Monday, 30 June 2014

does a vegetable garden save you money?

Garden economics. It's something I think about constantly. Let me just say before anything else, that I would grow a vegetable garden even if it didn't save me money. I love gardening. Also, nothing beats the taste, nutrition and satisfaction of picking fresh veggies straight from the garden. I know I am feeding my family the best food possible, when I give them fresh picked organic vegetables. The garden has also created a love of vegetables in my children. I consider that priceless!

I am a bit of a nerd though and I sometimes find myself drawing layouts of the garden, working out how much each bed of veggies is worth. I love working out which veggies are the best value to grow!

But can a vegetable garden save you money?

If you enjoy gardening, and you normally eat lots of fresh veggies then my answer is most definitely yes! As long as you don't get carried away when you are setting the garden up. Recycle wherever you can. Don't spend fortune on a vegetable garden if you've never gardened before. Make sure you love it before committing to all those raised beds. Do you really need a $500 raised bed when a $40 one will do the same job (or one that you build for free out of recycled goods?) If you spend $16,000 setting up a garden, it's going to take many, many years of solid gardening for it to pay for itself, if it ever does! The $64 tomato is a great read for those who haven't read it before. It's a funny book about a garden that turns out bigger than Ben Hur.

You also really need to think about what to plant. A garden saves you nothing if you plant things you aren't going to eat. If you don't eat it, it will rot in the ground just as it rots in your fridge, when you let food go to waste. Try and plant food that is expensive to buy in the supermarkets to make the greatest savings.

How much can you save? 

Well that depends on what you plant, how much you spend upfront to start your garden and a bit of luck. When you garden you are always at the mercy of the weather and conditions and if a drought, storm, insect plague, plant disease etc comes along and wipes out your garden you can lose everything. Sometimes plants just don't grow well and you will get a bad harvest. There's always risk involved and you can't just count on that food for the table. You may get what you plan. You may get more or you could get less.

What are the costs of a garden?

The biggest cost is the first upfront one. The cost of starting the garden. It can be a whole lot, or a little, depending on how you choose to garden. If you garden in raised beds, then you will have pay for those beds (these actually can be made out of recycled materials very inexpensively), plus the cost of the soil and soil improvers to fill the beds (compost, manure, etc). You may also have to net your garden or fence it off. Do you need to put in a watering system? Will you just use the hose? Those will also cost you money. The raised beds/fencing/watering system are generally a one off cost that should last you many years. Soil improvers are a constant maintenance cost of having a garden.

Even if you garden straight in the soil, a garden will still cost you money. You will need tools (shovels, forks, perhaps a rotary hoe/tiller) so you can turn the soil. You may still need to fence it or net it to protect your crops. Your soil might not be very good (clay or sandy) and need a lot of improvement. This can also add up.

Once you've outlaid this money, make sure you take care of your tools. Don't leave them out in the rain to rust. Lock them up in the shed in the same place each time, so they will last you many years.

A garden will cost you in time as well. I love my time gardening, it's like meditation for me, so I don't put a money value on this time. Others may see this differently.

Once you have an established garden, the costs are much less.

How much does my garden cost? 

My vegetable garden cost less than $2,000 to set up. Keep in mind we have 24 corrugated steel raised beds. That amount was spread over 1.5 years as we could afford to add to the garden. I kept a strict spreadsheet at the time to track to costs. That amount included the raised beds, the bulk compost, the pebbles, mulch, all our gardening tools, our irrigation system, the fence and netting. It included the first lot of plants and seeds. The good thing was we didn't spend it all upfront, but over time as the garden started to produce and pay for itself. We expanded the garden when we were confident that we were going to be able to keep up with the gardening. We also tried to save costs where we could. 

We bought the raised beds as we could afford them. We started with 12 and gradually added 12 more. I talk more about building and transforming our garden here. The pebbles went in the following year, after 1.5 years of shovelling and lugging free woodchip mulch. They were a big expense, but the woodchips were breaking down too quickly we wanted a longer term solution. They've been brilliant for weed prevention and I'm so pleased we put them in. No more soggy garden underfoot after a lot of rain as well. We recycled where we could. The fence was built from leftovers from our house renovation. We DIY'ed and designed everything ourselves. We shovelled everything ourselves and transported all bulk loads of compost ourselves. We used the topsoil we already had. We collected free pots to put around the edges of the garden. We installed a recycled gutter for growing. My husband fashioned a cheap watering system out of poly pipe.  

I believe my garden paid for itself and was in profit within the first 2 years of gardening, because of the large amount of food we are able to grow. We eat a high percentage of what we grow because our family of 5 consumes a lot of vegetables. We have a wonderful growing climate here (plants grow very quickly here so we have high returns) and generally very high rainfall, which enables us to grow all year round.

