Vegetable Gardening On A Budget

Wondering what to do with that old PC case? You could turn it into a planter, and grow strawberries in winter. "Cheap vegetable gardener" Shawn Verrall describes how he gardens in his limited backyard space, in a less-than-ideal climate, without spending a lot of money.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, yes, it's Memorial Day - Memorial Day weekend, and start of the summer. And I'll bet you, you're going to be heading out to that gardening store, right? You going to sit back, maybe do a little barbecuing, looking over and say I need a tomato patch or something right there.

Well, it's time to get the tomatoes and cucumbers planted, but what are you going to do if you're little short on space. You live in the city. You have a little bit of a lot - there's not all -you don't have a lot of cash. Does that mean gardening is not for you? Absolutely not, because my next guest has some great ideas for the would-be vegetable gardener who doesn't have a lot to work with.

And joins me now to share some of his gardening hacks, and I'm hoping you out there will give us some tips of your own. Got a good way to grow a little, grow a lot in a little space? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Also tweet us at scifri, at S-C-I-F-R-I. And you join the discussion on our website. It's sciencefriday.com, talking about gardening.

Let me introduce my guest. Shawn Verrall is a software engineer as his day job, but I'm sure what he likes to do most, he's the cheap vegetable gardener. And you can go to his website where he documents his penny-pinching gardening tips at cheapvegetablegardener.com. He joins us from Redmond, Washington, where that small, little software company is out there. Welcome, Shawn.

Mr. SHAWN VERRALL (Software engineer; The Cheap Vegetable Gardener): Hi.

FLATOW: How are you?

Mr. VERRALL: Good.

FLATOW: You know...

Mr. VERRALL: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You know, I've been seeing these commercials on TV now for the last six months about growing tomatoes upside down. Is it does that work? And do I have to buy that tomato plant that special one? Or can I do that myself?

Mr. VERRALL: Well, the funny thing is, I mean, I think they actually started selling things I think around 2005. So, they've been doing it for a while. But yet, to some people, it's still the strange thing they ever heard of. But I've heard people doing it for decades. I did a little bit of looking and apparently been back about 1985 is the farthest back I could find. I'm sure some grandma did it in 1900s. But they commercially grow these things so - and they're very, very successful of that. So, yeah.

And as far as, you know, having to purchase some, I mean, the concept is pretty simple. What they've done before the commercial versions is using, like, five-gallon buckets of this drill hole in the bottom, so they can plant through, put some dirt in and hang it up. You know, it's pretty simple. And one of the methods that I have done is for some of the smaller plants is to take just, you know, your classic, you know, two-liter pop bottle. You know, cut the bottom off, put a plant in the bottom and fill it full of dirt with the one exception, you can only grow some of the smaller plants. But I mean it's definitely a very cheap and, you know, you don't need some, you know, crazy structures to hold this thing up, so.

FLATOW: Why don't the plants get dizzy hanging upside-down like, I mean, you know, seriously, I always thought the roots grow down. The leaves want to turn back up toward the sun, don't they?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. I mean, the roots don't really work with gravity as far as I've seen. You know, they go to where there water is and where the nutrients are. So if that happens to be down.

I mean another technique of, you know, growing tomatoes is planting them on their sides. People have been doing it for a long time...

FLATOW: I used to do that, yeah.

Mr. VERRALL: So, yeah, I mean, that's similar concept where, you know, there would be all the roots would just shoot down but they'll go to the side and, you know, fill the space out.

So, and yeah, as far as the leaves, yeah, it usually takes a day or two, but they will, you know, curl over. And then, you know, the top side of the leaves, you know, want to point towards the sun. (Unintelligible) take of that. So, I mean, really not too much different than, you know, putting a plant in a shaded area. And it's going to towards the brighter brightest place it can get to, so.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I guess, you started this hobby business/website out of necessity yourself. You didn't have a whole lot of space to grow veggies in.

