smart spending

Plant a garden, harvest savings

If you live in a high-humidity location, early morning watering is best, Munts says. If humidity isn't a problem, water in the early evening. In either case, avoid the hottest part of the day, or the water will evaporate -- along with your savings.

Compost and mulching materials are also essential to a thriving, cost-efficient garden. Weaving compost into the soil is essential to healthy plant growth. It can be bought from commercial outlets and farmers, but you can also start your own compost bin to reduce waste and provide a low-cost source of nutrition for your vegetables and fruits.

Kinnane digs holes around her tomato plants and puts coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, fruit cores and other organic matter straight into the soil.

Cutting waste
American families throw out about 14 percent of their food -- around $590 worth per year -- according to a study from the University of Arizona. Gardening allows families to pick only what they need straight from the vine.

Using newspaper or grass clippings to mulch around plants decreases weed activity -- and the amount of time you spend in the garden.

Cutting costs is almost always a good idea. But in some cases, it pays to spend a little more upfront. While planting seeds is the most economical way to grow your own food, it isn't always practical.

For example, Munts recommends starts for tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, which can be difficult to grow from seeds.

Flexible farmers

People with small backyards often think gardening is not a viable option. But you don't need much dirt to put a dent in your food budget. A sunny 100-square-foot zone will provide a "salad bar" throughout summer, while a plot of land 8 feet by 24 feet can feed a family of four.

Kinnane created a veritable grocery store in her suburban New Jersey backyard, with more than 38 types of vegetables and fruits in her 540-square-foot garden. Her garden includes everything from acorn squash to gooseberries to zucchini.

She even makes back some of her expenses by selling extra tomatoes and peppers street-side.

"You can raise loads of stuff in a small space, recycle your kitchen waste, get moderate exercise for free and end up with pesticide-free vegetables for a few pennies on the dollar," Kinnane says.

Apartment and condominium dwellers also can grow their own food by turning to container gardening.

First-time gardener Jennifer Ward of Seattle grew tomatoes, peas, lettuce and even corn in containers. Do-it-yourself growing provided a surprise benefit for her children, 2-year-old London and 6-year-old Caden.

Ward said that typically, "I can get them to eat fruit, but veggies are harder."

However, that changed last year when Ward introduced her children to fresh, homegrown vegetables.

"They were both in tears when we ate the last of the peas," Ward says.

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Extend the harvest

Smart gardening doesn't stop in summer. Many home gardeners preserve their crop for autumn and winter dining through one of two options: canning or freezing.

Canning is a lost art best learned from another expert, according to Doiron. Poorly canned food can lead to botulism poisoning. However, when done right, canned tomatoes, jarred jams and preserved peaches last for years.

Cooperative extensions act as a bridge between university research and consumers or farmers, and help teach skills related to agriculture and home economics.

Finding your local extension office
To find your local member of the Cooperative Extension System, check out the federal Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service Web site.

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