Will you recycle?
A garden can be a very expensive endeavor if you go "new" on all of your needs. If you use, and re-use, what you already have at home, you stand a much better chance of covering your costs with the food you grow. For instance, you can collect rainwater for irrigation rather than using the running water you pay for at home; gather your own (and/or your neighbors') fallen leaves to use as mulch, rather than buying bags of the stuff; use kitchen compost to make your own organic fertilizer instead of buying it at the store for $10 a bag; collect seeds from each year's plants to use the following year; and make your own borders and stakes using, say, lumber scraps.
Will you do it all yourself?
A productive garden is a lot of work -- tilling, planting, fertilizing, watering, weeding. If you plan to do all of these jobs yourself (or split it with other family members -- it's a great educational activity for kids), you stand a much better chance of recovering your start-up costs than if you hire out one or more of these jobs.
Are you willing to research (a lot)?
One of the tricks to making back your investment happens before you even start on the actual garden. Research and planning is the key to success. Where is the best place in your yard in terms of sun and shade? What type of soil composition should you aim for? Which plants really thrive in your region and microclimate? A whole lot of failed plants will make a huge dent in your bottom line.
Which brings us to plant choices, which can make or break your gardening-to-save-money (or break-even) endeavor. Opting for plants that grow well in your microclimate is a big part of this, but there are other considerations, too, such as:
Cost per piece of produce
There are foods that tend to be more cost-effective than others, because of how much care they take, how long they take to produce, or how much those foods cost to buy at the grocery store, among other factors. Lettuce, squash, bell peppers, garlic and herbs, for instance, tend to pay for themselves and then some. Fruit trees, too, produce more than enough to cover their costs, but you typically have to wait a few years after planting before you achieve a full crop.
Would you buy this food anyway?
If you're spending money to grow fruit you don't already buy right now, you're not really saving money. Especially at the outset, choose foods you and your family already eat -- at the very least, you know whatever ripens won't go to waste.
If you choose plants that will ripen at various times, you stand a better chance of using everything you grow. You also stand a much better chance of recouping your costs if your garden continues to produce beyond the summer months, since you probably eat produce year-round. In many areas, foods like winter squash and tomatoes can continue to produce into the winter. Canning works, too, to get your garden to feed you all year -- tomatoes, green beans and fruits are especially amenable to preserving.
Even if you implement every cost-saving measure in the book, you may still find yourself with a garden that doesn't quite pay off, and it's hard to know for sure before you start. Food prices fluctuate; you may find you have a pest problem you hadn't counted on; and it could take a few growing seasons to figure out what really thrives in your yard.
That's the thing about gardening, though: It comes with pay-offs that have nothing to do with money. If your reasons for starting a garden include not only thrift but also the joy of the outdoors, fun and learning with your kids, and the sense of fulfillment that comes with growing from seed to fruit, it's an endeavor that's likely to succeed, one way or another.
For more information on saving money, growing your own food, and related topics, look over the links on the next page.