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Grow a garden without spending money after reading the experiences of over 150 gardeners who chimed in on the question “Is it cheaper to buy vegetables or grow them?”
The conclusion was either a big yes or a big no, but why?
- The gardeners who answered “yes it’s cheaper” have plenty of cost-saving ideas and values to consider
- The gardeners who answered with a “no it’s not cheaper” reveal what we should avoid doing to keep gardening cost-effective!
Several factors affect the cost and worth of your homegrown vegetables versus store-bought food. In general, short-term expenses may put you behind on food funds, but it’s a different story if you plan to garden long-term.
Growing vegetables becomes cheaper in the long term than buying them from the store forever. In addition to being cheaper financially, hundreds of everyday gardeners point out that growing your own vegetables provides more value than store-bought food and they can’t be compared by dollar alone.
See: Save Money & Grow Vegetables That Cost You the Most
Statistics by the National Gardening Association in the USA say you can save $1 on groceries per sqft of garden after upfront costs below $100. With that said, you could make your money back if you have more than 100 sqft of space for growing.
These kinds of margins aren’t the case for everyone though; it depends on what you do and don’t do.
I decided to ask everyday gardeners:
- what they spent to set up their garden
- how much their harvests have saved them so far
- and their general practices
The practices and product demands make all the difference in cost.
Buying done-for-you shortcuts is expensive and producing it all yourself is financially cheap.
- Shortcuts, such as seedling starts, minimize time spent and maximize dollars spent,
- and producing everything yourself maximizes time spent and minimizes dollars spent.
So the question is, do you value time spent on gardening?—It’s the best way to save money gardening.
All the ways growing vegetables can be cheaper than buying them from the store are sorted into 4 main categories.
- (1) Values gain from a garden,
- (2) Starting a garden on a budget,
- (3) Maintaining a garden at little to no cost, and
- (4) Profiting from a garden.
Related: What it Costs to Grow Mushrooms (Indoor vs Outdoor)
Gardening saves you money with other value
“Gardening is priceless” —a statement seen numerous times by everyday gardeners.
Even gardeners who make growing food expensive admit that the below benefits are worth it regardless of cost. We invest because the garden returns more than just food.
(After this section, we’ll tackle dollar savings. This is about realizing gains where you’d otherwise need to spend dollars, or you wouldn’t get these benefits.)
Homegrown vegetables taste uncomparably better
Need I say much?
Matthew says “I never liked raw tomatoes until I started a garden. . . now I love them, just not from the store”
Kerry says “I had to buy lettuce the other day (we were in between crops), it was white and tasteless.”
Sharing surpluses strengthens relationships
Rather than the hustle and bustle of carts and lineups at grocery stores, you can interact with people by sharing extra food with friends, family, and neighbors.
People at grocery stores need to be there for their own self-interest to get what they need and go! It’s a disconnected environment where people are repelled from one another.
With a garden, food can bring people together.
Rather than selling your extra vegetables for monetary profit, you can give away vegetables and receive profit in the form of friendships—whatever you need most.
Time in the garden is physically healthy
Gardening gets you breathing outdoor air, moving your body, and eating healthy fresh-picked whole food.
When you’re doing the work to produce good food, you also don’t want to waste it. Because of that, we feel encouraged to eat more vegetables as they are abundantly available in the garden.
The combination of this physical activity and the reward of healthy food results in lower BMIs.
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
Gardening can reduce food-related waste
Even if you can’t eat all your hard-earned food it won’t go to waste with a garden.
Retire excess produce in the compost or worm bins. It’ll nourish your future garden so your future garden can nourish you.
While food-related waste is better managed in a home environment, what about other waste? It seems to be about finding good “swaps.”
Plastic pots and trays eventually need to be thrown away, but soil blocks could be used for seedlings instead.
Row covers to avoid using pesticides eventually degrade and no longer do the job. Not sure how to swap this one out. Comment if you do!
Plastic twine, for example, can be swapped out for jute twine that can be composted.
Composting degradable twine, however, will cost you money on the regular.
So you could either invest in long-lasting secures, or make basswood as twine! Basswood is a type of tree and the young wood peels easily into tie-able string. If you don’t have basswood, try peeling any other young tree shoots nearby.
Time in the garden is cheaper than therapy
If therapy is something you’d like but can’t afford, gardening is a wonderful way to meditate, reflect, or simply be present with interactive tasks.
Many people garden without a goal and purely for the pleasure and satisfaction of having an activity to get outdoors.
