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Calculating the Cost of Growing Your Own Food

How to Put Away Big Bucks with Your Green Thumb
  -- By Jenny Sigler, SparkPeople Contributor
Many of us assume that a backyard vegetable garden can save us money, but is it really true? After investing in equipment, soil, seeds and water, do you really come out on top?

The answer varies upon the size of your garden, whether you start your plants from seeds or purchase seedlings, and how many tools or gardening accessories you may need to purcase. According to National Gardening Association estimates, a well-maintained food garden can yield an estimated half pound of fresh produce per square foot, yielding a $500 return on average when considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of produce. 

Here are some tips on starting a cost-effective garden for your wallet and your waistline.
 
Get the Right Soil for the Right Price
If you are starting a new garden, the most cost effective method is using the soil you already have available. However, most soil needs to be supplemented to improve its texture and nutrient density. If you live near farmland, you may be able to find free or inexpensive aged manure from a nearby farm that you can work into the first few inches of soil. Check your local paper or Craigslist for manure. Most will offer it for free if you pick it up yourself, or charge about $20 per truckload.

If your clay soil lacks texture and breathability, take a trip to the garden center for sand or compost. A bag will probably run from $3-$10 for 40 pounds, which will cover about 4 square feet of topsoil.

Sandy soil has the opposite problem of clay soil. Where clay is prone to waterlogging plant roots, sandy soil is too loose and struggles to maintain moisture. To amend sandy soil, simply use compost or some chopped up leaves, which are free! To save money over time, start your own compost heap. By next year, your pile will save you big bucks on fertilizer!
 
Seeds and Seedlings
Most packets of seeds cost a couple bucks, and a typical seed packet contains between 800 and 2,000 seeds. If you only harvested half of those seeds (about a 40-foot row) you’d be spending $140-$200 less than if you had purchased those mature vegetables from the grocery store. If you were to buy organic produce, the savings could be upwards of $180-$300.

Starter plants, available at nurseries and farmers markets, cost more than a packet of seeds (up to a few dollars per plant), but are still inexpensive and can save you time and space if you don’t want to start your plants from seed yourself.
 
Odds and Ends
One hidden cost you might not think about when starting up a garden is soil testing. If you are in the city or fear you have compromised soil, it’s a good idea to get a soil test from your local garden center or home improvement store. These run about $12 but are well worth it because you don’t want to plant in lead-tainted dirt that will contaminate your food!

If you don’t have gardening gear, you will probably need some basic supplies such as a wide brimmed hat, spade, shovel, and gloves. Home improvement stores or nurseries sell all of these for under $50. It may cost more up front, but it's a long-term investment that should last for the duration of your garden.
 
Additional Savings Tips
Many nurseries, churches, local organizations, or community garden clubs have seed and plant sales in the spring. You can score some major deals at these types of events, often up to half off what you would pay elsewhere! However, nothing beats the ease of simply trading with other gardeners in your area. Most people do not have a garden conducive to growing as many vegetables as a seed packet can grow. As a result, gardeners often have left-over seed that, if not stored for next year, is tossed out. Some garden clubs organize seasonal seed exchanges, so look for them in your community paper. Lastly, hit up the Internet for some deals on ebay or Craigslist. Many times, people will offer up plants and materials for free on Craigslist under the "free stuff" section.
 

Gardening is an investment and a labor of love, but it's worth it for the money you'll save on produce! Plus, it's a great way to get in some exercise while connecting with the earth. Start today to start reaping the benefits for your body--and your wallet.
 
Sources
 
Butterfield, Bruce. ''Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America.'' The National Gardening Association (2009): 1-17. Accessed April 2009. http://www.gardenresearch.com.
 
Kitchen Gardeners. ''What's a Home Garden Worth?'' Accessed March 2012. http://my.kitchengardeners.org.
 
Plangarden.com. ''Grow Your Own Vegetables Value Calculator.'' Accessed April 2009. http://www.plangarden.com/.