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Dirt-Cheap Eats

Enjoy fresh food, fresh air, and a fatter wallet by growing your own vegetables

It is a warm summer afternoon in Louisiana, circa 1950, and my grandparents are shelling peas in the shade of the pecan trees in their yard. My mother joins in, and soon the circle includes aunts, neighbors, me, and my sisters—little city kids from up north. This is how we do our "visiting." My grandmother will make her tomato relish, and my grandfather will carry in a watermelon for dessert.

I am lucky to have memories of a time when the garden was the center of everyday life. It may be why I am a vegetable farmer today—albeit in chilly Maine, not the balmy South—and why I am compelled to share my passion for food, and how to grow it, with others.

A few generations ago the kitchen garden was a necessity. In recent times it has become more of a hobby, a source of fun and outdoor exercise that carries a few bonuses. No salad is fresher than the one you pick minutes before a meal; no dish gives more pride than the one you produce literally from the ground up. Today, with the economy sputtering, we may see the kitchen garden make a comeback. Remember victory gardens? Eleanor Roosevelt spurred 20 million home gardens by planting one on the White House grounds in 1943. A Maine neighbor's petition drive at asks the Obamas to renew the example. All you need to start your kitchen garden is a bit of basic information about plot size and soil, guarding your garden from wildlife, and which crops to grow.

How Big a Garden?
While a piece of ground about 30 feet by 30 feet can provide enough vegetables to feed at least one person for a year, and many yards have a sunny spot that big, it's best for a beginner to start small. A plot 12 feet square can support quite a bit of food if you follow early crops with late ones. And after a rookie season, you can consider a bigger plot. You have nothing to lose but your lawn and the endless job of mowing it.

Dirt Cheap Eats

How much money you'll save by growing your own food depends on your soil, climate, and weather. But here's some encouraging math: it is not unreasonable to expect ten pounds of tomatoes from one well-grown plant. If you grow three plants, and organic tomatoes sell for $3.50 a pound, that's a $105 value. Crops that bear over a long time, such as Swiss chard and pole beans, are especially economical. When early carrots and scallions have all been eaten, you can sow kale in their place. Indeed, you could grow as much as $500 worth of produce from the small plot described here—and have a great time doing it.

It's All About the Soil
The very best garden investment is a healthy, fertile soil that's the consistency of crumbly chocolate cake. It should be alive with worms, plant-nourishing bacteria, and other tiny microbes that help crops grow. You create soil like that by adding plenty of organic matter; the best and cheapest source is your own compost pile of dried leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. Letting it all break down into nature's "black gold" takes time, though. To get your garden started, you'll probably need to buy some organic matter to improve fertility.

As soon as the soil is no longer soggy, till under any sod and incorporate a complete organic fertilizer ($5), two 40-pound bags of compost or manure ($15), and, if your soil is acidic, as most tend to be in moist climates, a bit of lime ($3 a bag). Get a simple soil test done through your state's cooperative extension service, or buy one at your garden center. If hand-tilling is too much effort, pay a landscaper a one-time fee to rototill the plot. Keep your beds soft and fluffy by not walking on them. In future years, if you keep the beds weeded, you can fork in compost shallowly and never have to till again.

Fence Out Critters
Most gardens need protection against predators such as rabbits, groundhogs, and pets. A good fence is a better investment than repellents or scare devices, whose effectiveness wears off in time. The simplest fence is one with metal stakes supporting wire mesh. The gate can be mesh with a wooden frame. Make the fence six feet tall to keep out deer, and use a finer mesh at the bottom to deter rabbits, extending it below ground level to stop burrowers. Total cost: $150.
Make Your Menu

What should you grow? Start with what you love to eat. About $50 worth of seed packets will get you started. Since you won't need all the seeds in the packets, and most stay fresh for at least three years, the yearly cost is about $16. In any garden, tall plants such as pole beans should go on the north side, to avoid shading the others.
Most vegetables are annuals, planted anew each year, but I tuck in a few alpine strawberries, too. These tiny, exquisite plants bear fruit all season and remain in place from year to year, to our grandchildren's delight. They head for the strawberry row the minute their parents pull up in the driveway. Our sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes are also kid magnets, and I like to think our small foragers are gleaning far more than a healthful snack. They're learning that growing food brings joy, and that dividend is priceless.

Barbara Damrosch writes a weekly column, A Cook's Garden, in The Washington Post. She's the author of The Garden Primer.

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