Ask any random person on the street how to save money on their food, and “plant a garden” will most likely be one of their first responses. It’s common knowledge that planting a garden can save you a bunch of money. But, I want to know details. The numbers don’t lie, so today we’re going to answer the age old question, “exactly how much money can you save by planting a garden?”
The truth is that gardens aren’t free, but you already knew that. In fact, if you decide to invest in organic fertilizer, equipment, seeds, pesticides, a sprinkler, and the cutest pair of textured garden gloves you can find, you may even find that it’s not as good of a deal as you thought.
So, my wife, Trisha, and I decided to keep track of exactly how much we spent this year and how many fresh veggies our little garden produced. I’ve always been curious what the numbers would look like. Here are our actual results.
Important Note: This is a minimalist garden. It is small. It was designed to need as little upkeep as possible. It was not created so that our neighbors would all come by and marvel at its beauty. It was designed to produce fresh, organic vegetables with as little work as possible. We’re lazy/busy and don’t feel like gardening all day.
We have a small, fenced-in backyard (we live in the middle of town), so last year we decided to dig out a 10 ft. x 7 ft. section of our lawn and plant some seeds. It worked pretty well. In 2011 we grew tons of tomatoes and zucchini and a little bit of lettuce, but most everything else flopped. But that’s ok. You know why? Because we didn’t spend countless hours out there and we could always head to the grocery store if we needed some veggies. Fortunately, I don’t have to feel the same kind of pressure that my 18th century relatives must have felt.
This year we attempted to grow tomatoes, zucchini, green peppers, cucumbers, butternut squash, broccoli, and green beans. We didn’t use any fertilizer or pesticides. Again, we are lazy, want everything to be as organic as possible, and believe that God will give us what He wants to give us. So, we put some seeds/plants in the ground with a little compost and watered them occasionally.
Cucumber, zucchini, broccoli, butternut squash, and green beans
6 Tomato plants: $1.60
Purchased from a local grocery store.
Cherry tomato and green pepper seeds: Free
My mom provided them, so your expenses would be slightly higher if you don’t have as nice of a mom.
Water used: $3.11
This is a bit of an estimate, but I know that we use approximately 6 gallons of water each time we water our vegetable garden (I checked the meter), and I know that each gallon of water costs us about 1.3 cents (higher than it used to be due to an expensive city sewer project). The estimated portion of the equation is the number of times we watered the garden. I went with 40 because most of the time we watered every two days, but we obviously got rain in there as well, so I assumed an every 3 day average. That may be high, but it’s close enough.
Total Expenses: $10.47
To be fair, we already had a hose and nozzle, a shovel, a hoe, and a few tomato cages in our possession, so if you are completely new to gardening and don’t have any of these items, you’ll have to invest a few dollars. However, if you treat them right, they should last quite a while and the cost per gardening season should be minimal.
If you’re confused about why we didn’t use Miracle-Gro or pesticides, please see the explanations in previous sections.
I live in northern Michigan, where the growing season lasts about as long as the average New Year’s resolution. So, we don’t have the luxury of time that many areas of the world enjoy. You get what you get when you get it. Our garden is done now and the nighttime temperatures have recently been in the 20′s and 30′s. (However, we’re trying to grow Kale this fall/early winter upon the recommendation of an organic gardener in our area)
So, how’d we do? I guess it depends on which veggie you’re asking about.
Green beans were coming at us from all directions. I think we can all agree that anything picked from your own garden will always taste better than the frozen variety in the store, but, personally, I think that the gap between garden green beans and frozen green beans is one of the largest. I don’t mind frozen green beans, but I love garden green beans, so this year was a pleasant surprise.
Tomatoes were fairly plentiful again, though maybe not quite as abundant as last year. However, with as expensive as fresh tomatoes can be in the store, anything our garden wants to give us is welcomed.
The cucumbers crop wasn’t great, but considering that we only have room for a couple plants, we were OK with the results.
Everything else. It was a bad year for a lot of people in our area for zucchini, which is kind of funny since that’s usually one of the most prolific and abundant crops around. We got a few early, but nothing after that.
I was especially excited about trying to grow butternut squash this year since it was a first for us, but the plants never really produced like we were hoping. Maybe next year.
However, the worst performers were the broccoli and green pepper. The broccoli gave us nothing. Nada. Zilch. And the green pepper gave us something worse than nothing. It teased us. It gave us the perfect, quarter-sized specimen that you see in the picture
Dollars and Cents
Here’s what we were able to harvest from each veggie and how much it would cost at the store (price is approximate and does NOT represent organic produce even though our produce is, in fact, organic).
Green Beans – 9.6 lbs of beans – $9.41
Tomatoes – 37 medium tomatoes – $24.22
Large Cherry/Cocktail Tomatoes – 8 tomatoes – $2.32
Cucumbers – 8 cucumbers – $3.84
Zucchini – 3 zucchini – $4.65
Butternut Squash – 1 medium squash and 1 small squash – $3.52
Green Peppers and Broccoli – Nothing - $0
So, the total yield of our 2012 garden was $47.96. It cost us $10.47, plus a few hours of work. Technically, that’s not exactly an exceptional return when you consider what our time is worth, but there are several other factors to consider.
1. This was an utterly bizarre growing season in Northern Michigan (and a lot of other places in the U.S.). I wasn’t alone in finding that my garden under-performed this year. We would have doubled that amount if the circumstances had been different.
2. The prices that I used to determine the value of our veggies were not organic. In fact, the green beans weren’t even fresh, they were the frozen beans we often buy if we don’t have our garden beans. My area doesn’t have a lot to choose from when it comes to organic produce, so it’s difficult to find accurate pricing. Therefore, the $47.96 should probably be doubled to account for the produce’s organic origin. $95.92 would sound at least a little better.
3. There’s something to be said for eating vegetables straight from the dirt. It CANNOT be beat. And that’s why we’ll continue tending our little garden for the time being, even though the returns aren’t necessarily going to make us rich. Not only that, but one of these days we plan on expanding and growing even more when we move to a place with a bigger yard. Larger gardens create a better return anyway.
Simple gardens are inexpensive ways to add some fresh, organic produce into your diet. If you’re looking to maximize your savings potential, focus on growing more expensive options like tomatoes, asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, melons, and berries. If you have limited space, don’t bother with vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and onions that are already cheap enough at the store.
Also, don’t limit your green thumb to a traditional garden. Having fresh green beans is great, but having fresh basil, cilantro, and tarragon on hand whenever you need them is outstanding. Plus, even if you don’t have much room in your yard, or don’t have a yard at all, anyone can grab a pot and a little dirt and keep a basil plant on a window sill somewhere. It beats buying a bunch at the store, just to use a teeny bit, and let the rest go to waste. We’ve all been there.
If you do decide to have an herb garden, here’s a must have that is often overlooked – peppermint. Grow plenty of peppermint, pluck it when it’s ready, dry it for a few weeks in a paper towel (or whatever method you prefer), and use it for either hot or iced tea. Homemade peppermint tea is a staple at our house when the temperatures plunge and the snow starts to drift in. We go through a large cannister every year.
No matter what you decide to do, starting a garden is neither difficult or expensive. It takes a little manual labor, a few key tools, and plenty of water and patience. It certainly won’t solve any of your financial woes, but there’s more to it than that. It’s nice to know exactly where your food came from.
P.S. I know that everyone’s results will differ greatly when it comes to growing a garden. Most of you will probably yield much more than we did, some of you will spend more on fertilizers, etc. This is just a simple example of a very simple garden. Take it for what it’s worth.