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small backyard vegetable garden
- photo by Dezene and Joyel Huber
The Practical Vegetable Garden
by Peggy Deland

Gardening can be an expensive proposition, and a surprising number of people spend more money than they save by growing their own food. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, homegrown fruits and vegetables taste better and are more nutritious than their supermarket counterparts. But if your goal is saving money, or if you don't have the time to devote to growing all of your family's produce, it makes sense to garden with practicality in mind.

What to Grow

If you only have enough space or time to grow a small garden, try to plant the most expensive fruits, vegetables, and herbs that your family enjoys. These aren't always difficult to grow. Peppers, for example, are hardy plants that often produce a surprisingly large yield. Red bell peppers cost as much as $2.00 each, but a single plant can give you at least 8 or 10 full sized peppers. Asparagus is expensive, but it's a perennial that will continue producing for years -- if not decades. Fresh herbs, berries, shallots, and heirloom tomatoes are other great choices for a practical garden.

You might want to focus on unusual or exotic varieties that aren't readily available in stores. Many heirloom fruits and vegetables taste better and are healthier than grocery store varieties. They're usually not any harder to grow than regular produce, but they are harder to store and ship cross-country. This is why your local supermarket probably doesn't sell Russian black tomatoes, concord grapes, or miniature patty pan squash.

Another consideration is the likelihood of contamination from pesticides. Strawberries and leafy green vegetables tend to absorb larger amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers than other produce. If this is a concern, growing your own using organic techniques can eliminate the risk of contamination from unwanted chemicals.

Consider your local climate and soil conditions before deciding what to grow. Although many plants can survive in several growing seasons, yield will be highest if you live in an area where conditions are ideal for the crop. If you live in a hot climate, tropical fruits and vegetables are a great choice. Grow your own papaya, mangoes, figs, or dragonfruit. In cool climates, you're better off with cold-hardy black tomatoes, leeks, blueberries, and winter squash.

home grown vegetables from the garden
- photo by Alan Levine
Reducing Costs

If you want a practical garden, you'll also need to reduce as many costs as possible. Luckily, organic gardening is usually less expensive -- at least on a small scale -- than mainstream gardening methods.

Whenever possible, start your plants indoors using seeds rather than buying plants. A packet of seeds can produce dozens of individual plants, and often costs less than a single young plant. But don't forget to do your research first; some vegetables, such as asparagus, are very difficult to start from seed.

Use compost or manure instead of chemical fertilizers. Compost is free, easy to make, and a great way to recycle grass clippings, leaves, newspapers, and table scraps. Cow, horse, or sheep dung also makes an excellent fertilizer, and is very inexpensive. You may be able to get manure for free if you ask a local cattle farmer. Most will happily let you take all you like, as long as you gather it yourself! Allow manure to age for a month or two before adding it to your garden.

Organic pest control measures are sometimes time consuming, but never expensive. You can hand pick larger pests (such as tomato worms) from plants by hand. A cardboard or tinfoil tube placed around a plant's main stem will prevent damage from cutworms. You can mist plants with a mixture of soap and water to drive away whiteflies and other insects. Planting marigolds will reduce the number of nematodes in the soil.

You can make your own mulch from grass clippings, straw, dead leaves and pine needles. Using mulch as a ground cover between your plants will reduce weed growth, help prevent rot, retain moisture in the soil, and reduce soil erosion.

With a little effort and planning, almost everyone can grow a practical garden. You may not be able to completely eliminate your reliance on the grocery store, but you can enjoy plentiful organic, vine-ripened fruits and vegetables at a fraction of supermarket prices.