This post is a follow up to this earlier post about how much money you actually save by having a garden. Which is a hard question to answer. And misses some of the most important things about gardening like the simple joy of growing things.
But for those of us with extremely tight budgets, putting a dent in our grocery bills can be really helpful. Here are some things I’ve learned (some the hard way) about getting the most out of our front yard garden.
1. Start small. Almost our entire front yard is now covered in raised beds. But we didn’t just till up the whole thing in one go. We started with three beds, then added four, then a few more here and there over the course of three years. Things always stayed at a manageable level as we learned what worked and what didn’t. We also never spent more than $50-$100 at a time.
Last year, a friend at work asked my advice on how to start his garden. I told him to start small and focus on just a few kinds of vegetables. He did the exact opposite by renting a huge rototiller, digging up his whole back yard, and planting everything the garden supply store sold. Soon, he found out his spot was less than ideal and he didn’t have time to tend to the garden plot. In a month, the entire area was choked out with weeds. I TOLD YOU SO.
2. Plant crops you already eat. I absolutely love looking at seed catalogs. We receive at least half a dozen every year in the mail. I get so carried away dreaming about next year’s garden. “Rainbow beets? YES. Salsify? Never tried it but you had me at ‘reminiscent of oysters.’ Gimme two packs.” The problem is, you might end up with a lot of vegetables that you don’t really like a whole lot. I always end up planting radishes even though I’m the only know that actually likes (definitely not loves) them. That’s not the end of the world, but if you’re trying to save money and your space is limited, you should definitely think about whether or not you’re actually going to eat all of this stuff.
3. Choose vegetables that are easy to grow in your area. There’s no better resource for this than experienced gardeners in your city. We’re lucky here to have lots of gardeners and several great nurseries and feed stores with knowledgeable staff. Down here in the deep south, we grow lots of okra, green beans, peppers, and greens. These crops always do incredibly well no matter the weather. I make sure to set aside plenty of room for these so we’ll have a big enough harvest to put a serious dent in our grocery bill.
4. Plant crops that are expensive at the grocery store. Ounce for ounce, fresh herbs are one of the most expensive things at the store. That’s why I love my perennial herbs; rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, oregano, sage, and mint. We also grow cilantro, dill, and basil annually. As far as vegetables go, there’s a bit of a conundrum here. Things that are easy to grow like green beans, are often inexpensive at the store. So we try to find a balance between things that are easy and things that are a little bit trickier, like tomatoes. Fresh, local tomatoes are expensive here for a reason; our hot, humid and wet weather can really make tomatoes difficult. One of the best crops that strikes this balance for us is peppers. Bell peppers are ridiculously expensive at the store but are pretty easy to grow in our neck of the woods.
5. Focus on a few vegetables. My love of seed catalogs means we often end up with more than just a few unusual crops. I’m notorious for filling out my order with multiple varieties of EVERYTHING. Even with our whole front yard in garden beds, we run out of room quickly. We also end up with a lot of over crowded beds filled with different kinds of plants. Sometimes, this means parts of the garden get neglected or aren’t taken care of exactly right. I’ve learned that it’s better to be honest about what I have time and space for. I still throw in a few crazy melon and giant pumpkin seeds, but I concentrate on the plants I know how to take care of well.
6. Don’t plant space wasters. There’s nothing like a fresh southern watermelon. But one watermelon plant could easily take up a whole bed. We still plant melons and winter squash, but we find ways to fit them in between beds or beneath sunflowers. We also focus on things like okra and peppers which take up very little room per plant but produce abundantly all year long.
7. Don’t spend money when you don’t have to. Now that gardening is becoming more popular, people are selling all kinds of crazy gardening products that you probably don’t need. We used scrap wood for a lot of our beds. Our compost system is made from a bunch of old shipping pallets. Our awesome tomato stakes are made from leftover wire fencing and cheap strips of wood. This doesn’t mean you should skimp on fertilizer or quality seeds/seedlings or try to get by with only a little water. But you should at least look around and see what you don’t have to spend money on.
Coincidentally (if you believe in such things), I also wrote about farming and the pastoral life in other contexts. Check out this post about the Shire in Lord of the Rings or this article on Catholic Exchange about St. Isidore.