Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Heirloom gardening on a budget

In not-so-sunny Indiana, we're still about two months away from our first planting of the year, but I'm tempted by the catalogs and their promises of colorful heirlooms for my garden.

Sure, gardening can be expensive. The set-up costs of starting a raised bed, of building up bad dirt, of overbuying expensive seeds. But it also can be a great investment: in your health, in your relationships with your kids (mine are digging in the dirt anyway), in the environment.

I'm partial in that we use organic practices in our garden, and we prefer to try heirloom varieties over other types of seeds. Granted, that sounds like a recipe for expensive. It doesn't have to be.

To put aside any worries, here are six tips for heirloom gardening on a budget.

1. Price shop. Heirloom doesn't have to be expensive. In one catalog, I've found prices ranging from $1.75 a packet (much what you'd pay at a garden shop) to more than $4, depending on the variety. If you're not partial to a particular type, you can try heirlooms relatively inexpensively.

2. Watch your costs. In Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman recommends not buying more than two or three types of a particular produce. Most of us have small garden plots, so buy accordingly. Also, consider splitting seeds and shipping costs with another gardener.

3. Save your seeds. True, entire books have been devoted to this subject, but seed saving doesn't have to be complicated. For example, I've left bean seeds to dry on my counter to be used later in the season or the following spring.

4. Let your plants re-seed. OK, this tip is more out of laziness than anything. After accidentally seeing some lettuce bolt one summer, I let it go to seed out of curiousity. I had to do nothing to have new lettuce the following year!

5. Buy local when you can. While the price is often comparable, you'll benefit by growing plants that are more accustomed to your climate and soil.

6. Extend your seasons. Seed goes bad after a few years, so why not make the most of it? Check your area extension's garden calendar to see how long you can plant a particular plant. You could easily get a second or third batch of carrots, radishes or cool-season vegetables just by doing another planting. Extended-season gardening is something I'm relatively new at, but I love reaping the rewards!

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