There is evidence that food prices will only continue to rise. Many may be turning to gardening to grow edibles that don't come with the same price tag as the grocery store. I am inexperienced with this myself, but I continue to experiment and learn. What advice do experienced gardeners have for those just starting out with a garden? What is the best way to start frugally? Continue to keep it cost effective and not become overwhelmed by the work it can take?
I gardened for years, spending very little money on food during summers and putting up food for winters. It takes some planning, but it is not difficult to accomplish. First, decide what to plant. Find out what kind of soil you have and what grows well in your area. The local college agricultural extension station will be happy to help you or look online.
Second, join a vegetable gardening "club" in your area. Many areas have groups on Yahoo or Google and members swap seeds and other gardening items. Seeds are the cheapest way to start a garden. In discount stores, you can buy them for as little as 10 cents per packet. You should generally start your seeds about six to eight weeks before you expect to plant them outdoors. You need a bright area for growing. Save and use paper egg cartons for a cheap way to plant seeds individually.
Consider planting natural pest controllers like garlic, onions and marigolds around your garden. These can also be started from seeds or "sets" in the case of onions.
The hardest part is preparing your garden area. If it is to be large, then you may find it worthwhile to rent or borrow a tiller. I used my teenage sons. We put yard scraps in a hidden area behind our house (way behind) each summer and fall and then worked the resulting compost into the soil each spring. You can buy a composter, but this natural method works with no effort on your part and no cost.
After removing grass and weeds from the garden area, work compost and organic fertilizer into your soil. Lay old newspapers between rows (mark what you planted in each row) and weigh them down with fresh grass clippings. This costs nothing and saves a lot of work during the summer when it's hot and you won't want to be weeding. In the fall, just leave it there and it will enrich your garden for the following spring.
If you are growing tomatoes or other tall plants, you may need garden stakes. You can fashion these from twigs or buy a large package. One package has lasted over 20 years so far.
If your area has small critters like rabbits, you may need to fence the garden with chicken wire. You may find this free on a site like Craigslist or Freecycle, but if you have to buy it, do so. You don't want to feed the neighborhood!
Consider the water needs of your garden and how you will get water there if needed. Make sure your garden is in the sunniest part of your yard. Harvest and enjoy!
Barbara in CT
It's better to have a small garden plot that you care for than a large space run to weeds.
You can dig over the area in the fall, turning the sod upside down, so the winter cold helps break up the roots. Starting in spring? Remove sod and put it on compost heap.
Scrounge up free organic materials to enrich the soil like manure or soiled horse bedding from the local stable, clean sawdust from a wood worker, grass clippings, pine needles, or dry leaves. Work the organic material into the soil.
Like squash? Every spring I buy a butternut squash at the grocery store, cut it in half, and scrape out the seeds and strings with a heavy tablespoon. Then I cut up and peel the butternut squash and eat it.
Take the seeds and remove the strings (and put stringy bits and peels from squash in your compost heap.) Spread the seeds on a sheet of paper, one layer deep, and put in a warm dry place. In a few days, you will have exactly the same seeds as if you bought a package of seeds, and you've had the butternut squash for dinner. The same is true for zucchinis, yellow summer squash, acorn squash, and pumpkins.
A small salad garden is easy and fun, and the seeds are inexpensive. Iceberg is tough to grow and the least tasty. Instead, try romaine, mesclun (mixed greens), black seeded Simpson, or other leaf lettuces. After they are 4"-6" tall, cut them off an inch above the ground and water them. The lettuce will regenerate over and over. You can get a half dozen cuttings from one planting of leaf lettuce.
Kitchen Gardeners International is an interesting site to explore for the beginning gardener looking to avoid increased food prices. There are a lot of resources, forums, and contact information.
