According to money.com, you can save a respectful amount of money on your annual food bill simply by growing your own food; an estimated 12.6 percent. And, according to creditdonkey.com , the average family spends between $712 and $1,106 per month for groceries. So, follow me on this if you will. Twelve point six percent of those totals translates into $89.71 to $139.36 a month or, $1076.52 to $1672.32 a year.
That’s a lot of cabbage, my frugal friends.
More to the point, that’s money that can be saved or go toward other things you love and want to either buy or do. I prefer to spend my dough on experiences rather than material things but that’s me. I don’t judge. And I confess to a minor obsession with shoes that are really, really bad for me and hurt my feet. We all have our little issues.
I also believe that if you grow it, you are much less likely to waste it. There is something empowering about picking tomatoes out of your backyard and slicing them up with soft and creamy mozzarella wedges in-between, basil torn and scattered on top with a swirl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Lots of freshly cracked black pepper and maybe even a squeeze of lemon. Perfection. Because you grow it, you are much less likely to waste it. I also think gardeners tend to pick what they need so you don’t waste produce by letting it go bad in the crisper.
This being said, a lot of people are going to come at me and complain that they do not have the land to grow a proper garden. For those of you in small apartments, use your balcony or a sunny window to grow a pot of tomatoes. Start small and build. Even one pot, brimming with ruby red, juicy tomatoes, makes a small dent in your budget. Every bit helps.
My own garden is modest but productive. I have three raised soil beds, roughly two and a half by four and a half feet each, in my pocket-sized backyard. This is where I grow my vegetables. I also use a wide variety of pots and containers to expand that space. Many of my larger pots were actually freebees, gifts from bored friends who decided they wanted different containers. Shrug. With a douse of cheap spray paint, my containers can all look different too. Anyway, in the summer I grow tomatoes, peppers (two to three kinds), squash (three kinds), radishes (nearly instant gratification of vegetables for gardeners), baby turnips, beets, green beans, swiss chard, cucumbers and more. I also have an unwieldy and large lime bush that sprawls in my side yard and another large container that I grow strawberries in. I am the recipient of large bumper crops of limes (and sometime lemons oddly enough) at least three times a year. I will talk about the savings and culinary benefits of an herb garden in another blog (coming soon). The point is, if you eat it, you should try and grow it. We consume a lot of citrus and vegetables so I grow them.
Most vegetables I grow from seed because that is the cheapest way to go. The exception is generally tomatoes and peppers. Those I snag at the 99-cent store for, you guessed it, 99 cents a pot. I’ve never had a plant from the 99-cent store die on me, by the way. The selection is always narrow but the plants are very healthy and thrive.
I spend less than $30 on my summer garden if you add up the cost of plants, seeds and water. I estimate that I save roughly $900 a year on produce so not bad for a $30 investment and the time spent watering and puttering in the garden which I consider therapeutic. Because I know how to can and preserve the excess produce, I never waste what I grow. To do so would be an absolute crime in my frugal mind. If I really have a huge crop, I trade. My hairdresser has a fig tree with my name on it so we end up trading something every summer.
Some frugal hints for your own garden:
- Stalk the Internet or check in with local garden club experts to figure out the very earliest you can possibly plant and have your plants thrive. If you live in Hawaii, ignore this. Hawaiian residents can grow a garden year round. Lucky ducks.
- Collect pots and old containers from friends or for free from sites like Craigslist (TAKE A FRIEND WITH YOU AND MEET IN A SAFE AND PUBLIC LOCATION). You can even get dirt for free this way. BE SAFE.
- Seeds from the dollar store are generally two packets for a buck. I have never had a problem growing produce using cheap seeds. Not once.
- If you have a good friend who also gardens, sit down in the spring and divvy up who is going to grow what. This way, you can trade the excess with a friend, everybody wins.
- Check with a local garden club if you need tips on what grows best in your area. The Internet is also overgrown with sites that help gardeners grow most productively. In the Bay Area, for example, we have heavy clay soil that must be fertilized well.
- Speaking of fertilizer. Make your own and compost. What do you think all those food scraps are for? Also, you can make excellent bone meal from leftover bones. Recipe and methodology here. Your local garden club should be able to help guide you if you have never composted before.
- Don’t grow something just because you can find a cheap starter plant or because, like squash, it’s easy. If you don’t eat tomatoes, don’t grow them. Only grow what you love to eat.
- Have a plan for using up and storing excess produce. I know how to safely can nearly any vegetable so I know my produce will never go to waste (see tips below for ways to use up excess produce).
- Be sure and plant successive crops for vegetables such as radishes and beans. If you plant everything just one time, at the same time, you will only get one major crop. Even those of you living in short growing seasons can usually harvest multiple times for one vegetable if you plant properly.
- Once you have a successful summer harvest, consider planting into the fall. The vegetables will be different (pumpkin, acorn squash, spinach, etc.) but the rewards are the same.
Tips for saving/using up excess produce:
- Our forefathers didn’t have canned goods. They had one season for planting/growing/harvesting and if they failed, they starved. Learn how to can.
- Tomatoes freeze surprisingly well, whole. Just pop them into a zip type freezer bag and when you have enough, thaw and make pasta sauce which you can also freeze.
3. Squash can overrun even the most practiced gardener’s garden. Process the extra in a food processor and freeze in muffin tins. Each will give you a half of a cup of pureed squash. I’ve made more December zucchini rum cakes than I can count with a summer bounty of squash in my freezer.
4. Pickling is another culinary skill you can acquire. However, making pickles that you genuinely want to eat is best left to those blue-ribbon winning wiz kids who parade around the county fair. When I am dealing with a lot of cucumbers or beets, I simply make a quick pickling liquid and pickle what I have on hand. Pickling this way at least preserves your produce for a few more days.
5. Most peppers that you don’t want to roast and pickle can be dried. Simply string them up on twine and hang in the kitchen to dry.
6. For using up excess citrus, I freeze the zest. I then use the juice to make simple syrups or I freeze the juice in ice cube trays. The fruit I then put into pots to help flavor produce that I am cooking such as artichokes. Once the fruit is fully spent, I process the citrus carcasses in a food processor and dump everything in my compost pile. Talk about using up every bit of the fruit.
7. Vegetables that freeze well, such as green beans, I will cook in boiling water for a minute, toss into ice water to stop the cooking process and then place into labeled, freezer zip bags and freeze. To cook, I literally toss them frozen into my microwave with a bit of water and heat through for a minute or two. They still taste amazing.
8. When I find myself with bumper crops of a certain type of vegetable, I will plan a number of meals around that produce for the next few days. I’ve wrapped burgers in swiss chard, stir fried it with beef and then steamed and diced it to be used in savory homemade hand pies, quesadillas and omelets.
9. Soup. You can use up a lot of garden produce by making a simple vegetable soup. Thaw some of your homemade chicken stock and make a vegetable soup. Freeze the leftovers.
10. Sticks. Yup. Sticks. I make my family’s favorite dip and slice excess product up raw and it disappears. My grandbabies think I am amazing and they have learned to love swiss chard, raw turnips and even peppery radishes.
11. Consider investing in a slightly used dehydrator (found frugally at your local thrift store).