Nothing wrong with that, but you can have just as pleasant of a time growing for sustenance to feed our family too! Growing for sustenance purposes will increase your time outside and can provide a larger sense of accomplishment.
Practical skills are learned
Producing a garden and maintaining its needs without buying inputs are skills that require time and energy to build. These skills are the big payoff you’re looking for in a cost-effective garden!
As you get better at producing balanced compost, creating polycultures, protecting your soil, and growing several kinds of plants from seed, your harvest will get bigger as you get better.
Bigger and better harvests from learned skills not only mean more money saved, but more money made!
Gardening has a library of skills to master, so tackle the most expensive ones first! Grow plants from seed and building compost/soil are the biggest money-saving garden skills to learn.
Gardens increase food security
If you are more food secure, everyone else is more food secure. Even if you don’t have any spare harvest to share. More people who are less reliant on mass production minimizes the need for mass production. Mass production is unsustainable and is only secure for a finite time.
As food shortages and gas prices climb higher, minimizing our need to transport food is never a bad idea.
Control the quality of the food you eat
“You know what you are putting in your body” says Toney, a backyard gardener. He and I share this idea as a vital advantage to growing your own food.
Mass-produced foods rely on pesticides for a successful harvest; your garden doesn’t require the same treatment.
While pollutants are unavoidable, it’s all the more reason to grow your own, and minimize your consumption and exposure to harmful chemicals.
If growing all your food is out of reach and you value quality, consider supporting a local farmer by signing up for their CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.
Not only are pesticides a concern, but malnourishment may also be an issue!
Mass-produced vegetables in general may be lower in nutrient density. The distance and perhaps lifeless soil deteriorate the quality of content in plants.
A homegrown garden is closer by, more easily cared for, and replenished with plenty of nutrients, living organisms, and systems for plants to maximize their nutrient content.
Kerry says the lettuce she bought at the store was “white and tasteless” compared to her usually homegrown lettuce! Color saturation is a telltale sign of antioxidant density.
Growing food, specifically in low-cost ways, is more environmentally ethical than buying food from the store.
Making compost is more environmentally friendly than importing it into your garden from another source.
The less we demand travel, the better.
The more we develop our properties with the resources available, the less we demand needless transport and resource misuse.
Start a garden with low upfront costs
It’s true as John, a fellow gardener, says; “Setting up a garden in the first year can be more expensive but the rewards will exceed the costs.”
Setting up a garden doesn’t even have to be expensive. Many people make it expensive because they want it “right now” and to have a particular aesthetic. Gardens are expensive when materials and looks are more of a priority than solely growing conditions.
Jonathan warns that the “first year is expensive and requires the most work” but this is good news to be prepared for.
Be prepared for a difficult (and perhaps overwhelming) time in the beginning, but remember your yields grow bigger, better, and easier with experience.
Repurpose what you have available
Gardener Tracey says “the cost depends on the resources you already have to start with.”
While true. . . your resources aren’t limited to what you currently possess!
Maybe you or your neighbors have scrap material from projects.
Free heat-treated pallets make excellent compost bins.
Free nursery pots and trays are given away all the time.
Free organic compost materials are left on the side of the road every autumn by families who rake their leaves as “waste.”
Low-cost gardening truly teaches you how to be resourceful and less wasteful by making do with what you have.
Anything you regard as waste is actually a resource.
Buy long-lasting materials and tools
Crystal’s 3rd year of gardening will only cost her a water bill and compost. “I have seeds, pots, tools, and beds from previous years.”
Some tool brands offer lifetime guarantees. You’ll never find hand-pruners with a guarantee, but you will find saws, loppers, and other garden tools that are ensured you’ll only need to buy once.
Go thrifting for tools
Garage sales, thrift stores, and online marketplaces all offer tools at a lower price than retail.
If you can score quality tools at a discount, why not!
Learn to grow the expensive crops first
If you’ve never grown anything, learn how to grow the crops that are costing you the most.
Costly crops are the expensive staples. Staples are used in large quantities and some, but not all, are expensive!
Potatoes are staples but they tend to be cheap. We can buy a 10-pound bag for $2 sometimes.
Tomatoes and peppers are typically popular and expensive vegetable staples.
Herbs are usually so expensive I opt out of eating them altogether unless I grow them. Herbs are very easy to grow and are great companions for vegetables.
Find free seeds
Tomatoes are selling from $4-$25 per plant now! We grew 80 heirloom tomato plants for $10 to feed our family a year’s worth of tomatoes.