Now that I have an established garden, and am well equipped with tools it costs me roughly $250- $350 each year. We also manage our own tank water to water the garden, so don't have water costs.

$70- $90 seeds 
$10- $15 seed raising mix
$40-$60 seedlings and plants (for succession plantings)
$100- $150 approx for soil improvers (compost, blood and bone, manure, liquid fertiliser)
$40- $60 pest protection

Right now, by my estimations I have more than $1000 worth of vegetables in my garden this season. As long as nothing comes along and takes them out, we'll be eating well for some time! My pricings are based on non organic produce from Woolworths (which is where I figure most Australian people do their shopping). My vegetables, however, are organically grown. The cost of fresh food at the supermarket is so high!

Over the course of the year I will probably grow more than $3,000 worth of veggies and herbs, from a $250-$350 investment. (This figure does not include the fruit from our orchard.) My vegetable garden is a super productive place where I can grow all through the year. I know not everyone is this fortunate. We will eat a high percentage of this, as well as barter or give away some of this produce to friends and family. Last year I gave away a lot of produce that was sold to raise money for our local community. I also grow enough seedlings to supply ourselves, plus family and a couple of friends and the local preschool.

Could I save more on my garden?

Sure. I could do more seed saving from my plants. I also often buy more seeds than I need (I just LOVE seeds!) I could stop buying seedlings altogether. I could scrimp on my soil improvers. Vegetable gardens can be very frugal places, or they can cost a fortune (if you let them!).

How can you get the best value out of your garden?

Firstly I only plant things we will actually eat or will be useful. I also make sure to plant vegetables that are expensive to buy. For example I have several beds filled with herbs that would cost hundreds of dollars to buy in the supermarket. I use a lot of herbs so these save us heaps of money.

I also have a large space dedicated to leeks (these are $2 each!! in the supermarket- I have more than $80 worth in my garden all grown from $0.70 cents worth of seeds), and another bed of garlic because this is expensive to buy.

I also make sure I grow plenty of leafy greens in the garden, because these can be pricey to buy, but go off quickly in the fridge. They will keep for weeks/months in the garden depending on what you grow (lettuces will hold for many weeks, cabbages will hold for over a month, silverbeet/chard/perpetual spinach will keep growing over months). I don't pick a whole lettuce when I harvest. Just the leaves I need, so the plant will keep living and growing (and I can continue harvesting).

Other than that, I plant lots of things we would regularly buy. If we can pick it from the garden, it's one less thing we need to put in the trolley and that saves us money at the supermarket.

Most importantly- Don't forget to harvest. Obvious right? Actually I reckon it's one of the easiest mistakes to make, especially when you get busy and forget to visit the garden for a week. If you don't harvest food on time, it will ruin.

Also if your garden is full of food, stop buying fresh stuff from the shops. Eat what you are growing. Plan meals around the fresh produce you have. If you are in a routine of buying cauliflower and zucchini from the shops, but your garden is full of carrots, lettuces and broccoli, it's time to start rethinking your menu. If you forget the veggies in your garden and they spoil you lose all the time and money you spent on growing them. Think of it as part of your pantry/fridge/freezer inventory.

Bottom line- Is gardening worth it?

I think gardening is definitely worth it! It's a great hobby, that helps keep you and your kids fit and healthy and has the potential to pay for itself many times over. What's not to love about that?

Want to start a garden with the kids? I've got a bunch of tips on gardening with kids HERE

To check out more of my garden and see how we built it, go HERE and HERE.

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  1. Love this topic! So interesting to learn from what others do. I would get a job to support my garden habit if it came to that. Luckily it hasn't. We garden very cheaply with free mulch and composted manure from my family's farm. We start most of our own plants, and save seed where we can. We can't garden year round, but focus on things that store or freeze well. We still buy quite a bit of sweet corn in season.We love it, but it takes a lot of garden space.

    1. I love seeing what others do as well :) It's all about doing what works for you and in your climate really!

  2. Such a great post and lots of helpful tips and information for beginners or seasoned gardeners too. I think your garden is one of the ones I admire the most and as you say the added bonus of your children eating veggies.... Priceless. Regards Kathy A, Brisbane

    1. Thank you Kathy! The kids love the garden and love to eat straight from it :)

  3. Wonderful information, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I reckon the worm farm and seed saving are the best way to garden even cheaper, but sounds like you've got a great system.

    1. Thanks Liz, a worm farm is such a great thing to do :)

  4. Your garden always amazes me, it always seems to be full of wonderful veggies! I do wish we had a longer growing season and that my veggies grew just a little bit faster. I will never be able to make the savings that you do but I grow a little bit and enjoy eating what we do grow :)

    1. We are very fortunate with our climate... I would still grow a garden though even if I made no savings, I love it so much :)

  5. Inspirational. Looking forward to continuing to improve and productively use our beginnings.


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