Gardening on a Dime

Between the fancy plant names (e.g.: Madame Emile DebateneLittle Miss DaisyAbraham Darby) and a seemingly never-ending list of “necessary” tools, gardening can feel like a rich man’s hobby reserved only for those with the money to “do it right”. It doesn’t help that books such as The $64 Tomato are contending that it costs upwards of $16,000 dollars to get a garden going! That’s bewildering—16k is over half of my family’s yearly income, and we aren’t spending anywhere close to that on our garden.

Here’s the truth: gardening can be dirt cheap. Sure, at first the raised beds and heirloom seeds are going to set you back a bit, but in the long-run, gardening is affordable and accessible. Anybody can garden on a dime, you just have to garden smart.

Compost! Compost is proof that gardening is cheaper, easier, and more accessible than the proverbial “they” would like you to think. Anybody can compost. You don’t need a fancy tumbler or exotic, European worms, you just need trash and time. If you eat fruits and veggies, do your laundry in a machine, brew coffee, or mow your lawn, then you have what it takes! You don’t even need yard space. And you can compost more than you’d probably expect: here’s a great list of 65 common household items that can go in the heap.

Resourceful Repurposing I’ve started my seeds in well-cleaned yogurt cups, cardboard boxes and old take-out containers. I’ve used mason jars and teacups as make-shift planters. I turned an empty laundry detergent container into a watering can and a screen printing light from my art school days into an indoor growing system. My raised beds are partially built from stones we found on site, while my compost bin is a hand-me-down. Before purchasing new equipment, think of ways you can repurpose something you already own.

Baby Tomatoes
Little baby nightshades getting their grow on in a couple of coconut yogurt cups.

Shop Secondhand If you do end up having to purchase equipment, then shop around for secondhand steals. You’d be surprised as to what all you can find at the thrift store: pots, shovels, spades, and more! Mine the farm+garden section of your local Craigslist, and don’t be afraid to haggle. You might even score something for free! Tom and I were able to get our electric lawnmower off of Craiglist for a steal.

Go Beyond the Garden Store If all else fails and you must purchase new, go beyond the typical hardware and garden stores. Search around your local co-ops, discount stores, farmstands, and bulk warehouses. Every spring, my local dollar store stocks jersey gardening gloves, sturdy trowels and spades, pruning shears, and terra cotta pots… and they all only cost a buck! I’ve gotten inexpensive, hardy houseplants from the grocery store florist and I’ve propagated potatoes and green onions from the produce aisle. My favorite vegetable transplants come from the farmer’s market. And don’t count out shopping online—I get almost all of my seeds from the Baker Creek online store.

Spend More on What Matters While you can buy packets of seeds for pennies on the dollar, these seeds will often be treated with chemicals. The organic, heirloom seeds are pricer (around $2.50 a packet), but they are well-worth it. Buy your seeds from trusted sources, the aforementioned Baker Creek is fantastic. Think of your seeds as an investment: if you save your seeds at the season’s end, then you won’t have to purchase them again.

The same goes with choosing to build a raised bed. While it costs a bit more to build one with sturdy, hardwood materials, the bed will last for years. (And if you live on land with rocky soil, or in a place where the ground might be leeching chemicals, building a raised bed could be the only way to go.) Filling it with a high-quality soil blend will cost a chunk of change (each of our beds cost around $80 to fill), but after your first year of gardening, you’ll only need to turn the soil and add compost.  Like I said, it’s an investment. Tom and I lucked out by having gift cards that covered almost all of the cost of building a raised bed… there are even websites like YouGov where you can take surveys in exchange for free gift cards!

All in all, gardening is cheap and accessible. It allows anyone, anywhere a hand in the production of their food. Gardening, in that way, is a revolutionary act. It is an option for all, regardless of situation or status, and it need not cost $16,000, or even $160.