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. I mean, for me I live in, you know, sort of a modern, you know, suburban area where, you know, it's, you know, pretty postage stamp-type houses, so in my case, I really only have, you know, just a small strip of southern facing, you know, land to grow, which fortunately I at least have that. So I can grow some tomatoes in the ground. But one of the issue if you have with that is for disease and pests, if you want to have crop rotation which when you only have one place to grow something it's kind of like, am I going to take three years off growing tomatoes.

So, you know, the options are doing container planting or doing the whole upside down, you know, technique, which you can definitely, you know, put that in your front yard, which, you know, you maybe going to place to put it in dirt, but you know, just finding a place to put a hook up and you can start growing there.

FLATOW: And it's pretty cheap. Those pop bottles, you can find them lying around anywhere.

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah, I got plenty of more sitting in my compost pit at the moment. So, yeah, so there's good ways to do a little reuse before you throw something away or sanitary recycling, so.

FLATOW: Elizabeth in Kalamazoo, hi.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi there, Ira. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. How are you?

ELIZABETH: Great. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to let people know let our listeners know that if you or anybody that you know received food stamp benefits through the USDA SNAP program, you can buy - you can purchase plants that grow food and seeds that grow food.

FLATOW: Wow, with food stamps?

ELIZABETH: With food stamps. So the - you know, the store where you're going to has to be food stamp accessible.

FLATOW: Right.

ELIZABETH: You know, there's farmers markets. Here in Kalamazoo, we have two farmers markets that accept food stamps. And there's farmers there where you can buy plants that grow food. Also, at our local co-op - at the People's Food Co-op.

FLATOW: Wow. That's good to know, Elizabeth. Thanks for letting us know.

ELIZABETH: Right. Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend.

ELIZABETH: You, too.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. 1-800-989-8255. How cheaply can you grow stuff? I mean, that's your whole point, is to grow stuff as cheaply as possible, Shawn, is it not?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. And sometimes you do have to be a little creative. You know, I mean, it's one of those hobbies where - if you actually go back to my very first post on my website, I actually talk about the initial - you know, buying the dirt, buying the tools, buying all the feeds, you know, to get, you know, my $80 tomato, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VERRALL: But it's the little things where, you know, if you are a little creative around it, you do the containers, you do some of these upside down - I mean, you don't have to buy a lot of dirt to fill a lot of space or even, you know - many people will, you know, buy enough dirt to do 12, you know, 14, 15 inches worth of soil to grow something which, you know, kind of doing kind of the square foot gardening-type methods. You know, six inches, you can pretty much grow out anything but carrots, you know, because they'll...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. VERRALL: ...they'll eventually go sideways. So, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You have a post on the most profitable plants in your vegetable garden. What crops give you the most value for your money?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. I think on that list, cilantro made it to the top. Yeah, I mean, it's definitely not one you would think of. But, I mean, to me, the - I need to update that with something with the, you know, by taste, as well. But, you know, tomatoes are definitely one. You can't really compete with anything there. You know, the - my daughter, you know, won't eat too many vegetables. But the fresh peas off the plant is definitely one of her favorites.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. VERRALL: I have to fight for her those now.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. VERRALL: But, yeah, I mean - but it really comes down to, it doesn't really matter how profitable it is, but - and if you don't eat it, you know, it's sort of a non, you know, issue. But, you know, the a more, you know, exotic type, you know, leaf vegetables and stuff that you -maybe you don't about, but - yeah. But...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Let's go Aaron in Jacksonville. Hi, Aaron.

AARON (Caller): Hey. How are you doing, Ira?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

AARON: Yes. I want to give you guys a couple of ideas for a vertical pipe garden. You can take PVC pipe, and you can either use soil or you can use it hydroponically, but you just cut the ends of it. And you can either stack it on top of each other high, or you can just grow the single pipe vertically, and plants will naturally sprout right out of that. And you can make a curtain. If you don't like your neighbors and you would rather see vegetables, you just put up a couple of these pipes on top of each other, and they'll cascade right down to the...

