Frugal Gardening, or How To Avoid $100 Tomatoes

heirloom tomatoes on Happy Simple Living blog

Heirloom tomatoes – photo by mrsdkrebs

Last summer was a tough year for growing tomatoes here in our Colorado garden. After buying six large tomato plants for the garden and lovingly planting them in soil I had enriched with store-bought compost, a hail storm on June 7 destroyed all the plants – along with our cedar shake roof.

After replacing all the plants (and the roof), the summer of 2012 broke all our previous records for heat, with more than 70 days of temperatures over 90 degrees. I tried mulching, drip lines and shade fabric, but all of the tomato plants in that full-sun garden were droopy and produced only a few smaller fruits. I also later learned that the commercial compost I bought was probably contaminated. We probably spent about a hundred dollars between all the plants, compost, water and more – for about a dozen garden tomatoes.

A new gardening year is upon us, and I’ve been thinking about how to maximize our output without spending so much cash. One of the best money-saving strategies, of course, is to grow your own plants from seed. Alas, I wasn’t that organized this year but here are some other thoughts:

1. Has your gardening zone changed? Climate change has caused a general warming trend, and you may want to consult the latest U.S. hardiness zones from the Arbor Day Foundation. Choosing the best plants for your particular zone is a whole lot easier than trying to force things to grow where it’s too hot, cold, dry or humid.

2. Watch for sales on less-than-perfect plants. Dig a nice deep hole, add plenty of good soil, give the plants regular water to establish them, and cut off any dead leaves or blooms. I bought a full flat of bedraggled fuchsia petunias last week for just $2.34, and they perked right up with a little TLC.

3. Got old seeds that didn’t get planted last year? Try planting ‘em now and they might just sprout. Scientists planted centuries-old Anasazi beans and – surprise! They sprouted just fine.

4. Swap plants and seeds with friends. Or ask for a slip of a plant you admire and try establishing it with rooting powder.

5. Evaluate what’s thriving and what’s not. Keep notes in a gardening notebook, so you can move plants around next spring.

6. Get creative about adding edible garden plants to your landscape. If you’re going to spend time and money on water and upkeep, the area might as well be producing food, right? We’ve got rhubarb, strawberries, herbs and currants tucked in the front yard landscaping.

7. Install rain barrels to save money on water. Or save “gray water” (like the water used to rinse dishes) to water your garden plants.

8. Make your own compost. You’ll reduce waste, save money and have complete control over the soil-enriching product.

9. Visit a botanical garden. Our beloved Denver Botanic Gardens is always a feast for the eyes and soul, and a great place to stroll around and see what native plants thrive in our particular region.

10. Explore other nearby neighborhoods and find gardens that appeal to you. See what the professional landscapers are planting. Observe the combinations of colors, textures and heights, and make notes about what you like.

11. No new plants in the budget this summer? Maximize what you have. Prune your bushes and tidy up the spaces. Perhaps you can divide some of your perennials and help them produce more. Dig out unwanted weeds. Edge the garden paths. Sketch and plan your dream garden.

What money-saving strategies are you taking in your garden this summer? I always love hearing from you. In the mean time, here’s to a happy Memorial Day. We are deeply grateful for the men and women who sacrificially serve our country.

xo,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

14 comments to Frugal Gardening, or How To Avoid $100 Tomatoes

  • Janis

    Hi Eliza. I’m trying something new this year with my tomatoes. While at the Farmer’s Market (in Kansas City) a couple of weekends ago I spoke to a man selling tomatoes and he told me how he waters. He takes a one-gallon milk jug and punches a little hole in one corner of the bottom. He fills the jug with water, setting the jug right at the base of the plant. He told me that by doing this it takes about 20 minutes for the jug to empty and the water goes much deeper into the soil. That way the roots grow much deeper and are not affected as much when the temperatures get so hot. He said to do this only once a week, twice a week when the weather gets above 90 degrees. He told me that a lot of people over-water because the symptoms of over/under watering are the same (droopy plant) so people automatically think that they need to water MORE when the plant gets droopy. I don’t know if it works but I haven’t gotten good tomatoes for the last couple of years and I’m going to try it.

  • Dear Janis,
    Thanks for sharing – I love this idea! I’m definitely going to try it, because I do think it’s tough sometimes to get the water deep down to the roots. Here’s to happy tomato plants for you, too!

    xo,
    Eliza

  • Wow you did get garden devastation last year. We just started planting our garden today. I did the fresh herbs and Harold all the vegetables. We compost and so does a friend, so the rich compost mixed with a little bit of lime helps the plants. We put a scant amount of Miracle Grow┬« in with the plants and mix around in the soil before covering the plants. Well I surely hope your garden fares well this year.
    Patty Anderson recently posted..A Beautiful Sunday Chicken Dinner

  • Oh yes… last year was definitely a challenge! I took an old garden hose and poked holes in it to create a makeshift drip irrigation system, and it worked pretty well, but I think that when the temperatures get above a certain level the plants go into survival mode and don’t set on any fruit.

    The hail missed us last year, but a few years back we took a major hit with golf ball sized hail that took out the entire garden, along with the roof, the storm door, the siding and several windows. Oy!

