Frugal Living: Frugal Food

Frugal Living: Frugal Food

In this episode of Frugal Living, host Jim Markus talks with Megan Gilger, a gardener and blogger at The Fresh Exchange. You can listen to Frugal Living with Jim Markus here, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Amazon, on, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.

Advice for New Gardeners

Gilger says her single biggest piece of advice for new gardeners is to start small. “It’s easy to get big eyes.” People burn out when trying to do too much too fast, and it’s better to let your garden grow with your experience. She also adds that she loses some produce every year and that learning to accept that is key because losing some of what you grow is part of the process. She explains that her first garden was a 4′ x 8′ raised bed. She used that for three years before expanding.

Raised Beds

Gilger explains that one of the benefits of a raised bed is that it’s easier to control the quality of the soil. This is especially important in a city, where you’ll have no control over the surrounding land and groundwater. She chose a 4′ x 8′ bed for her garden because she was able to reach the middle from either side, and it still allowed her to grow a good number of plants.

Polyculture and Irrigation

Most plants actually grow better when they grow near other plants, Gilger explains. Certain combinations are more beneficial than others, and a few combinations are not ideal because the plants end up competing for the same nutrients. She recommends the book Carrots Love Tomatoes for information on beneficial pairings.

One of Giliger’s first lessons was gardening with proper irrigation. She says that while gardens initially need a lot of watering, established gardens can go weeks without watering.

Read a Transcript from This Episode

Megan (00:00):

It takes a long time to cultivate really good soil.

Jim (00:04):

This is Frugal Living. There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch about a guy who just discovered farming. To paraphrase, he addresses the camera in a conspiratorial tone and says, “Hey, you want to make a bit of money? Do what I did. Get into farming. See this?” And then he shows off a wad of cash. “I got it from selling corn. It just grows out of the ground.” He’s so excited about something so banal. That’s how I feel about gardening. It sounds so simple. I spent a few hours at the end of the winter digging up my backyard. Then I planted some seeds. A few months later, I’m harvesting tomatillos, corn, peppers, melons. And they just grew out of the ground! If you share my excitement, you’ll enjoy this week’s guest.

Megan (01:03):

I’m Megan Gilger of the Fresh Exchange, a lifestyle blog all about gardening, recipes, and helping us connect deeper to nature through the garden and community.

Jim (01:13):

You have a lot more experience in this than I do. I started a garden, like, this year for the first time since I was a child. So…

Megan (01:20):

That’s awesome!

Jim (01:20):

I’m just going to pick your brain and use all the information for my own garden, if that’s okay with you.

Megan (01:26):

Yeah, let’s do it.

Jim (01:27):

Awesome. Very selfishly, what advice do you have for new gardeners?

Megan (01:34):

Okay. My first is always to start small. I think it’s really easy to get really, like, big eyes. Like, when you look at all the seed packets, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can grow 40 types of peppers.” You know? And it looks so fun and so exciting. But my suggestion is to start small. My first garden was literally one raised bed that was four by six and I think I grew in that for, like, three years before I ever adjusted into anything else.

Jim (02:01):

Oh, wow.

Megan (02:02):

Yeah. So, now, you know, you look out there and it’s, like, a lot of space. But it’s still overwhelming to somebody that… I think I would consider myself an intermediate gardener. I would not consider myself anywhere near an advanced or master gardener yet. Um, maybe one day. Um, that’s a goal when I’m 90. But, it’s, it’s a… You gotta look at it as a long-term journey. Not like this big thing that you’re gonna accomplish right away because the one thing that burns everybody out is you do too much too fast. And, so, even if it’s just, like, three pots of herbs and that’s your first garden, that’s awesome in my opinion. But that’s my number one. The second is to not take it too seriously, and just have a lot of fun. You’re gonna probably fail. You’re probably going to have bugs, get something, uh, especially if you’re doing it organically or regeneratively. Like, you’re gonna always lose something. And I do. Every year. Like, I’ve lost 15 squash plants this year. It happens.

Jim (03:07):

It’s heartbreaking. Oh, man.

Megan (03:07):

It is. It is, but it’s part of the process. And it makes you have a lot of reverence for farmers because it’s, like, “Oh, wow, okay. This takes a lot of work and a lot of tending and a lot of observation.” So, and a lot of knowledge. Oh, and also don’t grow tomatoes your first year. They won’t… They are like the number one… They, they’re both, like, the hardest thing to grow, but the most life-giving thing. But they hold, like, the most issues possible for a new gardener. But, for some reason they became like the new gardener thing. And, I always tell people, like, “Don’t grow tomatoes. Go and buy them at the farmer’s market.” Just, bec–, until, like, your second or third year because there’s so many, like, nutrients they need. There’s so many, like… They will make you feel more like a failure than any other vegetable you’ll put in your garden.

