Spring is starting to bloom across the country with summer soon to follow, which makes it the perfect time to consider starting your own home garden. If you're interested in saving money, a home garden packed with your favorite fruits, veggies, or herbs can be a good bet; a modest investment in seeds, soil, and time can provide you with fresh produce throughout the growing season. And since there are several foods that might bust family budgets this summer, the added savings could be helpful for some households.
If you're intimidated by the idea of starting your own garden, we're here to tell you that it's something anyone can do. Even space-starved apartment dwellers can get in on the game with container gardens or community gardens. For some advice on how the gardening novice could make full use of this growing season, we spoke with Bill Maynard, President of the American Community Gardening Association.
"It really only takes the gardener to be interested and to follow through on their garden plans," says Maynard. If you're lucky enough to have a home with a yard, all you need is some space that gets full sun for 6 to 8 hours a day. If your space is more limited, a 5-gallon container on a patio or balcony can easily hold a tomato plant, three pepper plants, or four to five herbs. If you just can't make the space at home, look for community garden in your area, where you can share space in a neighborhood plot. "Community gardens can sometimes have waiting lists," says Maynard. "But always get on the waiting list as it may move faster than expected."
"Gardening requires a commitment of time," says Maynard. "I liken it to having a new pet or child. You have to take care of it, water it, feed it, and maintain it." Though you can set up a timer to automate watering, you'll still need to check in on your garden regularly (two or three times a week) to make sure it's getting enough water, check for insects, and pull weeds.
When it comes to deciding what to grow, you should pick your favorites: the foods you're most likely to buy every week at the store are the ones that will save you the most with a garden. According to Maynard, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, peppers, potatoes, and radishes. For a herb garden, basil, oregano, rosemary, and chives are among the easiest to veggies to grow in a summer garden. In the fall and winter, if you live in an area where winter is mild, you can grow plenty of leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, and chard.
Whatever you choose, make sure it's appropriate for the area you live in and that it's the right time of the year to plant it, or your garden may end in early failure. Just check the package, which should let you know whether you're on the right track.
The Cost of Keeping a Garden
You have one more choice before you get planting: you can pick up seeds (at around $2 per package) or seedlings (at around $2 each). "The main problem is forgetting to water, especially with seeds," explains Maynard. "If not kept moist they will dry and you only get one shot for them to sprout." Though seedlings definitely up your cost, they require less care to get started — and a $2 seedling is still a fair savings over buying organic produce at the grocery store. Seeds, however, will offer you a wider variety of plants to grow — and maximize your gardening savings.
Beyond plants, you'll want to pick up fertilizer to keep your garden its greenest — chicken manure will cost about $3.25 a bag, and four bags would be enough for the average 10x10 garden bed. For container gardens, you'll need to pick up containers (around $2.50 per 5-gallon container, though fancier containers can increase that cost dramatically) and potting soil (around $10 per 32-quart bag).
Home gardeners may also find they need some basic gardening tools, though homeowners are likely to find that they already have the basics on-hand for looking after their lawn and other outdoor plants. If you sign up for a community garden plot — membership will cost you $25 to $50 per year — the garden will likely have tools on hand for you to use. The cost of water is also a consideration, but if you're planting vegetables where there used to be grass, you can expect to use less water to keep things green.
In the end, a basic home garden can cost as little as $20 per growing season if you make a garden bed in the yard, or about $30 per growing season for a 3-container garden on the patio. For a community garden, you're likely to pay a bit more for membership, but you won't have to carve out space or find tools.
How Much Can I Grow (and Save)?
You might be surprised by how much a single plant can produce if you take care of it over the season. While some plants (like potatoes and carrots) will only produce a single veggie per planting, other plants (like tomatoes and peppers) will continue to grow tasty treats all season. A tomato plant can produce 10 pounds or more of tomatoes per season, which should be enough to please even the most fervent tomato-lover.
Similarly, a single squash and zucchini will easily produce enough of their respective veggies over the season for a person or two to enjoy, while pepper plants might produce a dozen peppers over the season. For herbs, two or three plants of your favorites will likely yield enough to keep a family in fresh herbs all growing season. How much you save can vary since crop sizes will vary from plant to plant, but even a modest yield will pay for itself over the course of the season.
Of course, this is only an overview of what's possible in terms of gardening and saving money by growing food for your family. For more specific information for the foods you hope to grow, check out the extensive guides over at the National Gardening Association. Or share some tips with us in the comments below!