A Small Kitchen Garden Can Improve Your Finances

A few weeks ago I noticed something at the local grocery store that you can probably find where you shop: higher prices. From my shopping trip one week to my trip the next week, prices on dozens of items increased 20 cents. Among the most astonishingly high prices: produce. It kills me, for example, so see red peppers at $2.99 per pound. That translates to about $1.50 for a single pepper.

I have a hedge against these rising prices: I grow a lot of my own produce. You can grow your own as well, and discover a hobby that can quite possibly reduce your grocery bills by hundreds of dollars a year.

Beat Grocery Store Prices: Basil

For the sake of comparison, a package of fresh basil-that’s a clump of whole plants wrapped in plastic and ready for use-costs about $2.69 in a grocery store. You can buy a package of basil seeds for about $1.59, and a bag of potting soil for $2 or less (off-season, I bought bags of soil for 75 cents apiece). Plant just a few seeds in an empty yogurt container, and you’ll match the grocery store basil in six to eight weeks. (A pack of grocery store basil contains about a dozen plants growing in a 2-in cube of potting soil).

If you plant a yogurt container every two weeks, you’ll have ten or twelve going from one package of seeds, that’s plenty to season many meals, and maybe even make some pesto sauce.

Grocery store basil: $27 for 10 meals. Home-grown from seeds: $3.59 for a year’s supply.

What do you pay for tomatoes?

When on sale, tomatoes in our local grocery store cost $1.99 per pound. Since an average-sized grocery store tomato weighs half a pound, I’d pay one dollar per tomato when they’re on sale. A flat of young tomato plants (six plants that are already growing and ready to transplant into a garden or flower pot) costs around $3 at the beginning of the growing season. Transplant just one of those plants and raise it to maturity and it can produce from 25 to 100 pounds of tomatoes (depends on length of growing season, size of variety of tomatoes grown, amount of water applied, and diligence).

If you have space in your yard for a tomato plant, pessimistically you can harvest $50 worth of tomatoes from that plant. If you grow all six plants from a flat, you could harvest, perhaps, 200 pounds of tomatoes worth $400. Some tomato varieties might produce 100 pounds of tomatoes per plant, so six plants would provide a crop worth $1,200!

But here’s a sad truth about grocery store produce: Your chances of buying a good tomato in a grocery store are close to zero. Sure, you can buy very nice grocery store tomatoes, but these are distant cousins of good tomatoes. The worst ripe tomato you grow in a home kitchen garden is dramatically juicier, sweeter, tastier, and all-around more enjoyable than the very best grocery store tomato.

Grocery store tomatoes: $60 for 10 weekly tomato salads. Home-grown tomatoes: $3 for a flat of plants.

Start Your Own Home Kitchen Garden

Basil and tomatoes provide an inkling of the savings you can realize by growing your own produce. If you have enough space, you can grow dozens of varieties of vegetables and fruit at similar savings over grocery store prices. In many cases, the things you grow taste dramatically better than what you buy in a store.

Even if you have little space, you can grow some produce at home. One great way to get started is to find and visit with an experienced gardener. Help out, if they’ll allow it, and take what you learn back to your own gardening projects.

If you can’t find someone to work with, buy a good book about how to create and manage a home kitchen garden. There are many good titles–even some focused specifically on your region (methods vary considerably depending on climate). Also, peruse web sites that teach gardening. There are thousands of blogs about gardening, and even whole communities of “garden-bloggers.” One good starting place is Growing the Home Garden which has an enormous amount of useful information and lists several gardening blogs to explore. When you find a kitchen gardening site you like, don’t just read what’s already there, ask questions. Most gardening web sites’ owners are happy to help with your gardening problems.

Daniel Gasteiger, the original CitySlipper, blogs to help people grow produce at home. His web site, Home Kitchen Garden [http://www.homekitchengarden.com] teaches about all facets of growing things to eat in your own space. His other web site, Small Kitchen Garden [http://www.smallkitchengarden.net] explores vegetable and fruit gardening for people with limited space

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