FLATOW: What a great idea. And do you use two-inch PVC or four-inch?

AARON: Oh, well, you can use whatever size that you have. Well, excuse the fire trucks going by in the background. But you can use whatever size you want and whatever you have lying around. That's kind of the beauty of that.

FLATOW: All right. That's a great suggestion. Thanks for calling. Have a happy holiday weekend.

AARON: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Good idea. That's a great idea.

Mr. VERRALL: I like it. (unintelligible) actually the guy in 1985 was actually the four-inc PVC filled with sand. So, yeah.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. VERRALL: So it's definitely one that's been around for a few decades. But - yeah. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: In fact, we have a lot of pictures of different planters on our website at sciencefriday.com if you want to get an idea of what Shawn's talking about there. We've got a lot of interesting - and you've got them made out of all kinds of things, even like a swan, I think, is one of them. There are different stuff - they're are not yours, but there are a lot of different ways you can make a planter out of them. Anything you want, it looks like. Yeah. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Michelle in Pacific, Mississippi. Hi, Michelle.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi. It's Pacific, Missouri.

FLATOW: Oh, I'm sorry.

MICHELLE: No, that's okay. I wanted to just ask you about - I read a or I saw a video called "Bee Season." And it talks about the demise of the bees and how we can - and just - how we can alleviate it, how we can help them. But they mentioned about bees in the cities are faring much better than bees in the country because of pesticides and same growth of fields of flowers which are creating - it's all surmised - to their death. So as people, they're starting to grow things and become bigger gardeners, that they should probably check out what not to use so that the bees can continue to produce the honey and foods that we eat.

FLATOW: Yeah. I guess - any comment on that, Shawn?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. I mean, one thing as far as helping, I know there's -I can't remember exactly what's called. There's, like, the Sunflower Project that - they'll actual send you the seeds. But it's one of those where you, you know, basically just go out for five minutes and count how many bees you see. And it's actually a little bit of getting some of those numbers, but - you know, also, I mean, also I definitely do, you know, all organic. You know, when it comes to my gardening, I was like, if I'm going to be eating it, I might as well, you know, make sure I'm doing it as healthy as possible.

And that is one good thing about, you know, some of the things like even upside-down tomatoes. You really, you know, don't use pesticides, you know, you're - you know, very little watering. I mean, consistent watering, but it's, you know, pretty much just going right to the roots and, you know...

FLATOW: Right. You also have a great post on your website on using coffee grounds. Now, I have used coffee grounds for years. I've been told that acid-loving plants like gardenias, rhododendrons, things like that, love very acidic fertilizer. And coffee grounds are supposedly very acidic. And you just throw them on the ground, and they die and degrade into great fertilizer and compost. But you see - you have the debunked this.

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah.

FLATOW: You've actually measured the acid - the acidity of the coffee ground.

Mr. VERRALL: And Starbuck's also confirmed it, which, you know - so when - actually when it gets brewed, the acidity goes away. So if you had unused coffee grounds, that would be true, but...

FLATOW: That's a little expensive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. That's should be...

FLATOW: So you said the acidity of 6.9, which seven is neutral, so that's a myth.

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah.

FLATOW: But it still makes for good compost?

Mr. VERRALL: But the people still swear by putting it on your blueberries, and it works great, so. And that, in some ways, a lot of things I am doing on my side is it seems like a lot of the advice that I hear is, you know, has been, you know, we've been doing for hundreds of years, which is just great, you know - but it's, you know, I'm trying to do some experimentation, you know, to figure out some of the things -which ones are just kind of coincidental and which ones are really kind of based of off of science, so...

