As we’ve seen in another article here on ProMoneySavings, it is indeed possible to make money from your garden. Many ways of doing this, unfortunately, require you to make a major commitment, either spending a lot of time sweating in the sun or essentially giving up your garden completely.
This inspired us to wonder if it isn’t possible to save money on groceries by growing some of your own vegetables, as about a third of American households do already. The answer would seem to be “yes”, but there’s a little more to this issue. In particular, the amount of time and effort you need to spend may end up being significant. For some people, getting their fingers in the soil is a joy and a source of relaxation. For others, it’s a chore they can just as well do without, or something that reduces the amount of time they can spend on some other money-making side hustle.
For most of us, the decision on whether to grow our own vegetables in the hope of reducing our grocery bills will probably come down to a combination of two factors: how much work we’re willing to put in as well as what kind of cash we can save. This article is geared to these people: if you’re on the fence about digging up part of your lawn in favor of a vegetable garden, we hope to answer some of the questions on your mind.
Table of Contents
- 1 Economies of Scale and Organic Farming at Home
- 2 Factors Affecting How Much It Costs to Grow Your Own Vegetables
- 3 Where Do You Live?
- 4 Seeds or Seedlings? Raised Beds? Irrigation?
- 5 How Valuable Is Your Time (Including Free Time)?
- 6 Growing Your Own Vegetables to Save Money: Which Varieties Are Best?
- 7 Leafy Greens: A Good Place to Start
- 8 Warm-Season Winners: All You Can Eat
- 9 Fresh Herbs: A Definite Yes
- 10 Beans and Other Legumes: Nice to Have But Cheaper at the Market
- 11 The Squash Family: Sure, If You Like Them
- 12 Root Vegetables: Nah (Unless You Have Plenty of Room)
- 13 Fruit Trees: Great to Have After a Couple of Years
- 14 Heirloom Vegetables
- 15 Preserving the Excess
- 16 Am I Allowed to Sell My Home-Grown Vegetables?
- 17 My Own Experience with Growing Vegetables in Order to Save Money
Economies of Scale and Organic Farming at Home
Farming is hard; anyone who thinks otherwise has no experience on the subject. Simply sitting on a tractor and staring into the distance while chewing a stalk of hay does not make the wheat grow. Any successful independent farmer needs to be competent in a number of areas, works very long hours, and can rarely take any kind of vacation.
These kinds of self-sufficient farmers are getting rarer, though: industrial farms owned by corporations are becoming the norm. Their focus is exclusively on making money: production per acre is all that matters as long as it yields a product that can be sold – even if it’s of inferior quality. Smaller farms that use more sustainable methods are being crowded out of the market.
This is one way in which growing your own vegetables to save money stands out: organic produce sells at a premium ($4 vs $2.20 per pound for spinach, to give one example). Here’s the thing, though: growing vegetables without the use of artificial fertilizer and pesticides isn’t hard, it’s just difficult to do so at a profit. If you’re willing to put in perhaps 25% more work on your vegetable garden, you’ll get a significantly better-tasting and more nutritious crop that you’ll love to use in your kitchen. When figuring out whether you can save money by growing your own vegetables, therefore, you should use the pricier organic stuff as your point of comparison.
Factors Affecting How Much It Costs to Grow Your Own Vegetables
If planned or executed poorly, a vegetable garden can easily end up costing you money instead of saving it, not to mention make you pull out your hair in frustration. Just ask William Alexander, or better yet, read his book The $64 Tomato.
You are certainly going to have some disappointments along the way, so learn the basics of vegetable gardening before you start. Don’t plow up your whole lawn in the first week; start small and see how it goes. Once you have a handle on what you’re doing, you can do things right next year.
Where Do You Live?
In very dry regions, it makes ecological sense to truck in fresh produce from afar rather than putting additional strain on a limited water supply. Up north, your growing season will be short, while gardens in milder regions can yield two or three crops a year.
Location also affects how large gardens tend to be – cheaper land means larger lots. In general, renting a small plot of urban land to grow vegetables is not going to turn a profit, but you can look into space-saving options like vertical gardens. Other things to consider include what fresh produce costs in your local supermarket and the possibility of hosepipe bans. The last thing you need is for months of work to go up in dust because of a temporary water shortage.
Seeds or Seedlings? Raised Beds? Irrigation?
Calculating how much money you can save by growing your own vegetables means comparing your input costs (what you spend) with what you get out of the soil. Establishing a productive garden may mean putting up shade netting, installing an automatic irrigation system, getting compost trucked in, constructing special beds if your soil doesn’t drain well, and several other one-time expenses. If your main goal is to economize, you may want to hold off on these until you’re sure that gardening really is for you.
