Will that vegetable garden save the Obamas money?

Peter Grier of the Monitor's Washington Bureau speculates that one of the goals of the much-publicized White House kitchen garden is to save the first family money on its grocery bills. If so, they're part of a growing trend. The ranks of those growing their own veggies have increased by 20 to 30 percent over the past two years.

How much money can growing your own tomatoes and lettuce save? A great deal depends on whether you -- and the Obamas -- start with seeds or seedlings, what condition the soil is in, what tools and equipment are needed, and how large the garden is.

Burpee, the well-known seed company, says a cost-analysis study shows that an investment of $50 for seeds and fertilizer for a well-planned vegetable garden can grow $1,250 worth of produce at supermarket prices.

Capitalizing on the increased interest in the thrifty benefits of raising vegetables at home, Burpee has even offered a $10 "money garden" -- packets of seeds (tomatoes, bush beans, carrots, peas, bell peppers, and lettuce) that the company says will grow $650 worth of produce.

Not so fast, caution gardening experts. Gardening is more than buying seeds and sticking them in the ground with some fertilizer scattered around.

What about: tilling the soil and adding some organic matter to it? Increased water bills? Mulch to keep the soil moist and weed-free? A hoe and gloves? Stakes and twine (or cages) for the tomato plants?

And even before you get to that point, what about some pots and potting soil to grow the tomatoes from seed indoors? And many inexperienced growers naturally prefer to buy already started plants, which cost more than seeds.

Cindy Haynes, an extension horticulturist at Iowa State University, says that yes, a vegetable garden can save you money -- "if done properly." The key to cost-effectiveness, she adds, is "limiting the costs while maximizing yield."

A few tips for accomplishing that:

-- Select vegetables that you like. There's no point in planting parsnips, for instance, if no one in the family will eat them. Mrs. Obama avoided beets, a vegetable her husband doesn't eat.

-- Select vegetables that are expensive to buy in the grocery store. Those orange and yellow bell peppers that cost the earth at the supermarket are as easy to grow as any other bell pepper. (And if you want red peppers, just let your green ones mature to red.)

-- Select vegetables that can be stored or preserved. Even if you don't want to get into canning or freezing your excess vegetables, consider plants such as winter squash that store well, so you can still eat them fresh long into fall and winter.

-- Do some research and start with a plan. Without a plan and some basic knowledge, you're much less likely to succeed. Here's the diagram of the White House garden.

-- If you don't have much space or your soil is poor, consider a container garden or raised beds.

-- See what's available for free: Collect rainwater and use that to water the garden. Or obtain manure from a stable or chicken farmer and use -- after allowing it to rot for a month or more (very important!) -- for organic fertilizer. Free mulch may also be available to you from a local source -- spoiled hay, spent peanut shells, etc. Ask around.

Finally, be sure to put the kids to work in the garden. It's good exercise, helps youngsters understand where their food comes from, and their help is free. The first lady has fifth-graders to assist her.

Note: Coming Monday, April 20: Ten garden bloggers (including Diggin' It) reveal the six plants they can't live without. 

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