Fabulously Frugal: Save money on groceries with a garden

Photo by Markus Spiske.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic kept us all close to home in 2020, interest in gardening is (pardon the pun) growing. From pots on the balcony or deck to a full yard — and even the front yard converted to growing food — many of us are not only growing our own food, but beautifying our outdoor spaces with plants.

For those who are trying to reduce reliance on big box grocery stores, the ideal way is to grow some of your food.

Starting a garden can be daunting. Social media is full of perfect photos of incredible gardens where everything is in bloom or producing at the same time, and a weed not even dares poke its head out. This, my friends, is not reality. Neither is the immaculately clad gardener with a manicure.

A real garden produces staggered produce as it matures, and we all get dirty jeans and dirt under our fingernails to make it happen.

How to begin:

To get started, it helps to know your growing zone. Growing zones are geographic areas categorized based on climate conditions. They help gardeners choose plants that can thrive in their specific region by considering factors like average winter temperatures, and length of the growing season. As can be seen on the linked maps/charts, here in the Kingston area we are in a growing zone somewhere between 5b and 6a. Our last frost date is May 24, for instance, and our growing season is 145 to 160 days. Find more information on the average frost-free periods here.

Our soil is clay, and that’s nearly impossible to grow in. Raised beds are your friend, and this is the time to get them ready. You can use any container for a raised bed, as long as it’s 12″ deep at minimum and waterproof with drainage. Have an old baby bathtub kicking around? Poke some drainage holes in it and use it! I’ve grown a hearty crop of kale in a dollar store bucket.

You can build raised beds using rough-sawn hemlock that’ll last years. Card Lumber has this on the cheap, and Mr. Card is a great source of information. A 2’ wide by 8’ long bed that’s 12” deep will grow just about anything and allow you to easily do ‘square foot gardening.’ You can find Card Lumber at 2167 Highway 38, or give them a call at 613-384-2335.

A note for gardening in containers: ensure good drainage. If you don’t have a drill and bits to make holes in your plastic containers, you can heat up a skewer on the stove and then, using oven mitts, melt drainage holes in the plastic. Water every second day if there’s no rain, because containers dry out quickly. As for water conservation, the city has a rain barrel program you can learn about here.

Fertilizer is also a good idea. That can be Miracle Grow brand or other fertilizer, and it should be applied every two weeks if the soil you purchased doesn’t include slow-release fertilizer. If your soil already has that, read the bag to see how long that enrichment lasts, and then fertilize when its life span is done. I’m a huge fan of The Sheep Shelf’s manure, and they also have fantastic skin care products.

Now let’s start with vegetables!

Some veggies can thrive in cooler temperatures, so you don’t have to wait until after the last frost date to plant them. Now is the time to plant your peas, bok choy, and kale. Follow the instructions on the package and plant in a weed-free spot with lots of sun and good soil.

You don’t even need to use row covers or a greenhouse or anything. Just plop them in! You can grow a lot of money’s worth of kale in a bucket with a bag of soil and a package of seeds. At $2.49 for about eight leaves in stores, you’ll save money all summer long and kale will grow even after the last frost. It’ll cost about $10 to make a kale bucket if you buy the seeds, soil, and bucket — and less if you scrounge around and find something else you can use as a container!

Kale growing in a bucket. Photo by Sarah Cronk.

Often people buy trees for their yards and put the plastic containers at the end of their driveways to be recycled. If your neighbour is doing this, you may want to ask if you can take them instead, because these make really good budget-friendly planters for your garden. If you have an extra recycling box, that would also work very well, and so would that storage tote whose lid has mysteriously disappeared. (I personally think those missing lids and unmatched socks have a thing going on, but that’s just me…)

This is also the time of year we’re raking up leaves if you aren’t doing “no mow May.” Leaves are nature’s free fertilizer! Put the leaves in an empty trash can and take your weed whacker to them like using an immersion blender, and you’ll end up with rich, chopped-up plant matter that’s ideal to add to the soil in flower beds, veggie garden, or your containers. Two to three inches works great as mulch. You can also add these to your composter.

Making leaf mulch. Photo by Sarah Cronk.

Next in the ‘veggies you can grow from seed’ category are beans. There are two general types of beans: bush beans and pole beans.

Bush beans — you guessed it — grow in a bush, which is great for compact spaces. Pole beans grow upwards and will need something to climb on. Got a fence in the sun? That’s a great place to put some buckets of pole beans. Plant three seeds per regular sized bucket. The back of the seed package will give you planting instructions and ‘days to maturity.’ Note, though, that the days to maturity measure is optimistically based on the absolute best conditions — see the manicured gardener with a spotless designer outfit for that kind of thing, because it never happens — but it’ll be somewhere around that date.

Water the plants every few days if there’s no rain, and enjoy delicious fresh yellow, green, and purple beans straight from your garden. I’ve always enjoyed involving kids in the planting. It’s magical for a child to see and then eat what they produce. They also bend down way better than some of us do!

