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Spending Smart

Gardening is easy, thrifty

By Renée Loth
Globe Staff / February 7, 2009
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Seventh in a monthlong series of articles to help you stretch your dollar

Shortly after New Year's Day the garden catalogs start arriving in the mail, and for those of us who love to dig in the dirt they might as well come in a plain brown wrapper. The luscious photographs of perfectly round, plump melons, the ripe, exotic eggplant, the blowsy delphiniums ignite the imagination. They're all so perfect you'd think they were airbrushed.

Since my first plot in the Christian Herter community garden in Allston 25 years ago, I've had a hand in all kinds of ambitious garden projects. But this is no time for florid fantasies. The economy is tanking, the planet is warming, and our food supply is suspect. It's time to hark back to the simple, practical kitchen gardens of our forebears, and grow our own.

The Boston Natural Areas Network, which oversees the city's community garden plots, estimates home gardeners can save $431 per season at least compared to the prices at Whole Foods. Unfortunately, the most desirable produce isn't always the easiest to grow. Radishes are so quick and rewarding that even children enjoy planting them. But who really wants a bumper crop of radishes?

As the author William Alexander found in his wry book "The $64 Tomato," garden costs can run up if you let them. But with patience and a little care, you can beat the prices, and the quality, of any supermarket. And the self-satisfaction is the same whether the garden is on a large suburban tract or in a few clay pots on a city roof deck.

The savvy gardener will focus on a few items that are either expensive, perishable, or of substandard quality when purchased in a store. For a plot that gets at least eight hours of sunlight, I say that can mean only two things: tomatoes and basil.

The two plants complement each other perfectly. The herb is costly and delicate in the supermarket, but the gardener can easily produce enough for several batches of pesto. And home-grown tomatoes are far superior to anything that can be found even at the local farm stand.

Veterans know the time is coming if you want to have a garden to be proud of this year. So, for you rookies, let's get started:

Prepare the soil. The time for this is mid-April hereabouts. Squeeze a handful of soil. If it crumbles like chocolate cake, it's ready to be worked. Tomatoes are big "feeders" - they like the soil to be rich with organic material or other nutrients. If you don't have your own compost pile cooking, it's worth it to dig in a bag of composted manure just where the plants will go, costing you roughly $6.50 for a 30-quart bag. With enriched soil the plants shouldn't require any chemical fertilizing.

Select varieties. Seeds are cheapest, but I like buying plants in six-packs: All the delicacy of coaxing the seeds is eliminated, and the plants are still economical, maybe $3.50 for six small-but-healthy plants. Get a mix: early-yielding varieties (55 days from planting until harvest); cherry tomatoes like Sweet 100, which even the brownest thumb can grow; and a fancy heirloom variety to impress your friends. The heirlooms usually come in 4-inch peat pots and might cost $3 per plant. But compare that to $3 per tomato in some pricey groceries and getting your hands a little dirty suddenly doesn't seem too bad.

Plant. Gently remove the plants from their temporary home and plug them into the prepared soil slightly deeper than the level they were growing in the pot. Don't even bother trying this before Memorial Day. The plants won't start growing until the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees, and the least bit of frost will do them in.

Insurance. Take the time to make protective cutworm collars out of the rims of Styrofoam cups or tin foil and place them around the stems. Nothing is more heartbreaking than discovering a new plant sheared off at the base by the aptly named pests. Also, it doesn't hurt to plug some marigolds in among the tomatoes to discourage pesky nematodes. Pretty, too.

Water the plants evenly and deeply at the roots, not sprayed from above. In the heat of summer it isn't too much to water the plants every day. Tomatoes are mostly water, and they need lots of it.

Stakes. These don't have to be expensive designer whirligigs. Old-fashioned pine from a lumberyard will do. Some people like tomato cages that give the vines more nooks and crannies to grow onto. Just be vigilant about tying up the vines so your laden fruit doesn't bring everything crashing to the ground.

What about the basil?

Here's the beauty part: Basil thrives in the same conditions, so both crops should grow together in happy profusion. And when a plateful of tomatoes sliced warm from the garden is drizzled with olive oil and a nice basil vinaigrette, you'll really know the meaning of the term Victory Garden.

Renée Loth can be reached at loth@globe.com.

Seventh in a monthlong series of articles to help you stretch your dollar

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