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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Frugality (Part X): Grow Your Own

So here is where I lose half my readers. I promise this is only one of two more outlandish things we have done in our efforts to be frugal (though that is only a part of the reason we do these things).

We have always grown some herbs and vegetables. We liked doing it, we could get varieties that weren't available in stores and we knew they were fresh and grown without pesticides and other such things. We could eat them dead ripe, instead of picking them early so they would survive shipping or even trucking into town.

A few years ago, we began trying to grow more than that, though, to try to supply our food needs. We aren't even close to growing all that we want, but our goal is to eventually raise 75-80% of our food (we would also like to end up gleaning 5-10% of our food, but that's my other freakish post). Of course, there are some things like citrus, avocados, coffee, tea, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and CHOCOLATE, that we just can't grow successfully here. If we are able to build a greenhouse, we are willing to try to grow some plants like pineapples in there (if the English could do it, surely we can). Even so, we'd like to get to the point where we grow or raise most of our food.

Some people will tell you that by the time you pay for the seeds and supplies you will have already spent more than you would at the store. They are wrong. Even when you add the cost of extra water (if you, like us, live in a place where it doesn't rain enough in the summer to water your plants), it is really not a lot of money. Each year I order some seeds from a few places and buy others locally when they go on sale, Fred Meyer has seeds 50% off in February and March. We buy heirloom, open pollinated, non-trademarked seeds and plants. We do this partly because we like preserving some of the older varieties which are so full of flavor, partly because we like being able to save seed for the next year and (for the non-trademarked part) partly because we refuse to have our food held hostage by agri-business. Not all of the plants and seeds we use are heirlooms, but they are all open-pollinated or able to be propagated so we can save seed for the next year. Doing so greatly reduces the cost of your garden each year. The most expensive packet of seed I have ever bought cost $4.00 and provided enough food for a year plus seed. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and garlic can seem more costly, but will produce year after year after year, so your initial cost gets spread out right away.

I will say that the larger your garden, the better the deal on your seeds and plants. Part of that is just because your $2.00 seed packet will make much more fruit if you plant all of the seeds than if you plant only a couple. I do know that some people sell their extra starts, and we're thinking of doing that this year as well. It is almost always cheaper to get seeds than plants, because you pay for the pot, dirt, water, time and care that goes into the plant. For instance, a packet of Principe Borghese tomato seeds that I bought was marked $1.79 (we payed $0.89 in that 50% off deal - it goes through this Saturday, coupons are in the stores if you live near a Fred Meyer), one plant start in a two inch pot costs $3.25. Planting only half of the packet, we still end up with lots of plants and tons of tomatoes to eat, can and dry (these are great for sun drying).

For a better understanding of the cost comparison, each seed packet can produce 25 to 50 plants. These produce far more than a pound of tomatoes. We could spend between $0.69 and $1.49 a pound on fairly ordinary tomatoes at the grocery store during the summer, the seed packets cost us between $0.89 and $3.00. Even with a bad summer and the infernal deer, we still got far more than two to four pounds of tomatoes from each seed packet (probably closer to five to 15 pounds, depending on the variety) and they were fresh, dead ripe, heirloom or rare varieties, organically raised.

Obviously, it does take time, that is your major cost. The return is so great, though, both in quantity and quality, that we do not mind the time. We are still eating from our 150 pounds of potatoes, and have enough of it saved to replant this year. It cost us around $20 to get the seed potatoes for last year's planting. That is about $0.13 a pound for specialty potatoes to eat as well as the seed for this year's crop. We picked up a different variety (Ozette) to add to the two we already grow (Caribe and Yukon Gold) for about $25.00 including shipping, which we didn't have to pay last year as we could get the potatoes locally (both the seed potato and shipping went up this year), which should provide us with at least another 75 pounds of potatoes.

We do not pay for fertilizer because we are fortunate to have good soil and plentiful materials for compost. I've talked about our compost bin before. Everything that we cannot eat, that doesn't go into my stock bag or to our chickens goes to the compost, including tea bags, coffee grounds and the ash from our fireplace. The dirty straw from the chicken house also goes into the compost. Our bees pollinate everything so well that we could probably plant fewer plants and have as much produce as we could possibly need. I encourage anyone who is interested in beekeeping to take a class or ask around to find experienced beekeepers to question and get a packet of bees to set up a hive. If you cannot or don't want to get honey bees, I suggest putting out mason bee houses, since they will pollinate without the work of honey gathering or hive maintenance for you.

I mentioned above canning and drying. We also freeze what we can. Our ultimate goal is to not only grow and raise most of what we eat, but to can, freeze, dry and keep in storage enough to last us the entire year. We are not even close, but each year we work a little closer to that point. We haven't gotten to the point of raising grain for our flour, though after reading this, we have seriously considered what it would take to grow white wheat, spelt, oats, durum and, possibly, a little rye and kamut. One step at a time, though.

This may sound extreme to you. It would have to me less than a decade ago. The incredible flavor of fresh food, the reduction in our food bill, the pleasure of working in the ground and sun, the family time we have had together, seeing the reward of our work, changed my mind right around and it has all been worth it.

Gardening is something that children really seem to enjoy also. Our children are loving planting time now. Right now, we have a table full of plant starts and the garden plot tilled. There is some work to be done to turn our herb beds into raised beds. The children are planting corn and zucchini and enjoying watching them grow. We have even incorporated a study on plants and seeds in our homeschooling.