You’ll also need to decide whether to buy seedlings or plugs for a few dollars each (which definitely ends up eating into the money you’d otherwise save) or buy seeds for a fraction of the cost. Ready-to-plant seedlings give you the opportunity to get your feet wet with gardening by removing some of the complexity of the planting process; they also produce a usable crop a few weeks earlier. If your goal is to save money by growing your own vegetables, plan on switching to using seeds eventually; it’s really not that hard.
With perennials (i.e. plants that are going to stick around for a few years), it’s a good idea to buy an established plant. This way, your work of preparing the planting site is much less likely to go to waste and the investment of $10 to $30 becomes negligible over its lifetime.
How Valuable Is Your Time (Including Free Time)?
It’s up to you whether you want to see tending your garden as recreation (and good exercise) or unpaid labor. If you plan to put a very large plot of land to work, growing your own vegetables will involve at least a little sweat and drudgery. Figuring out how much money you can save does therefore mean taking into account how much you could earn in that time otherwise.
If you’re lucky enough to work from home, you can get plenty of work done without it seeming like a grind. In my case, for instance, I can easily spend my work breaks weeding instead of hanging around the office coffee machine. If you typically get home after dark, on the other hand, your weekends are precious to you. There may be something you’d enjoy doing more than manual labor, making saving on groceries a secondary priority.
Growing Your Own Vegetables to Save Money: Which Varieties Are Best?
Deciding on which veggies to grow depends on many factors. If no one in your family likes Brussels sprouts, don’t plant them (though you may just have been preparing them the wrong way). Some cultivars probably do well where you live while others struggle; it’s highly recommended that you consult a knowledgeable neighbor or your local agricultural extension office if you have doubts. It’s also worth taking a stroll around the grocery store. If your goal is to save money, it makes little sense to cultivate a staple that’s already plentiful and cheap. Use that space and effort for something more interesting instead.
Leafy Greens: A Good Place to Start
Cabbage, spinach, lettuce, kale, broccoli, and several other favorites are easy to grow and produce a crop more quickly than most vegetables. Many of them can tolerate some shade, making them a good filler for an otherwise neglected corner of your garden. In fact, since they tend to be cool-season vegetables, you can plant them in early spring or fall on a patch of ground that’s already yielded a crop, or one you plan to re-plant later.
Note that these numbers will vary depending on various factors.
Warm-Season Winners: All You Can Eat
Tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers are all gifts that keep on giving. Planted once the danger of frost has passed, each plant can produce multiple harvests of food that can find a place at any table.
Depending on the variety you choose, all of these can be grown vertically on a trellis. As they enjoy having plenty of sun, the north side of your garden is a good place for them so they don’t leave other plants in the shade.
Fresh Herbs: A Definite Yes
Using fresh herbs instead of dried is a sure-fire way to take a dish from edible to ecstatic. They’re also crazy expensive at the store yet ridiculously easy to grow yourself. Even if you live in an apartment, you can use a window box or planters on your balcony to house thyme, basil, oregano, and many other delicacies.
Beans and Other Legumes: Nice to Have But Cheaper at the Market
If you’ve never eaten fresh beans, either raw in a salad or cooked only briefly, you’re missing out on a real treat. You’ll need plenty of plants to produce any significant quantity, though, and shelling them by hand is a pain. Meanwhile, they cost only about $1.80/pound (dried) at the supermarket. This obviously doesn’t apply to mange tout (sugar snap peas) and green beans; both of these can easily find a place in your garden.
Legume plants come in two basic types: climbing and shrubs. The former can easily be used to cover an unsightly wall with the help of a trellis, making use of space that would otherwise be wasted. If this is an option, you can always plant a couple of bean vines and use whatever they give you. If you’re a vegetarian or like to eat a lot of plant protein for other reasons, however, store-bought is the way to go.
The Squash Family: Sure, If You Like Them
Non-vining pumpkins and squashes take up a lot of space; their close cousin zucchini, on the other hand, can grow upwards. They’re very sensitive to cold weather and can only be planted fairly late in the season, but require little care aside from watering afterward.
In case you didn’t know, you can also eat their blossoms, either deep-fried or raw in a salad for a special touch. These plants love soil with plenty of organic matter. If you’re starting a garden from bare dirt, you’ll need to pay attention to preparing the soil for them and probably spend some money on compost. Much of the above applies to related fruits like honeydews and watermelons, too.
