You Say Potato, I Say Ca-ching

Starting a vegetable garden not only puts those all-important green vegetables on your plate, but also helps save some serious green – as in cash. With the USDA recommending half your plate be filled with fruits and veggies, a summer’s worth of gardening can result in some serious savings. Some estimate just $25 of seed and fertilizer yields over $600 in produce.

If you haven’t already, now is the time to start planning this season’s vegetable garden. The USDA recommends planting summer produce in Pennsylvania no earlier than May 15, so April provides gardeners a great opportunity to prepare.

If you’ve never planted a vegetable garden, why not make 2012 the year to test your green thumb? With regular watering and attention, vegetable gardening saves the wallet and the waste line – and is good for the environment, too. Here are some tips for the novice and not-so-novice alike:

Start small: While the idea of having a produce department in your back yard may sound appealing, a large garden can also be overwhelming. New gardeners should limit themselves to a few vegetables. A few plants of four or five different vegetables can yield quite a bit of produce!

Location, location, location: Most vegetables grow best in full sun. Select a site that gets over six hours of sunlight a day. The site should be well drained, so make sure you select a site where rainwater doesn’t puddle. A site near a fence can provide vegetables like tomatoes and beans a no-cost trellis to climb.

Prepare the soil: Remove any grass or plants. Loosen the soil down to a depth of between 6 and 8 inches and remove any rocks or roots to allow for root growth in soft, cultivated soil. A low-cost spade and tiller should do the trick for most small gardens. Adding organic material like compost will help ensure your plants are the envy of the neighborhood.

Mix it up: The USDA recommends that you eat vegetables from each vegetable subgroup during the course of a week. Pick vegetables of different colors and consult My Plate to ensure you’re planting a balanced diet. And don’t forget about fruit! While planting an apple tree might be best left for Mr. Appleseed, blueberry bushes and strawberry vines are the right size for any garden.

Plant biggest bang for your buck: To save even more money, select vegetables that are expensive to buy in the grocery store. Grow more expensive items, like tomatoes and melons, or large quantities of vegetables you purchase regularly.

Plant, Planted, Have Planted: If you prefer to get a jumpstart, you can start plants in containers with proper drainage indoors near windows and transplant after May 15. Otherwise, you can buy seeds or small plants from nurseries and plant them directly in the garden. Generally, the tallest plants should go on the garden’s north side. Follow directions on the packet. If you’re planting seeds, remember to plant extras to allow for failed germination and thinning. Fertilize as needed.

Apartment gardening: Gardening isn’t just for homeowners. Use pots and planters to create a deck garden or find out if there’s a community garden nearby. Community gardens afford those without land the opportunity to garden. Contact local health departments, hospitals and universities to find one near you.

It takes a village: Those with the greenest thumbs often find themselves with a surplus of one vegetable or another at some point. Instead of cramming, say, broccoli into every meal, skip the broccoli-topped Cheerios and network with other neighborhood gardeners. Trade your surplus to maximize your culinary palette.