My wife and I plant a vegetable and herb garden every single year behind our house. We have several slightly raised boxes, one of which is devoted to perennials (meaning things grow every year, so there’s almost no maintenance there).
Over the years, we’ve come to really appreciate vegetables and herbs that are what you might call low effort and big savings. In other words, we like vegetables that are fairly expensive at the store but are actually really easy to grow at home without a ton of effort.
This frees us to not have to worry about the garden every day. Sure, one (or both) of us will probably go out there a couple of times a week to check things over and to pull a few weeds, but we don’t have to be out there every day other than to maybe look it over from our back patio. Most of our effort, after a solid day of garden work in the spring, is spent pulling a few weeds here and there, watering it occasionally, and harvesting.
The same thing was true when we used to live in an apartment. We really enjoyed vegetables we could grow in large pots out on our front patio, as we didn’t have a garden to grow vegetables in.
My math is that most years we spend about $5 on seeds, we reuse the tools we’ve had for years, and our garden produced hundreds of dollars worth of vegetables. This requires us to spend one day in the spring with some pretty serious effort in the garden, followed by looking at it every day we’re around and maybe a bit of weeding twice a week or so that takes maybe 30 minutes on a nice afternoon. There are some additional startup costs as well, as you’ll need a few tools to get going.
Interested? Here are some notes from our low-effort-big-savings garden.
Own a Home? Consider a Box Garden
A box garden is basically a wooden box that’s intended to separate your garden from the rest of the yard. This makes it a lot easier to mow around it, plus it’s easier to keep weeds from gradually invading over time. You still have to weed it mostly due to grass seed that inevitably gets in there, but it’s not bad. It also eliminates the need for a tiller to turn over the soil for the first time, though you may eventually want a small one for spring and fall soil care.
A box garden consists of four 4″ by 4″ corner posts and four 2″ by 4″ or 2″ by 6″ long boards to make up the sides. You simply choose a flat place in your yard, set the posts in the ground, and then screw the side boards into the posts, forming a box. It’s a few hours of work, but it’s not very complicated; it just requires measuring carefully, digging a few small holes in your yard and putting in some wood screws. I recommend something like a 6′ by 8′ box to get started. You’ll need to put some barrier cloth along the bottom and put some planting soil in there (which you can buy in bulk pretty inexpensively). Here’s a guide for getting started.
If you want to get some inexpensive soil, get a couple of large buckets, find a home building project going on near you and ask if you can have some of that dirt. Fill the buckets up with soil, take it home, and fill your garden with it; just be sure to remove rocks. Easy as can be! It is worth noting that the soil in your area might not be great for growing; you’ll want to start feeding it immediately, so check the section below.
Live in an Apartment? Consider a Container Garden
A container garden is just one or more large containers filled with soil that you keep on the patio, balcony, or deck of your apartment. Small containers can even work on a window shelf (think of a large flowerpot). You can typically find containers at home improvement and gardening stores, though you can sometimes find them at yard sales and on community swap sites.
Using a container is simple. You make sure the container has a few holes in the bottom for drainage. You fill up the bottom quarter with gravel. Then, you fill the rest with soil; as noted above, you can either buy some planting soil or see if there’s any soil freely available, though the freely available soil may need some improvement.
The advantage of containers is that they can be moved inside when the weather gets harsh, extending the growing season of the plants. It’s possible to have tomato plants that continue growing and producing for years.
Feeding Your Soil
As plants grow, they absorb nutrients from the soil. Soil isn’t infinitely abundant in nutrients, so you do need to replenish those nutrients in some way. There are a number of ways to do this.
My favorite way, which is inexpensive and easy, is with a compost bucket. Just get a large bucket with a loose fitting lid and put your vegetable scraps and coffee grounds in it. Mash it down and mix it around occasionally. It will eventually acquire a sweet aroma and start to break down into rich black or brown compost. When things have broken down to the point where you can no longer tell the structure of anything and it all looks like black mush or soil, you can spread it on your garden. I like to make this stuff really wet before doing so.
Another way that requires a little less effort but is less effective is to simply throw vegetable scraps into a small bucket for a few weeks, add water until it’s full for a day or so, then just pour off the water onto your garden. Again, this won’t be nearly as rich as full compost, but it’s far better than nothing.
You can always buy fertilizer at the store, but that can be fairly expensive.
Another good strategy is to add earthworms to your garden. On a rainy day, go on a walk just after the rain stops and take a cup with you. If you see any earthworms that have surfaced, grab them and put them in your cup. When you get home, put all of the worms you found in your garden. They’ll naturally help improve the soil over time – they increase the water and air content of the soil, break down organic matter, and they leave behind their casings as they grow, which is an amazing form of fertilizer. You can even put worms straight into your compost bucket, as the worms will devour the compost, break things down even more, and add their casings to your bucket.
Watering and Weeding
Most of the things listed below are quite hardy and can survive imperfect watering and weeding. We’ve had seasons where we’ve left the garden untouched for weeks and these vegetables and herbs have been just fine.
Having said that, you should water your garden when the soil is dry and you should remove weeds on a consistent basis – just pull anything that’s not the vegetable you want out by the roots and throw it away.
The thing I like about gardening tasks is that they’re very quiet and contemplative. It’s not mentally difficult work – you’re simply pouring water on the garden or pulling up small plants. However, there’s something about it that’s deeply relaxing. I find it’s a great time to think about the world and the time passes almost in the blink of an eye.
