So, I’ll admit it: I love the idea of growing my own food for free. I’m a tightwad-tip junkie. And, when you combine my need single mom need for thrift with my love of growing anything and everything – vegetables flowers, kids, dogs, cats, tadpoles, even chickens, I’m insatiable.
If you’re reading this, I bet you are a fan of the idea of growing things for free, too. So, I figured I’d share some cheap vegetable growing hacks that worked. These tips can save you hundreds of dollars in fresh produce that’s more nutritious than store bought, and help you avoid losing money on the ‘tips’ that didn’t work. (For more ways to save money and improve your life with grocery store garbage, see part II in this series.)
I’ve read just about every article that offers tips about this. Spoiler: Some of them cost money, not saved it, or were miserably unsuccessful. Here’s what I learned.
Sweet potatoes grow really well here in North Florida. They are one of those blessed plants that love the heat and humidity and take little maintenance. The catch? Buying sweet potato slips online can cost $12 plus shipping for 6. Ouch!
Enter the humble Publix potato.
What worked: I found some shriveled up, organic Stokes Purple sweet potatoes. I tried one, and in their semi-desiccated state, they tasted horrible. However, those rheumy-looking eyes had already started to sprout into leaves since, being organic, the potatoes hadn’t been sprayed.
I planted some in a potting soil I got on sale at Dollar General for $2 per 16-quart bag. The result? Gorgeous foliage that soon outgrew the planted pieces. (More on growing your own slips coming soon). They overflowed the container and were so lovely on my rolling kitchen cart inside that I hated to transplant them.
Price: $2 for about three dozen slips.
I couldn’t find any other variety with eyes that sprouted, (Many didn’t even have any eyes. Do the growers do peep-ectomies on these things?) but I found another source for sprouting potatoes: Diane’s Natural Market at its beautiful new-ish location on U.S. 1 and State Road 206.
I bought a bag of mixed, regular fingerling potatoes – red, white and purple. I set the red and white aside -there are plenty here at the farmer’s markets – but kept my favorites, the purples.
The potatoes also took off and are happily growing in a 10-gallon grow bag. The jury is out over whether they will succeed after being planted so early in the season. Regular potatoes don’t like the heat like sweet potatoes do.
I also found a couple of sweet potatoes at my favorite St. Augustine vegetable stand – Curry Brothers at Wildwood and U.S. 1. The owner’s son was super helpful and gave me some shriveled ones for free. The result? Two lovely slips for $0, and the deepening of my love for Curries Market.
The potato plants were thriving and producing by July, and I didn’t even have to wait for the potatoes to make some delicious meals! Check out my recipe for slow-cooked Southern-style sweet potato greens.
Here’s Something else that worked extremely well:
Cut the green tops off, plant the white bulbs with roots and water regularly. Their tops grow back super quickly, so if you have a dozen growing on your windowsill you will have them as often as you need. That $1 a bunch can last you – has lasted me – years.
Granted, the poor plants live most of their lives as armless little stumps hanging around their dirty pot like fat tourists in a hot tub at the Casa Monica. They don’t seem to mind though.
Tip: Don’t root the ones at Aldi. Half were too far gone and often rotted in the soil. Get vigorous ones from Publix or another grocery store.
If you would rather not bother, just have us deliver a fresh bunch!
And here’s another you can grow indoors in front of an east-facing window:
I sliced the top off a beet, soaked, dusted in rooting hormone and planted June 30, 2019 in St. Augustine, Fla. By July, the greens had become healthy.
Beet greens have come to prominence as a new health food, alongside other healthy greens like kale. I love the tasty, tender greens and often buy them at the store. However, I found myself slicing the top off a beat, soaking it, dusting it in rooting planter and planting it in dirt inside. Within a week, it sprouted and by early July, it had become a pretty, red-veined houseplant with lovely young greens unmolested by grasshopper bites.
The downside is that it will take several weeks to mature into big enough greens to make a decent dinner, but you could get around that by planting several.
I read all the tips about sprouting lettuces from the stumps in little bowls of water. For $1.99 at Aldi, I get beautiful artisan lettuces – four crisp delicious heads to a container. The varieties included romaine, red sails, and others I can’t name.
Some sprouted, others rotted. All died once I got them outside in April. Our hotter-than-the-hinges-on-Hades climate is just too much for these types of lettuces. So, I bought some red oakleaf lettuce starts from Home Depot for $2.50 or so and it’s doing great alongside some collard starts, and I plan to save the seed and grow them again for free. Hack successful!
I bought two big pieces of ginger from Publix and buried them inside, watered them frequently and waited. All the articles advise patience as ginger supposedly takes a long time to sprout. I bought soil and kept them moist. They never sprouted and, when I dug them up later, were neither rotted nor vegetative.
I lost about $2 for the ginger.
Celery stumps die in our heat. I might try again earlier in the year, but the other downside is that this plant takes up a lot of space, fertilizer, soil and water. That adds up, especially when you consider you can get a nice fresh bag – the equivalent of one plant- for less than $2 at several places.
Some pea seeds from national chains
Little Marvel peas at 2/$1 at Dollar General do not grow well in Northeast Florida.
Forget it. Just forget it. It’s too hot here, even in spring. If you’ve had success with this variety, prove me wrong and I’ll gladly post your pictures on my blog.
In the meantime, try other area proven winners like Blue Lake Bush Beans, which sell for the same price in the same place. Just make sure to plant them as early as you can in spring or the Florida heat will have them falling out quicker than out-of-shape recruits in basic training.
Have you had success growing food from scraps I couldn’t bring to life? Let me know here.