Near the end of a particularly frustrating garden season a few years ago, author William Alexander wondered how much it had cost him to grow the beautiful tomato he had just plucked from his backyard in New York State. He added up all the expenses from the summer—seeds, compost, garden tools and an electric fence that did little to slow down the resident groundhog from feasting on his veggies. The end result: Alexander was shocked to realize it cost him a whopping $64 to grow that tomato.
Few of us expect to get rich from the produce we grow in our gardens, but this relaxing hobby can easily snowball into a money pit if we don’t watch expenses. Janet Melrose is garden animator at the Calgary Horticultural Society and a part-time employee at a garden centre. She notices customers racking up big bills buying garden gadgets, full-sized plants and high-tech cold coverings. “People spend the money without knowing exactly why they’re doing it,” she says. “Often it doesn’t work, so they end up spending the money again and again. People need to invest in their knowledge first and they’ll be much more satisfied.”
By learning classic gardening techniques and doing some planning before Canada’s traditional planting time on May 24 weekend, not only will our gardens be healthier, they’ll be less costly to maintain. In fact, a bountiful backyard garden can go a long way to reducing your family’s grocery bills—and not just in the summertime. “If you’re growing for six months of the year and preserving your harvest, you could easily save thousands of dollars,” says Melrose.
Start by improving your soil. A $10 testing kit from a garden centre is a good way to know if you’re lacking nutrients. You can also learn to recognize nutrient deficiencies by observing your plants—for example, a nitrogen deficiency will make older leaves turn yellow, explains Melrose. Add manure or compost—some municipalities give it away for free in the spring—or make your own backyard compost pile. “It’s gold for free,” says Melrose. You can add mulch for next to nothing by buying bales of straw from nearby farmers or using shredded newspaper printed with non-toxic vegetable ink.
By developing healthy soil, you reduce the need for buying pesticides. “You’ll have strong plants that can resist pests more easily,” says Angela ElzingaCheng, urban agriculture manager at FoodShare Toronto.
When deciding what to plant this spring, keep in mind the prices at the grocery store. “I avoid growing things that are inexpensive at the supermarket, such as onions and potatoes, and focus on things that are priceless—like the taste of a freshly picked, organic Brandywine tomato,” says Alexander, author of 52 Loaves and The $64 Tomato. “That being said, the vegetables and herbs that save you the most over purchased ones include leek, heirloom tomatoes and basil.”
Instead of buying seedlings, you can save seed from your own plants. You can also share seed packets with friends and neighbours, or swap at public events like Seedy Saturday. Give your seeds a head start by planting indoors under a cheap fluorescent light, or by practicing ‘winter sowing.’ That’s a technique that involves growing seeds in old milk jugs, which act like miniature greenhouses. Growing perennials will also reduce costs. “I have mint, fennel and asparagus, which comes up every year in April,” explains Carlo Infusino, an Italian-born machinist who cultivates a lush home garden in Woodbridge, Ont.
Infusino maximizes his limited space by planting peas, onions and salad greens as soon as the soil defrosts each spring. Once the crop is harvested, he uses the space to plant new vegetables, including late-season radicchio that gets sweeter after the frost hits. He also increases yield by pairing up plants that grow well together, like tomatoes and basil.
To avoid ending up with a bumper crop of produce he can’t consume, Infusino plants small batches of greens like arugula every three weeks. And when the bulk of his produce is ready in late summer, nothing goes to waste. His cellar is stacked with dozens of jars of blanched tomatoes and eggplants, as well as radicchios wrapped in newspaper that last throughout the winter. While Infusino doubts he’s producing food at a lower cost than the factory-farm produce at the grocery store, his hobby doesn’t cost much and helps him relax. “I come home, check on the plants and grab a beer—it’s like therapy for me,” says Infusino. “And the quality and taste of what I grow is unbeatable.”