With the strategies and plant options in this article, this doesn’t have to be a major commitment of time. It’s just ten minutes here or half an hour on a Saturday. By focusing on plants that require minimal effort to grow, you don’t have to live in your garden to have nice produce.
Keeping Bugs and Pests Away
Bugs and pests vary widely depending on your location, so there’s no universal advice I can give. I will say that spraying mildly soapy water on the garden takes care of a lot of pests, and a small fence will keep things like rabbits out of your box garden, but the actual issues will vary greatly from place to place.
If you find that your plants are being eaten or that some sort of blight is bothering them, spend some time with Google figuring out what’s wrong. Many of the fixes are quite simple and really effective.
Eight Things to Grow
What will you grow in your garden? Here are eight things to consider growing, whether you’ve got a box garden or a container garden. Almost everything on this list can be planted and grown successfully by simply planting according to the seed packet directions, keeping the soil moist, and removing any weeds that are nearby.
Kale: A packet of kale seeds costs about a dollar. The seeds in that packet, when planted, will start producing leaves in about six weeks and will produce leaves for several months afterward. Harvesting kale is easy – just go out and cut off some of the leaves with a knife or scissors.
Baby kale leaves are great in salads. Adult kale leaves can be cooked and used in a wide variety of dishes; I like it chopped up and put in soups, myself.
Lettuce: While it’s not quite as big of a money saver as kale, lettuce is still incredibly simple to grow and produces leaves after six weeks or so for about six months. There are also a lot of varieties of lettuce, most of them much more flavorful than the head of iceberg lettuce in the store.
Some lettuce forms heads, which you can cut off and harvest; other lettuce is more like a bundle of leaves, which you can cut and eat as desired.
Almost all types of lettuce make for the backbone of a great flavorful salad. Large leaves can also be used for lettuce wraps.
Spinach: Again, just like lettuce and kale, this leafy vegetable takes about six weeks to grow and can produce for several months. To harvest it, again, you just go out there and cut off the leaves that you want.
Spinach works well in salads, but it can also be cooked down as a side dish or used in many Italian dishes. I quite like spinach in lasagna, for example.
Tomatoes: It’s easiest to buy a tomato start rather than a seed, as growing from a seed can be a bit of work. A start can usually be planted directly and will grow to producing fruit in about 12 weeks; it will continue to produce throughout the growing season and, if brought indoors in a container and left near a large window with plenty of sunlight, can produce into the winter and even beyond.
The uses for tomatoes are infinite. You can slice them for sandwiches, juice them, cook them down into sauce… the list goes on and on.
Broccoli: This one’s easy to start from seeds. A single plant, started from a single seed, can produce several pounds of broccoli and grows in about 10 weeks. It’s worth noting that broccoli does not do well in extreme heat, so if you have it in a container, you might want to consider moving the container inside during the peak of summer heat. You just cut the broccoli heads right off the plant.
Broccoli makes for a great side dish. It was also a key ingredient in a chicken, cheese, and broccoli casserole that my family often had when I was growing up.
Asparagus: Asparagus requires an “asparagus patch” – a devoted spot in an outdoor perennial garden, which can just be the corner of your garden bed – which will take two years to get going, but will produce an abundance of asparagus for 20 or more years. Once it’s going, it will produce stalks in the early spring for a very long time with almost zero additional effort.
Asparagus makes for an absolutely delicious side dish. We eat it almost every day when asparagus is in season, often grilling it or baking it.
Root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, etc.): Root vegetables take quite a while to grow – up to several months, depending on the vegetable – but are extremely low effort and produce a nice crop for a very low price. The only real effort is digging them out when they’ve grown for long enough; you just mark an expected harvest day on the calendar and wait, keeping the top free from weeds.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes and turnips and carrots? The uses are infinite. Mash them, bake them, use them in casseroles, fry them… there are just so many uses for these things.
Perennial herbs: These include mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, and savory. You simply plant them once and they grow again and again, year after year. You just cut off what you need as you need it. You’ll want to have a devoted spot for these as they can kind of take over other things, but it can be something as simple as a small 1′ by 1′ patch beside the stairs coming off your deck or a small container devoted just to herbs.
These herbs pop up in countless recipes. You can also collect a lot of leaves at the end of the season and dry them for wintertime use with very little trouble.
Preparing the garden is one of the rites of spring, something that will be upon us very soon. Sarah and I are already planning for it.
When the weather turns warm, we’ll spend a beautiful Saturday out there with a hoe, turning the soil over and adding some compost and “fertilizer juice” and then planting a variety of vegetables.
Throughout the spring and summer, we’ll glance out at the garden, give it some water on dry days, and pull some weeds on the weekends when we want a peaceful hour or so outside.
In the summer and fall, our garden will produce an abundance of vegetables that add nothing to our grocery bill yet still fill our plates with delicious and healthy items. We usually have such an abundance that we trade extras with the neighbors or preserve some of them.
At the end of the year, we will have saved hundreds of dollars thanks to our garden. The produce will all be as fresh as possible (we often eat things that were still in the garden less than an hour before) and often better tasting than the varieties from the store (because they’re often selected for sale in a store based on how long they’re shelf stable rather than how delicious they are).
Our low-effort garden produces incredible value for us, and I believe that it can do the same for anyone.