Spurred by the sluggish economy, old-fashioned frugality has become fashionable again in many aspects of our lives, and as usual, horticulture is no exception. From radio interviews to cocktails parties, I’ve been asked again and again about ways to make our gardens less costly and more productive; in particular, I’ve fielded dozens of questions about the financial viability of growing your own vegetables. Of course, we’ve all heard tales about the $60 tomato, and such stories are often unfortunately quite true: you can easily go astray dollar-wise in the vegetable garden. Overly elaborate designs, expensive, store-bought starter plants, and loads of unnecessary equipment can quickly turn your well intentioned plans for economy into economic disaster. But vegetable gardening can reap tremendous paybacks if you pay attention to a few simple rules. Here are three easy-to-follow tips that will allow you to enrich both your table and your pocket book this season.
Grow what you will harvest and use, not what you think you should be growing.
At first glance, this premise might seem self-evident, but you would be amazed at how many people get talked into growing plants because they think certain varieties are nutritious, or pretty, or might be of some possible appeal to someone, someday, somewhere, without any real plan for utilizing the produce. A perfect example is a wonderful garden I visited a few years back in Connecticut, which had some of the most beautifully tended beds of greens I had ever seen: perfectly formed little heads of butterball lettuce were mixed in amongst whorls of arugula, mache, escarole and mizuna. It was veritable salad-lovers paradise, except that no one in the family really ate salads, and the gardener in question simply grew the selection because she thought her family should have access to fresh greens – even though they were rarely, if ever, picked! This kind of wishful thinking is fine if your gardening efforts are purely ornamental, but if you’re looking to take a bite out of your food budget, you have to consider carefully what it is you eat, and even more importantly, whether or not you, or your gardening allies, will be willing to get out there and harvest the produce when its ready for the table. While finding able-bodied volunteers to pluck a few sun-warmed tomatoes from the vine for a delicious summer sauce is rarely a problem, getting disinterested family members to sit and shuck peas for an hour or two may be more of an issue, so you need to be realistic about what you will actually harvest and consume.
Grow what’s expensive.
During the five years I hosted “The Victory Garden” on PBS, we grew a lot of amazing vegetables with the help of Kip Anderson, the show’s gardener. Kip has a passion and ability to grow food like few people I’ve ever seen, but even he could sometimes go astray, at least from a cost prospective. For instance, Kip loved to grow onions from seed. Now generally, growing from seed, rather than buying expensive plants at the nursery, is most certainly the way to go. Starting your own seeds is relatively easy, extremely cost effective, and very rewarding. Onions, however, are a bit tricky. The seed is exceedingly fine, geminating slowly and unevenly over a very extended period – certainly not a beginner’s project. But Kip was determined to grow a patch of onions each season, and he nursed his seeds into small seedlings, which were then carefully planted out into the main garden, weeded, tended, and fertilized until the bulbs were ready to harvest, at which point the onions were meticulously collected and brought into cure – a necessary final step to prevent spoilage in storage. All this took an amazing quantity of effort – for what amounted to a single $5 bag of onions indistinguishable from what I could buy at the store. (In all fairness, Kip would have argued this last point, but I honestly couldn’t taste the difference.) Leeks, on the other hand, require the same amount of work, but compared to onions are exceedingly expensive – often more than a dollar a piece – and to my mind at least, are far superior to onions in most dishes. From an economic perspective, there is simply no comparison: leeks trump onions five to one. Other good examples of cost effective vegetables are tomatoes (especially if you freeze them, or put them up in glass in lieu of buying those expensive cans of organic sauce); beets; asparagus, and raspberries. All are costly at the store, but cheap and easy to grow at home. And for a real bang for your buck, grow your own herbs: those small, individual packets of rosemary or basil at $2 or $3 a piece add up fast, and you can easily replace that expense with loads of fresh herbs grown in pots right at your doorstep.
Start small, and grow what grows well for you.
Again, this may sound fairly obvious, but you would be surprised how many beginning gardeners launch overly grandiose garden plans, only to find that time and resources don’t allow for proper maintenance of the plot. The depressing result of such over ambition – a weed and pest infested garden – often is sufficiently discouraging to scrap the entire effort. Vegetable gardening isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy either, and is best learned through accreted experience. Ask any knowledgeable gardener, and he or she will tell you that food crops are a fussy lot, particular in their needs, and demanding of time and energy on the part of the gardener to bring to fruition. By starting small, you learn very quickly what you have time and ability to grow, and can adapt to particular successes or failures with ready ease. Remember too, gardening efforts can sometimes be killed just as easily by too much success: bushels of vegetables all ripening at once can be a huge burden to process, preserve or otherwise dispose of, especially for those leery of waste. In any case, expansion, should you truly require it, is as simple as tilling another few feet of open soil. Contraction, on the other hand, is far less easily accomplished.
So this year, as the gentle embrace of spring returns to the land, unlock your wallet from the deep freeze and surrender to that tasty temptation of growing your own produce. Get out the old shovel or tiller, turn over a small patch of soil, and ready the seed. Just keep it small, simple and practical, and soon you’ll be reaping the rewards – both culinary and financial – of the traditional gardener.