How to Garden and Save Lots of Money

Grow Your Food


Editorís note: If you want to save bucks and eat better, here is a good article to start with. I have known the author for decades, and he has walked the walk.

[Copyright 2000 by Norm Lee. Published here with the permission of the author, who allows it to be copied for private use, but not sold.] 
Why garden?

As the gardener tends his plot and seasons pass, the more benefits he likely realizes. He or she may begin with the single aim of reducing food bills, then find the flavors are far superior to the supermarket's. With the extra vitamins and regular mild exercise comes a gradual improvement in general health and vigor. News of a trucker's strike brings no stress. The confidence and security derived from independence from expensive stale produce and killing frosts in far-off agri-biz fields cannot be estimated in dollar value.

As produce ripens so grows the pleasure in sharing lore with other gardeners, as gardeners have practiced since man evolved from hunter and gatherer to gardener and home builder. Now the garden begins to be recognized as a quiet and patient teacher waiting for the gardener to open to its subtle and profound lessons. One may begin to experience spiritual joys as the garden, once a mere work place for "digging in the dirt", evolves into a refuge, a retreat for mindful meditation.

Why organic?

The home gardener chooses to grow organically so his plants can feed on nutrient-rich, natural soil instead of artificial fertilizers, and he declines to play the fool by spraying poison on his food. 

Site:  The plants require a reasonably level site with minimum six hours' sunshine, access to water, and soil conditions that allow for deep-dug compost beds. Choose a spot that is protected from strong winds, away from trees and large sun- and water-hogging bushes. Southeast of the house is best, due south next best, east is third best; forget west and north. In southern and southwest areas of the U.S. be sure to provide 50% or so shade protection during summer months. 

When the world wearies, and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden. - Minnie Aumonier

Soil:   Gardening is like good parenting: you think first always in terms of meeting the needs of the garden. You take care of the soil, the soil provides for the plants, the plants produce food for you. So the three most important things in gardening are: Soil; soil, and soil.

In most areas there are three types: clay, sand and humus. It is good to have a mixture favoring humus, but in any case your soil will improve with compost. Be an extremist here; composting cannot be overdone. No need for home gardeners to test for pH. As a general rule, whatever the problem or deficiency of your soil, lots of compost will fix it.

Compost: The organic gardener is not troubled with poor soil, because wherever he is, he makes his own. I've raised gardens in Vermont, three sites in New York, and three sites in Arizona. In a Mexican fishing village I developed a deep-compost food garden on the salty, sandy shore of the Sea of Cortez. All successfully grew abundant food. There is no soil that cannot be improved by composting. 
There are many compost "recipes", but providing your garden with sufficient compost is not mysterious, complicated, nor work-intensive. 

Layer a few inches of each: topsoil (humus), greens (grass clippings, raw vegetable kitchen scraps, leaves), manure (horse, cow, chicken, never dog or cat). No meat. Keep the pile moist but not wet, and aerate it by mixing (turning) it every few days. After a few weeks (composting is not an exact science) it will be ready to spade into your garden soil, or fill up garden beds, and/or use as mulch.

Behold this compost! Behold it well ...! It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions. - Walt Whitman

Mulch:  Mulch is compost-type material used to cover the soil's surface after the plants have started. Other than compost, mulch is by far the best friend and work saver a gardener ever had, far better than any $1500 tiller. Apply two or so inches of grass clippings, peat moss, leaves, chipped Xmas trees, bark, pine needles, the list is nearly endless. People even use newspapers, old carpets and flagstone, but these do not feed nutrients to the soil as do the above.


Why not combine the best gardening methods known today? You want practices that (1) produce the most abundant crops in the least space; [2] provide the most vitamins, flavor and economy; (3) require the least work, water and tools, (4) most effectively deter harmful insects, plant diseases, and weeds. 

Organic methods deliver healthiest produce, most economically. The composted soil produces largest crops, and makes for the strongest plants - which insects like to avoid.

Raised beds, once built, are work-savers in many ways: more efficient use of compost and mulch, smaller garden to fence and shade, and more production per plant (because the soil is not compacted by treading between rows). 

Intensive planting combined with deep mulch raised beds multiply food production per square foot many times over. The "shade mulch" keeps down weeks, keeps soil moist, saves water.

Companion planting has been proven to discourage predatory insects; basil among the tomatoes, for example. In fact, scattered plantings of French Marigolds, onions, radishes and any mint herb will do much to discourage the bad bugs, but keep good ones like Lady Bug and mantis.

Successive plantings can easily double your food production by extending the growing season alone. Beginning with starting seed flats of tomato and cabbage family in late winter, you can raise a spring garden, a summer garden, and a fall garden. 

Year 'Round Gardening.  In the late '70s, early '80s Sherrie and I pioneered a method of producing vegetables all winter long in the outside garden in northern climes, eliminating the need for greenhouse, root cellar, freezing, drying or canning. Our New Years Day vegetarian meal consisted of 20 vegetables bursting with flavor, fresh-picked from raised 
beds under a blanket of dry hay, sheet plastic, and a foot of snow. 

