Strawberries at $6 a pound? Basil for $2 a bunch? Organic apples for $1 each? It seems, lately, that a trip to the produce aisle or farmers market can have you considering refinancing your mortgage. Thanks to rising gas prices, food prices are going up: In February, food costs rose more than they had over the past 36 years.
But there’s a way you eat healthy without taking out a loan – you just need a bit of earth, some seeds and a few tips as to which homegrown fruit and vegetables will save you the most money.
Here are our suggestions, given by veggie-growing experts Dan Hulse, owner of Tahoma Farms and Terra Organics, and vegetable specialist Carol Miles at Washington State University Extension, of what to grow, what to try and what’s just not worth it.
THE A-LIST: GROW THIS
“This is the all-round winner,” says Miles. “You can grow it year-round here, and it’s the number one crop for people’s daily consumption.” It also costs around $4 a bag in the stores, and when you think that a $2 pack of seeds will give you dozens of heads of lettuce, that’s a bargain. You can cut as you need, with no icky green stuff going to waste in your fridge. And you won’t get salmonella.
Just set out plenty of slug traps (beer tubs, eggshells, diotomacious earth). keep the lettuce cool and watered in summer. Sow a row each week for gradual harvesting.
Think collards for summer, kale for winter and you’ll have fresh greens year-round – great for your health and easy on the wallet.
“They have an extremely long season,” says Hulse, “you plant once and continue to harvest as it grows back. They do really well in our climate and are hardy through November.” Cook greens the way you would spinach, just a bit longer – and add garlic and lemon for zing.
There are plenty of reasons for growing these yummy vitamin C powerhouses. First is taste: The ones sold in stores are grown for transport, not flavor, says Hulse, and there’s nothing like the taste of a sun-warmed berry right from the garden. Second is health: Commercial strawberries have the highest pesticide content of any crop, Hulse says. Third is value: Plant a strawberry and it’ll send out runners, making baby plants with no effort on your part. Hulse plants a mixture of June-bearing (which harvest all at once) and everbearing (which harvest July-August), and gets around 2-3 pounds per square foot of plants. That’s $15 bucks saved on an initial $6 investment, year after year. Pretty sweet.
Although these take two years to bear from planting, you’ll reap yearly rewards on your $10 investment after that. Select the right varieties, says Miles, and put up plenty of netting against the birds. Harvesting every few days encourages high yield, and mulch with compost in winter. Much better than spending $6 for every half-pint.
These are Hulse’s next-in-line favorite. “They’re so simple. Just cut up old potatoes that have started to sprout and bury them. In fall, you’ll be digging up pounds of new potatoes. They yield about three to five-fold.” Even if potatoes are cheap in stores, this still represents almost-free food. Bonus: no pesticides. Just remember to keep covering up the green shoots with mulch to encourage lots of root production (i.e. edible potatoes.) You can also try growing them vertically, in a cylindrical container or stack of old tires, to save space.
This is a fall/winter crop that needs very little care, says Miles. Buy them for $2 for a pony-pack of eight and avoid spending twice that in the markets. Leeks are great for flavoring eggs, soups, pasta sauces and stews.
These are another expensive item to buy, and fairly easy to grow. Bush varieties don’t need trellising, points out Hulse, and you can harvest as needed. Hulse loves the taste of the yellow wax variety.
Definitely, says Miles. They’re (mostly) perennial, hardy and easy-care. And if you’ve ever paid $2 for a tiny bunch in the store, you’ll know why people grow their own. Staples can include rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano and sage, with parsley and basil the easy-grow annuals that will save you big bucks. Have lots of basil left over in September? Grind it up into pesto and freeze for the rest of the year.
WORTH A TRY
Fruit trees (apples, pears)
Whether you’ll save money on a $20 fruit-tree investment depends on one thing: variety. Many fruit trees are just too susceptible to the weather-induced rot, scab and leaf-curf that’s prevalent in the Northwest. “It’s more of an investment than most people are willing to make,” says Hulse. If you want to try it, stick to apples and pears, and get the right variety for our locale by consulting with your nursery or the Western Washington Tree Fruit Research Foundation.
Meanwhile, get in contact with your neighbors or local gleaning association – there are plenty of fruit trees in yards that no-one is picking.
Tomatoes (early-ripening, cherry)
Yes, they’re the Holy Grail of home gardening. And there’s nothing to beat the taste of a sun-ripened tomato in mid-summer, except maybe the satisfaction of saving $1.50. But wait: September in the Northwest is full of the sound of gardeners grinding their teeth because fall is here and those dang tomatoes still haven’t ripened. And if they paid $5 each for a full-grown start, they’ll be out-of-pocket as well.
Don’t be one of them. “Tomatoes are doable,” says Miles, “but you have to have early-ripening varieties like Early Girl or cherry tomatoes.” Miles also recommends heavy pruning, down to just two main stems, with no extra leafage to distract the plant from ripening. Miles’ WSU department is working on grafting heirloom onto regular tomatoes for better disease resistance, cold-hardiness and higher yields – find them at Territorial Seeds.
Yes, really, says Miles. “It all comes down to selecting an early-maturing variety, because our warm season is so short.” Avoid the big red melons and go for something smaller, she says – they’re the ones that cost more in the stores, too. And transplanting rather than growing straight from seed avoids many pests and diseases. “You also gain four to six weeks on growing time,” says Miles.
For most gardens, this takes up too much space for the tiny yield (one or two ears per stalk, says Miles.) But it can be a useful windbreak, and if it does ripen it’ll cost you 10 cents per stalk rather than 50 cents per ear. If you try it, choose an early-maturing variety (75 days).
“I’ve not had much luck with these,” says Hulse. Remember, these are plants native to hot climes such as Mexico. If you really must, try one of the hot varieties that don’t need to grow such big fruit.
Again, this is a tropical plant that grows into evergreen trees in India and Africa. Unless you can replicate that in a greenhouse, stick to buying them.
Hmm – do you really need to grow a plant that will take over all your existing space, give you more veggies than you can ever eat and that is cheap in the stores? If you do, then try growing vertically on a trellis; at least you’ll have room for other stuff.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com