Jim (03:58):

Yeah. That’s super, super helpful. You said you started with, uh, a raised garden bed. Like, a relatively small raised garden bed. Why a raised garden bed instead of digging into your yard to start with, and why the size that you chose?

Megan (04:11):

I’ll start with the size. I chose the size because, a, like, I think it was… I said four by six, but it was actually four by eight. Four feet wide is, like, the perfect distance where you can reach it from either side. So, a person can only– like, the average human–can only reach, like, two feet across. So, you want to be able to access it on both sides but still have plenty of space. Most plants also span somewhere between two to four feet in width of their exact peak. So, in size… So, like, especially tomatoes, if you don’t prune them, you know, the whole thing, they get huge. And then the eight feet… Like I said, every plant takes up, at the most mature state, somewhere between two and four feet wide. So, that gives you a lot of space to grow quite a few things in a small amount of space. And if you’re using polyculture stuff like I do, like, where you’re intermixing plants and not just doing, like, “Here’s a whole bed of tomatoes or lettuce.” Like, you’re intermixing plants with companion planting, which is a little more advanced idea, but it allows you to condense your plants into one box better, so you can get more out of it. So you can actually get a ton out of a four by eight box. Enough for, you know, two people to eat from for the summer, for sure. In terms of why a raised bed, raised beds are super easy to control nutrients, soil content, things like that. When we’re growing directly in the ground, particularly in a city, there’s a couple of things you gotta worry about. One, you don’t know what’s going into that soil in a city. So, like, what’s in the groundwater and things like that. In the country, you can have a little bit more control out of that, but you still don’t know. It takes a long time to cultivate really good soil. We’re in our second year in our in-ground beds in our larger garden and it is still a nutrient game. There’s a lot of failures in there because of the soil. Like, it still needs more work. And I had chickens working it. Like, I, you know, there’s a lot of work that goes into building up soil. And so I think for new gardeners, particularly, a raised bed is a great place to start. It allows you to control that soil, which is the key to great success.

Jim (06:16):

You talked about, uh, polyculture and the idea of planting more than one thing in a bed. So instead of a dozen radishes, it’s, you know, big plants, small plants, planted around each other. Am I understanding that correctly?

Megan (06:29):

Yeah, basically. And the polyculture also works to bring in beneficial insects that may help each other or even prevent other pests from showing up. And they may eat each other, things like that. So, um, you can actually keep pests off your plants and things like that, or even keep away diseases potentially.

Jim (06:47):

I know I want the answer to be, “No, it’s just random.” But I’m pretty sure there’s a reason you plant certain things next to each other with a polyculture planting. What advice would you have to someone getting into polyculture gardening?

Megan (07:01):

I would suggest getting a book all about companion planting. That’s the best way to get into polyculture. There is, like, really great charts on Pinterest and things like that. You can just, like, search companion planting, and it’ll give you… Like, if you grow brassicas, like, here’s, like, four great things to put around it. And, and then intermixing flowers in there is always good too. So, on top of that, like, flowers are always a beneficial thing in a raised bed. And yes, you can, like, zinnias are the easiest to grow. They take up the least amount of space and they’re beautiful and the bees love ’em. And they never fail. It’s hard to fail zinnias. So, and then herbs are always usually a great companion. So even if you don’t know, there are things that aren’t beneficial to one another. Like, for instance, brassicas, which are cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, things like–broccoli. They should not be grown with tomatoes because they’ll actually stunt each other’s growth. So there are some non-beneficial ones, but it’s not, like, so dramatic. I always tell people to just, kind of, play around. You know? I, kind of, know them just from experience of using this for the past five years. But I really think that, it, it’s kind of just about play too. But there’s a great book called Carrots Love Tomatoes, and it’s an old book, but it still holds true. And you usually can find a used copy somewhere. And it is so great and gives you such a beautiful picture of what you can do even in a small space. So I really stress that book.

Jim (08:37):

Exceptional answer. I will check it out. You said it’s Carrots Love Tomatoes?

Megan (08:41):

Mm-hmm. Yup.

Jim (08:41):

Awesome. This is another thing that, I’ve, I’ve kind of bumped up against as I’m searching around how to be a better gardener online. You talked about building better soil. The soil in my yard is terrible. It’s so bad. I’ve done my best to kind of work with it. And I’ve got like a raised bed as well. What should we be doing? Assuming we can’t have chickens, what can we be doing to build better soil?

