We bought our forever home five years ago and decided immediately that we would grow a substantial amount of food on our large suburban lot to offset our grocery bill. So we went and we did what so many gung-ho gardeners do – we went to Lowes and bought a few of each – berry bushes, fruit trees, seed packets, and seedlings- and got busy planting. There were some successes, some failures. Nothing did exceptionally well except for the collards which I don’t particularly love. We spent a lot of money on plants and didn’t see enough yield to pay for itself but it was a learning experience.
I will say that we still have all of the fruit trees that we started with minus two. We now have a total of 20 fruit trees on our one-quarter acre lot. That sounds like a lot but it isn’t too jungle-like. They are carefully selected for our climate and planted in the appropriate space for water and sunlight requirements. Most are already established and almost effortless to maintain. Compost top dressing and some mulch once a year and they just give and give. Enough to eat fresh, preserve, and share with friends.
They may be a bit of an investment at first, but dollar for dollar, fruit trees will save you the most money on groceries over time. If you coordinate with friends and neighbors, you can each have a few trees of different types and swap fruit. It was important to me to look at the time of year each tree produced and try to vary the seasons so I could always have something fresh and tasty to pick.
If you cook with herbs, there is no reason for you to be buying the common ones. They are easy to grow and look attractive in a mixed pot on the patio or added to the vegetable garden. Basil, mint, chives, sage, rosemary, dill, oregano, and parsley can be grown year round. Cilantro prefers the cooler months; there is a more heat-tolerant herb called culantro with a similar flavor that likes the heat. Cut or dried herbs or so expensive at the store and are so much better freshly picked. If you have a giant plant outside, you are more likely to use them often and liberally, adding flavor and nutrients to your meals almost effortlessly. You can dry excess herbs and make your own spice mixes or herbed salts for holiday gifts. I recommend a large pot of herbs for beginning or busy gardeners who love to cook.
Oh my goodness, these are the easiest vegetable to grow in Florida. They love the full sun and summer heat and grow with few soil amendments or irrigation. Plant a few organic sweet potatoes in sandy soil with a little compost, mulch the area and watch the vines and gorgeous lavender flowers take over. You can also grow them in a large pot, and when they are ready to harvest, just dump it out and collect the potatoes. The leaves (greens) are also edible and quite delicious. They can be eaten cooked or raw, added to stir fry, eggs, or salad in place of spinach or kale. I started mine with some cuttings and a few potatoes in the spring, spending maybe $3, and just harvested almost a 5 gallon bucket worth of potatoes and endless greens.
If you are interested in planting annual vegetables, be sure to follow a planting guide for Central Florida. Many seed packets have a map and chart on the back to tell you when to plant that particular crop, but we are grouped with northern Georgia which actually gets snow and is a completely different climate zone.
In general, to save the most money, fall gardening is the easiest here and in my opinion growing leafy greens will make the biggest dent in your budget. Kale, chard, lettuce, and collards are expensive to buy organic and grow so easily. Plant in October for the best results and you’ll see a fresh salad as early as Thanksgiving and possibly sooner.
There’s a few ways to begin your first vegetable garden. Earthboxes are easy to maintain and will last for many years. I have 4 Earthbox brand containers and 2 similar planters (brand unknown). They’ve lasted for nearly 20 years, and they are easily portable if you are a renter. Raised beds are also a great option for beginners. You can buy a kit, DIY something or even re-purpose a kiddie pool. Just be sure to drill some holes for drainage in the sides (very close to the bottom).
The next best thing for saving substantial money on your grocery bill besides fruit trees is another group of “plant it once and have it forever crops” called perennial vegetables. Here in Florida, we live in the subtropics. We can take advantage of crops from around the world from Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and India. The wide variety of heat loving and healthy greens are particularly exciting and can be added to your cooking just like spinach or kale. Longevity, Malabar, Egyptian and Okinawan spinach are just a few examples of easy to grow greens that you could try. Adding perennial greens to your yard will beautify the space and provide years of food while maintaining the carbon that is sunk in the soil (and is released when we dig into the soil).