So you want to grow your own herbs and vegetables to save money and have tastier produce at your fingertips. We salute you. Some vegetables are so pricy at the store and taste so inferior to what you can grow yourself, it's a good return on your investment to DIY. So clear up a little plot of soil in your yard or drag out some pots and trellises for your patio, porch, balcony, or windowsill. This produce is easy to grow yourself and well worth the effort.
Warning: Some vegetables are more trouble to grow than they're worth, whether it's because of pests, disease, low yield, temperament, growing space needed, or simply because they're so cheap to buy (we're looking at you, potatoes and onions). So don't bother growing these vegetables, unless you like a challenge.
"All herbs are more cost effective to grow than to buy," says Vivian Howard, chef-owner of Chef & The Farmer and Boiler Room Oyster Bar, both in Kinston, North Carolina. She's also author of Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South and hosts the TV show, A Chef's Life, on PBS.
Herbs are the most expensive by weight and lowest quality compared to your homegrown counterparts. Fresh basil, cilantro, rosemary, parsley, chives, mint, and thyme can cost $2 to $3 for a few sprigs at the supermarket. For the same price, you could buy a four-pack of starter herb plants at a nursery. Each of those plants could produce 50 times as much as that supermarket package, for savings in the hundreds if you use fresh herbs frequently, says Niki Jabbour on Bottom Line Inc. A food gardener at home, Jabbour hosts a radio show on News957.com and is author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live.
Herbs are pretty much all you can grow if you're the average apartment dweller. Unless you have roof access or a balcony, stick with herbs. "I would definitely go the herb route, and start there," Howard says.
Place your herbs by the windowsill where they can soak up four to six hours of sunshine. Water every day or two. Snip off the sprigs you need as your cooking calls for it. Enjoy saving tons of money, wasting less food because the part you're not using is still growing in the soil rather than rotting in the fridge, and tastier meals because there's no comparison to fresh herbs. Make these recipes with a fresh pesto using your herbs.
If you have a yard, the most rewarding vegetable to grow is a tomato — which is a fruit, technically, but we treat it like a vegetable. The difference between a store-bought tomato, even organic or heirloom, is worlds apart from a homegrown or farmers market tomato.
"Tomatoes at the store have been refrigerated, and that changes the structure and flavor of the tomato," Howard says. "That's the one thing I'd say is the most rewarding to grow in your yard."
The average price per pound for Roma tomatoes were $1.24; for beefsteak tomatoes, $3.16; and for grape and cherry tomatoes, $3.29, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So if a seed packet costs around $3, and a bag of soil for container growers is $7, you'd probably pay about $10 (add $5 for miscellaneous first-time costs like a cheap pot or wire trellis) for a yield of about 20 pounds of tomatoes all season. Heirloom cherry tomatoes are the best deal, because they have a longer growing season and higher crop yield, according to The Penny Hoarder. Tomatoes need a lot of sunlight and water though, so you have to have a spot that gets full sun and make sure to water them thoroughly once or twice a day. You can grow them in hanging baskets too. If you're a newbie with not the greenest thumb, try a starter plant rather than growing from seed.
Salad greens (but not head lettuce), and string beans are also good bets.
Salad greens grow fast, don't take up too much space, and you can snip off the leaves you want and keep the rest on the plant in the dirt, saving it for later, so you don't waste leaves and let it go bad in the bag in the fridge. Stagger your time of planting several heads if you want lettuce all season long. At $3 or $4 for a bag of store-bought lettuce that makes barely two or three salads, this is a good deal. Once you have your greens on the way, discover everything you need to know about salad, from recipes to articles and how-to videos.
Green beans — snap or string — can go for $6 a pound at a farmers market, so a $2.50 seed packet that produces several pounds is a much better deal, according to Bottom Line. You'll need full sunlight for these green beans as well as a trellis or pole to yield the most beans per square foot of garden space. Check out our green bean recipes.
Cucumbers are another easy plant to grow. They like sunlight, growing support, and warm temperatures, but they're good in containers because they grow vertically. The average retail price for cucumbers in 2015 was $1.30 a pound, according to the USDA. But water your $3 seeds enough and you'll have too many to use. So start gathering your pickling jars and making friends with your neighbors and coworkers. Try this Garlic Dill Pickles recipe or this Easy Quick Pickles recipe for not only cucumbers, but green beans, carrots, cauliflower, okra, and zucchini too.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.