One of the best ways to really connect to the food you eat is to grow it yourself. When you grow your own food, you have full control over it—you can use industrial fertilizers and insecticides if you want, or you can go 100% organic. The choice is entirely yours.
The first suggestion is to plant what you like to eat. This seems obvious, but keep in mind that if you care for your garden properly, you will eventually end up with a lot of whatever you plant. If it’s not something you really want to eat, or will use sparingly, why put in the effort to grow it?
Another consideration is cost. For many, gardening is a labor of love, and sitting down at the dinner table to a plate full of food you’ve grown yourself is worth any price. But let’s face it: few of us have the time and money to spend $10 for each tomato our garden produces. So let’s take a look at a few things you can grow that will provide bang for your buck. We’ll base this on both how prolific a vegetable is and what you can save by growing it.
Lettuce can be rather costly to buy in the store, at anywhere from $2-$4 per head, and home-grown lettuce is more nutrient dense, to boot. In your garden, it’s relatively simple to grow and will easily provide you with salad material all summer if managed properly. In fact, in many cases, it’s hard to keep up with the speed at which it’s growing; if you plant a new crop every 2-3 weeks, you can have a continual supply. The only real drawback is that it’s not good for long-term storage.
Lettuce matures in 40-60 days, so an early spring planting can be ready as early as Memorial Day. It prefers cooler weather, in fact, so growing lettuce in the hot summer requires some planning. And it’s best harvested just before it reaches maturity.
Tomatoes are garden gold. They range in price from $2-$5 a pound in the store, but home gardening allows you to grow large amounts of tomatoes that are tastier and healthier than store-bought. In fact, most of the tomatoes you see in the store are picked before they are ripe to make them hardier while being transported. This seriously compromises taste and texture.
Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, if you plan carefully. They do attract pests, so you need to do some planning there, but if done properly, you will have enough tomatoes to last an entire year. And truly, nothing beats the flavor of a fresh-picked tomato.
What makes tomatoes true garden gold, though, is their versatility and the ability to store them long-term. They can be canned in their raw state, made into sauce and frozen, fire-roasted, or dried and stored in oil. With the price of a can of good-quality tomatoes close to $2 (or more), having your own supply will be a huge savings.
Depending on how much you use garlic, you might not spend a lot of money on it over the course of a year. And at less than $1 for a typical head of garlic, it feels like it’s pretty inexpensive. But in reality, garlic can sell from anywhere to $1-$7 a pound.
The thing is, garlic is relatively easy to grow, and once you’ve grown one head, you can continue re-planting from each crop (each clove can potentially grow a new head of garlic). And it stores beautifully, too.
The best time to plant garlic, especially in colder climates, is in the fall. Garlic likes cooler weather when forming bulbs, so it needs to experience a period when the temperature is below 65 degrees. It takes 8-9 months to mature, but once planted it needs little attention or maintenance.
Chard is very nutrient-dense and ridiculously easy to grow. If you live in an area with no permanent frost, it will even act as a perennial if you let it go to seed. It’s rather versatile, as well—it can be used in any recipe that calls for cabbage or spinach, and you can even grill the stalks the way you might grill asparagus.
Another vegetable that’s relatively easy to grow, cucumbers just feel like summer. Like tomatoes, they take a little bit to set up, but as long as the plants are well-cared for, they produce quite prolifically. The one potential drawback is that they generally don’t store well.
However, if you grow a variety suitable for pickling, such as Kirby cucumbers, you have a solution to your cucumber overabundance. Homemade pickles are very easy to make, and will keep forever in the refrigerator. They can also be canned for shelf-stable storage.
Let’s face it, supermarket herbs are EXPENSIVE. After a recent purchase of a small amount of dill at our local store, we realized we had paid over $40 a pound! Dried herbs aren’t much better—a quick check of a spice retailer shows four ounces of dried basil selling at $8 ($32 a pound). Granted, this retailer sells higher-quality herbs and spices, but this is still a king’s ransom.
And you can easily grow most herbs at home. One or two basil plants will produce enough basil for a gallon or so of pesto, or several pounds of dried herbs. Some herbs, like mint and oregano, grow like weeds and will provide a lifetime of herbs from one planting. Others grow well indoors. Basil, one of the most popular herbs, is a bit harder to grow, but is very prolific and makes for a great garden planting.
How to store all those herbs (includes links to how to dry or freeze herbs for long-term storage)
One last tip is composting. It’s a rather simple way to create organic fertilizer, and all it takes is a bit of work and time. And it’s good for the environment—instead of throwing away your food waste, you can use it to make more food.