Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gardening Economics: To Save or Not to Save

It seems like almost everyone I know is planning to start a vegetable garden this year.  This is quite remarkable in my area, where we don't really have soil, just decomposed granite, but we do have plenty of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, and an extremely short growing season.  This is not like the fertile Midwest, where there are feet and feet of topsoil just waiting to be planted.  If you want dirt, you have to either compost for 15 years to accumulate enough to plant in, or buy your own.  But I digress...

Most of the people I know who are planning their gardens are doing it for one of three reasons:
  •  to have access to fresh, local, organic produce, 
  •  to help their kids get involved with and learn to love veggies, or
  •  to save money on produce.
These are all fantastic reasons to garden, and the first two seem pretty fool proof: if you organically grow fantastic veggies with your kids, you will all probably end up eating better.  It's that last one that's a challenge: saving money on produce.  Especially for novice gardeners, who may need to invest in new equipment (shovel, watering can, trellises, or materials to build raised beds), soil or soil amendments, and seeds, the start-up costs may seem to outweigh the savings.  

Personally, I think if you can in any way afford it, the experience you can gain by starting a garden is worth a poor return on investment in the first year.  My first garden was a dismal failure, but I learned so much from it that my second garden was only moderately disappointing, and I have very high hopes for my third!  Even if
garden #3 is not all I hope it will be (which is likely in this climate), I will have learned so much from it that I think the new-found knowledge is worth the expense.

If, however, you are hoping to at least break even on your first garden, or if you'd like to save even more money on the garden you already have, you've probably already done some planning.  As with any budget, you want to reduce costs going in (soil, amendments, supplies, seeds/transplants) and increase yield (both quantity and quality).  If you're looking for some more helpful hints, check out this article on saving money gardening from The Saved  It has some great suggestions, although it doesn't mention composting (is there any better way to turn trash into treasure?), and it advises against planting items that are cheap to buy year round, like carrots and potatoes.  Sure, if space is at a premium, you may want to stick to crops that are expensive to buy, but if  you have plenty of room, and especially if you save your own seed, why not grow your own?  Homegrown produce will be miles ahead of even the best organic store-bought produce from halfway around the country.  In fact, there was a recent article at Sustainable Eats about overwintered carrots that were more nutrient dense than their "fresh" grocery store counterparts.

Since this post is basically just showing off other peoples' good ideas, one thing I can't stop myself from mentioning is permaculture.  If you start investigating the concept online, it's easy to get turned off by rampant charts of herb spirals and guilds, but the core principle is very accessible: working with nature, instead of against it, for mutual benefit.  Anything that works with nature to make your gardening more productive sounds like a good, money-saving idea to me.  Some of my favorite concepts from permaculture are keeping gardens within easy access (like a kitchen window herb garden or a little salad garden right outside the back door) and using natural methods to solve problems (example: a permaculturist would say, "It's not that you have too many bugs in the yard, it's just that you need a duck.").  I think Polyface Farm in Virginia, run by Joel Salatin, as described in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, is a good example of a permaculture system at its best, using the sun as its only energy input, and allowing plants and animals to act as nature intended them for their own benefit and that of their human caretakers.

Whether you are growing a square foot garden on your city apartment balcony, or you have an all-out homestead, I hope these resources are helpful for you as you try to make your garden economical and productive.  Happy Gardening!

Posted at Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFGLINS 


  1. I actually have never heard of permaculture, but I love it already. We are doing 2 gardens this year and it's our first time going all out with building beds and everything. Even though we may not have granite we still have to by some soil. Great attitude about your learning experience and best of luck with garden #3!

  2. My first garden (last year) was a complete failure too! I know there is a way to figure it out though. This year I'm trying wide row gardening and combining vegetables that have different germination times so I pick out the quick growers (such as radishes) just as the slow growth around it needs more space.

  3. Messy Mom, good luck with your gardens too! I get the feeling that permaculture takes a long time to really get down, but some of the concepts are still really useful.
    Improbable Farmer, sorry about your failed garden, but it's nice to know I'm in good company! I hope your new strategy is really successful. It sounds like the rotation planting might be quite effective. It's too bad radishes aren't more of a staple, because they sure are reliable and plentiful! :)

  4. This post really makes me wish I could garden! But since that's not a possibility in our apartment, we were lucky last year to find a fantastic local CSA. It was worth every penny, and I can't wait for it to start again this year!


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