Now is the perfect moment to start planning your vegetable garden! You might think I’m crazy because, if your yard is like mine, it’s covered with ice and snow right now. Until mid-February, seed catalogs and Internet companies are running huge discounts that typically aren’t available in the spring. Local stores will also often sell out of popular vegetable seeds as soon as the ground thaws enough to start planting.

If you’re a gardening novice or haven’t yet considered growing your own produce, ponder this:

  • Green Beans: Last year I purchased two packets at $1.50 each during a winter sale. With a few hours a week sun-tanning and exercising up and down the rows, I fed my family freshly-picked green beans from July through Labor Day. I have more than 40 quarts steamed and frozen in Ziploc bags in my freezer. We gave away bags full to friends and family, then finally let the remaining beans dry on the plants and now have 3 quart jars full of dried beans. That $3 spent on seeds turned into well over $100 of fresh produce!
  • Lettuce: This is another option with the most bang for your buck. Averaging $2.49, a packet of 1000 seeds includes a blend of Romaine, Simpson, and a variety of other red and green-leaf lettuces. Like green beans, lettuce will keep growing the more it is harvested and will keep your family full.
  • Swiss Chard: Considered by some foodies to be a gourmet green, this is probably the easiest plant to grow. At $3.99 or less for 100 seeds, it’s a new gardener’s best friend. Chard is not very delectable raw but when steamed, tastes like a mild spinach. It is often tossed with butter or bacon drippings or is chopped and used as a spinach substitute in cooking recipes. Like beans and lettuce, it will continue to produce the more it is harvested, but unlike lettuce or spinach, it will continue to thrive in steamy hot temperatures.
  • Zucchini: I once read in a gardening magazine that the best thing to do with zucchini was to plant one seed, then burn the rest of the packet to prevent it taking over your entire yard. Just a few zucchini plants will more than supply a large family with plenty of the tasty veggie, and there are thousands of recipes to use up the leftovers.

Now that I have you convinced that gardening is a money-saving venture, where should you begin? Check out seed websites like Gurneys.com and HenryFields.com. Both companies guarantee their products to grow and have refunded me my cost when I’ve had seeds or plants fail to sprout.

What to Plant

First, find out your hardiness zone. This is based on your location, and all types of vegetation are rated to grow in specific zones. For example, if you live in northern Maine (zone 3), you cannot expect to grow pineapples (zone 10). Furthermore, you should plant only what you and your family like to eat. Just because a certain veggie will thrive in your climate doesn't mean you should plant bushels of it.

When to Plant

Again, this is based on your hardiness zone. The general rule of thumb when you’re planting seedlings is to wait until the last moderate frost date for your region.  If you are planting seeds directly, wait approximately one to two weeks prior to that.  To start seeds inside, a good idea for Northerners who need to extend their growing season, plant the seeds in a sunny window 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. For me in upstate NY, this can be as late as Memorial Day! One year I jumped the gun during a hot, sunny week in early May and lost half of my seedlings during an unexpected, but not nonseasonal, heavy frost two days. Now I respect the calendar. Check for recommended planting dates of specific vegetables based on your zipcode.

So, for the next few months of winter, snuggle up with a warm blanket and a cup of hot coffee.  Leaf through those seed catalogues and dream of fresh salads, steamed veggies, and plenty of inexpensive produce this summer!

This has been a guest post by Melissa from Whitney Point, NY
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