If we stuck to fewer varieties or sourced free seeds it could have been less.
Look for local offers such as seed libraries, or giveaways at nurseries. Online are garden group seed exchanges, and giveaway posts that also offer free seeds.
Grow the expensive vegetables
the most cost-effective vegetables you can grow will depend on your receipts!
Keep a month or two worth of grocery receipts and highlight what you spend a lot of money.
The most cost-effective vegetables to grow are the ones that cost you the most.
We all eat different quantities of our favorite vegetables.
So while broccoli might be more expensive than onions. . . If we eat more money worth of onions than we eat of broccoli—onions are more expensive for our personal tastes!
Plus, you can grow 4 onions in a foot of space and only 1 broccoli head in a foot space.
Catch and store rainwater with barrels or land shape
David says “the cost of the water is a big factor.” He did a potato test in his garden to prove it!
“I grew potatoes with water I use in my house which I buy from the municipality. In the end, it would’ve been cheaper just to buy potatoes from local shops.”
Most people can’t do too much with their backyards in regard to water catchment and storage so barrels and roofs are the way.
For those with bigger properties, you can build water catchment into your land design and skip the manual labor of transporting barrel water into your garden.
For water catchment purposes, this design is great for any soil type in areas where drought can occur.
Grow vegetables in your native soil
Raised beds are a needless expense if you have good earth.
Even if you have problematic soil, the organic matter usually fixes the problem over time. Until the issue is fixed, grow what will grow, and don’t grow what won’t grow.
Plenty of hardy foods exist beyond the typical annual vegetables!
See: 28 Thriving Plants for Clay Soil and Full Sun (Pictures)
So, gardening can be made expensive if you can’t wait, and opt to install raised beds for an instant vegetable garden.
“Poor native soil just needs amending one time and you will be good to go so long as you know how to maintain soil health. . . Dumping 500 dollars on soil to yield a couple hundred bucks in produce just isn’t worth it IMO.” says Eric, another backyard gardener!
On the other hand,
Stephanie says her “native soil doesn’t grow things well at all.”
She amended it for years and it “still doesn’t grow or produce well. So raised beds work well.”
So this issue can certainly be a bigger problem for some.
For us, it was compacted clay. We opted for importing a large volume of fresh soil and unfortunately, it was a bad batch and everything flopped. With previous years of raging success, this medium didn’t grow a thing.
Back to square one, we are doing these 5 Phases to Create Well-Drained Clay Soil for Growing Food.
Produce your own compost for amendment
Importing anything from somewhere else is inherently unsustainable. It means the land you’re standing on isn’t being developed but rather degraded.
Growing your own organic matter for compost-making is a form of development!
Invest in a lifetime-lasting fence if needed
If you need a fence because wildlife (especially deer) are eating your garden I recommend investing in long lasting fence material that meets the requirements for blocking out the animals in quesiton.
We’ve spent more time and money than necessary by fussing with fencing that doesn’t work for very long…
See: The Best Fence to Keep Deer Out (Cheaper & Easier Too)
Live in an ideal climate
While not possible for everyone, an ideal climate can make gardening even cheaper.
Indoor seed starting isn’t necessary everywhere. A powered water supply may not need to be used with the right rainfall or garden design. Seasonal foods can be available year-round and with longer harvest periods.
The closer to the equator you are the more plant options you’ll have. But wildlife is abundant there too.
Regenerate (maintain) your garden with basic skills
Spending $500 every year to remove, refill, and “refresh” raised beds every year is far from necessary!
One responding gardener described growing food as very expensive because they were replacing their soil, in this fashion, every season.
Quickly notified by the others, gardens can be maintained without spending more money. To continue gardening season after season, you’ll need to produce or preserve your own products. This primarily includes seeds, seedlings, and compost.
Get good at seed starting
Kitty, a vegetable gardener, compares frozen vegetables at the store with producing them from seed. She has noticed “the portions are smaller but the prices are the same.” She can either spend $2.49-$4.00 on frozen store-bought vegetables or “can take the same amount of money as one bag of frozen and have seeds for several plantings.”
The difference between growing food from seed versus transplantable seedlings would be spending $2.49-$4.00 on a packet of seeds that can produce 10-200 plants worth or spending $2.49-$4.00 on a single plant.
A single plant (depending on plant type) is likely to yield the same or more food than a frozen bag of store-bought vegetables. With seeds, you could 10-200x your dollar value of food!