Some Spring Things

Tulips

It’s finally starting to feel like spring in Kansas City… rainy, bright grey, sweet-smelling spring. While March was warmer and sunnier, the regrowth and renewal were missing. It felt like we had skipped right into the comfy days of late May, the edges of summer. The air was warm, but the ground still felt dead.

All that has changed! My city has been reborn: lush, muggy and verdant, floral-scented and noisy. While my daffodils are long gone, the tulips have bloomed, as did my grape hyacinth. The family of house finches that built a nest on my patio last year have returned. Each morning I awaken to the the cackle of grackles, the song of starlings, and the firing hammer of woodpeckers.

Between storms, Tom has been making progress on our raised beds.

Tom

He completed his plans and we took off for the home improvement store to pick up the lumber. While he gathered the boards, I scoped out the garden department.

Unfortunately one of these was planted in every single tray:

Boo!

For shame, Home Depot! I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but Neonicotinoids are bad news. While they’re broadly known for their damaging effects on bee colonies, Neonicotinoids are actually detrimental to almost all ecological life. Just last week, the EASAC released a report on the lethal damage these insecticides pose to entire ecosystems.

Simply put: there is no place for Neonicotinoids in agriculture; they are deadly and unsustainable. The agrochemical companies who create them are profiting off of the destruction of whole ecosystems. They may have the deep pockets needed to file lawsuits “protecting” their product, but the science doesn’t lie. Plain and simple: they are killing the Earth in favor of corporate greed.

So while it might seem like a nice gesture for Home Depot to label these poisons—seemingly giving the consumers a choice—it’s nothing more than a thinly-veiled marketing ploy. They can claim they care about the environment, while still getting that agrochemical money. The plants that they’ve doused in Neonicotinoids—and from what I can tell, it was all of them—were outside where pollinators could still access them. Their very existence is a problem, as they are still active participants in the ecosystem. Not to mention, the language on the labels is highly deceptive: let’s be frank, it’s propaganda. For the uninformed hobby gardener, Neonicotinoids probably sound great, which is just what Bayer and Syngenta want you to think.

But, I digress…

The makings of a Raised Bed

The raised beds have been coming along nicely. Since our yard is on uneven ground, we’ve had to sink parts of the boards to keep things level. The center bed is on such a slope that we’ve built up one corner with a partial rock wall!

Here’s an in-progress shot:

Rock Wall Beginnings

The tiny rocks in the well were from Home Depot (we found a broken bag with a small hole in it and scored the whole thing for only a $1.50!) All the rest—those giant slabs—were found on property. Most of them we actually dug up ourselves! Gotta love that Missouri limestone!

Talking ‘Bout Raised Beds

When Tom and I moved into our home in August of 2013, we knew that we wanted raised garden beds. Our house sits on the northwest side of our property, leaving us with plenty of land in the path of the sun. We’re also lucky that we live on a hill and our backyard is relatively tree free. It’s a gardener’s dream! We are unlucky enough to have dense, rocky soil, so a raised bed where we could control the soil density made sense.

Unfortunately, we had to put our raised bed dreams on the back-burner. Purchasing a house is stressful, not to mention all the painting, packing, planning and unpacking that comes with moving. As if we didn’t already have enough on our plates, a couple of weeks after the move, I earned a promotion at work, and a couple of weeks after that Tom and I got engaged! Needless to say, gardening just didn’t happen in 2013.

Planning our wedding in 2014 further delayed our plans: we simply didn’t have the time to commit to a building project. Instead, we double-dug a small garden bed and enhanced the soil with compost and peat moss. We made a small border around the bed with stones found on property and grew squash, tomatoes, kale, beans and spinach. All other edibles were grown in containers, and we had a decent bounty throughout the summer. Until August, when wedding planning amped-up, our tiny garden was manageable and bountiful. It was a good start, but this year we want more.

Garden Herbie
Herbie tried to help us with the garden planning.

