Everybody’s seen the articles suggesting that eating a lot of vegetables—the more the better—can improve general health, reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, stabilize mood, and sharpen mental powers.
But eating more and more vegetables (and fruits) places increasing strains on the family food budget, so perhaps your mind turns to growing your own.
You’ll find plenty of magazine, newspaper, and website articles suggesting you’ll save big bucks with a vegetable garden. You begin dreaming...
Ah! Plunging your hands into rich, black dirt. Chowing down on the freshest, tenderest, most flavorful veggies and most aromatic herbs available. Heirloom tomatoes! Pantry shelves filled with jars of vegetables, jams, salsas, and chutneys and a freezer overflowing with berries, asparagus, broccoli, corn. Teaching your kids and grandchildren where food comes from.
As a longtime, passionate food gardener, I guarantee a large garden can give you all this and more.
But though you may spend less at the supermarket, your garden is gonna cost plenty, especially in the early going (if you’re new to gardening). Everything that follows assumes you already have access to a piece of open ground that gets sun most all day long during the growing season.
Unless you inherited tools and equipment, and even if you buy them all second-hand, a big garden requires a sizeable capital investment.
You’ll need tools, at least hand tools. You’ll need a wheelbarrow or garden cart, irrigation supplies, support structures for climbing crops, floating row covers for frost and insect protection. You might want a rototiller. Maybe you’ll need a woodchuck- or deer-deterring fence.
If you plan to build raised beds, you’ll need building materials for the beds, as well as a variety of soil-building materials.
If you plan on canning, freezing, and/or drying food for the winter you’ll need the necessary equipment: canning kettles, mason jars and lids, perhaps a pressure canner. A large, energy-efficient freezer, and/or a dehydrator (unless you live where the sun shines all day every day during the harvest season).
Then you’ll encounter the annual operating costs: seeds and plants, fertilizers and soil amendments, weed-suppressing mulches and pest-thwarting materials, the costs of irrigation water (and water-heating for canning/freezing).
Then of course…
Gardening takes time. Planting and transplanting, tilling, fertilizing, composting, mulching, irrigating, weeding, pest-controlling, harvesting, cleaning, cooking, cover-cropping--they all take time. You’ll need to spend time learning: reading, seeking out veteran gardeners for advice, perhaps taking classes from community education programs or cooperative extension staff.
The garden can wreck your peace of mind. You’ll struggle with countless plant diseases and insect pests, as well as woodchucks, voles, birds, and maybe the neighborhood dogs and children, even vandals. You’ll lose crops to late or early killing frosts, long droughts, weeks of torrential rain, heavy winds, and hailstorms.
You’ll suffer. Oh yes, you’ll get bug-bitten, stung by ground-nesting yellow jackets, sunburned, and blistered. You’ll probably strain your back, get elbow tendinitis.
But, ignore all this. Plant a garden.
You’ll dine like royalty and your non-gardening friends and colleagues will stand in awe of your horticultural knowledge. You’ll eat fresh asparagus every night for six weeks. You’ll deliver truckloads of zucchini (maybe cukes, tomatoes, and green beans) to your friends and neighbors.
Don’t take the $64 tomato guy too seriously. As your skills improve and your garden expands, you’ll also save a lot of money. How?
- You won’t have time to vacation, and you won’t want to. Weeds! Watering! Pest control! Harvesting! The garden will become your preferred vacation spot.
- During the growing season at least, you’ll be way too tired and dirty to go out for dinner evenings or weekends. Besides, with your awesome suite of home-cooking skills, no expensive restaurant meal will ever compare with the food at home.
- Your physical and psychological health will improve and stabilize, both from eating all those fresh vegetables (and yes, and fruits, too) and from the hard physical work of gardening. Healthier almost always translates into dollar savings.
- Speaking of hard physical work, you won’t need to spend money on sports equipment or a gym membership to get your exercise (the other key component to health and wellbeing). The food gardener gains strength, agility, flexibility, and speed.
- Eventually, if you fall in love with food gardening, you’ll become skilled at scrounging, bartering, cooperative purchasing. You’ll learn what crops will seed themselves year after year, and learn to save seed from other crops.
If you’re new to gardening
Start small and build on your successes.Grow only what you know you’ll eat.
Start with easy stuff that first year: a couple of tomatoes, a hill of zucchini, a couple of rows of green beans, a little bed of mesclun greens or mixed leaf lettuces, a few herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro). Once they start to yield, these crops keep coming over a long season.
Other than nurturing your loved ones, you won’t find more deeply satisfying life work than planting a big food garden. It’s fun, educational, and yes, in the long run . . . economical.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.