As promised, Dawn Smith with Crazy Organic Mama returns with more on how to grow your own vegetables cheaply and easily to help save on your grocery bill. Dawn has a bachelor’s degree in Horticulture from the University of Connecticut and has been gardening organically for over 25 years. Ready? Let’s go!
Your second major expense when it comes to gardening is soil. Honestly, this will probably cost you as much as the fence if you’re doing a conventional garden (I’ll get into alternatives to this next).
The most economical way to do this is to contact someone about getting a bulk load of topsoil delivered. If you happen to have a good-sized pickup truck or trailer, picking it up will save you the delivery fee (I’ve seen this as low as $15 and as high as $50, so shop around). My guy literally delivers from the top of my street so will bring me as much as I want for $12. SCORE!
Soil is usually sold in bulk by the cubic yard. You don’t need the best quality blah blah blah soil because you’re going to be adding good stuff to it anyway, so just basic topsoil is good.
In case you’re not a math whiz, a cubic yard is 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep (or long, depending on how you want to say it). Basically, it’s a 3 foot cube.
Obviously, you don’t want to buy more soil than you need. So, how in the world do you convert cubic yards into what you actually need?
I would suggest at least 6 inches of soil in your new garden. This means that a single cubic yard will cover approximately 6 feet x 9 feet of garden at a depth of 6 inches. Obviously, you’re not going to be exactly 6 inches everywhere so it won’t be precise, but this is a good rule of thumb.
So a 12 foot x 18 foot garden will require 4 cubic yards (2 cubic yards for the width and 2 cubic yards for the length). Draw yourself some little cubes on a piece of paper, it makes more sense that way!
Now, you’ll need to add some high quality compost to your garden. This is where you want to buy the highest quality you can and be sure it’s organic. The #1 most important reason for this is that compost is primarily animal poop (yup, it is). If you don’t buy organic, you’re running the risk that the animals have eaten hay or grass or what-have-you that contained herbicides (weed killers). These weed killers can survive the digestive processes of horses and cows and come out still able to kill plants. Soooo, you put it on your garden and, voila!, you kill your plants. Probably not what you had in mind.
Here’s the thing. You don’t have to buy huge amounts of compost and cover your whole garden with it. If you plant your garden in rows, as most people do, you only need to add the compost in close proximity to your plants.
I just buy a bunch of bags (although, again, you can get it in bulk if you’d like), and add some to each row as I plant. Because you’re buying compost that’s already been aged, you don’t have to worry about it burning your plants. You also don’t have to be precise right now in how much you use. A bag per 8 foot row should be sufficient.
There are, of course, considerations about soil testing and such, but we’re not going to get into that here. Let’s just get your garden started.
You may also have heard that you should mulch your garden (and you should!) But, again, you can do this really cheaply (or FREE!). Newspaper makes wonderful mulch and as a bonus, it breaks down over the course of the summer. Just lay it in your pathways and around your plants to help keep the soil moist and control weeds.
NOTE: I have found that wet newspaper can be slippery underfoot, so you may want to spread a little bit of straw in your pathways so you don’t slip. DON’T USE HAY! It has live weed and grass seeds in it and will grow. Always use straw, always!
Ok, let’s say that you’re not liking the idea of buying and installing a fence and all that soil and compost. Isn’t there a better way? Why, yes, there is, I’m glad you asked!
You can grow an entire vegetable garden quite successfully in containers. This eliminates the need for a fence (if you can keep them close to your house) and you’ll need much less soil and compost. I have written an entire blog post on growing a garden in containers. Please feel free to check it out for detailed information.
Basically, though, you need appropriate containers, soil, and plants or seeds. Your containers can be almost anything. Even old 5 gallon buckets will work.
The rule of thumb with gardening in containers is “bigger is better”. Plants like tomatoes and peppers really require a single 5 gallon container per plant. Again, read my blog post above for the detailed information on this.
Container gardening, though, is a very economical way to grow a garden. It’s also less work (no weeds!) and you have more control over bugs and diseases than you do in a large garden.
Starting with Seeds versus Plants
The cheapest way to start your garden is, of course, with seeds. Where you can get an entire packet of seeds for $2, you’ll often pay $2 for a single plant, depending on what it is. If you aim to grow just a couple of tomatoes or a handful of peppers, then buying plants makes sense.
However, if you’re planning to grow enough vegetables to feed your entire family, starting from seed is much cheaper. Keep in mind that you can also store seeds if you don’t use up the packet and use them the following year. If stored in a refrigerator or a freezer, seeds can last for many years.
There are a lot of great seed companies out there. I love High Mowing Organic Seeds and Baker Creek Seeds and purchase most of my seeds from them. You can often find High Mowing’s seeds in your local garden center if you prefer not to order online.
PRO TIP: Before ordering, think about what your family likes to eat. If you all love tomatoes but can’t stand eggplant, don’t grow eggplant (we don’t)! Pretty simple, I think.
Maybe you want to have tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce with. In that case, give some consideration to the variety of tomato you order. Paste tomatoes are best for sauce, so you’ll probably want to order mostly paste tomatoes if sauce is your goal.
Also keep in mind that open-pollinated or heirloom seed varieties will come true from seed generation after generation. This means that you can save seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year and so on. Free plants! YAY!
However, hybrid varieties will NOT come true in a second generation, so you won’t be able to save seeds from these. I’m not saying you can’t buy hybrids, there are some very good hybrid varieties out there, but you’ll have to buy new seed each year.
