Growing your own food has become more popular during the pandemic among first-timers. Searches for "how to grow your own food" quadrupled the week of March 15 from the week before and reached a similar level compared to that March peak in mid-April, and interest is still going strong.
Many people seized the opportunity to create their own food-producing gardens to avoid going out to supermarkets or to cut grocery bills in an down economy. Even now, as things start to get back to normal, you can still save money and reap other benefits by growing your own food, experts say.
If you compare the June prices of organic tomatoes ($2.99 per pound at a New York City Whole Foods) to an organic tomato plant (under $4 at Home Depot) and consider that the plant will keep growing and producing tomatoes throughout the summer, the savings are clear, says Stefani Sassos, a registered dietitian with the Good Housekeeping Institute, which evaluates products for the magazine and the Good Housekeeping seal.
"If you're growing quite a bit of produce a year, that can definitely save you hundreds of dollars," says Sassos, whose home gardening efforts include romaine, green onions, parsley, and tomatoes.
"We used to buy fresh parsley every week at the grocery store," she says. At $5 per bunch, after a year, "that's $260, as opposed to one parsley plant [under $5] that keeps growing and regenerating."
Here's how to get started with an easy and cost-effective home garden.
If you're experimenting with growing food, you don't necessarily need seeds or seedlings: You can use scraps from plants including green onions and romaine lettuce, says Sassos. Those can be grown via propagation, which reproduces a plant using a cutting from its parent.
For example, if you've been cooking with green onion and now you're left with the root end of it, you can slice that off and put it in a jar with water on a sunny windowsill. "You just leave the top edge of the bucket of water, and keep it near your window sill," she explains. "And within a few days, you start growing more green onion, just in a glass of water. It doesn't really cost anything, especially if you're already using scraps that you're throwing away."
Once the plant starts growing, you can move it into a pot with soil.
"If we're talking cost-effectiveness, this is a good one," she says. "It's a great plant for in-ground and for bigger pots, because it spreads really, really fast. Your starter is one pot and by the end of the season you can have six or eight and give them away."
Basil is another versatile herb that Viljoen recommends, especially because you have many choices. "Purple basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, which are quite expensive and also hard to find," she says. "But you can grow them yourself and have the pleasure in your cooking every single day."
If you regularly use fresh herbs in your cooking, Viljoen suggests having multiple plants for a greater return since you may be harvesting regularly.
If you have good light in your home, up your houseplant game. "For indoors, I can't stress enough how useful the edible tropical and subtropical plants are, like citrus, curry leaf, galangal, even lemon grass," Viljoen says. Her pick: a Thai lime tree, which can be had for $46 on Etsy.
"Thai limes are incredibly aromatic and exotic," says Viljoen, who collected more than 100 limes from her tree last year. "So I had Thai lime marmalade forever," she said. "It's just going to keep getting better, and there's the satisfaction of an exotic ingredient. If I did buy it, it would cost a ton."
To grow vegetables outdoors, Viljoen suggests looking for options that have substantial yield per plant over the course of the growing season. Those will vary by region, and depend on your space. Some of her top picks include:
- Arugula. "If you've got enough space, you don't have to buy arugula at the store," she says. "It keeps making more leaves. It's an annual, so you would just be buying seeds."
- Pole beans. Because these grow upward, they're a great pick for a small yard or terrace. And they "produce successive crops of beans until cold weather," she says. "My guess is you'd harvest a poundful of beans from one bean vine, and most people grow several."
- Cherry tomatoes. "They're much more prolific than a big fat impressive looking tomato," she says. "One plant, if it is happy and established, could yield 8 to 10 cups" per season.
- Strawberries. To get your money's worth, make sure you to look for "repeat bloomers." And take advantage of strawberry plants' ability to reproduce into new plants via a long green arm they produce called a runner. "Put that little new plant in a fresh pot of soil, keep it attached to the mother, and after a few weeks you'll have a brand new strawberry plant," she says.
If you don't have much space or are lacking a green thumb, you might try a smart garden such as Click & Grow, Sassos says. While the three-plant starter will run you about $100, she says you'll make up for it with how much you save by growing your own food.
"It's self-watering and there's an LED light, so if you want to get into gardening but you don't have the space, and you don't have the best green thumb, that's virtually foolproof," she says. "All you do is you just literally watch the plants grow, and you make sure that the water level is up to par, which is like you're only watering it maybe every two or three weeks. So it's like you could sit and watch it grow."
The benefits of gardening go beyond saving money. You get peak nutritional benefits when you grow your own food, because the produce isn't sitting on a truck or on a shelf, Sassos says. Gardening may also help you relax, according to The American Institute of Stress, with its combination of mindfulness, creativity, and exercise.
"It's good for the body and the soul, and right now we need things to look forward to," she says. "You're saving money, you're getting more nutrition, you're getting better pungency, taste. It really is a win-win. And it's pretty cool to see something grow."
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