This is a guest post from Jenny Sandman, who writes at Broke Foodie.

This summer is my first attempt at full-scale gardening. This is the first year I’ve lived in a house with a yard; previous gardening efforts were limited to containers of herbs and the odd tomato plant, on windowsills or apartment patios. To complicate matters, it’s my first year living in New England, so the climate is new (and frightening). We had an intensely bitter winter, in which my backyard was buried under five feet of snow from January through the end of March. Then we had an intensely rainy and chilly spring.

Container gardens can be a good way to start
Container gardens can be a good way to start.

I knew this first year would be an experiment, so I approached it as such. In February, I began collecting seeds (heirloom and/or organic when possible), with the idea to plant one or two of everything and see what took. Here’s what I bought:

  • Tomatoes (several different kinds, including Jubilee, Amish Paste, Cherokee, and cherry)
  • Peppers (habanero, jalapeno, Thai, cayenne, Serrano, and bell: green, yellow and purple)
  • Cucumbers
  • Green beans
  • Zucchini
  • Butternut squash
  • Pie pumpkins
  • Cauliflower
  • Peas
  • Watermelon
  • Corn
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Beets (regular and striped)
  • Mache
  • Carrots
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Leeks
  • Onions

Some of these I won’t plant until late summer/early fall, like the beets and Brussels sprouts. But wait, there’s more! I also bought herbs:

  • Rosemary
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Oregano
  • Marjoram
  • Thyme
  • Borage
  • Sorrel
  • Nasturtiums
  • Dill
  • Basil (regular, purple, Thai)
  • Lavender
  • Mint
  • Chives
  • Catgrass
  • Chervil
  • Hyssop
  • Strawberries

Ambitious, I know.

The seeds cost around $100 total, although I got quite a few tomato seeds from my sister. I had a lot of one-time start-up costs; I had to buy a hoe, a shovel, a pitchfork (for the compost pile), a hose, and four florescent shop lights to start the seeds indoors. I also needed quite a lot of potting soil and seed-starting mix. I still had all the plastic containers from my various container gardens, which I used to start the herbs.

But I also learned what I didn’t need to spend money on.

Due to our climate, I knew I’d have to start most everything indoors. (Because of the very rainy/chilly spring, I didn’t get the last tomato seedling in the ground until June 4th.) I have a sunroom attached to the back of the house, walled almost entirely in sliding glass doors. It’s lovely in the summer, but bitter cold in the winter. I closed off the heating vents and kept it unheated through the entire winter. It was the perfect place to start seedlings (lots of light, out of the way), except for the cold — at least twenty-five degrees colder than the rest of the house, far too cold for delicate seedlings. I put a space heater in there for the seed-starting project, which promptly doubled my electric bill.

Doubled it.

So next year I’ll wait a few more weeks, until things warm up slightly, and skip the space heater.

I kept the florescent lights set on stacks of bricks, just above the seedlings, so I didn’t need to install shelving.

Jenny's grow operation

The bricks were free; our house came with two random piles of bricks in the yard. I bought special seed-starting kits, but quickly figured out that I had plenty of things around the house that I could re-purpose for seed starting. All of these things can easily be used, most of which you probably already have, all of which I used at some point:

  • Yogurt/sour cream containers
  • Egg cartons
  • Grapefruit and orange halves (eat the fruit first)
  • Bottoms of milk jugs
  • Paper cups (these actually worked the best of anything)
  • Toilet paper tubes (fold the bottom under to make a little cup)
  • Paper towel tubes, cut in half (see above)
  • Cleaned out food and coffee cans (any size)
  • Cleaned out soda cans, cut in half
  • Those plastic tubs mushrooms and lettuce come in
  • Plastic take-out containers
  • I even repurposed some random, lidless Tupperware

(Just make sure you cut/punch holes in the bottom of everything, for drainage.)

Jenny's seedlings, ready to be transplanted
Note the variety of containers the seedlings are in.

Instead of drainage trays, I used box tops. Instead of row markers, I used a Sharpie and extra bricks. Instead of purchasing nine zillion tomato cages, I used sticks and twine. (All those winter storms brought down a lot of big tree branches; I simply went to the piles of deadwood in the back of the yard and stripped out large branches which I stuck in the ground, one for each tomato plant. Ditto for pea trellises.)

Frugal tomato stakes
Frugal tomato stakes — you can guess how much J.D. loves this, right?

The previous occupants had left a small garden in one corner of the yard, maybe six feet by six feet. Obviously too small for everything I wanted to plant! But renting a tiller to plow up part of the yard would have been far more expensive than I thought it would be. So I didn’t.

Instead, I took a hoe to the backyard and chopped out additional rows. For the tomatoes, I chopped out one hole at a time, in various locations around the yard. I filled in the vacant flower beds with herbs. I planted edible flowers around the mailbox. Every square inch of usable yard real estate was re-appropriated for gardening; and when I’d filled in the edges, I chopped out grass and planted everything else in the lawn.

Now, maybe this method will work against me. Maybe lawn grass growing between the rows will end up stunting the growth of my plants. But so far, everything is growing really well. And the grass will grow back, if it turns out this method doesn’t work.

Note: It’s far easier to chop up the top layer of grass with a hoe, and use a trowel to dig up the dirt, than it is to try to dig a hole with an actual shovel. Grass is tough to dig through, but surprisingly easy to pull up.

The only other costs have been Miracle-Gro and rabbit repellent. My yard backs into a nature preserve, so it’s like Wild Kingdom out there. I’ve seen rabbits, groundhogs, foxes, turtles, deer, and any number of birds in the yard. It also appears that I have an entire chipmunk colony tunneling under the yard. The homemade repellents (typically a mixture of cayenne pepper or hot sauce sprayed directly on the plants) didn’t prevent my cauliflower from being nibbled. So I’ve been spraying commercial rabbit and deer repellent around the yard, and so far, so good.

Not including the $100 for seeds, I’ve spent around $600 on gardening so far. But of that, I think I can safely budget no more than $200 total for next year, for seeds and potting soil (and possibly more rabbit repellent). I won’t need to buy a hoe, shovel, pitchfork or hose again, and I know I can start my seeds without special seed trays. I also have a lot of seeds left over, which I can save in the back of the refrigerator for next year.

For the rest of the summer, the only recurring costs will be the Miracle-Gro (which I can eliminate next year, as my new compost pile will be producing compost by then) and more rabbit repellent (stupid rabbits).

Will the garden turn out to be more cost-effective than my CSA ($475 for weekly boxes, May to December)? That remains to be seen, but it’s looking good right now. If the rabbits don’t eat everything, and we don’t get a freak tornado or hailstorm, I should have a bumper crop of tomatoes and peppers. The green beans are shooting up, the squash is coming along nicely, and the container herbs are getting close to the point where they can be harvested regularly. I’ll be sure to report back at the end of the summer.

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