Make Your Garden Yield Profits

Last Updated Jul 21, 2010 10:32 AM EDT

Seems I can't get on Facebook anymore without reading of my friends' gardening prowess. In June it was the folks in Chantilly, Virginia, who concocted "strawberry mojitos made with our own mint and strawberries." Monday it was the guy on Bainbridge Island, Washington, whose status read, "I have fulfilled a life goal. Tonight I ate potatoes I grew myself, and they were wonderful." His wife posted a picture of their peas, after earlier sharing a recipe for baked kale chips.

I'm green with envy. I like the idea of a garden, but I lack motivation. And I make dumb mistakes. Like buying seeds at Home Depot. And failing to fix the fence at the spot where the baby groundhogs wiggle under. Adding to my angst, every time I turn on the radio, it's another expert talking about how any numbskull can grow tomatoes. Spare me. I have enough guilt already.

Here's what might convince me to sink some time into gardening: if I really felt like I was saving money at the supermarket.

I called up Mike McGrath, host of the syndicated NPR show You Bet Your Garden. Now, when someone at my gardening level talks to McGrath, it's a bit like asking Harper Lee if she'll check your spelling. But McGrath and I live in the same Pennsylvania town, so I feel like I'm entitled to talk to him. He had just come in from two hours of harvesting. Here's how that conversation went:

Me: "I'm a terrible gardener, but wha..."

McGrath: "If you're failing this year, you should just go away. What did you do, buy your stuff at Home Depot?"

Me: "Yeah. I got that pouch of strawberry plants. They were dead by the time I got them home."

McGrath: "Oh my god, they're a disaster. Well, that saves you time. You didn't have to kill them yourself."

Look, I told him, I want to plant something that's minimum effort, maximum savings at Wegmans. Hit me with it. His answer: It's not too late for this year. He told me how to prepare the soil and have fancy lettuces ready within a month that will last me until November. This is a huge return on my investment, according to McGrath.

Next spring, I should plant some raspberry canes. "They require nothing. If you touch them, fuss with them, feed them, they will die," McGrath says. And think of the cost at the supermarket of organic raspberries. "We're talking more bang for the buck than any other crop."

The key to gardening success, McGrath says, is in preparing the garden well by feeding the soil, not the plants. As for the crops that save money, well, that's important, but it's maybe missing the larger point.

"When the economy is still bad, and people are unemployed and underemployed, a garden can supply a nice amount of food, and it can give you a good return on your money," McGrath says. "It's also going to give you something 100 times more important. It's going to give you self-worth. It's going to show that you're not incapable of achieving anymore. Here's a little place where you can control most of the variables. Every research study ever done shows that when you look at plants your blood pressure goes down. You relax. You stare at the screen looking for work eight hours a day? You're going to turn into a zombie. Outdoor vegetable gardens in the summer are the antidote to computer screens. Even if you break even at the end of the year, you got outside, you burned some calories, you breathed some fresh air, you saw some amazing birds and butterflies."

OK, I'm convinced. I've got my marching orders for the rest of the summer through next spring. For now, listen up, friends: Wondering what to do with your overabundance of zucchini and tomatoes? I'll take 'em.

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