    At any rate, I have sort of a “Darwinian” approach to gardening. If something does well, I divide it and spread it around a bit. I’m slowly (as in, I might finish it by the time I’m 90) working on xeriscaping my front yard, and that strategy tends to work rather well except that you can end up with WAY too many of certain plants that do really well (like, ahem, creeping bellflowers, oregano and silvercrest sedum!)

    I’ve never had any luck getting heirloom tomatoes to grow. But, about 10 years ago (before anyone told me you “couldn’t do this) I harvested some seeds from a store bought tomato and have been successfully growing them and saving their seeds ever since. I have no earthly idea what kind of tomato it was, but whatever it is, it seems to resist blight, and tastes great. Seed saving works well with spinach, chard, & pie pumpkins – and I’ve kept a bed of garlic and scallions going for years using the divide and spread method.

    Zucchini & yellow squash seem to degenerate after a generation or two so saving seeds there doesn’t work too well – same with green beans and sugar snap peas, after a few generations they get significantly tougher and less appetizing.

    Anyhow, It’s too late to start tomatoes from seed now, but if you want, I’ll save you some seeds this fall and send them to you. Let me know. And if you’d like any silvercrest sedum, oregano or creeping bellflowers, just say the word – but fair warning, they WILL take over if you’re not careful!

    BTW – how do you get away with rain barrels and saving gray water. I thought it was illegal here in Denver?

    And one other Denver specific question – have you found a good way to deal with bindweed without resorting to chemical warfare?
    EcoCatLady recently posted..The Ethics of Food Choices – And Other No-Win Situations

    • Dear Cat,

      Thanks so much for sharing all of your tips. Your tale about planting seeds from store-bought tomatoes was the best! I love that they are producing good fruit for you. Thank you for your kind offer, and I would love some seeds this fall. Maybe I can return the favor if something grows spectacularly well here.

      Regarding rain barrels, I had heard last year that the city was “looking the other way” if you had one, but that attitude may have changed now that we’re in a drought year. I haven’t invested in rain barrels yet because I want to make sure they’re legal here, as they are in many other states.

      As far as gray water, my method is very passive. During the summer months I put a large stockpot in the kitchen sink, fill it with water and use it to rinse dishes. Then I use the water to water our garden plants. I can’t imagine that it would be illegal since the alternative would be to let the water go down the drain, but I can’t say for sure.

      Thanks for stopping by, and happy gardening!
      xo,
      Eliza

      • Seed exchange this fall would be great fun!

        What I’ve heard in terms of rainwater is that you’re allowed to redirect it, but you’re not allowed to store it. Soooo… when I had all of the gutters (and roof) replaced after the last hail storm, I had the guy who hung the gutters change where a few of the downspouts were so that the water would flow out into the yard instead of just down the alley. Unfortunately, he neglected to re-level the gutters, so the end that points to the alley is still lower than the other end, so now all the water just pools there with no place to go. OY! I don’t think it should be too hard to fix, but we’ll see… guess I have another project on my hands!

        I think that technically greywater re-use of any kind is illegal but I doubt you’ll get caught with just a stockpot. I remember a fellow on the news a few years back who had rigged a hose to his washing machine so he could use the greywater to irrigate his lawn. They slapped a pretty hefty fine on him! I think the deal is that they process the water that goes down the drains and return it to the rivers and streams, which contributes to the amount that we’re legally required to make available to the states downstream. That’s the “logic” behind it anyhow.
        EcoCatLady recently posted..May Grocery Challenge Recap and Thoughts

  • We have been trying different things this year but the biggest money saver has been the sharing of seeds by the neighbors. We’ve had afternoons where everyone gathers with their extra seeds and offers them to anyone who wants them. When I had my garden plot filled this year the man was nice enough to till an extra plot which we are using to plant any extra seeds we have. What we as neighbors can’t use we will give away for free, and hopefully some of those seeds will be saved and replanted.
    Lois recently posted..Acts of kindness

  • rzg123

    I had the same question as EcoCatLady regarding rain harvesting. And I’d love, love, love to hear any advice on dealing with bindweed. I had a non-organic friend offer to zap with Roundup when I wasn’t looking (not that I’d agree to that!) but I doubt that would even work from what I’ve read.

    Thanks!

    • RZG123, you and EcoCatLady have inspired me to write a whole post on bindweed. I’ve learned some surprising facts! Thanks for inspiring me, and I’ll post the article soon.

      Also, I addressed the rain harvesting question in my reply to Cat above.

      Happy digging!

      xo

  • We grew $71 tomatoes once. Great post good tips. It make you really wonder how commercial producers can grow a tomato for under 1 cent and transport it 3 times around the world on foreign oil.

    Mr Simple
    Mr Simple recently posted..Bad ink: The tattoo of debt

  • Great post…I keep thinking about a rain barrel. Has anyone tired this and have you had problems with mosquitoes?
    Christine Somers recently posted..Facebook: Do You Know Rule #11?

  • These are nice tips for somebody considering self-sufficient farming in the future. Yes, it’s amazing that supermarkets are able to produce <$2 tomatoes when to make your own good ones takes so much effort. I like tip 4; I just wish that I had friends enthusiastic about frugal gardening!

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