FLATOW: That's good. We're talking about gardening this hour, on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Here talking with us, Shawn Verrall. You have to give me one tip that, you know, maybe you have a pet pet is a poor choice of words. I'm talking about squirrels, rabbits. How do you keep them out of your garden? Even though even the hanging plants and hanging stuff, they will find a way, you know - a rabbit won't, but a squirrel will - of getting into something. You have any luck with that?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah, I mean, fortunately, where I live, there isn't too many squirrels. Yeah, I agree. No matter, you know, how you set that thing up, they're going to find some way to do some trapeze action to get onto the that plant. But at least you can look out when you do the upside down, it is a little more effort than (unintelligible) on the ground. And, obviously, rabbit, they don't jump too high.

FLATOW: Yeah, they don't. But and -

Mr. VERRALL: You know, and when it comes to squirrels, I don't think there's much you can do. You know, obviously, you know...

FLATOW: No. Yeah, you just give them enough to eat and grow enough for both of you, is how people deal with it, you know?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah, that's what I normally do for, like, (unintelligible) and for birds, is like just make sure to grow extra, because you know, it's their place too. So, you know, but...

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get a call. And Anne(ph) from South Dakota. Hi, Anne.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. To give the to keep your birds to keep squirrels away from your bird feeders, put Vaseline where the where it hangs.

FLATOW: Yeah.

ANNE: And the squirrels, they can't hang on to it because it's slippery.

FLATOW: Wow.

ANNE: Now for the very best pekoe in the whole, wide world, you plant a Hungarian wax banana, a better boy tomato and a green onion in the same pot. And when it when that tomato is cut, you'll taste all of it at the same time.

FLATOW: And so you're growing the spices right into the tomato?

ANNE: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And it works?

ANNE: Yeah, it works.

FLATOW: I'm going to try it.

ANNE: Yeah. It works.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for that tip, Anne.

ANNE: And put nylon nylon knee highs around your squash when they start to grow. They'll still grow, but the bugs aren't going to bother them.

FLATOW: There you have it. Thanks, Anne. Have a happy holiday weekend.

ANNE: You too. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. How's that tip?

Mr. VERRALL: Yeah. I've -

FLATOW: Have you tried that?

Mr. VERRALL: I've unintentionally grown garlic and potatoes together when we kind of got some volunteer potatoes, but it didn't work for me there. But, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VERRALL: Haven't tried that one.

FLATOW: I've got about a minute or so left. Any last tips you want to give our frugal gardeners?

Mr. VERRALL: I think, you know, just basically be creative. I kind of came across a quote of Thomas Edison: to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk, you know? And so I think that practically is a tagline for my site, so...

FLATOW: Well, I think in gardening, it is really true what Edison said that, it's 99 percent perspiration. When you get a one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration goes to gardening. And it's good for you. A lot of good exercise. It's good to get out there in the soil.

And do you have a favorite tomato variety that you like to use more than any other?

Mr. VERRALL: You know, I'm still experimenting, a couple I'm trying this year is green zebra, just cause it looks kind of cool.

And but for the cherry tomatoes, I've - first one I tried this year is I can't really speak for the fruit, but the husky tomato definitely is a very hardy, usually really good for the at least for the upside town tomatoes with just smaller ones that it definitely seems to be a pretty hardy one. It seems like it's going to do better than it has, you know, we have done in previous years, so.

FLATOW: And especially if you're growing it upside down, you want to use a small tomato, like the cherry tomato, so it doesn't really hang down and fall off.

MR. VERRALL: Yeah. I mean, in most cases, if it's a bigger tomato, it's going to get big enough roots to support itself. But, yeah, I mean, you get to the point where there's a lot of weight, you know, where you're hanging it but also on the entire plant, so.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. Thank you for taking time to enlighten us today.

Mr. VERRALL: All right. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Shawn Verrall is a gardener and the man behind here's his website, cheapvegetablegardener.com. And if you missed that, go to our website at SCIENCE FRIDAY. And that's about all the time we have for today's program.

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