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Community Gardens

How growing your own food can save you money

November 4, 2012

Reaping the Rewards

Can growing your own food save you money?

There are nay sayers that say it costs so much to set up a vegetable garden, to buy a polytunnel, compost, pots etc., that if you’re growing your own to save money then you’re wasting your time.

Peter Donegan wrote a well researched post back in January this year where he pointed out how cheap it was to buy vegetables in supermarkets. The cost of veg that have been grown for you can be ridiculously low – why would you bother growing your own when you can pick it up for next to nothing?

Pale skinned variety of peas – pea soup anyone?

As a small time grower I can’t help but  wonder how a farmer makes any money (do they?) How much does she or he take home from a 49c pack of parsnips I wonder? When you take into account the shopkeepers cut, transport, distribution, packaging – and that’s all after the cost of the farmers employee wages, seeds, propagation – it begs the question why does anybody still farm? It’s also a reminder of why we should support local food producers when we can if we want them to stay in business – the majority of us don’t grow enough veg to see us through an entire year so need to shop for it, usually out of season.

The cost implications of growing vegetables in containers can’t be ignored either i.e., the cost of the pot, compost and plants or seeds (can be €20 or more) versus the cost of a kilo bag of vegetables grown for you. These points are valid considerations when working out whether you will save money by growing your own.

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Chard – lovely steamed or in stir fries

So how do you save money by growing your own?

The important point that Peter made however, and my argument for the saving money case, was the fact that it depends upon how you go about growing your own as to whether it will save you money.

If you grow your own the way our parents and grandparents used to – straight into the soil, no fancy or expensive equipment – then yes it will save you money. What qualifies me to say that? Because we did it in Leighlin Parish community garden this year and it’s how I learnt to grow my own food here.

We didn’t keep a diary of costs, but other than the initial purchase of seeds and one bag of compost that wasn’t used, some bamboo sticks and netting, the overall spend at Leighlinbridge was very low. The wood and well-rotted manure were donated, the labour was free (i.e. the gardeners). We also had access to lots of free topsoil though we would have managed perfectly well without it as the soil in the garden is beautiful. The tools, netting and structures will all be used next year and there are enough seeds to last another year or two.

Gardening ‘the old way’ can be more challenging and it’s not for the faint hearted. Your outcomes are much more dependant upon the weather conditions – both in terms of growth and how much work you feel like doing.

parsnips

Parsnip soup, roast parsnips, curried or even parsnip wine

At Leighlinbridge we were certainly tested in terms of the cold, wind and rain. The beauty of gardening with others in a slightly structured way is that it doesn’t matter if it rains, you’re getting wet with a bunch of other people who will find a way of making it a cheerful experience whatever! As one of the jovial gardeners pointed out “sure if you let the rain in Ireland stop you doing anything you’d be at nothing.” As it happens, this garden had one of the most bountiful harvests I’ve seen this year. A polytunnel would have been a welcome addition in that we were limited with the vegetables we could grow – no tomatoes or peppers for instance, but we managed.

How many meals could you make from this small basket of food?

Back to the point… can you save money growing your own? Yes you can. Jono from the Real Men Sow blog kept a month by month spread sheet in 2011 and showed us that he saved £470… or approx €587 at today’s rates.

Aside from the monetary savings, there are hidden savings too. Once you start harvesting the vegetables you’ve grown, you wont need to visit the shops as often and thereby wont be tempted to throw lots of unnecessary items in your trolley. Not to mention the taste, satisfaction and health benefits that I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

Forty eight euro a month may not sound much in the grand scheme of things, but  with so many families struggling, and more families resorting to ‘cornflake days’ every little bit helps. If your financial situation isn’t as bad as those families, imagine if you redirected that €48 into a piggy bank every month – it would have the Christmas booze paid for, the hair doo every couple of months, the satellite tv paid for, lunch every week with a friend or even more plants to brighten up your garden.

When times are tough, anything we can do to save some cash so that we can still afford those little luxuries has to be worth it, don’t you think?

Food & Drink

Store Cupboard Vegetable Bolognaise Recipe

March 2, 2011

I use the term store cupboard loosely as we keep most of our veg in the fridge if there’s room. This is a really cheap veggie meal recipe that slipped off our menu radar for years until this week when I was trying to plan some balanced family meals for the week ahead.

Serves 6

Ingredients

15ml (1 tbsp.) olive oil
1 onion
4 carrots
2 sticks celery
4 garlic cloves
400g (14oz) tin chopped tomatoes
300ml (1/2 pt.) vegetable stock

300ml (1/2pt) white wine (or all stock if not available)

115g (1/2 cup) red lentils
5g (tsp.) basil
5g (tsp.) oregano
Salt & pepper

Method

Roughly chop all the vegetable ingredients, then add them to a food processor and chop more finely.

