How much can you save by growing food at home?

Some produce, like rhubarb, is expensive to buy in markets but can yield a large harvest in a home garden.
Some produce, like rhubarb, is expensive to buy in markets but can yield a large harvest in a home garden.
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Is there anything better than a fresh heirloom tomato picked from a backyard garden? For more than 40 million American households, there's not much. Growing one's own produce is a long-standing tradition, and the home craft has seen a rise in popularity in recent years [source: Mother Nature Network].

A number of factors draw homeowners and apartment dwellers alike to gardening. For some, gardening is a restful pastime that offers a connection with the natural world. Others see it simply as a good economic move, producing healthy food at a fraction of what it would cost from the grocery store. But does homegrown produce really save money? And how can a cash-conscious gardener get the most out of the garden, both in terms of leafy greens and greenbacks?

There's no one-size-fits-all answer for whether gardening saves money, but asking -- and then accounting for -- a number of key questions can increase your odds of realizing both healthy food and healthy savings.

First, where do you live? The U.S. Department of Agriculture divides the nation into 11 separate hardiness zones -- areas where temperature patterns lend themselves better to certain types of plants than others [source: National Gardening Association]. If you prefer vegetables that cannot naturally grow in your climate zone, a greenhouse -- with the added expenses of construction and materials -- might eat away at any savings you'd see from growing at home. However, you may be able to grow some smaller plants in pots indoors or implement cold frames (learn more about those on the next page).

Second, are you willing to put in the work to have a healthy garden? Although a well-maintained backyard garden as small as 4 feet by 8 feet (1.21 meters by 2.4 meters) can provide a significant food cost savings, gardens of any size require regular, consistent care to do their best. You can count on spending three to five hours a week in the garden digging beds, weeding and picking. Most gardeners see this as recreation, but if your time is more valuable to you than money, you may find the sweat cost of a garden to be higher than you prefer [source: Noll].

If you've researched what can grow in your area, however, and you know you're not afraid of a little dirt under your fingernails, then you could indeed reap significant cash savings along with next year's harvest. Check out our tips for creating the most worthwhile backyard crops on the next page.

The Payoff of Home Gardening

If you're gardening to save money, some things -- like carrots -- might not be worth your while because they're so difficult to grow (and inexpensive in markets).
If you're gardening to save money, some things -- like carrots -- might not be worth your while because they're so difficult to grow (and inexpensive in markets).
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The bottom line of vegetable garden economics is that a little planning can pay big dividends. A well-maintained 4-foot by 8-foot (1.21-meter by 2.4-meter) garden in a Midwestern climate can produce about $600 in food savings over a single summer. For example, one $1.50 pepper plant or packet of tomato seeds can produce anywhere from six to 100 times the amount of produce for the same amount of money spent at the grocery store. Even better, herbs such as parsley can grow like weeds in pots by the kitchen window, providing a year-round supply of flavor for the same price you'd pay for a single packet of fresh herbs in the produce isle [source: Noll, Herigstad].

If you want to see just how far you can stretch your garden's value, there are a number of moves you can make. A heavily landscaped garden will cost significantly more to establish than a simple vegetable bed, so consider trading form for function when designing the beds. And if you live in a four-season climate zone, consider building or buying cold frames: open-bottomed, glass-topped boxes that you can place over portions of your growing beds. These act like mini-greenhouses, allowing you to start plants earlier and extend the growing season, squeezing just a little more money-saving produce out of your garden.

Keep in mind, though, that there's no guarantee in gardening. Major variables like unexpected rain or droughts can stymie even professional farmers. Your best tactic for countering such a powerful factor? Experience. Talk to other gardeners in your neighborhood to find out what grows well and learn what it takes for them to reap a good harvest. If the results come back within the range of what you like to eat and what you're able to do, you may be in a good position to harvest savings along with next season's bounty of homegrown fruits and vegetables [source: Herigstad].

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Sources

  • Noll, Jessica. "Gardens add value to home, green to wallet." KY Post.com. Feb. 26, 2011 (Oct. 12, 2011) http://www.kypost.com/dpps/news/gardens-add-value-to-home,-green-to-wallet_6117632
  • Herigstad, Sally. "5 foods it's cheaper to grow." MSN Money. 2011 (Oct. 12, 2011) http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/SaveMoney/5FoodsItsCheaperToGrow.aspx?page=1
  • Mother Nature Network. "Infographic: Home Gardening in the U.S." June 6, 2011 (Oct. 12, 2011) http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/infographic-home-gardening-in-the-us
  • National Gardening Association. "USDA Hardiness Zone Finder." 2011 (Oct. 12, 2011) http://www.garden.org/zipzone/index.php?img=seusa