Feb. 26, 2009
Horticulturist says gardening can make both dollars and sense
As more families look for ways to trim household budgets, many people are starting to consider home gardening as more than just a hobby. Why not till a plot in the backyard and grow your own vegetables instead of driving to the supermarket and shelling out cash for store-bought produce?
Many older Americans can still remember the hard times of the 1930s, when thousands of families planted "Depression gardens." A few years later, during World War II, so-called Victory Gardens were advocated by the government as a way for Americans to put food on the table while commercial producers concentrated on feeding the troops.
Is raising your own carrots and radishes really cheaper than buying fresh, frozen or canned produce at the grocery store? The answer, according to Rego Jones, a horticulturist with Northwest's Department of Agriculture, is a cautious yes.
Serious subsistence gardening -- which requires skills and equipment associated with canning, drying, storing and preserving large quantities of food -- will probably always prove less economical for the average homeowner than buying a bag of frozen green beans on sale.
But that doesn't mean that a small plot planted with the right crops, or even a "tub garden" on the deck sprouting tomatoes and peppers, can't provide families with a lot of healthy, delicious food while shaving a bit off the grocery bill during the spring, summer and early fall.
And, said Jones, the advantages of a home garden extend well beyond mere dollars and cents.
"A lot of people don't take into account the side benefits as far as exercise and so forth," Jones said. "You're getting some plusses other than just the vegetables. There are a lot of different ways to look at it. There is an industry push right now for people to 'eat local,' and a lot of that comes from the need to reduce transportation costs along with concerns about food safety -- problems with salmonella and E. coli. And of course there is the organic side of it too."
With a little planning, it can indeed be cheaper to grow some kinds of vegetables than to buy them, Jones said, but gardeners should remember to factor in other plusses associated with garden-fresh produce.
"The benefits as far as nutrition and so forth are much better," he said. "The nutrition is better, the taste is better. You may not be able to impart a value to that from the bottom-line point of view, but you have those other benefits. And for a minimal investment people can go out and do a small garden space and harvest a surprisingly large amount of vegetables."
The secret, Jones said, is knowing what to plant. A garden dedicated to radishes, carrots, lettuce, snow peas and other short-season, cool-weather crops will produce more nutrition per foot than one planted with sweet corn and watermelon, which take up a lot of space and yield only one harvest per growing season.
As far as making the initial investment, Jones said, beginning gardeners can easily get started for $100 or less, especially if they rent or borrow a tiller rather than buying one.
"If you've got a neighbor or a friend who has a tiller, or if you know a farmer you can talk into coming over and plowing a garden spot up -- that is if you don't have to buy (motorized) equipment -- gosh, for $100 you can put in a lot of garden material," he said.
The real investment, Jones said, lies in preparation and education -- in taking the trouble to learn what will work and what won't. Novice gardeners need to do enough research to avoid common mistakes, like locating their plot where there is insufficient sunlight or planting near walnut trees, which leach a compound into the soil that inhibits plant growth.
"You may want to check with an established gardener to find out about some of the aspects that often get overlooked," said Jones, who also recommends checking out the University of Missouri Extension Web site, which contains a wealth of information about what to plant and when and how to plant it.
Extension guides for individual plants, along with a gardening calendar and a wide range of tips and techniques are available at http://extension.missouri.edu/explore/agguides/hort .
Apartment dwellers or homeowners without a lot of yard may want to consider planting tomatoes, peppers or herbs in a large pot or small tilled space, Jones said, adding that it's possible not just to save money but to make it by selling such seasonings as basil, sage, thyme and oregano at farmers markets or to specialty shops and restaurants.
"The mistake most people make when they're going out to garden is that they plant too large and put in 24 tomato plants or something," Jones said. "A family of four isn't going to use all those tomatoes unless they are making a lot of sauce and salsa and so forth to can."
Again, said Jones, the key to gardening success -- especially if you're trying to cut down on the food budget -- is selection, not quantity.
"If you are really going into it just from a dollar standpoint, be selective on what you put in," he said. "Take leaf lettuce, for instance. In 30 or 40 days you can grow a crop of lettuce, and right now if you go down to the store and buy fresh lettuce, it's expensive - maybe $2 a head. Two dollars will buy enough lettuce seed for probably three years.
"You should look at radishes, lettuce, carrots -- quick crops that you can turn over and rotate into something else later on. The space you have radishes and lettuce in now, in 45 days or 60 days, you can plant with a couple of tomato plants or green bell peppers."
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