When Does “Growing Your Own” Become Too Expensive?

by formerchef on April 6, 2010

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When does growing your own vegetables become too expensive?
I’m not sure I can answer that question but it’s a valid one to ask. Every year I grow a garden and every year I’m sure I spend more on the garden than if I bought organic vegetables from the farmer’s market.

This year, I’ve decided to track everything I spend and then everything I yield to get a realistic picture. This doesn’t mean I’ll stop, even if it’s more expensive, but it’s important to recognize that not everyone may have the means (be it space, time or money) to have their own garden. I’m aware I have some challenges not everyone who gardens faces, which may add to my cost, but I know I’m not alone. I have the space, and I find the time, but I’m always shocked at the expense.

One of the biggest challenges is the how and where to grow. Some people are blessed with great soil; anything they put in it will grow. My soil is hard packed clay; I’d be better off building a kiln and throwing my own pots than trying to grow anything with it.
Last year we built raised beds and tried the No Dig Garden method (also known as Lasagna Gardening). The garden is approximately 100 square feet and 2 feet deep. We are using those same beds this year, and the same method, but they have to be filled with compost, hay, alfalfa and manure, and all those things cost money. The wood for the raised beds will not be included in my cost for this year*, but the soil amendment/fill for the beds will be, because it would have to be amended, raised beds or not.

Another challenge which ends up costing money are the pests, both of the insect and the mammal variety. They have to be kept out of the garden if I am to have any hope of harvesting these vegetables. We bought beneficial nematodes as an organic way to get rid of the white grubs in the soil and could have bought pesticides for less, but that defeats the idea of growing organically, doesn’t it?
The bigger problem is with raccoons who will toss the plants right out of the garden in their reckless attempt to dig for their supper. In order to keep the plants from these masked marauders so I have to buy “protection.” No, I’m not hiring a guy named Joey, but rather, securing the plants in their boxes with chicken wire and bungee cords. Seriously though, if they don’t leave the plants alone, I may consider putting out a hit on the little monsters.

Caged Garden BedAbove; one of the caged beds. As the plants grow I’ll either cut holes for them to grow through, or pull back the chicken wire in stages.

Left: Raccoons have dug under the beds, pulling out the dirt, undermining the stability of the boxes.
Right, I’ve tried to push the dirt back in and put up barriers to prevent them from doing it again.

The plants themselves have a cost and are not always cheap. Starting from seeds is definitely a money saver but I have been only minimally successful with growing from seed. Six packs of seedlings are a better value, but frankly, I don’t need or want most vegetables which come in six packs.
This article in the Sacramento Bee offers  good, solid practical advice about not planting more than you can eat and only planting what you actually want to eat. This is why I only plant 1 zucchini rather than buying six. I also don’t plant vegetables I don’t enjoy, but I do plant extra of the things I love and know how to cook and freeze for later like tomatoes, eggplant, basil and squash. The one thing in the article I’m not clear on is where they get the figure of $100 in garden cost yielding $600 worth of vegetables. That may be true for some, but probably not for me.

Of course, there are things I can do to save money and there are intangibles I get from gardening on which one cannot put a price. 
I will continue to try to grow from seeds and hopefully, next year, will not need to add so much purchased fill for the beds. I have faith my composting of kitchen scrap will eventually work and be usable. We even re-purposed an ancient ladder which had been languishing in my yard for years to use to grow the peas. 
For me, the intangibles make it all worth the time and expense. I can do a cost/benefit analysis all I want, but ultimately, there is something immensely satisfying in doing physical labor to create and grow. And there is nothing comparable to a tomato fresh off the wine, still warm from the sun.

What price the joy of a home grown tomato?
Total spent so far: $246.63
( will be buying more plants/seeds but hopefully nothing else)

  • Pest Prevention:$89.53 (Beneficial Nematodes, Fencing)
  • Soil: $132.72 (Hay, Alfalfa, Chicken Manure, Compost)
  • Plants: $24.38 (in box, top photo left)
    1 Zucchini
    1 Yellow Squash (straight)
    6 Sugar Snap Peas
    1 Japanese Cucumber
    6 Regular Eggplant
    1 Celebrity Tomato (Hybrid-1 gal size to get a head start and early crop)
    1 Brandywine Tomato (because I am a sucker for this specific tomato even though Heirlooms don’t grow well for me)
    1 Black Russian Tomato (Heirloom)
  • Seeds Started (no cost/packages from last year)
    Leeks
    Spinach
    Lemon Cucumbers

* In case you are curious, the wood for the beds (#2 Pine in 12″ boards and 4x4s) plus screws cost us $228 when we built them in 2009. I don’t have numbers for what we spent on drip irrigation supplies.

