Food For Thought

Ari LeVaux
6 min read
Recession Gardens: Spreading Like Weeds
(Ari LeVaux)
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The media has been having a field day with the idea that gardening can be a hedge against the weak economy. “As American families try to stretch their food budgets during the recession, some are turning to the backyard, rather than the grocery store …” says CNN. Or “Step one in the battle against soaring food prices,” Salon agrees. “Start your own recession garden.”

I’m a big supporter of backyard gardens for many reasons, but saving money isn’t one of them.

This isn’t to say you can’t save money with a garden. But the reality is, a lot of people don’t have the follow-through required to leverage the initial effort of building their garden into a long-term harvest. It’s not easy to justify the investment in pure financial terms. Plus, most folks eat so few vegetables they simply don’t have a big enough veggie budget in which to make a dent.

In addition to the cost of seeds and seedlings, there’s the cost of water, irrigation supplies, gardening tools and perhaps fencing materials as well as any necessary soil amendments, like compost, manure or peat moss.

So if saving money is your only goal in growing a garden, don’t bother—buy a share in a local community supported agriculture (CSA) farm instead and support your local farms. If, however, money is only one motivator among several—including a desire to participate in the creation story of your food, belief that the world’s freshest vegetables are priceless, and joy at playing in the dirt, breathing fresh air, using your body and watching an edible sculpture evolve all summer long—then you should go for it.

And here’s a rarely discussed bonus: In addition to the minor financial offset gardening can apply to your food bill, the entertainment savings can be significant. By spending your free time in the garden instead of at the movies, the bar, the racetrack, etc., your garden can help you save big.

In many ways gardening is like fishing—you might bring home something to eat, but beyond food-procurement, it’s a meditative, stimulating and active way of connecting to your environment. If the grocery money you save by eating a few fish comes close to paying for your gas, you win. If not, you hardly lose.

Now that I’ve crushed any expectation that you’ll garden your way to riches, let me tell you how to prove me wrong.

The most financially savvy way to garden is to grow the foods you normally spend the most money on. Garlic, in my case, makes sense. I eat tons of it and can grow a year’s worth in a 400 square-foot garden patch. Garlic is planted in fall and comes up in spring, making you feel like a rockstar when everyone else’s gardens are mere dirt patches.

Tomatoes are another money-saving potential. Good tomatoes can cost $2 to $4 a pound, while a $2 baby tomato plant can yield 20 pounds over the course of a summer. Zucchinis are probably the biggest producer in terms of yield per investment, while corn, which yields only three ears per plant, doesn’t pay.

Another strategy: Plant what you’d run out to the garden and grab on a whim. It’s nice to have some greens close at hand for a quick salad. And who doesn’t love the taste of a fresh-picked tomato?

Many urbanites feel a profound joy at replacing their lawn with a garden, while others do so with a heavy heart. Either way, if space is limited, you’ve got to send your lawn packing. Here are three ways:

1) Dig out the grass, being careful to remove all the roots and shake off as much dirt as you can back onto the ground.

2) My preferred method of lawn-killing, which recycles the grass back into the soil, is to tarp it—i.e., cover it with a sheet of black plastic weighted along the perimeter with heavy objects. After 6 to 8 weeks in the sun, the lawn underneath will be dried, dead, decomposed and aerated by a bunch of happy worms. Much less labor-intensive than digging out the grass, tarping is an elegant way to do an otherwise tough job. The resulting ground is rich, fluffy and turns over like an eager lover in bed.

3) Build raised beds atop your lawn. Raised beds tend to be more orderly and neat, and they prevent grass from spreading into your garden. But they use more water and require that you haul in topsoil, manure and/or compost. Don’t build raised beds with pressure-treated wood or railroad ties, both of which are toxic.

If the landlord won’t let you lose the lawn, you can grow food in pots. Tomatoes and peppers are especially good candidates for container gardens, which can come inside for the winter, greatly extending your season.

Carrot, spinach and radish seeds can all be planted as soon as the ground thaws, while corn, peas, beans and potatoes are planted later in the spring. Onions, Brussels sprouts, kale, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and most herbs are best started inside and transplanted outdoors as seedlings.

I recommend buying seedlings, ideally at your local farmers’ market, rather than raising your own from seed. Raising healthy starts is tricky, and if you plant lame seedlings you’re guaranteed a lame garden.

Water is a precious and expensive commodity that should be respected and conserved. But since water is essential to a healthy garden, strategic irrigation is a must. Soaker hoses are much more efficient than sprinklers; and irrigate at night to reduce evaporation.

Weeding is easiest when the weeds are young and the ground is moist. An effective way to fight weeds is to lay mulch, such as straw, between your garden plants to keep the invaders down. Just don’t use hay, which contains seeds.

Call it laziness or the intoxication of summer; even in a recession, a garden that’s started in spring doesn’t always make it to the fall. Don’t forget to pounce on those weeds, water those plants and, most importantly, eat those veggies!
Recession Gardens: Spreading Like Weeds

Ari LeVaux

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