Natural foods will be the medicine of the future. - Thomas A. Edison

See my regular gardening column in back issues of Homesteaders News, and my article on winter gardening in Feb '85 East West Journal. The feature article in #45 Homesteaders News describes winter gardening in the North in detail. . Check out also TMEN's book, A TO Z HOME GARDENER'S HANDBOOK #7. For my planting instructions for all four seasons, see the color centerfold in The Mother Earth News #85.

First, The Paper Garden

Stage (1) of gardening is doing your reading; Stage (2) is creating the plan. These can be as enjoyable as the stages following: (3) digging in the dirt, and (4) plucking the harvest. This information below - indeed, for this entire article - is selected and condensed from Norm Lee's Book of Garden Lists [see end of article]:

The most common mistakes: [List #93] 
     DON'T use chemical fertilizers or pesticides
     DON'T plan a large garden
     DON'T plant rows instead of beds
     DON'T fail to use compost
     DON'T plant too much seed too thickly
     DON'T buy more many "work-saving" tools 
     DON'T plant seed too deep
     DON'T fail to apply mulch

How To Avoid Work [List #59] The wise (and lazy) gardener plans a small garden, loads raised beds with deep compost, and plants intensively. This reduces losses from pests, diseases, and drought. The raised bed intensive planting uses the compost, water and mulch most efficiently, reduces the stooping and bending, and virtually eliminates weeds. There is no plowing, tilling, hoeing, cultivating, weeding, spraying, dusting, etc. 

You can quickly spend $2,000 on tools, sold to you on the claim that they "save work". When you calculate the hours of work required for the money to pay for them, those expensive tillers and weeders, and sprayers are not so cheap. You need only four tools [List #67: shovel, rake, trowel, and a four-tine fork. In hotter climes, a hose for irrigation.

Tools that make work [List #68]: roto-tiller, hoe, cultivator, plow, harrow, seeder, chemical sprayer, sprinkler ...

To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.
- Mahatma Gandhi

What to plant

1. Easiest to grow [List #101]: radish; leaf lettuce; spinach; tomato; onion sets; sweet corn; summer squash; beet green; bush bean; turnip; pea 
2. Quickest to harvest [List #96]: six weeks: radish; turnip; leaf lettuce; spinach; bean; beet greens; summer squash, green onion from sets
3. Most popular vegetable in home gardens [List #149]: tomato, leaf lettuce, onion, cucumber, beans, radish, green pepper, carrot, peas, beet, spinach, corn, summer squash, cabbage
4. Most nutritious vegetables: [List #24] (in order of food value, fresh & raw); broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, peas, asparagus, artichokes, cauliflower, sweet potato, carrot 
5. Short season crops [List #73A]: bush bean, beet green, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, lettuce, radish, pea, early corn, Chinese cabbage
6. Flats to set out a month before average last frost in spring: [List #115] cabbage; broccoli; cauliflower; onion; lettuce; Swiss chard
7. Flats to set out two weeks after average last frost date [List #115]: tomato; summer squash; green pepper; cucumber; eggplant, cantaloupe

When to plant seeds:

1. On Average Last Frost Date [List #36: beans, corn, cucumber, pepper, cantaloupe, pumpkin, summer squash, winter squash, watermelon
2. Plant at mid-summer [List #36]: Chinese cabbage, parsnip, pea, turnip

Space to allow:

Minimum space requirements per plant [List #63]:
 2 inches: peas, carrot, green onion, beet green 
 4 inches: bean, dry onion, parsnip, spinach, turnip
 6 inches: leaf lettuce, celery, cucumber 
 9 inches: Swiss chard, potato, spinach
 12 in: Chinese cabbage, head lettuce, potato, sum squash, tomato
 [See also List #65: plants per square foot.]
How Much To Plant Per Person List #98A shows figures for row cropping; for intensive planting, space allowed must come from experience and personal tastes. Suggestion is to begin modestly: 

1. Plant per person: 20 radish, carrot, beet, onion, turnip
Plants per person: 3 cantaloupe, summer squash, winter squash
Plants per person: 5 broccoli, Brussels sprout, cauliflower, pepper, tomato, white cabbage, Chinese cabbage
Plants per person: 10 bush bean, potato, spinach 
Plants per person: 20 pea, sweet corn

2. Normally potatoes, sweet corn, squashes and melons are grown in patches, not raised beds. See List #65 for plants per square foot. 

"I consider this collection of vital information one of the few essential tools for the back yard gardener... [ Norm Lee's Book of Garden Lists ]  belongs with the trowel, the shovel, and the compost fork."
 (Helen Nearing, co-author (with Scott Nearing) of Living the Good Life)

Over 2,500 facts distilled from 80+ sources; 300+ lists in 25 categories. Includes sections on: Starting Seed in Flats, Preserving the Harvest, Companion Planting, Beginner's Garden, Desert Gardening, List Sources, Garden & Health; Spring, Summer, Fall, & Winter Gardens, Seed Sources, and more. 200 pages, wire-bound. As I understand it is out of print, you will need to try a used book search on the internet if you are interested in purchasing this book.


Andrew W. Saul


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