Easiest to grow, most nutritious, and best value for money
What are the five highest-value crops—the vegetables which offer the best value for money compared to what you would pay in the grocery store? We’ll talk about how to grow these five essential survival crops to help keep both us and our wallets healthy. Take a look at the savings; we think you’ll be amazed!
The five crops we’ve chosen are all easy to grow—because we need them to succeed—but also they’re dense in either calories or nutrients—or both. Yes, some vegetables are much more nutrient-dense than others and, thus, have higher value. Of course, taste is factor, too, but that’s personal preference.
And if you’re wondering how you’ll afford to even get started, be sure to stick around till the end for some simple ideas to get all the gear you’ll need for pennies or less.
Working Out the Crop Value
We’ve done the math so you don’t have to! First step was to get a rough idea of how much produce we can expect to harvest from our chosen crops. To work this out, we’re assuming one crop per 3 x 4 raised bed. And 5 crops or 5 beds total. To work out our final yield, we used the Garden Planner to calculate how many plants can be grown in each bed. Lots of gardening books give an expected yield per plant, and we’ve taken an average of these to give us our result. And to convert yield to potential savings, we’ve averaged out what it would cost to buy this produce from a range of grocery stores.
So without further ado, let’s look at our five must-grow crops…
Beans are incredibly versatile and can be stored in so many ways: frozen, canned, or dehydrated. They are high in calories but also a great source of plant protein.
- You can grow them in so many different ways. Bush or dwarf beans can be slotted in here and there, even to fill in spaces after another crop is harvested.
- But the best way to grow them, and the most space efficient, is up, using climbing varieties of bean. Grow on a trellis or up a teepee of bamboo canes. Once runner beans start cropping, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to produce beans throughout the summer for three to four months. Keep picking, and they keep producing.
- You can sow beans in pots and plant as young plants right after spring frost all the way to fall frost.
Let’s look at the stats for beans. Just one standard raised bed has the potential to yield up to 5.3 lbs of climbing beans, or an astounding 32 lbs of runner beans. Average Savings: $54!
Squash makes our list because of both its superb productivity and storage ability. Now there are two types of squash you can grow. Summer squash, which for the purposes of this video include zucchini or courgettes, produce their fruits repeatedly throughout the summer. They are famously prolific once they are established.
Then there’s winter squash, which include pumpkins. These are simply harvested right at the end of the growing season, and those fruits will store for months at a time, providing rich, delicious flesh for soups, roasting, strews – and more – throughout those lean winter months.
- Sow your seeds indoors, in the warm, then grow your seedlings on in a bright but frost-free place, ready to plant out after your last frost date in spring.
- Give them a sunny spot and plant into really rich soil, improved by simply dumping on loads of garden compost in the weeks before planting. Keep plants well-watered to ensure they remain in tip-top condition.
- You can grow one squash plant in a large container, but you definitely need to be on hand to keep it well watered.
- Expect to be picking your summer squash or zucchini as soon as a month after planting – and on and on until the first frosts. Just like beans you’ll need to keep on picking them to keep them coming.
- For winter squash or pumpkins, hold off harvesting until early autumn.
Over the course of summer our standard raised bed should yield around 45 zucchini. Average Savings: $32.
Or, one raised bed yields an average of around 4 winter squashes. Average Savings: $15.
Greens keep us healthy and it doesn’t really matter what you grow. Loose leaf (‘cut and come again’) lettuce can be very expensive in the store so a good choice for gardens. Cabbage stores well and is great for slaws and fermenting. Chard is easy to freeze.
But we went with kale because it won our math competition as the best value. We’re not maxing out the calories with kale, but we are maxing out on nutrients. Its luscious, green leaves are a fantastic source of vitamins and minerals.
Kale is pretty bullet proof and is super-hardy, often giving leaves throughout the winter months and cropping for months at a time.
- If you can start kale off in either late spring or early summer, sowing into a pot of potting mix before transferring to their own plugs or pots to grow on. They’ll put in the ground once earlier crops have finished, around midsummer.
- When picking the leaves, take the lowest and oldest leaves first – the younger leaves at the center will continue growing to give a future harvest.
- Kale is a superb choice for container growing. It loves richer potting mixes and you can pop up to three plants in a good-sized container like this. It’s amazing how fast they’ll grow like this – if you water!
Let’s look at the figures. One bed, with six well-spaced plants, will produce around 12 lbs of nutrient dense leaves. Average Savings: $37!
We of course need a root crop on our list. I had considered potatoes, but while they are calorifically very dense, you can still pick up a bag pretty cheaply, so they’re maybe not the best vegetable to grow from a cost-saving perspective.
