During the spring of 2014, my first year with the Tomato Envy garden, one of our most successful crops was lettuce. A crisp organically-grown green salad was part of almost every dinner. The Prez joked that every one of those salads cost about $50. Being in the banking business, he’s always pulling out the calculator to crunch numbers about money. Because we had just invested heavily in the initial set up of our garden, he determined that it would take a long time and a lot of veggie eating to break even on that investment.
People get into growing their own food for a wide range of reasons. Some people simply enjoy gardening and working outside, some people do it for health reasons knowing that commercially-grown produce can be coated with dangerous chemicals, and others do it for environmental concerns or to reduce their food miles. Finally, many people get into growing food because they want to shrink their overall food budget.
So, does growing food yourself really save you money? It might surprise you to know that the answer isn’t always “yes.” It depends on many factors such as your initial investment, the amount of work and set up you can do yourself, and whether or not saving money is the goal.
When we first moved into our new home, I got to work planning my dream vegetable garden since this was one of the reasons we chose this home with more space for gardening. Part of my plan included a high fence that would be buried at least a foot into the ground to help keep out deer and groundhogs. Our fenced in vegetable garden was going to be right next to the pool, amidst some very nice perennial beds, so we wanted it to be functional and attractive. We hired a pro to install the fence since we couldn’t dig the deep trench all the way around ourselves. Next came the raised beds which are made of rot-resistant but expensive cedar that should last for many years. Finally, we were lucky enough to have an existing drip irrigation system in our yard from the home’s previous owner. But, I did have to get the lines re-routed to snake through the raised beds and we needed to buy a new control panel to run the system. Then, I needed supplies like plant supports and frost covers. After these initial expenses came other smaller ones that are ongoing: mulch for the ground between the raised beds, soil amendments, and seeds and plants.
The other consideration that Mr. President and I talk about all the time when the subject of our food budget and the garden comes up is that it would be difficult to do a head-to-head comparison of the cost to grow certain crops vs. buying them somewhere else. The reason it’s complicated is because, most likely, we wouldn’t buy all the stuff we grow or in the quantities we harvest. For instance, the Tomato Envy garden yields more than 200 pounds of organically-grown, heirloom tomatoes each year! I wouldn’t buy that many tomatoes but, if I did, I would pay between $600-800 for them given the prices at the farmers market. I grow three different varieties of unusual heirloom eggplant that I’d never see in a store to be able to do a price comparison.
I know there are ways to grow food on a shoestring budget. Since I am currently between jobs, I may be exploring more of those if I don’t find work again soon! With a little ingenuity and DIY spirit, not to mention some hard physical labor, you can cut your food budget by growing some or most of your own produce. For us, our spending on fresh food for three seasons of the year is dramatically reduced, but the savings are probably offset by the cost of maintaining the garden. And, don’t forget that your time is certainly worth something too, and gardening can eat up a lot of time during the height of the season.
Above all, I consider gardening to be a wonderful hobby that can teach you about nature, improve your head state, decrease your carbon footprint, allow you to be self-sufficient, expose you to all kinds of new and delicious foods, help preserve wildlife, and provide exercise and vitamin D. Some people spend money on other hobbies like skiing, crafting, mountain biking, or playing an instrument. Gardening happens to be my hobby of choice, and it provides us with the best tasting and cleanest food possible which, to me, is priceless!