Enjoy Great Food From Your Own Garden — and Save Money

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Whether you live in an urban apartment or a rural farm, you can grow some of your own food. Here's how to get started.

You don’t need tons of acreage to grow food. Even a few containers and a bit of sunshine can make it possible for you to enjoy produce that is both fresher and far cheaper than what you’d find at a supermarket or even farmers markets.

The payoff can be significant.

For each $1 you spend on seeds, you can plan to harvest about $75 in vegetables, George Ball, chairman and CEO of seed giant Burpee told the Wall Street Journal. Even $1 worth of potato seeds will generate $5 in spuds, he said. Of course, there are many variables that figure in — and you need other inputs, such as good soil, fertilizer and water — but you get the general idea.

The trick to making a garden pay off is to take some time to plan and maintain the garden that is right for you, starting with evaluating your space and top picks for crops.

Consider your space

Some plants take an enormous amount of space (corn, lettuce) and may crowd out anything in their path. Others such as tomatoes or radishes don’t require much room at all. Note that some plants need full sun, while others need a break from the heat. And of course you don’t want to garden on top of tree roots. Better Homes & Gardens has a terrific starter guide to help you plan your garden. They even have a “gardening where you live” guide that will help you choose the right plants for your weather.

Need to keep your garden in containers?

There are plentiful choices on containers, drainage and other specifics. You’ll also want to plan, just as you would for a traditional garden. Rodale Organic Life has a container garden guide that offers step-by-step guidance and reminders including how to make sure you add the proper amount of soil without ruining your floors.

Choose your plants strategically

Whether you have an expansive yard, or just enough room for a few containers, it’s a good idea to prioritize what plants you want and learn how they grow best. A guide to small-space gardening in Mother Earth Living magazine explains it this way:

Which crops are at the top of your list and which will you squeeze in only if you have the space? As part of that process, you’ll want to take a close look at how much room each plant requires for healthy growth. Armed with this knowledge, you may choose to grow more plants that require minimal space per plant (salad greens) and fewer plants that sprawl (squash).

Think about what fruits and vegetables you enjoy.

Sure some vegetables, like lettuce, are fairly easy to grow. If you and your family don’t eat lettuce, though, there’s no point in growing it. You can just browse the seed racks, of course, but consider researching before you buy.

As we have reported in the past, plants that yield the most bang for the buck — again, depending on your climate and conditions — are:

  • Salad greens
  • Tomatoes
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Strawberries

Sunset magazines also has a terrific starter guide of options for your edible garden.

Plant with patience

It’s tempting to just buy the seeds, put them in a pot or plant them in your outdoor garden, and hope for the best. But that will backfire if you plant at the wrong time. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers won’t do well if they are planted in cool, spring soil. Refer to GardensAlive for a handy guide that tells you what plants do best in cool weather, warm weather or even inside.

Keeping your garden growing

Once your garden is started, you will want to plan how often to water, fertilize and harvest. Many of those particulars depend on the size of your garden, its location and the type of plants grown. Eartheasy offers practical tips on choosing soil, checking ph and more.

Herein lies one of the biggest challenges — persistence. If you want your garden to pay off, you need to stay with it.

“I get a lot of calls in the spring from people who want to start gardens and can’t wait to get started,” Ronald Wolford of University of Illinois Extension told the WSJ. “But when it comes to July and August, and it’s 95 degrees, and there’s insect problems, it just goes to pot.”

Preserve the bounty

Sure, you want to eat as many of the fruits and vegetables you grow. But what about extras? You can take some to neighbors or co-workers, but leave enough for yourself to enjoy in the fall and beyond. University of Minnesota Extension provides a guide on how to best store and preserve your bounty. Eating Well also provides tips for the best ways to lock in the flavors of fresh produce and freeze them. Want to go the way of previous generations and can your bounty? It is an option, but it’s important to carefully follow steps to make sure food remains safe. The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers guidance.

What do you like to grow for yourself? What have you learned about raising food plants in your area? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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