Best Ideas for Low-Cost Food Crops

Harvest ideas for growing lip-smacking flavors in ways that won’t cost you a bundle.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Image courtesy of

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

©2012, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Photo by Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Image courtesy of Dr. Deb Tolman,

©2012, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Image courtesy of

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Courtesy of National Garden Bureau

Windowsill Herbs

Herbs adapt readily to containers, and you can yield easy pickings when you fill a window ledge with potted herbs. Sage, basil, parsley, thyme and chives all thrive in containers. Try to use pots with a little depth to give roots ample elbow room. Remember to pick often for the longest harvest season.

Backdoor Salads

Leaf lettuces can yield for weeks when grown in a container. Any pot will do, and it doesn’t have to be all that deep since lettuce is a shallow-rooted plant. Sow seed thickly in the pot and use cut-and-come-again harvest methods to extend your salad season. For a colorful pot, look for lettuce blends sold as mesclun mix.

Put Sticks to Work

Forget expensive specialty pea trellises. A traditional — and effective — way to support pea vines is using tree and shrub prunings. The sticks provide just the right size support for delicate pea tendrils to wrap around. As you gather winter’s cast-down crop of twigs from trees, save the ones that have enough height to support spring peas.

Raid Your Fridge

Pull plastic containers from your recycling bin and save wax-coated cartons to make small space gardens. You can harvest edible crops like lettuce or celery from these containers, or use them to grow seedlings you transfer to the garden later.

Trellised Raspberries

Many small fruits produce heavy harvests, including blueberries, gooseberries and raspberries. Everbearing red raspberries yield quarts of delicious fruit for precious little effort. The secret to bumper crops is plenty of compost and spring pruning of second-year canes to yield a July harvest. The main harvest on current canes comes in autumn. Look for thornless varieties to eliminate pricks while picking.

Bountiful Basket

Instead of selling baskets in a garage sale, recycle them as garden containers. Laundry baskets, magazine baskets and larger handled baskets can easily host edible crops. Shallow baskets are perfect for raising lettuces and some herbs. Deeper baskets can support peppers, green beans and compact tomato varieties. Line baskets with plastic before adding soil to extend the life of the wicker. Don’t forget to poke a few drainage holes in the bottom of the plastic.

Potatoes in a Can

Repurpose a plastic trash can as a potato garden. Potatoes need soil piled around their stems as they grow, and planting them in a deep container means you’ll have spuds forming along stems for nearly the entire depth of the pot. Don’t forget to drill or punch drainage holes in the bottom of the can before filling it with soil.

Save Seeds

Many crops offer more than a tasty bite. If you’re willing to expend a little effort, you can also harvest a crop of seeds you can save for planting next year’s garden. Good candidates for saving seed include winter squash, dry beans, melons and herbs like dill, chives, coriander and fennel. To save cucumber, green bean or summer squash seeds, you’ll have to let fruits ripen beyond the point of being edible.

Plant in the Compost Pile

Put your compost pile to work for growing vining crops like pumpkin, zucchini, winter squash or melons. A compost pile is naturally warm and gives these heat-loving crops the toasty soil they crave. Just be sure to water the pile, especially if it’s open to air flow on any sides.

DIY Raised Bed

Make your own raised beds using basic lumber and hardware you may already have on hand. You can even create raised beds with attached trellises made from pieces of fencing to grow vining crops like climbing beans, cucumber or Malabar spinach. Line the bottom of the raised bed with hardware cloth if gophers or ground squirrels are problem pests in your region.

Try a Strawberry Jar

Growing strawberries in a traditional jar-type pot with pockets is not just fun — the yields are terrific. One jar planted with everbearing strawberries can keep family cereal bowls decked out in berries for most of the growing season. It’s also the perfect solution when garden space is at a premium. Strawberry jars yield wonderfully on decks, porch steps or balconies. Best of all, neither the bareroot berry plants nor the jar are expensive.

Crate Up Crops

Press any container you have on hand into service for raising low-cost food crops. Small crates provide a happy home for herbs like tricolor sage and alpine strawberries. Extend the life of the box by protecting it from damp soil. First line it with burlap, and then add a plastic layer. Punch holes in the bottom layer of plastic for drainage.

Tomato Cage

Invest in simple DIY tomato cages to support your tomatoes. Typical wire tomato cages don’t really provide sufficient support for these vines, especially when fruit starts forming. Instead of investing in heavy duty cages from garden specialty companies, cobble your own using fencing. Stake the fencing in place with pieces of rebar for the strongest support. Bamboo stakes also work.

Put Your Yard Waste to Work

Take composting a step further by building hugelkultur beds. This German word means “hill culture” and refers to a growing method where you pile up various organic materials, including brush, branches and tree trunk chunks to create a planting bed. The resulting bed requires less water and yields a self-composting soil that’s super rich and packed with nutrients. Crops grown in hugelkultur beds produce prolifically.

Hanging Tomatoes

If you typically count on hanging baskets for color around your home, consider swapping flowers for tasty tomatoes. These fruits create a pretty basket, and the tomatoes are a cinch to harvest, compared to stooping and twisting to pick from plants grown in garden beds. Plant your baskets with a tomato variety developed for containers. The ‘Tumbling Tom’ types, which come in yellow or red, are ideal candidates.

A Pot of Beans

Think beyond traditional containers when planning where to tuck edibles. Green beans, especially the award-winning variety ‘Mascotte’, thrive in containers as shallow as a traditional window box type. Pair a box-style planter with over-the-fence supports to turn a picket fence into a productive veggie patch.