’ve also known a lot of people to make green tomato relish, or use green tomatoes for guacamole. Once the tomatoes start ripening there are endless ways to use them. And then, as the season comes to an end, you can preserve the last of the fruit by canning or freezing them.
Whew! Saving money is a whole post unto itself, and I haven’t even really talked about our garden! I guess I’ll save that for another day!
– Cindy W.