Does gardening save money?
Today is March 19. I just spent about $300 on gardening supplies and I’m not done yet. I spent $67 on seeds, bought some new soaker hoses (anyone know a really great brand because I feel like mine are only lasting one season lately and not even working very well to begin with) and new Agribon fabric for my low garden tunnels (it’s also pretty fragile) and some T-posts and welded fence wire for new pole bean trellises.
We still need a bunch of PVC pipe to build a new Mittleider-style watering system for our main garden area. I expect it to cost another $300. We mainly use composted manure from our own cows and chickens and we have a well so instead of paying for water we just pay the electricity to pump the water.
We moved here in 2012 and spent a substantial sum on infrastructure (a milk barn, fencing, irrigation, planting our food forest structure, etc…) that year so our costs have been pretty minimal since then. This year is higher than most years and it’s during these higher-cost years that I always ask myself whether gardening will actually save us any money.
Every single family will have different costs when it comes to gardening.
What is your soil like? Do you need to purchase soil amendments or do you have animals?
Do you have access to irrigation water or live in a climate with sufficient precipitation?
How much are you trying to grow?
Do you need costly infrastructure like fencing?
I can only tell you about my situation and then let you decide whether gardening will be a financial benefit for YOUR particular situation. Let’s get really specific in order for you to have all the details so you can make the very best informed decision.
I actually keep track of what we spend on groceries (so weird, I know!) each year in my financial spreadsheets, because I’m a total nerd who likes to track stuff. I also keep track of what we grow (approximately), so it’s pretty easy to figure out how much money our garden saves us on our grocery bills.
Every year is a little different, but all follow a general trend.
Keep in mind that I grow an enormous garden because I have plenty of cold storage room for root crops (potatoes, carrots, onions, beets), cabbages, apples and winter squash. We feed pumpkins and winter squash to our cows as natural de-wormers and extra vitamins all winter (to supplement their hay ration), so we literally grow and store hundreds.
I also can hundreds of jars of salsa, tomatoes, green beans, peaches and jam, and we freeze corn and peas if we have extras. So I factor in the costs of not having to buy those.
You have to factor labor costs and input costs (like soil amendments, mulch and infrastructure) into your total costs, too. My kids help me in our gardens so I never actually pay any labor costs, but I do keep track of them. We put in an hour here and there during March to start seeds, an entire Saturday in May to plant the garden and propagate shrubs, then about two hours a week in the garden from June through September.
We use black plastic under our tomatoes and melons, and deep mulch under our other crops so we don’t have to spend much time weeding. Canning takes close to an entire week in October, and harvesting takes a few minutes a week all through August-November.
Honestly, though, running outside to grab sun-ripened tomatoes, onions and peppers, then throwing them all in the food processor for a batch of fresh pico de gallo takes less time than running to the market and the taste and nutrition are both infinitely superior.
Our farm/orchard is not yet producing anything commercially, because our trees are too young. So we aren’t selling produce and making money — just so you know. This is all just what my family grows and uses for ourselves.
Let’s take a quick minute to talk about my families grocery costs. As a very frugal person, I don’t spend all that much on groceries. I rarely buy packaged, processed foods (higher cost, lower nutrition), we drink water instead of beverages and we rarely eat out.
For years I spent around $300 per month on groceries (not including hygiene or cleaning products) for our family of ten. Lately, due to inflation (three “stimulus” packages printed in the last year alone) I spend double what I used to spend on less food than I used to buy.
What I mean by “buying less food than I used to” is that my three oldest are in college and I’m also cooking from scratch more than ever. I’d gotten out of the habit of making homemade bread, yogurt, cheese and such and now I’m returning to those habits to compensate for the increases in food and gasoline prices. Still, our grocery bills are higher than ever.
All of those factors actually mean that my garden will further increase savings and be even more impactful on our finances this year. I’m betting I’ll save even more money save money gardening this year than last year.
Now for the numbers. You can’t argue with the numbers.
Our Garden Savings by Year
Year Cost Savings
2013 $18 $1700
2014 $22 $1500
2015 $19 $2930
2016 $58 $2580
2017 $16 $2700
2018 $25 $1550
2019 No garden because we ripped out and re-installed a new irrigation system, which took us all spring.
2020 $57 $3012
Those costs are just rough (but very conservative) estimates. I usually plant from seed or start my own seeds indoors (like tomatoes and peppers) because our growing season is short (zone five — high altitude). So the cost is just for seeds (and for seedlings the year I didn’t start any).
The savings include what we ate during the summer (we eat almost exclusively from our garden July through November) and what we stored (root crops and winter squashes for us and the cows) and canned (usually at least a year’s supply of veggies and fruits).
As we harvest our produce and can or store it, I keep a rough spreadsheet tally of what we’ve harvested and the approximate cost at the time, along with notes to myself. That’s how I came up with those totals.
(My spreadsheet notes helps me to remember which seed varieties and cultivars produced well or not at all, which were most susceptible to wind or insects and things like that. No matter how much I think I’ll remember from year to year, I won’t.)
