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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Home garden may open door to savings

It may cost you some time and effort, but you can save money by growing your own food.

Just how much money, though, depends. One Iowa State University estimate in 2007 found that a home gardener could grow tomatoes for 25 cents a pound – compared to $1.77 per pound at the store at the time. Peppers were 10 cents a pound, compared to $2.37.

But those estimates don’t include many of the associated costs of gardening, from water to equipment to fertilizer. While it’s undoubtedly true that you can save money by growing vegetables, you can also spend a lot of money, depending on your level of interest.

And starting your first garden will include costs for tools, hoses and other equipment.

Still, interest in gardening is booming this year, driven by the recession and the growing desire for more organic, local food. So here are some suggestions, from master gardeners, gardening organizations and news services, if you’re considering getting your hands dirty this spring – a few starts for your gardening plan.

Check out your landscape

Do you have a flat, sunny spot in the yard? Or are you a city dweller with a deck? You can make either situation work – digging a new garden could be more work than growing food in containers on a patio or deck, depending on the size. And you may want to consider using raised beds, which offer a lot of advantages over simple row gardening. But you can probably find a way to grow some vegetables, no matter what your situation. You’ll just need some good soil and a spot that gets plenty of sunlight – ideally six hours a day for veggies.

Decide what to grow

Are you hoping to grow a whole lot of vegetables or just a few? Some people just grow one or two items – a few tomatoes in planters and some herbs, for example. Many experts suggest that rookies start small, focusing in their first season on a few relatively reliable plants. In any case, you’ll want to examine your space and plan out how much you have room to grow. If you’re growing in containers, some good bets are tomatoes, lettuce, bush varieties of squash, carrots, onions, beets and peppers.

Get the dirt ready

If you’re making a new garden, break up and turn the soil. You’ll want to check the soil for nitrogen and other nutrients to determine how to treat it – you can get help with this from a Master Gardener Program. If you’re planting in containers, you’ll want to use potting soil. You can use almost anything you want, as long as it’s deep enough for the roots – bigger is usually better, according to the Master Gardener Program through Washington State University and Spokane County.

Start early

The expected day of last frost in this region is May 15, and the growing season is typically 110 days, though it varies. But even if the weather seems nice earlier than May 15, you’ll be planting at your peril if you start earlier than that. But lots of plants can be started indoors and transplanted after the weather warms. Peppers, onions and tomatoes are good plants to start inside – you can use foam cups with holes poked in the bottom, and keep them under a fluorescent light in a spot with cool, damp air. Plant them when they’re 6 inches tall.

Help them grow

Most vegetables need at least an inch of water a week, more if it’s hot and windy. The exact amount differs by vegetable, but uneven watering – irregular cycles of wet and dry – can cause a blotchy patch on tomatoes, peppers and squash known as blossom end rot, and other problems with potatoes. If you’re using containers, you’ll need to water more frequently – once a day, or sometimes twice on the hottest days. Be aggressive in going after weeds, and fertilize your garden as needed. Again, container plants may need more fertilizer.

Get more information

These suggestions aren’t nearly enough to take you through the whole process, and everyone’s circumstances are a little different. Master Gardener Programs offer lots of expert advice and classes, as well as a host of information online.

In Spokane County: spokane/eastside/index.htm or call (509) 477-2181.

In Kootenai County: kootenai/mg.htm or call (208) 446-1680.

You can also find plenty of resources online, at your local library, or at your favorite nursery or gardening supplier.

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