We've found that a side benefit of growing our own is that we eat a lot more vegetables and fruit. When you have at least 10 pounds of produce harvested each day, you tend to find a way to use it up. It has also encouraged our children to be more adventurous with fruit and vegetables, expanding their palates. Even some vegetables certain family members didn't like as well before were found to be quite tasty when we picked a flavorful variety and ate them fresh.

We probably spend about $200 a year on the garden (This year it was around $150 more, because we had to rent a tiller - we normally borrow one from a friend. You can do it by hand and with hand tools). So, about $16.67 a month. We no longer buy tomatoes fresh, and we are working toward not needing to buy any canned. We don't buy zucchini, yellow squash or any winter squash, including our pumpkins, any more. It is rather rare for us to buy herbs (we had to do so for the first time in years last month), we don't buy cabbage or kale (and these store in the garden even with snow on them), we don't buy potatoes or snow peas, only buy about half the peppers we used to and with rare exception don't buy corn anymore. Of the other vegetables we grow, we have greatly reduced the amount we have had to buy at the store. When you consider that the price per pound on most of these vegetables is usually between $0.60 and $3.00, you realize what a savings can be had by growing your own.

Our garden plot is the size of a decent sized home's footprint, so we can produce a lot here. Even with the infernal deer. Don't think you can't garden without that kind of space, though. We have gardened in rental homes, in apartments, everywhere we have lived. In fact, in our first, one bedroom apartment, on the second floor, we had planter boxes, pots and Rich built a huge planting area that was a foot by two feet and followed the entire length of our balcony where we grew vegetables, melons, herbs and flowers. Eggplants are gorgeous plants that I would have even if we didn't eat them and they do well in pots. Tomatoes, peppers, herbs of all kinds, cucumbers, potatoes and even squash can do well in pots, so long as they have enough room. Lettuce, scallions, broccoli, cabbage, kale and other greens, carrots, beets and turnips, peas, all of these can do well in pots. So, do not be discouraged.

Here is a great tutorial on making your own newspaper seedling pots and another on making those six-pack pots like they come at the garden center. Making these is free and uses up your newspapers. If you would like to further reduce the price of your garden by saving seed, there are plenty of books out there (that can be found at the library, too) which detail how to do it. If you wish to do that, you must buy open pollinated varieties. Seed companies have to tell you if a plant is a hybrid, don't get those if you want to save seed. Do not buy trademarked plants or seeds if you want to propagate your own. It is against the law to propagate such plants, and most of the trademarks belong to big agri-businesses which mess around with their seeds and have a strangle hold on the market which we do not wish to support in any case. You could get those varieties nine times out of ten at the store anyway. We choose to grow predominantly older varieties, so we look for the dates they were introduced, the words heirloom, antique, or traditional.

I try to get seeds and things like seed potato and sweet potato slips locally. I don't have to pay shipping that way, they tend to focus on plants and varieties that grow well here and the prices are usually lower than catalogs. When I buy them in town, I buy Ed Hume and Territorial seeds, as they are both companies that are relatively local to me and specialize in varieties that do well in our area. However, there are a few companies with whom I like to do business. I would also recommend asking on Freecycle or just watching for seeds, plants and bulbs that are offered. We have given away many extras there and picked up some great things that way.

I hope this was helpful and not too scary an idea for you. If you have questions, please ask, and I will try to answer them in a timely manner.

Previous Posts:
Make it at Home
Grocery Shopping
Waste Not, Want Not
The Celery Stalks at Midnight
Use What You Have
Combining Trips
Storing Bulk Purchases
Turn It Off

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Maybe sometime when you are not too busy (yeah right) you would not mind letting me stop by and you could show me your garden space? It really helps me to have visuals. I have been wanting to do all these things for a while now. I bought a clothes line last summer and then got chickens and my husband thought I might be losing it. lol.
Just wanted to say how rewarding growing your own can be.

We've been doing a garden, meat and now raw milk and honey - what a differnce it makes on the budget!

We also stopped purchasing things from a box or can and canned our own these last few years...it's a wonderful feeling knowing you have enough veggies to last all the way to the next canning season!

So if anyone is thinking about it, and you should be considering what the news was today...do it and do it smart!

We suggest start with food that can be stored without need of electricity...that would be corn, beans, potatoes and squash...these store very well and there is no need to can or freeze - this would be ideal if you are new to gardening!
I don't put a lot of time into gardening, but I find it great to grow herbs. Basil is so easy to grow. Our oregano and thyme was usable until well into January (when I think it got down into the single digits), and is probably coming back now.
Tanya, if you still have my phone number give me a call tomorrow. We will be gone in the morning for baseball, but will be back in the afternoon to work on the yard and planting. We could visit a little, and I have some seeds you could have if you want them.
Dory, what varieties of potato do you grow? We really like the Caribe and Ozette, I picked up some French Fingerlings at the feed store this week and we have Yukon Golds, which we like, but I'm thinking of replacing them with German Butterballs next year.

Also, we're trying to find a sweet potato that will grow well, and taste good, up here in the north. I was looking at Orange Oakleaf, Wakenda and Willowleaf, but don't know anyone who has grown them here.
I've added this post to my links at http://nmwoodworks.com/gardening because I thought you expressed the economics of gardening pretty well. I am also creating a post at http://www.examiner.com/x-5189-Detroit-Organic-Gardening-Examiner based on this topic. It should be ready within the hour. It, too, will link back here ... so you are getting a "two-fer" ;-)
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