There's no doubt that vegetable gardening is hot. Folks who've never grown a radish suddenly want to plant pots or plow up their lawn so they can add fresh food to the table. The upside: You can harvest edibles untouched by synthetic chemicals, and the flavor is unbeatable. And maybe you'll save some money.
"If you have the space and the time, there's nothing like growing vegetables — grabbing a big fresh tomato from your own plant and inhaling its aroma on a warm summer day," says Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. "You can't even get that kind of freshness from a farmers market."
The downside: You must invest in a few tools, gloves and some pots and potting soil if you're going to grow your veggies in pots. Or you can prepare a spot that gets full sun (six or more hours of direct sunlight), and that may mean buying a shovel or renting a sod-lifter to remove the existing lawn. Good tools and pots, however, are a one-time expense, which should last for years.
"Don't buy any cheap tools," says Liz Omura, curator of the Idea Garden at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. "Borrow them from friends or neighbors until you can buy good ones."
She rents a 20-by-30-foot space for $45 — a flat fee from spring through fall — in a community garden in Geneva. Buying tomato and pepper transplants (young plants), along with seed packets of peas, bush and pole beans, squash, lettuce, chard and beets for less than $60, she can harvest $250 or more of produce from spring until frost, if the weather cooperates and bugs don't wreak havoc.
Omura recently bought a stainless steel ergonomic shovel for $30, and 100 bamboo stakes for $115, which will last four or more years. "They're handy for growing peas, pole beans and for staking tomatoes."
She recommends buying a trowel that feels comfortable in your hand (about $15 and up) and perhaps a hoe for weeding vegetable beds ($25 and up). Expect to spend another $5 for a pair of good washable garden gloves.
There's also the time factor — the time you spend coddling plants, watering them, staking the tomatoes or beans and bug patrol. That's usually a daily affair by mid-June, especially if you're growing edibles in pots, in which case the soil dries out fast. And time, as we all know, is perhaps the single most valuable commodity in existence.
"It's kind of hard to say how economic it will be to grow your own," says Emily Tepe, author of "The Edible Landscape" (Voyageur Press, $24.99, 160 pages). "But it's so supereasy to grow things like Swiss chard, which you can harvest all season long. I probably cut five to six leaves of chard at a time once a week, so one plant will supply at least 10 bunches of leaves through the season." A packet of seeds would plant a 10-foot row, and you could potentially harvest 10 pounds or more.
To get the most out of your efforts, pick vegetables that you enjoy eating often, and grow crops that mature quickly and can be replanted. Two rows of corn will take up precious garden space for three months. In that same space you could grow several bush bean plants and harvest many pounds of fresh beans. And, because the beans have a shorter growing time than corn, you could pull them out when they're finished and sow more beans, beets or greens for a late-summer harvest.
Because some things are so reasonably priced during summer, Omura suggests buying rather than growing. Easy-to-find vegetables like onions, potatoes and carrots fall into this category.
"Grow something more unusual like Romano beans," she says, "which are wonderful and nutty tasting, or blue potatoes. Grow things that would otherwise be pricey at the market."
You can buy 4-inch pots of basil, sage, tarragon, rosemary and other herbs for about $4 each this spring and transplant them into large containers or in the ground, and harvest stems weekly until October instead of spending a few dollars each week for fresh-cut bunches.
For Jarantoski, an avid cook, growing herbs on his Chicago balcony is the most practical use of his space. "I grow sage and parsley, and I may use just a little at a time, so that's very helpful. But growing watermelons on a balcony? That's where the farmers market comes in."
Here's how a starter veggie garden stacks up
The initial outlay
The basics to get started (prices approximate)
10 5-gallon plastic pots* = $150
10 large bags of potting mix, 1 for each pot = $90
Trowel = $15
Shovel = $30
1 pair gloves = $5
5 pepper plants = $20
5 tomato plants = $20
2 packets ($3 each) beans,
cabbage, eggplant, kale,
parsley, peas, spinach,
squash, chard = $54
TOTAL = $384
*to grow tomatoes
and peppers in pots
The projected payoff
If all things go well, here's what you could potentially harvest from planting a 10-foot row or large pot of these crops and an estimated price:
Bush beans 30 plants = 6 pounds = $18**
Cabbage 10 plants = 10 pounds = $10
Eggplants 8 plants = 20 fruits =$10
Kale 10 plants = 5 pounds = $30
Parsley 20 plants = 1 pound = $24
Peas 20 to 30 plants = 3 pounds = $9
Peppers 5 plants = 80 fruits = $40
Spinach 30 plants = 5 pounds = $15
Summer squash 2 plants = 60 fruits = $30
Swiss chard 8 plants = 12 pounds = $72
Tomatoes 5 plants = 60 pounds = $120
TOTAL = $378
** estimate of local farmers market prices
Sources: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Vegetable Planting Guide, January 2013; localharvest.com; Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun