Sow Seeds, Reap Savings

Denise Trowbridge

My pal Mila has six mouths to feed. She spends $900 on groceries each month. She coupons, shops the sales and cooks at home. She's doing great - spending less than a typical American family of four for groceries, according to the USDA - but money is tight.

This year, Mila is growing some of her own food. Not everyone has a green thumb, but if you're already doing everything you can to stretch the food budget, it's the next logical step. The National Gardening Association estimates a 600-square-foot garden can yield $600 worth of food using about $73 worth of supplies.

But that's a lot of square footage. If you decide to grow your own, start small, with one or two crops in a plot maybe no more than 4 feet by 8 feet. Pick foods your family likes to eat that can be enjoyed fresh or frozen.

I've been growing food for my own family for eight years. Here are my tips for beginners.

Find space. You'll need at least eight hours of sunlight to grow crops like peppers and tomatoes. If sun is scarce, lettuce, strawberries and beets only need four to six hours of light.

If you rent or have no access to land, grow food in pots. Instead of buying them new, check the thrift store or ask friends first. The pot must be wide at the top and hold at least 8 inches of dirt, 12 for tomatoes. Or, grow veggies inside a 40-pound bag of vegetable soil. Put the bag in a sunny spot, poke some drainage holes in the bottom and cut a large rectangle in the top. Plant directly in the bag.

Tomatoes. Grow Roma or paste-type tomatoes. They ripen faster than beefsteak varieties and can be eaten fresh or made into a sauce and frozen for use in pasta and soups. One staked tomato plant can produce a lot and doesn't take up much space.

Squash. One plant produces pounds and pounds. Zucchini can be used fresh or grated and frozen for use in soups and bread. Butternut squash can be eaten fresh or stored as-is for months. Bush types take up less room.

Loose-leaf lettuce, also known as cut-and-come-again, goes from seed to plate in about a month, and you can harvest leaves off the same plant multiple times. Sow it alone or around the bottom of taller plants like tomatoes. Beets can also be sown under tall crops.

Green (pole) beans produce all season long and can be eaten fresh or canned or frozen. Seed company Burpee estimates you can grow $75 worth of pole beans for every dollar spent on seeds.

Strawberries. Fruit is expensive; strawberries are easy. Plant them in full or part sun in a spot where they can live undisturbed for up to five years. Ever-bearing varieties produce a small crop the first year, then big crops all summer long for years after.

Herbs are money in the bank because they're so ridiculously expensive to buy. Plant some if you have space, especially perennials like chives, rosemary and oregano.

Good dirt is key. "Highly productive gardens can be created from the ground you have. Smother grass, break up the sod and turn it over and add some compost or organic fertilizer," said Rachel Tayse Baillieul, an urban farmer and founder of the Columbus Agrarian Society.

Don't spend a lot to get started. Some plants are better from seed: lettuce, greens, peas, beans and squash. For beginners, tomatoes and peppers are best bought as transplants. There are free and low-cost plants and seeds out there. Find a neighborhood plant swap or the library - Worthington Public Library gave away free seeds earlier this year - or check with local community gardens, which sometimes offer low-cost plants.

Now grow some savings.

-Denise Trowbridge is a money geek who has written about personal finance banking and insurance for the Columbus Dispatchand She blogs about growing food in her backyard garden to feed her own family