Frugal gardening 101: Getting your vegetables started indoors

Horticulturalist Heidi Wood says growing your own vegetables is easy, fun and can save hundreds of dollars on your grocery bill every year if you preserve your food right. 

Want to beat high grocery store prices? Try growing your own vegetables this summer

Horticulturalist Heidi Wood says getting all your seeds and the gear needed to start some plants indoors should cost $100 or less. (Heidi Wood)

Horticulturalist Heidi Wood says growing your own vegetables is easy, fun and can save hundreds of dollars on your grocery bill every year if you preserve your food right. 

As rising inflation causes food prices to soar, consumers are doing what they can to try to save on their grocery bills. Part of the answer could be right in your backyard. 

"You can do it, and it's so much cheaper," said Wood, who is the horticulturalist for the Town of Stratford, P.E.I.

She said everything you need to start seeds indoors can be purchased for $100 or less. 

Wood feels strongly about helping people live sustainably and with food security. She looks after plants and trees in public areas, including Robert L. Cotton Memorial Park, where her office is, and is a resource for Stratford's community garden, where she has a plot.

Getting started

First, decide what you like to eat and plan to grow that, Wood advises, while also realizing you may need to handle an abundance of one thing (zucchinis anyone?) and be able to preserve it quickly. 

Her favourite thing to grow and eat is green beans.

New varieties developed in the last decade have improved flavour and they can be grown three times in one season, she said. That's called succession planting and is also done with lettuce and other quick-maturing vegetables.

Wood checks on some seedlings coming up from seeds she planted a few days before. (Heidi Wood)

She parboils beans for three to five minutes, freezes them on a cookie sheet then bags them; she ate them all winter and just finished the last bag in her freezer this week, she said.

She also loves tomatoes for sauce, pickling and salsa all winter; plant plum-type tomatoes for that, she said. 

Test your soil

Then decide where you will grow your garden and get your soil tested. 

Take a cup of soil for your plot to the P.E.I. Analytical Laboratories in Charlottetown or to an Access P.E.I. location. For about $15, you'll find out what you need to add to adjust your soil's PH levels. 

"It's an investment into your garden for the whole year," Wood said. "It's a cheap investment really." 

Wood has this simple setup in her laundry room: the plants go under a strip of fluorescent lights, 5 to 7.5 centimetres from the light. (Heidi Wood)

Wood worked for years at Veseys Seeds in York, so that's where she buys her vegetable seeds. Buying quality seed from a garden centre ensures the best germination rate possible, she said, and is not expensive: her seeds this year cost about $60.

If you buy seed labelled heirloom, you will have the added benefit of being able to harvest seeds at the end of the summer and plant them next season. Heirloom seeds are from plants that have grown successfully for 50 years, Wood said. 

Libraries on P.E.I. often have seed-swapping or giveaway events in spring, so keep an eye out for those. 

Gardeners will also need trays to start seedlings. They are usually thin black plastic. Others are formed from peat, and you can plant them right in the dirt with the seedling because they are biodegradable. 

Plant lettuce and onions now

Start head lettuce, peppers, leeks, onions, celery, and flowers like geraniums indoors now. Start tomatoes around the third week of April, and remember they'll need a sheltered spot out of the wind and prefer eight hours of sun when you plant them outside.

Besides quality seed, Wood recommends planting in sterile seed starter mix, which costs about $15. Soil taken from outside is a no-no: it can be tainted with chemicals and diseases.

She finds using sunlight tricky because you need sunny days and eight hours of continuous light, so she uses light strips purchased from a hardware store on a few shelves in the laundry room in her apartment. Wood stresses you don't have to buy expensive grow lights.

The lights under a stove hood or under-counter lighting are often adequate for seedlings, she said: the trays just need to be raised five to 7.5 centimetres from the light, to prevent the plants from "stretching" toward the light and becoming too tall and spindly. Put seedlings under the lights before you leave for work; they need about eight hours of light per day.

"It's really not that hard, and you don't need a lot of plants for just a family," Wood said. 

The indoor part takes about two months with planting outside starting in early June.

Potting trays, premium sterile soil and a spray bottle are Wood's essential tools for starting plants inside, along with fertilizer and adequate light. (Heidi Wood)

She fertilizes using Miracle Gro 20-20-20 for about $15. Begin fertilizing after the seedlings sprout their second true leaf, then every week to 10 days after that.

Water the delicate seedlings with a spray bottle aimed at the soil rather than dumping water over them, Wood said, and keep the soil damp, not soaking, as over-watering can kill the young plants. She puts a clear plastic cover on her seedling trays, causing condensation under the lights which the seedlings can use to regulate their own moisture. 

Future segments of this frugal gardening series with Heidi Wood will discuss preparing your garden plot and planting outside, maintaining your garden and harvesting and preserving ideas.


Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at


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