What do you think? Is a gardening worth the expense to you?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mom April 6, 2010 at 7:26 am

It’s a good thing we don’t count our time in this :)…pictures look good.

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2 Lauren April 6, 2010 at 7:48 am

I have wondered about this myself. Now, generally we get produce from a variety of places, namely the Ann Arbor market, Eastern Market, Ypsi’s markets and a Needle Lane Farm share, but we do often grow a few things of our own—herbs, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, usually. We just moved into our first house which gives us the chance to expand our garden a bit, but I often wonder how cost-effective it really is in the long run, especially as our luck with tomatoes has been hit or miss (as has the weather). And wouldn’t you know it—we also will probably have to do raised beds, not because our soil isn’t necessarily good, but mostly because of the presence of a lot of black walnut trees in the yard. Do you have any tips on building the beds? I think that and the soil will be the majority of our expenses.

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3 formerchef April 6, 2010 at 8:27 am

Lauren, click on the tag for “no dig gardening” and you’ll see all my posts on the subject including how we built the raised beds (or look in the archives for March 2009). You could probably do it with cheaper wood than we used, but don’t use pressure treated lumber because it has chemicals which can leach into the soil.

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4 Myra Beebee April 6, 2010 at 8:24 am

As a Mom, planting a garden is a chance to teach my children. This year, they helped weed our garden space, plant our tomatoes, water the plants and give me daily updates about the size of the tomato leaves. For this reason, planting a garden is worth the expense.

This year, I’m also planting within a budget. So far, I’ve spent $6 on plants and $7 on mulch. I will buy more plants and more mulch, so my expense will increase. I’m choosing plants carefully and only planting the vegetables I know we’ll eat, plus some that I’ll use in the fall and winter: tomatoes for marinara, basil for pesto and winter squash.

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5 Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen April 6, 2010 at 9:35 am

It is hard to say…I will know better after this year, when we do our first large scale garden. We have already spent quite a bit on seeds. But I am figuring with a nice bumper crop of certain veggies, I will be able to can and such, which will reduce our grocery bill quite a lot. I think if you consider both fresh and preserved veggies, it may not look that bad. But that is just a guess.

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6 Elvia Medel aka the Insecure Gardener April 6, 2010 at 11:21 am

So far I have spent 25 on mulch, 25 on turkey compost, and about 20 on plants. My successful gardening neighbor gave me 4 tomato plants, 1 squash, 2 tomatillo, 1 pepper, and one melon! How’s that for generosity?So, with all that, I have 8 tomato plants, 1 melon, 1 squash, two tomatillo, 3 peppers, and five kinds of herbs. From seed, I began cucumbers and watermelon. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I planted like six of each of those, and plan to thin them out(?). My garden is not raised, it’s in the ground. My other neighbor gave me some short wire fencing to put around it to deter rodents, and I plan to cover it somehow and also to put in six short rows of drip irrigation….So, I guess I’ve spent 70 bucks and still have more to go. I do love how my neighbor gave me those plants–I plan to pass on extras myself.

I live in Austin, Texas. We have great farmers’ markets here, and I also shop stores like Whole Foods. I’m sure, like me, everyone who reads this blog cares a lot about buying and eating high quality, fresh foods, and are willing to spend more for it. All I can say is I just spent about 150.00 at Whole Foods this weekend, and most of that was fruit and vegetables–I didn’t even buy meat and hardly bought anything processed. I know I will still have to supplement our meals this year by buying greens and fruit….and who knows how successful our garden will be despite the money and time we put into it?

Still, it is worth it when I see my children digging in the soil and planting seeds–they are truly learning where their sustenance is coming from, and it comes naturally to them. In this age of mass produced produce, that is an invaluable connection to be made. Self-sustenance is an all-too readily fading thing in our society, and it isn’t something I am readily willing to let go of. That’s why so many of us who love to cook also love, or are beginning to love, to garden.

These skills, these acts of self provision, teach us that we don’t always need more than we can yield, and that we can yield enough for us to feel more than satisfied; that the simple things are often the most satisfying. So, I guess I will continue to invest my time and money in gardening and in learning about gardening, so that these skills and these sentiments about life can live on in my own children. I think that’s how many of us feel, and that makes me feel glad and hopeful. And hope is priceless.

