Food prices at the grocery store are higher than ever. If you’ve looked at the price of tomatoes and thought you could grow food for less money in your garden, you’re probably right.
If you want to grow a garden that saves a significant amount of money, however, you have to plan ahead.
Going into food gardening casually, especially sauntering down the gardening aisles buying everything that looks necessary, will cost you more than you’ll ever get back from your best gardening efforts.
Here are 11 gardening tips for getting the best financial return from your garden:
1. Resist buying too many slick gadgets
You’ll only use your favorite tools, anyway.
The trick is to keep your tools in top condition – clean and sharpened. A few basic tools of good quality should last many years.
2. Wean your garden from miracle solutions
Commercial fertilizers work, and you might want to use some when you’re getting started. If you buy a special solution for every type of plant, however, you’ll spend too much.
There’s no secret ingredient that makes plants grow. Start collecting egg shells, coffee grounds, and kitchen vegetable waste (skip garlic and meat).
There’s a whole science behind composting, which you’ll want to learn about. However, you can start using free compost long before you become a master composter.
If you have chickens or other farm animals, you can compost the manure.
Otherwise, look for local farms with cheap composted manure. You’ll get a lot more for your money than you will from buying it at the store. (Manure must be thoroughly composted before you throw it on your garden.)
3. Plant some crops that give you a return quickly
Lettuce is about as fast-growing as they come. Plant it indoors or out. You can eat the thinnings in two or three weeks, and harvest lettuce for months.
Instead of paying $3 for a bag of spring greens at the store, you can buy a packet of mixed lettuce seeds for a couple of dollars. Lettuce bolts during the summer heat, so plant again in the fall.
Other crops with a quick return are herbs, green beans, and peas. It’s easier to stick with your gardening when you have something to show for it almost immediately.
4. Plant for the long term
Some gardeners call long-term plantings “permaculture.”
The idea is to plant things that don’t mean starting from scratch every year. Berries, asparagus, rhubarb, and fruit trees, once established, can give you a bountiful return for many years.
A good fruit tree can produce 200 pounds of fruit in its prime. That’s a pretty good return on investment from a $15 tree.
5. Stick with crops you and your family actually like
If you never buy radishes, don’t plant them, at least not as a cost saving strategy. Limit the number of things you try in any one year, too.
6. Plant crops that work well in your area
You can try to grow watermelons in cool northern regions, but it will probably be easier and cheaper to buy them mid-summer. If in doubt, look at what other people grow successfully nearby.
7. Stay one step ahead of pests
There’s nothing more discouraging than discovering that a deer ate your whole row of strawberry plants, or that your broccoli heads are half little green caterpillars.
Whether you’re a dedicated organic gardener or not, you must take action if you want a harvest. Learn about the pest in your area and what to do about them.
For example, you can keep ahead of cabbage butterflies by routine checking for eggs on the undersides of plant leaves. It’s a lot easier than picking caterpillars out of your food later.
8. Use drip irrigation
Drip irrigation saves money because water isn’t sprayed into the air and lost it to evaporation. It doesn’t require an expensive sprinkler system – you can do it with a hose.
You can even use it for a garden far from the house.
Simply fill a large, covered tub with water, and attach it to drip hoses that run through your garden.
9. Do the work yourself
It’s hard to save money gardening if you pay for labor. You may have to make an exception for heavy labor getting started, especially the first year.
However, gardening works best if you consider your time to be free.
10. Save on seeds
Share seed packets with a friend, or save extra seeds for next year. Many seeds are good for two or more seasons.
If you choose non-hybrid varieties, you may be able to save your own seeds from this year’s crops.
Don’t bother with seeds from hybrids, however. You’ll get interesting results, but they’ll be a disappointment.
11. Extend your harvest season
To save serious money, you need to eat from the garden more than a few months of the year. You may want to put some vegetable in a cold frame, which isn’t as hard as it sounds.
You can harvest green tomatoes before the first frost, and let them ripen slowly in a cool place.
If you get a bumper crop of green beans and strawberries, you might consider taking up canning and freezing.
What’s your most fool-proof, high return garden crop?