We’ve decided to build three raised beds along the northern edge of our backyard.  We chose this spot because it gets the most uninterrupted sunshine. One bed will be dedicated to the “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash), another will be home to sun-loving plants, and the western-most bed is for the plants that like a little shade. The western-most bed neighbors our garden shed and house, which will keep the plants in partial shadow.

While anything plant-related is my realm, Tom is in charge of the built structures. He’s been drawing up plans, taking measurements, laying out grid lines, and calculating lumber costs. Our property slopes, so a lot of his time has been spent determining how we’ll level out the lawn. We’ve settled on creating a sturdy rock wall on the lower end of each bed to support the planks we will use as a border. Tom has done all the math and calculated how high each wall will be, and we’ve mapped out the area of each bed with string. Now all that’s left to do is cut the lumber and install the beds!

Last Year’s Garden

Bee with Roses

I spent most of 2014 planning my wedding, so I didn’t get to garden quite as much as I would’ve liked. Still, Tom and I grew enough vegetables to eat some sort of garden-to-table dish at least twice a week all summer long.

In the late spring, my peonies and spinach flourished. Summer began with an itty bitty zucchini, then ended with a whopper the size of a house cat! We harvested months and months of fresh tomatoes, perfect as a poppable snack right off the vine or in a slow-simmered marinara. We had kale and basil and beans and flowers.

This year, I’ve got bigger and better plans. I’m eschewing most of my spring gardening to make it all happen, but rest-assured, if all goes well, it’ll make last year’s attempt look puny. 2015 will be the summer of no grocery shopping, the year of the Homegrown Feast. I can’t wait to begin!

Summer Garden 2015: Seed Selection

rareseeds1

Sure, it might still be winter in Kansas City, but that hasn’t stopped me from working on plans for my summer vegetable garden. This year, I’m ordering almost all my seeds from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. Baker Creek is dedicated to selling non-GMO organic varieties, and many of their seeds are heritage breeds, to boot. Plus, they’re local to me, located only a couple of hours south of KC in the Missouri Ozarks.

Here are a few highlights from my shopping list:

Oaxacan Green Corn: I’m trying my hand at growing corn for the first time this year. I’ll be planting two varieties: Bedwell’s Supreme White and this vibrant Oaxacan Green. While I was initially drawn to it for its emerald hue, the Oaxacan is reputed to be hardy, prolific, and easy to grow… in other words, the perfect corn for a newb like me. It has a great track record, too: the Zapotec people of Mexico have grown this variety for centuries!

Boule d’Or Melon: Another first for me will be melons. I’m picking up a couple of varieties of watermelon, as well as the sunny Boule d’Or. It has been described as a classy winner that is healthy, hearty and mildew-resistant with a toothsome, subtle flavor… sounds pretty good, huh? I can only imagine how sweet a slice of this sugary, succulent melon will taste on a hot August day.

Blue Beauty Tomato: With rosy pink flesh fading into a blue-black twilight, this nightshade lives up to its name. Last year, I grew a bounty of tomatoes all summer long and they kept growing well into the fall months. Hopefully, I’ll have the same luck with these beauties!

Bee Balm Lemon: While the yard is reserved for vegetable gardening, potted herbs get full range of the front porch. I’m excited to grow bee balm, mostly for its Apidae-attracting aroma, but also because its dried leaves make for a fancy tea.

Emily Basil: In last year’s garden, I grew two varieties of basil and had a summer full of fresh pesto and flavorful quiches. In fact, I might have gone a little heavy on the herb: by the end of the season, I had over-harvested my plants and they stopped growing. Lucky for me, there is Emily. She is compact, loves containers, and, best of all, thrives when cut. I expect to have enough fresh basil to last the whole summer, with surplus for freezing and drying.

My shopping list also contains another three varieties of tomato, a couple of breeds of squash, plenty of herbs, some leafy greens, cucumber, peppers and beans. When it gets a little closer to Spring, I’ll do a full run-down of all the seeds I’ve chosen, as well as a post on my garden’s layout.