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Monday, June 09, 2008

5 foods it's cheaper to grow

5 foods it's cheaper to grow

If grocery prices have you thinking about cutting costs with a garden, you may be on the right track. But be careful what you plant; a garden could raise your food costs.

By Sally Herigstad

I've dallied with gardening on and off for years, but with prices at the supermarket higher every time I go, it's time to get serious. I want to grow a garden that saves a significant amount of money.

There's one catch to that plan: It's easy to spend more on a garden than you will ever get out of it.

Seeds are cheap, but they are just the beginning. William Alexander, the author of "The $64 Tomato," learned that the hard way.

The title says it all, but the dirty details reveal he spent $16,565 building the perfect garden and $735 maintaining it for one year. Amortizing the initial costs over 20 years, adding this year's expenses and dividing the result among all his produce, he figured his 19 Brandywine tomatoes cost $64 apiece.

Whether you save by gardening depends largely on where you live, what you grow and how well you resist slick gadgets and miracle solutions. If you're looking to save money rather than to start a hobby, here are five garden crops likely to give you the best return:

  • Fruit trees. If you really want a return on your garden investment, plant fruit trees. Alexander planted one $14 peach tree, and it gives him more than 200 pounds of peaches every year. Yes, he sprays it every year with about $3 worth of fungicide and pesticides. (The sprayer cost $30.) In the Hudson Valley, he doesn't have to water fruit trees. At $1 per pound for the peaches, in the first year that he got a full crop, he had a 1,400% return (or a mere 339% if you throw in the cost of the sprayer and a few years' worth of spray). Try getting a return like that on Wall Street. It took Alexander five years to get a full crop, so it does require patience.

  • Lettuce. Can't wait five years for results? Try lettuce. You'll be eating the thinnings in two or three weeks. From a $2 package of mixed lettuce seed, you can have lettuce for months. A bag of spring greens costs about $3 at a store, so you recoup your investment with the first picking. Lettuce bolts -- goes to seed -- during the summer heat, so plant again in the fall.

  • Herbs. These can give you the fastest payback of all. Buy a pot of parsley or mint and you can nibble on leaves on the way home. A parsley plant costs about the same amount as a bunch of cut parsley from the produce department. Parsley in a pot, kept out of reach of slugs, will provide fresh herbs all summer and can be brought inside in the fall. Thyme, rosemary, sage and other herbs come back on their own year after year in moderate climates.

  • Vine vegetables. These are the most prolific crop producers by far. Zucchini and cucumbers are notorious. Put an 88-cent zucchini plant in your garden and, if cutworms don't get it, it will try to take over the neighborhood. In most parts of the country, you can grow more zucchini from one plant than you'll ever eat. The Alexanders grow a couple of cucumber plants, from which they make a dozen jars of pickles. They never buy pickles.

  • Bell peppers. You can pay $1.50 for one pepper, or you can use your $1.50 to buy one pepper plant that can produce six peppers or more. But first make sure peppers will grow in your part of the country.

What about tomatoes? They require moderate care and vigilance, and in short-season climates, you can tend them all summer only to have them not quite ripen before the first frost. When they do ripen, everybody's selling them cheap.

But you can't put a price on everything. Home-grown, just-picked tomatoes are heavenly. Some foods you have to grow yourself to fully appreciate.

5 to leave to experts (or farmers)

Even so, not every crop is cost-effective to grow at home. Skip these five if you're in it primarily to save money:

  • Potatoes. Homegrown spuds are great, but by midsummer, farmers are almost giving them away. Alexander says, "For the $30 I spent on seed potatoes this year I could probably buy 100 pounds of white potatoes in August (and trust me, my harvest won't be anywhere near 100 pounds)."

  • Carrots. Carrots are popular, but they grow slowly and are fussy about soil conditions. Carrots in grocery stores are cheap and taste about the same.

  • Celery. This vegetable doesn't like sand or clay, requires plenty of water and grows slowly. Steve Solomon, in "Gardening When It Counts," says he considers regular celery one of the "difficult" vegetables to grow. He recommends easier-to-grow Chinese, or cutting, celery.

  • Asparagus. Solomon also considers it to be difficult. If you're looking for a fast payback in the garden, asparagus is not for you. Asparagus requires the right mulch at the right time and weed-free beds. (It's doomed at my house!) You might get some asparagus the second year, but it can take several years to get a real crop.