Jack in Washington, KGI member
The first bit of advice I can give you is to get to the library and see if you can find any gardening books, particularly ones by Jerry Baker. His books are filled with old-time hints and how-to's, and you will also find a great selection of other authors. We began a small garden when we were young and grew a perimeter garden around our lawn with mainly salad things and herbs. We soon progressed to a full garden where we grew all of our veggies. We canned and froze our produce and that was a learning process as well. Thank goodness for those how-to books! Good Luck!
If you want to start gardening to save grocery money, any amount of garden will help. I tell first time gardeners to pick foods that they know they will eat for certain. During the first year, they should only get a few plants that they can put in a small garden and mulch! It's better to start small and wish you had done more than to do too much and not want to garden ever again. As you develop experience and confidence, your garden will expand. I started with a 5'x8' garden about 20 years ago. I now have a 9'x24' garden, a 2'x24' garden along a fence, a plan for spring, summer and fall crops, and many pots of small plants like lettuce, spinach and herbs. I try something new each year; last year I tried tomato trellises, and this year I will try different members of the cabbage family. By building a little each year, I grow accustomed to caring for everything in a way that is very economical and satisfying, but not overwhelming.
For the beginning gardener, nothing could be easier than a container garden. We once raised multiples of vegetables, all in five-gallon buckets we received free from bakeries in our area. A restaurant might have pickles in them, also.
Drill holes in each side of the bucket about an inch up from the bottom. Fill them with dried leaves, straw, or raked up chips to about halfway and then fill to the top with potting soil or good garden dirt. Plant your seeds as directed on the packet. Water more frequently than a garden in the ground, and you can have all that we did. We grew lettuce, spinach and pansies (edible) in window boxes that were screwed down to the deck railing. We grew corn in big blue tubs from the Wal-Mart, drilled with holes and filled the same way. We grew pole beans in the blue tubs, using bamboo tripods to climb up. We also grew potatoes in the tubs! We also grew peppers, carrots, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers (use tomato cages and they will hang down perfectly), eggplant, and herbs all on our big deck and ate fabulously from our garden.
First, network with gardeners. Find out which of your friends garden or find local people who garden, and talk to them. Any serious gardener will have a lot of seeds, and most will be very happy to share with you, whether you want to or not. This is a good way to get free seed. More importantly, they'll be a great source of information on what will and won't grow in your area, and have experience-based tips about how to get the most from your garden. Don't be shy. I've never met a gardener who wasn't thrilled at being asked for their opinions and advice.
Second, buy seeds rather than seedlings if possible. If you buy early, there's no reason you should have to buy seedlings at the nursery. If you do buy seedlings, it still cheaper than the grocery store, but much cheaper if you start from seed.
Unless you really want the flavor or plan to save seed, it wouldn't be worth it to spend extra for heritage or organic seed, in my opinion. (Many will disagree with this) However, if you think you will be saving seed (which drastically reduces your costs for next year), then I would definitely pay a little more for the heartier Heritage seeds.
Don't buy vegetables that just look pretty or that you "should" eat. Only buy vegetables you know you "will" eat. Vegetables that "should" be eaten end up wasting garden space and rotting on the vine.
Check out Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew from your library or Inter-library loan, and read it until you understand the basics. It is a form of intensive gardening, which will increase your yield while simultaneously decreasing your workload.
Open your mind to re-definitions, so you don't miss free food growing under your nose. We spend money for green onions at the store, yet throw away onions that have sprouted. Cut the tops off and use them. Those are green onions. When potatoes grow eyes, don't toss them. Cut them into one-inch cubes with one eye per cube and plant them in anything. I harvested nearly 40 pounds of free potatoes by doing this last year, and it was fun seeing what came up when I pulled up the plants. I got red, yellow, white, and blue potatoes.
Don't forget about "weeds." A lot of them are tasty, free plants that require no effort on your part; they volunteer. The ubiquitous, yet tasty purslane is a delicious weed to look for, as well as dozens of others. Only harvest weeds if you know the area they grow in is free from chemical sprays and only harvest weeds when you are positive you have the right plant.
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