Gardening to save money: These leafy greens & herbs can boost your food budget

There are so many reasons to grow your own food, and saving money is just one of them. But with the cost of living going up (and up!), it would be great to see more Kiwis get growing.

I am not suggesting you’d be self-sufficient or anything like it. Just that some crops are easy-peasy to grow and/or store and preserve to help you bulk up meals or add a punch of flavor to budget-friendly ingredients. So I thought I’d ask a few of my expert gardening mates what they found it was best to grow at home to save money and here are their suggestions, plus some I recommend myself.

One packet of lettuce seeds costs less than a single bag of salad greens and could grow into literally hundreds of salads.

BRYA INGRAM/STUFF/Marlborough Express

One packet of lettuce seeds costs less than a single bag of salad greens and could grow into literally hundreds of salads.

Grow any cut-and-come-again lettuce and/or salad mix

Loose leaf lettuces

Lettuce harvested leaf by leaf keep your salad days going longer… and one packet of seed costs less than a single bag of salad greens and could grow into literally hundreds of salads. Sow a few seeds every couple of weeks for an ongoing supply.

Mesclun means a mix of greens, traditionally including chervil, arugula, lettuces and endive, but actually any salad seed mix or a mixed punnet of seedlings is a great way to grow a range of greens. Nelson chef and NZ Gardener food writer Nicola Galloway recommends the heritage lettuce mix from Setha Seeds.

Tākaka permaculturalist Sol Morgan says miner’s lettuce, a hardy annual, self-seeds readily at its place and pops up everywhere when the weather cools down. “As far as I know it was brought to New Zealand by the early Chinese gold miners, hence the name.” The leaves are shaped like a broad spade, and are thick and juicy at the same time, Morgan says, and make a wonderful addition to the autumn and winter salad menu. This crop can also be cooked like spinach.

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Also grow cut-and-come-again leafy greens

Rocket

In all but the coldest regions, rocket grows year round and is super versatile in the kitchen. If it bolts, just let it self-seed (plus the flowers are edible too).

Silverbeet

True, silverbeet is not the most exciting crop, it’s productive, pest-free and easy to grow grow in pots plus it self-seeds readily and in most of the country, will produce all year round.

Mustard greens

They grow super fast, he says Auckland permaculturalist Ellen Schindler. Baby leaves add a pungent note to salads and sandwiches, and you can add them to soups or sautes.

Mizuna

Auckland Botanical Gardens’ Jack Hobbs also rates mizuna as one of the most underrated of all leafy vegetables. “It is quick growing, tasty and nutritious. I find it also tolerates warmer conditions better.”

Kale

Morgan says Russian kale, also known as Siberian kale, is a fantastic autumn to winter crop and you can leave it to self-seed.

Spring onions

Barbara Smith, who is the editor of NZ Gardener e-zine Get Growingalways has spring onions in her garden. “They are so easy to grow from seed or punnets but expensive to buy and bought ones don’t last long. Snip off the tops and the roots keep growing so they last for a year or more in the garden.” She uses them in salads, stir-fries, muffins, omelettes and more.

Perpetual spinach

Taranaki urban market gardener and Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki academic staff member Carl Freeman rates perpetual spinach for its easy-growing, productive nature and its versatility in the kitchen. You can use it in place of spinach but it’s far less finicky about conditions and much less prone to bolting.

Urban farmer Carl Freeman and a team of researchers won the 2019 Pivot Award.

Simon O’Connor/Stuff

Urban farmer Carl Freeman and a team of researchers won the 2019 Pivot Award.

Grow any perennial herb

Freeman agrees that herbs can’t be beat for adding wow factor to meals and are a great way to jazz up budget-friendly recipes. Plus he points out some are perennial; like rosemarylike sage, chives, oregano and thyme. You plant once and can harvest for years, with very little looking after required (and they are all easy to grow in pots if you are short of space).

“Let’s be honest, the herbs you buy in the supermarket in those little packets are a massive ripoff and anything that comes in a squeeze container doesn’t compare to the real thing,” he says.

In my Auckland garden, I also highly rate lemongrass and makrut lime, which are essential if you like cooking Southeast Asian-style recipes. In warmer regions, both are ridiculously easy to grow and mine have produced year round and for years. They add a huge punch of flavor to curries, stocks and soups and can elevate cheap cuts of meat and homegrown vegetables into healthier and lower cost takeaway-style meals!

Some annual herbs are also worth growing

Basil

Smith has done the math: one punnet of basil from the garden center costs less than a pot of hydroponically-grown supermarket basil which isn’t even enough for a batch of pesto. And if you buy, say, ‘Sweet Genovese’, you’ll get six seedlings which could give you enough broad, tasty leaves for a year’s worth of pesto.

The way to maximize production is to pick frequently, she says. Nip off the tips of each stem just above a node. Two more stems will grow from the node – more stems equals more leaves. “Basil freezes very well,” she adds. “Whizz in a food processor with olive oil and freeze in ice cube trays. Thawed basil doesn’t have the eye appeal required for garnishes but does add flavor to pasta, soups and dips.”

Save seeds of annual herbs that have finished cropping, such as basil, borage, coriander, dill and parsley.  Divide up established clumping and creeping perennial herbs such as chamomile, chives, oregano, lemon balm, sage, tarragon and thyme: Take 10-15cm stem cuttings from upright and prostrate rosemary, cut off the soft tips and pot up.  Plus all types of mint will quickly grow roots if popped into jars of water on a sunny windowsill.

SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff

Save seeds of annual herbs that have finished cropping, such as basil, borage, coriander, dill and parsley. Divide up established clumping and creeping perennial herbs such as chamomile, chives, oregano, lemon balm, sage, tarragon and thyme: Take 10-15cm stem cuttings from upright and prostrate rosemary, cut off the soft tips and pot up. Plus all types of mint will quickly grow roots if popped into jars of water on a sunny windowsill.

Ginger

Also a winner, Smith says, is the one piece of root ginger bought five years ago that has supplied all the fresh and crystallized ginger she has used ever since. “Once established, you can snip off small pieces of the root to use fresh at any time of the year. Each winter when it’s dormant, dig up the whole clump. Replant a couple of pieces and crystallize or freeze the rest.”

Coriander

Jack Hobbs says cilantro is one of his most valued winter crops. Coriander prefers the cooler months and dislikes transplanting, so Hobbs sows seed directly into the garden from February until early April to ensure successive crops. “I find the ideal time is early March, with germination taking about eight days and plants ready for harvest from mid-April. It is important to keep the seeds moist while germinating, so I cover the rows with shade cloth for about a week until I see the first signs of seedlings appearing,” he says. “I always allow a few plants to flower as this attracts lots of beneficial insects, and so I always have a plentiful supply of fresh seed on hand both for cooking and resowing.”

Parsley

Nicola Galloway wouldn’t be without curly parsley in her Nelson plot, and grows it year round to supply her kitchen. “I let a few plants go to seed each year, then transplant the little seedlings that pop up around the garden,” she says. “It gets used in cooking through the week, to make parsley pesto or salsa verde, sprinkled on soups or stews, and stalks are added to stock.”

In Tākaka, Sol Morgan loves Dalmatian parsley. This self-seeding green grows throughout the year for him, “meaning I have an abundant supply of nutritious parsley for my salads. It also goes really well with pumpkin soup during the cooler months,” he says.

More on how gardening can save you money:

  • Nine fruits worth growing
  • Grow these prolific, easy-to-store vegetables

Jo McCarroll has edited NZ Gardener since 2010. She lives in a central Auckland suburb on a section crammed with vegetable beds, fruit trees and flowers.