Vegetable gardening had fallen out of favor in recent years, as gardeners turned their attention to ornamentals.
But during tough economic times, when everyone starts to think about saving money on food and the gasoline it takes to get to the supermarket, growing some vegetables in a backyard garden seems like a good idea.
The National Gardening Association found in its 2007 survey that while expenditures on all garden-related products declined a bit, sales of products for vegetable gardening rose 22 percent over 2006 figures, and sales of products for herb gardening increased 52 percent.
If you join in this trend, you will find yourself with lots of great-tasting food for your table and freezer and some extra change in your pocket.
You may think you need a lot of space or equipment to get started growing tomatoes, green beans, squash and other edibles. Or that startup costs are so high you won’t see savings for years.
But neither is true.
Edibles can be integrated into ornamental beds that are already prepared. I’ve been eyeing some gaps in two of my perennial beds. Maybe I’ll tuck a small patio tomato plant, a colorful pepper or an eggplant next to the shrub roses and Becky daisies. Why not?
Or maybe I’ll grow a few plants in containers while my soil is being prepared next year.
Master gardener Carl Wayne Hardeman uses large plastic feed containers purchased for about $5 at feed stores for growing vegetables. He drills several drainage holes in the bottom before adding a thick layer of hay and then a mixture of potting soil and topsoil.
Hardeman and fellow master gardeners Jim Gafford and Jeff Golladay are also growing vegetables without a lot of equipment on a plot behind Collierville Christian Church. They donate their harvest to the Collierville Food Bank, the Food Bank in Memphis and Page Robbins Adult Day Care Center in Collierville.
They began preparing the beds last fall using a thick layer of newspaper topped with lots of grass clippings and finely ground leaves. They did not do deep tilling.
As an experiment, they removed the sod on one bed and left it on others. They tilled one bed about 2 inches deep. There appears to be no advantage to shallow tilling of 2 inches or removing the sod.
They also added aged cow and horse manure and alfalfa tea to the beds.
They continue to lay grass clippings and leaves on top of the beds as a mulch to hold down weeds. As these organic materials decompose, the soil improves.
Last year they harvested 3,000 pounds of food at another site and spent about $500, including payment for water. That’s about 20 cents per pound. This year they expect to harvest a little less because they had to move the garden to its new site.
“We are not organic, but we are sustainable,” Hardeman said. Birds and other natural predators have kept Colorado potato beetles away so well, none of the potato plants has had to be sprayed.
But Hardeman did treat the squash and crowder peas with Sevin to control harmful insects. And the master gardeners find they need to add some synthetic nitrogen to the soil, too.
Cutworms are deterred with foil wrapped around the stems of squash and other susceptible plants.
But the volunteers were no match for hungry rabbits that devoured all of the 100 cauliflower plants and much of the broccoli.
You can learn more about vegetable gardening at the educational open gardens held at the plot from 4 to 6 p.m. on the fourth Sunday of the month. The church is at 740 Gunnison at North Byhalia Road.
Another group of master gardeners volunteers in a 7,500-square-foot community garden plot at Shelby Farms. The produce they raise is donated to the Food Bank in Memphis.
“We’ve already harvested 400 pounds of food,” said Tom Mashour, chairman of the project.
Last year the plot produced 8,000 pounds of food at a cost of about 12.5 cents per pound. Mashour started many of the plants from seed in his small greenhouse.
“A package of broccoli seeds will make 200 plants,” he said. “A rule of thumb is you can produce your own vegetables for about one-seventh the cost in a supermarket.”
This year the group will save money on plants because it has gotten donations from Bonnie Plants, the Alabama company that supplies several big chains, and from the Memphis Botanic Garden, which donated unsold vegetable plants from its spring plant sale.
But there is an added cost in a new drip irrigation system, expected to serve the site for many years. There are no water costs for the plots at Shelby Farms.
Landscape architect Suzanne Askew heads up a group of volunteers from local garden clubs in the 1850s Irish kitchen garden at the Magevney House, a historic home Downtown.
“If I had a really sunny spot at the garden, I would devote it to asparagus,” she said. “A bed takes two years to establish, but lasts a lifetime.”
She notes that one bag or box of fresh herbs purchased at a supermarket costs about the same as a packet of seeds that will produce edible leaves all summer. Depending on the variety, many herb plants return for many years with no added investment.
“I have pots of basil, thyme, oregano, sage, cilantro and parsley at my kitchen door,” said Askew, who helped tend a half-acre vegetable garden as a child.
Tomatoes, the most popular of all home-grown vegetables, require the purchase of stakes or cages and some fertilizer. But if you choose indeterminate varieties (check the label) a plant will produce fruit almost all summer, typically with a rest in July, the hottest month.
“Homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than store-bought varieties,” Askew said.
So what if you missed the prime time for planting vegetables in late April and early May?
You can still find vegetable plants and even seeds to plant for fresh produce this year. But you will have to baby plants, seeds and seedlings with lots of water as they struggle to get established in the heat.
I saw healthy looking cucumber, zucchini, watermelon, pepper, squash plants and more at the Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse in Germantown.
There were numerous tomato varieties, including Big Beef, Better Boy, Better Bush, Big Boy and Early Girls, as well as grape and patio tomatoes.
Seed packets were nowhere to be found at Lowe’s, but Germantown Hardware had a nice supply. You might also check feed stores, which sell common varieties in bulk.
If you want unusual veggies, you will need to order seeds from catalogs in early spring or winter.
Most vegetables require 50 to 70 days from the time of germination to to harvest. If you plant this weekend, you could be picking by mid-August. Our growing season lasts through September and later for crops such as turnip greens.