Funny about Money

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ―Edmund Burke

Is a vegetable garden cost-effective?

Most frugalists and gardening enthusiasts seem to feel that growing vegetables in the backyard (or on your apartment balcony) is a good cost-saving strategy. But I wonder.

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.

One, count it, one (1) squash

One, count it, one (1) 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.

Author: funny

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10 Comments

  1. Glad to see you concede :). It’s never going to be worth it on a small scale. Actually, if you look at the government subsidies applied to farmers, it’s not really profitable on a big scale.

    I see gardening as a way to relax and unwind from a high stress day of managing a large banking website. (see my link)

    As you mention in your post, your math only includes raw costs, but if you include opportunity costs lost to not working, you’ll come out with much lower numbers.

  2. There are a number of ways to make home vegetable gardening very affordable. For starters you can join a local seed exchange to save money on seeds, you can split costs of tools you might need. As for making your soil more fertile, you don’t have to buy anything, simply bury food scraps and organic material all year long and let the ecosystem do the work for you. You can even save money on water by harvesting rain water with rain barrels that you can make out of any type of container (which you can probably get free on Craigslist).

    Regards,
    Mike the Gardener

    • Yes, I’ve done the food scrap thing in the past, and it led to the most successful garden I’ve ever had. We’ve done a seed exchange in the neighborhood, which was fun. Really, though, packages of seeds are very cheap…what runs up the cost of plants is going out and buying plant sets.

      I’d love to be able to harvest rainwater. The other day I saw a story about a guy who had hooked up his rainwater barrel to his drip watering system! Hot diggety.

      But what I’d most like to know is how to get all those darn rocks out of the poolside planting bed. Every growing season I pull out all the spent plants and cultivate the ground there, pulling out a couple of containers of old gravel. Within a few months, more of the stuff has worked its way to the surface. Leafy plants such as chard and lettuce don’t seem to mind the stoney soil. But root veggies like carrots and the beloved beets don’t thrive in it.

  3. Regarding the rocks: perhaps some small neighborhood children would do the trick? 🙂

  4. Exactly like that! 🙂 Only maybe it’ll take a little more bribery in the way of food treats or compensation than the complete snow job that Tom pulled.

  5. Omg, how can it cost you folks so much to garden? I borrowed a tiller, used my compost that i saved from kitchen scraps all year for fertilizer and cost of seeds was like $15-20, yes water is a cost for some folk, I have a well and yes i am in the city. with that many seeds I could plant way more than the 30×30 yard plot that i am planting, artichoke, squash of all sorts, tomatoes, rutabaga, and more. The yield is going to be more than 50 lbs of produce, for my measly $15-20 I will take that for cost effective gardening.

    • @ Tim: Ahh, yes. I did that once, when I was young, physically strong, and had a husband who could support me while I spent my days going to graduate school and tending a large garden. Today I couldn’t even begin to run a tiller on normal ground, much less rip up the caliche with one of the things. Most of my yard is expensively desert-landscaped, and it’s hard to imagine ripping out all that crushed granite and inviting in a new crop of bermudagrass, pusley, and milkweed.

      A strange confluence of circumstances happened when I decided to dig up the old driveway and put a garden in. My friends and I were young hippy-dippies, all into back-to-the-earthing and self-sufficiency, and so this seemed like a “natural” thing to do. It was very much in fashion, anyway.. Living next door to us was an elderly woman who had decided the only way to deal with her chronic migraines was to restrict her diet to nothing but raw fruits and vegetables that had never been sprayed either with fertilizers or with pesticides. This was before the word “organic” meant what it means to us — about 30 years before the present organic craze. There were no farmer’s markets, and grocery stores absolutely did NOT carry anything that was free of poisons and artificial fertilizers. In the entire city, we had one tiny co-op that carried wilted, sad-looking, often blighted but allegedly untainted produce.

      So what this woman would do is go around the neighborhood and scrounge vegetables and fruits from people’s yards. If you didn’t say she could have them, she was likely to help herself anyway. And if you were kind enough to agree to give her some, she would keep coming back and coming back, behaving as though she had blanket permission to take anything she liked. One day I looked out the back window and there she was, pulling up an entire row of lettuce — not just picking the leaves, but pulling the plants out of the ground!

      This garden was one helluva lot of work. It had taken a year of digging compost and kitchen waste into the concrete-like dirt just to get it to where plants would grow and thrive. In addition to cutworms and big fat hungry caterpillars, we also have hordes of grasshoppers, which at certain times of year will mow a garden down to the ground in a day and a half. To protect the garden without spraying, I built frames that supported canopies of cheap nylon bridal veil fabric, which I’d sewed together into broad sheets and then secured to the ground with lengths of stiff wire cut from wire coathangers, and I ran soaker hoses up and down the rows under this stuff so the plants could be watered. It was an absolutely HUGE job and it required constant care.

      So needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled to see my neighbor unearthing the damn thing.

      We ended up building a fence around the back yard to keep her out. That was not cheap. Didn’t help the garden, either, since it cast so much shade back there that not much would grow. Eventually I built a brick-on-sand patio over the area.

      I don’t guess I want to do that again…

  6. I wanted to do research on the cost of gardening. I planted my garden in April. It’s now nearly mid August and I have harvested 2 tomatoes and 4 zucchini! So in the 4 1/2 months of daily watering, this is my yield! Everything seems to be growing well. All my plants are green and big. I have invested so much time and effort into this garden and had read about how you save so much money! My water bill shot up for the past 4 months and the time I spend weeding and watering and fertilizing does not even come close to being money saving. How does anyone start harvesting one month after planting? I believe that once the vegetables are ripe and near ready for harvesting it will be time for frost and the beginning of Fall!

    • @ Elizabeth: LOL! That seems about par for my course, too. ‘Twasn’t always so, as I’ve mentioned — I used to have a garden that kept my thieving neighbor in fresh veggies all fall, winter, and spring.

      Water here is now very pricey — just to keep my xeric yard alive cost me $135 last month, and I’m not trying to grow veggies at all this summer.

      Probably folks who say they can harvest food after a month (??) are buying young plants at the nursery. Sometimes here you can get tomatoes that already are in blossom or even have a few babies on them, and it seems to me I’ve seen eggplant sets that have one or two flowers on them. Though they’ll often drop their blossoms from the shock of being transplanted, a person with a true green thumb might be able to get them into the ground without giving them an undue jolt.