While my primary reason for gardening is love–love of the outdoors, love of physical work, love of plants in their infinite variety–my pleasure in gardening is immeasurably enhanced if I know that my labor is actually productive, if I know that, down the road a few weeks or months, I’m going to be enjoying the fruits of my labor. And that pleasure is even greater if I can put the productivity of my labor in terms of dollar signs.
Now I know as well as anyone that money is not an adequate measure of the benefits of tending a home vegetable garden. After all, those benefits include enjoyment of the outdoors, physical exercise, and food much fresher and more full of taste than anything you can find in a grocery store. And how do you put a price on those things?
Nevertheless, at the end of each growing season, I’m always extremely curious to see how much cash I spent on the garden and how much my harvest would have been worth if purchased at a farmer’s market. That is, how much green stuff did I actually save by all those hours of toil?
In 2012, I spent a total of $742.64 on my 2000-sq.-ft. vegetable garden. If we subtract from this the amount that I spent on capital investments such as fencing, tools, and pots, which will be usable for many years to come, the figure comes down to $617.14. That includes the cost of all purchased compost, fertilizer ingredients, seeds, and plants. (Though I grow most of my own seedlings, I do purchase seed potatoes, sweet potato slips, and perennials that don’t come true from seed.) The amount for seeds will be less than half of that this year, because my stocks of seeds are so high now that I don’t have to buy nearly as much this spring.
Now, how much was my harvest worth? It’s hard to get a really accurate figure for this, but I do my best to estimate the value of my produce if it were sold at the local farmer’s market. And what I came up with this year was $964. So a profit of from $221 to $347, depending on how much of the capital costs I include.
Honestly, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of pay for an entire season’s worth of labor. I did a heck of a lot of digging, planting, hoeing, weeding, fertilizing, and watering. I certainly wouldn’t work for those wages anywhere else.
But as I pondered this fact recently, I realized that a lot of the compost, fertilizer, and labor this year went towards crops that were “experimental.” Things that I hadn’t grown before, or at least had never grown well before. And I thought, Well, if I were trying to get the biggest return on my investment and only planted things that were sure to do well, what would I plant, and what would my profit be? In short, I decided to see what would happen if I designed a super-efficient vegetable garden.
I began by figuring out the cost for compost and fertilizer per square foot of garden space. That came to 22.4 cents/sq.ft. for one application of compost and all the applications of fertilizer needed throughout the growing season. I then multiplied this number by the square feet I devoted to a particular crop and divided by the pounds of that crop I harvested. That told me how much that crop cost this year to produce per pound. I could then compare that number to the market value per pound (for organic produce) and determine if that crop was a good profit maker.
My most profitable crops in 2012 were the following:
Pole beans at a cost of $.54/lb and a value of $2.25/lb
Beets at a cost of $.19/lb and a value of $4/lb
Cucumbers at a cost of $.06/lb and a value of $2/lb
Bulbing onions at a cost of $.37/lb and a value of $2/lb
Jupiter green peppers at a cost of $.36/lb and a value of $2.40/lb
Zucchini at a cost of $.15/lb and a value of $2/lb
Pumpkin at a cost of $.30/lb and a value of $1/lb
Hungarian Italian paste tomatoes at a cost of $.41/lb and a value of $3-4/lb
Eva Purple Ball tomatoes at a cost of $.43/lb and a value of $3-4/lb
Leaf lettuce at a cost of $.03/serving and a value of $.50/serving
Now, what if, this year, I planted only these super-profit-makers in my garden? First of all, I wouldn’t need nearly as big a garden. To get enough of these ten types of vegetables to feed my family of four (including a huge amount for canning), I would need to plant only 641 sq. ft. of garden: a little less than one third the size of my current garden. And so, presumably, one third of the work.
If I planted those 641 sq. ft. with 162 sq. ft. of pole beans, 20 sq. ft. of beets, 9 sq. ft. of cucumbers, 13.5 sq. ft. of lettuce, 38 sq. ft. of bulbing onions, 36 sq. ft. of Jupiter bell peppers, 20 sq. ft. of zucchini, 48 sq. ft. of pumpkins, 144 sq. ft. of paste tomatoes, and 150 sq. ft. of Eva Purple Ball tomatoes, and my yields per square foot were similar to this year’s, then I would reap a harvest of 66 lbs. of pole beans, 7 lbs. of beets, 35.5 lbs. of cucumbers, 120 servings of lettuce, 23 lbs. of bulbing onions, 23 lbs. of bell peppers, 17.5 lbs. of zucchini, 36 lbs. of pumpkin, 78 lbs. of paste tomatoes, and 80 lbs. of Eva Purple Ball tomatoes. And the total cost of compost and fertilizer for that garden? $138.33. When the value of the harvest would be somewhere in the vicinity of $940.
That is, I could get almost the same money value of food out of this super-efficient garden as with my actual 2012 garden. But I’d use only one third of the space and one third of the labor and invest less than one third of the cash.
So, am I going to plant the super-efficient garden this year?
Of course not. Or rather, I’m going to plant the super-efficient garden, but I’m also going to plant another 1000 sq. ft. of other crops that may not produce such a big financial return but that I want to learn how to grow. Or that I want to have the convenience of having always at the ready in my own garden.
Because that’s a benefit to a home vegetable garden that we haven’t mentioned yet: the fact that all of this food is waiting outside your doorstep whenever you decide to harvest it. You don’t have to get in your car and go to the market or grocery store. You don’t have to decide ahead of time what you’re going to want to cook this week, and then feel bad when half of your produce rots unused in the crisper drawer. A lot of the food in a home vegetable garden can stay on the plants until it’s time to eat it, which means less room taken up in the fridge, more variety available when each new mealtime arrives, and hopefully less waste.
Another reason that I wouldn’t plant only the super-efficient vegetable garden is that some of the best foods in my garden grow on plants that are not terribly productive and even a little finicky. For instance, the Large Red tomato. This heirloom tomato is tastier than any other I’ve ever eaten, from the store or from a garden. Last year it yielded less than 1 lb. per 9 sq. ft. (the previous year it did much better), but if I hadn’t had any Large Reds, it wouldn’t even have felt like summer. The taste of the Large Red is reason enough in itself to garden. And so even though this past year it cost me $1.93/lb. to produce, I’m planting them again this year, and in even greater quantity.
The same goes for watermelon. Last year was a bad year for my watermelon plants. I planted two hills, totaling 48 sq. ft., and I only harvested one watermelon, which weighed in at 9 lbs. But again, it wouldn’t have felt like summer without that taste. That sweetness is simply not available at the store.
And so, yes, it is possible to save a great deal of money by tending a home vegetable garden. And for people who have a very tight budget, I can recommend a few crops that would be very profitable investments. But even people on very tight budgets should consider splurging on a few Large Reds. Because, really, even at $1.93/lb., they’re a steal. And, eating them, you’ll feel like you’re living in the lap of luxury.