Monday, January 13, 2014

The DD's Comprehensive Guide to Saving Money by Growing Your Own Food, Part II: Planning What to Grow

Welcome to the next installment of my frugal food-growing guide.  If you are following this series, hopefully by now you have started collecting food scraps, leaves and other organic material for your very own compost pile.  You can read more about that in Part I of my guide.

Today, I want to write about some particular aspects of planning out your frugal vegetable garden before actually delving into the creation of it.  Planning for this kind of project is absolutely necessary, since each plan will be unique and different based on several different factors.  Some of them include your location, the amount of space available to work with, time of the year, you (or your family's) particular tastes in vegetables, space-to-production ratios and various other things.  This article will focus mainly on planning which vegetables and fruits you decide to grow in your garden.

First, let's start on the assumption that you found a suitable space for your future garden.  This means you have a plot of soil (or some kind of raised bed) that is at least somewhat workable... not completely full of rocks, or other potentially toxic materials.  It also means it gets at least 8 to 10 hours of sun per day in the spring and summer, and is also close to a source of irrigation other than just rain.  If you have a plot that meets this criteria, go ahead and read on.  If you don't, then find a better spot or figure out a way to improve upon the existing space--possibly by removing shading objects such as trees, and collecting rainwater in barrels or buckets (something you should probably do anyway).  If rocks are the main obstacle, I would personally find another spot than attempt remove them... it's just way more hassle than it's worth to me.  Your individual circumstance and preferences may dictate what you decide to do.

Identifying Your Climate Zone

Now that we have a usable plot of soil to work with, the next thing to do is determine exactly what zone of plant hardiness that you live in.  The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map website can help you do just that.  Just click on your state to find detailed climate information for your particular zone.  This is an important step because you will need to know the first and last average frost dates for your region, as well as how hot and cold it will be during a typical season in your area.  It's important information to know, as most vegetables can be separated into groups based on their preferred growing temperatures.  For example, tomatoes, okra, eggplant and peppers all prefer hot summer temperatures, while plants like spinach, broccoli and lettuce all prefer (and taste better) being grown when the temperatures are cool.

The USDA Zone Map will show you which climate zone you belong to

Technically, it is quite possible for people in colder zones to grow warm/hot season veggies and vice versa.  However, since this guide is about food economy--trying to get the most food produce while spending the least amount of money--it wouldn't make sense to do this.  You want to grow plants that are well adapted to their growing conditions, including the temperature.  Growing hot peppers in a cold zone, zone 3 for example, would not be efficient way to produce food since pepper plants need relatively hot temperatures to produce fruit.  Zone 3 may offer only a few days in which conditions will be suitable for pepper plants to thrive.  Similarly, spinach grown in Zone 10, a very warm zone, may quickly become inedible as the plant reacts to warm temperatures by flowering, making the actual spinach leaves fibrous and bitter.  Growing plants accustomed to your particular climate will increase your odds of having healthy plants and higher production yields.

To make this easy, the website has charts on each climate zone that lists what plants to grow and when to start them.  It will even tell you exactly what zone your are in if you plug in your zip code.  If you live in a cooler zone, it would best benefit you to grow mostly cool season veggies, while those of you in the hotter zone would be better off growing warm season vegetables.  If you happen to live in a moderate climate zone like me (zone 6), you may be able to do both, depending on the season.

Space Considerations

Bigger areas require a different plan....
Some of you may be lucky to have a vast amount of space to work with, which will make this component of planning less important.  However, those of us with limited space will need to carefully evaluate the size and yield of each plant to maximize food production economy.

The first thing to consider is how much size each plant will grow to at maturity.  Relatively small plants, such as beets, can be planted close together and still have room to fully develop.  Vining plants like squash become huge plants that take up a lot of garden space, but generally they yield a good amount of food.  Plants like tomatoes can also grow into a massive, sprawling beast that takes up huge amounts of space, but they can also be trained to grow in restricted space without hurting yield too much (depending on the variety, as well).  There are also plants like cabbage, that grow into a moderately-sized plant, but only yield a single head from each plant.  The point is that plants will grow to a different size, depending on the variety, growing conditions and just plain old luck.  Do your research and find out the mature size of each plant before deciding which ones to grow, especially if you are working with a small growing area.

