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Gardening How-to

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 eattheview.org 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.

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