A few weeks ago I wrote in NZ Gardener’s weekly e-newsletter Get Growing that I believed it was possible and – controversially – not even that difficult to grow some of your own food and help stretch your food budget.
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.
We got a huge response from readers: mainly agreeing, often suggesting the money-saving crops they grew. So I thought I’d ask a few of my expert gardening mates what they found was best to grow at home to save money and here are their suggestions, plus some I recommend myself.
There are so many reasons to grow your own, of course, 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.
* What vegetables are you growing this season?
* Growing a community of food: Is growing your own the way to beat food prices?
* No land, no skills? Here’s how you can learn to grow food
* Renters’ market garden: best edibles to grow when it’s not your garden
Grow vegetables that are prolific producers
Auckland Botanic Gardens manager and top plantsman Jack Hobbs finds cucumber to be a brilliant budget-boosting crop for summer. “I grow Lebanese types such as ‘Manny’ (F1 hybrid) that produce a prolonged harvest of smooth tasty fruit that are ideal for salads, dipping in white wine vinegar or for making tzatziki. I also pickle some like gherkins,” he says.
To save space and keep fruit off the soil, Hobbs grows them up a support but plants can be allowed to run across the garden too. “Regular harvesting and watering keeps the vines fruiting for months until I am pretty much sick of eating them.”
These prolific nutty tubers are almost too easy to grow, Auckland permaculturalist Ellen Schindler says. “They will however take advantage and colonize any available garden area!” But they make delicious chips and soups, and can be added to stir-fries. “The main reason Jerusalem artichokes are less appreciated than other staple root crops is that they give you wind,” Schindler admits. “It seems that only certain connoisseurs can tolerate their body becoming a wind turbine for a while after eating!”
NZ Gardener staff writer Barbara Smith keeps her small household in beans year round by planting 12 ‘Blue Lake Runner’ seeds each year against a climbing frame. “When the beans reach the top of the 2m frame I train them on strings across the driveway,” she says. “They go for another 4m. They produce from the ground up and all the way across the drive.” She eats them fresh all season and freezes the excess for the rest of the year.
Schindler says mushrooms are much easier to grow yourself than many people realize and incredibly productive for the space they take up (you grow them inside so you don’t need any outdoor space at all). You can buy a mushroom kit, she says, but you can also easily make your own. “The humble oyster mushroom is an easy DIY start. There are many You Tube videos that give you the basic idea what to do.”
These are a great crop to stretch your food budget because you can use mushrooms in cooking in the same way you would use meat, she says. “Plus you can add them to soups and sauces, and marinate or ferment them and, if you have too many, dry them and use at a later time.”
Shark fin melon
This wondrous climber is often mistaken for watermelon, Schindler says. “But it is actually an incredibly vigorous squash that keeps well. I still have four from last year. My one plant stretched through three trees and produced 15 watermelon-sized melons. They grow until the frost arrives.”
The melon has a vegetable sweetness and mild taste, she says. “They can be eaten when young like a zucchini. Once mature use a saw and cut them in 4-5 rings then the iron bark can be taken off in a piece. Heat oil, add 2-3 diced onions, fry a short time, add melon pieces and water and boil. Chinese recipes suggest to mash some salted duck eggs for seasoning. I use our own hardboiled chicken eggs and salt or soy sauce. You can also add mushrooms, mince, vegetables or what’s on hand, but we enjoy allowing the melon to shine.”
I love chillies and no wonder – ridiculously productive, easy to store (bung whole fruit in the freezer) and perfectly happy to grow in pots. Plus in the kitchen they give a glow up to budget meals, and can be used to make your own fancy rubs, marinades and oils.
Grow vegetables that store well
Canterbury grow-your-own enthusiast Candice Harris also grows pumpkin because the right varieties store so well. She uses pumpkins to make hummus, scones, jam, pie, soup, muffins, curry and kebabs, plus it is steamed, roasted and added to smoothies and burgers. “Heck, we even add it to overnight oats and make pancakes with pumpkin in them.”
Butternuts are her favorite. “Whether it’s the flavor, the fact they are easy to peel or just the shape which resembles my own!” But the bigger cousins – crown and blues – are a better choice for longer storage times.
Harris also says spuds can help stretch the food bill. “Potatoes win versatility points right?” she says. “Plus you could live off them and them alone in terms of nutritional value. I always sow a second round of spuds in late summer to dig up in winter for some wedges or leek and potato soup.”
Tākaka permaculturist Sol Morgan grows ‘Urenika’ purple Māori potato variety year round in Tākaka. “They grow well under lots of our fruit trees that get mulched regularly. These are lifted throughout the year and don’t go green, because they’re purple! Being a floury spud, they make yummy roast chips, along with rosemary leaves.”
NZ Gardener deputy editor Mei Leng Wong grows kūmara for the nutritious tubers and the leaves. As soon as the seedlings are established and sending out a few vines, she starts picking the tender leaves for cooking. “In my native Malaysia, we often use the tubers in desserts, and treat sweet potato leaves like spinach, using them in stir-fries and soups. My favorite is to heat up a tablespoon of peanut oil in a hot wok, add chopped garlic and chilli, then toss in leaves and fry until they just wilt, maybe add some soy sauce,” she says. “So although it takes months before I can harvest the tubers, I’m extracting value from the plant within weeks, and for months. That’s got to count as a budget booster.”
More on how gardening can save you money:
- Nine fruits worth growing
- Herbs & leafy greens worth growing
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.