Heat the oil and gently fry the vegetables until soft (about 10 minutes)

Stir in the tomatoes, wine, stock, lentils and herbs. Cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked, stirring occasionally and adding more water if the lentils begin to dry out.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with spaghetti and grated cheese.

This can also be adapted to make a vegetarian lasagne or used as a base for a red bean chilli if kidney beans, chilli, cumin and mixed spices are added.

We ate this for tea this evening with leek gratin (post to follow). Yummm.

Lifestyle

Mythbuster: You don’t need to start sowing veg now or need lots of cash…

February 14, 2011

Unfortunately the great Celtic tiger missed our household.  What with being a stay at home mum for years and making terrible car choices (we’ve had 11 in as many years), I’m not embarrassed to say that we’ve always had to garden within a very limited budget.

It’s one of the reasons why we started growing our own veg. It’s also why we don’t have any raised beds, why we have grass between all of our little plots and why we don’t have an irrigation system.
We made do without heated propagators, horticultural fleece or cloches. All of those ‘must have’ items were off limits to us. Some weeks we couldn’t afford a bag of multipurpose compost let alone new seed trays. We didn’t have a polytunnel back when we started so couldn’t grow all the warmth loving plants such as peppers, cordon tomatoes and aubergines.
However, life was very easy and simple.
We just planted everything a little later in the year when the temperatures had warmed up and the days were longer. We didn’t need all the gadgets.
Most of the seeds were planted directly into the soil and had to fend for themselves. We had a few losses but on the whole the plants grew bigger and stronger. It also made gardening less time consuming for us as we didn’t have to worry about frosts, transplanting or potting on.
All we had to do was weed around the plants and watch them grow. We didn’t feed them with liquid fertilizers or spray them for pests. We were very lucky to have a free supply of as much well-rotted cow manure as we wanted, so could pile it on the beds at the beginning and end of the growing season but that was it.
Recycled heating pipe

It’s only as the growing bug dug a bit deeper (well, a lot deeper) and finances eased a little that we slowly started to build up a little stock of things. Firstly a small plastic ‘greenhouse’, then a decent fork. Horticultural fleece came next and a roll of clear plastic to warm up the beds to give us a ‘head start’.

We were given the polytunnel and I’m still looking forward to the day when I can switch on a heated propagator, but we can and have managed without.
 Would I like all the latest and best gizmos? Well of course, what girl wouldn’t? Do I need them? No, they’re not essential (but don’t tell my husband).
Vegetable Garden

How to create a Budget Vegetable Garden

February 13, 2011

10 tips to get you started in the vegetable garden

Whether you have a large or small garden, allotment plot or community garden, knowing where to start in its design or creation can often be a major stumbling point, particularly if you can’t afford to use a landscape gardener or garden designer.

I still remember looking out at the grass field in front of me and wondering where on earth to begin. Would it ever become the vegetable garden that I dreamed about. We wanted to grow lots of food in the garden but I hadn’t a clue how to do it on a larger scale. Should I scrape away the grass or dig it in? We were busy renovating our farmhouse and had no budget for raised beds or bringing in top soil and anyway, we’d been told that we had beautiful soil so why go to the bother of importing fresh when it might not be as fertile.

If this is the year you’ve decided to have a go at growing your own vegetables, this post is for you. I’ve come up with 10 steps to help you create a budget vegetable garden that will take time and some hard graft, but it should get you started if you’re determined.

Once the soil’s prepared, ideally leave it for three or four weeks to settle before planting or sowing.

10 Steps to Creating a Budget Vegetable Garden

1. Start small

It’s okay to plan a dream garden and do sketch your plans on a piece of paper, marking where everything will fit in several years time. Include things in your plan such as a greenhouse, fruit and compost area, shed and pond, but to begin with, only clear as much as you can manage.

If you get carried away and prepare too much, you might find you don’t have the time to handle it all and you’ll be much more likely to give up.

This article gives ideas for 14 vegetables that are ideal for growing in smaller gardens to get you started.

2. Choose your site carefully

You might not have a lot of choice but if possible, avoid creating a vegetable garden in a shady or wet area.  The majority of vegetables like to grow in sunny, well-drained sites. Don’t forget you’ll need access to water so plan your garden near a water source to avoid trudging around with watering cans on those hot sunny days.

10 tips for creating a budget vegetable garden

Pigs are great for clearing ground

3. Clear the ground as best as possible

If your ground is overgrown with briars and rough grass, unless you’ll consider getting pigs or goats, only hard work is going to clear it.

Don’t resort to herbicides – the weeds will grow back and do you really want to eat food from an area that’s been sprayed with a chemical designed to kill plants? Whether you use shears, a strimmer or a scythe, hack it all down as close to the ground as possible, digging out seedling trees or shrubs where necessary. If you’re looking for tips on clearing ground without chemicals, this article gives 16 natural alternatives.

Anything that’s compostable can be saved for a heap that you will hopefully have the space to build too. This PDF gives tips on how to compost effectively which will ultimately save you money as well. If there’s too much waste, most County Councils now have green waste areas that it can be taken to.

