I love growing a vegetable garden. It’s a simple enough thing to say, but I really, really love home vegetable gardens! The simple act of placing a seed in fertile soil, watering it and harvesting its fruits is almost a personal revolution. It’s a way of declaring my independence and providing healthful, fresh food for my family. And I always assume we save some money, but just how much?
When Grit Editor Hank Will posed this question, I didn’t have an answer. I live in the suburbs and cultivate food on most of my quarter-acre lot. I was certain that my family ate better with less expense because of our gardening efforts, but I never actually did the math. So I decided to make the calculations and give Hank an honest answer. Here goes.
A few years back when we moved to our new home, I had the opportunity to start a garden from scratch. The soil I was stuck with was soil only in the sense that it was on the surface of the Earth, and it had things growing in it – lots of weeds. Because of that, I decided to build my garden in raised beds. I could have purchased wood, but because of all the construction around me, I was able to get a lot of scrap 2-by-6s for free. It took more time, but the cost savings was worth it to me; making calculated decisions should always be a part of the garden, whether it’s buying supplies or deciding when to plant.
For my planting medium, I went with a soilless mix. Each of my five 4-by-6 raised beds was started with a mix of 1⁄3 each compost, peat and vermiculite. Buying all that growing medium and the hardware to build my beds cost me nearly $200 – it would have been substantially more without the free 2-by-6s.
Since that first year, my garden has grown quite a bit. With each new raised bed, both in the backyard and front, more costs were incurred. I tend to be a pretty good salvager, so much of the growth has been from recycled materials, but not all. That means more costs. I did stop making my own soilless mix, for the most part because of what it costs, but truckloads of compost at $30 a load add up, as do the organic fertilizers I use. I would guess generously that I spend about $200 to $300 per year in garden-related materials and have put close to $1,200 overall into building my garden, including raised beds, soil and drip irrigation. I could have spent much more, but honestly I could have spent less, as well. Again, it’s all about choices. And what do I get for that investment? What I get is so much more than what I put in that I hardly can quantify it accurately.
Before I try to put monetary value on it, I have to explain why I garden. I’m not a farmer, much as I may fancy myself one, so I don’t do it for the money. I’m also not in a remote location with limited access to fresh vegetables, nor am I in such financial hard times that I need a garden. I garden for my peace of mind, and because I love good food. My time in the garden, connected so closely to the soil, gives me perspective on the rest of my life. Such a basic pleasure is gained from the act of sowing seed and harvesting fruit that I truly believe gardeners will outlive their non-
gardening counterparts, or at the very least more enjoy their time on Earth.
All philosophical reasons aside, a practical way to calculate the gain from one’s garden is with cold, hard numbers. And I happen to have those numbers.
I keep a journal of the work I put into my garden and of the harvests I get from it. The total area of my garden is nearly 800 square feet. Last year, I harvested 810 pounds of food from it; not roughly 810 pounds, but 810 pounds in the fridge, freezer and cellar.
While it was our largest year-end total to date, it was actually a poor harvest year for us overall. Our green beans nearly all died of rust, and squash bugs all but decimated our squash and pumpkin crops. Yet, even with those setbacks, we were able to get quite a bit of food canned and stored, and we ate the freshest organic foods possible from our garden all summer and into the fall.
I checked my journal for this article and tallied up the totals per crop as best I could, and for each of those crops I researched what it would have cost to buy them. Some specialty items that I grow, I couldn’t find pricing for, so they were omitted from the analysis. Also, the prices I used for comparison were from our local mega-mart and were probably the cheapest prices I could find for any of the foods. I didn’t look for organic produce, locally grown products or any other more costly features because I wanted a realistic idea of what I am gaining from this whole exercise. The results surprised even me.
In produce alone, from just one year, I would have had to buy $1,470 worth of food. If I count the finished and canned foods that we stored, the tally bumps up to almost $1,550. If I had sold this one year’s harvest, I would have broken even on everything I’ve put into establishing and maintaining the garden over the years. All harvests previous to this year would be considered profit over the top, as well as future harvests, less the soil expenses, any added structural changes, seed costs, etc. What’s more, if I had decided to compare pricing with organic equivalents, the totals would have been from $1,800 to more than $3,000. Not a bad return on my investment, I’d say.
If you add the obvious health benefits of eating fresh organic produce regularly, the weight-loss from all the physical work, and the stress relief it provides to a gardener every day, the real value of the effort is much higher. Not to mention the legacy of eating fresh foods and the significance of appreciating what we’ve done, and what we can do, for ourselves that is passed on to our children. With all that, I think it’s safe to say that a backyard vegetable garden is a landscape option that pays handsomely by delivering hundreds of pounds of good food, significant relief on the grocery budget, and improved mental and physical health.
Paul Gardener, a GRIT blogger, and his family enjoy the fruits of their labor throughout most of the year at their suburban Utah home.
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