While mindlessly scrolling Facebook I saw a post which was an article from 2017 that had been reshared. The title of the article was "No, poor New Zealand families can’t just ‘grow their own vegetables'". I read the article, and it got me thinking.
I know that people grow vegetables for lots of reasons, saving money may be a minor reason for some people. Growing your own vegetables can give you a greater variety of vegetables that you can't get in the supermarket, you know they are chemical-free, they taste better, and you get the enjoyment of some physical activity outside in nature. But that doesn't mean that its not possible use your vegetable garden to reduce your food bill.
I read through a few of the comments on the Facebook post and the majority agreed that starting a vegetable garden was too expensive and time-consuming for those already struggling with the high cost of living. However, a few comments gave me hope - suggesting that enough useful vegetables could be grown cheaply in buckets and tubs, so that even renters could benefit from growing their own vegetables.
And it made me think that, like anything, there are ways to grow vegetables relatively cheaply if you know what you're doing. I currently have the benefit of being able to afford large raised garden beds, a property with space for cattle and chickens (giving me access to unlimited manure for my garden) and seedlings when I can't wait for seeds to grow. But I have, in the long distant past, attempted to grow vegetables in a rental property in the city, so I feel qualified to share some thoughts on how to grow vegetables as cheaply as possible.
1) Its amazing what you can find for free
Forget beautiful matching pots or raised beds, if you can't dig up your lawn, utilise dump shops and solid waste collection days, Buy/Swap/Sell Groups etc to find large containers for growing your vegetables. Keep an eye out for organic material (wood chip, leaves, grass clippings, seaweed) that you can collect to make compost and eventually soil to fill your containers. Collect all your vegetable scraps to make compost.
2) Grow nutrient-dense productive plants
If you don't have a lot of space or time to garden, focus on a few plants that produce a lot of nutrients (and make sure they grow in your climate!). Plants like zucchini, pumpkin, choko, beans, cherry tomatoes, silverbeet and kale - these are easy to grow and produce a lot from a single plant that can be trained to grow up a trellis if necessary.
3) Work with your community
Find out if there is a local community garden that you could join - this is also a great place to learn about growing vegetables and swap produce and seeds with other growers. Find out if there is a local produce share that you could attend - not every share is the same, but the one I go to encourages people to bring other things if they can't bring produce, like newspapers or jars, that can also help others. This is also a great place to get free seedlings, seeds and gardening advice! If you can't find a community garden or a produce share, could you help to start one in your area?
You might even have one very productive neighbour who doesn't know what to do with their harvest. I have a friend who grows so much in her garden, she gives it away to all her neighbours in exchange for their vegetable scraps to use for compost. Could you offer your time to help a neighbour in the garden, or with something else, in exchange for excess produce?
(Also noting that in some places you can get very cheap vegetables at genuine farmers markets, although I realise they are not always easy to get to if you're city-based. At the Nanango Market last weekend I got 2 heads of cauliflower for $5 and 6 heads of broccoli for $5, which is significantly cheaper than the supermarket and there is nothing wrong with the produce, you just have to get there early!).
4) Learn to cook from scratch
One of the big challenges when you grow vegetables is knowing how to use them. If you don't know how to cook from scratch, you will always be paying more for prepared food. Get onto Youtube, or find someone who can teach you the basics. The more you learn, you will easily be able to cook up all the in-season produce you can get hold of and make cheap nutritious food for your family.
5) Don't expect it to be easy
Learning to grow vegetables is like any new skill - its not going to be easy at first. You're going to make mistakes and learn from them. Not everything you plant is going to do well. But if you keep working on it, eventually you can produce some food. I'm not saying you'll never need to go to the supermarket again, but at least you should be able to pick some leafy greens to add to a meal, and at times you will grow more than you can eat (zucchini gluts!).
At the moment we grow about half our vegetable requirements (and we eat a lot of vegetables). I still choose to buy carrots (at $1.50 a bag why grow them?) and potatoes, and mushrooms, broccoli and cauliflower are too hard to grow here, so I choose to buy them. However, I am currently growing sweet potato, kale, silverbeet, perennial leeks, zucchini and cherry tomatoes. I've just planted seedlings of more zucchini, cucumber, beans, squash and lettuce. I'm waiting for broadbeans to produce, and then I'll plant snake beans. I have a couple of choko plants started and they are usually very productive. We have a pumpkin vine and a capsicum still going from last summer too, so they should produce when it gets warmer.
I come from generations of suburban vegetable growers, and I know for sure that both my grandmothers had large vegetable gardens on city blocks that they used to feed their families. It used to be that everyone grew their own vegetables and everyone knew how to cook from scratch. Unfortunately the last few generations have forgotten those skills, but that doesn't mean that they can't be learnt again, and that certainly doesn't mean that growing vegetables isn't a useful skill and a way to save on your food bill.
I agree that its not a case of "just" growing your own vegetables, its not that easy, but that doesn't mean we should just ignore the option and not even encourage people to try.
What do you think? And what advice would you give someone who is growing vegetables on a tight budget?