Great for those who lack space or time for a regular garden!

Micro-Gardening: Find Big Savings in a Small Space

by Maggie Heeger

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Micro-gardening helps take the sterile sting out of city life. Call it living on the cheap, call it frugal, call it dinner, but micro- gardening is one of the most creative ways to eat well for less! Practice micro-gardening and you'll replace those hanging spider plants with baskets of potted vegetables. Cherry tomatoes will decorate the patio where petunias once blossomed. And sprouts will grow where knick knacks once cluttered shelves. Before long, micro-gardening will become second nature. But what is it?

Micro-gardening is growing your own plants--food or flowers--in containers rather than in a plot of ground. The size of the garden is completely up to you. There's micro-gardening, and then there's micro-gardening.

You've heard it before: gardening saves money. Besides producing inexpensive food, regular gardening is so labor-intensive that you never have time to consider joining expensive activities like a health club or a meditation group. You'll find exercise and stress relief in regular gardening, but they go hand-in-hand with the tremendous number of hours spent weeding, tilling, watering, fertilizing, picking and worrying about changing weather conditions.

Regular gardening isn't for everyone. Even if you like the work involved (some people do, I'm told), you might not have the land, the time or the money to properly establish and maintain a full-sized garden. There's hope, though. Micro-gardening is gardening that just about anyone can handle.

If you're cramped for space, grow your micro- garden inside. Flower pots and window boxes work beautifully for container gardening. Use top-quality gardening soil, not run-of-the-mill dirt, and add the nutrients needed for each specific plant's needs.

Herbs grow particularly well indoors. Depending on your cooking style, one plant each can produce all the parsley, dill, thyme, basil and oregano you need for an entire season of meals. Follow the seed packet directions, or buy individual seedlings, and you're on your way. For the particularly frugal, ask a gardening friend or relative if they'll give you a few of their spare herb seeds. Since your needs are so small, why buy an entire packet of 50 to 100 seeds when you only need five?

Roots also grow well indoors. Cut off a healthy- looking "finger" from a ginger root and plant it in a fairly large pot. Keep it moist but not wet in a sunny place. That one ginger root will multiply by up to eightfold. Replant one of the fingers and continue growing and regrowing for years. Garlic also grows well, but it needs cold temperatures to set the plant. Plant a single clove, let it grow awhile, then give it a "winter" in your refrigerator or unheated attic. Bring it out after a month or so, and let it continue growing.

If you don't want to bother with the inconvenience of dirt, consider growing sprouts. A sprout salad is high-protein, sprouts added to stir-fries impart a wonderful crunch, and they're one of the quickest crops to produce. While sprout kits are available on the market, it's easy to make your own. Using a quart glass jar and good sprouting seeds such as mung beans, radish, clover, wheat berries and alfalfa, soak seeds for several hours, rinse and drain (make sure they're sproutable; many grains at the stores are treated to prevent sprouting). Prop the jar, keep the seeds in the dark, and let them sit for a day. For the next few days, rinse and drain the sprouts once or twice a day. When the seeds have two leaves, sprouts are ready to harvest. Sprout enthusiasts can't get enough, so prepare to get a book (borrowed from the library, of course) that covers this in greater detail. Internet sites that discuss sprouts are included at the end of this article.

To simplify your sprouting even further, try putting corn kernels from a feed store (feed grade only, not seed corn which has fungicides) in a saucer. Keep them barely damp, and when the small plants form leaves, add them to your salads. What could be easier...or cheaper?

If you have access to outside areas such as a patio, balcony or porch, your micro-gardening opportunities increase greatly. You may not even need to buy special pots. If you have old flowerpots, buckets, half-barrels or even concrete blocks, you have the makings of great gardening.

To plant a block garden stretch black plastic over the patio floor and punch drainage holes in the plastic. Place a row of concrete blocks filled with dirt on top of the plastic and plant seeds or bedding plants in the soil-filled blocks. Go for plants that form bushes rather than vines that need to be staked. Bush beans, tomatoes and peppers are readily available. You can buy them by the individual plant, saving the waste of an entire packet of seeds (unless you can find that generous gardening friend once again). Block gardens are great for patio edges. A word of caution, though: the black-plastic-and-drainage-holes of a block garden could rot a wooden deck or porch. Make sure you try this only on a cement or brick patio.

Buckets, barrels and pots are all excellent containers for micro-gardening. Make sure the container is clean and has drainage holes. If there aren't any holes, start with a layer of pebbles before adding the dirt. To simplify preparation even further, take a big bag of gardening soil, and cut a few slits in it. Plant the seedlings directly into the bag.

Remember that when container-gardening, the plants count on you for their moisture. They might not receive enough rain and dew to grow well, so water the plants when the dirt starts to dry out.

What won't grow well in containers? Very little. If you have a deep enough pot, root vegetables like potatoes will do well. If your container is large enough, dwarf trees will thrive. And if you're creative enough, you can wind vining plants so that they'll do well in limited spaces. Strawberries grow beautifully in layered pots, if you're so frugal that you don't want to splurge on specially- designed strawberry planters.

Micro-gardening has it all: for the green-thumb- impaired, it provides opportunity to learn more without destroying an entire patch of ground. For the already- knowledgeable, it gives the chance to try many types of gardening at once. For the easily distracted, it's not so much work that you'll tire of it quickly. And for the hungry, it provides ample variety of food with minimal labor and expense.


Mumm's Sprouting Seeds:

Maggie Heeger is a freelance writer based in Alabama. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, Black Belt, and Paddler magazines, as well as The Huntsville (Alabama) Times newspaper. Maggie has proven that with minimal gardening skills, it is possible to produce foods right in the middle of suburbia.

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