Megan (09:07):

The number one thing is compost. Number one. Like, even if you can’t create your own compost… I go to local sources. There’s even, like, a local guy who makes his own compost and he calls it Millennial Gold or something like that. And it’s absolutely true. You can literally see the difference where it grows–like, where I placed it–compared to, like, just my own compost. And it’s dramatic. It really works. And I understand having really bad soil because I live in Northern Michigan amongst sand dunes. So it’s pretty much sand where I live.

Jim (09:40):


Megan (09:40):

But it’s possible to rebuild it in most of the time. And I don’t do tilling. So I… because that actually would bring back weeds and it breaks down the microbes within the soil. So all you have to do, and this lowers your work as a gardener, is just lay new compost over your bed between plantings. Whether that’s just, like, I’m just doing a summer garden. So after you get everything out, you just lay that compost. Don’t till it. Don’t do anything. Just leave it. It’ll be hard, but just leave it. Let the rain of fall and all of that just, like, seep it down into the soil, and year after year just continue to build it back up. And that’s it.

Jim (10:23):

I love that because it’s like it seems like a very big ask. It seems like a very difficult task to rebuild soil. So someone saying, “Hey, just put compost over it after you’re done with your garden for the summer and leave it”–it’s reassuring. So I really, I appreciate that. It’s a, it’s a small step that I can do.

Megan (10:41):

Yeah. It’s a lot easier than we like to think it is. And you know, it, this has been doing, been done for centuries. You know? This is how people fed themselves. Why would it be that we need anything special to put in their boat? You know, this stuff that the earth already gives us. So we don’t have to do anything fancy. So.

Jim (11:00):

I can’t tell you how excited I am for compost this year. It is, the highlight of my summer is, “We have compost! This is great!”

Megan (11:07):

It’s fun. I mean, it’s taken us, like, three years to build our compost to anything worth talking about.

Jim (11:13):

Understandable. Yeah, I’m, I’m at the point where I’m, like, “I know this fall is going to be very good for our compost with all the leaves.” Like, all the, you know, decaying leaves that we’ll be able to add to it. But right now I’m, like, “I just want you to be so much better than you are.”

Megan (11:28):

It takes time, but it’s okay. You got the time, right?

Jim (11:31):

Exactly. Yeah. I love that piece of advice, too, of, like, take your time. This kind of leads into another question of… Obviously, I’ve learned a bunch of lessons this year from gardening. It’s my first year. What lessons did you learn first? Like, what was the first big lesson you learned? And, maybe more importantly, what lesson have you learned recently about gardening?

Megan (11:51):

Well, I think my first, like, ever lesson in the garden was all about water. Watering and irrigation is incredibly important. The garden, both, it needs a lot of water to begin with and then usually it’s fine. Even though we had quite a big drought, like, this year, a good… This was a good example. Like, we, we’ve been going, like, weeks without watering and getting a little bit of rain or some light rain overnight. And I still haven’t watered for, like, two to three weeks because once the garden is established, the root systems are strong enough that they don’t need that. So, it’s both important, but also just being observant of what your garden needs and what it doesn’t need is such a huge lesson. So irrigation is huge. But the thing this year… I’m at the point in gardening where there’s a deeper harvest to what I take in than just the growing tasks, I guess. I am learning so much from my garden in terms of, like, self-connection and, like, that therapeutic growth of what it is to grow a garden. And it’s less about the tasks. But this year I kinda took a mentality where I wasn’t gonna weed everything. Like, I weeded really late, which is weird for me. I’m usually like a compulsive weeder. And because I waited, I was able to see all these plants that I never would have gotten to enjoy, like all these flowers and things, like, that the birds brought in last fall and this spring with seeds and everything. And so we have a ton of amazing flowers that I never planted. And it was all because of the birds and other animals that brought them in throughout the winter and fall. So if I had compulsively weeded like I normally do, I never would have gotten to enjoy that. And there were just… There’s still a couple spots. I have one mystery spot this year that–and I was talking to a friend about this, she has one too–that I planted things there repeatedly and they never came up or they died very quickly. And I have no idea why. I cannot figure it out. I spread the same compost, things from there last year. It’s my dead zone. And I don’t understand. The only thing growing there is weeds. So I just gotta clear it out, I think, this fall and let it rest and hope for better next year. Maybe I’ll discover something along the way. So I guess there’s two little things there. So.

Jim (14:03):

I’d say it’s probably the highlight of most of my mornings now to go out and just be in the garden. And I never would have guessed that would be the case.

Megan (14:12):

It’s amazing, right? Such a gift.

Jim (14:15):

It really is. I mean, while we’re kind of on the topic, of, of your personal experience and the lessons you’ve learned from your garden, can you tell me a little bit about Fresh Exchange?

