Janesville68°

Gardening can help your grocery bill

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Catherine W. Idzerda
April 26, 2008

At some point last winter, green peppers cost more than $1 apiece


And if you wanted a tomato, you had to take out a second mortgage.


It’s connected, of course, to the rising cost of fuel—fuel for farm equipment and fuel for transporting veggies from someplace much warmer than Wisconsin.


To cut those costs—and safeguard the equity in your home—it’s time to think about a garden.


Now there’s gardening and then there’s a gardening hobby.


The first is a rational response to rising food costs.


The second is a delightful obsession, bordering on madness. It involves lavish seed starting kits, wheelbarrows large enough to hold a side of beef and matching gardening clogs and gloves.


This story is about gardening, in which a rational investment yields a significant savings in one or two summers.


UW Extension and Rotary Gardens horticulture educator Mike Maddox is not a rational gardener—but could be one if he wanted.


His advice for keeping it cheap?


“Do your homework first,” Maddox said. “Ignorance is expensive.”


With Maddox’s help, the Gazette did some of that homework for you, tackling space needs and plant picks.


Find space

Need room? No problem. Among the most economic options are planting in pots, growing in beds and renting.


-- Renting: Counties offer plots.


If you live in an apartment, or your backyard is too shady for sun-loving veggies, consider getting a plot at the Rock County Community Garden. For $25, you can have a 20-by-25-foot plot. Water is available at the site.


The UW Extension in Walworth County also has a community garden on the south side of County NN near the Lakeland Health Care Center.


In Walworth County, gardeners can pick from three plot sizes: 20-by-20 feet, 20-by-30 feet or 10-by-10 feet for children.


Keeping it cheap: If you decide to get a larger plot, share the plot with someone else. Or two or three other people. It’s a huge amount of space, especially for beginning gardeners. In July, when the temperature is 95 degrees and sodden, 20-by-20 feet will seem like an acre.

Plot mates can share watering duties, too.


-- Pots: Large is good. The larger the pot, the less watering you’ll have to do.


Plant choice also is important. Tomatoes, green peppers and even some climbing plants such as peas will thrive as patio plants.


Lettuce is a good choice for pots, too. As the summer gets hotter, be sure to move the lettuce into the shade for part of the day. A dollar package of seeds can mean lettuce all summer.


Keeping it cheap: Avoid the elaborate tomato-growing systems that can cost as much as $60. They work great, but so does a large, well-draining pot filled with good soil. “Soil-less” potting mixes are a good choice.

-- Raised beds: They keep your yard neat and your back safe.


Anyone who has ever tried to turn a plot of grass into a plot of veggies knows how tedious and difficult it can be. Breaking down sod requires a lot of digging, shifting, turning and spading. And then there are the trips to the chiropractor for the digging-shifting-related injuries.


A raised bed is simply a 6- 8- or 12-inch high box filled with soil.


Keeping it cheap: Skip the raised bed systems advertised in catalogs. Instead, use untreated lumber. Treated lumber has chemicals such as arsenic in them to make it last longer, Maddox explained.

Untreated cedar works well and can handle Wisconsin’s winters. Boards should be a minimum of 6 inches high—but 8 inches is better, and 12 inches is best.


Keeping it cheap: Call around. The price of lumber varies surprisingly. Watch for sales, too.


“There are some new products, like fiberboard made out of recycled plastics,” Maddox said. “But you’re going to pay more for them.”


To hold up the boards, use wooden stakes or concrete rebar, which is readily available at the larger hardware stores.


Mark out the spot for the garden bed. A bed that’s about 3 feet across means you’ll be able to reach all the way across it. Any length is fine. If you’re a novice gardener, consider a 4-by-4-foot bed, which would give you room for a tomato and green pepper plant. Lettuce, radishes, carrots, green onions or beets could be growing in the remaining space.


As the tomato grows, it will give the other crops a little shade that will help them through the worst heat of the summer.


Make space usable

Enemies to your new food supply include poor soil and improper watering. Pay attention to both.


-- Good soil: It’s crucial for garden productivity.


“If you want to garden on a dime, a good place to invest your dollars is in amending the soil,” Maddox said.


Healthy soil means you won’t have to invest in fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro.


Keeping it cheap: One option is finding a friendly farmer to give you some well-composted manure to mix in with your topsoil.

Janesville residents can get compost for free at the city’s composting facility, but it has its drawbacks. The compost comes from lawn clippings and leaves. Some chemicals from herbicides and plant diseases can survive through the composting process, Maddox said.


“It can be wonderful stuff,” Maddox added.


If you’re concerned, skip the compost all together or use it sparingly. Avoid using it with any kind of root vegetable such as carrots, potatoes, radishes or turnips.


-- Pick your tools prudently: No, you don’t need the most expensive spade or shovel on the market, but watch out for those cheap sets sold in gift shops and discount bins. A trowel needs to be tough.


Keeping it cheap: Buy only what you need, such as a must-have shovel and hoe. Consider getting a scuffle or stirrup hoe. They can be sharpened easily with a file and cut through weeds like butter. You can find a file at Carousel Consignments for $1 or $2.

Another good choice is a hand-held hoe with a blade you can replace or sharpen.


Other handy tools include a hand-held garden scoop that also can double as a trowel.


-- Water makes a difference: You don’t want to see your vegetable savings disappear because of water-related expenses.


Keeping it cheap: A good rule of thumb is to water at the base of the plant. That’s where it will do the most good. Also, by watering at the base of plants such as tomatoes and green peppers, you reduce the chance of plants diseases. Many diseases grow in damp and humid conditions.

Next, water only in the morning or evening to reduce evaporation.


Maddox recommends buying an attachment for your hose called a “water breaker,” a gizmo that provides a thorough but gentle stream of water.


Pick the right plants

Thousands of choices could lead you down the wrong path to culinary expense. Avoid two common mistakes at the outset when choosing plant stages and varieties, some of which require buying more stuff.


-- Seeds aren’t always frugal: Starting tomato and green peppers from seeds seems economical.


It’s not. Grow lamps, seed-starting soil mixes, trays and other accessories add up.


Keeping it cheap: Instead of starting from seeds, buy a four-pack or single plants from a reliable local nursery or plant center. Skip the hastily set-up garden areas at discount stores. You’ll save a little bit but lose on the quality side.

-- Start with tested varieties: Heirloom tomatoes add variety and flavor and are a pleasure to grow. However, many of those plants aren’t resistant to common plant diseases, and that might mean an additional investment of organic or non-organic herbicide.


Keeping it cheap: Consider standard cultivars such as Wisconsin 55, Big Boy and Early Girl, which are disease resistant.

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