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Growing Summer Savings in the Garden

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 2/03/2016 Nathaniel Sillin

I love the outdoors and I use any excuse that I can to get out and experience nature. However, during the worst of winter, it can be tough to even recall what a beautiful summer day feels like. With a thrifty approach, planning a summer fruit or vegetable garden can provide a break from the bleak winter months and for your pocketbook, too.
Some people fall in love with seed and gardening catalogs around this time of year, tempted to spend substantial money on fancy tools, equipment, gardening clothes, deluxe fertilizers or supplies. In these cases, gardening might not be the money-saving alternative to your local supermarket.
So before you start, ask yourself this: What will it really cost to grow a Beefsteak tomato in the ground versus buying one at the supermarket? When I say "cost," I mean your total investment in plants, growing material, tools to cultivate and most of all, your time, interest and the learning curve to get crops to grow at the highest possible yield.
It's important to develop this hobby as inexpensively as possible if you want a legitimate financial alternative to store-bought food. There are plenty of studies on how much people are investing in home- and community-based gardens, but very few reliable guidelines on how much money you can actually save by gardening. That's because it's tough to generalize results based on geography, climate and skill sets.
Nevertheless, if you still want to get your hands dirty, here are some general steps to take before you dig in.
Harvest as much knowledge as you can. Planning a home-based edible garden in a sunny West Coast backyard is very different than planting a series of clay pots on a Midwestern terrace. Start by selecting your growing area and measuring climate and growing conditions before deciding what you will actually plant.
Plant only what you'll eat. If you want a salad garden, stick to lettuce that can be planted and harvested repeatedly in a single season. Maybe you'll also want a tomato plant or two. If you generally buy a lot of a particular vegetable, try to grow that first. The more you like to eat the food you're planting, the more interest you'll take in making it grow.
Make gardening buddies. It's one thing to take a chance with a couple of tomato plants, but to see what really works, consult neighbors, friends or family nearby who are known for their green thumbs, or visit year-round garden centers and talk to employees who can help.
When starting out, keep expenses low. Generally, the cheapest way to grow plants is from seed you start growing indoors. Some people invest in special lights and growing equipment for indoor seed starting, but if you're planning on only a few plants, it's better to start small with recycled materials in front of a window or a modest growing lamp. Consult experts about the most effective and least expensive way to start your desired plants from seed at home and discuss a growing schedule that culminates in actual planting outdoors. Don't go overboard buying seed, soil or any growing material--again, note what your experts advise. Stick with a few borrowed or garage-sale hand tools and leftover milk cartons or plastic carryout containers that will work just fine for seeding and drainage.
Leverage your knowledge, waste and mistakes. If you have room for a compost pile or barrel, you'll be able to recycle failed crops or kitchen scraps. Keep in mind that economical practices in a food garden can benefit an entire property--everything from providing organic fertilizer to learning about strategic planting that nourishes soil and attracts natural pollinators. All of these things can begin with a tiny experiment at food gardening.
Remember that one of the best ways to save money is to stay informed. When you start gardening, even if it's only a pot or two you're starting from seed, make an annual garden journal that details what you've purchased (with prices), what's worked well and all the tips you've gathered along the way. You might even discover new plants you'd like to grow next year. Re-reading your journal before you plan your next garden is a great way to shape your growing and cooking priorities for the coming year.
Bottom line: There's a lot more to cutting a grocery bill than putting a couple of tomato plants in the ground. Growing your first food garden depends on starting small, collecting good advice and spending carefully at each stage from planting to harvest.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter:
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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