Gardening to save money

Gardening to Save Money: Know Your Reasons and Seasons

May 7, 2019 - 

This is a recurring scene throughout my adult life: while cooking a dish or mixing up a salad, I’ll wish that I could walk to my garden and snip a little bit of rosemary or basil, or grab a few fresh, ripe cherry tomatoes from the plant. I’ll lament the cost of organic greens, thinking that I could easily save money by growing dill weed and lettuces on my patio. Alas, it hasn’t happened that way for me, and it isn’t for lack of trying.

My personal gardening adventures started over 10 years ago, with modest results to date. My haul after a decade: a few heirloom tomatoes, a baby eggplant and some jalapeño peppers that showed up after a drought. However, I started my garden again this spring, with just as much hope as ever. This time, I’m taking past failures and turning them into gardening lessons. The vines are “weathering in,” flowers are blooming, fruit is starting to appear, and I haven’t spent a small fortune.

Here are my top recommendations on growing your own fruits and vegetables:

Know your reason.

Whether you have a back yard, patio, balcony or even a sunny window sill, there are many reasons to keep a home garden. Some of us love fresh herbs and veggies, while others seek to increase plant-based food consumption for health or environmental benefits. My family had the full-on backyard garden patch for many years, growing rows of tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and watermelons. My grandmothers had pecan, lemon and orange trees that were heavy with fruit each year. There’s nothing like the taste of a vine-ripened tomato or watermelon, and nothing like sharing a basket of fresh veggies with family. I will probably not re-create the garden of my childhood anytime soon, but my goal is to recreate parts of that experience for my own children. Whatever the reason, staying focused on the end goal can make the difference between success and throwing in the gloves.

Start with a plan.

There are three keys to planning, based upon my experience.

  • Know your zone and your season.  Unless you’re growing in a greenhouse or indoors, plan on growing according to the climate in your area. According to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, San Antonio is in Zone 9. The long spring and summer mean that seeds or seedlings can go into the ground relatively early (see The Old Farmer’s Almanac Planting Calendar). You can also rotate the type of veggies you grow well into fall and winter.
  • Know your plants. Tomatoes come in vine and bush varieties, but both types need plenty of space and at least eight hours of sunlight each day. Overcrowded roots and an abundance of leaves can create competition for resources. If plants are taking up energy on putting down roots, they’re less likely to use that energy on fruit. Tomatoes and watermelons can take more than 90 days to grow from seed to fruit-bearing plants. Don’t lose heart if your vines are leafy with lots of flowers, but no signs of fruit after a couple of months. Vine plants need to grow up, or fruit will be vulnerable to critters and potential moldiness. Place viney plants along a fence, or install a cage or trellis. Lettuces, spinach and other greens like cooler weather and not as many hours of direct sunlight, so don’t try to create the whole salad in one season. Look for a gardening blogger or Instagrammer who lives in your area, or look for a master gardener online, and feel free to ask questions, because gardeners usually like to share their knowledge.
  • Know your budget. There are ways to garden with low and no budget. You can save cucumber and squash seeds, let them dry, and plant directly in the ground after the last freeze. (This has never worked for me, personally, but a friend with a green thumb seems to have success whenever she covers a slice of cucumber with a handful of dirt.) However, backyard soil can require a lot of improvement like fertilizer and aeration.

My garden this year is inspired by Mel Bartholomew’s “All New Square Foot Gardening” book. Bartholomew promotes planting a raised garden bed, typically measuring four feet wide by four feet long, and six inches high. To reduce tilling, fertilizing and weeding, he has perfected a soil combination (called Mel’s Mix) made up of one-third compost, one-third vermiculite, and one-third peat moss. The first year I tried this, I had fantastic results, until a drought and a swarm of white flies destroyed the plants right as they were flowering.

This year, I’m using a combination of the square foot garden for plants with a shorter growing season (cucumbers and squash), while using 10 gallon containers for the tomato plants I’ve grown from seed. I already own the containers and tomato cages, but I bought lumber ($13), weed liner ($12), seeds ($20), organic soil mix components ($40) and organic fertilizer ($12). My all-in price is $97. Is it worth it? How many veggies would that buy, and how long would they last? It’s too early to know whether I’ll get to stop buying produce by the end of the summer. I bought these items over two months, a few pieces at a time, to avoid a big budget hit. However, the time I spend in my garden, checking progress every day and learning new techniques, is well worth it to me.

Your garden, your way.

If you manage to start your summer garden by growing seeds indoors in February, that’s awesome. If your gardening begins when you come across the two-inch-high baby plants at the big box home improvement store, that is also awesome. Want to go full organic, or use available soil and home-made bug repellent or compost? Don’t care so much about vegetables but want to grow beautiful flowers to share? That is entirely up to you. Find out what’s in season, or what’s about to be in season, and start small. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get the results you want right away. If you get zero results, research the problem and try again with your new-found knowledge.

I’m very encouraged by the positive results so far, and hope to share an update if I get photo-worthy vegetables. Until then, I hope that you’re encouraged to get out and grow, and create the garden that you envision.