Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Garden vs. Grocery store

I was browsing thru a seed catalog the other day and was really struck by how cheap it really is to grow your own food. Granted, there are other expenses besides just the seed. The most obvious being the cost of your time to do it. But even if you don't invest a lot of time into growing your own food, it is still an amazingly simple way to save a lot of money on food.

If you live in an apartment, you can still grow some of your own food. Place a potted tomato plant in a sunny window and when it blooms, set it outside for a few days to be pollinated. Or you can pollinate it yourself with a cotton swab. If your apartment building has a flat roof, ask your landlord if you can grow a container garden on the roof. You might even be able to convince a few of your neighbors to join you.

Lettuces, spinach, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, even potatoes can all be grown in containers inside without the need of a pollinator. Things like beans, peas, squashes, melons, and cucumbers can be grown pots but because they are vines, will have to have some heavy duty support so that they grow up instead of out. I have heard of people growing watermelon on an apartment balcony by tying the vine to a cast iron trellis and supporting each melon by tying it up with a piece of pantyhose. I guess it would work but I have never tried it.

Right now, I have carrots growing in a window box in my kitchen window. Granted, they are the short, finger length variety, But I will still have fresh carrots for a fraction of the cost to buy them.

Lets take a peek at the seed catalog. Bell Peppers. If you decide to buy a bell pepper at the grocery store, it will cost you anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 each, depending on the size and variety. This particular seed catalog has packets of bell pepper seeds for $1.95 - $2.95 for 25 seeds. Over the course of the growing season, each pepper plant could produce anywhere from 1 pepper to 25 or 30 peppers. That would be just 1 of those 25 seeds. And they can be grown in pots very easily. Like red peppers better than green? Let them fully ripen before you pick them. Green peppers are just the unripened version of red or orange or yellow peppers. And if you become overrun with peppers and cannot find any one else to take some? Chop them up and spread them on a flat pan in the freezer. After they are frozen, put them in a freezer bag to use in recipes. Really good in meat loaf that way.

While all of this is well and good, but unless you are going to go for a full blown garden, you cannot expect to completely stop buying vegetables. But you can grow a few items that are really expensive in the store like the peppers or tomatoes. They are very high yield for the amount of space they need, fairly easy to grow and really expensive to buy. Garden centers will even have them as plants in the spring if you don't think you can manage to get the seeds to sprout. Just make sure the pots you put them in will be big enough for a mature plant. It will look weird having a little plant in a big pot but they will grow fast and having to transplant them again could shock the plant and you may not get any fruit from them. Better to plan big.

If you want to get adventurous, there are even fruit trees available these days that can be gown indoors. I have seen a tree that will bear lemons, limes and oranges all from one tree. It gets about 6 feet tall and can be grown in a container. Before you dive into that, keep in mind that fruit trees can take several years to mature and you will not get so much as a bloom until then. And they will need some outdoors time for the pollination.

Blue berries are a good choice for containers as well. The biggest plants only get between 5-6 feet tall ( but there are smaller ones available for porch pots) and will produce berries in the second or third year and continue to produce for the next 20 or so years. Not a bad investment for a hedge in the front yard.

I realize that not every one will want to grow their own food. But there really is nothing quite like the feeling you get by picking and preparing something that you make yourself. And the taste difference is staggering. Really fresh produce just can't be beat. And just how much fresher can you get than 5 minutes from plant to table. And the cost savings on those expensive tomatoes and peppers (or peas or lettuce, or whatever) really adds up. Especially if you buy organic.

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