With food prices rising more and more people are starting vegetable gardens. Our local Agway ran out of certain types of seed very early in the season and I noticed that there were few leftover packets of seeds this year at the larger retail outlets. So how many of these people are going to be disappointed when they will quite possibly find that raising vegetables is not as cost effective as it initially seems?
Serious gardeners know that you do not simply throw the seeds in and in a few months pick bushels of tomatoes. Nor do the beans pick themselves, hop into jars and stand at attention on your basement shelves. Gardening is a very labor intensive activity. If your time is limited or you feel that “time is money” you are not going to find that raising your own vegetable is worthwhile. If you enjoy the weeding and cultivating and look on it as healthful exercise, go for it. Otherwise you might find it less frustrating to work some overtime and buy your vegetable.
Secondly, take into consideration all costs not just the price of seeds and plants. One gardener prices it out this way:
“ Quick calculation for my 25’x60′ garden:
60 tomato plants 5 doz. x $5 = $25
24 pepper plants 2 doz. x $5 = $10
Lime/Fertilizer 10 lbs x $0.50=$5
Fungicide/Insecticide 2 lbs x $8 =$ 16
Tilling paid or amortized =$40
He figures that he gets 200 pounds of tomatoes and 40 pounds of peppers, and not including other crops, this works out to 40 cents a pound. One of the reasons that this garden is cost effective is the choice of crops. It pays to plant things that are expensive in the stores.
A cost analysis done by certified public accountant and author of “Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills”, Sally Herigstad, suggests that certain crops save more money than others. While I can’t say that I agree with all of them her findings are interesting. Remember too that they may not be applicable to all parts of the country.
Her first suggestion is to plant fruit trees. For an initial investment of approximately $20 you will get hundreds of pounds of fruit over the years. This works if you have the room for the trees. If you are dealing with a small to medium sized yard those fruit trees may very well shade out any efforts to grow a food garden. If you want fruit that is of good enough quality to eat out of hand you will have to spray. This is an added cost and labor that the average gardener may not wish to assume. If you skip the spraying your fruit may be acceptable for cooking but won’t be very pretty to look at.
In our area apples and pears are probably the only trees that are truly hardy. Even then a late frost can destroy the blossoms so that there will be no fruit that year. Heavy rains, while the blossoms are on the trees, can prevent pollination and again there will be little fruit. I’m going to give this one a qualified positive.
Lettuce makes Ms. Herigstad list. With our cool springs lettuce is indeed a worthwhile crop providing you stick to leaf type lettuces. You will be picking quickly and if you thin as you pick lettuces such as Buttercrunch will form nice little loose heads. You can also simply cut the leaves off at ground level and the plants will produce a second set of leaves. With bags of mixed spring lettuces going for $3.59 a bag or more you will save quite a bit before the warmer weather sets in and makes lettuce impossible to grow.
Herbs………ok if you use them. Fresh herbs are wonderful and prohibitively expensive. You can certainly dry or even freeze your herbs for winter use. With small jars of oregano and basil selling for over $3.00 herbs are well worth garden space. Remember that many of them such as sage, thyme and oregano are perennials, so buying the plants is a one time investment.
Zucchini, cucumbers, yellow squash and winter squashes are the kings of the garden. When they grow well they grow in such super abundance that they almost become a nuisance. You will get pounds and pounds of fruit for a couple of dollars worth of seed. All of the vine crops can be preserved by canning, freezing or pickling so their bounty will carry you into the winter months.
Ms. Herigstad also recommends bell peppers. I agree with this one if you can actually grow them. Many people in the DuBois area have trouble growing peppers because of our short growing season and typically cool night. Even if you can get them to fruit there is a limit to the number of peppers one plant will produce. You are not going to get more than a half a dozen peppers from each plant. Peppers retail for over $3 a pound so you must get a pound of peppers per plant to break even if you buy one of the larger plants sold in 4 inch pots. If you buy six packs or raise the plants yourself your necessary break even yield is smaller but since you are starting with less mature plant it may in actuality be smaller. The sweet yellow banana peppers are more likely to produce fruit in our shorter growing season.
