A Doylestown Farm Offers Tips on Vegetable Gardening

Root Camp can save you money on food this summer.

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 7, 2009

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Photo by Dan Packel

It’s tough to get more local than a trip from your own garden to the plate. And while many people shy away from purchasing produce from their local farmers’ market because it’s often more expensive than what they can find in the grocery store, starting a garden can be even cheaper than buying vegetables, regardless of the source.

Recognizing this, more and more Americans are likely to take up vegetable gardening this summer. The National Gardening Association estimated that more than 43 million households are likely to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries this summer. That’s almost a 20% increase from the previous year.

Recently George Ball, chairman of Philadelphia-based seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co., estimated some basic calculations about the actual savings that can be realized by growing one’s own food.

Anyone with a friend who’s grown tomatoes can probably attest that, come August, they receive plenty of solicitations to help out with a surplus. The reason? According to Ball, a tomato plant will yield about 40 medium to large fruits (yes, they’re fruits) over the season.
If you’re buying a plant’s worth of tomatoes over the course of the summer from the grocery store, at 75 cents to a dollar each, that’s at least $30, and likely as much as $40. Meanwhile, a packet of tomato seeds, at $3 to $4, will contain 30 seeds, 25 of which are likely to grow. That’s 1,000 tomatoes (yikes!). No one says you need to put all 30 seeds in the ground. Keep half sealed, in a cool, dry place, and you can use them again next year.

Or consider sugar snap peas, perfect with pasta and parmesan, or stir fried with pork. One plant will yield about a pound of peas, about 90-100 pods. This pound will run anywhere between $3.50 to $4.50 a in the grocery store—as much as $6 if you’re buying organic.
Seeds will run around $1.50 for 150. These are a little less productive than tomato seeds, and get thinned by 2/3, which leaves 50 plants, for 50 pounds of sugar snap peas. This comes to $200 worth of peas, from a $1.50 bag. Crunch the numbers and this leaves a 1:125 ratio between purchased peas and homegrown ones.

All these savings would not be worth reporting on if garden vegetables tasted only of the soil in which they’re grown. But it turns out that freshness is more than a myth. “When a vegetable is harvested, it begins to lose its natural sugars,” says Burpee President Chris Romas. Thus, home grown vegetables will come to the table with greater intensity of flavor than those from any other source.

Lack of land isn’t an acceptable excuse for not starting a garden, either. Urban gardeners have had great success with container gardening: growing herbs, tomatoes, and greens like lettuce in pots on their front porch or patio. And according to Romas, there’s still plenty of time to get plantings in the ground (or in containers.) Even as late as mid-June it’s possible to plant beans, herbs, broccoli, and lettuce.

For those on the fence, Burpee will be sponsoring a Root Camp at their Fordhook Farm outside of Doylestown on Fri., May 8 and Sat., May 9. Fordhook, home to eight specialty gardens, is where Burpee develops their new plant varieties and is actually the birthplace of iceberg lettuce and the Big Boy tomato.

The rumored outfit of camouflage hats may take the pun a little too far, but the event intends to teach new gardeners the fundamentals of gardening, “just like armed forces learn basic skills at boot camp,” says Romas.

But whether you make it to Doylestown and stay home and try to deal with your garden in a spirit more befitting of Pennsylvania’s Quaker origins, a little effort over the summer will likely demonstrate that growing your own fresh ingredients is easier than you think.

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