Cover any areas that you won’t have time to dig over with black plastic, cardboard or old carpet until you’re ready. This will prevent any weeds growing in the meantime.

10 steps to create a vegetable garden4. Mark out the area

Once you’ve cleared the land you’ll be able to see it to mark your bed sizes. String, bamboo poles, an old hose pipe or flour are useful tools for this exercise.

Vegetable Bed Sizes

To avoid walking on the soil and compacting it, the ideal vegetable bed size is 1.2m x 2.4m. Any longer than that and you’ll be tempted to jump or pole vault over it with your rake, believe me, I know…

We find that bamboo poles work well to start with for laying a plan down on the ground as they can be moved and re-positioned until they’re in the right place. Practice walking around the marked out area with a wheelbarrow to make sure you have room to manoeuvre. Once you have an idea of the size and shape, mark the area out with string and pegs.

5.  Remove the ‘turf’ or the top layer of grass

Herein lies the hard work. If you were installing costly raised beds you could skip this bit and cover the top growth with cardboard before adding your topsoil, however this is a budget garden so you are going to have to remove the turf with a spade and dig the weeds out using a garden fork.

A straight sided spade is the best tool for this job and the idea is to only remove the grassy thatch that’s on the top of the soil. If you have space, the turf you remove can be placed upside down in a pile out of the way and covered with plastic. Eventually it will turn into topsoil that can be used again.

How to Create a Budget Vegetable Garden - 10 steps6. Turn over the soil

Preferably use a spade or fork.  As tempting as a rotavator is, any weed roots that are still alive will get chopped up by the blades and reappear as new weeds in your lovely prepared beds and unless your rotavation is shallow, you’ll upset the structure of the soil. If you use a fork you can pull out weed roots as you find them.

Double dig if you have the back for it but avoid digging at all if the soil is frozen or too wet as again, it can damage the soil structure which is key to good growing conditions. Avoid standing on the soil too or it can compact, something we need to avoid at all costs. If you really hate digging or aren’t able for it, you might like to consider the No Dig method of gardening as championed by Charles Dowding.

7. Pick out the larger stones

You’ll never remove all the stones so don’t try! Don’t worry too much about the smaller ones, they’ll keep rising to the surface and you’ll be at it for years.  Just pick out the larger stones as you find them.

8.  Test the soil

I know of gardeners who never test the soil but you will save money if you find out your soil pH now. There’s no point planting blueberries which are acid loving plants in soil that’s highly alkaline. They just won’t like it.

There are some readily and cheaply available kits at all garden centres or online. Choose one with instructions and follow them. The instructions should also tell you how to adjust your soil if necessary, but to be honest, I’ve worked with lots of gardens and we haven’t had to make adjustments; we’ve chosen instead to grow fruit and vegetables that will thrive in the soil they’re given.  For more tips on testing soil and fertility, take a look at this handy PDF from Garden Organic.

If you’re not sure what was in your garden before you were (it might previously have been an industrial area), it’s recommended to send off a sample of soil to a testing lab to be on the safe side. They will look for contaminants as well as the mineral and nutritional elements you’ll need to know to grow successfully.

10 Tips to Create a Budget Vegetable Garden

Make your own garden compost

9. Add some well-rotted organic waste

It’s quite likely that your soil will need improving by adding well-rotted organic matter to it in the form of animal manures (find a local farmer), leaf mould or garden compost. If you’re finding organic matter hard to source, garden centres sell it in which will get you started until you can create your own.

10. Rake and flatten

The final job is to flatten and rake the soil over. Some people are better at this than others. I thought I was okay until I worked with a couple of community gardeners who clearly have more patience than me and their resulting soil was like breadcrumbs (hence the expression, until your soil reaches a good crumb). Use the back of a rake to flatten out the lumps and gently pull the rake backwards and forwards through the top of the soil until it’s light and fluffy.

It’s not necessary to edge the beds but personally we’ve found it tidier and easier to manage. We used old house rafters that we were replacing during our renovation project for the first couple of beds but it’s really up to you and your budget.

If you’re a beginner and would like more advice on growing fruit and vegetables, community gardens are great places to join as you’ll pick up tips from a range of people. Alternatively keep an eye out for a Greenside Up workshop that can help you to grow food more confidently and successfully.

Vegetable Garden

Grow Your Own on a Budget – Seed Saving

March 25, 2010

I’m just sharing a link to an honest and inspiring interview by Madeline Mckeever of Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork. It’s a great example of how you can turn your life around by opening up your mind.

We started our veggie garden on a shoestring – there were weeks when even a bag of compost was too expensive, and weed membrane and wind break fabric were a distant dream.

We’ve always tried to re-use/recycle as much as we can – our beds are edged with old roof joists from the house renovation.

You don’t need a big budget to grow your own vegetables, just be prepared to let people know you’ll take their rubbish!