Gardening on the Cheap

January 29th, 2009 by david laferney Leave a reply »
The big reward of gardening is being able to feed your family the best quality produce available.  The president cant get anything better than that ear of sweet corn picked while the grill was heating up.

Raising a garden will not only allow you to feed your family the freshest and highest quality food - it can also help save a lot of money!

Welcome Stumbleupon gardeners!

You can spend a lot of money putting in a garden, but you don’t have to.  Some of the best gardens I ever grew were when I had little more than my time to invest – the essential ingredient.  In today’s economy many people are interested in growing a garden to supplement their family food supply, but  will it really  save you money? Yes – if you follow a few guidelines.

Grow only what you can and will use. This seems like common sense, but it’s not uncommon to see people plant way more of a single crop (tomatoes especially) than they can possibly use.  Growing food that goes to waste costs just as much time, work, and money as it does to grow food that you actually use.  You’ll be better off to grow a very small garden that gets used than to waste the effort to grow one that’s too big.  If you’ve never tried arugula or artichokes before, then buy some in the grocery store before you plant them in the garden – you and your family might not even like those things at all.

Concentrate on growing food to eat fresh – Your home grown produce will be fresher than you can get anywhere else, and packs a lot of bang for the buck.  Once you start investing in the added time and expense for canning, and freezing your returns will start to diminish.

You can grow quite a lot of food very efficiently in a small raised bed which is intensively cultivated.

You can grow quite a lot of food very efficiently in a small raised bed which is intensively cultivated.

Start small, but plan for growth –  You will be surprised at all that you can get out of one 3′ by 8′ bed if you take really good care of it.  You might also be surprised at how much time a big garden can soak up. Unless you have a lot of time to invest (and you might) consider starting small.  On the other hand if you think your job might not be keeping you all that busy in the next few months – borrow a tiller and plow up the whole back yard.

Concentrate on the “Classics” at first. There are certain plants that you will find in almost every backyard garden around you – for example tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, cucumbers, squash, lettuce – because they are easy to grow, relatively high in value, and good on the table.  There are others of course, but find out what experienced gardeners in your area grow, and try those at first even if you also put in some more exotic fare as well.

Don’t buy tools or equipment unless you need them. You can grow a garden with nothing more than a six dollar shovel.  Really, you can.  If you are planting a garden for the first time ever and you have money to burn you can really go first class by getting a hoe and a garden rake in addition to a shovel, but that is all you need. If you feel that you really need a tiller then rent or borrow one to initially work up your soil. I have a tiller, but if I was starting over I wouldn’t buy one now.  With the methods that I have changed to it isn’t really needed.

Utilize organic methods to save money. Organic gardeners don’t have to buy chemicals and sprayers, and the organic matter that you do need is often free for the taking.  Even if you don’t go 100% organic (and most people do not) feeding the soil organic matter will make your plants grow better and will save you money. Making compost is not only good for your garden, but it cuts down on the waste that you send to the landfill.

Garden in permanent beds. Permanent beds are the only way to go if you are gardening on the cheap.

  • Because you plant intensively in beds you can grow more food in less space.
  • Intensive methods naturally control weeds – so you work less.
  • You will only water and  add soil amendments where plants are going to grow – so you use less to produce more.
  • Because you will never step on your beds the soil will get softer and deeper and better all the time.
  • Because your beds don’t get compacted you don’t need a tiller to work them up every year.
  • You won’t waste time and effort digging up soil that you aren’t going to use growing food.
  • In a traditional American row garden you can’t get in there to do anything if the ground is wet, because it will be so miserably muddy.  The paths between your beds can have grass on them just like the rest of your yard, or you can pave them with mulch or stones if you like.  But even if they are just dirt, the paths will stay so tightly packed from you walking on them that they won’t be very muddy even then.
  • Since you can get to your beds in any weather you can plant and pick whenever you want.

Take advantage of cheap or free seeds and plants whenever you can.  “Planting Garlic” (elephant variety) is about 16 dollars a pound in one of my seed catalogs – regular elephant garlic is about 3 dollars a pound in the produce department of the grocery store – and it’s exactly the same thing. Have old potatoes that are growing sprouts under the sink?  Plant them in the garden*.  Learn about saving heirloom seeds so that you will know if the seeds from that farmers market tomato are worth planting or not – they might be. Find a gardening friend that you can share seeds and 6 packs (of bedding plants) with.

If you look you shall find sources of inexpensive garden seeds like this ebay seller – watch out for shipping charges though – this guy gives free shipping with an order of 10 or more and has high feedback marks.  That could be all the seeds that you need for about $13 delivered to your door.

