Could your green fingers help grow your savings? Here’s all you need to know about growing your own vegetables and herbs. By Lisa Templeton
Last summer, reader Thandi Radebe planted sweet potato seeds in a neglected patch of soil along the side of her Polokwane home. She paid them no attention, so imagine her surprise when, by the end of summer, she had a bumper crop of huge sweet potatoes. ‘I couldn’t believe it. My kids found it such fun, it saved us money, and it was so satisfying to eat our own produce.’
Sweet potato sells for R17.99 a kilo, and Thandi paid less than that for a packet of seeds that produced a bumper crop 10 times this amount. This has inspired Thandi to start a real garden and to put in some effort this time. And you can do it too. Starting a garden is good for your health, it’s fun and, in these tough times, it can be good for your bank balance.
American gardening enthusiast William Alexander wrote a humorous book entitled The $64 Tomato. This – some R900 – was what it cost him per tomato when he added up tools, fertilizer, water, pesticide and such like. But, as Thandi showed, this doesn’t have to be the case. With the right approach, growing your own vegetables can save money. The trick is to keep your costs down and do a bit of homework.
What can I save if I grow my own?
At a large South African supermarket, a standard packet of vegetable or herb seeds cost: R16.99. Now, consider this as an example. Red peppers cost R54.99 per kilogram at the same store. At 200g, one large red pepper will cost you R11. If you planted 10 plants that each bore one pepper in a month, you’d grow R110 worth of peppers. All being well over a nine-month growing season, you could grow R990 worth from your R16.99 seed pack. A head of lettuce will set you back R14.50, so, even if you manage a crop of 10, you will grow R140.50 worth of lettuce.
If well planted – with a few seeds planted over a series of weeks – a seed packet should offer you a bountiful crop over a considerable time.
Compare some of these easy-to-grow veg and herb costs to the cost of a packet of seeds:
Cherry tomatoes R9.99 for a 25g punnet
Cabbage R14.99 for one wrapped head
Green beans R17.50 for a 400g bag
Lettuce R14.50 a lettuce head, while salad bags can go from R17 to R30
Carrots R8.99 for a one-kilogram bag
Potatoes R24.99 for a two-kilogram bag
Onions R18.99 for a pocket of four onions
Spinach R6.65 a bunch or R14.95 for a 300g bag
Basil R8.90 for a 20g punnet
Parsley R8.90 for a 20g punnet
Mint R8.90 for a 20g punnet
Knowing the basics
The good news is that you can pretty much grow vegetables or herbs in any area that gets sun – on a wall, patio, courtyard or garden. To get it right:
• The location of your veggie/herb garden or planter boxes is important. Nearly all produce needs sun and good drainage to thrive.
• Start small – with maybe three or five veg – and learn as you go. You don’t want to get demotivated by biting off more than you can chew!
1. Mark out your beds, or place or your planter box.
2. To ensure rich soil, add compost and well-rotted manure and dig it in thoroughly. Then neatly rake the beds.
3. Plant your seeds. A good rule of thumb is to plant each seed at a depth of three times its width. However, look at your seed packet for directions too. Most seeds take between six and 10 weeks to germinate. (If you plant seedlings from a pot, make sure the roots are loosened a little and well covered.)
4. Water is vital. Water three times a week, or more if your plants wilt quickly. Your soil should always be damp. Plants such as spinach and salad greens in particular need damp soil.
Easy plants to start with
Potatoes, tomatoes, squash, carrots, spinach, pumpkins, onions, beetroots, cucumbers, cabbage, beans and peas, and common herbs, such as basil, parsley and rosemary, are safe bets for beginner gardeners.
Where can I buy seeds?
Buying from your local nursery means you can get good advice with your seeds, but many supermarkets sell seeds too.
When should I plant?
The basic veg, as above, will grow throughout the year, but now, early summer, is a great time to plant, and herbs in particular should grow over summer.
If you are wanting to grow something specific, speak to your local nursery about when to plant or websites such as organicseed.co.za or seedsforafrica.co.za/pages/vegetable-planting-guides have detailed tables.
Tips for a constant supply of greens
For such produce as spinach and salad greens, plant a small number of seeds each week throughout spring so that you get an extended supply over time as they ripen.
Keep your kitchen garden costs down
• Use mulch around your plants. It’s a wonder for saving water by slowing down evaporation.
• Research homemade organic pest control methods.
• Get creative with containers. You can grow produce in anything – even half a drainpipe secured along a wall – as long as there is sun and holes for drainage.
• Make your own compost with your organic waste.
• Keep up with weeding.
Make a planter box in 10 easy steps
1. Decide on the size of your box. We’ve used 120 cm by 60 cm to create a smallish box.
2. Buy your board. For our planter, you’d need a four-metre board, and a piece for the bottom.
3. Measure and cut your board with an electric or hand saw. Your hardware store might cut it too.
4. Drill three little holes at the top, middle and bottom of the end pieces, some 1.5 centimetres from the edge.
5. Attach the sides using galvanised screws through the little drilled holes to screw into the end of the side board.
6. For the bottom of the box, measure the inside width and length and cut the bottom accordingly. Pop it into the box and use your drill and galvanised screws to attach it.
7. Make drainage holes in the bottom with the drill. For this size box you need four or five.
8. Lay a nylon or vinyl screen in the bottom and nail it in place.
9. You can stain or varnish your box – giving it a light sanding first.
10. Add a thin layer of gravel and your compost or potting soil. Now you are ready to plant!