Friday, February 29, 2008

Spring is coming: Top 5 easiest plants for the frugal family

So you plan on starting a little garden to help reduce your grocery bill. Or maybe you're just looking for a fun way to spend a couple of hours in the sun with your family. Or maybe you're overly concerned with exactly how organic is organic these days. Or maybe you're just a little nutsy and you're incredibly worried about unlabeled GE food stuffs creeping up onto your grocers food shelves without you knowing about it full well in advance.

Great! But there are some guidelines you should follow. If you're an experienced gardener, you know what you're doing. You'll be growing corn, apples, lettuce, carrots and watermelons and feeding the whole block with friendly donations. But a lot of us, either through the ignorance of inexperience or being strapped for time need to keep it simple and easy. We need to do some easy things on our fire escape, deck or patio.

Far too often I've seen inexperienced neighbors go for a project that ultimately fails because they lack the time, energy and knowledge to go after it with the right tools and mindset. The project likely yields little to no bounty and they end up with a lot of wasted time and energy. Maybe a sunburn, too. You'd be pasty white after six months huddled next to a furnace, too.

So I've drawn up a short list. All of these plants require little maintenance, cost and knowledge to produce impressive harvests. I've also taken nutrition and quantity of harvest into account. While eggplant and mushrooms are great tasting and really simple to grow, they don't exactly give up a whole lot of vitamins, minerals and calories.

Get these as seeds and start them yourself or get them from a garden supply store as seedlings in a months time. But either way keep a budget in mind, both money and time wise. Never bite off more than you can chew or you'll just end up wasting your hard earned money and time off!

  1. Strawberry
    Description: There are a boatload of varieties available in both seed and seedling form, but the type you should probably be looking for as a frugal gardener should be the "surecrop", "garden" and "wild" variants. They'll produce berries that are much smaller to the ones you're used to seeing at the mega-mart, but chances are you'll find them a hundred fold better tasting. They're relatively hardy, small plants. They produce tiny white flowers and self pollinate. But there's nothing wrong with a healthy bee population.
    Planting time: Early to mid spring
    Harvest time: Mid summer
    Tips: Don't go crazy on the soil. Strawberries like light, loose soil with plenty of room. So before transplanting to an outdoor garden make sure to loosen up the surrounding soil with a spade. Strawberries like frequent watering, so if you live somewhere besides Florida or Washington, you'll need to keep an eye on them as the spring rains dry up.

    Birds and squirrels love strawberries too. While I don't mind sharing, you may. To help preserve your harvest once you begin to see tiny green berries, run some chicken wire above the plants with at least an inch or two of breathing room. That'll prevent beaks and little hands from grabbing your hard work.

  2. Tomato
    Description: Undoubtedly one of the most favorite patio foodstuff plants in North America. Tomatoes come in a whole boatload of varities. Plum, beefsteak, antique, cherry, heirloom, big boy, golden rave, rossa, et cetera. All are excellent and easy to grow. But if you're a first timer, you probably should stick to the smaller, more well known types. Good starters include cherry and grape tomatoes.
    Planting time: Mid spring to mid summer, mid spring being the best.
    Harvest time: Mid to late summer, late summer being the best.
    Tips: Give young tomato plants lots of support with tomato cages (bought from gardening stores) and trellises. Tomatoes like lots of sun, so make sure to put them in the sunniest spot of your garden where they can receive 7 or more hours daily. Plant them into very moist, warm soil with lots of organic matter. For more tips see wikihow.

  3. Radish
    Description: I used to hate these little roots as a kid, but now I absolutely adore them. They're sweet, they're spicy. They're crunch, but they're crisp and moist. There are only a few mainstream types of radishes, but they're all more or less the same difficulty level.
    Planting time: Early spring or mid fall
    Harvest time: 25 - 35 days after planting
    Tips: Radishes like cool, but not cold weather. So spring in New England is the perfect time to start these bad boys. They like to be planted in very loose soil with a good amount of organic matter like leaves or compost. Plant as many of these as you can, their fast turn around rate will likely give you the best return on your investment. For more tips see eHow.

  4. Carrots
    Description: Like the radish, carrots are roots and prefer to grow in cooler climates. While all types are very hardy, weather resistant and taste great the "Red Core Chantenay."
    Planting time: Early to mid spring
    Harvest time: 50 - 60 days after planting.
    Tips: Carrots may be very hardy buggers, but keep them wet as fluctuating water levels will cause the carrots to crack. To harvest, simply grab the plant and pull it out of the ground. If washed and trimmed of leafy greens carrots keep for months in the vegetable drawer. They are also excellent freezer fare, if kept in air tight freezer bags in the very back. For more tips see eHow.

  5. Herbs
    Description: Will of course vary greatly!
    Planting time: Indoors, anytime. Outdoors? Mid spring for most.
    Harvest time: As needed!
    Tips: Herbs are by far the easiest plants you can grow and they can be kept year around if you have a sunny windowsill. Since they're not going to produce any vegetables, fruits or berries you only have to worry about watering them and making sure they don't go to waste. By far, if you're looking for a return on your investment, these are your best bet. Fresh herbs at the mega mart can get up to 5 bucks a bouquet.

    Good types to start with include rosemary, sage and thyme. They also typically tend to be the most expensive if bought at the grocery store. All are excellent with meats and fish. If grilling, throw some sprigs or leaves on the coals and close the lid.

So long as you keep a realistic attitude and a watchful eye you can get some great results with a little bit of hard work and diligence. Just go into the venture with expectations kept and check and you'll likely come out with a freezer full of food to get you through next winter!



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