Now that gardening season is almost upon us, I've decided to start chronicling our first year of gardening in our new home.
I'm convinced that gardening not only doesn't have to cost a fortune, but can be an actual money saver, and so this year is the first part of a multi-year experiment to prove my point. The reason for multiple years? Garden equipment - tools, etc - can be expensive up front. The perk though, is that things can be reused over and over. A good rake might cost $25, but over the 20 years it lasts, that's only $1.25 a year.
And so on.
Because we want an extensive garden, that, along with our CSA subscription will provide us all our fresh fruits and vegetables for the summer, along with enough to preserve for fall and winter, we spent about $80 on seeds.
Is that a lot? Sure. But there's two reasons that it's worth it. One, they are all open-pollinated, or heirloom seeds. That means that unlike hybrid seeds, the seeds can be saved and will grow into the same plant as the parent. We're not seed saving this year, but expect to in future years.
Two, aside from the onion family, very few seeds actually lose the capability to germinate after just a year. As a matter of fact, many actually increase germination. I have a good friend still planting from 7 year old seed packets. So these seeds were a multi-year investment.
Right now our seedlings are planted in the basement. A few years ago I purchased seed starting kits from Burpee www.burpee.com for about $20 each. Each holds 50 seedlings, until they get large enough to transplant. I plant some fussy plants, such as cucumbers, directly into peat pots. I'm still using packs of them from the dollar store I bought years ago.
Our grow lights are nothing fancy. One is a $17.99 bulb lamp from Home Depot that we bought about 4 years ago, the other is the recycled top to an old stick lamp that still worked, but had broken at the base. My brilliant and creative engineer husband rigged it to a wood post over the seedling beds.
Our seedlings have thrived using this ultra-cheap greenhouse. Next year we may invest in larger grow lights, but for this year, we've done great. We have about 100 seedlings growing.
What did we plant? What we want to eat, of course. Pumpkins, beans, leeks, several kinds of lettuce, peppers, 7 kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, pak choy, mustard greens, broccoli, herbs, cabbage, acorn squash, and so on.
In addition, we spent about another $72 on fruit trees, strawberry plants, blackberry bushes, sweet and fingerling potato sets, and garlic, which will arrive this fall for planting. It would have been more, but a gift certificate offset the costs. I am looking forward to apples, apricots and cold-hardy cherries from our own trees in a couple of years. Over time, we hope to add more apple trees, peaches, and perhaps some pears.
Lastly, we spent about $8 on a 50-lb bag of potting soil.
Every weekday morning I quickly run down to the basement and turn on the grow lights over a small table re-purposed for use with the garden project. I check to make sure everything has water, and I leave them be. At night, we again check the water situation - peat pots dry out especially quickly - and turn off the lights. If something needs transplanting to a larger container, I'll quickly do that. I have learned it's important to stay on top of transplanting from the seed starting kits, as each type of plant has a different rate of growth, and the faster-growing plants will quickly block the light for the slower-growing plants.
On the weekends, I spend a bit more time. I transplant the seeds that need space into larger containers - mostly old plastic plant containers I've scavenged or reused over the years. I try to plant a few more things each week - this week, I added some late tomatoes, more pickling cucumbers, and some oak leaf lettuce. I'm not terribly scientific about when I plant things, but I do make myself aware of the general preferences and growth rates of the plants.
Some things, like carrots, parsnips and green beans, along with some herbs, will get directly sown into the ground when the weather grows warmer. I started some wax beans early this year to see if I could get early beans, but even if I don't, it's fine.
Last year, we cleared space and planted asparagus, which takes 3 years to bear. We also got a few raspberry bushes in, which I hope have survived the winter. This year, we need a much larger garden space. We've decided to put in raised beds, using Mel Bartholemew's Square Foot Gardening method. Instead of spending money on prefab beds, or making ours from wood, we've decided to use some of the stone and rock on our property to build the beds. We'll see how this low-cost experiment works out.
We're making several big long-term investments this year. The first is a compost bin. For about $100, we'll get a black plastic bin from Gardener's Supply Company. We could build one from wood pallets, but we like the look and low profile of the black one, not to mention that heat retention in the black plastic will speed up our composting process. This should also reduce our trash quite a bit.
Another investment is a freezer. In order to preserve the quantity of food we intend to, as well as purchase locally raised chicken and turkey in bulk, a freezer is needed. We expect to spend about $500 late in the summer on this.
In addition, we'll spend about $200 on soil and mulch. Grass clippings and shredded newspaper or hay make great mulch for the vegetable garden, but we use tree mulch for the flower gardens. We've been lucky, a mature perennial garden was in place when we moved in.
I expect all these things - except the mulch- to last many years.
I already own a pressure canner and canning jars that have seen much use over the years. The canner was a gift more than 10 years ago, and I've been saving canning jars for years. Several brands of store bought pasta sauce, along with some store bought salsas, come in canning jars that can be saved. Also, jars are cheap in bulk at places like Big Lots, or Ocean State Job Lot.
Canning jars can be reused, year after year. Only new lids are needed. More on canning and preserving later in the season.
So far this year, our total spent on the garden is $160, and less than an hour a week of time. I expect that to rise to about $1000 for the total season, including all the items listed above, including the possible need for fencing to prevent the deer and rabbits from eating our salads instead of us.
But that $1000 will amortize over many years. Our compost bin should last at least 15 years, the freezer, 20. Same with fencing. So these are not annual costs, these are investments. Once we've made them, we don't have to make them again.
Will our garden ever get cheap? I think so, and I am placing my bets on year three. We'll see.