Starting Seeds Indoors versus Outdoors
Peas, beans, carrots, radishes, lettuce, and spinach all prefer to be direct sown. This means that you’re going to plant the seeds where you want to grow them at the appropriate times for your planting zone (information you can find on the back of your seed packet).
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini and winter squash all benefit from being started indoors ahead of your last frost (unless you live somewhere very warm, Zones 9 and higher) so they get more growing time.
So, is it expensive to start seeds indoors? Nope, not at all. What about all those seed starting containers and special seed starting mix and lights and, and, and…..
S’ok, I promise. You can do it for (almost) FREE.
Let’s start with the containers. Does anyone in your family eat yogurt or jello or cottage cheese, anything that comes in little plastic containers? Save them! Poke a hole in the bottom and they make great seed-starting containers. This is what I’m using this year because hubby takes diet Jello to work every day (yes, I know, I should be making it in large batches and putting it into little reusable containers for him. But, ya gotta pick your battles, and I’ve got enough to do without making Jello every 3 days, ya know?)
If you don’t have access to containers like these, what about egg cartons? [NOTE-that’s what I’m using! OWMM…] You’ll have to transplant your seedlings a bit sooner from egg cartons because they’re smaller, but if your seedlings are only going to be growing for a couple of weeks indoors, this is a good solution. The other nice thing about cardboard egg cartons is that they biodegrade, so you can plant your seedling, carton and all, right in the garden.
What about the trays to catch water under your seedlings? Check out your local dollar store. I went yesterday and found turkey roasting pans that’ll work just fine. I think I can fit at least a dozen little containers in each one. They cost me a total of $13 for 19 trays (because some came with lids and there’s no reason you can’t use the lids too). Not a bad deal at all for 19 dozen seedlings!
Now, on to soil. I know many people advocate special seed starting mix. Shhhhh….don’t tell, I just use regular old potting soil. Yup, I’m a rebel. It works just fine, and as a bonus, you don’t have to transplant your seedlings as quickly or feed them as much because they’re getting nourishment from the soil. (Seed starting mix doesn’t contain any nutrients at all).
PRO TIP: If you use regular potting soil, please, please, please always water your seedlings from the bottom to discourage damping off, a fungal disease that will kill your plants.
As far as lights, you can get grow lights, but again, they’re expensive. If you have a sunny windowsill that isn’t drafty, you’re all set. Just place your seedlings in the window and they’ll be happy. You may need to turn them every few days to keep them from leaning, but other than that, you’re good to go.
If you’d like to get a grow light setup, I would suggest building a couple of shelves (or repurposing shelves you already have) and suspending fluorescent lights above the shelves (as you can see in the picture above of my setup).
You also don’t need special grow lights. I buy full spectrum fluorescent bulbs from Home Depot and they work fine. Are they the same as sunlight? Of course not, but they’re sufficient until the seedlings can go outside.
NOTE: When you do put your seedlings outside, they need to be hardened off for a week or so, even if they’ve been in a windowsill. This means that you will place them outside for an hour or so in the morning sun, then bring them back in (or at least into the shade). Each day, gradually increase their sun exposure until they’re receiving the amount of sun they’ll receive in the garden. At that point, they can be planted. If you don’t do this, they’ll get sunburned and it will either kill them or set them back badly.
Perennial Food Crops
Have you ever thought about growing perennial food crops? These are ones that you plant once and they’ll grow for years. Your up-front investment might be greater because some can’t be started easily from seed, but you won’t have to buy new plants or even seeds every year.
I have raspberry bushes (black raspberries because I love them and they’re almost impossible to find in stores). They require very little care, other than some pruning twice a year, and they produce more and more berries each year. I’ve also never netted my raspberries and haven’t yet had trouble with birds. I’m honestly not sure why, I think it’s a combination of their vicious thorns and the fact that the fruit is black when ripe, versus a lighter, more obvious color.
Blueberries do require netting because the birds will pick them bare, but certain blueberry varieties can be grown in containers, which makes them very convenient. ‘Top Hat’, ‘Sunshine Blue’ and ‘Patriot’ are all good container varieties. Because blueberries require extremely acidic soil, growing them in containers makes it easier to meet their unique needs as well.
Rhubarb is another awesome perennial crop. I don’t know if you consider it a vegetable or a fruit, but whatever you call it, it’s one of the easiest to care for crops around. As long as you give it until its third year to start harvesting, you’ll have a long-lived source of yumminess for pies, jams or whatever else you can think of. And as a bonus, nothing eats it, so you don’t need to put it inside a fence.
I also grow asparagus without a fence. I have been told that dogs will eat it, but the wild critters don’t. You do have to be patient and give it three years to grow before harvesting as well, but there is NOTHING better than fresh asparagus in the spring. NOTHING!
Another easy, and FUN, perennial food crop is the Egyptian walking onion. Although the walking onion does produce a bulb under the ground like a traditional onion, it also produces a cluster of bulbs at the top of its leaves called “topsets”. When these topsets get heavy enough, they will fall over and root, hence “walking” across your garden. If you’re intrigued, you can get more information here.
I would like to thank Dawn for giving such detailed information about how to grow an organic vegetable garden without breaking the bank. I’ll be getting mine started as soon as it warms up a bit outside-a rule of thumb around here is to not plant anything outside you don’t want to get frozen before Good Friday. I’ve been burned on this in the past so I will listen to sage advice…
I’d love to hear about your adventures in vegetable gardening. Have you had success with one? Please share in the comments.
Be well and God Bless – until we meet again…