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.