Root Vegetables: Nah (Unless You Have Plenty of Room)
Radishes, sweet and normal potatoes (surprisingly, these aren’t related), onions, carrots, turnips: these vegetables don’t have to be coddled much and produce respectable yields. On the other hand, most of them need an entire season to mature and cost next to nothing at the store. You also don’t get the satisfaction of seeing their edible parts grow above ground, counting the days until they’re ready for harvest.
In addition, unlike stuff like lettuce and strawberries, most root veggies aren’t noticeably tastier when 100% fresh. All in all, you’re better off using your garden beds for something more expensive and enjoyable.
Fruit Trees: Great to Have After a Couple of Years
Having even a small orchard works best if you’re willing to learn about canning: all your fruit will get ripe simultaneously and be at their best for only about a week. That’s actually the major part of the work, though: aside from pruning, mature fruit trees don’t expect much of you. Annual fruits like strawberries, however, will keep you busy with pest control. Plant them if you like, but be prepared for some frustration.
If you’re something of a foodie, you can probably think of three or four different varieties of potato. Would it surprise you to learn that there are actually about 4,000 of them?
Similarly, you can find purple carrots, basil that tastes like licorice, tomatoes shaped like pumpkins, white sweet peppers…the list goes on. These plants can only be grown from seeds, which you may have some trouble finding. The amount of vegetables you’ll be able to harvest simply doesn’t compare to modern, well-known cultivars, but growing them is worth it just to see the expression on your dinner guests’ faces.
Preserving the Excess
Tilling a productive garden is almost certain to improve your family’s diet; at times, you’ll find that you have entirely too much of some fruit or vegetable. This brings us to a skill and hobby closely tied to gardening: conserving your crop.
Before the development of modern supply chains, people were limited to whatever vegetables were either in season or tucked away in their root cellar. Technology has given us a few more options when it comes to storing some of our vegetables for the winter month, but this will generally mean spending extra money. You’ll have to buy:
If you decide that this additional investment isn’t worth it, your local soup kitchen or food bank will be delighted to take any excess vegetables off your hands.
Am I Allowed to Sell My Home-Grown Vegetables?
There’s a myth floating around the internet about some places in the United States making it illegal to grow your own produce; this is completely false. What is true is that some municipalities, states, and homeowner’s associations have wonky notions about aesthetics and property values. You may, for instance, not be allowed to convert your front lawn into a vegetable garden or put up a greenhouse taller than a certain height – check with your local authorities – but growing and eating your own vegetables is entirely legal throughout the United States.
Selling them to others can get a little more complicated. In general, home-grown produce is indeed healthier, not to mention fresher, than that you can get in the store. However, there are potential health risks (like using uncomposted manure as fertilizer) that the government has a responsibility to protect the public against.
Consequently, and also to ensure that all applicable taxes are paid, selling vegetables without a permit of some kind is prohibited in certain states. The authorities have some discretion in how they choose to enforce these regulations, though. If you trade a couple of apples to a neighbor in exchange for free yard work, nobody should have a problem. If, however, you advertise in the newspaper as Big Bernie’s Big Beets and sell them by the bushel, you may be asked to stop or have to pay a fine.
My Own Experience with Growing Vegetables in Order to Save Money
Is eating your garden more economical than going to the store? This question is of some personal importance to me: after a quick tour of my own little garden, only two plants there don’t either yield something edible or soon will. These are a geranium bush I can’t dig up because it was a gift from a friend and a palm tree I bought mainly just to fill a cool earthenware container I found on sale.
You should also know that I’m pretty lucky in terms of climate, with sun year-round and no frost. I never buy herbs and rarely need extra stuff for salad. My fruit trees are still getting to where they need to be, though I regularly give away handfuls of blackberries. I do not have a lot of space to work with, though, so I buy in pretty much all of my staple veggies: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and so on. Of course, these are also some of the cheapest items in the supermarket produce aisle – the amount I would save by planting them is negligible.
I spend about 4 hours a week gardening; once everything is the way I want it and I’ve installed an irrigation system, it will probably drop to half that. So, all things considered, I am indeed saving money – but not so much that I’d bother if I didn’t enjoy gardening. I do find a sense of joy and peace in watching things grow and bringing in dinner through the back door instead of the front. If this isn’t true for you, you may as well stick to a lawn ringed with decorative plants.
That’s my story, anyway. There’s plenty else to say on the subject, though, so feel free to leave your own opinion in the comments.