Opinion March 1, 2016 | 9:32 am

Growing $ummer $avings in the garden

Have you ever thought about growing your own fruits andvegetables at home? For experienced gardeners, the cold months are when theirimaginations get fired up; seed catalogs seem to blow in with the arctic blast,accompanied by companion mailings from gardening accessories and equipmentretailers. But where can amateurs start?

To maintain a garden as a legitimate financial alternativeto store-bought food, it’s important to understand the underlying costsinvolved. Some gardeners spend substantial bucks on fancy tools, equipment,gardening clothes, deluxe fertilizers or supplies, which soundscounter-intuitive to a money-saving alternative. Investing in home gardeningrequires frugal spending and a desire to learn – very few people wipe out theirentire produce bill without a little preparation, knowledge and most important,trial and error.

There are plenty of studies (http://www.garden.org/) on howmuch people are investing in home- and community-based gardens, but very fewreliable guidelines on how much money you can actually save by gardening. That’sbecause it’s tough to generalize results based on geography, climate and skillsets.

Nevertheless, if you still want to get your hands dirty,here are some general steps to take before you dig in:

Harvest as much local gardening knowledge as you can. Theword "local" is very important. Planning a home-based edible gardenin a sunny West Coast backyard is very different than planting a series of claypots on a Midwestern terrace. Start with a close look at your climate andgrowing conditions before buying anything.

Plant only what you’ll eat. If you want a salad garden,stick to lettuce that can be planted and harvested repeatedly in one season.Maybe you’ll also want to plant a tomato plant or two. If you generally buy alot of a particular vegetable, try and grow that first. The more you want toeat the food you’re planting, the more interest you’ll take in making it asuccess.

Keep your first effort as inexpensive as possible.Generally, the cheapest way to grow plants is from seed you start growingindoors. Some people have special lights and shelving for indoor seed starting,but if you’re planning on only a few plants, it’s best to start modestly.Consult experts about the most effective and frugal way to start your desiredplants from seed at home and set a growing schedule that culminates in actualplanting outdoor. Sometimes it’s better to stick with a few borrowed or garagesale hand tools and recycled containers that will work just fine for seedingand drainage.

Keep learning as you go. When you start gardening, even ifit’s only a pot or two where you’re growing from seed, start an annual gardenjournal that details what you’ve purchased (with prices), what’s worked welland all questions and answers you’ve gathered along the way. You might evendiscover new plants you’d like to grow next year. Re-reading your journalbefore you start your gardening planning in winter is a great way to shape yourgrowing and cooking priorities for the coming year.

Bottom line: Homegrown food usually tastes better for tworeasons – it’s fresher than anything you can buy and you have the pride ofgrowing it yourself. However, making an economical home garden takes know-how,knowledge and as minimal initial investment as possible.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial educationprograms. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter:www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.

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