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Nothing says summer like that first sweet bite of a homegrown tomato. Slap it on a sandwich, mix it in a salsa, or just eat it like an apple. You can’t go wrong with the world’s greatest fruit . . . err, vegetable . . . err, fruit.
Okay, whatever it is, it’s delicious. Especially if you grew it.
Gardening isn’t for everyone, we know. But if you want to try out your green thumb this summer, it can also be a great way to save some money on groceries. Before you buy the garden center out of seeds, though, remember that some produce is still cheaper to buy at the store than to nurture in your veggie patch all season long.
To get the most bang for your gardening buck, keep your plants simple and stick to produce that really performs. You can add more to your plate next year, after you get the hang of things.
Lettuce and spinach. Stock up on ranch dressing now, because within a month of sowing your tiny seeds, you’ll be enjoying fresh-from-the-garden salads every night. And pick away—lettuce replenishes quickly. As you’re planting, remember to stick to leafy varietals, as the whole-head kind takes longer to mature.
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Tomatoes. Tomatoes can save you a bundle. Not only are they great when ripe, but they’re also a Southern-fried delicacy when green. Plus, with a little canning now, you can enjoy homemade tomato sauce, juice and salsa all winter.
Squash, zucchini and cucumbers. Plant these super performers sparingly and give them plenty of room to spread their wide leaves. Once your squash, zucchini, and cucumbers start producing, pull out the plastic grocery bags, because everyone in your office, church and neighborhood will be dusting off their zucchini bread recipes.
Bell peppers. For the cost of one or two bell peppers at the store, your own pepper plant will produce an entire bag of this versatile veggie. You can get a color explosion—yellow, orange, red and even purple—from just one pepper variety. Four for the price of one!
Green beans (or pole beans). As long as the soil’s warm and the sun’s shining, these guys are the gift that keeps on giving. Just make sure they have some support. You can plant them along a fence-line or make your own simple trellis out of sticks and string.
Herbs. If you’ve ever bought fresh herbs at the grocery store, you know why this one’s on the list. Go ahead and plant your favorite herbs then snip as needed for mint teas, basil pestos and rosemary breads.
Pass on These for Now
Potatoes. Unless you dig at just the right time, your potato harvest may end up depressingly small or completely rotten. At less than $1 per pound on average, it’s better to just buy steak’s favorite side dish from your local farmer or grocer.
Blueberries. If you’re a novice, these superfoods are best for another year based on size, care, and keeping the birds away. When you’re craving some baby blues, find a pick-your-own farm and take the kids or grandkids for a day of bucket-filling fun. That way, you can eat (or freeze) your bounty for way less time and effort.
Carrots. One carrot seed equals one carrot—and that’s if you have the right kind of soil. In the world of budget gardening, that ain’t great math, folks. To save on carrot costs, buy in bulk. When stored properly, these root vegetables can keep for months.
Watermelons. Ever bought your watermelons from that guy sitting under a beach umbrella by the side of the highway? If not, consider this: Watermelons require rich soil, lots of water, tons of room and about 80 days before they’re ready for your annual seed-spitting contest. Maybe it’s time to rethink umbrella guy.
Asparagus. Unless you planted it years ago, you won’t be enjoying any homegrown asparagus this summer. The notoriously slow-starting vegetable needs two to three years to mature. Better luck next year . . . or the year after that . . . or the year after that.
Sweet corn. This classic summer food needs breathing room. So unless you’re tilling up an acre of earth, leave sweet corn to the pros. Even if you have the space, corn is a one-and-done crop, so save yourself the hassle and support growers who can plant large enough quantities to make a profit.
No matter what you grow this season, make sure you sow only what you (or your neighbors) will eat, and shoot for simple plants that really produce. You may be surprised to find out your green thumb works after all.
Looking for other ways to save on summer meals? Try cutting your grocery budget without the coupons!