by Will Atkinson
Here’s a staggering investment secret that will boggle your mind: over one-third of U.S. households are making an average investment of $70 and seeing their portfolio grow to a worth of $600, for a whopping annual return on investment of over 757%! How? They’re planting fruit and vegetable gardens.
In 2007, prior to this country’s most recent economic woes, about 25% of households grew fruits and vegetables. That number increased by 20% in 2008 and keeps rising every year. Homeowners have the advantage when it comes to planting a food garden, but anyone with access to outdoor space can and should spend time gardening. You’ll save money, you’ll eat healthier, and several studies have shown that home gardening is a great way to reduce stress. The average gardener spends five hours a week taking care of their fruits and vegetables, so even the busiest among us should be able to find the time.
It’s easy to be seduced by a seed catalog. Colorful seed packets and mouth-watering descriptions abound, and novices and experienced gardeners alike can easily buy more varieties than they could ever hope to fit in their garden space. Once you know where your garden is going to be, make note of how much actual growing space you have before purchasing seeds or starter plants. Some fruits and vegetables do well under crowded conditions; others need a foot or more of space between each plant in order to thrive.
It’s also a good idea to do a little research on the varieties that perform well in your area, and their planting times. Ask your local County Extension Agent, Master Gardeners Club, or a friendly neighbor for their recommendations. For example, cherry trees are a lost cause in Texas, and you’d be hard pressed to find a productive avocado tree planted in a backyard somewhere in Wisconsin. Tomatoes can be grown anywhere, but planting times for optimum yields very greatly according to climate.
Grow Heirloom Vegetables
There are thousands of different varieties of tomatoes, but you’ll only see a handful in your local supermarket. This is due to the fact that most heirloom varieties are too delicate to withstand being shipped across the country. Supermarket produce is bred and selected according to its ability to be shipped for great distances without damage, and to look good on the shelves. Taste or nutritional value is barely a consideration.
In contrast, heirloom vegetables are almost entirely chosen for their superior taste. Once you’ve bitten into a Cherokee Purple tomato you’ll never want to buy from the supermarket again.
You are what you eat. There is compelling evidence that people who eat largely organic diets have fewer diseases or other health related problems, and tend to live longer, more active lives. If that isn’t enough to convince you consider this: as far back as 1995, the American Journal of Public Health stated that children who lived in a home where chemical insecticides and pesticides were used were four times more likely to develop cancer.
When you eat organically you’ll live longer. In addition to doing something good for your own health and the health of your family, you’ll be doing something good for the environment. When you grow organically you’ll notice a host of beneficial insects returning to your garden, like ladybugs and dragonflies. Ladybugs will help to control the aphid population, and dragonflies love to eat mosquitoes. Worms will return to the soil, making your job as a gardener that much easier.
Composting is one of the easiest, most environmentally friendly things you can do for your soil. Not only will your fruits and vegetables taste better, they’ll have more nutrients than store bought produce due to the rich, organically composted soil they were grown in. Kitchen waste like trimmings from vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds and banana peels will do wonders for your soil. A simple rule of thumb for composting is to have one green layer (kitchen waste, grass clippings) followed by one brown layer (dead leaves, hay, etc.). Keep the compost pile moist, and before you know it you’ll have a powerful natural fertilizer. You’ll also be doing your part to make planet earth more hospitable: studies have shown that the average non-composting person throws out 1,500 pounds of trash per year, and the average composting American only disposes of 375 pounds annually.
Mulch and Conserve Water
Mulching helps to conserve water by slowing evaporation, and it makes the gardener’s job easier by keeping the weeds down. Once my seedlings are tall enough I buy a small bale of hay from a local feed store and spread it around the plants. It makes gardening simpler and less time consuming.
Another way to conserve is by installing a rain barrel or two under the eaves of your house or garage. Rainwater that would normally end up in the storm drain system can be directed from your rain gutters to a barrel, to be used in the garden. Not only will this save money in the long term, rainwater is pure. Some municipalities treat your tap water with fluorides and other harmful chemicals.
Home canning is also on the rise. At the very least it’s a great way to stretch out the food budget, but it’s also a good way to eat healthier. Next time you’re in the supermarket read the ingredients on a jar of blackberry preserves. If there are more than three ingredients listed then you’re putting something in your body that has no business being there. You’ll eat healthier, you’ll save money, and you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing what is in your food. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has an extensive, highly informative website with recipes and safety tips for home canning.
There is something very calming about working in the garden. After a few moments it’s almost as if you’ve taken the weight of the world off of your shoulders and placed it under your fingertips. Researchers are starting to pay attention to the health benefits of gardening, and recent studies have shown that spending a few hours each week with your hands in the dirt can help lower stress hormones and ease a host of other health related problems such as depression, inflammation, and dementia. Recent studies have even shown that gardeners have a 35% to 45% lower risk of developing dementia than non-gardeners.