If your thumb is even slightly green, a home garden can go a long way to cutting your grocery bills.
The National Gardening Association estimates you’ll get a half-pound of vegetables for each square foot in your garden, or roughly $600 in produce over the course of a season for the average 600-square-foot plot. Growing it all could take as little as $70, they estimate.
For a $50 annual investment in plants, Frugal Foodie’s terrace container garden provides a good amount of edibles from March until October, including spinach, peppers and tomatoes for salads, blueberries and snap peas for snacking and herbs for pesto, chimichurri, and fresh flavor in pretty much every other recipe.
What’s your best tip for gardening on the cheap? Here’s what home gardeners, chefs and other experts offered up:
Experiment with herbs.
If you grow nothing else, try a few pots of herbs like basil, dill, oregano, and parsley. They’re cheap, easy to grow, and produce plentiful yields. Plus, they work for a lot of recipes, say chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, co-owners of Arrows and MC Perkins Cove in Maine and Summer Winter in Burlington, Mass. “Thyme is a must for seasoning soups and meats,” they say. “Dill for salmon and pickling, and basil for Asian stir-fries and noodle soups.”
Not you, the plants. Home gardener Lisa Suhay heads to Starbucks for free nitrogen-rich grounds in lieu of expensive fertilizer. (Many other coffee shops will also offer gratis grounds if you ask.) “Just sprinkle on soil and let it percolate in,” she says.
Not only is it better for your health, but it’s also better for your wallet. “A small amount of dish soap in a spray bottle of water works on smaller bugs, while cheap beer in a small dish attracts and drowns slugs,” says Kate Forgach of FreeShipping.org.
Use a rain barrel.
Keeping a big container outdoors to collect rain for watering your garden can help reduce your summer water bill. To avoid mosquitoes, top the container with a screen.
Left unchecked, mint, strawberries, and other garden edibles can take over a yard. Kathie Lapcevik of “Two Frog Home” suggests checking — and posting on — message boards like Craigslist and Freecycle. “Most likely someone has some [plants] they’re willing to thin, as long as you’re willing to do the work,” she says. Such boards are also a great place to look for cheap or free gardening tools, and manure or compost.
Play to location.
You’ll have less success, if any, buying plants that prefer higher or lower temps, or more or less sun, than your yard is able to offer. “I live in Austin, Texas and the temperatures can go above 100 degrees for months straight and the soil here is only several inches deep with few nutrients,” James Krewson, founder of FindersCheapers.com. That means his winter garden of greens do really well, while cherry tomatoes, okra, and herbs are good summer picks.
You’ll get a bigger crop from some plants than from others. Dimitri Gatanas of “Urban Garden NYC” suggests cherry tomatoes and jalapenos as top producers, as well as mint, thyme, and basil. Gaier and Frasier like “cut and come again” plants that offer multiple harvests per planting, like mizuna, a spicy green.
Add a few perennials.
By definition, they’ll come back every year, negating your need to buy new seeds or plants. Frugal Foodie’s collard greens and mint both made it through the winter, which means she can invest less in her garden this spring.
“Water individual plants rather than the ground,” says home gardener, Myles Alexander. He reuses milk cartons, soda and water bottles, and other plastic containers. Bury an inch or two deep next to each plant. Fill with water for more direct delivery to the plants’ roots.
Start with seed.
It may be a little late for this year’s garden, but buying seeds instead of young plants is cheaper. “You pay roughly $1.50 for a packet of tomato seeds, 35 cents for each starter pot and anywhere from $5 up for starting [soil],” says Todd Heft of “Big Blog of Gardening.” He continues, “You can also figure in about $2 worth of plant food during the indoor growing.” That beats $4 or more for a single plant at farmer’s markets and garden stores.
Split seed packets with another gardener. The same goes for plant flats bought at the garden center — some centers will offer a bulk discount, or cheaper prices for buying a large flat or two.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.