That seems like an odd question to be asking here on a gardening and plant blog. But I am an accidental gardener and a full-time marketing and communications person. So, ultimately, every question in my career comes down to an ROI, or return on investment, question. You know, the stuff they teach in Business 101 classes; things like state your goals, make sure they are measurable, blah blah blah. So, with that as my filter and with summer produce starting to appear in the grocery store at sale prices, I started wondering, “Is all this really worth it?”
I must say that I would agree. Some vegetables, from a purely economic standpoint, just are not worth the time and investment. Once you account for your time, the equipment necessary, the land that could be used for something else (opportunity cost, thank you Adam Smith), etc., it can be hard to break-even on a modest size garden. As you move to a larger garden and if you have family members to help you, then you can get some economies of scale but the costs can still be rather high for some fixed inputs like seed.
Here are some things to consider:
- A good tool is worth it’s cost. Don’t settle for cheap tools. Buy quality, Buy Once. I, myself, have opted to only add to my tool collection a little at a time. My first year I only bought what I absolutely had to have. A shovel, hoe, rake, two hand tools, and two garden hoses (later that fall after learning the need for one, I splurged for a wheel-barrow after an unexpected windfall left me with an extra $75 in my pocket. It was ‘found money’ and i would have used it on Dr. Peppers, or i-tunes anyway…I figured this was a better use.) By buying nicer tools, I am relatively assured that they will be here for several seasons and will perform as desired, hold their edge, and not break down. Y0u can get some really good heirloom quality hand tools here. (after three seasons, I have zero complaints). I am still hoping to be able to splurge for a tiller in the near future from craigslist but so far I have not found what I am looking for at a cost that seems reasonable for a tool I would use a handful of times throughout the year.
- When figuring your costs, some things can be spread over several seasons. Garden hoses for example (each of mine were contractor grade and cost between $25 and $30) will not be used up after one season. If taken care of, they should last for at least 5 seasons so my real cost is only $5-6 per year. My wheel barrow was almost $75 dollars but I expect to use it more than a decade so again my costs will avg less than $10 per season.
- Your consumable inputs – things you use, use up, then have to replace – are the real budget busters so look to save wherever you can. If possible buy seeds rather than plants, buy seeds in bulk rather than pre-packaged, shop on-line or from catalogue centers. I also highly recommend one in particular, Berlin Seeds in Berlin, Ohio. They are Amish, so don’t expect to e-mail them an order or have online shopping capabilities. But their catalogues are wonderful and their quality is very high. Plus their integrity above impeachment. Call and ask to be put on their mailing list @ 1-877-464-0892. The catalogues are not only full of seeds, bulbs, etc., but also have loads of gardening tips passed down from generations of Amish families and farmers. Finally, look for natural remedies with household products for controlling weeds and insects.
- Improving your soil should be looked at as a process, not a quick fix. Sure, you can do the quick fix thing, but it will be VERY expensive. Compost and manures are availble for free if you are willing to do your homework. Monty’s Liquid Carbon can also help expedite the process. Work with your county extension agent to do a soil test, and to find out what plants perform well in your area. Some plants, or some varieties of plants, just won’t grow in your climate/soil. Start by working with what nature gives you and amend your garden to your needs a section at a time.
Here are the break-outs of some costs I have incurred while getting my gardening lifestyle up and going.
- Hoses (3) $ 25.00 ea
- Seed packets $ 1.29 each
- Seed (bulk) $ 1-3 per pound 1/4 to 1/2 pound has been more than enough for anything I have grown.
- Hoe $ 19.00 Local Hardware store
- Rake $ 22.00 Local Hardware store
- Hand-tools $ 7-21.00 plus shipping from Wilcox All Pro Tools
- Wheel Barrow $ 72.00 From Local farmer’s Co-op
- Compost and manure $ FREE worked with county gov. and some local farmers. All it cost me was time.
- Chemicals $ 24.00 qt. I use these very sparingly, and mainly for weed control in spring or fall. Once I have crops in the garden I hand weed. Insect control, I use household products, hand remove slugs, beetles and eggs and pray alot.
- Water $ 3.00 per month – This is about the difference in my water bill once my garden is in. I make sure my garden receives at least 1 inch of moisture per week. I would rather pay for a little bit of water and make sure I get to harvest a crop. For example, last season, my neighbor who is an old-timer and firmly believes that God will send all the water that the plants need and he “ain’t about to waste money watering no plants” got about 1/3rd – 1/2 less produce last summer than I did, even though his garden, by all rights, looks better than mine.
- Fertilizer $ 75.00 per season. I use Monty’s three formulas exclusively and the quart bottles are more than enough to get me through the season. Even though I spoon feed them at least twice a week.
- Pump Sprayers $10-25 I own two. The first one cost me almost $25 last season and nothing goes in it but herbicides. I strongly believe in segregating between ‘death chemicals’ – herbicides etc… and ‘life chemicals’ – my liquid fertilizers and soil conditioners. This season, though, when I bought my second sprayer the price had fallen dramatically to only $10.00 for the same size/same brand/same store.
In season, it may be hard to feel like it makes financial sense to garden, after all produce is coming in from producers who have economies of scale and can sale things more cheaply than you can raise them. BUT, keep an eye on the savings in the fall and winter because that is when you savings will really add up. For example, this year at Christmas all of our side dishes came from our own garden. Tomatoes and onions that were near two dollars a pound and kinda mealy at the store were fresh, ‘free,’ and as close as my pantry and freezer. Ditto that for my daughter’s recent birthday. Plus, there is a sense of pride that overwhelms you when you sit down to fresh frozen okra at supper while the snow is piling up outside.
Now, I realize that this has reduced things to a mere economic question and there are myriad other reasons like health, quality, accessibility, exercise, and sheer enjoyment that are hard to quantify. But if you garden smart, and grow slowly, you can make gardening worth it, not only for the food you receive but for the pleasure and the satisfaction of a job well done.