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Grow Delicious Bargains in Your Own Veggie Garden

How to Start Up a Garden For LessIf you're the type of person who loves rutabagas, playing in the dirt and avoiding supermarket checkout lines, then you've either found your calling as a DIY veggie gardener, or should seriously consider taking it up.

Even in urban patches that you wouldn't suspect could grow anything but weeds, vegetables can thrive and feed you fresher, cheaper and tastier fare than any canned morsel dished by some jolly green giant. (Hmmm: Maybe's he green with envy watching you grow and sow.)

But as with any pastime where you plant, prune and harvest, vegetable and herb gardening presents countless decisions -- and we're not just talking about potatoes versus tomatoes, either. Which plants for which seasons? What's the best way to keep your soil healthy? What tools and supplies will you need? While we can't promise you a rose garden--we're talking veggies, remember?--we can guarantee that you'll grow, grow, grow (in knowledge, that is) after reading this installment of the Savings Experiment.

From weeds to seeds: Getting started

While fresh grown veggies have the edge over almost store-bought produce, there's another "secret ingredient" to keep in mind when envisioning that first harvest: the sense of pride and accomplishment you'll get from sharing garden produce with friends and family.

When it comes to getting the right starter information, you might say that it literally grows on trees. Burpee has a vegetable garden guide that you can order for free here. Burpee also has more nifty free information about growing vegetables and herbs that you'll want to read before you put any seeds in the ground.

Now free advice -- especially when it's good -- is always a bargain. Here are some other pointers to keep in mind when you're clearing the way for a veggie new garden.

An area of 25 square-feet should be adequate. Be careful not to start with too large a space; it is easy to bite of more than you can chew.

All vegetables need at least six hours direct sunlight each day; eight to 10 hours each day is ideal. Plant your veggies away from the shade of buildings, trees and shrubs.

Between rain and your own watering, the garden needs at least one inch of water per week.

You do not need ideal soil to grow a good garden. If possible the soil should be fertile and easy to till, with just the right texture -- a loose, well-drained loam. Avoid soil that remains soggy after a rain. Heavy clay and sandy soils can be improved by adding organic matter such as bagged soil or compost.

Old seeds bought at bargain prices may create more trouble than they're worth. In most cases, only about half will germinate.

Now if you really want to be frugal, plant a basic vegetable garden with the bare essentials: a good hoe and shovel, seeds and a vegetable planting guide. Use the shovel to dig out any grass, clumps of dirt or roots from your chosen plot; use the hoe to chop up your soil for planting, to build up your raised garden beds, to dig furrows and holes, and to keep out grass. If you have small critters such as squirrels and rabbits in your area, consider staking wire mesh around your garden to protect your plants.

Soil testing: Grow to the head of the class

Soil testing represents an excellent investment of time and money for novice gardeners. Local universities often have labs you can access by typing "soil testing" and your regional location into a search engine. Gardening centers and online stores sell soil testing kits, too.

The cheapest kit we found comes from Planet Natural. It runs $10.95 and tests for soil fertility and pH. This kit is especially cost-effective if you use it at least twice. Remember, you will need to purchase replacement chemicals for home testing kits as they expire.

Professional labs run a bit more: $12-$15, with a waiting period of about two weeks to get results. But the results are much more detailed, with nutrients measured in parts per million or pounds per acre. You'll also get recommendations specific to the plants you want to grow, based on the latest university research.

What's more, if you need further assistance or have questions on your lab report, you can often get follow-up advice from a technician or university extension agent. Manufacturers of home testing kits may not offer this service.

A final note for those growing veggies in pots: Use organic soil. Not only will the final results taste better; you'll also avoid chemicals found in most commercial soil mixes. Remember also to fertilize your plants by using compost or a dry organic fertilizer. Dry fertilizer releases nutrients over time and is more effective than liquid nutrients, which quickly leach out of containers.

Here's a list of hearty vegetables geared towards easy gardening success:

* Tomatoes
* Cucumbers
* Peppers
* Lettuce
* Basil
* Sage
* Thyme

Because we said sow: Your speedy seed primer

The seed choices for your garden might at first seem both overwhelming and complicated. But once you have your soil tested, you'll have a good idea which plants stand the best chance of thriving. Then it's on to finding quality seeds to help you meet your growing goals. Growing from seeds, after all, is the thriftiest way to start your garden.

You can gather the seeds you need from fruits and vegetables you eat. For a small-up front investment at the supermarket, you may never have to buy fruit again for the remainder of the growing season. Among heirloom plants, sunflowers, watermelon, beans and peas all have easy-to-save seeds. But zucchinis, squash and pumpkins often cross-pollinate, meaning the seed you scoop from the fruit will probably produce a strange hybrid.

Among the mail-order and online seed companies, Burpee (burpee.com), Johnny's Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds .com), Park Seed Company (parkseed.com) and Thompson and Morgan (thompson-morgan.com) are a few long-established sources.

And some online garden forums often offer a seed-exchange service. This is a great way to discover new varieties for your garden and build up some new helpful friends. More experienced gardeners tend to be very helpful to newcomers; don't be shy to ask for help and advice. Another source for seed exchanges is the National Gardening Association.

Also: Check out sales hosted by local gardening groups. In Brooklyn, for example, the Flatbush Gardener advertises plant sales in the area. Be sure to check out the local arboretum or botanic garden as well.

Join a garden club. You'll get lots of ideas from others and can trade plants, cuttings and seeds; sometimes, some club members give these away. Free is a word we tend to love at the Savings Experiment.

