The Summer I Grew Half My Own Food
One frequent question I get asked is whether or not gardening helps save me money. I would say yes and in more ways than one.
Gardening is similar to a CSA: you pay for everything upfront and then enjoy the food for the season. At this point, my yard is already sectioned off. I have the number of pots that I need and leftover seeds from previous years. I also have help. My grandfather helps me plant at the start of each spring and answers any questions if I’m unsure of things. Apart from him, my knowledge has been trial and error.
I tend to plant for summer and fall and ignore winter and spring (because I’m usually swamped with work and my poor garden is neglected). Around January/February I start to think about what I want to plant for summer, starting with what worked the previous summer and what I like to eat. Staple foods: corn, tomatoes, lettuce. And I keep potted herbs on my windowsill year round.
I also keep a list of things I want to experiment with. For instance, I really want to plant Brussels sprouts but I don’t have anywhere to plant it at the moment. Up until recently I had never seen Brussels sprouts in the ground. It’s like a tree trunk with a cabbage top hybrid.
Most of my plants I purchased from my local farmer’s market. I find the plants are nicer there and last multiple seasons. The strawberry plants from the farmer’s market are still producing fruit three years later, which has not been the case with some plants from big box stores.
I prefer to plant seedlings because it speeds up the growing process and has less room for error. Not every seed you plant will grow. But you have no way of knowing whether one will or won’t until you put it in the ground.
$34.68: Tomatoes (12 plants at $2.69 per plant)
$1.69: Corn seed packet
$32.50: Farmers market herbs (two strawberry plants, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage)
$10: Farmers market fruit etc. (onions, garlic, cantaloupe, watermelon)
$10: Raspberry bush purchased previous year
$15: Grape vine purchased previous year
$30.97: Additional lattice for grape vines
$10: 2 bags of compost
$10: 5 glass jars from Goodwill to store tomato sauce
$1: Dollar store gardening gloves
$0: Sunflower seeds used from previous year
$0: Kale and swiss chard from previous year
$0: Shovels, rakes, watering can — gift from grandfather
My backyard is about the size of a volleyball court with some extra room along the side of the house. I live in Los Angeles so the growing season is much longer than it is in other parts of the country.
How much did the garden produce? Way more than I expected. I canned about 25 jars of spaghetti sauce: some was eaten over the summer, a lot was given away. I made grape jelly because the grape vines produced over 10 lbs of grapes and I didn’t want any of it to go to waste. (See, trial and error!) The spaghetti sauce lasted me from June until October and the grape jelly lasted me until January of the following year.
That summer I ate tons of fresh food. My typical breakfast was fresh fruit with yogurt. Lunch and dinner I had similar meals of spaghetti with red sauce, pasta/fruit/vegetable salad, bruschetta, or rice with fresh herbs. I started making my own salad dressings, usually a lemon vinaigrette with fresh herbs and garlic.
I spent way less on everything that summer from groceries to medicine. I bought more soy milk and eggs when I ran out, but otherwise just made one big shopping trip at the beginning and the end of the summer. The majority of the time I ate from the garden. My grocery bill went from $150 per month to $75 per month for June, July, and August.
The greatest benefit to me is the improvement to my mental and physical health. I get so much joy from tending to my plants and literally being able to eat the fruits of my labor. Also, I have pretty severe environmental and food allergies, so I feel ill much of the time. However, when I’m growing my own food, I find that I don’t have nearly as many allergy symptoms and stomach issues. By feeling better and eating better, my overall mental well being improves.
All the photos are from a few summers ago when I grew just under half of my food. Depending on work/life demands I continue to produce anywhere from 20% to 50% of my own food. Someday I’d love to have enough space to grow even more.
Ariana Burrell is a freelance writer and poet working in Southern California. You can find her lurking around the internet here: Instagram or Twitter or Website. If you’re so inclined, you can leave her a tip here.
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