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How To Save on Groceries… By Growing Your Own

photo: Michelle Kroll

Getting food from your own backyard can beat the supermarket any day, on both taste and price. Think that’s too much work? You’d be surprised.

You don’t need to have a green thumb or a massive backyard to plant and tend to your own garden.

Mint.com user Paula Olson of Carrollton, Texas, began growing tomatoes in a windowsill container in 2000, after noticing store prices on her favorite produce jump. Now she has a backyard garden that also includes peppers, squash, Brussels sprouts and green beans, among other veggies. She’s spent $50 on garden supplies so far, and expects to get more than $250 worth of produce (based on last year’s yield). “It’s not like I’m getting rich off it,” she says. The real payoff shows up at the dinner table, hearing her kids ask for more vegetables. “Homegrown produce just tastes better.”

So what’s a novice gardener to grow? Like Olson, start by considering which fruits, vegetables and herbs account for a hefty portion of your grocery bill. Then look to those you pass up as too expensive, says Julie Parrish, the chief executive of Coupon Girls, whose sites include HotCouponWorld.com and OrganicGroceryDeals.com.

Many of those refrigerator-drawer staples — including tomatoes, lettuce, peas and carrots — are also among the easiest to grow. “They’re hearty; not tender [plants] that require special care,” says Rebecca Cohen, the president of Rebecca Plants, a firm that coaches novice gardeners. Most can even work in containers on a balcony or even a windowsill. All you need is a space where the plants can get six hours of sun and daily watering. Before you buy, check with your local garden center that your area has the right climate to grow a particular item.

To get the most produce for your buck, don’t put all your seeds in the ground at one time. Plant a row every week, Cohen says. That way, veggies ripen in stages, instead of leaving you with more strawberries than you can possibly eat one week and none the next.

Try these nine fruits, vegetables and herbs, which can yield bumper crops with very little effort. (What should Frugal Foodie grow on her balcony? She’s leaning toward blueberries, basil, lettuce and peas. Weigh in!)

Basil

Instead of paying $3 to $5 for a bunch of fresh basil at the supermarket, plant a $2 pack of seeds to harvest enough for year-round enjoyment. Instead of drying basil and other herbs after harvest, chop them and put them in an ice cube tray with a little water and freeze, says Maria Finn, the author of “A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces.” The perfectly portioned cubes can be popped in soup, stir-fry and other dishes to add flavor.

Blueberries

One blueberry plant can produce as much as 20 pounds of fruit during the summer, says Parrish, who planted a hedge of them in her yard. “This year we’re going to get an insane amount,” she says — likely more than 100 pounds. For immediate results, buy a bush that’s already a few years old and ready to start producing fruit. You’d pay about $15 for one in a five-gallon tub. Not bad, considering that even in peak season blueberries go for $2.50 per half-pint at the grocery store.

Green beans

“They’re almost like a weed,” Parrish says. “The more you pick, the more they seem to sprout.” Green beans are also easy to prepare. Cook three minutes in boiling water, then blanch for three in cold water and they’re ready to go to the table for dinner or the freezer for storage.

Peas

“Peas don’t require a lot of worry,” Cohen says. “It’s a great way to get started.” Peas can be planted as early as April, when the temperature is still in the 40s and 50s. They grow easily — so easily in fact, you may want to invest in an inexpensive trellis to encourage them to grow up rather than out.

Peppers

Most varieties of pepper do well grown in containers. They also produce a bountiful harvest. “I end up giving away lots of peppers,” Olson says. Go beyond bell peppers to try habañeros and other spicy varieties, which dry well for use over the winter.

Perennial herbs

Oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage are hardy perennials, meaning your one-time investment in seeds or a small plant can help you save for years. Just clip off what you need before you start cooking, Cohen says.

Salad greens

Lettuce likes cooler temperatures and thrives during the spring and fall. But it can last throughout the summer if planted in a shadier spot. Finn likes to plant several types of salad greens so she can mix something buttery (like lettuce), spicy (mustard greens) and bitter (arugula). “Don’t cut the whole head off to harvest,” she says. “Just peel off the outer leaves.”

Strawberries

“You’re not getting enough to make jams, but it’s enough to put a few in your cereal,” Finn says. That is, if you can wait long enough. (Frugal Foodie likes to eat them straight from the plant.)

Tomatoes

Tomatoes can be tricky to grow from seed, so novice gardeners should start in May with seedlings, Cohen says. Use stakes for support, allowing the plants to save space by growing upward. Even windowsill gardeners can try tomatoes — cherry varieties grow especially well there.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner.