How Many Will Lose Money on Those "Frugal" Gardens This Year?
In the past two seasons, there has been a huge uptick in interest in vegetable gardening. There are plenty of good reasons to garden right now -- food prices went up last year and haven't come down, or at least not much; people's incomes are stagnating or shrinking; people are interested in eating locally and nothing is more local than your own back yard; with food poisoning and contamination becoming commonplace, people want to know where their food is coming from; and finally, producing your own food should help quell some of that rampant uncertainty plaguing most of us these days. Even if you lose your income, if you've got a successful garden this summer, you won't starve, or at least not for a few months.
I like to save money, and I like security. And yet, I'm very tentative when it comes to jumping into the gardening craze.
Why? I watch my dad garden every year, and though the payoffs for his labor are many, I have also heard him say year after year that his garden doesn't save him a dime. The way he figures it, he pays for a lot of inputs: renting a machine to break up the earth each spring, seedlings, seed, a compost-rich "soil conditioner" called Father Dom's Duck Doo, vials of concentrated fox piss to ward off rabbits, herbicides, insecticides, fencing and of course water.
Then again, my dad doesn't do much grocery shopping, so I suspect he does not realize the street value of all those delicious tomatoes he pulls out of that garden, not to mention the green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, corn, peppers and kale. And you'll have noticed from my list that he does not garden organically -- surely, I figure, I could save more if I eschew the pesticide and herbicides and compare my harvest to the prices for organic produce.
I was able to find some estimates for how much you can save by growing your own food, but they are all pretty vague:
- BusinessPundit.com estimates a mere $20 savings from growing a few tomato and pepper plants on his patio.
- Get Rich Slowly estimates a $1.91 return for each $1 invested in his garden -- but acknowledges that 60 hours of labor also went into the project. This gardener saved about $300, so you could say that he and his wife earned $20 an hour, tax free, for working on their plot.
- In this New York Times article, a Burpee rep estimates that a $100 investment in a garden will yield over $1,000 in savings. In the same piece, an experienced gardener says she hopes to save $20 a week, which, extrapolated over the course of the year, is about the same thing. She mentioned drying and freezing some of her yield, so I think she meant over the whole year and not just during the harvest season.
Invest $100, save $1,000 in a year, tax free? What am I waiting for? Gardening seems like the investment deal of the century!
And yet, I'm still hesitant to put in more than a few plants and spend more than a few bucks. Here are my reasons: The output from any investment in a garden is uncertain. I've seen my dad's crops get decimated or at least severely diminished by so many things -- pests, hail, late frost, mysterious failure to thrive. He has had years when he had to replant three times -- increasing if not tripling that initial investment. Realistically, I have to assume that my results will be worse than his. My yard is not as sunny, pests (squirrels) are more rampant, I have no track record of successful gardening in this yard, I lack his experience and skill, I have less free time to tend to the garden, and, at nearly 7 months pregnant, I won't be as physically up to the task. Finally, since I want to skip the chemical fertilizer and pest killers, I can assume that I will lose more to pests and/or have to work harder than he does.
My dad might be surprised if he ever did the math and figured out how much he's saving, on average, with his garden. But I think a lot of newcomers to gardening will also be surprised at the amount of work and risk involved. I'm willing to bet there will be a lot of abandoned gardens come midsummer, and a lot of folks who spent more than $100 who end up getting $0 worth of produce. But for those who do stick with this new hobby, there will be nonmonetary rewards as well as the hoped-for return on investment. Ever bite into a BLT sandwich when the T was picked just as the B hit the pan? You could pay hundreds for a haute cuisine meal that doesn't match it. Ever see a man teach his grandchild how to space out green bean seeds, and then watch that same grandchild help bring in the harvest?
I have, and that, more than the uncertain prospect of being able to recoup my investment, is what drives me to put in at least a few plants this year. Squirrels be damned.
If you do invest your time and money as a new gardener this year, here are some tips to help avoid losing that investment:
Myscha Tehriault's recent post about cheap garden hacks right here on Wise Bread.
Get Rich Slowly has great tips, including: Start small, pick high-yield plants (berries over corn), and share seeds with friends.
Growing Plants for Free is supposed to be a good book for beginners and experts alike on splitting plants and harvesting seeds so you don't have to buy them.
This article has some tips for frugal gardening, like making your own fertilizer with worms (I'm gonna wait until fall to make another go at the worm bin) and which seeds you can save and expect to come true.
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