How one gardener cut nearly $500 off her grocery bill with suburban vegetable gardening.
Tomatoes, squash, zucchini and green beans all start to roll into the bounty basket come late summer.
As gardeners, we all suspect that our efforts are saving us money. After all, the work, patience and worry that go into producing a vine-ripened tomato or a perfect zucchini must yield some monetary savings as well, right? Being a bit of a data nerd, I set out to prove the value proposition of vegetable gardening in my own backyard.
It’s important to note that mine is not the story of someone who achieved complete food independence after buying five acres in rural America. My husband and I live on a corner suburban lot that measures .71 acre, just south of Dayton, Ohio (growing Zone 5b); healthy for the suburbs, but certainly not what anyone would call a “farm.” In addition, most of that land is not able to be cultivated. Given what I know of the township’s rather zealous lawn-mowing regulations, I feel pretty confident that we would risk citation if we tried to plow up the sunny front yard or do much more than grow a few attractive herbs out there.
That leaves us with the well-fenced backyard, much of which is shaded by mature pines and oaks. Our total gardening space is 650 square feet of tillable ground, plus four raised beds that masquerade as flower beds. Our “micro-farm” is dotted with a couple of blueberry bushes and an assortment of container-sized fruit trees that are more entertaining than productive. We extend the season with a southwest-facing sunroom and a few sunny windowsills.
My process was simple: For a year, I would keep a running spreadsheet of my garden expenditures and harvests. In expenditures, I would tally things like seeds, plants and peat moss that get used up over the course of a season. I don’t tally expenditures for “capital improvements” like a new tool; after all, “no gear, no hobby.”
The income tallies record ounces of each vegetable or fruit harvested, plus a retail value based on the closest equivalent price I could find at one of the grocery stores I frequent. I always use the price for organic produce if I can find one, since my garden is grown without any chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Since I consider my garden my most pleasant part-time job, my purpose was to prove how much money I saved over buying the equivalent amount of produce at a grocery store.
Snow blanketed the ground, and nothing was growing when my project started in January. The makeshift cold frame we built over one of the more hidden raised beds was too cold to even shelter leeks, and the unheated sunroom was not warm enough to support the planter box in which we grow lettuces.
However, that doesn’t mean there was no gardening to be done in January. The post-Christmas mail always brings an influx of “garden swag” — the stacks of seed catalogs that allow a pleasant escape from the soul-crushing darkness and cold. I placed an order for approximately $164 worth of seeds and plants, and our garden business started the year as so many others do — in the red.
My annual Groundhog Day ritual is starting the pepper seeds. I love to trek out to the shed, dig out the plastic mini-greenhouses meant for seed-sprouting, and poke the little pepper seeds into the trays of soil. These trays take up residence on my kitchen counter over the dishwasher, where the periodic heat from that appliance makes a poor man’s heating mat. I supplement with an old desk lamp fitted with a grow bulb. Others may have far more expensive seed-starting equipment, but mine seems to do the job.
March is a month for waiting. The pepper seedlings I started in February filled the kitchen counter. I planted the cold-tolerant lettuces — like corn salad and a mesclun mix — that slowly grow in our large planter box. We supplement the natural light with a bank of basic fluorescent light fixtures intended for workshops; fitted with grow bulbs, these lights are enough to supplement the light coming in through our windowed sunroom walls.
March is also a month for continued investments. I ordered another $37 worth of seeds and plants.
Success! The garden is officially making money.
April brought our first harvests, and they were both literally and emotionally sweet after the long winter. We harvested a few ounces of young leeks that grew from seed in an outdoor bed, and a couple of ounces of potatoes from one of our small “trashcan potato” installations — a container in which sprouting potatoes from my pantry potato bin are allowed to grow, flower and die back, giving us new potatoes. The harvest was enough for a batch of potato-leek soup. We also harvested the first of our greens from the sunroom, always a wonderful feeling since store-bought organic greens in their plastic clamshells are so expensive and so flavorless. Although our harvest only amounts to about $4, we are moving in the right direction.
When I think of May gardening, I always think of strawberries and peas. I grow both in containers, with the strawberry plants in large urns flanking our back door, giving us a few handfuls of strawberries a year. Peas also grow in containers, which limits their productivity but allows me to completely enclose them in fencing to keep out the now-awake and hungry critters that love my garden as much as I do. With a few more ounces of lettuce, I added a few more retail dollars-worth to my harvest tallies.
May also brings a few more expenditures. Tradition here holds that the last possible frost day is May 15, so Mother’s Day weekend is always spent in the local greenhouse, buying any last-minute seeds and herb plants to replace those that are annual or that didn’t make it through the winter. It makes for a welcome celebration of the end of winter, with the sunroom full of seedlings hardening off and plants awaiting a garden home. The front doorstep is also regularly dotted with deliveries of tomato plants I ordered back in January.
