Grow your own food and bank the savings

As winter tightens its icy grip on the North, I can trot to the cellar and count 16 large bunches of home-grown onions hanging from the rafters.

Those onions -- we use them one way or another almost every day -- will probably meet our needs clear through to spring and the emergence of those hardy perennials, the Egyptian onions.

In the cellar also is a bushel of rutabagas, but the king of all the stored crops this winter is squash. We still have the equivalent of seven bushels of various varieties strung out along shelves and on tables.

It shows the welcome ''pay raise'' we receive because of the success of our vegetable garden each year.

With a little forethought and planning, you, too, can cut your living costs, no matter where you live: the Midwest, the South, California and the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest -- anywhere.

Here in New England, under a mulch and waiting for me to dig them as needed, are carrots, parsnips, and salsify -- or vegetable oyster. My wife, Barbara, has even suggested that she might have difficulty finding enough days to use them all up before the next growing season and new harvests roll around.

In other words, our food garden -- which shares a conventional quarter-acre lot with a front lawn, several flower beds, and a house -- feeds us long after the growing season is over; so well, in fact, that, as Barbara put it the other day, ''We could pretty well feed ourselves for nothing if we didn't enjoy dining out occasionally.'' A little exaggeration makes the point.

The fact is, it pays, often quite handsomely, to grow your own. And, as the years go by it is likely to pay more and more. Recent projections suggest that food will have doubled in real terms by the turn of the century.

Not everyone wishes or has the time to garden to this extent. But even modest efforts pay off in this time of rising food prices. Many folks grow only salad gardens: lettuce (with seed sown at regular two-week intervals), tomatoes, and cucumbers with maybe a pepper or two thrown in.

Such gardens don't take up much space at all, nor do they take more than an hour or so each week to maintain. But they yield heavily once the gardener gains some experience. Summer salads, in fact, are reduced to the cost of a few bottles of dressing.

Beyond the money saving, of course, is the taste. It's almost impossible to buy fresh-from-the-garden flavor at the supermarket.

Just how significant home-vegetable production has become in the US is seen in a recent Gallup survey which found that 38 million families were involved in growing some of their own food in 1981. The small, medium, and large gardens they tended combined to produce food with an estimated retail value of $16 billion. That's a hefty contribution to the nation's economy and exceeds the net profits of the six biggest US corporations.

Most gardeners interviewed said they grew some of their own food to make a dent, however small, in the inflation rate; to get better tasting food, and to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from making the home a center of production as well as consumption.

Some gardeners said they had a food garden out of a sense of patriotism. After all, they reasoned, the average supermarket-bought food these days travels 1,300 miles to reach your dinner plate; and in the Northeast it's a whole lot farther. According to the Department of Agriculture, for every $2 spent on producing and processing food, $1 is spent to move it.

In more understandable terms, every truckload of produce from the food-producing valleys of California involves $5,000 of trucking expenses by the time it reaches New York.

When it is realized that 70 cents is added to every dollar we spend after the food has left the farmer, it is easy to appreciate why the return on investment in the home garden is so high -- 2,500 percent once the basic tools have been bought and the gardener has gained a little experience.

In calculating the value of backyard gardening to the US economy, the Gallup poll arbitrarily assumed an average production of one pound of vegetables per square foot of garden space, but experienced gardeners do far better than that.

Ecology Action of the Mid Peninsula in Palo Alto, Calif., has recorded breathtaking results following the double-dig, raised-bed methods of biodynamic gardening introduced by the late Alan Chadwick.

Indeed, any system that gives soil improvement so prominent a postion in its gardening program is certain to produce bountifully.

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