Instead, it’s the turn of beets or beetroot to come to our penny-counting rescue. Beets are awesome for a number of reasons: they’re so good for you, there’s no doubt about that; they’re versatile: pickle, roast, boil or juice; and you can eat both the root and the leaves, which you can use just like spinach or chard. Nothing goes to waste! Oh, and with their relatively quick-growing habit, it’s perfectly realistic to grow two loads of beets in one season.
- Sow the chunky seeds two or three at a time into plug trays and then transplant the young seedlings once they’ve grown on. Space the clusters about a foot apart.
- Or, just sow the seeds directly into the ground where they are to grow; then thin the seedlings that pop up to about 3 to 4 inches or 7 to 10 cm apart.
- You can also space seeds out across the top of potting mix-filled pots before covering them over with a little more mix.
- Wherever you’re growing them, keep your beets well-watered to encourage speedy root development and to reduce the chances of plants bolting, when they try to flower, which will affect the quality of the root.
- Beets are a joy to grow because they are so quick (you can expect roots as quick as 10 weeks from sowing)and because they rarely attract pests. Easy growing does it!
But what about those all-important stats? Let’s take a look. In our standard bed there’s space for around 42 plants, giving about 36 lbs or 5.5 kg of roots. Average Savings: $34. But bear in mind you can re-sow, so the true saving over the course of one growing season is likely to be at least twice this!
When we did a video on money-saving crops back in the spring, a lot of you suggested peppers as an excellent money-saving crop. A single pepper can cost more than a dollar in the U.S. today. For others, certain varieties of good tomatoes can be costly.
- Both tomatoes and peppers are started off in exactly the same way – in the warm, in spring then grown on and re-potted in stages till they’re for planting after your last frost.
- Peppers need minimal support, while vining tomatoes will need regular tying in to sturdy supports, capable of holding up to the weight of those hopefully prolific fruits.
- Both make excellent container crops – in fact, peppers are best grown in pots in cooler climates, so you can move them about to sit them in the sunniest possible location, or perhaps somewhere protected. If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse, you’re all set, but a sunny windowsill or balcony would do too.
- Improve the soil at planting time with plenty of compost – similar to squash plants. Then during the course of the summer, go in with a liquid tomato feed to give plants a further boost and to help ripen those fruits.
So, prices can really vary for peppers and tomatoes but both reveal much savings. We’re getting an average of 54 peppers per raised bed. Average Savings: $80!
Then for our tomato plants you can expect to pick at least 32 lbs of fruits. Average Savings: $66!
Don’t forget to include a few herbs if you can, especially perennial herbs that will last for years. Rosemary, mint, oregano, thyme are good choices, with some space left over for quick-growers like basil or parsley. Or, grow own herb garden in a pot.
Herbs cost quite a bit, and you have to buy a whole packet at a time when you might only need a few snippings. Clearly growing them yourself is going to save you quite a bit – as well as offering more convenience and freshness to boot.
Grow on the Cheap
Now what about the cost of growing all of this? Well, it doesn’t have to cost the earth!
- The first port of call for anything super-cheap or even free are sites like Craigslist, NextDoor, Facebook marketplace, and others. Search under the ‘free’ section for old pots and containers, as well as for any lumber from which you might be able to use to make your own raised beds. Don’t see anything suitable? You can always place your own advert.
- In fact, there are loads of free sharing sites about – sites such as Freecycle, or Green Eco Services, as well as phone apps to hunt for bargains.
- For cheap anything, check out yard or garage sales, or keep an eye out for discarded items in dumpsters or skips, but don’t forget to ask permission first! I’ve found several pallets for various projects this way, and people are usually only too happy to give them away. Ever ‘dumpster dived’?
- Don’t buy pots for sowing, raid the recycling instead. Old yogurt pots, fruit trays, ice-cream tubs – these can all be used to start off and grow on seedlings before they’re planted outside.
- The end of the growing season’s a great time to pick up end-of-line seeds on the cheap. Multipacks of seeds are cheaper than individual packets, and you can often buy starter packs of several vegetables aimed at beginners that are ideal for setting you on your way. Discount stores are also a fantastically frugal place to pick up seeds for pennies.
- Potting mix and soil amendments are an unavoidable cost, but one thing you can make for free is compost. With autumn here, why not start a compost bin or heap. Don’t let those fallen leaves go to waste, collect them up and add them to the compost bin too – all the more organic matter to add to your growing areas a few months down the line.
- You don’t need an armory of tools to get started gardening. For me there are just four tools I really rely on, and they’re ugly old things: a hard fork, a border fork for digging and spreading, a rake for levelling, and a cheap-old watering can. Nice-to-haves if you’re really getting into it and tending a larger area include a hoe for easy weeding, a wheelbarrow, and a spring-tine rake for gathering those free leaves!
It’s a common misconception that you need lots of gear to get growing – you really don’t – and by getting started with these reliable, money-saving winners you can be sure of surviving the cost-of-living crisis – and even thriving despite it See our video on using container pots for growing.