Planning a Kitchen Garden

tomatoFor the first time in my adult life, I have adequate space for a real kitchen garden. We’ve got two boxed gardens in the back yard, a big batch of winterized compost, and big plans.

What’s a “kitchen garden”? A kitchen garden merely refers to a garden that consists almost exclusively of plants intended to be eaten. Although one might put a few decorative plants around the edges of such a garden, the vast majority of the garden is intended for food.

What to plant? As spring is just about to dawn, we’re already thinking about what sorts of plants will go into our garden. For a kitchen garden, the best method is to examine the food that you want to eat as a result of the garden.

For us, we want to be able to make several things. First and foremost, we want lots of tomato-based things, as we intend to do some canning. We want tomato juice, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, and salsa, all canned fresh. Thus, we’re going to need quite a few tomato plants. We’ll also plant a few pepper plants and a nice balance of herbs, particularly Italian ones.

We also want to be able to make fresh salads in late summer, straight from the garden. This means some amount of lettuce, if nothing else, and probably some carrots as well.

In a nutshell, don’t just plant whatever you think should be in a garden – instead, let the food you want to eat lead you towards your planting choices.

How much to plant? Using this basic framework, we then make a rough sketch of what we’ll plant in our two boxed gardens. Tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, a few pepper plants, and carrots all need to have room, and perhaps a few other things we like in any leftover space, like eggplant or okra.

This requires some research, so I start looking into how these vegetables are planted. Carrots can largely be planted in a row, as can some types of lettuce, but peppers and tomatoes are often standalone plants that need some free space around them. We also need to look at when we can plant them to avoid weather damage – here in Iowa, planting too early runs the risk of your plants being killed off by overnight frost.

We then look at which items are the most important – and for us this year, that’s tomatoes. That’s the item that should be overplanted, especially if you have use for as much of it as you can grow. We’re actually filling one of our boxes 75% with tomato plants, planting 12 plants by our diagram.

The rest of the space is filled by the remaining items in order of importance. The remainder of the tomato box has pepper plants, while we’re planting a fair number of herbs plus lettuce and carrots in the other box.

How does this save money? A healthy, well-cared-for main crop tomato plant, like a Burpee’s Big Girl, can easily produce 100 pounds of tomatoes by itself, something that would cost you at least a dollar a pound at the grocery store. I’m giving a low estimate here, as I remember my father’s garden having only a few plants and also having a daily harvest of tomatoes so heavy you could barely carry them for month after month.

Even better, you can easily use organic methods at home – we’re using compost for fertilizer, for example. Organic tomatoes tend to go for something close to $2 a pound, meaning one tomato plant can produce $200 worth of food. If we grow 12 plants, that’s $2,400 worth of tomatoes and, yes, more than half a ton of tomatoes over the whole growing season.

This doesn’t include the other vegetables, nor does it include the social benefits of being able to share or trade with your neighbors or friends.

Obviously, there is some cost (basic equipment, straw, tomato cages, etc.), but the cost of a bit of straw and the investment in a few tomato cages that can be used for years and years is pretty low. Even in a startup year, where you might buy a small tiller and a few garden implements, you can still come out money ahead on a small kitchen garden.

The real investment, though, is time. It takes regular time to keep the garden weeded and keep an eye out for pests. There’s also some research time required, and if you’re storing some of the output, that takes time (and space… and a bit of equipment) as well.

A kitchen garden is a cost-saving activity that can really be enjoyed as a hobby. I recommend starting very simple, even

as simple as a single tomato plant, and then building up from there. Gardening is a hobby that isn’t enjoyed by everyone, but if you get into it, gardening can save you a ton of money over the long haul.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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