After having tried to grow vegetables, with moderate success, for the past three years, I’m beginning to think the cost of preparing not-very-fertile soil (or of buying big pots and filling them with commercial soil, or a combination of commercial soil, clayey dirt, and compost), fertilizing, composting, and watering outweighs—maybe even far outweighs—the cost of buying organic vegetables in an upscale grocery store.
Consider: before the great bee fiasco of aught-eight, I had a composter given to me some years ago by La Bethulia. The price of this doughty contraption at Gaiam, where she bought it, is around $200. You can get something very similar at Amazon.com for $123. This was what got me started trying to grow veggies in the backyard. I once had a very successful organic garden, back when I was a young thing. But that was in another time and another place.
Gifted with the Gaiam composter, I decided to try again. And again. And again.
A small, rocky flowerbed by the pool has served to grow a few hardy herbs, chard, some puny carrots and beets. Except for the thyme and the chard, few of the plants thrived. A previous owner filled the bed with gravel, which I shoveled out and carried away…but no amount of shoveling has ever gotten rid of all the stones. As the weeks pass, more pebbles work their way to the surface, so at no time is this old planting bed free of rocks. Digging compost and commercial soil into the dirt doesn’t help significantly. Tomatoes absolutely will not grow there. Nor will they grow in any of the other four flowerbeds in the backyard. Within weeks of being introduced to this spot, pea vines poked their little green heads out of the ground, looked around, and then keeled over and died. The chard, though, did very well.
So did the water company: $128 at this time last year; $108 last month; $80 bills during the (very wet!) winter.
Knowing this spot was too small for the butternut squash I’d decided to grow from seeds scavenged out of a grocery-store specimen, in the spring I bought a big plastic pot at Costco—price was $21.65, according to Quicken. At Home Depot, I spent $18.33 for another pot and dirt to accommodate some cantaloupe seeds. Couple weeks later, another $3.98 covered some hose connectors. I had fertilizer, hoses, and sprinklers on hand.
Not counting the last three items, we’re into the squash and cantaloupe for $43.96, plus the cost of the water, which I expect by now has come to around $30 or so. These plants have to be watered every. single. day if they are to survive 115-degree heat. Even if we figure a more conservative $20 for the water, the squash, the cantaloupe, and some nearby potted tomatoes (whose fruit fried on the vine), chives, onions (dead as onion-flavored doornails), parsley (gone to seed), and basil (the only plant that’s really thrived—also by dint of once- or twice-daily watering) have run up a bill of $63.96.
So far, the squash has set two infant fruits, one of which withered and died on a day when I didn’t get outside to water before noon. One five-inch-long butternut squash survives. The plant still makes big, nifty yellow flowers, but none of them come to anything. The cantaloupe has brought forth nary a melon. The tomatoes set some fruit, but they turned to tomato soup on the vine as soon as the weather heated up. I harvested two of these, neither of which was very good to eat. Onions cooked in the pot. Chives are hanging in there, just. The basil, as basil is wont to do here, has run amok, and that’s nice. But…uhm…how much basil, really, can you eat?
What we have here, folks, is a $64 butternut squash.
IMHO, you could buy a heckuva lot of fancy organic squash at Whole Foods for sixty-four buckolas.
Well, don’t take my word for it. Let’s examine the experience of more gifted gardeners living in a balmier climate. I recently came across The Boston Food Garden, the chronicle of a gardening couple who, by the looks of it, have had good success with their project.
By May 26, they’ve spent $208 on this summer’s garden. These are evidently experienced gardeners who probably have learned the most efficient ways to plant, likely already have prepared their own compost, and who probably own a collection of gardening tools. A little over a month later, on June 19, they harvest $25 worth of vegetables. They’re beautiful—nay, enviable veggies. They’re organic. They’re a real accomplishment. And it will take our couple 8.32 such harvests to recoup their $208.
Will they get eight and a third harvests during a Massachusetts growing season? Sure, if the garden yields about four harvests a month, assuming a New England September brings an end to veggie lifetimes. It might produce that much; maybe even more. But meanwhile, they’ve put in an enormous amount of work…and again, we don’t know what they’ll spend on water, fertilizer, composting, and various organic schemes to beat back marauding insects. Nor do we know how much time they will spend in the garden, or the potential earning value of that time. All those things will add significantly to the initial $208 investment.
Okay, okay! I concede that in addition to the satisfaction of growing your own (which is worth a lot) and the opportunity to grow some unusual and heirloom varieties unavailable at even the swellest of Whole Foods or farmer’s markets, the home gardener does her part to save the planet by cutting the amount of diesel and airline fuel needed to haul food to market. And that also is worth a great deal.
But still. From a purely selfish point of view—how much it costs you as an individual to buy food at a store vs. how much it costs to grow it in the backyard—you could buy an awful lot of organic butternut squash for $64, and an awful lot of fresh strawberries, peas, and greens for $208.