Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gardening to save money? Maybe you should do the math.

Here's the deal with gardening - unless you are springing for some serious greenhouse equiptment, whatever you grow and eat will be seasonal. Seasonal = cheap at the grocery store.

Let me give you an example. In November, I bought 6 cabbage plants, for about $3. At the time, cabbage was a dollar or more a head, so it looked like some savings. However, now when it is time to harvest, cabbage is selling for 39 cents a head at Winn-Dixie. So I lost money on my cabbage, big time.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not advocating giving up gardening. There are plenty of reasons to grow your own cabbage. It may be healthier, it is definately fresher, and I know where it came from and what it was grown in. Also, it got my husband out for a little excercise to weed it. So I am not sorry that I planted it, I am just suggesting that all those articles on the web about "saving money by growing your own food" can be misleading.

Of course, had I planted the cabbage as seed, it would have been much cheaper. Unless you happen to have farm equiptment for plowing lying around like I do, though, you are looking at a lot of spadework to prepare a bed for those puppies. Or you can plant seeds ($2-3) in those cute little peat moss pots that they sell at all gardeing stores, in potting soil. ~ $2-3 for the pots (although you probably get >= 24 for that) and ~$5-10 for the potting soil. So you'd be planting a lot of cabbage to get a decent return on investment ("roi"). And maybe you can eat that much cabbage - more power to you, if so. But, quite honestly, I don't know anyone living in an urban or suburban area with that much space for gardening. So to get a decent roi on cabbage, you need (1) a lot of land (2) a lot of time or farm equipment.

Now, I think cabbage probably has a pretty low roi, compared to say, tomatoes. But I was looking at a "tomato growing kit" in my local Tractor Supply today. It came with seeds, potting soil, a galvanized bucket, and a cute little mini spade and rake. For $19.99. Let me tell you, you are going to need to get a lot of tomatoes to break even on that. Remember that, even though they are going for $3/lb at your grocery store today, when they are in season, they'll be 99 cents or so. A good outdoor tomato plant will easily give you 20 lbs of tomatoes (depending on the variety you choose). But tomatoes grown in a windowsill in a galvanized bucket?

If saving money was my number one concern with vegetables, especially if I lived in an urban or suburban area, I'd take that time I was planning to spend gardening and use it to drive to my local farmer's market. Whatever is seasonal will probably be even cheaper than at the grocery store, and it has most of the health advantages of doing it yourself. If you don't know where your closest farmer's market is, try looking at eatwild or local harvest. As a bonus, you may even be able to find local meat, poultry, eggs, or milk.

1 comment:

  1. Growing some of my own produce makes me feel more connected to nature and thus more likely to be repelled by super-processed food. I consider than a benefit, although maybe not strictly financial.

    We took out the front lawn of our suburban house to make room for vegetable beds and flowers (mostly low water plants that attract bees and butterflies) as well as putting planters on the roof of our backyard storage structure. There is a lot of underutilized growing space in suburbia. Our yard looks nice year round, too.

    Last year our three 4 by 12 foot beds produced hundreds of tomatoes, dozens of squash and cucumbers and a few other things too. We ate some, preserved some, gave some away, and took lots to our neighborhood's produce exchanges where we traded them for produce from our neighbors' yards so our tomatoes turned into peppers, plums, and various other things. Someone in the neighborhood also raises chickens (6 are allowed by city regulation) so we have a source for eggs, too.

    We saved the plastic pots that our flower plants came in and we reuse them for starting plants from seed. Eventually we'll make compost, too.

    All this means that it is possible to save a lot of money on fruits and vegetables if you are thoughtful in how you do it and if you live in an area where things grow year round. We still go to the farmer's market as well.