The media has been having a field day lately with the idea that gardening can be a hedge against the weak economy.
“As American families try to stretch their food budgets during the recession, some are turning to the backyard, rather than the grocery store…” —CNN
“Step one in the battle against soaring food prices: Start your own recession garden.” —Salon
I’m a big supporter of backyard gardens for many reasons, but saving money isn’t one of them.
This isn’t to say you can’t save money with a garden. But the reality is, most people don’t have the follow-through required to leverage the initial effort of building their garden into a long-term harvest that justifies the investment in pure financial terms. Plus, most people eat so few vegetables they simply don’t have a big enough veggie budget to make a dent into.
In addition to the cost of seeds and seedlings, there’s the cost of water, irrigation supplies, gardening tools, perhaps fencing materials, and any necessary soil amendments, like compost, manure or peat moss.
So if saving money is your only goal in growing a garden, don’t bother—buy a share in a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm instead, and support your local farmers. But if money is only one motivator among several, including desire to participate in the creation story of your food, belief that the world’s freshest vegetables are priceless, and joy at playing in the dirt, breathing fresh air, using your body and watching a backyard edible sculpture evolve all summer long, then you should go for it.
And here’s a rarely discussed bonus: In addition to the minor financial offset gardening can apply to your food bill, the entertainment-budget savings can be significant. By spending your free time in the garden instead of at the movies, the bar, the racetrack, etc., your garden can help you save big.
In many ways gardening is like fishing—you might bring home something to eat, but beyond food-procurement it’s a meditative, stimulating and active way of connecting to your environment. If the grocery money you save by eating a few fish comes close to paying for your gas, you win. If not, you hardly lose.
Now that I’ve crushed any expectation that you’ll garden your way to riches, let me tell you how to prove me wrong.
The most financially savvy way to garden is to grow the foods you normally spend the most money on. Garlic, in my case, makes sense. I eat tons of it, and can grow a year’s worth in an 8-by-50-foot patch. Garlic is planted in fall and comes up in spring, making you feel like a rock star when everyone else’s gardens are mere dirt patches.
Tomatoes are another potential money saver. Good tomatoes can cost $2–$4 a pound, while a $2 baby tomato plant can yield 20 pounds over the course of a summer. Zucchinis are probably the biggest producer in terms of yield per investment, while corn, which yields only three ears per plant, doesn’t pay.
Another strategy is to plant what you want to be able to run out to the garden and grab on a whim. It’s nice to have some greens close at hand for a quick salad. And who doesn’t love the taste of a fresh-picked tomato?
Here are three ways to start:
1. Dig out the grass, being careful to remove all the roots and shake off as much dirt as you can back onto the ground.
2. My preferred method of lawn-killing, which recycles the grass back into the soil, is to tarp it (i.e., cover it with a sheet of black plastic weighted along the perimeter with heavy objects. After six weeks in the sun, the lawn underneath will be dried, dead, decomposed and aerated by a bunch of happy worms. Much less labor-intensive than digging out the grass, tarping is an elegant way to do an otherwise tough job. The resulting ground is rich and fluffy, and turns over easily.
3. Build raised beds atop your lawn. Raised beds tend to be more orderly and neat, and prevent grass from spreading into your garden. But they use more water, and require that you haul in topsoil, manure and/or compost. Don’t build raised beds with pressure-treated wood or railroad ties, both of which are toxic.
If space is limited, or the landlord won’t let you lose the lawn, you can grow food in pots. Tomatoes and peppers are especially good candidates for container gardens, which can come inside for the winter, greatly extending your season.
Carrot, spinach and radish seeds can all be planted as soon as the ground thaws, while corn, peas, beans and potatoes are planted later in the spring. Onions, Brussels sprouts, kale, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and most herbs are best started inside and transplanted outdoors as seedlings.
I recommend buying seedlings, ideally at your local farmers’ market, rather than raising your own from seed. Raising healthy starts is tricky, and if you plant lame seedlings you’re guaranteed a lame garden.
Water is a precious and often expensive commodity that should be respected and conserved. But since water is essential to a healthy garden, strategic irrigation is a must. Soaker hoses are much more efficient than sprinklers; irrigate at night to reduce evaporation.
Weeding is easiest when the weeds are young, and when the ground is moist. An elegant way to fight weeds is to lay mulch, such as straw, between your garden plants to keep the weeds down. Just don’t use hay, which contains seeds.
Maybe it’s laziness, or the intoxication of summer, but too many people can’t seem to muster the follow-through required to finish the job they started in spring. So don’t forget to pounce on those weeds, water those plants and, most importantly, eat those veggies!
Ask Ari: Top-shelf topsoil
Q: My daughters want to garden and I need to build them a raised bed. I’m wondering: Do you know anybody in Missoula or the Bitterroot area who sells good soil by the truck load? There’s so much contaminated soil in this state I’m a bit wary. Got a good soil source to recommend?
A: I consulted with Josh Slotnick, farm director of Garden City Harvest’s PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake and also the tractor-boy on his wife’s farm, Clark Fork Organics. I figured he’d know a thing or two about good, clean dirt. Slotnick recommends Knife River—formerly known as JTL—for topsoil. He says it’s screened, clean and would be good for raised beds providing you mix with a good source of organic material, like compost or manure.
I called Knife River to confirm, and was told that most of the topsoil in its pit comes from old hay fields that are being replaced by subdivisions. I was told that while they don’t test for contamination, if they have any reason to believe it might be dirty dirt—if it came from an industrial site, for example—they’ll treat it with special care and don’t put it in the pit. The topsoil costs $11 a ton if you come get it (plus a $15 loading fee if you get less than three tons), and $15.30 a ton delivered—plus $50 if you buy less than 15 tons.
As for organic material, The Missoula Urban Demonstration Project sells llama manure, and there are often ads in the local classified sections for free horse manure if you shovel your own. Just make sure, if using compost and manure, that it is well composted, and not hot and slimy.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org