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Tips for Turning Your Backyard Patch into a Garden of Eatin'

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By , dealnews contributor

"When You Garden, You Grow," says the National Garden Association. And this motto has never been more true than now, as home gardeners have a ready antidote to the ills of a persistent recession and increased global warming. By turning a small patch of your backyard or neighborhood vacant lot into a veggie-yielding powerhouse, you can do your part on many fronts to keep things green and economical. And as any experienced gardener will tell you, nothing beats the pride of growing your own foods.

As the seeds are sown across North America, we offer these cost-effective tips for getting your garden growing. And for more specific gardening info, be sure to check out Urban Harvest, Better Homes & Gardens, and of course the National Gardening Association.

Compost Is the Most

Aside from being great examples of recycling in action, compost is as cheap a soil booster as it gets. There's no greater free supply of garden fertilizer than in homemade compost made from organic materials you would ordinarily discard. From nitrogen-rich ingredients (coffee grounds, plant trimmings, etc.) to nitrogen-less ingredients (apple cores, egg shells, etc.), plants can thrive with a little bit of compost. Worked into potting soil at a local community bin, compost can help any garden thrive.

Compost Guide offers helpful tips for getting your compost pile going. Did you know that a three-sided compost bin enclosure beats a free-standing pile? Or that shredded and small-pieced ingredients break down more quickly and produce a more uniform fertilizer? And getting started is easy. You can begin by composting right in your kitchen. The pictured Bosmere K779 Slim Kitchen Recycled Plastic Compost Caddy ($17 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $4) is made of 100% recycled content and holds 2.4 gallons of compost. And it's also small enough to store under the cabinets in a cool, dark place.

If you're ready to start planting now and don't have any compost prepared for your backyard garden, you can pick up a 16-quart bag of Miracle-Gro Organic Choice Potting Mix ($7.04 via coupon code "HOME5OFF" with $4.95 s&h, a low by $1), which should jump start the growth of your potted seedlings.

Coffee Grounds Will Perk Up Your Patch

Spent coffee grounds also make excellent fertilizer. Ground coffee is, as we mentioned, high in nitrogen which makes it a very good mulch for fast-growing vegetables. Many organic growers swear by coffee grounds as mulch for tomato plants, both for the nitrogen boost and coffee's ability to help suppress late blight. Starbucks' "Grounds for Your Garden" Program offers free coffee grounds to interested gardeners. What's more, their grounds come in neatly packaged 5-lb. bags with a list of helpful instructions. The program is very popular though, so if you can't get your hands on a pack, or if you'd rather avoid Starbucks, you can inquire at your local coffee shop and bring a sturdy plastic bag to collect any of their unwanted coffee grounds.

Tools of the Trade

As you prepare to get down and dirty and prep your soil and compost, you should consider the value of a good pair of Go-Greens Bamboo Gloves ($4.95 with $6.95 s&h, a low by $1). These foam-coated bamboo gloves are strong and flexible, moisture-wicking, UV protectant, 100% organic, and 100% compostable. If you're looking for other vital gardening tools, check out our Green Thumb 101: 10 Essential Tools feature.

Smart Watering Prevents Waste

Water jugs and slow-drip hoses will keep your soil from puddling and your tender sprouts from getting drenched. A good rule of thumb for gardens and lawns is an inch of water per week. This Fair Trade Recycled Sheet Metal Watering Can ($12 with $4.95 s&h, a low by $5) is handcrafted in India and is suitable for watering smaller fire escape gardens. If your garden is larger, it's important to keep an eye on your water usage. This Absolutely New Water Usage Meter with LCD Display ($24.95 with free in-store pickup, a low by $2) is also helpful for not drowning your plants.

Since it can cost a lot to water a garden, why not use resources from nature? The above-pictured Heaven and Earth 105-Gallon Rain Barrel ($72.29 with $12.95 shipping, a low by $1) collects rain fast, straight from your gutter spout for your use on a less-rainy day.

Raid Your Kitchen for Free Seeds and Budget Seedling Containers

As you start planting, remember that you can gather the seeds you need from fruits and vegetables you eat, and start them in cut-out repurposed cartons. This is as cost-effective as it gets, especially compared to buying seeds and planting them in new plastic or ceramic containers. Think about it: For a small up-front investment at the supermarket (which you'll enjoy the fruits of initially anyway) you may not have to buy fruit for the remainder of the growing season! Among heirloom plants, sunflowers, watermelon, beans, and peas all have easy-to-save seeds. But zucchinis, squash, and pumpkins often cross-pollinate, meaning the seed you scoop from the fruit will probably produce a strange hybrid.

If self-harvesting seeds is a little messy for you, consider a seed-exchange service, like the National Gardening Association's Seed Swap. This is a great way to discover new varieties for your garden and build up some new helpful friends. More experienced gardeners tend to be very helpful to newcomers, so don't be shy to ask for help and advice.

Use Native Plants Right for Your Region

Trying to grow oranges in Minnesota is wishful thinking at best. But potatoes or garlic will work in many a garden. That said, when should you plant certain veggies? Vegetables are designated "warm-season" or "cool-season," depending on the weather they need for best growth. Warm-season vegetables, such as snap beans, corn, cucumbers, melons, peppers, squash, and tomatoes are summer crops; they require both warm soil and high temperatures to grow and produce fruit. They are killed by frost, so it's best to plant them after the last frost in spring.

Cool-season vegetables like beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, and spinach grow steadily at average temperatures 10° to 15°F (6° to 8°C) below those needed by warm-season types. They can be planted in very early spring for early summer harvest or in late summer for harvest in fall and (in mild regions) winter. Many will endure short spells of frost ― but in hot weather, they become bitter tasting and often bolt to seed rather than producing edible parts. In areas with short growing seasons (fewer than 100 days) or cool, foggy summers, cool-season vegetables can be grown in summer.

Get Growing!

When starting a garden, remember that the best source of knowledge is already in your own backyard. Especially in urban areas, gardening has become a popular enough pastime that you won't have to wander far to see neighbors with bumper crops. (From my perch in my Chicago house, I can see at least half a dozen yards on my block with the beginnings of springy veggie plots.) Get out, ask questions, find out what works and what doesn't for keeping pests out and plants happy.

Front page photo credit: Greater Allegheny Passage
Photo credits top to bottom: Facebook and Terrier Seeds LLC


Lou Carlozo is a dealnews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth, and was most recently the managing editor of WalletPop.com, and before that a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

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