Money grows on these | Otago Daily Times Online News

Gillian Vine looks for some cheap alternatives to buying vegetables.

Last month, fruit and vegetable prices rose by 16%, compared with September 2021 (ODT, 13.10.22).

Ten days ago, the Dunedin supermarket was charging $7.99 and $8.49 for whole cabbages, $5.49 for a half and $3.49 for a quarter. Lettuces were $4.25 to $4.99 each, cauliflowers $6.99 and silverbeet $10 a kilo. At $7.20 for a 325g bag, spinach worked out at $22.10 a kilo. The best buys were carrots ($2.33 to $2.99 ​​a kilo; $10/kg for baby ones) onions (from $2.99kg) and potatoes (from $3.24kg).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that vegetable consumption has dropped as a result of the high prices and more people are looking to grow their own.

For the newcomer to growing edibles, here are some to get you started.

Potatoes: Spuds are a good starter crop and Labor Weekend is the traditional time to plant them, but any time from now on works. They will grow in almost any soil, as long as it is fairly loose and kept moist — but never waterlogged — during the growing season. “Rocket” and “Swift” potatoes are ready to harvest in about two months; “Jersey Benne” takes a bit longer.

If you don’t have a garden, 10 liter plastic paint buckets with holes in the bottom for drainage are cost-free containers. Put stones, a broken brick or heavy clods at the bottom to help drainage, then fill with soil or inexpensive potting mix. Ideally, mix in a handful of potato fertilizer.

In each pot, plant one seed potato about 20cm down. Some garden centers sell varieties individually, as well as packs of six or 10 for $6-$8. If the budget is tight, don’t hesitate to use sprouted spuds from the bottom of the vegetable bin. Cut large ones in half and knock off all but two shoots before planting.

Put pots in a spot that gets about six hours of sunshine a day and keep well-watered until ready to harvest. If you want to have new potatoes, do a little bandicooting (putting your hand underneath) to check if they’re big enough to use. Otherwise, leave the crop to develop and harvest when the tops die down.

Spinach: There are three main kinds of spinach, all easy to grow. Conventional Spinacia oleracea is the one usually seen in supermarkets, New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa) is also a heat-resistant native and red mountain spinach or orach (Atriplex hortensis) is a tall (up to 1.8m) European plant that can be tucked into the back of a flower bed if there is no suitable vegetable plot.

Spinach is easy to grow in pots and will be ready to eat in less than two months. Sow fortnightly to keep a supply for salads or as a cooked green. “Imperial Green” ($3 for a packet of 250 seeds) is also a good variety, but as summer rolls on, it tends to go to seed.

Impervious to hot weather, NZ spinach is a lower-growing (20cm-30cm) perennial best treated as an annual. A single plant can sprawl 1m or more and as the young tips are harvested, more grow to replace them. A packet of 40 seeds is also $3.

Pick the young purple leaves of orach for salads or as a cooked vegetable. Left in the garden, it throws up pretty flower heads and if the seed ripens, dozens of little plants will pop up next spring. At $3 for a packet of 1000 seeds, you’ll never be short of orach.

Spicy salad greens: Rocket (Eruca sativa and Diplotaxis erucoides) lives up to its name, taking just 30 days from seed-sowing to harvesting. Spicy leaves go well in salads and sandwiches and at $3 for 500 seeds, is good value for money.

Cress (Lepidium sativum) is even better value with 2000 seeds in a packet. Whether grown on a saucer mixed with cotton wool, in an ice-cream bottle or in the garden, this is one of the easiest greens ever and is a great way to introduce kids to gardening.

American upland cress (Barbera verna) will grow in any cool, damp soil and has a more peppery taste than common cress.

These vegetables are often included to spice up mesclun mixes, which are usually based on lettuce, with other fast-growing greens to improve the flavor.

Broccoli and kale: The cost of broccoli may seem high at $3.80 a head, but kale at more than $30/kg earlier this week is mind-blowing, given that these members of the cabbage family are easy to grow and come in numerous forms. Sprouting broccoli has numerous small heads, so the plants produce over several weeks. Heads tend to get smaller as the plants age.

Kale is better grown in cooler weather, although I have had summer success with Red Russian curly kale. Except for Cavolo Nero, which can grow to 1m, kale can be grown in containers.

I estimate that spending $20 or less on seeds and a 10-pack of seed potatoes could save $100 or more at a supermarket. Add the advantage of really fresh greens and it’s easy to appreciate why vegetable gardening is on the rise.