  • Wheat. You can buy a 50-pound bag of whole-wheat flour for $62. Other grains and dried beans can also be purchased more easily than they can be grown. Alexander grew almost 20 pounds of wheat from two packets of seed that cost next to nothing -- except about 40 hours of backbreaking, never-again labor. Don't try to compete with thousand-acre farms with combines.

Get Rich Slowly blogger J.D. Roth is tracking how much work and money his family's garden consumes, including such things as electricity, seeds and hoses.

Note that your time is considered free. One consolation is that if the plot is in your backyard, you're probably spending time on it already. Lawns are hard work -- you have to feed, water, weed, thatch and mow them all summer long. At least with a garden you have something besides grass clippings when you're done.

Fortunately, you can grow a decent garden in a reasonable amount of time if you keep it simple and let go of the notion that it should always look perfect. You may never win the battle of the weeds, but that's OK (unless you're growing asparagus).

You do have to keep an eye on your garden, especially if you're not dousing it with pesticides and fungicides. You'll want to wander out back in the evening and make sure no pests are chomping their way through the tomatoes. But you can get by with half an hour here and there, and more on the weekends.

To get the best return on your investment, remember:

  • Choose cost-effective crops for where you live. You can grow a tomato on top of Mount Everest, as my economics teacher used to say, but at what cost? The climate charts on the seed envelopes are a start, but they can't tell you about the microclimates. Look at your neighbors' gardens. What do they grow successfully?

  • Use drip irrigation. Unless you have a free, unlimited supply of water, drip irrigation saves you money because you don't spray water in the air and lose it to evaporation. Drip irrigation doesn't require a sprinkler system; you can use it with a hose. We have a garden far from the house that we water with drip irrigation. We fill a large, covered tub with water, which runs through the drip hoses and throughout the garden.

  • Do the work yourself. If you want to save money, you have to get your hands in the dirt. It may be cheaper to pay someone, for example, to rototill your garden in the spring than it is for you to buy and maintain your own rototiller. But you can do the weeding yourself.

  • Buy seeds you can reuse. Gregg Steiner, the president of Green Life Guru in the Los Angeles area, says that if you buy the right seeds, you usually have to buy them only the first year. After that, you can collect the seeds in the fall and use them the next spring. You'll never have to buy seeds again. Some plants even self-seed; next spring those marigold volunteers just appear. (Some self-seeders can turn into weeds if you're not careful!) I asked Steiner how I can tell if I can use a seed again. "It says on the package 'one-use seed' if it's been genetically modified," he says.

On the other hand, some hybrid crops produce greater yields and have other advantages over reusable seeds. Take your pick.

Most seed packets contain more seeds than one gardener can use. Consider sharing seeds with a friend.

  • Plan to put food away for winter. Fresh produce for a couple of months in the summer is wonderful, but to really save money, you need to extend the season. That may be as simple as wrapping green tomatoes in newspaper before the first frost (they'll ripen slowly between September and Christmas) and putting potatoes in a cool place. Or you might make jam and put up green beans.

  • Use as few chemicals as possible. The costs of chemical pesticides, fungicides and such add up quickly. You can do without many of them. However, unless you are a true organic believer, don't rule out an occasional chemical rescue. Or choose crops that grow organically in your area without too much trouble. In many parts of the country, for example, if you don't use chemicals you might not want to grow apples. In the Northwest, however, Italian prunes grow trouble-free.

Steiner doesn't use any pesticides in the gardens he grows for himself and others. He says: "You can buy certain types of herbs that repel insects. Those are really cool. They have an odor that repels bugs."

Steiner adds: "I'll buy a container of ladybugs. All I use for bug control are the herbs that repel and the ladybugs. Ladybugs stay around and keep eating bugs. They're very inexpensive, and kids love them."

Steiner also told me to buy my own chickens (though he doesn't have any). Chickens eat bugs and scare away raccoons and squirrels. Check local zoning laws and homeowners association rules before you bring home any chicks, however.

  • Compost. You can make your own mulch to nourish the soil and keep down weeds. I get free bags of used coffee grounds from Starbucks. I also use junk mail, kitchen scraps (no meat, onions or garlic), cardboard, fallen leaves and grass clippings. Alexander doesn't buy fertilizer at all. Everything is naturally composted from his yard or from a neighboring farm.

  • Be a minimalist. Don't confuse gardening with landscaping. Alexander admits he spent $400 on two wrought-iron gates and posts, and another $400 on cedar edging. Very nice, but you'll have to grow a lot of lettuce to break even at that rate. Alexander says: "Don't fall for the siren song of gourmet tools. The more expensive the tool, the easier it is to lose it in the garden."

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