by Kristina Seleshanko
Have you ever read the bestselling book The $64 Tomato? In it, author William Alexander spends an outrageous amount of money to create a home vegetable garden – and learns his home grown tomatoes cost him $64 each. It’s not exactly a book to encourage novice vegetable gardeners. But the good news is, Alexander is a spendthrift. Vegetable gardening is actually a very frugal activity.
To prove this to myself, in 2011, I started a new vegetable patch and kept records on what it produced. I figured we saved at least $308 on produce, not including the soil we trucked in. (After subtracting the cost of the soil, we still saved over $80.) Plus my kids learned to love veggies like never before, we ate more healthfully, we got extra exercise, and we had the satisfaction of knowing exactly where our food came from.
So, let’s focus on how you, too, can save money growing your own food:
* Test your garden soil. The #1 key to success in gardening is having good quality soil. Buy a cheap soil test kit at a garden center and follow the directions. The test will save you money by telling you whether or not your soil is in good enough shape to grow veggies – and, if not, what to add to the soil to improve it.
* Choose a location with at least 6 hours of sun per day. You’ll grow much more food this way.
* Start from seed. This saves a tremendous amount of money and, depending upon the method you use, can cost next to nothing in equipment. Download a free copy of my Starting Seeds ebook for complete directions on successful seed starting.
* If you need to improve your soil, consider bringing in soil by the truckload. If you want your garden right away and your soil is lousy, this is least expensive method. If you can wait at least 6 months, try the generally less expensive lasagna method. (Basically, lay cardboard down on the soil and top it with layers of organic material that will decompose into wonderful garden soil.)
* Don’t do raised beds. At least the type surrounded by wood, brick, or some other frame. It’s totally unnecessary – and expensive. Just mound the soil in the shape you want (making sure you can reach across it for weeding and harvesting) and plant.
* Avoid container gardens. By the time you buy decent potting soil (a must for growing in containers) and containers, you’ve made a bit of an investment. Plus, container gardens dry out quickly, so you’ll spend more on watering.
* Mulch. By placing straw, lawn clippings, bark, wood chips, shredded brown leaves, or compost around your plants (but keeping the mulch about 1 inch from stems), not only will your garden be less weedy, but you’ll cut down on watering costs. Aim for at least 5 inches of mulch.
* Harvest frequently. Don’t let ripe vegetables, fruits, or herbs languish in the garden. The more you harvest, the more food you will grow.
* Focus on growing what’s most expensive to buy. Fruit is generally more expensive to purchase than vegetables, and certain vegetables will be more or less expensive in your region.
* Fill shadier areas with plants that don’t mind it. Some examples of fruits and vegetables that don’t mind part shade (4 to 6 hours of sun per day) include strawberries, honeyberries, huckleberries, Artic kiwi, lettuce, kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard, peas, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, radishes, and turnips.
* Don’t buy it if you can make it. Tomato cages, trellis, tepees, and so on are expensive. Challenge yourself to make garden items from what you have laying around or can buy cheaply. For example, use small tree limbs to create trellises or bean tepees.
* Start a compost pile. Compost keeps the soil healthy, which makes plants grow like mad. But it sure is expensive to buy. Instead of throwing away compostable items like cardboard, paper, yard clippings, and vegetable and fruit scraps, put them to use in the garden by composting them.
* Get plants and seeds free. Often neighbors, friends, and family have cuttings or divisions (good for plants like rhubarb or berry vines) or seeds they are happy to give away.
* Save seeds. If you buy heirloom or open-pollinated seed varieties, you may never have to buy seeds again. For details, click here.
Kristina Seleshanko is an urban homesteader, mom, and wife who blogs at Proverbs Thirty One Woman.