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Cut your food bill: Plant a garden

Even a small patch can reduce your grocery costs significantly. It's also a delicious hobby.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 23, 2012 11:24AM

Image: Peppers (© imageDJ/Jupiterimages)April is National Garden Month --  and not just for rose growers and lawn fanatics, either. As the National Gardening Association points out, gardening can also be "about good food."

It's also about saving money. For example, this video  notes that a packet of mixed lettuce seeds costing less than $4 will provide a month's worth of salads for your family.

Think your kids won't eat lettuce? Introduce them to "finger salads."

I once interviewed a woman who put small bowls of dressing by each plate, then invited her children to dip and eat freshly harvested greens. They grew up loving salad.

Post continues after video.

That wasn't just because it was fun to eat with their fingers. It was because the lettuce tasted good. Just-picked vegetables are far superior to store-bought ones, both in flavor and nutrition.

And, yeah, in cost. Even a small patch of ground or a few container gardens on the patio can make a big dent in your food bill.

Don't overdo it

"Small" is the operative word. It's easy to go overboard and grab two or three of everything at the nursery. But if you're new at this, you could end up overwhelmed and discouraged. Try focusing on one small plot or a few containers.

Or try the "square foot gardening" concept: intensive planting of small spaces. You can get a copy of Mel Bartholomew's  "All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space" for as little as $8 if your local library doesn't have it.

Plenty of free information is available online. The NGA's how-to section features articles on topics like preparing soil, growing vegetables, building raised-bed gardens and producing salad greens in window boxes.

The Cooperative Extension Service provides advice online and in-person. When I lived in Alaska, the CES office was a wealth of information: how-to pamphlets, soil testing, master gardeners to answer questions by phone, "pest scouts" to identify what was bugging your plants, and a list of local garden clubs and interest groups.

If your CES agent doesn't have a list of local groups, go online and look for them. Meeting other gardeners is a great way to learn.

How much can you save?

It varies, of course, depending on where you live and what you like to eat. Tomatoes are probably the most popular home-garden crop. According to this article from the TLC network, four tomato plants that cost $15 will produce an average of 60 pounds of fruit. That's 25 cents per pound, vs. an estimated retail price of $1.77 per pound.

The article doesn't cover the costs of watering or fertilizer. But here are a few ways to keep costs down:

  • Watch for items on The Freecycle Network or the "free" section of Craigslist for castoff equipment. Yard sales and thrift stores are also good potential sources.
  • Learn about mulching, to keep water usage low.
  • Pay for some supplies with free gift cards to Home Depot or
  • Keep an eye out for seed-packet sales, at drugstores as well as home centers.
  • After Memorial Day, visit greenhouses in search of discounted "orphan plants," i.e., those that didn't sell during the mad planting rush.

Think of this as a hobby that tastes good. Keep a notebook handy to write down both triumphs and disappointments. Over the winter you can research ways to improve next year's plantings.

Oh, and if a master gardener suggests that four zucchini plants are too many? Believe him.

More on MSN Money

Apr 23, 2012 7:17PM
Hey you FOUL MOUTHED TROLL! We are planting our garden this week. We generally harvest enough to eat fresh, freeze enough to last through the winter and share with our neighbors all out of about 100 sq ft of garden space. Nothing beats FRESH FROM THE GARDEN! :)

Total cost for us after building a raised bed garden over the past 6 years? Oh I think it would be high if I said $200. Hmmm for about $33 per year (and that cost will go down over the course of time since we make our own compost - you really can't get any cheaper than that.

On top of that, we taught our neighbors how to garden and we each plant different things so that we can each share and get a larger variety.  We don't have or rent a tiller and don't need one. We have basic garden/lawn care tools.

NOW WHO IS THE MOST DUMB TROLL ON MSN? Just because you are in a foul mood and jealous that WE are willing to do the work it doesn't make it alright for you to come and bash a woman that has done NOTHING to you but fill your wallet with money saving tips, sites, coupons and much more. GET A LIFE! I use to be treated like this as a blogger and I know that she will never bash you back the way you need to be. What has she EVER done to you for you to be so childish but to call her names?

Oh I know your type. Pathetic. You remind me of my ex-husband - hence he is an EX.
Apr 23, 2012 12:32PM
If only the weather would stop going insane in the middle of April and going below 32F, my garden is going to have some veggies or fruit... Sadly, it keeps frosting and killing my plantings.
Apr 25, 2012 1:40AM
I am not sure how I came to your blogs, but loved what I saw.

It is inspiring to read ,and  use it for planting a garden.

I too am fond of gardening, on my terrace, and am inclined towards organic gardening.

Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Apr 23, 2012 12:51PM
This woman has got to be one of the dumbest MSN has on board.  Let's see, want to grow some cukes or squash?  First, till the soil, have to either buy or rent a tiller, second, fertilizer, seed, water the soil(dont forget that one), oh, fertilizer, need that, too.  Then you end up with like 2 bucks per cuke or squash.  Naaaa...I will let somebody else grow it for me and buy it from them at a roadside stand for 50 cents a pound.  This moron probably also believes that you could feed yourself for a year with a backyard garden.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.