Check out craigslist for plant/seed sales. Now I'm not a big fan of craigslist, which I think tends to give safe quarter to less-than-scrupulous buyers and sellers. But with garden supplies (as opposed to, say, jewelry) the chances for scams are much lower--so if you see something that piques your interest, check it out.

Tool time: Why buy when you can borrow?

Here's a piece of Savings Experiment advice you can use across any number of disciplines: Never buy tools you can easily borrow. As with home video, hi-fi audio or any other pastime, gardening has its fancy gadgets -- a lot of them offered by stores and companies that would love to part you from your money. Before you purchase high-end hoes and hoses, check out these options for getting the tools you need.

Many communities have tool share programs. Look for tool sharing and tool libraries where you live. You can borrow everything from garden forks to hammers with your library card, which means you could build your vegetable garden without having to buy a single tool.

Ask a neighbor. While "Herb, can I borrow your lawnmower?" has become the stuff of sitcom cliches, the bottom line is that your neighbor probably doesn't use his tools every waking moment. Remember to return them promptly, clean and in better shape than you found them.

If you must buy, consider hitting some garage sales first. Springing up with almost as much ubiquity as home gardens this time of year, garage sales will offer a good share of gardening implements. If you don't see any on display, ask.

Growth potential: Fertilizer and mulch options

Did you know that local tree services offer free mulch? Also, there's no greater free supply of fertilizer that homemade compost, where you recycle organic materialst you would ordinarily discard. Plants love compost, and you can also work it into potting soil to improve its structure.

Spent coffee grounds also make excellent fertilizer. Ground coffee is high in nitrogen, making it a very good mulch for fast-growing vegetables. Many organic growers swear by coffee grounds as mulch for tomato plants, both for the nitrogen boost and coffee's ability to help suppress late blight.

Starbucks' "Grounds for Your Garden" program is impressive in that the coffee grounds come neatly packaged with a list of helpful instructions; however, the popularity of the program means the free grounds might be hard to nab. Ask around at smaller, local coffee shops and bring a sturdy plastic bag; many baristas are happy to help.

Some local conservation districts offer a "Manure Share Program," which may offer everything from rabbit to llama to chicken to horse manure. All you have to do is call and arrange to pick it up. (Talk about "free shit"!)

So, what grows where? Seasonal gardening

Let's face it: Trying to grow oranges in Minnesota is wishful thinking at best. But potatoes or garlic will work in many a garden. That said, when should you plant certain veggies? Well, that depends on what growing season you're talking about.

Vegetables are designated "warm-season" or "cool-season," depending on the weather they need for best growth. Warm-season vegetables, such as peppers and tomatoes, are summer crops; they require both warm soil and high temperatures to grow and produce fruit. They are killed by frost. Plant them after the last frost in spring.

Warm-season veggies include:

* Snap beans (also called string or green beans)
* Corn
* Cucumbers
* Melons
* Peppers
* Squash
* Tomatoes

Cool-season vegetables grow steadily at average temperatures 10° to 15°F (6° to 8°C) below those needed by warm-season types. They can be planted in very early spring for early summer harvest or in late summer for harvest in fall and (in mild regions) winter. Many will endure short spells of frost ― but in hot weather, they become bitter tasting and often bolt to seed rather than producing edible parts. In areas with short growing seasons (fewer than 100 days) or cool, foggy summers, cool-season vegetables can be grown in summer.

Cool-season veggies include:

*Beets
*Broccoli
*Cabbage
*Carrots
*Lettuce
*Spinach

A few vegetables are perennials: you plant them once, then harvest crops year after year. Give them their own garden area, so they won't be disturbed when you prepare soil for annual crops. Fertilize and mulch each spring; water as needed during the season. Asparagus is an example but beware, as it takes 3 years to grow. Most people plant year-old crowns, available from nurseries or mail-order catalogs in late winter.

The palatable payoff: How does your garden grow cash savings?

Veggies grown at home equal savings, but just how much? Here's a quick reference chart (from the Cheap Vegetable Gardener website, reproduced in part below) to help you play cash crop with your backyard plot. Worth is measured in cash value per square foot:

Cilantro: $21.20
Arugula-roquette: $20.92
Green salad mix: $17.55
Chives: $16.40
Dill: $16.40
Lettuce: $16.20
Cherry tomatoes: $15.57
Turnip: $9.90
Tomatoes (large): $9.50
Winter squash: $8.40
Tomatillo: $8.00

In general: The winners are leafy green vegetables/herbs (cilantro, lettuce, chives, dill, Swiss chard), followed by larger vine plants (tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, peas). Many of the root plants will save you the least, but hey: How much cilantro can a hungry man eat in one sitting?

As for what a typical home garden will cost you, the Cheap Vegetable Gardener works up this chart based on a first-year gardener's experience:

Soil amendments (compost/peat moss/perlite): $33
Garden tools (rake/fork): $16
Organic fertilizer: $3
Seeds and seed starter kit: $24
Kid garden tools (shovel/watering can): $5
Misc.: $10
Total: $91

Will you save money on food? Yes, though perhaps not as much as you spend in all cases. (The Cheap Vegetable Gardener blogger only grew about $5 worth of tomatoes!)

But remember: The time spent outdoors (especially with your home-from-school kids this summer) has a value you can't measure in mere dollars and cents. And sure, it's hard work--but you can also call it a smart combination of exercise is support of eating better. After all, you're not out there cultivating french fries and burgers ... though if it is summer, a grill is likely close by.

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