Does Gardening Really Save You Money?

Interest in gardening is on the rise as people, fed up with rising prices and declining safety and quality standards, seek to produce more of their own food. Even the President has started a garden at the White House. While there is little argument that a properly tended garden raised without a lot of pesticides and handled by very few people will beat the safety standards of most commercially grown produce, the question of whether or not gardening saves money is open for debate. I’ve heard people argue that, considering the time and labor involved in gardening and the expenses of seeds, plants and other supplies, gardening is a money waster, not saver. I don’t think that’s true.

As with anything, there are ways to make gardening more or less expensive. This year we started our third large garden bed and our neighbors started their first. I know ours cost less than theirs in several respects. First, I turned and prepared the soil manually using an old fashioned shovel, hoe, and rake. My neighbors bought a new rototiller for a couple hundred bucks. I know they bought it because the husband was showing it off to my husband. My husband asked if they were planning a lot more garden plots, which would have made the cost of ownership more worthwhile. My neighbor said no, that this was the only one. The rototiller will sit in the garage gathering dust (at least until I come over next year and ask to borrow it!). To save money they could have rented a rototiller for the day for a fraction of the cost of owning one, or done the work the old fashioned manual way.

Second, my neighbor bought very expensive heirloom seeds from a catalog. He also bought some pre-started plants which cost a lot more than seeds. I bought my seeds from the local home improvement place for a dollar a bag. I’ve bought these same seeds in years past so I know they grow and produce. The only reasons to purchase the heirloom varieties are if you are growing produce to show in contests, or if you are seeking special varieties of plants that are very high yielding, special cross breeds, or good for commercial agriculture. The average home gardener is served just fine by buying regular seeds available at home improvement stores or mass merchandisers. To get my plants in the garden sooner, I started some of my seeds back in February. I save butter tubs and yogurt containers throughout the year and use them for starter containers (punch holes in the bottom for drainage). My plants are now the same size as the starter plants available at the nursery for $5 and up. I save a fortune by pre-starting my seeds rather than buying pre-started plants.

Third, my neighbor bought some very expensive dirt. He bought small bags of a premium Miracle-Gro product from a local nursery. On the other hand, I have discovered that Wal-Mart sells large bags of a brand called “Expert” that does as well as Miracle-Gro for a fraction of the cost. The dirt has fertilizer built in and they also have an organic variety if that’s your preference. If my neighbor didn’t want to try an off price brand, he could have at least bought the larger bags of Miracle-Gro at the home improvement store that sell for less per cubic foot.

Even factoring in the cost of the fencing we needed (we live in an area with a lot of garden destroying varmints) and the fertilizer and pest control we will need later in the season, we will spend less than $200 for a 30′ x 20′ garden. The fencing will last for several seasons however, so its cost should actually be prorated over several years. We use a lot of natural bug repellents and fertilizers that don’t cost nearly as much as commercial products. I fear that my neighbor will learn a hard lesson because he did not purchase fencing, preferring other methods of deterrence. A veteran of many gardening seasons, I tried to tell him that our pests don’t care about chemical repellents, human hair scattered around the garden, old CD’s dangling from a pole, or scarecrows. Fencing is the only way to keep them out. But he didn’t want to listen. Those expensive heirloom plants are going to make a delicacy for the rabbits and deer. Any savings he might have earned will be eaten.

Will I make my money back and even save money? Absolutely. With proper care and attention, I expect that my new garden plot will yield about $500 in produce this year. Add in my other two plots and my containers on the deck and I’m looking at over $1,500 in produce this year. When I can and freeze what I can’t eat fresh, my savings will stretch into next year. Even a small plot can generate a couple of hundred dollars in produce. You could argue that maintenance time does eat into my profits a bit. It takes more time to tend a garden than it does to run to the store, but I use it as a form of exercise so it’s really time that I would spend biking or walking anyway. The time isn’t wasted. Gardening is absolutely worth it for me.

One of the most valuable resources available to a gardener is your state’s agricultural extension office or the agricultural department at your local university. They can tell you which varieties of plants are likely to do well in your area and how to plant for maximum yields. Many have the information online or will talk to you on the phone, all for free. A simple phone call or web search can save you from wasting money on plants that won’t grow in your area. Just because a local nursery sells it doesn’t mean it will grow in your area or your type of soil, so gathering a little free information before you plant can save you from costly mistakes.

As with everything, you can make gardening an expensive affair that will break you and negate any savings you might earn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And you don’t have to have a lot of space, time, or energy to garden, either. You can start small with a simple container garden or a couple of pots placed on a sunny porch. Herbs grow well on a sunny windowsill. Lots of vegetables have varieties suited to container gardening, which requires very little maintenance beyond watering and a little fertilizer and pest control. If you only have a small plot of land, look into “square foot gardening” which is a way of maximizing a small space.

To have a productive garden you don’t have to have the best of everything. “Average” seeds and dirt will usually yield the same results as the more expensive stuff. Rent or borrow the heavy equipment you need, protect your investment from critters, and apply a little attention and care to your garden and you’ll reap the savings. And in most parts of the country, it’s not too late to start this year.

