As food prices skyrocket, cutting grocery bills by growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs can seem like an appealing way to save cash.
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. Estimated outlay to grow all that produce: $70.
Problem is, if you’re not careful, a garden can be a real sinkhole. It’s easy to spend a small fortune on young plants, store-bought fertilizers and other supplies, only to find a perfect storm of pests, bad weather and improper care have depleted your harvest. (The $12 worth of strawberry plants Frugal Foodie put on her balcony last year didn’t produce many berries, and the local squirrels got to all but a few first. A far cry from the quarts of fresh berries she’d hoped for.)
Still, there are plenty of ways to garden on the cheap that, if not improving your odds of a bountiful harvest, at least limit the costs of your experiment:
Not everyone has the space or inclination to compost, but adding a few key leftovers can do wonders for soil in lieu of buying expensive fertilizers. “I take my spent coffee grinds to the garden and broadcast over the soil,” says Dimitri Gatanas of Urban Garden Center in New York City. “This is what I call quick and easy composting.” Tea leaves and grass clippings help, too, as do crushed eggshells.
Pick the right plants
Some garden staples, including peppers, basil and salad greens, take very little effort and offer big harvests. Just two romaine plants kept the Foodies in salads from April through October last year.
“Purchase the appropriate plantings for your climate and location of the garden,” says Kevin Mulcahy, owner of Mulcahy’s Landscape and Design in Rochester, N.Y. You’ll have less success, if any, buying plants that prefer higher or lower temps, or more or less sun, then you’re able to offer.
Repurpose household goods
Instead of buying mulch, recycle newspaper for that purpose, suggests Cara White of Elevations Urban Landscapes in New York City. Coffee cans, empty soda bottles and other containers can make useful planters or seed starters. Save those flimsier plastic planters seedlings arrive in to use as scoops, says Gatanas.
It’s significantly cheaper, says Michael Podelsny, the owner of Mike the Gardener Enterprises, which offers a seeds-of-the-month club. You’ll just need to start growing them indoors. A pack of tomato seeds that might yield dozens of plants sells for $1; one seedling, $4 or more at the farmer’s market.
Split seed packets with another gardener, Podelsny says. Ditto with plant flats bought at the garden center. Experienced gardeners may also be able to give you a cutting from their own plant, such as tomatoes or blackberries, with which to grow your own.
Use household pest deterrents
Crushed eggshells also serve as slug deterrent, Gatanas says. So does beer. Cayenne pepper, Epsom salts and Dial soap are other remedies that have some effectiveness in repelling insects, rabbits and deer.
Add a few perennials
By definition, they’ll come back every year, negating your need to buy new seeds or plants. Frugal Foodie has another shot for success with her strawberries this year. Others to consider: kale, collard greens, garlic, sage, mint, thyme and blueberries.
Shop at the end of the season
End-of-season sales can easily top 50%. Mint reader Max Dufour gets his seeds on sale late in the season, and keeps them in the fridge until it’s time to plant them the following year. Perennials bought on sale get planted right away.
Use a rain barrel
Keeping a big container outdoors to collect rain for watering your garden can help reduce your summer water bill, says Annette Pelliccio, the founder of The Happy Gardener. Just be sure to add a screen to the top to avoid mosquitoes.
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.
Photo credit: Michelle Kroll