RACHEL BURKS: Gardening for Health and Your Wallet

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When money is tight, vegetable gardening is one solution that can benefit your wallet AND your health!  Although gardening can be quite expensive if you want it to be, here are a few tips to get the most bang for your buck and reap the health benefits too.

Start small.  If you’ve never gardened before, just choose a few types of vegetables to start, and grow them in smaller quantities.  Larger gardens require more time and energy, and there will be a lot to learn if you’re just getting started.  Even a small garden can increase your physical activity, give you the mood-boosting benefits of spending time with nature, and give you and your family some added nutrition.  Green beans are an easy vegetable to grow if you’re just starting out.  They’re also quite nutritious as they are a good source of fiber, folate, and vitamins A, C, and K.  You can steam green beans in a covered bowl with a small amount of water in the microwave for a quick side dish.  Cook six to seven minutes or until crisp tender.

Use what you have on hand.  Don’t have much space?  You can start a container garden on your doorstep using any large items around your house that can hold soil.  For in-ground gardens, you can also save money on weed management by using things like cardboard and dried leaves.  This is particularly helpful for vegetables that grow on vines (like cucumbers) when you don’t have a trellis.  Cucumbers are a good source of vitamin K and carotenoids.  Leave the skin on for more nutrients, but make sure to scrub them while running under tap water to clean them off first.

Grow vegetables that you like, and involve the whole family. You’ll be more likely to take care of (and eat!) things that you like.  Save money by planting vegetables that you already know you like.  If you have children, get them involved in choosing what to grow and caring for the plants.  Children are often more willing to taste and eat vegetables that they help grow.  Grow a larger amount of these vegetables, and get creative about using them in recipes.  For example, you can use summer squash as a pasta substitute.  Use thin strips of squash in place of lasagna noodles or julienned strips in baked spaghetti recipes.

Choose vegetables that are high yielding or more expensive to buy at the store.  Bell peppers and tomatoes are two great examples of vegetables that can provide a high return on investment.  Many gardeners say that home grown varieties of these vegetables taste better too.  To preserve taste, store tomatoes at room temperature away from direct sunlight.  Use within one week after ripe.  Peppers should be stored in the refrigerator and will stay fresh for one to two weeks.

Select vegetables that can be easily preserved or stored.  Preserving or storing excess harvest can really help you stretch your food dollars.  Many vegetables can be preserved by canning or freezing.  Potatoes, onions, and winter squash can be stored in a cool, dark space for many weeks before spoiling.  Sweet potatoes are a rich source of vitamins A and C, and a good source of vitamin B6, potassium, and fiber.  Substitute sweet potatoes for regular potatoes in recipes for increased nutrition.

Have a plan. Check out the new Virginia Cooperative Extension home vegetable gardening resource page here: ext.vt.edu/lawn-garden/home-vegetables.  You’ll find information about starting a garden and about each vegetable you hope to plant.  Write out a plan for your garden including the location, materials you need, and a budget.  Don’t forget, you can always reach out to your local Extension Office with questions on gardening, food preservation, and healthy eating on a budget.  You can find contact information for your local office by visiting ext.vt.edu/offices.

– Rachel Burks, FCS SNAP-Ed Agent, Virginia Cooperative Extension