smart spending

Plant a garden, harvest savings

  • Can a tomato plant really save you more than $50?
  • Blueberries, strawberries and other fruits can be frozen after washing.
  • Compost and mulching materials are essential to a thriving, cost-efficient garden.

Some "green thumbs" are taking an old-fashioned approach to soaring grocery bills by growing their own food.

Like people who planted "victory gardens" in response to World War II rationing, these frugal foodies are tending backyard plots of vegetables, fruits and herbs.

But can a tomato plant really save you more than $50?

It can, says Thomas Bewick, national program leader for horticulture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

"If you harvest 30 pounds at $2 per pound, that plant is worth $60," he says. "But it only cost $2.90 to buy the plant, a few cents for water and 15 cents for the fertilizer."

A productive patch can really cut food costs, even after you account for the investment in gardening tools, seeds, water and time.

"Cutting the grocery bill is easy and fun for anyone with a little patch of earth and a few hand tools," says Karen Kinnane, who cultivates a garden at her home in Pompton Plains, N.J.

However, you have to choose the right crops and avoid foolish overspending to truly harvest savings.

Choose wisely

Pat Munts of Spokane, Wash., says some foods are so inexpensive to buy at the store that planting them isn't worth your garden space.

Munts is a master gardener, a designation given to volunteers trained by local land-grant universities (which teach agriculture, among other subjects) to educate the public about gardening and horticultural issues.

Onions and potatoes are good examples of crops you usually can buy for a great price at a supermarket, Munts says.

On the other hand, the cost of some foods quickly adds up at the checkout stand. Lettuce mixes, cherry tomatoes, peas and frequently used herbs all can be expensive. These plentiful producers are recommended for new gardeners.

Of course, regional growing conditions and market forces can change prices from year to year. For example, as ethanol production increases demand for corn, many analysts expect corn costs to spike this summer.

Not all vegetables and fruits take the same bite out of your wallet. Following is a list of the most expensive fresh produce to buy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Gardening for groceries
Collard greens.Raspberries.
Cherry tomatoes.Cherries.
Green peas.Blueberries.
Turnip greens.Strawberries.
Mustard greens.Grapes.

The key to sowing a money-saving harvest is to select vegetables, fruits and herbs that you truly enjoy eating, that grow easily without much work and that ripen before frost.


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