Sometimes the things that drive up household costs are out of your control: Drought in California, for instance, has pushed up the prices of fruits and vegetables.
Not eating them isn't an option. (Really, I've checked.) So, when the cost of doing business goes up, what can you do?
How about taking something that has been widely outsourced and bringing it back "in house." Or at least "in yard."
That's right — dig for financial victory.
Burpee, the seed company, estimates that a $5.95 packet of salad tomato seeds could produce 720 pounds of tomatoes worth more than $2,000. A packet of leaf lettuce seeds could yield 400 pounds worth almost $1,400.
That's a lot of salad.
But if you don't know what you're doing, you might as well just plant money straight into the ground because it can be really easy to spend a lot and still have nothing to eat. (William Alexander's book The $64 Tomato in the classic account on this.)
The folks at the Fayette County Cooperative Extension Service have a fix for that. (And for most things. Seriously. Stop by the agency's office at 1140 Red Mile Road and ask: whatever you want to grow, kill, can or freeze, they have information about it, and it's probably online.)
For example, "Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky," a 46-page booklet, is $1, or it may be read and printed online for free.
"You could go from zero experience to everything," said Jamie Dockery, extension agent for horticulture. Weeds, herbicides, organics — all in there.
The Extension Service is going to make it even easier: On May 10, it will give away garden kits at a Growing Community workshop at Valley Park Community Garden on Cambridge Drive in Lexington. All free: one kit per family with plants (large tomato, cherry tomato, pepper and basil), seeds and the gardening booklet.
"If they come to our class, they won't be out anything," Dockery said.
Then it just depends on how much you want to invest, but you'll probably get results with nothing more than water, soil and a little fertilizer, he said.
"Gardeners need to be aware that you won't be 100 percent successful," Dockery warned. "Not everything you put in the ground will work. We try to steer people toward easy stuff. Pest pressure has made it hard to grow cucumbers and squash here, but beans are easy. ... Beets and root crops are no-brainer, dead easy crops if you start early. Potatoes, too, if you start early enough. Spinach, lettuce, kale — about as easy as you get. You do have to watch for caterpillars. But there are organic pesticides."
At the May 10 event, there will be demonstrations on planting, container gardening, and what to do with vegetables you've grown.
It turns out that is actually a big part of the problem: people often don't know what to do with that eggplant once they have it, said Dianna Doggett, extension agent for family and consumer sciences.
The Extension Service, in conjunction with University of Kentucky dietetic students and the state Department of Agriculture's Kentucky Proud program, developed the Plate It Up series of simple, easy, tasty recipes for fixing fresh vegetables and fruits, so you can take advantage of seasonal produce when it is cheapest — or even better, fresh from your yard.
Doggett says there are two ways to do that: canning and freezing.
For most people, freezing is easiest and keeps food the most like fresh.
But you must have a dedicated freezer; there just won't be enough room in your typical refrigerator freezer to hold much.
"It's not cheap — but nor is the cost of storing frozen food you buy commercially. A well-managed freezer can save you time and energy," Doggett said. "We tell people to get the most out of a home freezer they need to select one that meets your family's need — don't get one too large. And freeze only those foods your family likes, that can be enjoyed in a season."
In other words, just because you froze it doesn't mean it will last forever.
A freezer can range from $200 to $500 depending on whether it is self-defrosting, upright or chest, she said. Operating a 15-cubic-foot frost-free freezer probably will cost about $125 a year in electricity, which should be factored in with the cost of packaging items in freezer-quality plastic, which can be 2 to 10 cents a pound.
The other option is canning, which many people find intimidating.
Doggett says it is easy, although it is more time-consuming.
But it is much cheaper, she says.
Costs vary depending on whether you use a pressure canner ($100 to $150) or water bath ($20 to $40). But factoring in $5 to $9 for jars (which can be reused), new lids and screw bands, and electricity, the cost will come out ahead of the annual expenditures for a freezer.
Either way, you must limit yourself to preserving what you and your family actually will use in a year.
"Some people get in real duress: At the end of the year, I've got all these tomatoes, what am I going to do with them?" Doggett said. "I think food is to be enjoyed, and it needs to be as flavorful as possible."
But will this really save you money?
"It is true that it saves money for some people," Doggett said. "But for others, it may not save anything. ... When we do cost analysis on that, it's hard to regain your return on investment. But there are other intangible reasons why people do home preservation or gardening. It may not be exceptionally profitable when you consider your time, but there are many other side effects and benefits."
You must be pragmatic, especially on the initial costs of things like a freezer, electricity, packaging, and the added ingredients in canning such as spices or sugar.
"It's very hard to make a case that it's going to be an actual cost savings, but there are so many intrinsic benefits," Doggett said.
"Healthy outdoor exercise, neighborliness, shared family activities. The pleasure of sharing extra produce, and just having that availability of fresh garden produce without a trip to the market," Doggett said.
So growing your own produce might not be a lot cheaper, but you will have sweat equity in your food, which makes it taste all the sweeter.
This month's homework
Consider this a long-term experiment. Plant a small, easy garden. One or two vegetables is enough to start. Green beans and a little lettuce mix, for instance. You don't have to go all "urban homestead," but if you feel ambitious, do more.
Then, in a few weeks, cut some fresh lettuce and make a salad. Tell me that doesn't beat buying it in a plastic bag at the store.