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Cut Your Food Bill by Growing The Right Garden Crops

Q. Hey Mike! My husband and I want to start a big vegetable and fruit garden in our big back yard. We want to grow enough to keep us from spending money on fresh produce, and 'can' a lot up for the winter. How do we get started? We feel overwhelmed by all of the different fertilizers. We know very little about gardening, want it to be as organic as possible, have well water and septic in the back yard, and don't have a lot of money. Please help!

    ---Jacqueline in Muncie, Indiana

A. Jackie! World peace! You forgot to tell me it had to achieve world peace too!

OK—now, it's highly unlikely that rookie gardeners are going to achieve sustainability their first year. Much better to start small, learn from your mistakes and expand the garden a little bit more every season. This year, build some raised beds and enrich them with lots of compost—it's the fertilizer. You might even be able to get some for free or cheap from your local municipality. You'll find details on raised bed building and bulk compost acquisition in our alphabetized archive of Previous Questions of the Week at the You Bet Your Garden section of Gardens Alive dot com.

In future seasons you can amend those beds with whatever compost you can make from your own shredded leaves and such; and yes, with some gentle balanced packaged organic fertilizers as well. Keep the products organic and there won't be any confusion. And there's no reason to consider anything other than organic. Grow in compost-enriched, well-mulched, properly-watered raised beds and you should have few problems.

But you must stay away from that septic, whether it's a sand mound or a drain field. You could cause tremendous damage to the system by digging or watering in those areas.

Septic fields are for grass only; the grass helps absorb the liquid that percolates out and should never be watered, as you want that waste liquid to evaporate without any competition. It's OK to mow, but use as lightweight a mower as possible; those pipes can get fragile over time. Some non-grass plants can be grown on sand mounds, but these are no-care, shallow rooted shrubs and such that you plant once and then leave alone to help absorb the percolated liquid—not food crops You never want to water, work on or otherwise disturb those highly expensive mounds.

Q. Hi Mike! I would like to start a garden. My wife and I currently buy a lot of organic food and I figure I can save quite a bit of money by growing my own. What are the best methods of 'packaging' our harvest so we can continue to use it over the winter without preservatives or high salt solutions that kill the taste of the food? The freezer is obvious, but canning and bottling have always interested me. Thanks for a great show—I just donated to WHYY and I'm trying to get my money's worth!!!

    ---Robert J. in Logan Township, NJ

A. Bob! You and every other listener who becomes a member of their local Public Radio station gets 'their money's worth' every day—in the fine programming we provide. So thank you for that Pledge of Support!Now, let's start with the crops. There are three basic 'importants' that you, Jackie and the untold thousands of others out there who will be trying to save money by growing some of their own food for the first time this season need to keep in mind:

  1. Grow ONLY what you like to eat. You won't save money if nobody eats the cabbage, turnips and rutabagas you spent so much time and space on.
  2. Inside the world of what you like to eat, grow the easiest plants to care for (not difficult ones like celery) and the ones that cost the most at the market. And
  3. Yes, grow for storage, especially crops that don't need processing to last deep into the winter, like carrots, potatoes, onions, and other root crops; pumpkins and other winter squash; cabbages; dried corn and beans; and "long-keeper" tomatoes.

Plants that grow up, like tomatoes and cukes, produce a lot of food in a relatively small space. And those two are also the easiest to 'can up' (which is actually done in glass jars, not cans) as the tomatoes are naturally high in acid and the cukes are typically combined with vinegar to be saved as pickles. Such high-acid foods can be safely put up in a boiling water bath canner, as can other crops that have been pickled (like hot and sweet peppers). You'll need a pressure cooker and a lot of careful attention to put up un-pickled things.

Freezing is great! It preserves nutrients, and freezers use less energy when they're stocked to the brim. Raspberries and blueberries are expensive to buy and both freeze very well in heavy plastic containers (my daughter loves to just pop the frozen treats into her mouth; my wife and I defrost them overnight in the fridge and eat them with cereal in the morning). And you can freeze chunked up tomatoes for processing in the winter, when that cooking sauce and hot water for processing will help heat the kitchen—as opposed to making it more stifling in summer. Tomato slices and most herbs also dry well—but I strongly advise using a purchased food dryer for the best results.

The intensive angle: You get a lot of bang for your buck with peas in the Spring and green beans in the summer. You get a better yield with bush beans, but you have to bend over to pick them; and you must constantly pick all peas and beans (and many other crops) to keep the plants producing.

Fruit trees can be rewarding, but are generally not cost effective; they take several years to produce and require a lot of care and protection from pests. But raspberry canes are a breeze; they produce two crops a year, the fruit is insanely nutritious, costs a fortune in the stores, and you can sell any extras easily. Blueberry bushes take a few years to get established and require a rich, acidic soil and protection from birds, but every well-tended highbush plant will eventually produce gallons of nature's single most nutritious food.

And finally, be sure and play the off-season. You can grow hugely expensive cut and come again lettuces in the Spring and fall for pennies a pound, not the seven bucks you'd pay in a store. Heck—our listeners in the south can grow lettuce and spinach all winter long! And be sure to plant some garlic in the Fall and harvest it in the Spring; its easy, and people will clamor to buy your extra bulbs. Make garlic your 'butter and egg money'!


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