Can growing vegetables really save you money?

By Reeser Manley,
Posted Nov. 25, 2011, at 3:33 p.m.

Can I lower my food costs by growing vegetables in a home garden? This is a simple question with anything but a simple answer.

Before bringing in all of the complicating factors, we can look at this question in its simplest form: Will organic vegetables grown in a home garden cost the gardener less money to produce than the purchase price of the same organic vegetables at the local farmers market?

Let’s begin by creating a hypothetical garden for a family of four. Because many home gardeners work relatively small plots, this garden will be an area 8 feet by 10 feet divided down the middle by a walkway 2-feet wide (see diagram of Spring planting plan). This creates two beds, each 4-by-8 feet, a total of 64 square feet of growing space with every plant accessible from the garden edges or from the walkway.

The garden is in midcoast Maine, enabling the family to garden intensively through three distinct cropping seasons: spring, summer and fall. New crops are planted as space becomes available and weather permits. The spring garden (March to May) and the fall garden (September to mid-October) are dominated by fast-growing frost-tolerant crops such as spinach, broccoli and peas. The summer garden (June to August) consists of crops that love it hot, as well as heat-tolerant lettuce.

The following data show, by harvest season, the potential income obtained from this hypothetical garden. Cost-per-pound figures for spring, summer and fall were taken from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Organic Price Reports (Retail Data) for June, August, and October 2011, respectively.

Spring

(Crop, number of plants, square feet, total yield in pounds, cost per pound, total cost)

• Broccoli, 16, 16, 8, $3.95, $31.60

• Cauliflower, 8, 8, 12, $4, $48

• Cabbage, 8, 8, 20, $1.45, $29

• Spinach, 54, 6, 13.5, $8.60, $116.10

• Snap peas, 200, 16, 20, $5.15, $103

• Lettuce, 40, 10, 60, $2.50, $150

Summer

(Crop, number of plants, square feet, total yield in pounds, cost per pound, total cost)

• Tomato, 8, 16, 48, $3.36, $161.28

• Pepper, 8, 8, 16, $3.66, $58.56

• Zucchini, 3, 12, 18, $2.56, $46.08

• Lettuce, 12, 3, 18, $2.50, $45

• Beans, 24, 6, 8, $3.42, $27.36

• Eggplant, 3, 3, 9, $3.14, $28.26

• Cucumber, 12, 12, 96, $1.94, $186.24

• Onion, 36, 4, 7, $2.13, $14.91

Spring

(Crop, number of plants, square feet, total yield in pounds, cost per pound, total cost)

Asterisks indicate crop included with summer harvest

• Tomato*, 8, 16, 0, $0, $0

• Pepper*, 8, 8, 0, $0, $0

• Spinach, 72, 8, 18, $8, $144

• Lettuce, 16, 4, 24, $2.50, $60

• Broccoli, 10, 10, 5, $3.25, $16.25

• Eggplant*, 3, 3, 0, $0, $0

• Cauliflower, 5, 5, 7.5, $3.17, $23.78

• Cabbage, 10, 10, 25, $1.21, $30.25

Assuming that all of the harvest was either consumed or preserved for later use, the garden provided the family with $1,319.67 worth of produce over the course of a year. If this was the first year of gardening, the family would have needed to purchase basic tools. Let’s set aside $100 for these supplies, keeping in mind that these tools should last many years. Other expenses would include compost and other soil amendments estimated at $60 for the season as well as seeds and transplants costing $90 for the year. Total upfront costs for the year will be $250.

For the first year, the family’s garden provided approximately $1,069 in produce after costs. Since some of the start-up costs such as tools are nonrecurring, the return rises to approximately $1,169 in subsequent years. Considering that the average family of four spends approximately $11,200 per year on food based on data reported by the USDA, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, September 2011, the garden harvest from this plot of 64 square feet represents an average annual savings in food cost of 10.4 percent.

There are a lot of wrinkles in the fabric of this analysis. First, the cost of the garden’s produce was calculated at organic farmers market prices. The total value of nonorganic supermarket prices for these same crops would have been much less and the annual savings much less, perhaps cut in half. Still, reducing the grocery bill by even 5 percent with the yield of 64 square feet of garden space is, I think, significant, particularly when you consider that the average U.S. home garden is 600 square feet.

What is the cost of the health benefits derived from eating fresh vegetables that have not been doused with pesticides? Or the health benefits of exercise from working in the garden? Or the cost of a healthier environment when sustainable gardening practices are used? How do we factor these elements into the bottom line?

What seems clear is that in order to make vegetable gardening economically worthwhile, you must garden intensively, maximize the amount of produce harvested from each square foot of garden area. This is accomplished by replacing rows with wide beds, providing each plant with just enough room to thrive while eliminating room for weeds to grow, conserving space with trellises for cucumbers and other climbing plants.

Most importantly, make use of available space on a continuous basis. Spring plantings of spinach and lettuce provide a continuous harvest until time to plant tomatoes. Peas are replaced by peppers. Cold-tolerant plants reappear as summer days wane, replacing cucumbers, beans, and zucchini.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/25/living/blogs-and-columns-living/can-growing-vegetables-really-save-you-money/ printed on April 25, 2014