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Grow your own food: five simple steps

Even in a small space, growing your own food can be a rewarding money saver. Here's how to get started.

By Angela ColleyContributor / August 30, 2012

This undated file photo shows Ligularia bordering a vegetable garden in New Paltz, N.Y. With a little space and a lot of planning, anyone can grow a simple garden of herbs and vegetables, Colley says.

Lee Reich/AP/File

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Five years ago, I couldn’t keep a bamboo plant alive – the roots actually molded. But today, I have an indoor herb garden and a few fruits and vegetables growing in a potted garden on my back porch.

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Even in my modest space, the amount of herbs and vegetables I’ve grown has saved me some money. It doesn’t take much time, and it’s rewarding to watch the peppers and tomatoes bloom. And if a woman who couldn’t keep a bamboo plant alive can grow her own food, anyone can.

When you’re getting started, gardening – even in a small space – seems overwhelming. But it isn’t difficult once you get going. Here is the easiest and cheapest way to get started…

1. Plan(t) ahead

The first time I tried to garden, I just bought whatever plants looked good, stuck them in pots, and hoped for the best. Half the plants died – and the other half produced too much for me to handle.

Don’t make the same mistake. Before you start planting, map out these points:

  • Space – Plot a space in your yard or on your porch that you can dedicate to a garden. Knowing your size limit will help you plan which seeds to grow. For example, strawberries grow well in containers but watermelons need to spread out.
  • Time – It helps to know how much time you’re willing to invest before you start. Time is a valuable commodity, and you don’t want to spend all of yours tending to a garden that’s too large for you to handle.
  • Supplies – What you’ll need depends on the size and type of your garden. Make a list of everything you expect to buy so you can comparison shop.

2. Decide what to grow

If you want the most bang for your buck, follow this checklist:

  • Write down what you like – make a list of everything you know your family will eat raw, frozen, or canned. Use this list as your starting point.
  • Check out local varieties – Every area of the United States has a fruit and vegetable claim to fame. For example, I live in Louisiana, and farmers here produce endless amounts of watermelon, zucchini, and strawberries. Since I can get them cheap locally, it doesn’t make sense to grow them myself. So I save my limited space for vegetables that are harder to find or more expensive to buy in the store. Cross off your list anything you can buy cheap locally.
  • Compare seed prices – Check out seed catalogs like Gurney’s or Burpee. Write down the price of seeds for all your potential plants. Planting the cheapest seeds will help keep your costs down overall, and the difference in quality is often negligible.
  • Split costs – Before you settle on your selections, talk to friends and neighbors about starting a small gardening co-op. If you know someone who’s interested in gardening (or already has a garden), you can split the cost of buying seeds with them.
  • Divide everything in half – Once you think you know what you want to plant, cut it in half. On my first attempt, I over-bought and over-planted nearly everything. Trust me, you won’t need as much as you think.

3. Buy supplies and tools

Before you buy anything, see what you can borrow or get for free. For example, I had a friend who tried gardening and realized she had no time for it. She had several small tools and was happy to give them to me just to get them out of her garage. For more expensive equipment, talk to your neighbors about sharing the costs (and the tools).

Once you start shopping, you’ll find the best prices if you give yourself time to comparison shop. Start looking for gardening equipment early and check out these places for the best deals:

  • Resale shops
  • Garage sales
  • Craigslist
  • Overstock stores like Big Lots

4. Plant

Before you start planting, save yourself a few headaches (and wasted money) by reading up on agriculture in your area. Different climates affect how plants grow and when they start producing. By knowing how to work with your climate and soil, you’ll have the best chance of producing tasty food for cheap. Check out these resources:

  • The horticulture extension office – Many local universities or community colleges have extremely helpful horticulture websites.
  • Almanac.com – Information on everything from dealing with pests to surviving a frost.
  • Growveg.com – Sells garden planning software, but they also have a bunch of free, helpful articles on their GrowGuides site.

5. Harvest

A friend recently sent me a picture with the subject line, “Help!” Piled on her kitchen table were about 40 cucumbers she didn’t know what to do with. Having too many fruits and vegetables doesn’t sound like a problem, but if you don’t use them up quickly, they’ll rot – and you’ll have wasted your time and money along with the food.

Plan what you’ll do with your harvest ahead of time. There are plenty of ways to use up produce – canning, freezing, and drying are popular. You can also give them out as gifts – last year, I gave out tomato gift bags. This is also a good time to search out new recipes with whatever you have too much of.

If you plan to can, check out these sites for simple how-to guides:

  • How to Can Fresh Vegetables from the University of Rhode Island
  • Canning Vegetables from the Colorado State University Extension
  • Simply Canning – A website devoted to canning

For freezing, check out:

  • The National Center for Home Food Preservation’s site on Freezing
  • Freezing Vegetables from the Colorado State University Extension
  • Organic Gardening’s Freezing Basics article

And if you need to expand your recipe book, these are some of my favorite foodie blogs:

  • EatingWell
  • Smitten Kitchen
  • Homesick Texan

Let’s face it, we all have some free time we could pry away from the TV. And what better way to burn some calories than by gardening – and growing more calories.

Angela Colley is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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