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Today’s question comes from Kelly from Rhode Island, who wants to know,

“How do I get my garden started?”

This is a big question, so we’ll break it up into a few posts.

First, let’s start with getting the thing into the ground.  Then, we’ll tackle what to plant to maximize savings and enjoyment, and how to expand operations until you have enough harvest to preserve or share.

Gardens are a great addition to any lifestyle–not only the frugal, but the foodie and health conscious as well.

I’ve become pretty obsessed about mine.  I started my garden because I was flat broke, not because I loved planting.   I followed a Pasadena, California family that lived off their 8700 square feet.  They had bees, goats, and chickens right in the middle of the city.  I dreamed of doing the same with my 10K square feet of land under the noisy airport.

I was being unreasonable.  First of all, the Dervaes family has been doing this since 1985.  Second, the climate in California–weather and otherwise–lets people achieve do things.  Still, I was hell-bent on trying.  I put raised beds everywhere and plotted to take out the lawn while my husband wasn’t looking.

Today, I garden for the right reasons.  I save money, share plants, and enjoy eating chef-quality food right from my backyard.  I think more people deserve higher quality food.

A word of caution–planting a garden can actually cost you money if you fail to plan.  Also, there’s a startup cost involved.  You may need loam, fencing, wood, soil, manure, or pots.

Author William Alexander writes about this in “The $64 Tomato.”   He calculated the money he spent on his gardening project versus his harvest, estimating the production cost of one tomato to be $64.  That tomato better be gold.

In the process of learning, I killed things, fought urban squirrels, and blew through three expensive greenhouses.

Keep track of your expenses so you can be frugal and become more efficient over time.

Then, even if you’re just planting a kitchen herb garden, stick with it.   Eating well gives you a quality of life that’s priceless with major health benefits as well.  When calculating my savings I fudge the numbers.  I include the cost of a few five-star restaurant meals and a couple doctor’s copays, all of which I saved by planting food in my back yard.

If I think of it that way, I’m saving a ton.

Start simple and grow as you go.  Pretty soon, you’ll have more zucchini than you want.  You can sell it to your neighbors and retire.

The Top Three Things for A Great Garden:

Sun

Kelly’s question was “Where do I plant my garden and how do I start out?”  Just like in real estate,  garden success is all about “location, location, location.”

The official answer to “where” is, “Pick the place with the best sun.”

The real answer: it depends.  The place with the most sun might be your front yard.  In my house, I’m not front yard approved.  I’ve been told to stay away from the front yard on pain of death.  I’d plant kale borders and mingle crops in with the flowers.  My husband wants the front yard to look nice, so  I keep my nonsense in the back.

Some areas have homeowner’s associations or zoning laws about planting.  I’ve read many articles about people being fined for front-yard gardens, even receiving court orders to take out the gardens out and put the dandelions and grass back in.

I think that’s ridiculous.  If you plant beautifully, you can’t tell my greens from that fake purple cabbage the strip mall puts in with the flowers, but that’s a debate for another day.

So, short answer: pick the place with the most sun, then make sure you’re allowed to put a garden there.

Soil

You can’t grow good things in bad soil.

Whether you’re setting up an urban container garden, a vertical garden, or raised beds, use good soil.  You should always have your soil tested for contaminants.  I live in the area where the Industrial Revolution started–there are plenty of areas with old factory metals leached into the soil.

Best case–you’re fine.  Worst case, you need to dig out some dirt, line your raised bed with heavy garden-grade plastic, and fill it with bags of topsoil mixed with peat moss from the store, or get a local farm to dump a truckload on your front lawn.

Have them throw in some composted manure for good luck.

If you’re rural or suburban, you don’t need to bother with containers or raised beds.  Just dig up a giant patch of lawn and start.   Consider testing your soil if it’s a first-time a garden. The type of soil and the pH matters for certain crops.  If you have topsoil, you’re good to go.

Treat your first-year garden with composted manure and peat moss, then touch it up every season and as necessary with compost, composted manure, and organic fertilizers.

Seeds (or seedlings)

The last thing you need for a good garden is seeds.  If this is your first time out, look for some seeds you can plant in the garden easily.  Peas and beans are very forgiving.

Be aware–not all seeds are equal.   There are great controversies in the farm world about GMO vs non-GMO.  I like to use as many heirloom and different varieties as I can get my hands on.

If you’ve got a green thumb, you can seeds indoors–just look at the planting calendar for your zone and plan backwards so your seedlings are ready to go outdoors when it’s time.  Planting seeds can save a lot of money.

I kill seeds every year.  So, every year, I go to one of two local greenhouses and rebuy all the plants whose seeds I killed.   I buy too many and squeeze them all in, and it works out in the end.

If you have the three basic things, you can’t go wrong.

Sun, soil, and seeds will get you started in the right direction.  Then, before you know it, you’ll never want to eat prepackaged food again!