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7 formerchef April 6, 2010 at 11:45 am

Myra- I think teaching children to garden and where their food comes from is SO important. Just look at those kids on Food revolution who didn’t know the difference between a potato and a tomato!

Jenn-Yes, I think the more you can preserve, the more you save. I think I actually ended up throwing away (well, composting) some the excess veg from my garden last year because it went bad before I could get to it. My goal for this year is to have none of that.

Elvia- Thank you so much for your truly thoughtful reply. Sounds like you do have a wonderful neighbor! I’m sure you will more than break even on your garden. I’m with you about the life skills that gardening teaches both to us as adults and to childen; it’s so important.

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8 Cathy (breadexperience) April 6, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I have a feeling I’ll be spending more, but it’s such a rewarding experience. I have a bunch of tomato seeds that I bought last year. I plan to can a lot of tomatoes this year.

I did container gardening last year and I’m expanding it this year. I also want to do some straw bale gardening. I’ll have to keep tabs on the cost of the straw versus tilling/soil/fencing, etc. So far the rewards and getting my sons (17 and 20) involved is worth the cost.

Great post!

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9 pickycook April 6, 2010 at 9:39 pm

gardening is priceless to me. i cannot put a price on knowing where my food comes from & the quality is like no other. thanks for posting this thoughtful piece.

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10 Robert April 7, 2010 at 8:15 am

Couple of tips on Pests. We have Deer, racoons and Rabbits who love a nibble or three :) We in the ground basic metal posts. Then we use old windows screens (free most of the time) to form a lower fence. then we bought a cotton mesh (Curtain I would say) to hang from the posts to create a tall enough fence to prevent the deer from entering. Cost (All free from scrap) plus about $20 for Mesh.

As for seeds start more then you need in old egg cartons and then use the ones that sprout.
If you are using heirloom you should be able to save the seeds from the tomato.

You might also look into trading with other local garndens for seeds each year.

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11 Chez Us April 7, 2010 at 10:17 am

Great write up. I have often thought the same thing, year after year of planting a small urban garden. Just the plants are expensive. This year we are planting a container garden as we don’t have room for a regular garden. I was just thinking about the costs last night …. thinking how it will cost more since we will clearly need to buy more containers. Maybe it is the satisfaction we get from gardening that keeps us doing it. Hmmm …. I am going to keep track as well, thanks for motivating me to really think about it!

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12 Robert April 7, 2010 at 10:31 am
13 leslie land April 7, 2010 at 11:57 am

Not sure I get to comment, given that I’ve been a garden writer for – let’s just say decades – and
a big chunk of that has been and will be about growing food.

But ( obviously) I can’t resist. In addition to all the benefits mentioned above, a great advantage of growing your own is that you get better at it. Each year, you learn more about what works and what doesn’t, where to find seedlings of plants you like, which of your neighborhood garden centers has genuinely helpful staff… and, speaking of composting excess, which food bank/soup kitchen makes it so easy to share the extras you don’t have to think about it.

This is over and above the amortization of front end costs like materials for beds and fencing and the bought-in soil often needed when you’re just starting out. As you’ve hinted in the post, the longer you keep at it, the less these things figure in the total price of your food.

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14 formerchef April 7, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Chez Us- There are plenty of items which can be reused, recycled or repurposed for container gardening if you don’t want to buy more containers. For example, many tomato plants will do just fine in a 5 gallon bucket. Get creative! I think I’m going to plant herbs in an old sink this year.

Robert- My biggest problems with growing from seed is that I think I transplanted them into the garden too early and then they got trampled by the raccoons!

Leslie-Of course you can comment. Thanks for lending your words of wisdom.

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15 ultrasound technician April 9, 2010 at 10:17 am

nice post. thanks.

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16 Tiffany April 12, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Those horrid little beasts! I’ve heard human hair works for rabbits because of the scent of human. I think a raccoon may just make a doll from it. Then pretend it plants a garden. Then eat the pretend vegetables.
Oh, yeah. Viewing this on the iPhone. Looks great! Some of the text is larger which is nice.

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17 formerchef April 12, 2010 at 8:27 pm

As usual, you are hilarious! I wouldn’t put it past the little monsters to plant their own garden. Thanks for letting me know about the iphone.

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