(RNN) - Many people who previously have never gardened are trying out their green thumbs to save some green in their wallet – and you don't need a big yard to do it.
According to the Consumer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the price of food has increased 3.7 percent from June 2010 to June 2011.
Fern Richardson of Fullerton, CA, writes a blog named Life on the Balcony, which offers gardening tips for those who live in apartments and condominiums.
"I started small with a few pots and I knew I wanted to grow flowers and fruits and vegetables. I had a peach tree and I kept expanding; now it's taken over my whole balcony," Richardson said. And she's not alone in growing food and plants in containers.
According to the National Gardening Association website, 21 million households gardened in containers and spent $928 million on container gardening supplies and plants in 2007. The 2011 National Gardening Survey from the NGA says "consumers spent nearly $3 billion for the second year in a row on food gardening last year while sales for other types of lawn and garden activities saw a small decline."
It's the most money spent on food gardening in more than a decade, and it's 20 percent more than the $2.4 billion consumers spent in 2008 before the economic downturn, according to a news release from Bruce Butterfield, NGA Research Director.
Susan Littlefield, who is the horticultural editor at the NGA, says that growing vegetables that are expensive to buy at a market, such as salad greens, could save you money over the course of a season.
What to grow?
According to achingdebts.com, there are 12 vegetables that are easy to grow in a pot. They are: Beets, spinach, leaf lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, green peppers, green beans, squash, eggplant, Swiss chard and herbs.
Susan Littlefield, the horticultural editor at the National Gardening Association, suggests using bush varieties of vegetables, particularly tomatoes, which grow well in containers.
To get the most out of your container gardening, use the technique of successive sowing. Littlefield uses the example of planting a small amount of lettuce seeds every 10 days in a window box.
Ten days after the first planting of seeds, plant another row. A second crop should be starting to grow as the first row of lettuce would be ready to pick.
"If you keep doing this every 10 days, two or three weeks, you get a fresh crop to harvest," Littlefield said. "After awhile the lettuce you planted in the spring will peeter out, or you can cut the whole head. Plant a little bit, smaller amount of seeds, and do that over the summer so you have a fresh continuous crop."
Littlefield says this technique works well with anything that matures quickly; bush beans, snap green beans, other salad greens such as arugula, and herbs like cilantro.
"If you buy organic salad mix, it's almost $12 a pound, and for the price of a few packets of seeds, you could grow 10 times that much in successive sowings in a few small planters," Littlefield said.
The cost of food may not be the only reason people are gardening more.
"I think people living in cities want to have some connection to nature, and the whole emphasis of locally grown foods and lowering carbon footprints have become more important to people," Littlefield said.
"Even if you have a balcony or access to a rooftop or a sunny front stoop, you can grow tomatoes and lettuce," she said. "There are a lot of plants that grow really well in containers. The majority of fresh vegetables can grow in containers."
To avoid becoming overwhelmed or spending too much money when starting a new hobby like gardening, do a little research. Richardson advises reading up on your region's climate and soil on the internet, and Littlefield agrees.
"This is such a big country and the climatic conditions are so variable," Littlefield said.
Richardson suggests that novices make sure they know the amount of sun their gardening area receives. Some plants and vegetables require full sun, and others part-shade. Your garden won't flourish if the proper conditions for what you want to grow aren't there in the first place, so research is key. But if the container isn't getting enough sun for the vegetables to grow, you can move it – which you can't do with an in-ground garden.
If you don't have regular access to the internet, Heidi Krause of the organization Urban Seeds in Evansville, IN, suggests a trip to the local library.
"There's no reason why someone can't go to the library," Krause said. "If you don't have access to a computer, you can always go to the library."
Urban Seeds, an organization headquartered in Evansville, IN, ran a few community gardens, but saw a decrease in volunteers as more people began to garden in their backyards and residences. Now the organization focuses on outreach, such as gardens at local elementary schools.
Another mistake new gardeners make is going over budget, which defeats the purpose of growing food to save money. Don't feel as if you need to buy the most expensive supplies. Start simple. Don't purchase the priciest pots available to place on your stoop.
"Plastic (pots) is inexpensive, but it's not the most attractive, but people can paint them or stencil them and insert you own personality," Richardson said.
Although terra cotta pots are more visually appealing than plastic, terra cotta is nice if you're placing the pot on a front stoop or where people can see the plants. However, Richardson warns that terra cotta pots dry out quickly and you'll have to water your plants more often, so they're a little more conducive to rainier climates.
A quick search on the internet shows that containers can vary from $2 for a 6"x6"x6" clay pot. Some clay pots that are 8"x8 1/4"x8" can range in price from $4 to $6. Plastic pots are now made to look like clay or terra cotta pots and can vary in price depending on their ornamentation.
To save even more money, repurpose something that has been lying around, hidden in a closet, like an old watering can or bucket. Richardson says using an item that wasn't intended for gardening is one of her favorite things to do.
"I have a little metal pitcher for succulents, I have a wine box that I found that's kind of cool because it's kind of a mini raised bed for those of us without good soil," she said, adding that the wine box is where all of her herbs are planted.
All three women suggest taking a big bucket - about 5 gallons - and drilling holes in the bottom and using that as planter. Five gallon buckets are great for tomatoes, which need a lot of root space, said Krause.
For container gardening, don't just use soil from your yard; make sure you buy good soil from your garden store. A soil mix will be fertilized, advises Littlefield, giving the veggies in your container the nutrients they need to grow.
Richardson says when starting a garden, it's easy to overdo everything – size, cost and time.
"Start small and get your sea legs and figure out how it goes," Littlefield said. "Be successful with three or four pots … If you start too big, whether in the ground or in containers, then you get discouraged and you don't stick with it."
Littlefield also advises to grow what you want to eat – don't just grow what you think you'd like.
"It's easy to say, 'I have to have beets, or this, or that,' even if no one in the family eats beets," Littlefield said. "Think about what you really like to eat. If you're not a big salad eater, don't grow a lot of lettuce."
And take into account how much of a vegetable you will enjoy eating. Littlefield points out that someone may enjoy eating eggplants, but might only eat two or three a year. It's not worth using a lot of container space for them.
"Use the space for something you'd eat, what you and your family members like," she said.
Although vegetables need a lot of sunlight, don't become discouraged if your patio or balcony doesn't face south. Krause encourages those living in apartments to get creative.
"Maybe they could get together with their neighbors, or maybe they could put containers out and get permission from their landlords to put in a garden," said Krause. "Find someone who needs help mowing their lawn. We found a neighbor who couldn't mow his lawn, so we put in a garden, and the whole yard is full of produce."
Be sure to monitor your garden daily when using containers. If you're going on vacation, Littlefield suggests having someone water your plants – even putting them in a wagon and taking them to your neighbors. It's very easy to over water – or under water your crops.
"The easiest way to tell if a plant needs watering is by sticking your finger into the soil to the second knuckle," says Richardson. "If it's moist, you don't need to water, if it's dry – water."
Just remember to do you research, set a budget and don't go overboard.
"People forget there are things that you can do for free," Krause said. "You can spend $10 on seeds and have a huge garden."
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