Of course savings will be lower with a smaller family and if you’re not feeding cows, lol! I didn’t grow any winter squash in 2019, 2013 or 2014 because we were redoing our irrigation system and I wasn’t up to it irrigating them all by hand, so that number is probably more realistic for most families.
I also don’t typically purchase organic produce when I buy it at the market, but I only grow organic produce, so we do eat it from our garden and fruit trees. Our homegrown food is much higher quality and yummier.
Most Cost Effective Vegetables to Grow
Growing only the most cost effective crops can really help you to save money while gardening. Obviously, expensive produce like avocados are more cost effective to grown than potatoes. But you also need to factor in the difficulty of growing different crops and the relative success.
For example, where I live the soil is very alkaline and so is the water. I’ve tried repeatedly to grow blueberries, adding large quantities of peat moss and manure and coffee grounds, and even sprinkling sulfur tablets on my soil in order to be able to save dying blueberry shrubs.
I’d hear of another way to grow blueberries, only to lost yet more blueberry shrubs. Blueberries would be a very cost effective crop to grow, just because they’re so expensive at the market, if only I could grow them.
In my case, all of my effort and expense went completely to waste. I still use blueberries in my homemade yogurt, but I now just happily purchase frozen bags of them in bulk and use them sparingly. We can grow lots of different berries though, all of which I consider very cost effective.
Basically, the higher the cost of an item at the market, the more cost effective it will be for you to grow it, except for when a particular item is difficult to grow or if it would require special care or amendments, or if it is particularly susceptible to insects or disease.
Average Gardening Return on Investment
Nothing is sweeter and juicier than tree-ripened peaches (you can’t help but dribble juice down your chin with every bite), or crisper and sweeter than vine-ripened melons and cantaloupe. Tomatoes ripened on the vine taste just like sunshine feels. Store produce can’t compare.
Improved taste is one of the very biggest ROI of a garden, but you also can’t beat the superior nutrition. Tree and vine-ripened fruits and vegetables taste superior because they are actually superior.
Growers have to pick and ship vegetables before they are ripe in order to avoid damage in transit. Home growers don’t. Antioxidants and vitamins are up to one hundred percent higher in sun ripened produce.
Soil plays a huge role in how nutritious produce is, too. Commercial growers grow in such vast quantities they have no choice but to use chemical fertilizers that actually damage soil, requiring more and more fertilizers and insecticides in an ever increasing cycle of soil decline.
Nutrient-rich, microbe-rich soil improves the nutritional value in your fruits and veggies. Gardens use up lots of soil nutrients. When soil is depleted, so are the crops that are grown on them.
Another factor in nutrition is the time it takes for produce to get from the field to your table. Deterioration starts as soon as crops are harvested, and sometimes the unripe produce is warehoused or in transit for weeks before it is available for purchase at the market. Homegrown produce is far more nutritious than commercially grown produce.
Don’t forget to factor in the fresh air and sunshine, plus the exercise that are a byproduct of gardening. During the winter, I purchase expensive bottles of vitamin A-D-K supplements for my family to keep us healthy. But during the summer we get brown and strong.
And then there’s the personal growth and relationship building that takes place when we work together as a family in the garden. My kids all laugh as my youngest pulls up raw carrots and devours them, dirt and all. They share their struggles and strengths with one another (and with me!) as we work side by side, creating abundance together.
Honestly, great familial relationships and good health are both priceless. The produce is an extra bonus. For around 40 hours of work over the summer, the financial savings are a pretty great ROI, but the additional benefits turn that garden of your into one of the very best investments you will ever make!
How to Save Money When Gardening
I’ve written a more detailed article on how to save money when gardening, linked below. I just wanted to point out one thing here.
-> Ten Ways to Save Money on Your Garden <-
The one thing I want you to take away from this article is that gardening only saves you money if you use what you grow. That seems like a no-brainer, huh? But I see it happen in my community every year.
People plant WAY too much zucchini for their family and want to give their excess zucchini to neighbors, but the neighbors also planted too much zucchini and sacks of zucchini end up like an unwanted disease passed around the neighborhood.
Animal owners benefit from excesses like that because friends inevitably bring it over to us, knowing that our animals will eat it even if nobody else wants it (no complaints here). But that does reduce savings for the growers.
So just make sure that you do your homework. Figure out how much lettuce your family will actually need (usually less than you think because lettuce and chard will keep re-growing if you only harvest the outer leaves of your heads) and which crops you can store over the winter and which crops you’ll need to harvest all at once and preserve somehow and whether you have the means to do that.
For example, apples usually store well over the winter in a cool, dark space, so you can grow an entire winter’s worth and harvest them all at once. Peaches are another story. Different varieties ripen at different times, so you can get a couple of trees to stagger their harvest a bit, but when a tree ripens, all of the peaches on that tree ripen within a small window.
You must bottle or freeze dry or dehydrate or somehow take care of all of those peaches before they go bad, or else you’ve reduced your profitability. I’m not saying don’t grow peaches, I’m just saying make sure you’re prepared to either eat or preserve all that you grow. It’s the best way to make sure you save money when gardening! 🙂
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