Whether you’re planning to grow vegetable garden seeds or transplants, it’s important to choose varieties that are suitable for your zone and that will thrive in your growing conditions. Look for plants with disease resistance, a good harvest, early-harvest and a taste you’ll love.
Apr. 27—Grow your own vegetables or buy them — which is more economical? As the gardening season gets underway, and after a year of heart-stopping, inflationary prices at the grocery store, I set out to answer this simple question.
Exactly no one who has ever picked up a trowel will be surprised to learn the answer was not simple.
Clouding the math — there are more variables to gardening than there are thorns on a blackberry bush. To name just a very few, whether a gardener starts with seeds or seedlings, and how much he spends on tools, soil, compost, trellises, building raised beds … We’ll spare you the complete list.
Unanswerable questions muddy the waters further, such as if the garden will be plagued by pests, disease, drought and voracious groundhogs. Each, or rather fighting each, has a price tag.
Add to these, the skill of the gardener, whether she is the make-do, happy to jury-rig or the spare-no-expense sort. If money grows on trees in your garden, it’s possible to fork over $600 on a Tiffany set of six sterling silver plant tags, though you’re too late to buy Dior’s $8,700 garden kit.
“There are so many different factors in play,” said Vina Lindley, food systems & home horticulture professional with University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “The ways to garden … it’s like cooking. You could cook on any budget and you could garden on any budget.”
Does Lindley get lots of questions about the economics of vegetable gardening from the public?
“It’s a question we get from media more often than people gardening,” she answered.
Ouch. Still, I plowed ahead and asked area home gardeners, Lindley and other horticulture experts how to grow vegetables and fruit with an eye toward reducing the grocery bill. Here’s what they said:
SIZE AND DURATION
Start small. Grow less. Until you have some gardening experience under your tool belt, don’t over-invest in time or money. You’d be amazed at how much zucchini a single vine can yield. “It can be really defeating if it doesn’t go well,” said Pamela Hargest, a horticultural professional with UMaine Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. “Starting small and feeling like you are successful as opposed to going too big and being disappointed with the results would be my advice.”
Commit! Startup costs when you grow a vegetable garden are often high; think such items as soil, shovels, fences, hoses and more. Save by amortizing those costs over time. “I made the monetary commitment last year, buying all that dirt,” said Portland resident Mark Despres, a new vegetable gardener who from his first season last summer went all in (apparently unaware of the “start small” advice). He estimates he spent $600 on soil for his new raised beds.
“That was a hefty expense,” he said. “But I’m not going to have to do that again. That was the initial investment I knew I had to make: ‘OK, I’m doing this. I’m committing to this.’ “
On the asset side, the lumber to make the beds — repurposed pallets from his girlfriend’s father — was free.
GROW THIS, NOT THAT
Grow crops — like green beans, lettuce, chard and radishes — that can be direct seeded into the garden. Seedlings cost much more than seeds. “Roughly, a packet of tomato seeds is probably about $5.80 for 40 seeds with the potential for 40 plants,” Lindley said, “versus for $6, maybe you’d get a six-pack” of seedlings.
Still, in the nothing-is-ever-as-simple-as-it-seems category, bear in mind that Maine’s garden season is too short to direct seed tomatoes and expect a return in fruit, so you’d need to start the seeds inside, which would involve growing medium, grow lights and heat mats, which, if it isn’t obvious, would also involve expenditure.
Grow crops that cost a lot to buy at the store. Yes to fresh peas, no to potatoes.
Grow herbs and garlic. Garlic usually costs more per pound, sometimes considerably more, at the store. With herbs, you’ll waste far less, and the plants may produce all season. Some, like thyme, are perennials. Even better.
Grow perennials. “For our garden, the only thing we save money on are the perennials,” Portland Press Herald garden columnist Tom Atwell admitted ruefully. “Asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb — which we don’t eat much of, but it keeps coming back. And if we can keep the birds away from the blueberries, we’d save money on those. The peach tree produces well, but the raccoons get those.”
Grow tougher, more disease-resistant plants like lettuce, chives and mustard greens. One cost people may forget to factor in when vegetable gardening, Atwell said, is “the cost of failure.”
Grow reliably heavy producers, like hot peppers, cherry tomatoes and zucchini for the biggest bang for your buck, advised Suzanne Cooper, who heads the common share garden at the Casco Bay Community Garden on Portland’s Eastern Prom.
Don’t grow fruit, as a general rule, at least to start. “Fruit is like the 2.0 level of gardening,” Lindley said, requiring more management and, certainly for trees, more upfront costs. “But in the long run so worth it. You don’t get instant gratification. Plant a green bean and 30 days later, you’ve got some green beans.”
Grow vegetables that you and your family actually like to eat. This sounds like a no-brainer, but even for experienced gardeners, apparently it’s not.
“I think I need that advice,” said Lindley, who gardens at her home in Lincolnville. “Eggplants are a good example. We use maybe one eggplant a year, and yet I grow eggplant every year. I don’t know why. I think people plant stuff because they always have, or they think they will eat it, or they think they should eat it, or they don’t realize how much it will produce.”
THE POWER OF COMMUNITY
Join a community garden. Portland’s 11 community gardens are run by the nonprofit Cultivating Community. Gardeners pay $15 to $95 per season, on a sliding scale judged on need, for individual garden plots. The organization provides seeds and seedlings, donated by local farms and schools, to gardeners who cannot afford to buy them. Gardeners also get access to compost, wood chips, garden tools, water and expertise, which is no small matter considering all the things that can go wrong in a garden and diminish your return.
