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Does growing your own food really save money?

Featured Image
A person in a garden holding a basket full of colorful vegetables.

There’s nothing like sitting down to a meal that you’ve grown yourself: A big bowl of salad featuring home-grown lettuce, spinach, spring onions and herbs. Corn on the cob that was picked that very day. Sliced tomatoes, still warm from the sun, with snips of fresh basil. A simple main course with squash or eggplant hot off the grill. A bowl of fresh strawberries dusted with powdered sugar for dessert.

Delicious? Definitely. Cost effective? It depends.

Like any hobby, gardening has its own long list of “must have” items that can seduce even the most tight-fisted farmer wanna-be. Tools, soil, fertilizer, fencing and various methods of pest and weed control, to name just a few.

A book published about 10 years ago challenged the conventional wisdom that gardening is a good way to save money. The title? The $64 Tomato by William Alexander.

I have been a casual vegetable gardener for about 20 years. I have a few raised beds at home where I grow herbs and early and late-season crops like lettuce, arugula or kale. Before full summer hits, I usually replace the Spring plants with tomato plants or squash.

I don’t spend a lot of green on my garden. And truthfully, I’m often envious when I see the gardens of friends that are larger, more productive and more varied. I know they’ve put in more time, more effort and more money into the project, and I’m sure they’ve been rewarded for it.

Up-front costs

It’s important to recognize that a lot of the cost of gardening is up-front. If you buy or construct a raised bed, purchase bagged soil to fill it, buy stakes or cages to support tomato plants, etc., you’re assuming a lot of initial cost. Your investment will only start to pay off if you stick with it for a few years.

Growing from seed vs. buying plants

Growing your plants from seed is another way to save vs. buying young plants from a garden center. Growing from seed is cheaper, of course, but it requires advance planning. And if you only want a couple of tomato plants, it probably doesn’t make sense to start 100 seedlings inside the house in February under a grow light. If you have friends who are serious gardeners, often they will be glad to give you a few excess plants. Most other summer crops, like squash or melons, are fine to start from seed right in the garden.

Try fruit

Of all the crops I’ve tried to grow, I’ve actually had the most success growing fruit. I’ve got a couple of blueberry bushes out back that are remarkably productive. And when you consider the cost of blueberries in the store, you appreciate even more that berries are a luxury item you can enjoy nearly free-of-charge. Raspberries and cultivated (thornless) blackberries are also fun to grow, though they spread and can easily take over whatever section of your garden you designate for them.

Keep in mind that most berry plants have a short season. Be prepared to enjoy the fruit when it comes in, and know it will only last for a few weeks.

Feedback: Have you tried growing your own food? What crops have proven most productive for you?