The first tomato you grow yourself will probably be the most expensive one you ever eat. The same is true of peppers, zucchini, carrots, and any other crops you raise. While costs do go down as you gain expertise and reuse tools and materials, your initial gardening efforts will be less a means of saving money than a commitment to a hobby. But it's a rewarding hobby that builds skills, drives you a bit nuts, and offers you the means in uncertain times of supplying yourself and your neighbors with your favorite fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Supply came home to me as an issue when there were no garlic bulbs to be found at the market. "The whole shipment came in rotten," the produce manager told me. "It looked like it sat too long someplace."
That sort of problem is all too common in a year of supply-chain disruptions featuring shipping delays and intermittently empty shelves. "About 31% of grocery products consumers browsed were out of stock in the first week of April," CBS reported. "That's up from 11% at the end of November 2021."
Disruptions in fertilizer production, predating Russia's invasion of Ukraine but exacerbated by it, raise costs to farmers. The war also interfered with the cultivation and export of grain and other products from those countries, contributing to a "catastrophic global hunger crisis," in the cheery words of the United Nations' World Food Program. And while the vast farming acreage of the United States will cushion Americans from the worst effects, it's a fair bet that prices will continue to rise and the availability of some produce will remain spotty. Even expensive homegrown veggies are an alluring hedge against none.
What and how to grow depend to a large extent on where you live. I'm in Arizona, where the environment is a tad harsh and, as the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension puts it, "water is precious and expensive." So we look for drought-resistant and desert-adapted varieties of vegetables and fruits that have a hope of surviving in our conditions.
We've adopted square foot gardening, a technique that divides a garden into small, intensively planted sections. The term was coined by author Mel Bartholomew, and free information is available online from the Square Foot Gardening Foundation and other sources, including Clemson University's College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences.
Planting in raised beds, whether store-bought or home-built, offers easier control over soil quality than planting in the ground. Clemson's experts advise that "combining a raised bed and square foot gardening allows a reduction in space to 16 square feet for fresh foods or 32 square feet if preserving for later use" per individual for each crop, compared to 100 or 200 square feet, respectively, with a traditional garden.
For irrigation, you might try anything from drip systems to old-fashioned watering cans. My wife and I favor burying perforated, plastic soda bottles in the soil into which water can be poured. That delivers water directly to the roots instead of serving it up to the great desiccator in the sky.
You can manage the environment in your garden by building hoops over it with PVC pipe. The hoops support shade cloth to protect against the hot sun, plastic sheeting that converts the beds into greenhouses, and netting that protects against birds and other creatures that share your taste in vegetables.
But the world belongs to hungry critters, and you'll always be fighting them. Aphids made their way into our dill until I dusted the plants with abrasive diatomaceous earth, basically dragging the little vampire bugs over the equivalent of broken glass. And just days before my neighbors planned to pick ripe peaches from their trees, pack rats stripped them bare. The last time I saw those folks, they had a bucket of rat poison in their truck and planned to lay out a vengeful buffet.
If you do everything right, you'll gain at least a greater appreciation for farmers. But you also will eventually have something to show for your labor, like the broccoli my wife and I picked all winter and the garlic we have curing right now. It's unlikely your efforts will replace trips to the grocery store. But in a time of uncertain supply, it's reassuring to know that you can keep yourself and your friends fed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Grow Your Own".