Don’t overlook the lumber yard and hardware store.  Their selection may be limited, but often the prices are good, and you won’t have to pay for shipping.

Get an early start.  Unless you live in the land of eternal sunshine the growing season only lasts so long, and even if you do you might need to get an early start to beat the mid Summer heat and drought.  Starting early also lets your plants get established before the insect population gets so big.  If you start too early you could get hit by a late freeze, but in my opinion it’s better take that chance than to wait too late.

Don’t plan on lots of complicated canning and preserving at first. This activity tends to happen right in the hottest and busiest part of the summer, and can be overwhelming, and it can’t be put off even a day or two.  Of course you will want to at least freeze a few things, but try to eat all that you can when it’s fresh.  Ease into canning and preserving once you have a better idea about what you are getting into.  If you grow more than you need you can always give some away – money is probably tight next door too.  If you do want to can or preserve plan on it by planting a whole lot of one thing at a time so that it will all come in at one time and you can get it over with.  Just make sure that green beans and sweat corn don’t both get ripe at the same time or you could get swamped.

Use simple low cost preservation – drying, freezing, bulk cooking.  Eat the less than perfect, and preserve the very best.

Keep your garden going as long as possible by succession planting.  Instead of planting 10 cucumber plants all at once plant a few every week or so to keep them coming.  As soon as one crop plays out yank it up and plant something else – don’t hang on to failing plants just because you’re still getting an occasional tomato or squash. Especially take action around the middle of July (in zone 6) to clear space and plant a fall garden.  It may be hot in July, but you sure will be happy with the fresh produce in September – October when few others have any.

Simple cold frames and plastic tunnels can extend your season for growing and harvesting fresh produce from your garden well into cold weather.

Simple cold frames and plastic tunnels can extend your season for growing and harvesting fresh produce well into cold weather.

Garden as late into the fall as you can. Unless you live in the great white north you can probably pick some food from your garden at least 9-10 months a year.

Read and learn all that you can.  Gardening is sometimes as simple as poking a seed into the ground and letting it grow, but the more you learn the more you will get out of it.

A knowledgable garden knows that each of those cacoons will hatch into a beneficial parasitic wasp - an organic control for more than just hornworms.

A knowledgeable gardener knows that each of those cocoons will hatch into a beneficial parasitic wasp - an organic control for more than just horn worms.

Be a packrat – lumber, bricks, stone, screen wire, wire mesh fencing, rebar, fence posts, plastic sheeting, compostable materials, containers, garden hoses, plumbing pipe, rebar,  string – useful things that can be recycled for cheap (or free) or can be very expensive to buy.

Plan ahead if you’ll be away from your garden for a week or more. It’s a shame to come back from vacation and find that all of your corn is past it’s prime.

Recycle garden waste by composting

Consider edible landscaping –  Edible Landscaping Forest Gardening Resource Page –  there’s no reason why you can’t grow food on almost every plant in a yard.

Recycle containers for starting seeds instead of buying them

Make your own potting soil for container plants and seed starting

Plan to save seeds from your very best heirloom plants – not as an after thought.

Save left over seeds from year to year –  Especially store bought hybrid and hard to save seeds – many will stay good for years if kept in a cool, dark, dry place.

Strawberry plants will become over crowded without care, but each daughter can be used to grow a new productive plant. Dividing strawberries is best done during mid fall.

Strawberry plants will become over crowded without care, but each rooted daughter plant can be used to grow a new productive plant. Dividing strawberries is easy and best done during mid fall.

Propagate from cuttings and divisions whenever possible. Ask other gardeners for cuttings and divisions from their overgrown perennials and then plant them right away .

Watch online classifieds, swap meets and flea markets for seeds, plants, materials, and equipment – get what you need when you find a good deal instead of making an impulse purchase.

Collect rain water

Plan -make a calendar for your garden.  Or don’t – if a sunny Spring day makes you want to plant something then just go for it!

If you read all of this, how about a thumbs up?

*Planting potatoes from the grocery store? – The prevailing opinion on this is don’t do it because a)They won’t grow because they have been treated to prevent it b)They aren’t certified disease free and might be infested with wilt or blight or some other foulness . Either could be true, but if they are sprouting in the pantry they have the potential to grow, and if commercial farmers feilds were infested with diseases would they be proffitable?  I do not advocate that you make the grocery store your #1 source for seed potatoes, but if you plant some of them you really don’t have much to lose.  Do you think that our fore fathers bought certified seed potatoes every year? NO, they saved their own, and swapped varieties with neighbors.  Some of this almost has to be propaganda.

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