Crops you can sow every two weeks, after the last frost date — for continual harvests — are greens like lettuces. Anything will work to hold garden soil and grow lettuce: buckets, an old eavestrough, planter boxes, etc. Sow some around May 24, and then sow in another spot after two weeks for harvests all summer long. Lettuce and other leaf producers can benefit from a bit of shade. These plants ‘bolt’ – that is, produce flowers, turn bitter tasting, and slow their growth quickly — in the heat, so sow early, and you can try sowing again as summer winds down for a fall crop.

Tender veggies with long maturity dates such as peppers, tomatoes, etc. aren’t something you can start this year indoors now, as it takes about eight weeks to grow to a good size indoors before planting out in late May. Some people use a setup with heat and light to get seedlings to a size that will give food to eat. Buy these seedlings to plant outside after the last frost date. Our locally owned garden stores are fantastic; they usually have an excellent selection and they’re well priced. Plant one seedling per square foot or one per bucket where they get full sun, and enjoy in August.

If you’re just starting out, you may find that you have way more seeds that you can use in your first garden. Join a seed swap on social media or through local garden groups and share! Others will share with you, and you can do a nice little garden for not a lot of money.

There is nothing like growing your own food and stepping outside to pick some beans for dinner, gathering up some chives to add to your baked potatoes from the BBQ or snipping some mint for tea from your balcony garden.

As for the plants you don’t want … are you noticing weeds in last year’s raised beds or in your driveway? Try this easy and ultra-cheap solution: boiling water.

If you’re boiling eggs for lunch, go outside and dump that boiling water on the offending plants. It will kill the weeds without damaging the soil. Save those eggshells, crush them into small pieces, and bury them where you’re going to plant your tomatoes to boost the calcium in the soil and help prevent blossom end rot on your tomatoes. Your roses will LOVE chopped up banana peels and a top-up of leaf mulch, too.

In a driveway, boiling vinegar also works; if you add some salt to it, it’ll make the pot you’re using shiny like new, and nothing will grow in the spot where you scorched those pesky weeds. No chemicals required. Take that, dandelions and chickweed!

Photo by Zoe Schaeffer.

Shop and grow local!

This week is the week for our local independent garden centres to open for business. Instead of weekly flyer deals, here’s a list of places to shop for local garden supplies, plants, and/or fresh food. Please visit these hard-working local folks as you save money and grow your own food!

Quattrocchi’s Specialty Foods – 662 Montreal Street, Kingston. Best selection of peppers I’ve found, and I love making my own hot pepper jelly (I’ll share that recipe when it’s pepper harvest season).

Memorial Centre Farmer’s Market – 303 York Street, Kingston. Locally grown plants, and the opportunity to talk to the gardener who grew them for advice.

Kingston Public Market – Springer Market Square, Kingston.

Sun Harvest Greenhouses – 2542 Perth Road, Glenburnie. HUGE planter baskets – remember, Mother’s Day is next weekend!

Wendy’s Country Market and Furnace Falls Farm – 408 Fortune Line Road, Lyndhurst.

Let it Grow Greenhouse – 3227 County Road 2, Seeley’s Bay.

Forman Farms – 4040 Brewers Mills Road, Seeley’s Bay.

Riley’s Garden Centre – 2129 Bath Road, Kingston.

Sheila’s Greenhouse – 945 Moscow Road, Yarker.

Potter’s Nurseries – 690 Golden Mile Road, Kingston.

Collective Joy Farm – 477 McDonnell Street, Kingston.

Tara Natural Foods – 81 Princess Street, Kingston.

Sydenham Plant Sale – 1910 Keeley Road, Sydenham. (May 9-10, 2024).
Hosted by Suzanne’s Plants – 1910 Keeley Rd, Sydenham.

Mowat Avenue Spring Plant Sale – 162 Mowat Avenue, Kingston. (May 11, 2024, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.)
Hosted by Suzanne’s Plants.

Sands Produce – 4322 Battersea Road, Kingston. They have lots of peppers and tomatoes!

Glenburnie Grocery – 2454 Perth Road, Glenburnie.

Sloats Lake Farm – 2728 Alton Road East, Sydenham.

Peter’s – Corner of Kepler and Babcock Roads, off Sydenham Road north of Limestone Creamery. Open every Saturday and Sunday after Mother’s Day and during the week by appointment.

Scarlet and Rosie Floral Co. – 4397 George Street, Sydenham

And for further information on locally grown food and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), see this Fabulously Frugal article from a couple of months back.

I hope these tips encourage you to get out in the spring sun and exchange some sweat equity for home-grown, nutritious foods, as opposed to paying an arm and a leg for prepackaged foods from corporate grocers.

Happy Frugality!

Kingston resident Sarah Cronk offers tips on money-saving strategies and the best deals to be found in local grocery stores in her bi-weekly Kingstonist column, Fabulously Frugal. Have any questions for Sarah or things you’d like her to investigate in terms of cost savings? Let us know! Email Kingstonist Editor-in-Chief Tori Stafford at [email protected].

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