According to a National Gardening Association (NGA) study, the average American family spends about $70 a year on their vegetable garden, but reaps about $600 worth of food from it. Burpee, one of the nation’s oldest and most popular home garden seed supply sources, adds “well-planned garden will result in a 1 to 25 cost-savings ratio, meaning $50 in seeds and fertilizer can produce as much as $1,250 worth of groceries purchased at a supermarket." Reading these stats, I couldn't help but wonder whether they were accurate - and how they compared to my family's experience.
So last year, I kept track of how much we grew and what it was worth. Granted, I wasn't terribly scientific about it. I did not weigh all the produce from our garden. I estimated only, always leaning toward underestimating our yield instead of overestimating. I also wasn't sure what food I should compare it to. Although what comes from our garden is most like food from a farmer's market, I never shop at the farmer's market because it's considerably more expensive than the grocery store. Therefore, I chose to compare produce costs to our local supermarket's non-organic food, even though I know what comes from our garden is far superior in quality and absolutely organic.
UPDATE: I also kept track of our gardening and homesteading costs and "profit" in 2013. Click here to view the results.
Seed starting containers: free
Seed starting soil: $10
TOTAL COSTS: $185
Beets: I can't find these locally, but I estimate I'd pay about $10 for all the beetroots and greens we grew
Brussels sprouts: $25
Chard: $2 (we had a very bad crop)
Blueberries: $6 (these were from first year bushes; in a few years, we'll be getting pounds and pounds of berries)
Cherry tomatoes: $30
Green beans: $15
Large tomatoes: $48
Wonderberries: I can't buy these locally, but I estimate what I grew, if sold at the same price of blueberries, was worth $10
Spinach: $2 (another crop that didn't do well last year)
So, we saved $308 - and we had the satisfaction of doing it ourselves, being more self-sufficient, getting more exercise, teaching our children about gardening and science, and knowing exactly what was (and was not) in our food.
But here's the catch: Last year, we purchased soil for our garden. We live where the soil is heavy clay, and I hadn't gardened in the area in years. We spent $227 to buy the soil and have it delivered. That means our actual savings were $81. However, that may not be a very fair way to look it. As long as I care for this soil well, feeding it compost yearly, it will remain quality gardening soil for as long as we want to use it.
Ways to Make the Garden Even More FrugalGetting started - buying tools and preparing the soil - is the most costly part. However, if you continue gardening and you care for your soil and your tools, you can use them forever. If you don't mind waiting a year or so to begin your garden, you can avoid buying soil by practicing the lasagna or no-dig method. Essentially, you'd lay cardboard over the soil where you want to garden and pile specific organic ingredients over it. The cardboard blocks light, which kills weeds, and the decaying organic matter - and worms - make the soil rich.
You can also save money by collecting your own seeds. The first year, you'd need to buy heirloom seeds, but ever after, you can let one or more plants in the garden go to seed, then collect and preserve those seeds for next year's garden.Another big expense is watering your garden. There are a few things you can do to reduce your water bill. One is to mulch your garden beds with organic materials, like straw. This helps conserve water in the soil (and as the mulch decomposes, it feeds the soil nutrients). Spacing plants far apart also lets them grow root systems going deep in the soil - where there's more water. This is probably how traditional row-method vegetable gardening began - as a way to space vegetables out during a time when running water was non-existent or scarce. However, if you have only a small garden bed, you may be better off using traditional spacing. Close spacing (as is used in intensive or Square Foot gardening) requires the most water. Click here for more ideas on conserving water in the garden.
How you water your garden also makes a difference. Sprinklers waste a lot of water because they spread it everywhere - even places it's not needed. Drip hoses conserve much more water because they gradually water the plants' base. Some gardeners are also highly interested in rain barrels - and by all means, if they are legal in your area, use them. But don't use them to water edibles unless you have an expensive water filtration system. Remember: Whatever chemicals and what not that are on your roof end up in the rain barrel...and in your produce, if you use that liquid to water them.
Composting is another way to reduce gardening costs. Granted, it's difficult for a suburban gardener to create enough compost for her entire garden, but home made compost can go a long way. Anyone who has kitchen scraps, leaves, and a corner of their property can easily compost.
You will also notice I didn't spend a dime on seed starting supplies. With winter sowing, you can reuse all kinds of containers you probably already have on hand. The same is true with traditional seed starting. For example, toilet paper tubes make an excellent container for seedlings.
Finally, you might notice I saved a lot by growing fruit. If you have the space, fruit trees are an excellent investment, and if you buy dwarf varieties, they may not take up as much space as you think. Otherwise, stick to berries or vines, which fit well into small yards. And don't forget that most fruit trees and bushes produce more every year.
What about you? How much have you saved by growing your own food? And do you have tips for making gardening more frugal?