It's time for another monthly Action Item, and I can tell you I'm glad to wind up this project for the year. While these posts have been fun for me, it's also been a challenge coming up with frugal ideas that work for nearly everyone. I hope they've been of use.
Those of you who read here regularly could be forgiven for considering this more of a gardening blog than anything else. What started for me as a clearing house for all the aspects of frugality in my life has evolved into something that is pretty heavily focused on the food we produce for ourselves on our little suburban lot. Given the degree to which my life revolves around food, this doesn't really surprise me, much as I'd like to be more well-rounded in what I blog. Yet oddly enough, gardening hasn't featured in any of my monthly Action Items thus far. Time to change that.
December is a good time of year to start thinking about next year's garden if you're in the northern hemisphere. In many ways this is the point in time when the garden is in a state of absolute perfection - when it exists as a Platonic ideal solely in our imaginations. If you're not already on mailing lists for seed catalogs, you can check out several good seed vendors online. I recommend Fedco, Johnny's, Seed Savers Exchange, and High Mowing Seeds. I particularly recommend the printed Johnny's Seeds catalog to those new to gardening. Even if you don't end up buying anything from Johnny's, the catalog is a great resource for information about sundry garden plants, and they also have an excellent selection of tools.
Those of you with a backyard lawn: I challenge you to convert at least 100 square feet per family member into a productive food garden. You can grow an awful lot of food in a 5' x 20' bed. If you're in a sufficiently mild climate it's not too late to begin prepping such a bed right now with the lasagna or sheet mulching method: kill the grass, add compost or other soil amendments, cover that with heavy wet layers of newspaper or corrugated cardboard, and then cover everything with a layer of mulch.
Those of you without a lawn but who have a balcony, bay window, a front porch, or even a segment of unused driveway can think about container gardening for next year. So that you don't need to buy expensive containers in the spring, start looking around now for food grade buckets. Delis and bakeries often have buckets of various sizes that held olives or other foodstuffs. These can be had for free by asking around, poking around dumpsters, or placing a wanted ad on craigslist. Once you've got them, drill a few holes for drainage. If you don't already have a compost pile, put the bucket outside and start chucking your kitchen scraps in there all through the winter. They won't decompose much during the cold months, but it'll give you a head start on material for the new year. If you've got a fence with hardly any soil you might consider heavily amending the soil right at the fence line and then growing pole beans up the fence. Beans aren't too particular about the soil they grow in and will generate their own nitrogen fertilizer from the air. The plants will twine around the supports and put their leaves on whichever side of the fence gets better sun. Just be sure you have access to get to your harvest.
A wide variety of plants can be grown in containers, either pots that sit on the ground or those that hang from a hook. Tomatoes will thrive in containers against brick walls that bake in the sun, provided they're kept well watered, and they do pretty well in hanging baskets too, as do cucumbers. We did pretty well with container-grown potatoes this year. Thomas keeps a gorgeous lemon tree in a modestly sized container in his New England home.
If you're really and truly deprived of any suitable space in which to place large growing containers, then consider a few small containers for greens, green onions, or herbs. A south facing window or two with good exposure can supply you with enough lettuce for salads or sandwiches for much of the year. Herbs are great to have on hand right when you want them, without even having to step outside. It's pretty amazing what some determined people have been able to grow in window boxes. If your home doesn't even have a south facing window, then you can grow your own sprouts on your kitchen counter. Fresh sprouts take very little tending, and provide an incredible nutritional boost to your daily diet. When people come to visit you in your dark abode, you can proudly show off your countertop garden. Work with what's possible and always push that boundary.
If you're a determined type with no gardening space, then I would encourage you to seek out opportunities to grow on land you don't own. Community garden plots (US) or allotments (UK) are available in many urban areas. This time of year is a good time to put yourself on a waiting list for some space to grow if you're not already on one. Alternatively, you could pursue a garden-share - an option that many Transition initiatives are encouraging. Find yourself a neighbor with an under-used backyard and ask permission to use it to grow food. The best advantage in this arrangement comes when the homeowner is elderly or incapacitated, but would still love fresh produce from their own property. If you have the motivation to grow healthy food you could help not only yourself but also your landowning neighbor by splitting the harvest with them. Many elderly people who can no longer raise their own food remember well the value of a home garden. They remember an era when thrift was far more the norm than it is today, and would be absolutely thrilled to see their small piece of land put to good use. So don't let social shyness hold you back if there's a nearby property that would work for you. The worst that could happen is that the answer is "no." More likely, your request will be a blessing in someone's life.
Alternative Action Item: If you're already an experienced gardener, then I'm sure there's no need to encourage you to think about next year's garden. You're already getting those seed catalogs in the mail, no doubt. So instead I'm going to challenge you to expand your gardening project in some way. Perhaps you have never bothered with perennials. That's a good direction to expand in - many years of harvest for one season of planting. Or you could work on turning some of your shade areas to production and simultaneously extending your season on the early side with early crops such as ramps and fiddlehead ferns. Perhaps you could concentrate on learning the basics of seed saving this year. Do a little research on some plants that don't cross-polinate very well and find out how to store them. Think about extending your harvest through succesion planting or row covers for use in the cooler months of the year. If none of those ideas appeal or you're already doing all those things then perhaps you could plant a row for the hungry this year and aleviate the strain on your local food bank.
I live on a 2/3 acre homestead in a residential neighborhood. A major goal is to demonstrate how much food a non-expert can produce in my particular climate and hardiness zone, with the soils native to my immediate area. We have gardens of annual and perennial plants, keep laying hens and honey bees, and regularly bite off more than we can chew. Another major goal is to pay off our mortgage as fast as possible. Here I blog about frugality, self-reliance, gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, practical skills, half-baked experiments, and preparing to thrive in a lower-energy future.