Is It Really Cheaper to Grow Your Own Vegetables

At first glance, growing your own vegetables looks like the perfect solution to the cost of groceries. Tomato seeds: $2.99. Tomatoes at the supermarket: $2.99 a pound. The basic math adds up, and for some, growing vegetables can be a real money-saver, but you need the right conditions and the right tools. Looking at your vegetable garden as a small business, with a full accounting of costs, can help you decide if you're saving or actually spending money to put your own food on the table.

Start with Your Assets and Liabilities
To truly save money with a vegetable garden, you need to have a few things in place. First, you need space for plants to grow. The more vegetables you want, the more space you need, because you can't cram plants together and expect them to be productive.

Next, you need to think about your soil quality. Will vegetables actually grow in your yard? It's a good idea to do a soil test before you begin. Local university extension services will perform these soil tests for free or for a small charge if you gather samples and send them off. You'll get a detailed soil profile back, which could contain unhappy news about missing nutrients or a high soil pH that the plants you want to grow hate. Fertilizer starts at $8 to $10 for a 4-pound box and raises dramatically in price for some formulations. Alternately, you could build raised-bed gardens and fill them with your own mixture of topsoil and manure, both of which start at around $20 per cubic yard.

Then there's garden tools. You'll need a shovel, rake, cultivator, pruning shears, a sprinkler, and stakes and netting. If you've got critter or insect problems, you'll need to invest in pesticides or fencing. Motivated wildlife like deer and groundhogs can require hundreds of dollars in fencing, since they'll hop over or dig under fences to get at your growing crops. A budget of $200 to $300 for tools and supplies will usually support a modest garden, and you can amortize tool costs over several years if you invest in durable tools and take care of them.

Don't forget your water bill. Each time you run that sprinkler, you'll get a bill from the local water authority. If there's a natural water feature near your garden, such as a creek or pond, you might be able to pump water into your sprinkler system. In that case, you'll be spending money on equipment rather than the water bill.

Finally, remember that you'll need to eat while you're waiting to harvest your crops. That means trips to the supermarket.

Making It Work
As you can see, the ledger for your vegetable garden isn't as profitable as you'd hoped. There are many reasons to grow vegetables, from the satisfaction of serving home-grown food to controlling the pesticides and fertilizers used in the food you eat. Growing your own vegetables can reduce your food budget by a bit, and the return is higher after your first year if you have good soil and take steps to keep it healthy, such as rotating crops and cleaning out the garden at the end of each growing season.

There are also certain vegetables and fruits that have a very high yield relative to the work you put in. Some great choices include

  • Peas. One of the simplest crops to grow, peas will tolerate a variety of soil conditions. They're ready to harvest in around 60 days, and proper spacing will deliver a good amount of peas per plant. With early, middle and late-season varieties, you can keep peas growing throughout much of the year.
  • Tomatoes: Anyone who's ever had a garden has inevitably wound up with more tomatoes than they can possibly use. Some varieties can churn out a tremendous amount of fruit, but you'll need to keep a careful eye out for insects and make sure these thirsty plants get the water they crave. Tomatoes have a bad habit of ripening all at once and they don't keep well unless you can them or use them for frozen sauces.
  • Squash: Butternut and zucchini are prolific plants, but they do take up a good bit of space in a garden. Zucchini will grow to impressive sizes if you let them; this lets you get more food per plant, but zucchini afficionadoes complain that the taste deteriorates as the squash get bigger. 
  • Beans: Like peas, these plants will tolerate less than ideal growing conditions and reward you with a significant harvest. Bush green beans tend to be the most productive varities. You'll need to rotate this crop each year, as diseases can overwinter and ruin future bean crops.
  • Corn: One of the big advantages of corn is that you can plant a lot of it in a relatively small space. Harvested corn also stores well. Corn is popular with many animals and birds, so you'll need to take measures to keep these pests at bay, which can be expensive. Corn also takes a heavy toll on the soil in your garden, draining nutrients more quickly than most other crops. Rotation and seasonal soil amendment will be needed to keep corn plants productive.
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