Gardening can be so expensive that a single tomato costs you five dollars, not counting your labor. But there are a number of tricks that will allow you to thumb your nose at the agribusiness conglomerates who would sell you cardboard tomatoes and plastic lettuce, while eating truly ripe and great tasting vegetables for pennies.
The most important thing you can do is to use open pollinated seeds and save your own. You will eventually develop customized varieties that respond best to your gardening methods, water, soil and climate. More importantly, you are not dependent on anyone else for your food supply, and in particular you are not dependent on the Monsantos of the world. Genetic diversity is critical to overall health. Start with the easy ones like tomatoes, peppers, beans and lettuce. These plants rarely cross-pollinate and so need no special protection to prevent hybrids. Even the ones that are notorious for crossing, like winter squash, can be managed fairly easily if you only grow one variety at a time or grow different varieties that won’t pollinate each other.
The second most important thing you can do is avoid commercial fertilizers. Many towns have a program that allows you to buy or even get free the lawn clippings, prunings and leaves collected from town yards. They may already be partly composted by the time you get them, which is even better. Make your own compost, offer to take extra leaves off the neighbors’ hands, find someone with a horse and clean the stall in return for hauling off the manure-laden bedding. You can even shred and compost newspaper.
Then there are the little tips and tricks related to what, when and how you grow. For example, whether you buy green onions at the grocery or grow your own, you need only do it once. Green onions are a great example of a perennial vegetable. Pull them out of the ground, cut off the bottom half-inch which includes the roots, and replant. The onion will re-sprout. Some onions will let you repeat this process several times before they try to go to seed, and some will form a nice little bulb. They hold over the winter in my climate without protection, despite lows down to sixteen degrees. Store-bought garlic can be planted in spring or fall—in my experience fall-planted garlic grows and tastes better. Just divide the cloves and stick them in the ground.
While many commercially grown potatoes are treated with sprout inhibitors, that doesn’t mean they won’t sprout eventually. I store them in the refrigerator door in a plastic bag (the crisper drawer is too cold and too wet, increasing the odds they will freeze or rot). After several months they will start to sprout, so at that point I just cut them in thirds or quarters depending on the size, and plant.
Broccoli can be a perennial plant. Harvest the primary head when it first develops, then allow smaller secondary heads to grow and harvest them. The plant will winter over, withstanding considerable frost, snow and cold. In the spring, trim back anything that looks dead and let the plant grow. As long as you continue to harvest the heads and don’t allow it to go to seed, it will last several years. Horseradish, globe artichokes, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes are real perennial vegetables. Plant once and harvest for years – in the case of asparagus, at least twenty. Chard and kale can be planted once and harvested by cutting back periodically. You can get a number of meals from one plant.
Those are some of my techniques – what are yours?