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How Much Can Gardening Really Help You Save on Produce?

Gerri Detweiler

About this time of year, a lot of us think that maybe we could grow some of the food we eat. If not to save money, then to know where our food came from and what chemicals it was exposed to. Meryl Streep was famously quoted as saying, "It's bizarre that the produce manager is more important to my children's health than the pediatrician." And not only can the food be healthful, it can be more flavorful as well.

And yet planting a garden can seem intimidating. "Most of us want that home-grown, healthy goodness that veggie and herb gardens provide, but sometimes it's hard to figure out just where to start," says Joan Casanova, spokeswoman for Bonnie Plants, a plants wholesaler.

"Even a small garden can fill your table with fresh, nutritious food, and help save money, too. In addition to the satisfaction you'll get from growing your own food, gardening delivers a host of other health benefits, from low-impact exercise to boosting vitamin D levels with the hours you'll spend in the sunshine," Casanova says.

So maybe it can make us healthier. Can it make us wealthier? Well … perhaps, but in some cases it might depend on how you measure wealth.

What You'll Pay to Get Started

First, a gardener needs to know what the startup costs are. Is it a container garden on the patio? A raised bed you made yourself? Or one you had delivered and installed? Or have you decided you are going to plunge into this and turn the backyard into a mini farm? Costs will vary.

And savings will depend on how much you now spend on vegetables. Do you buy in-season? Do you pay more for organic? You get the point. Also, it may be hard to compare because you may eat more vegetables (and waste less) if you are, say, picking only exactly what you need for a salad. Then again, at the peak of your harvest, you may have many more tomatoes or zucchini than you can possibly use. Is it "waste" if you give it away, meeting some of your neighbors and making new friends in the process? (It almost certainly is if it goes unpicked and rots.)

Costs will also depend on how you buy your plants. Growing them from seed is theoretically the cheapest, but it's also more difficult than starting with a young plant, and it will add four to six weeks to the time before the plant yields vegetables.

What should you plant to save the most money? Well, if your favorite fruits or vegetables grow well in your climate, that can be a smart place to start. But be aware that in addition to putting a plant in the ground, you'll be watering, fertilizing and picking (or missing the harvest because you were on vacation). And if you are doing it solely to save money, you might be happier buying from a co-op or farmers market, two other ways to get farm-fresh, locally sourced vegetables.

To Save Big, Think Small

The clearest cost savings may come from growing foods that, per pound, are some of the most expensive produce around — herbs. (And if you are also growing vegetables, know that herbs repel many insects and garden pests. Some easy ones to try: basil, parsley, rosemary, cilantro and mint.  And look for varieties you've never tried. Grapefruit mint, anyone?) Those are relatively easy to grow, and they also benefit the big stuff, like tomatoes. (Plus — they're very easily preserved, and you won't need canning supplies.)

But first, let Casanova take us step-by-step on how to plant a garden if you're a novice.

  1. Decide what you want to plant. Among some of the easy-to-grow traditional favorites are eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes and summer squash.
  2. Choose your garden spot. It will need at least six hours of direct sunlight every day. Plants that don't get enough sun won't bear as much fruit as they would otherwise, and they will be more vulnerable to disease and insects.
  3. Check the soil. It needs to drain well, and you will probably want to add compost and peat moss.
  4. Feed your food. Those vegetables take nutrients out of the soil, and they'll have to be replenished. Check to be sure that the plant food you use is organically based.
  5. Water well. Most vegetables are not drought-tolerant, and regular watering is essential.
  6. Make pests unwelcome. Whether you rely on natural predators or pick pests off plants by hand, make sure you watch out for them. If you see something you can't identify, capture it and take it to a plant nursery for advice.

(Of course, if your delicious produce tempts the neighborhood rabbits and deer, container gardens may be your answer.)

Gardening can be a fun hobby, and the rewards are easy to see. It also provides light exercise and sunshine, both of which are good for you. And it can have an impact on your grocery budget. What you pay for food is one of the most flexible parts of a family budget, too. You can increase the impact of your savings without increasing the work by organizing a neighborhood co-op, swapping the food you have in abundance for what you don't.

Remember though, that results can vary, and that pests or weather can have a huge effect on whether you realize the savings you're hoping for. If you're looking to pay off debt, reduce your overall expenses or put away some savings, a vegetable garden may well be part of your plan, but it's unlikely to be the one ticket that turns a difficult financial situation around. Still, it can be a fun and healthy way to cut back on spending while actually increasing the quality of the food you and your family eat.


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