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11 Responses to Does Gardening Really Save You Money?

  1. SaveBuyLive says:

    Small gardens can save you money if you plant the right things. I would love to have a few pots of fresh herbs. Given that it costs over $3 a pop for some fresh basil where I live, I can already imagine the savings. If I use fresh herbs merely 5 times over the summer I’ve nearly paid for the seeds, pots and soil.

    I have no doubt that you could grow $500-$1500 in produce. Hopefully you’ll follow up with some data in fall showing your gains or losses.

    I’m kind of disappointed that you never mentioned the time commitments it takes to garden. Especially given the magnitude of your gardening endeavor. Again, hopefully you’ll post some data at the end of the season. I’d really like to see the value of produce produced per unit time.

    If you love gardening, then it’s probably a fun hobby that can save you a lot of money. If you aren’t into it, you’re probably better off keeping it small.

  2. Monkey Mama says:

    Agreed with comment #1. As always there is the whole time tradeoff (if you don’t enjoy it).

    It’s kind of funny though. I honestly don’t know anyone with a garden who spends much money on it. I haven’t run across any like your neighbor. Some dirt in the backyard and some very inexpensive seeds is the way to go. People around here are really into composting too.

  3. Lori says:

    I would also like to hear how much time you spend on the garden over the season, and the types of produce it yields. Monetarily, it would be worth more to me to grow tomatos than zuccinni, since we eat more of those and they are more expensive at the store.

    Great article, we’ll be moving into a house soon and a garden is something I am considering.

  4. Princessperky says:

    I bet lots of folk can save money, but I wont..can’t grow anything right, so I stick with flowers, no expectation of saving, and no worries if they fail.

  5. Henry says:

    Wow, it’s strange, we’re really going back in time due to the financial crunch. First bartering, now gardening. With Swine Flu, city people are going to start looking at farming.

  6. baselle says:

    This post reminds me of your Buying Instead of Doing post – its the same principle. Actual gardening is fairly cheap – soil, seed, knowledge and time. Pretend gardening – where you run the rototiller because it means that all your neighbors know you’re gardening, etc… that’s expensive.

    I have to take a small issue with the heirloom, open pollinated seeds. They are a bit more expensive, but since they are not hybrids you can save the seed for next year. In other words, if you are clever you only have to buy once. Of course if you are very clever, simply buy an extra heirloom tomato or pepper, save the seed and start from there.

  7. Dave says:

    You didn’t really make your case in your article. I didn’t see any hard facts or figures or references. Does gardening actually save you money? I still don’t know.

    How much money does it cost for the soil, the seeds, the water (a big one these days), the fencing, the equipment, etc?

    How much money does it cost to run your deep freezer to store your bumper crop?

    Does it save money over going to a farmer’s market or directly to a pick-your-own farm?

    Now of course you can go 100% organic and not use pesticides or processed sewage water for irrigation. That can have more value than you can put a dollar amount on.

  8. Meaghan says:

    there must be plenty of ways to save money and make it worth it…the info is out there!

  9. Justin says:

    We plant a large garden with everything we know when can eat on for the year. Whether it’s vegis, fruit, or herbs…it’s saves us a tremendous amount of money. Once items are ready, we do our own canning. Some people believe it’s not worth the time but if you enjoy even a bit of it, it will save you money.

  10. Ruthie says:

    We just moved to a new place and expect to be here for 3 years. We obtained a plot in an organic community garden. We are very budget-conscious and are really working to make this garden pay off. There are some expenses, as we keep track of our spending that we are dividing out over the 3 years we are here (the food saver, mason jars for canning, deep freeze, etc) that help the initial shock of the expense. We also purchased everything but the food saver at thrift stores or garage sales. THAT saved us big as well. We started almost everything from seed.

    We approach it this way, if at bare minimum we break even on what we would have spent on veggies, then we’ve won. Not only that, but we get to eat organic, seasonal, fresh veggies which would cost us an arm and a leg to purchase from a farmers market, grocery, or co-op. We wouldn’t be able to afford to eat as well if we bought the things we are growing.

    We are keeping a tally of what we harvest, the conventional pricing and the organic pricing. At the rate we’re going, I fully expect to not only “make back” what we’ve spent on the garden, but also reducing our food cost throughout the winter, given our “preserving” of it all.

    If we weren’t thinking of preserving some of what we’ve grown, and if we were just growing our garden to have fresh summer veggies, then I am not certain it would be economical for us to make the garden investment. Because we are committed to eating the fresh veggies, but ALSO to preserve them for winter, we’ll most certainly come out on top.

  11. New to Gardening says:

    Research has shown that frozen veggies have more vitamin than fresh from the farmers garden. More than the trucked in “fresh” veggies from the south in the winter. Eating and freezing your own organic veggies would be cheaper than buying them. Organic food is very expensive where I live.

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