By       Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

            UConn Extension Educator/Food Safety

Though some economic indicators are showing that things are getting better, there are many Connecticut citizens who still find tough going. The result has been that more and more people are growing food in their backyards or on patios, and some are growing enough to need to know how to freeze and can the fruits and vegetables for storage into the winter. It is likely that the home vegetable gardening trend will continue until there is a change in our collective jitters about the stock market or the fact that raises are few and far between.

green tomatoWhen budgets are tight, we often are forced to make diet changes that might not be in our health’s best interest. One study, in the November 2007 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, showed that limited resource families would need to spend up to 70% of their food budget on fruits and vegetables in order to meet USDA Dietary Guidelines recommendations. So, it stands to reason that when things get tough, folks are likely to make other, less costly, food choices. A study appearing in the Journal of Nutrition indicated that a population of French adults, when confronted with cost constraints, would be most likely to limit purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables (along with meat and dairy foods).

So, if you can’t afford to buy fresh tomatoes from the market, why not think about growing some in your back yard?

Americans have a history of using kitchen gardens to feed their families better when times are tough. During the Second World War, the presence of backyard kitchen gardens or “Victory Gardens” emerged as Americans did what they could to help with the War effort. At the time, these gardens provided over 40% of the fresh produce eaten in this country. That meant commercial production could be devoted to supplying our troops here and overseas.

How can you plan and grow a kitchen garden that contributes significantly to reducing your food budget? First, you need to do some planning.

When choosing a place for your garden, keep in mind that fruits and vegetables need a lot of sun to grow and good drainage. Of course, the ideal place for a kitchen garden is just outside of the kitchen door. Convenience makes it user-friendly. If you do not have a sunny garden space, try planting a container garden on a sunny deck or patio. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, small lettuces, and, of course, herbs, can do very well in well-drained containers. Check with the UConn Home and Garden Education Center or your local Master Gardener for help in choosing varieties suitable to container gardening.

It is best to start small. Remember that anything you grow and do not eat within a few days will need to be preserved. When times are tight, being wasteful makes no sense. Canning and freezing take time and is usually done during the hottest months of the year. Most would agree the effort is worth it, but it might be wise to get into this one baby step at a time. Once you figure out what you can grow, use, give away or preserve in a timely fashion, you may choose to increase your garden size.

What to Grow

It might seem obvious that a kitchen garden includes primarily fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you commonly use in your kitchen. Planting a bunch of Brussels sprouts so that it will be available for the fall and winter table makes no sense if the family can’t get the sometimes odiferous cruciferous past their collective noses.

Consider growing fruits and vegetables that can contribute the most to the quality of your diet. Some of the most “good for you” fruits and vegetables can be grown easily in a Connecticut garden. Try growing cantaloupe or watermelon, strawberries, or blueberries. These can all be expensive when buying them in your supermarket. If you have room, you can get several pounds of raspberries from each plant you put in the ground. Think about that when you pick up a half-pint costing upwards of four dollars in the market.

Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens and romaine lettuce are easy to grow. When it comes to greens, darker is always the best nutritional choice. Choose romaine, spinach or other dark leafy greens over iceberg or leaf lettuce if your garden space is limited.

Yes, market tomatoes can be expensive—especially if you want them to be organic, or of the heirloom variety. But consider this: one packet of seed can yield up to 30 plants. And each plant can produce more than 25 pounds of tomatoes. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that it is cheaper to grow the things than to buy them. Finally, choose carrots, green or red peppers, winter squash or pumpkin. All of these pack a healthy punch and will be a great addition to your kitchen garden.

Herbs are a good choice if you want to add wonderful flavor to foods without adding salt or sugar. Basil, parsley, rosemary and thyme are must-haves. A small pot of oregano will produce more than enough fresh herb for the summer. You can bring potted herbs indoors and continue to grow them all year long if you choose to. You may never have to spend a fortune on little cans of the dried stuff ever again.

Finally, be sure to develop a garden plan that includes early season choices (peas, salad greens), mid-season (berries, green beans) and later season produce (winter squash, Brussels sprouts). This will help to insure that you have something fresh at your table from spring until winter.

Keep your vegetable gardening budget friendly with some of these additional tips:

  • Start and maintain a compost pile—a future of free fertilizer
  • Start plants from seed or purchase the smallest plants available from your garden store
  • Save seed from this year’s crop to use next year—free seeds!
  • Trade and share excess produce or seeds with other gardeners or neighbors
  • When you need help, get information or advice from the UConn Home and Garden Education Center or your local library—free help!

Once your kitchen garden is established, your produce section is just outside your door and you will have easy access to fresh garden tomatoes or blueberries. For more information about growing a kitchen garden, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.