By Megan Stiles, CVA®, AFC®
Food. It is at the core of everything we do, whether it’s a personal emotional fix, a vector of social interaction, or simply a focus of our overall well-being. Our relationship with food is at once intimate and unknown. Its origin beyond the grocery bin is a mystery, and its cost seems out of our control, despite a well-planned sales flier hunt. Food perishability plagues our thoughts, and eventually, our compost piles.
Nearly three-quarters (72%) of consumers think about how much food they throw away when making a purchase decision, and nearly half of consumers (45%) indicate that more of the fresh food in their home goes to waste than it did in the past. How we eat, when we eat, and even what we eat may feel out of our control. What if you could begin to take control of your food and its cost by growing it yourself?
Ugh! Gardening…no, thank you.
Wait, wait! You’re probably feeling you’ve outgrown playing in the dirt, faintly remember The $64 Tomato story, and know somewhere along the line you decided gardening was for farmers. Besides, your landlord likely won’t appreciate the truckload of dirt you import into your studio flat to start this garden. Let’s try it anyway.
Depending on the size of your garden and your resources, growing your own food has the potential to reduce your food budget. I argue that even if you are growing only one vegetable in one pot you’re making a reduction in your food budget and increase in your health.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a studio apartment or acred land. If you have access to dirt, sun, water, and some seeds, you can grow a tasty piece of food. The more availability you have to these items, the more you can end up using. Therefore, like budgeting, define your goals and spending limits before you begin. To help you plan, receive reminders to take care of your plants, and track your harvest, consider using an app; Farm Your Yard is a free app that is hosted by a nonprofit dedicated to helping you learn to grow your own food.
Step 1: Dirt Defines You
The amount of space you have will dictate how much you can grow. If you live in a studio apartment with a shared access walkway, you may be limited to a single indoor pot positioned nearest the window with the most sun. If you’re willing to visit your garden rather than live with it, you might find you have access to a larger plot of land at a community gardening site. The rules and options for community gardens are as individual as the community. Your community garden may be down the street, hosted on private vacant land, used by those living in your neighborhood. Or it might be hosted on public land near a government management building, used by people from multiple neighborhoods. Sometimes there is a fee, application process, and wait time to join; sometimes it’s available for immediate use.
Step 2: Budget Bites
The Paradox of Choice that surrounds what to grow is where even seasoned gardeners get lost in the weeds. (Too many puns?) In a 2016 report, the USDA recorded the most expensive vegetable as fresh asparagus, clocking in at $2.47 per cup, while the least expensive vegetable was the fresh radish, at a mere $.45 per cup. If you’re looking for vegetable “gold,” then you might want to dedicate all of your resources to asparagus. If you eat two cups of asparagus on average each week, you’d save over $250 on your grocery bill annually. Easy money! But if it turns out you hate asparagus and would never eat it, then you’ve wasted time, money, and energy growing it.
Like financial goals, planting goals are personal; no one can tell you the value of what you’ll grow if you’re growing for personal taste. The most valuable return-on-investment vegetable you can grow is the one you will eat the most of. Start with your favorite food(s) and expand with experiments after you understand the basic dig.
Step 3: Seeds of Hope
Seeds can be a costly piece of the garden. Seeds can be purchased from many stores, even the grocery store. If purchasing seeds, try visiting a local nursery or coop for native/local plants. This helps preserve heirloom varieties that are often more successful in your area. There are also low- or no-cost options. We’ve established you’re going to grow what you regularly eat; so, save the seeds! If saving seeds from items you’ve purchased from the grocery store, you’ll have a better chance of sprouting them if the item is organic and has not been irradiated.
Another great way to obtain seeds for no cost is to visit your local library. An increasing number of libraries are starting to host seed libraries, that allow you to “check out” seeds and encourage you to bring seeds back after your harvest. It’s another great way to find varieties successful in your area.
Step 4: Gardening Beyond Food
You will harvest more than just nutritionally rich vegetables picked at peak perfection. A Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulture specialist study showed gardening improves your psychological and emotional well-being. It also has the potential to boost self-esteem, when your hard work is rewarded with a harvest. Something often overlooked is the strengthening of social bonds it encourages. Sure, you can Google your gardening questions, but seeking out other backyard gardeners, farmers, and hobbyists gives you the opportunity to widen your social network, make new friends, and strengthen your community ties.
For the good of your wallet, plate, heart, and community, go play in the dirt.