While growing your own vegetables is often touted as a way of saving money, that hasn't been my experience. On the surface, it sounds like a $3 pack of seeds can be turned into a bounty of fresh vegetables with only the minimal cost of water, but in practice, the costs of compost and fertilizer, crop losses due to pests, and, of course, the time spent weeding, watering and fussing can make homegrown food more expensive than the store-bought stuff.
A new book called High-Value Veggies by Mel Bartholomew (of Square Foot Gardening fame) tells us that by planting the right crops, we can experience all the benefits of growing our own — the better nutrition and flavor, the convenience of having dinner right outside the back door and the sheer fun of growing vegetables with our families — while still being mindful of the budget.
In his book, Bartholomew carefully analyzes the return on investment (ROI) of different vegetables so that you can get better bang for your buck in the garden. He compares the cost per pound at the grocery store to the cost per pound of growing the vegetable, and shares solutions to common growing issues that can ruin a crop or make it distasteful to grow at home. (Like having little bits of soil stuck in the rings of a leek — not the kind of crunch you were hoping for!) Here are his top picks on what to grow (and what to skip):
Good bets for your budget
Bartholomew ranks herbs as the number one "veggie" in terms of ROI, and here on the North Coast we are lucky enough to have the perfect climate for growing them — well, except for basil, which continues to break my heart. But the woody and perennial herbs — rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme — need almost no watering or maintenance once established, and in return provide you with a constant and ample supply of healthy flavorings to cook with.
Parsley, both the curled and Italian flat leaf varieties, has done great in the partially shaded areas of my raised beds where the soil stays a little cooler and more moist (if the soil dries out the parsley can become tough and bitter). Since I like to juice, growing my own parsley saves me $3 to $6 per week.
Parsnips and turnips
By Bartholomew's calculations, potatoes are a loser crop for the cost-conscious (more on that later), but fellow root vegetables parsnips and turnips command a higher price at the supermarket and are easy to grow with few pest and disease issues. Parsnips are grown similarly to carrots, with seeds planted after the last frost in loose, well-drained soil. I love them roasted, in stews, or grated and made into fritters. Though they take four months to mature, it really is a case where a $3 packet of seeds can turn into $30 worth of vegetables with very little effort.
Though turnips command a lower price at the grocery store, they have the added benefit of being two crops in one. You get the greens, which are tasty braised with some of that pasture-raised ham or bacon from our local farmers, and the roots, which can be swirled in the food processor with milk and butter for a more flavorful approximation of mashed potatoes.
Garlic and leeks
Because garlic can be crowded and still do well, square-foot gardener Bartholomew places garlic high on the list of budget-friendly plantings given the large amount of crop that can be grown in a small amount of space. They can be stored for a long time, and make excellent hostess gifts. In the garden, that pungent smell also acts as a deterrent to pests.
"Leeks are a misunderstood garden gem," says Bartholomew. "Offering a more elegant, understated flavor than yellow or white onions, leeks are every bit as easy to grow." He addresses the exact issue that I've found when growing leeks in the past: When you mound up the soil around the base to increase the amount of area that stays white and extra tasty, little bits of dirt get stuck in the folds of the plant, making it challenging to clean and eat. The solution? Stick an empty toilet paper tube around the base just before mounding the soil. It doesn't hurt the plant, and it keeps excess soil in the garden where it belongs.
Though I've been put off by winter squash because of the amount of space it takes up, Bartholomew recommends growing it up a trellis or other vertical support to keep both size and diseases in check. It also stores well, saving you time when it comes to preserving your harvest and reducing the likelihood of waste.
Silky butternut squash can be spiralized into skinny spaghetti shaped "noodles", then chopped up to make a healthier and more flavorful alternative to rice. Then combine it with green olives, chorizo and seasonings to make a Spanish "rice" dish, or try your hand at a creamy "risotto" with vegetable broth and parmesan.
Given that asparagus starts are expensive, take a long time to mature and can be difficult to grow, Bartholomew puts asparagus toward the bottom of the list. That said, the plants are attractive enough that they can almost double as an ornamental, and it's hard to resist the fresh snap of a garden grown spear.
With cabbage, the finger of blame points to the long growing season, and the large space each head requires. It's inexpensive at the grocery store and, for those reasons, Bartholomew recommends leaving cabbage cultivation to someone else.
Though Bartholomew acknowledges that beans, and especially yellow and purple varieties, are tremendously fun for kids to grow, they are a "modest financial performer" given their low price at the store and the amount of time it takes to harvest each individual bean. However, if you do grow them, he recommends adding at least one scarlet runner bean to the mix to attract bumblebees and other pollinators.
Unfortunately, all varieties of potato came in dead last by Bartholomew's calculations. Given the low price of supermarket potatoes, and the occasional fungal infections that can run through your crops, he advises that budget conscious gardeners just pick them up at the store. However, like me, he admits that the enjoyment of growing potatoes and selecting unusual and heirloom varieties keeps him growing this "loser" crop year after year, finances be damned.
Anyone interested in eating fresh, local food won't want to miss the Field to Vase event coming up at Sun Valley Floral Farms. The SLOW flowers movement, with authors Debra Prinzing (Slow Flowers) and Amy Stewart (The Drunken Botanist and Flower Confidential), joins with local chefs Chris Hollen of Folie Douce and Tamra Tafoya of Café Brio for an evening of local flowers, cocktails, wine and a family-style dinner. Enjoy a tour of the Arcata flower farm, conversation with the authors and local floral designer Faye Zierer, and have an evening to remember. Get tickets at www.americangrownflowers.org/fieldtovase.
For a detailed monthly to-do list, visit www.northcoastjournal.com/GardenTodo.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.