Donna Freedman: How to save money with vegetable and herb gardens

Living With Less

Windowsill veggies worth $200?

You don't need land to garden. And containerized gardens will, at the very least, yield enough to cover your startup costs. So what have you got to lose?

By Donna Freedman
MSN Money

All right, so I don't know if you can really grow $200 worth of vegetables on your windowsill. It's probably less -- but it might be more, depending on what you grow.

The harvest won't be huge. But have you priced salad greens or fresh herbs lately? (And have you ever tasted a real tomato?) Done right, these little spreads will at least pay for their startup costs and may actually make a dent in your food bills.

Just ask Manhattan resident Mike Lieberman, who blogs at Urban Organic Gardener. In three large self-watering containers and a dozen hanging pots on his fire escape, he grew lettuce, kale, chard, cherry tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, and four herbs.

"The first time I harvested a salad, it was overwhelming," says Lieberman. "It (feels) good knowing that it's of my own work, my own effort -- and knowing that what I just picked would have cost me $3 if I'd gone to the store."

A fire-escape garden like Lieberman's may not be strictly legal (he says he leaves room for emergency flight). But even a single sunny windowsill can support dill or chives that add real zing to scrambled eggs or salad.

About that salad: Fill a window box with colorful mesclun mixes and your salad will be the star of the table rather than an anemic supporting player.

Best of all, you'll know exactly how fresh it is because you just picked it, and you can limit or eliminate the chemical fertilizers and pesticides common to modern farming.

A balcony increases your options, with delights such as Tomato Tumbler cherry tomatoes (a hybrid developed for hanging baskets), bambino eggplant, red Malabar spinach (a climbing variety), baby Persian cucumbers, Pot of Gold chard, Orange Pixie tomatoes, Super Chili hot peppers and Round Romeo carrots.

This is not a gardening column, so I won't give chapter and verse about pinch-backs or pollination. Instead, I'll offer the basic components and tips on how to keep startup costs low.

Liquid kelp and worm castings

According to a 2009 survey from the National Gardening Association, 31% of American gardeners grow food, and nearly half of those do at least some gardening in containers. The average amount spent on the garden is $70.

"The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America" (.pdf file) further notes that the wobbly economy isn't the only reason people grow food. Improved flavor, quality and food safety were also frequently cited.

"You know where it came from, how fresh it is -- and it wasn't flown in," says Maria Finn, the author of "A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces."

Fruits and vegetables are often bred to stand up to transport and long storage, Finn notes, which means that "flavor is not a priority." For those who do their harvesting in supermarkets, freshly picked produce is a revelation.

Growing in a box is not the same as growing in the ground. First off: Do not poach soil from the park or your mom's garden. Containerized plants do best with potting soil because it drains readily, doesn't compact and has no weeds or pests.

The smaller the bag, the more you'll pay, unless you luck into a stupendous loss-leader sale. Consider splitting the cost of a bigger bag with other apartment farmers.

You'll need to fertilize, because every time you water your plant, some nutrients drain away. Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden urges the organic route; liquid fish emulsion and liquid kelp don't cost much, she says. Use at half-strength a couple of times during the summer.

"Fish emulsion can be kind of stinky," Shepherd says, "but you can find deodorized fish emulsion or some other organic fertilizer suitable for containers."

Garden author Finn augments her soil with help from a worm-composting box in her kitchen. The red wigglers eat kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and tea bags, and their nutrient-rich castings (the polite word for worm turds) make containerized veggies happy. It's easy to make a worm-composting box.

Lieberman has had success with worm-free composting. He uses scavenged containers such as an empty cat-litter bucket. It's one way of dealing with food waste. Incidentally, the required "brown" (carbon-rich) materials can be things such as nut shells, dry pine needles and stale cereal or grains.

Store-bought fertilizer need not be pricey either. You could share a container with others. Or if you're a fan of free gift card programs, cash in some points for a Home Depot or card and use them to buy your cuke food. Maybe your potting soil, too.

Continued: Sun, seeds and water 

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