What Are Depression Gardens?
When you hear people talking about depression gardening, they’re usually referring to the type of backyard vegetable garden that many families had during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A sinking economy meant, then as now, that people were looking for ways to save money on their grocery bill, by growing their own food. In modern times, a depression garden shares some of the same purposes, to save money, grow needed food, and make the most of what you have.
Year-Round Food Budget
To really make a depression garden work for you, carefully plan your growing season and your harvesting. Look ahead: you will need canning or other preserving equipment and know-how. That way, the savings on your food budget extends all year.
Use the depression-era principles of planning what you eat based on what your garden provides, and limiting the produce you buy from stores. For instance, you may be having a lot of tomato sandwiches in August, and a lot of pea salad in June.
Plant with an eye toward bulk, and get familiar with canning, sauce and jam making. Turning a big harvest of tomatoes into spaghetti sauce provides another pantry staple for the winter, while the windfall of apples in the late fall can be sauced, sliced or jellied before canning to give your larder a sweet, nutritious boost all year. Depression gardening requires a year-round mentality.
How to Make a Depression Garden Work
The first rule is not to plant what you won’t eat. It’s no use growing a patch of cabbage or broccoli that nobody in your household wants to eat. Focus on growing produce that you regularly eat or want to eat that costs too much at the store.
This often includes peppers, spinach, melons, berries, peas, beans, herbs and tomatoes. Be sure to include filling, long-lasting root vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots and onions. You also should balance out your plantings so that you have some early season harvests, some mid-season and some late-season or even winter plants. This reduces the time pressure on you to get everything canned, frozen or dried at one time.
If you live in a climate with a long enough growing season, or if you are comfortable starting seeds indoors, plant your depression garden from seed to keep costs down. A whole packet of seed usually costs less than one seedling. If you can’t do it all, communicate with your neighbors on what each will grow and share. Perhaps one neighbor is famous for her juicy, large strawberries and would raise a few more in exchange for part of your green bean harvest.
Garden Like You’re Broke
To maximize the savings from a depression garden, don’t go out and buy a bunch of fancy gardening equipment. Use scrap wood or an old chair for trellising, borrow a neighbor’s mulch spreader, and make cold frames out of old windows and plastic sheeting.
Make a habit of saving kitchen scraps for composting, and reuse household plastic, glass and metal containers as seed pots, watering cans and miniature greenhouses for seed starts.
Use space wisely; make sure you don’t waste your own time and effort. For instance, plant a garden only as wide as you can reach it to work in it. In small spaces, rely on pots and trellises to grow things vertically.
Want to learn more about depression gardening?
Check out these Web sites chosen by us for more information on the subject.
A column on California depression gardening from the East Bay Express.
The Mother Nature Network has a personal story of Depression gardening.
Iowa State University Extension has a PDF guide to planting and harvesting times for vegetables.
Kim Slotterback-Hoyum is a Michigan-based freelance writer. She has been a proofreader, writer, reporter and editor at monthly, weekly and daily publications for five years. She has a Bachelor of Science in writing and minor in journalism from Northern Michigan University. Besides writing, her interests include gardening, traveling and reading.