Megan (14:23):

Yeah. So Fresh Exchange has been on a journey. Fresh Exchange began as, like, this really just personal blog almost 12 years ago. And I just got into it. It was in the recession. I was a designer and I didn’t really have a great job just because it was the recession. And I was just out of school with a creative degree. And so I was, like, I’ve read a lot of blogs just for inspiration and stuff. So I just started my own and just cataloged my life. Then over time I realized, I really loved telling a story. I mean, I went to school and learned about storytelling from a video perspective as part of my design degree. And so I’ve always had a knack and love and passion for telling a story and inspiring people. And then when I… We moved away from Northern Michigan, and, and went to North Carolina for awhile and lived there. I realized that I, that was, like, where my love for the seasons started because even though North Carolina has seasons, I had always grown up in Northern Michigan and I started really missing the winter. And so when we had my, our son, I, we both decided it was time to move back and be closer to family. And that was when Fresh Exchange really changed and became focused on living seasonally. And part of living seasonally is how you eat. And the best way to connect with that is to grow your own food. And I had grown up growing a garden. It was part of how we made it through the recession was growing a garden, but it would never have been a part of the blog in a big way. It had been kind of in intermixed as just part of my story. But then when we came back and we had this piece of land that we decided to build a house on. It was, like, “We’re gonna make this happen.” And I just dove really deep into it. And it became a, a big passion because I realized from my kid, my son, he just really inspired me, like thinking less about the now and more about the future. And part of that is, you know, that healing of our earth can happen right below our feet. And through growing a garden, through the food we eat, through all these different things. And so he kind of lit that fire in me of creating something that was much less about that consumerist mindset that I think a lot of blogging is and more into thinking of my blog as more of a space to inspire others to get their hands into the dirt in any way. And to just really, I don’t know, find that connection to themselves through the earth. And that’s, like, how Fresh Exchange has adapted. Now we have an online community of over 150 wonderful people where we go through the seasons together, both, like, figuratively and physically, both ways, as we help each other through our gardens, inspiring our eating, thinking about ways to make a great impact on the earth, and things like that. But then we also have our blog and Instagram account and podcasts and everything that kind of goes into all that as well.

Jim (17:25):

It’s great. And I can personally vouch for the podcast. It’s a, it’s an interesting podcast. The episodes I’ve listened to–fantastic and certainly worth checking out. But to dive a little bit more into living seasonally and eating seasonally… For me, it makes a lot of sense. You know, we plant in the early spring, you know, after the last frost for a lot of vegetables and we harvest throughout the summer and into the fall. And I know there’s midseason planting for fall vegetables. And there are some kind of late bloomers that’ll be harvested through the fall. But I’m from Michigan and I know that, you know, the winters are, they can be rough. So when you think of gardening and you think of living seasonally, what does that mean in winter, you know, when there’s snow, when it’s freezing? What do we do?

Jim (18:12):

Winter to me is always about a time of rest. So it’s completely different than, I think… I, I don’t grow in the winter other than I overwinter some plants inside just to play with it. Um, but it’s my moment to sit back and rest and, like, evaluate my last year to, you know, kinda tend to myself in many ways. And so I really focus on that. I spend a lot of time outside in a different way. Like, I cross-country ski. I do all these other things that don’t involve me being, like, in the garden, which I definitely… I need that because, like, it’s such an intense growing season in Michigan, especially in Northern Michigan, that it all is so condensed and then it’s over. It can be like whiplash a little bit, and, but by the time that over point hits, I’m really good. Like, I, I’ve gotten it in, I’ve enjoyed it, and I need time to reset and fall back in love with it all over again, and like be in need of it. So come March, I cannot wait to put my shovel on the ground, you know? So that’s what I love about seasons is, is just like, when you eat seasonally, like, you should be completely sick of that vegetable by the time that season is done. You should be so grossed out by asparagus, by, Ap–, May, you know, that you’re ready for green beans. And so on, you know? So I think that’s how seasons work and I think that’s the beauty of it. I know I wouldn’t appreciate summer nearly as much if I didn’t have winter and vice versa.

Jim (19:45):

That’s an incredibly healthy answer, I think. Like, what a healthy outlook on life of, “No, that’s time to rest. This isn’t a time we need to be actively doing gardening. It’s a time for rest and growth, just like it is for the garden.” And I love the idea that it makes you more present during the seeding time and during the summer and more present, like you said, during the very fast moment of the garden season in Northern Michigan. Frugal Living is brought to you By Brad’s deals, creating the safest place to shop on earth. That’s B R a D S D E a L Special. Thanks to Megan gigger HBR Koski and Sidney Smith. I’m Jim Marcus. Thanks for that.

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To hear more from Megan Gilger, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living. Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season three, out now.

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