My Story: A Vegetable and Herb Garden

contributed by Marcie

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Many folks are planting gardens this year in order to stretch the food budget and obtain wholesome food at a fraction of the cost. However, not all gardening is cheap. I remember the year I bought eggplant plants for about $4. Two died, and the other two produced tiny eggplants, which, not counting labor, cost me about $9 per pound!

Despite this, I continue. We turned part of our parking area that adjoined an ally into a vegetable garden. We didn't need space for three cars, and the garden is a delight. Since it is the garden's first year, I'll report in the fall how we did with carrots, beans, peas, corn, squash, tomatoes and broccoli. I can attest that the spinach and lettuce we have already enjoyed almost make the garden worth it!

There are savings beyond just having your own veggies, however. If you use herbs, you've seen that the supermarket charges an average of $1.99 for packaged fresh herbs. Seeds cost about that or less, and many herbs self-seed year after year.

Save dill seeds from the beautiful lacy heads. I'm going on the fourth year of self-seeded dill, and at the end of the season, or when I have too much, I dry and bottle it for the winter. Plus, it makes great little gifts for friends. Dill seeds are also good in some foods like herbed bread or biscuits, so save seeds to use in the kitchen.

Basil also self-seeds, but it is best to allow only one plant to get that far, as a basil plant gets bitter when it gets old enough to produce viable seeds. Start basil in egg cartons and transplant into patio pots or in the soil when they are about 3" high and danger of frost is gone.

We love cilantro in Mexican and Thai dishes. One problem with cilantro is that it "bolts" and gets leggy and produces seed as soon as the weather gets hot. So, I plant a few cilantro seeds every week at the base of the mature plants. Then, while the older ones are on the way out, the newer ones are just getting big enough to use. I have had no luck with packaged cilantro seeds, but I purchased a container of coriander seeds (sold as a spice), and they grow. Coriander is simply the seed from the cilantro plant. Again, use the seeds you produce after the plant "bolts," and you'll never have to buy coriander/cilantro seeds again.

Oregano is a perennial, and once you have established it, you'll have it for a long time. It doesn't like to be crowded by other plants and will die if completely shaded.

Thyme, too, is perennial and makes a delightful "filler" in rock gardens or as a ground cover. Once you get a healthy mound, it will last for years. There are so many varieties of thyme, and they come in many colors and flavors.

Some sage plants will live for years, and although I have not had luck saving seeds and purposely cultivating them, I have found self-seeded "volunteers" around the established sage plants in the garden. I like to dry sage in hanging bundles; they smell so good as they dry in my pantry.

Parsley is a biennial, meaning new plants will produce for two years in a row, so I plant some new ones and enjoy some old ones each year. Again, drying parsley is a breeze and is so worth the trouble compared to buying it. You can have fresh parley well into the winter here in the Eastern Seaboard area of the country.

Mint can be a problem. You need to contain it to its own area, or it will invade and choke out everything else. But it is so worth having for making Middle Eastern dishes, iced tea and Mint Juleps. You can make a simple mint syrup by boiling one part sugar and one part water together. Then add a little more than one part tightly packed mint, squish it down into the pan with a potato masher and let it steep for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture into small bottles, and use it to flavor ice water and iced tea. I pour tea into the leaves that are left after bottling the syrup and strain it, sweetening and flavoring the tea with what otherwise would be discarded.

Many vegetables you buy have seeds you can save and plant, including all winter squashes and some peppers and tomatoes.

Gardening is one of the "natural" inclinations of us tightwads. It gives so much back for such a little investment, and almost every garden gives us a chance to recycle other goods into containers and supports. Recyclables that I re-use include chop sticks, skewers, old panty hose and knee-highs, bread ties, yogurt cups, egg cartons, broom and mop sticks, chicken wire and broken slates/flagstones (tell you where to step in a newly planted garden). My best cheap find happened this year. I was preparing the garden in April and wishing for a cold frame (a baby plant incubator like an on-site greenhouse). I put it out to the universe that someone needed to throw away a window I could claim. Well, the next day I found a discarded storm door. Not only was it sturdy tempered glass of a large size, but also it was even edged and etched in a lovely pattern. Set on 4x4s cut to length (also recycled), it produced spinach and lettuce by early May! It was simply elegant.

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