Reduce your grocery bills with a backyard garden

Making Your Backyard Garden a Success

by Chantal King


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Food prices are climbing, the economy is weak, and food safety scares are rising. The solution is as close as your backyard. More than 43 million Americans are planning a vegetable garden.

For the frugal, it makes perfect sense. According to the US Department of Agriculture, for every $100 you spend on gardening seeds and supplies, the potential harvest is $1,000. Not to mention the satisfaction and pride in knowing your hard work paid off in healthier and tastier food for your family.

Begin by deciding what vegetables to plant. There is no sense planting something that no one likes, although fresh from the garden taste has been known to change minds. Kids who wouldn't touch peas or spinach with a ten-foot pole are fighting over who gets to pick the latest batch. Tomato haters find themselves melting to the burst of a sun-ripened tomato plucked right from the vine and washed.

There are three types of gardens, including in the ground, raised beds, and container gardening. Decide what is right for your area. Then lead with location. Most crops want six to eight hours of sun daily with a handy water source nearby.

Search for suitable soil. Well-drained soil is best. Check with local horticulturists or an expert gardener to see if any additives are needed. Then mix a potting soil mixture, manure, or humus into the soil about nine to twelve inches. Another good additive is shredded dead leaves.

Sketch a layout of your garden plot. Keep in mind that some plants, like tomatoes, need two or three feet in between, while other vegetables like lettuce or carrots can be planted close together. Don't be overly ambitious your first time out. Start small so that you don't become overwhelmed.

Pick the perfect vegetables to plant. Local plant dealers and nurseries stock the varieties that are suitable for your growing region, and tend to stick to the reliable varieties. Bonnie plants are known and sold coast to coast in a large variety. Hybrids are a blend of different qualities and are sterile, meaning they will only produce one season, while Heirloom varieties will keep producing year after year.

Check with fellow gardeners or your county extension office to determine the best time to plant. All threat of freezing or killing frost should be past, which varies from different regions.

Starting from seeds is the most economical way to garden. They do require more care, transplanting, and about six weeks, so the beginning gardener may choose seedlings and established plants. Here are the steps to starting from seeds.

  • Plant the seeds in a seed mix, not potting soil. Use whatever clean, empty containers you have, including paper cups, margarine tubs, or deli trays. The clear plastic lids make ideal mini-greenhouses.

  • Put holes in the bottoms of the containers for good drainage.

  • Keep the seeds moist by misting them daily. Pouring water or spraying heavily can damage or kill tender young shoots.

  • Once you've planted the seeds and moistened them, cover with plastic.

  • Give the seedlings adequate light by putting them under a fluorescent shop light or ultraviolet light. Hot, direct sunlight may be too drying or kill the tiny plants.

  • When the seedlings get three or four leaves, they are ready to go into the garden.

Whether you started with seeds or plants, you are ready to plant your garden. Read the directions carefully on seed packets or plant containers. Follow the recommended depths and spacing carefully to ensure your plant's best productivity. Provide trellises, cages, or other support for climbing plants like peas, beans and tomatoes.

Adding a layer of mulch will control weeds and eventually decompose, adding nutrients to the soil for next year's garden. Old newspapers, wood chips or shredded leaves are excellent inexpensive choices.

Choose easy to grow plants, especially if you are a first time gardener. Here are ten crops that even a beginner can nurture.

  • Tomatoes are the most popular backyard plant. Pick disease-resistant "Better Boy" or "Bonnie Original." Or go with the extra-easy cherry tomato "Sweet 100."

  • Summer squash are very productive and easy to grow. Try zucchini "Black Beauty" or yellow crook-necked squash. Ambitious gardeners can do a follow up crop of winter squash if your area has a longer growing season.

  • Parsley is rich in vitamins and sweetens breath. Choose flat Italian parsley or the curly type.

  • Lettuce is a garden staple. Pick easy leaf lettuces like "Buttercrunch," "Red Sails," or "Romaine." You'll never want supermarket lettuce again.

  • Eggplant thrives in hot summer weather and is a favorite among gardeners. Try "Black Beauty" or the white-skinned "Cloud Nine."

  • Cucumbers should be planted after the weather warms. Choose the standard "Burpless Bush Hybrid" or the mild Japanese cucumber.

  • Chard is a leafy green that tolerates cooler temperatures. "Bright Lights" have brilliantly colored stems.

  • Bell peppers can be harvested when green or red. "Bonnie Bell" is a standby, or go wild with the new hot pepper "Mexiball."

  • Beans come in bush types like "Bush Blue Lake" or taller, pole-types, which have a higher yield.

  • Basil is the perfect complement to tomato dishes. Plant sweet basil or "Spicy Globe."

Planting a garden can boost your bottom line. Most crops are ready in the fall, which is why canning for the winter is so popular. Also, fall is the perfect time to pick up supplies for next year's garden, including seeds, tools, compost, mulch or metal trellises at rock-bottom prices. Learn to appreciate the value of planting, nurturing, and hard work to reap a bounty of produce, and even a budding gardener will bloom. Growing your own food makes you more self-reliant and can bring in a harvest of savings. Now excuse me; I have to go pick some groceries from my backyard.

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