Backyard Gardening: Will I Save Money by Growing My Own Food?

I have a house now, which means that I have a yard, which means that I can finally grow plants in the ground instead of only in containers. In my excitement, I went a little crazy with planting things. I planted 57 herbs, fruits, and vegetables. I started a few from seed, but I purchased most as seedlings because I got a late start on my garden this year.

I planted most things on April 1. Here is what my garden looked like then (click on any image for a larger view):

There isn't a ton of space in my backyard that gets good sunlight, so my initial garden plot was only about 8 feet by 10 feet. I planted everything with the minimum recommended spacing (you'll see how this panned out in a minute). I chose to plant the things I like to eat, so my garden includes zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, fennel, and eggplant, to name a few things I planted. After two weeks, things had started growing a little, but overall didn't look much different:

In the front are the zucchini, behind that tomatoes, behind that lettuce, then peppers, then more zucchini.

By May 3, you can really tell that things are growing:

As you can see, I expanded my garden to the right to make room for more tomatoes, canteloupe, and sweet corn (not pictured) and also planted some things in pots so I would have enough room to grow everything. Also, the leaf lettuce I planted was big enough to harvest. It's leaf lettuce, so you just cut what you eat rather than pulling the whole head out of the ground and that's it. By the time I eat one bunch, it's already grown back! The bag of lettuce I buy at the grocery store, on the other hand, does not magically refill itself over the course of a week.

By May 25, almost all of my plants had set fruit and several zucchini and squash were large enough to harvest.

We now affectionately refer to my garden as "the jungle." It does seem that I have planted things a bit too close together--it's hard to reach in and harvest some of the squash, and hard to walk around and look at things to check for pests, diseases, things that are ready for harvest, and over- and underwatering. Since I've never done this before, I didn't have any idea how large a zucchini plant could get (or how prolific it could be) or that my tomato plants wouldn't really want to stay in their cages and would start growing into other plants. Next year I will probably arrange things differently and space them out more. I'm also considering planting some things in the front yard, if I can find an appropriate space to do it.

Not counting the pots, tools, potting soil, and seeds I acquired in previous years or that were given to me, I have spent $147 on my garden this year. The cost of things purchased in the past and free stuff would add another $40 to $50. Another cost that I can't really measure accurately is the cost to water my garden. If I had to guess, I would guess that I spend about $5-$10 a month on irrigation for my garden based on the increase in my water bill since winter.

Labor is also an important consideration in the cost-benefit analysis of growing your own food. I haven't been counting the number of hours I spend in the garden--that just wouldn't be fun. I already track billable hours for the work I do, so the last thing I want to do is track the hours I spend on free time activities.

But it's safe to say that I spend around an hour a day on gardening activities, which means that since April 1, I've put 60 hours into my garden. But for me, gardening is fun, and it's not like I would otherwise be spending those 60 hours working--more likely, I'd be spending them watching TV. In fact, my TV watching has declined noticeably since I started my garden. Because of my garden, I'm spending more time enjoying the fresh air outside and less time sitting on my butt.

So despite my efforts to keep costs low, I doubt I will come out ahead on my garden in terms of costs. If I'm lucky, I'll harvest enough produce to break even. I kind of suspected this based on past experience, but hoped that growing things in the ground would be more productive than growing things in pots (which, so far, has been true). But more importantly (at least until I figure out how to do this less expensively), I've learned how a lot of things grow (something I prevoiusly knew nothing about); I've experienced countless moments of joy when I spotted that first tomato, first pepper, first cucumber, and first zucchini in the garden; the produce I'm eating is fresher than what I could get at the store; I don't have to drive anywhere to get it; and I'm probably eating more produce than I would be otherwise.

I'm keeping track of what I harvest using a postal scale and a spreadsheet. In May, I harvested 13 pounds(!) of squash and 26 ounces of lettuce. Given that lettuce costs $3 a pound and zucchini costs $1 a pound at the places I normally shop, I've harvested $18 worth of produce so far. Things are just starting, though. Once the tomatoes start turning red, given that they cost $3 to $4 a pound at the store (and those tomatoes don't even taste good!), I will really start recouping my costs.

If you have experience growing your own produce, I'd love to hear about it. What did you grow? Did gardening save you any money?

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

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