Make your own compost
Use what you have around you. Leaves are the easiest choice. If you don’t have much for available resources, grow your own compost with spare space and consider chickens too.
Save your own seeds
“Once your set up, it only costs seeds. Those can be saved too” says Beth, who grows her garden for next to nothing.
If you’ve got seed starting and compost down, all that’s left is seed saving!
You’ll need to buy heirloom seeds to begin with—if learning how to save them is on your to-do list.
Grow what works well in your climate
It’s easier to maintain a garden when you grow suitable crops. Suitable crops save you time and losses.
Nishi, a city-living gardener has limited space and always grows tomatoes because they work well and she hates the store-bought taste. She says, “I used to grow zucchini but got tired of the heartbreak from the vine borers so now I save that space for something guaranteed to produce well for me.”
Spend the time to get better at growing food
Laura says she bought a single cucumber in the last 9 months and hasn’t needed anything else. She spent $400 including soil for her garden setup.
Even with buying soil to start, she too believes gardening is a savings.
This can also be the case for you when you get good at gardening! Whatever you like to eat, get growing it, fail at it, and learn. Eventually, you’ll have more to eat than you can!
Gardening can offer extra income
In this section, I’ll cover a few easy things you can produce to generate a side hustle with your garden.
Whether you spent money or started a garden for free, you’ll eventually see plenty of profits.
- If you’d rather be in the garden than where you work, growing food for profit is a good idea for you.
- If you’d rather be at work than in the garden, you’d be better off buying certain things to have the garden done for you faster.
Sell extra seedlings to locals
Survey your neighbors and ask if they need specific seedlings grown and offer to do it for them. Most would be happy to save a trip to the nursery to support their neighbor instead.
Sell fresh herbs weekly or biweekly
Figure out what herbs are your neighbors’ favorites. From there, figure out how much to grow and how often to sow successions to ensure a regular supply.
Sell unique tomatoes
Those orange accordion tomatoes are next-level satisfying. If I saw those for sale, I couldn’t not buy them.
Have extra space for too many tomatoes? Grow and sell little baskets of assorted tom-tom’s for a comparable, if not greater, price than grocery store tomatoes.
See what local farmers’ markets are selling them for to decide on a reasonable price offer.
Sell funky peppers
Bell peppers come in purple, white, long-shape, cute-shape, “monster-size,” and more. While I’ve learned to grow what tastes the best and is most practical in regard to sweet peppers, fun-looking peppers are always a treat to try.
Unique options are a good incentive to buy from you instead of the grocery store.
Hot peppers can also be sold for the same reasons. If you have a market for spice, then it would be easier to profit from hot peppers than bell peppers. Hot peppers grow more per plant.
Find unique varieties with good reviews and are known for being prolific producers.
Grow and sell fresh garlic
Garlic has been extremely easy for me to grow. They are a very passive crop, I don’t even need to water them. If I do, it’s once. I mulch them well with shredded leaves and plant them 4 inches below the surface.
Garlic where we live also sells for a very decent price.
Finally, grocery store garlic can’t compare in flavor or potency. I look at grocery store garlic and see how old it really is. I wonder, “what chemical concoction had this garlic went through to not be sprouted by now?!” kind of old.
Preserve your harvest for later
You can save your harvest in several forms. Dried, freeze-dried, canned, fermented, or cured and cold-cellared.
Jill says, “canning is another awesome way of saving money using your veg. Store-bought canned tomatoes don’t even compare to mine.”
So not only can you preserve food for value later on, it’s a higher value food than heavily preserved versions at stores.
Either way, you’ll earn directly from eating high-quality food into winter, or with extra money if sold.
Growing a garden isn’t always cheaper or always more expensive than buying vegetables at the grocery store.
If you consider your time and effort tending to a garden as an expense rather than a value or benefit to you, you’ll consider growing your own vegetables as more expensive.
For most garden lovers, the time and effort spent are balanced by the gain of skills, exercise, connection with the earth, something to do, an interaction with life, a nutrient-dense (non-sprayed) harvest, and failures disguised as lessons.
After that, dollars spent on the garden are compared to dollars spent at the grocery store. When comparing dollars to dollars, gardening becomes cheaper in the long term, particularly, as you spend more time regenerating your garden.
Gardening for free (or cheap) depends on your ability to be resourceful. Gardening is only expensive if you pay for convenience. If convenience isn’t necessary for you, a garden CAN be done completely free of spending money.
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