This is the ninth installment in our series on stretching your food dollar. The Christian Science Monitor reports that one of the current trends that has been spawned by rising food prices is the return to backyard gardens.

Gardening organizations, seed wholesalers, and local nurseries are all reporting hikes in the number of people buying vegetable seeds and starter plants.

It’s a trend that started slowly several years ago, spurred by concerns about food safety, food quality, and global warming, say garden mavens. But this year’s gasoline and food price spikes have had what could be called a “Miracle-Gro” effect on the backyard garden movement. This year, 39 percent of people with backyards told the Garden Writers Association they planned to grow vegetables this year. That’s up 5 percent from last year, after remaining relatively stable with only small increases for much of the past decade.

“This is evolving into a perfect storm for vegetable gardening,” says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt. “A lot of the economic things happening, and concerns are rising about global warming and carbon footprints, and so are worries about the quality of food, its price, and freshness – it’s all come to a head.”

This has certainly been the case in our household. In addition to supporting local agriculture by shopping at our farmers’ market, we’ve been working on our backyard garden. We’re fortunate to have great resources in Tucson, such as Native Seeds Search and the Tucson Botanical Gardens, along with the Desert Survivors’ Nursery, that all encourage the growth of native plants to restore ecological sustainability in the region. Native Seeds Search has many helpful guides that explain when to plant different seeds, where to put them in the garden, and how much water to give them. Another popular concept here in Tucson is rainwater harvesting, in order to decrease overall water usage and divert rainwater that would otherwise be wasted because concrete and asphalt prevent it from being absorbed in the soil.

Backyard gardening does require that you spend some money on the front end to buy seeds, etc. But once you get going, good gardening can be self sustaining. Native Seeds Search encourages growers to save their seeds from season to season. And their pamphlet Gardening in the Southwest has excellent suggestions about how you can save money on gardening supplies like mulch and plants.

Last week we talked about the proper way to wash and store produce so that food doesn’t go to waste. I mentioned that despite your best intentions, there are times when your produce will head south before you’ve had a chance to eat it. One way to make sure that you’re getting the most for your food dollar is to turn that food waste into compost. It’s a great way to enhance your soil, and it also ensures that you get the most for your food dollar.

These days there are all kinds of contraptions you can purchase for urban composting. One of the most popular is called the Earth Machine. But at $70, it’s a bit pricey. Especially if you’re gardening to save money on food. Never fear! There are terrific suggestions in Gardening in the Southwest for composting without all a lot of fancy accoutrement. Carol Tashnel explains:

Compost is simply decayed organic matter. The transformation of garbage into black gold is accomplished by hordes of tiny organisms, which may include bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, mites, springtails, pillbugs, and of course, worms. They do their work in the presence of organic materials and moisture. Pretty simple, right?

Indeed, some folks just toss whatever they have in a heap, and eventually it breaks down. The trouble with this approach is that it can be messy and often smells. Which brings me to an important element for a more socially acceptable compost pile–air.

Tashnel favors the straw bale-redworm method of composting. It’s a convenient compromise between the waste heap and the perfectly tended pile. And with a little bit of a time investment, it can actually be quite affordable. Tashnel suggests contacting feed stores in your area to ask if they have any broken or moldy straw bales that you can purchase at a substantial markdown in order to enclose your compost pile. You could also contact tree removal services to see if they will sell or give your their mulched tree bark for your garden.

Another way to compost, especially in the Fall and Winter when there is a lot of yard waste in the form of dead leaves, is to dig a hole for kitchen scraps, water the scraps, then cover with soil and mulched leaves. If you keep the pile mulched and moist, worms will appear to transform your kitchen waste into rich soil. Live in an apartment, where space is an issue? That’s OK! You can reap the same benefits through container gardening and urban composting.

I won’t make any claims to being a gardening expert. I’m still learning. But I wanted to share these tips with you so that you could start preparing your backyard this Fall and Winter to reap big rewards in the Spring and Summer from your garden. Check out the nurseries and botanical gardens in your area. They may have plant and seed sales, or offer free or low cost gardening classes to help you get started. Be sure to check the gardening section at your local library for helpful books like Let it Rot! The Home Gardener’s Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell, or What Every Gardener Should Know About Earthworms by Henry Hopp. Earth Machine’s website also has helpful tips for getting your compost pile started.

The last thing I’ll say about composting is this: coffee grounds are compost gold! If you have a reusable filter basket for your coffee maker, all you have to do is dump the grounds in the bin. Otherwise, buy unbleached coffee filters and you can throw the entire contents into your compost pile. Just be sure that you don’t add any fats or proteins to the compost pile, because they’re no bueno for your garden.

My partner and I are discovering the joys of gardening together.  The squash and bean seeds we planted in August are already growing taller.  This weekend we’ll plant some salad greens, broccoli, and dill.  We’ve been saving the seeds from our CSA produce so that next season, we’ll be harvesting our own cantaloupes, watermelons, and bell peppers. It sounds a little hokey, but I’m really learning that nothing beats having my morning pot of coffee and doing the crossword puzzle out on the back porch amongst my container garden. I hope that if you haven’t already discovered this for yourself, you’ll think about putting in some sweat this Fall and Winter so that you’ll have the same fun next season as you bite into your own home-grown produce!