Curiously, the author’s study seems to find tomatoes a questionable crop as far as economic profitability. While admitting that the flavor is so much better than anything that can be purchased, she sites problem involving short growing seasons that would be more applicable to peppers. Occasionally a crop will not ripen but that is the exception rather than the rule even in our area. She also points out that by the time they do ripen tomatoes are relatively inexpensive. I can’t say that I agree with this assessment and I find few gardeners that do. Tomato plants yield abundantly. The excess fruit can be canned or frozen or made into sauces. Even if you have room for only one tomato plant it is well worth growing that one plant.
If you can grow broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower these vegetables are some of the most profitable that a garden can produce. I plant at least two dozen of each and get heads of cauliflower and broccoli that are 8 to 12 inches in diameter. Even at $2 a head that is over $50 worth of vegetable which can be frozen or pickled. If you choose types of broccoli that produce side shoots, such as Premium Crop hybrid, the plants will produce for months. Cabbage is around 40 cents a pound, at its cheapest, and it is easy to grow heads that are 8 to 10 pounds. It can be stored or turned into sauerkraut.
So what crops are unprofitable? The author finds carrots, potatoes, wheat, asparagus and celery as crops best left to the experts. Carrots and potatoes (unless you grow the unusual ones) are cheap and probably tastier that what we can grow in this area. They are not happy in our heavy clay soil. Celery needs very specific conditions and is difficult to grow. Wheat? I have never tried it as a back yard crop and can’t think why anyone would.
I do take exception to the inclusion of asparagus in this group. Ms. Herigstad finds it “difficult” and thinks it takes too long to produce a crop. While you may indeed have to wait three years for a good picking, your bed will produce for many, many years once established. I have a bed that is over 20 years old and yields abundant and excellent asparagus.
Unreal expectations and hidden costs can make gardening an extremely expensive hobby rather than a source of cheap food. The DuBois Library has a book by William Alexander aptly named “The $64 Tomato”. Mr. Alexander actually hired a garden architect to plan his ideal garden. The architect unfortunately was a relative of the contractor and the conception was geared toward the best use of heavy equipment, leaving the author without the garden he wanted and set up for many additional costs. Grass paths soon required edgings to keep the grass from invading the beds and a mower to keep the grass cut. The overlarge concept became impossible to keep weed free. Imported top soil compounded the problem by carrying weed seeds. The necessity to water for hours led to the purchase of a drip irrigation system and the costs mounted.
Few gardeners ring up a total bill of $16,565 for putting in a new garden. Nor do most of them spend almost $800 to keep deer and groundhogs out of their crops. Still the costs can add up. One problem that can raise costs is too large a garden. If you plant more area than you can care for you will have to find an alternate means to hand weeding to keep things under control. You can buy a small tiller or purchase mulch. The kids will not do the weeding and, as Mr. Alexander found out, a spouse enticed into the garden is just as likely to find dead heading the flowers more important than weeding.
Animals and insects will get into your garden. All the expensive fencing in the world will not keep them out. Groundhogs can climb and burrow. Birds will pull up your corn and voles will eat your seeds. Cutworms will ruin your small plants. Squirrels and groundhogs will take big bites from your perfect ripe tomatoes. A buck can take down a fence. The unknown marauder can take off the tops of all of your peas in one night. You will lose as much as you harvest. Learn to live with it!
There is not such thing as the “perfect garden” that William Alexander sought and the effort to achieve one can raise the cost of the produce to well….the $64 tomato. Most gardeners are more sensible than, to quote Mr. Alexander, “not to be deterred by logic or cost.” Many vegetable gardeners do probably save by growing their own produce. They might not have beautiful fences and elegantly shaped raised beds but they will tell you there is nothing that tastes like a sun-warmed ripe tomato fresh from the plant or beans that go straight from the garden into the boiling water.