From an economic perspective, Suzanne Cooper thinks the common share garden like the one she manages on Portland’s East End may be the best deal. Rather than signing up for an individual plot or two, a group of gardeners plant and manage the space cooperatively, then divvy up the harvest. A roomy shared garden can accommodate a much greater variety of fruits and vegetables than an individual plot; common share members vote on what to plant at the beginning of the season.
But don’t count your savings yet. The bad news for would-be community gardeners in Portland: There’s a waiting list.
ASK AN EXPERT
We reached out to Bowdoin College economics professor Dan Stone, to get a professional’s take on this. Maybe he could give us a quickie cost-benefit analysis.
“My guess is that it’s unlikely that one could save much money growing your own vegetables, especially in your first year doing it, given that the pros are likely to be so much more efficient and knowledgeable,” he emailed.
Got it. But Stone then went on to note that since the biggest cost in gardening is the gardener’s time, you need to look at how that time might otherwise be spent.
“If it’s scrolling or posting to social media or something else you don’t benefit from or even want to cut down on, then it makes much more sense to give it a shot. If it’s other DIY work like handyman stuff that you’d now have to pay someone else to do, or if you’re cutting down on income-generating work, then switching to gardening is least likely to save you money.
“But economics is ultimately about maximizing well-being so the more fun you expect to have gardening, the more worthwhile it is, independent of financial costs and benefits,” he wrote.
He finished up with a homework assignment: Estimate what you spend at the grocery store or farmers market and what you expect to save by gardening.
POINT OF COMPARISON
Right. Where do you shop?
Luke Fuller, who gardens with his wife and 6-year-old daughter at LocalRootz Homestead in Gray, describes the family as foodies, “so we don’t buy the 99-cent jar of pickles. If we buy pickles, it’s the $10.99 jar, so if you make your own jar of pickles, it’s much less.”
The Fuller family does make pickles, also tomato sauce. “I measure it more on big picture, not how much does this cost, but how much money do we put into this project and what did we get out of it at the end of the year?” Fuller said. “If I look into the cellar and see 30 jars of tomato sauce, well that’s $300 right there.”
The Fuller garden produces asparagus, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant (too much of that, but there is always baba ganoush), radishes, Asian greens, onions and more. The family also grows mushrooms, taps trees for syrup, and is just getting into beekeeping.
Further north, in Lincolnville, Lindley grows carrots for her kids, also garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and more. So does she save money?
“Are we talking about conventional grocery store prices? Are we talking about Costco prices? Or are we talking farmers market prices?” Lindley countered. “I think my garden would be comparable to farmers market prices. I think I’d have a harder time competing — especially if I counted the hours I am spending — it’d be tricky to come close to grocery store prices, much less somewhere like Costco.
“To me,” she concluded, “it’s still worthwhile.”
THE WRONG QUESTION
Questions about the economic value of vegetable gardening often strike gardeners as midway between uproarious and irrelevant. If home gardeners kept a budget of what they spend, “they’d stop gardening,” joked Nancy Atwell, an accomplished Cape Elizabeth gardener of more than five decades who is married to Press Herald garden columnist Tom Atwell.
Despres said other gardeners he meets online, where he goes for advice, often joke about the price of their hobby. ” ‘I can buy that cucumber for 50 cents at the store,” he paraphrased them, “but it costs me $5 to grow it.’ “
But saving money isn’t the point. They offer a litany of other reasons to plant a radish, or possibly a turnip or a tomato. Gardening can be therapeutic. It brings joy. It’s good exercise and, if you can persuade kids and spouses to weed or water, it’s family time. The vegetables taste better, fresher than those you buy at the store, and you can grow some weird and wonderful varieties — chocolate tomatoes, pointy (Spitz) cabbages, romanesco broccoli, cranberry beans …
A garden makes you self-sufficient, and some gardeners like to know they will be able to feed themselves and their families, should, god forbid, the world ever come to that.
Speaking of which, using every part of what you harvest will, of course, maximize your investment. Eat radish and beet greens, not merely the business end of the plants. Make pesto from carrot tops, stock from the woody asparagus ends. Can, pickle and freeze — though keep in mind you’ll have to shell out at the start for a canning pot, a jar rack, a funnel, etc. and if you really want to drill down, factor in the cost of running your stove, too.
“If you know how to use all the parts of plant, you could be pretty wealthy,” Cooper laughed, then described herself as a meat-and-potatoes eater, who doesn’t enjoy cast-off vegetable parts.
“My approach? I garden because I love to garden,” Lindley said. “If you don’t enjoy gardening, it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of energy. If you don’t love it, it’s probably not going to save you tons of money.”
Fuller says his reasons for gardening are 20 percent financial and 80 percent about connecting with the natural world.
“When you talk about financial?” Fuller said. “There is monetary and there is what is outside of that. If it’s making you a happy person, that’s more fulfilling than $100 in the bank account.”
Nancy Atwell would understand that. She and her husband like to grow peas, staggering plantings — and harvests — throughout Maine’s short growing season.
“Frozen peas are perfectly acceptable,” she said. “But being able to sit on the porch with our grandchildren and shell peas, and seeing our grandchildren eat raw peas out of the pod is, as they say on the commercial, priceless.”