Now that we’ve entered a new historical era of tighter bank regulations, stringent loan requirements and credit card crunches, gardening comes to the rescue. What many of us once considered a harmless hobby takes on an urgency: abandoned urban lots converted to vegetable gardens, rooftop food gardens and community gardens. “We once grew organic food for flavor and health,” one longtime gardener said, “now we’ll be growing to feed others.” If you need to feed your family or your neighborhood, it’s time to find ways to garden on a tight budget. In lush times or lean times, gardening doesn’t have to break the bank.
I’ve grown over $2,000 of fresh food each summer using a portion of a small suburban lot, a fourth of an acre. And for that bounty I spent less than $200 for seeds, starter mix, lights and gardening tools. But there are a few tricks. I learned to save seeds, divide plants that grow in clumps, propagate woody shrubs, use home made compost rather than expensive fertilizers, find simple ways to avoid pests rather than resort to pesticides and join other gardeners to share knowledge and work.
FIND FRIENDS: The first step is to band together. Each December I join a group of gardeners who order seeds in bulk. Nearly 50 of us buy about $1,000 in seeds. We take what we believe we need from our ordered seeds and share the rest. Most of us could plant a hundred or so varieties from our purchased and shared seeds. That’s too many for the average gardener, but it allows each of us to experiment a bit.
SAVE SEEDS: Several of us save seeds, too. I save tomato, bean and lettuce seeds. Bean seeds have been saved for thousands of years by farmers. After all, they arrive dried and ripened in their on zip bags. Just peel down and collect. Scarlet runner beans, limas, cranberry beans—just about any bean is perfect. We eat the green beans in their first stage, then the shelly bean in the second stage. The third stage, the bean that you buy for soups is the stage to save. Since beans are self-pollinating, they rarely cross with another bean to form a hybrid. That’s why you rarely see beans in plant catalogues advertised as hybrids.
Tomatoes, too, are favorites for seed savers. You’ll have to save seeds from heirloom tomatoes, also called open-pollinated tomatoes. These are old-fashioned tomatoes like Brandywine or Arkansas Traveler. Cut a ripe tomato in half, squeeze the seeds into a cup. Add a dash of water and allow the mixture to sit for at least 24 hours. Instructions often insist on letting the mixture sit until a foamy broth forms on top. This is intended to kill viruses that lurk. I don’t usually wait quite that long; I’ve had tomato seeds germinate under those conditions, which means they want to grow and will not store for the winter.
Instead, I simply let the brew sit for about 48 hours. I rinse the seeds in a sieve, tap them onto a plate and let dry. After they are completely dry, I scrape each seed off the plate and place them in a paper envelope, which is labeled with the name and date of the seeds.
Lettuces are easy, too. But I use a different technique. Let the plants grow until them form small flowers and develop seed pods. When the pods are dry and ripe, I pick the seed head, roll it between my fingers and watch the seeds pour out. Other plants are more difficult—the squash/melon/cucumber family has both male and female flowers. Peppers will cross pollinate if you have sweet and hot together. But if you love a particular family of vegetables, it’s worthwhile learning how to save those seeds. You’ll find books in your local library that specialize in seed saving.
DIVIDE AND PROPAGATE: If you love ornamental gardens—roses, irises, daylilies—learn to divide and propagate. All my roses were propagated by a simple method. I chose old classic roses that have no patent, cut woody stems, dipped the cut ends in a rooting mixture and placed it in the garden with a mason jar on top. I propagate roses in October and by June I have a small, sturdy rose bush. One year later I have a vigorous, large rose bush.
Irises and daylilies both benefit from dividing every four years. When you divide, share extra with gardening friends and they’ll remember to share with you. Many perennials can be divided every other year for rejuvenation.
BUILD COMPOST: Most likely you have a compost bin for yard scraps and vegetable peelings from the kitchen. It may accumulate slowly but you can create mulch and compost by encouraging your neighbors to bring autumn leaves. Collect those bags of leaves, grass clippings or other spent garden material. Let it compost throughout the winter and you’ll have mulch to spread around your plants. Slowly that mulch is pulled underground by worms, producing a soil enrichment. Forget about buying expensive fertilizer. You’ve got the best available from what others throw away.
SAVE ON WATER: Mulch all your ornamental and vegetable beds with your collected compost. You’ll cut down on water use.
GROW SEEDLINGS: Learn to grow your own seedlings under fluorescent lights. You don’t need a fancy set up. Just two fluorescent lights set on a couple of bricks will work. Plant your seeds in small pots with quality potting soil. Water the soil until it is completely moist. Cover planted seeds with plastic wrap or a clear plastic lid. This will keep in moisture so the tiny seedling does not dehydrate. As the seedling emerges and appears vigorous, remove the plastic but pay attention to watering. Eventually you’ll raise enough seedlings to grow a substantial garden. As the small plants grow taller, take them outside for sunlight when temperatures are above 40 degrees. Let them adjust slowly, just a few minutes stretched over weeks into a few hours, if possible.
SHARE YOUR KNOWLEDGE: As you grow more confident about your gardening budget skills, share the knowledge. Form garden groups with neighbors, friends, e-mail buddies, garden clubs or community groups. You’ll be surprised how receptive your town or city will be. Garden for health, garden for frugality, garden for conservation, garden for beauty—now is the time.