...compared to a smaller scale garden.
You will also want to consider how much produce each plant will give you.  Spinach and lettuce are examples of plants that you can just keep taking the leaves from over and over, and they will grow back.  These "cut-and-come-back" type plants provide excellent production economy.  A plant like broccoli will grow moderately large, but usually only provide one large head of broccoli from each individual plant.  After cutting the main head, it may start producing smaller side shoots that improve its economy as well, but not as good as spinach or lettuce mentioned before.  Pole bean plants can get quite large, but they will continue to produce beans until you stop picking them from the plant or a frost kills the plant.  Still other plants, like tomatoes and peppers, may take up a large amount of space but provide ample amounts of large fruit from each plant.  Some plants are not as great for growing without large amounts of space, such as watermelon, which will generally yield one piece of fruit per plant while still taking up a lot of planting area.  Again, research each plant you intend to grow to figure out how much food production it will make in relation to its size.

Grow What You Enjoy

The production economy of growing food that you don't like to eat is zero.  There is no point in growing hundreds of beets if you aren't going to eat them because you don't like the taste.  Obviously, I can't give you specific recommendations since only you know what tastes good to you.

If you are not sure what a food tastes like, try buying a pound or two of said food at the grocery store.  You may have to spend a couple bucks, but it's better than wasting an entire growing season and valuable land growing a food you don't like the taste of.


Almost any vegetable or herb you grow on your own is going to be nutritious.  However, depending on the size of your plot, you may choose to grow plants that have a higher nutritional profile compared to their size.  Or you might want a lot of a specific type of plant for its purported health benefits.  Broccoli, for example, would be a good vegetable to grow a lot of if you are worried about cancer, due to its proven anti-cancer track record.  If you are an older adult, you may wish to grow a plentiful amount of blueberries to help combat memory loss.  There are countless other examples, and the internet is a great resource to find out which fruits and veggies are best for obtaining certain nutrients, or beneficial health effects.

Broccoli is a known cancer-fighting vegetable

If it wasn't already apparent, I typically use The World's Healthiest Food List at as a reference guide for determining the nutrient content of vegetables and fruit.  It has very detailed nutrient information on each food which is backed by recent scientific literature. 

Other Considerations

Okra is more forgiving of dry conditions than most veggies
Every person's growing situation is unique due to location, climate and growing medium.  Do you live in a relatively drought-prone area?  You may want to choose plants that are more drought-tolerant, such as beans or okra.  Is your growing area prone to wind gusts?  You might want to forgo planting loads of corn that will be blown down just before producing ears.  Plenty of other conditions in practically limitless situations will help narrow down your decision before you plant your first seeds.

The point is to keep in mind your specific growing conditions.  Not just your climate zone.  Not just your soil.  Not just your average rainfall amount.  Not just the amount of sun or shade your plot gets.  All of these factors will play a part in maximizing your plants' food output.

Final Thoughts

After some careful consideration and research, I have narrowed down my frugal vegetable plot choices to spinach, broccoli, lettuce, sweet potatoes (decided against them), tomatoes, corn, green beans and jalapeƱo peppers.  There are quite a few reasons for my specific choices.  Spinach offers one of the widest ranges of nutrients from one single plant. Broccoli is touted for its cancer-fighting nutrients (something our family is particularly keen on preventing).  Lettuce has an excellent price-production ratio and requires minimal care.  Tomatoes are so much better when grow fresh from home.  Corn is a favorite plant of mine, and is just fun to grow and walk through when the field is tall later in the season.  Green beans are incredibly easy to grow and provide lots of nutritious calories and protein. Finally, jalapeƱos give many dishes a decent kick while producing lots of peppers all season long.  Of course, it almost goes without saying that all of these vegetables are foods that my family and I all enjoy.

As you can see, there are quite a few reasons behind which plants I have chosen to grow this season.  Of course, the basic premise behind this guide is saving money by growing your own food.  Although not every plant I listed has the best space to production ratio, that is not the only factor to consider for an economical home garden (unless you are planning to sell your produce).  Many different things will influence your decision on what to grow, and ultimately, you will have to find a balance between factors that makes sense to you.

It won't be long before we have fresh veggies like these to eat!

Total Costs So Far

The total cost of growing your own food so far:
  • $0 for home-made compost
This concludes Part II. Click Here to read Part III: Seeds, Soil and Tools

ADDENDUM 2/28/2015

Changed some information regarding plant sizes and yields.

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