June gardens are my favorite gardens, filled with possibilities and with the opportunities for a short break to enjoy. With all of the broadforking, soil amendment (that is, compost sifting and application) and planting done, I can enjoy watching the little plants grow up their trellises and supports, and across the ground. I brought in another harvest of container potatoes and the first of the zucchini. The cucumbers also start to ripen this month, meaning I served sliced cucumbers at every meal and started to put up what would eventually become more than five gallons of bread and butter pickles.
My big surprise in June was the blueberry bushes, which are still young. I’d hoped to get 10 to 12 ounces of berries, but I was surprised by more than a pound and a half of homegrown fruit. Most didn’t make it into the house, as my husband and I shared each handful while we worked. It offset the disappointment at the failure-to-thrive of my radishes and carrots, my first clue that I’d let my soil get too dense.
July brought a continued abundance of zucchini, which went into almost everything I cooked, and cucumbers, which threatened to overtake the house some days. We also saw our first basil harvests, which were real treats — although some stores now sell organically grown basil leaves in clamshell containers flown in from California, they compare poorly to fresh basil from the garden. We save a great deal of money by growing our own basil and freezing the extra as pesto.
The first of the tomatoes come in during July as well, which really added to the retail value tally. Organic tomatoes on the vine are quite expensive in the store, so a plant doesn’t have to do much to pull its weight. With no more garden expenditures being tallied, and more than 80 pounds of vegetables harvested year-to-date, we were close to profitability.
If retail stores have “Black Friday,” then maybe Midwestern gardeners have “Green August.” The garden vaulted into profitability this month, led by zucchini and cucumbers, which finally quit producing toward the end of the month. With 76 pounds of cucumbers and 37 pounds of zucchini, my garden would have been profitable with these crops alone.
August is a month for abundance. More than 9 pounds of butternut squash went downstairs into storage for winter, and we continued to enjoy tomatoes, peppers and basil. We even harvested two of our first-ever apples from our dwarf apple trees. All in all, we ended the month with a tally of more than 182 pounds of vegetables harvested year-to-date, and we were in the black by $316.
September was all about squash and tomatoes. More than 12 pounds of assorted squashes joined the butternut squash already stored away, while every one of my eight varieties of tomatoes earned their keep by reaching a profitable production tally. However, I learned that I stunted my tomato production by letting my soil become too dense; we would purchase peat moss in the fall to start working into the soil to improve things for next year.
The end of the summer garden makes me sad. I brought in the last of the tomatoes, peppers and basil, and we had our first hard frosts. The potatoes continue to produce until the last container is empty. Plants that can over-winter in the sunroom came inside, and our dwarf fruit trees in the “micro-orchard” also came into the house, filling the south-facing window in the dining room and the east-facing window in the living room that gets brilliant morning sun. I looked forward to small harvests like a few ounces of greens and a sprig of rosemary in my pot roast. The harvest ended on Christmas Eve, as we shared an ounce of lettuce, tender and sweet.
The year’s experiment was a success. We grew more than 229 pounds of fruits and vegetables on our property with a retail value of $774.44. Subtract our $303.88 in expenditures, and we cut a healthy $470.56 from our food bill for the year.
Overall, the garden demonstrates that suburban gardeners can achieve a respectable level of savings on the yearly food bill with a modest garden and without any special gardening resources. Although I try to grow as much produce as possible from seed to keep the costs down, I bought tomato plants, herbs and a few cucumber plants to supplement those grown from seed. My seed came from sources that ranged from organic, non-GMO producers to the grocery store, where a lonely envelope or two of hybrid seed begged to come home with me. I fertilized exclusively with compost from a small and well-groomed pile, and I enjoyed the exercise I got from tilling the soil with a broadfork and weeding by hand.
Obviously, savings depends heavily on retail price. I opt to grow a great deal of the crops that are expensive to buy retail, especially those that see a significant price differential for the organic varieties: tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and basil.
My experiment also proves that a gardener can have more than one failure and still save a lot of money. I lost crops of radishes and carrots in the dense soil, I planted a few pepper plants in a too-shady locale, and some of my squash vines grew impressively but failed to produce. Diversification is key.
Also important is starting small. I didn’t start out with a garden this big; every year, we add another strip of tilled land, another perennial fruit bush or tree, or another decorative raised bed or container. Every year brings a lesson or two, but we have proven that all you need is a bit of space and a desire to garden to save significant money and eat healthier food.
Read more: Another writer explores the idea of profits from gardening.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is an independent writer, speaker, and owner of Hilltop Communications. Follow her gardening ventures and sustainable living projects at Fast, Cheap, and Good.
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