Reduce Your Bills by Growing Your Own Food

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The economic bad news continues to mount. Fuel prices are at an all-time high, food prices are up, companies are laying off employees, housing prices are slumping. During hard times people tend to hunker down and take care of the home front. One of the ways to help make ends meet is to start growing some of your own food.

Growing a simple vegetable garden can save hundreds of dollars in food costs. For example, consider lettuce. You can pay $3/head for an organic looseleaf lettuce in the grocery store, or you can spend that same $3 to buy a packet of seeds that can yield hundreds of heads of lettuce! Obviously, you won't be able to eat all the lettuce at once, but it illustrates the point that investing in your edible garden around the home can reap dividends for the wallet.

The best part is you don't have to wait until next spring to get started. There are still plenty of vegetables to be grown this fall and winter, especially if you live in a warm-winter area.

Starting the Fall Edible Garden

In most areas of the country, you can grow a second crop of your favorite cool-season vegetables. The first task is to make a list of the vegetables that still can be grown to maturity before the first frost. These might include lettuce, broccoli, carrots, beets, peas, cauliflower, and radishes. In warm-winter areas, such as the Gulf Coast, south Texas, and the Southwest, fall is the ideal time to plant many of these vegetables to mature during the winter and into next spring. In northern and cold-winter areas, you'll have to select the fastest-maturing varieties of these vegetables, plant transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce, and protect plants from cold fall weather.

When to Start

The key to growing fall vegetables is timing. Vegetables grown in fall need about 14 extra days to mature compared to spring-seeded crops due to fall's shorter days and less intense sunshine. When deciding the date to start your veggies, first determine your average first frost date. Usually, the local weather service or Extension Service will know that date for your area. Then look at the seed packet for the days to maturity. Add 14 days to the time indicated, and count back that many days from the first frost date. That will be the date when you should start seeds. If you're starting plants like broccoli and lettuce indoors, add an additional four to six weeks to account for the indoor growth period. You can also check with your local garden centers for transplants of these fall crops.

Growing On

Once you have the seeds and transplants, it's time to plant. Getting crops started in September can be stressful for young plants. In many areas the soil is still very warm, which can inhibit seed germination. Also, hot, sunny days can scorch young seedlings. Add compost to the soil, moisten the ground, plant your seeds a little deeper than normal, and shade the soil so the temperature doesn't get too high. Protect young plants with shade cloth or locate them near taller plants, such as corn or tomatoes, that will provide shade from the hot afternoon sun. A floating row cover will protect transplants as the nights cool down. This cheese cloth-like material keeps plants warm and pests away, while allowing water, sun, and air to penetrate. Protecting plants, especially at night, with a floating row cover may allow you to harvest fresh vegetables from your garden until December.

Container Vegetable Gardens

Probably the easiest way to produce vegetables in fall is to grow them in containers. Containers offer many advantages to fall gardening. The potting soil is free of insects and diseases so vegetable seed and transplants can get off to a good start. You can protect young, tender plants from the hot sun, violent storms, and pests by moving containers to sheltered locations. You can grow the plants longer into the fall by protecting them from frosts and moving the pots into the sunniest spots once the days get cooler and plant growth slows down.

The best plants for a fall container vegetable garden are greens and roots. Greens, such as spinach, lettuce, mesclun mixes, Swiss chard, kale, and pac choi, mature quickly. Even if there isn't enough time to mature a full head of lettuce, you can eat these greens as soon as the leaves are a few inches long. Plus, mesclun and some other greens will regrow from an initial cutting and keep producing as long as they have enough light, moisture, and warmth.

Root crops, such as beets, radishes, and carrots, mature quickly from seed. Select fast-maturing varieties, such as "Red Ace" beet, "Kinko" carrot, and "Easter Egg II" radish. Within a few months you'll have mature roots to cook or add to a salad.

For more information on how to grow your own food this fall and next year, visit our Edible Landscaping newsletter.

Gardening statistic:

Edible gardening is hot this year. There have been many stories in the press about homeowners growing vegetables for the first time, or expanding their vegetable gardens. But what do the numbers say?

The NGA Annual Survey has been monitoring lawn and garden trends for almost 30 years. In 2007, while the number of actual vegetable gardeners in the country didn't increase significantly, the amount of money spent on vegetable gardening increased 20 percent. The 2008 survey numbers will be available in spring 2009, but based on past trends, when the economy hits hard times people tend to vegetable garden more. NGA estimates there may well be a 10 per cent increase in the number of vegetable gardeners this year. With high fuel and food prices becoming a new fact of life, these numbers are likely to keep increasing in the future.

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