I have written several times about how gardening is a wonderful activity to share with an aging loved one. It’s an easy way for them to participate and feel that they are making a contribution. It’s also a calming experience for the caregiver.

Gardening is making a come-back as more folks are interested in sustainability and finding an easy way to relax. Gardens can come in all sizes, from large areas in the backyard to container gardens on the patio.

I am fortunate enough to have room for a decent sized garden. I love to grow potatoes and as a citizen now dwelling in the state of Idaho, I feel that it’s my obligation to do so, even if only to give a positive response to those California friends and relatives who invariably ask me how the potatoes are doing.

But growing potatoes is not cost effective, so I’m told by my friend who owns a bed and breakfast nearby. Potatoes are fairly inexpensive in the market and they are usually “prettier” than mine. Mine are fairly lumpy and they take up a lot of garden space…but they are organic, and I grew them, so I’ve got that going for me.

According to Steve Solomon, author of “Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times”, the same is true with corn.

Corn is one of those items that can be purchased in season very cheaply from local farmers, sometimes for 10 cents an ear! It also takes up a lot of space, water and compost in a garden, so if being cost effective is a consideration, it’s not a wise choice.

So then, what are some good crops to grow in order to reduce the food budget?

According to Sarah Gilbert of DailyFinance.com, Tomatoes are the best crop by far. The new fad tomato, “tomatoes-on-the-vine” can cost upwards of $4.95 a pound and the little cherry and grape tomatoes are sold for an average of $3.99 for a package of about 20.

Tomatoes can be grown in containers on the patio or they can be planted in a larger garden. They are not hard on the soil (meaning they don’t strip the soil of nutrients) and when they are done, garlic can be planted in their place and left until next spring when the tomatoes are replanted.

In an area with a short growing season, tomatoes can be picked while still green and allowed to ripen on the window sill inside the house.

Herbs are another very cost effective item to grow and can grow in small spaces. Fresh basil, oregano, chives (chives will MULTIPLY quickly if left to their own devices), cilantro, thyme, rosemary, dill and sage are all very easy to grow and will produce several times that of the retail cost.

I have also found Japanese pea pods to be a winning crop. If planted early enough, there is time to harvest 2-3 separate plantings from one small package of seeds. Currently, we are harvesting a bowl of pea pods each evening. They can also be eaten right off the vine!

Sweet peppers are another excellent choice and again, these can grow in container gardens. They generally have a high grocery store price, especially if they are the red, orange or yellow varity because they require a larger time left on the vine. Sweet peppers are easy to grow and can be used in salads, roasted or used to make chutneys and relishes.

Lettuces and spinach are crops that grown quickly and inexpensively. With the addition of the availability of seed packets that contain a variety of lettuces, it is easy to save quite a bit of money by growing your own rather than buying the $3.99 bags of spring greens or baby spinach. You could even grow a bowl of lettuce on your own patio table.

If you have a little more space and plan to be your home for a longer period of time, fruit trees (and avocado trees if you live in southern California) make good sense (and cents). Avocados run approximately $1.79 in the supermarket where I live. At my home in California, they were plentiful and almost FREE. Our tree was actually grown from the avocado pit of one purchased in the store.

Strawberries, raspberries and other berry bushes are easy to grow and can generally be squeezed into a small area. CAUTION: Blackberries want to take over the world so plant them only if there is plenty of time to contain them by pruning and eliminating the trailers.

There is still time to plant several of these garden crops – the lettuce, spinach, sweet pea pods, most of the herbs and depending upon climate, even the tomatoes still have a good chance of reaching maturity before the growing season ends.

The best way to determine which plantings make the most sense for you is to check your grocery receipt. What do you buy most often and what is the cost of purchase? (And what do you have room to grow?) Those will be the crops that you may want to grow at home.


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