Once upon a time, vegetable gardens were all but ubiquitous. Whether they tended a small container garden in the city or a backyard plot in the country, many -- if not most -- families had at least a few food-producing plants. In World War II, "Victory Gardens," maintained by ordinary families, contributed to the war effort by growing 40 percent of the country's produce. Since then, community gardens, city farms, and even green roofs have been part of the fabric of America's food production.
But for all that, the idea that every family should have at least a small garden has faded. It's not hard to see why: In many ways, America has become a produce wonderland. Whether the month is January or June, whether the place is San Francisco or St. Louis, most of us are rarely more than a short drive away from a reasonably ripe tomato, a crispy head of lettuce and a fairly fresh onion. And, given our economies of scale, this embarrassment of riches isn't all that expensive; even out-of-season, a red bell pepper rarely runs more than a few dollars, and a red (well, pinkish) tomato doesn't cost much more than a can of Coke.
Or, to put it another way, when Grandma can easily afford to buy beans and fresh basil at the local grocery store, she doesn't really need to grow her own anymore.
But while fresh fruits and veggies are easy to find, high quality ones, grown with minimal pesticides and maximum taste, are rarer -- and a whole lot more expensive. And while modern cultivation and transportation has made fresh veggies available to almost everyone, the cost has been huge. Whether the issue is e Coli contamination, a lack of nutrition, an excess of pesticides, or the environmental impact of monocultures, it's clear that even a $1 tomato can carry a huge price tag.
With that in mind, you might want to consider taking a cue from Gram and growing a couple of plants this summer. Chances are that your produce will be tastier and healthier than the stuff you buy in the store -- and it might even be less expensive. While some vegetables, particularly potatoes, carrots, celery, asparagus and wheat, are not cost-effective, many fruits and vegetables pay for themselves, particularly after you cover the initial startup costs of constructing a garden bed or window box. With that in mind, here are nine of the best -- and most profitable -- vegetables that you can produce in your backyard (or on your fire escape!).
Plant the Seeds of Saving This Summer
Sure, you can buy lettuce in any grocery store, but if you want something a little more exotic than iceberg lettuce -- aka "the astroturf of greens" -- you're likely to pay quite a bit more. Not surprisingly, premium greens, like cilantro, chard and arugula, are among the most profitable things you can grow: according to some estimates, they can save you up to $20 per square foot!
If you like tomatoes, you're in luck -- they're incredibly profitable. The small and medium-sized varieties, which mature quickly and grow in considerable profusion, can save an estimated $16.50 for every square foot you plant. Best of all, their flavor will leave your grocery store's sickly offerings in the dust.
When it comes to saving money and making a big impact on your cooking, it's hard to beat herbs. Depending on the plant, they can save you up to $18 per square foot -- while supercharging the flavor of your cooking. As an added bonus, many popular herbs, including sage, rosemary, thyme, and mint, are perennials, which means that your initial planting cost will pay you back with a rich harvest every year.
Peas, particularly snow peas, are among the more profitable things that you can grow in your garden. The bigger payoff, however, comes in terms of flavor: it's hard to beat the wonderful, sweet taste of raw peas, picked and eaten fresh in your garden. For that matter, string beans -- a close relative of peas -- taste great raw, boiled (what do you want? I'm from the South!), steamed, or even pickled and served in a Bloody Mary.
Among backyard farmers, the incredible growth rate of squash and zucchini is a running joke: a couple of plants, properly watered and maintained, will leave you with more food than you can (or want to) eat. Luckily, there are hundreds of tasty dishes that you can make with them.
Grandma always made a big deal about eating vegetables -- a tough sell when it comes to Brussels sprouts. To begin with, these things are weird: on the stalk, they look like a cross between an octopus and a cabbage. And in terms of flavor, they can easily turn the corner from yummy to revolting (big hint: boiling them is not a great idea). On the other hand, they are very profitable and, when properly prepared, they can be amazing. Personally, I love this recipe, which uses Sriracha hot sauce, honey and lime juice to temper the cabbagy flavor of the sprouts.
If you've ever fought with wild onions, you already know how hardy members of the allium, or onion family, can be. When it comes to growing your own green onions or scallions, that can be a blessing. To begin with, scallion bulbs take about a month to mature, which means that you can continue to refresh your garden throughout the summer. They're easy to use -- you can eat the onions raw, or can snip the leaves into dozens of foods. And, as an added bonus, they can save you about $4 for every square foot that you plant.
It's hard to beat the clean, cool scent of a freshly sliced cucumber; unfortunately, though, many store-bought cukes fall down when it comes to flavor. Luckily, cucumbers are easy to grow, can be incredibly prolific, and are quite delicious when grown in your garden. But if you grow cukes, be sure to do two things: first, remember to wash off the spines, as many varieties have little thorns that aren't too hard on the hand, but can really irritate your mouth. Second, don't waste them on pickles or a salad -- garden fresh cucumbers deserve to be shown off to their best effect, as in Greek tzatziki dip.