Walking Guide

Calculating the Cost of Growing Your Own Food

Many of us assume that a backyard vegetable garden can save us money, but is it really true? After investing in equipment, soil, seeds and water, do you really come out on top?

The answer varies upon the size of your garden, whether you start your plants from seeds or purchase seedlings, and how many tools or gardening accessories you may need to purcase. According to National Gardening Association estimates, a well-maintained food garden can yield an estimated half pound of fresh produce per square foot, yielding a $500 return on average when considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of produce. 

Here are some tips on starting a cost-effective garden for your wallet and your waistline.
Get the Right Soil for the Right Price
If you are starting a new garden, the most cost effective method is using the soil you already have available. However, most soil needs to be supplemented to improve its texture and nutrient density. If you live near farmland, you may be able to find free or inexpensive aged manure from a nearby farm that you can work into the first few inches of soil. Check your local paper or Craigslist for manure. Most will offer it for free if you pick it up yourself, or charge about $20 per truckload.

If your clay soil lacks texture and breathability, take a trip to the garden center for sand or compost. A bag will probably run from $3-$10 for 40 pounds, which will cover about 4 square feet of topsoil.

Sandy soil has the opposite problem of clay soil. Where clay is prone to waterlogging plant roots, sandy soil is too loose and struggles to maintain moisture. To amend sandy soil, simply use compost or some chopped up leaves, which are free! To save money over time, start your own compost heap. By next year, your pile will save you big bucks on fertilizer!
Seeds and Seedlings
Most packets of seeds cost a couple bucks, and a typical seed packet contains between 800 and 2,000 seeds. If you only harvested half of those seeds (about a 40-foot row) you’d be spending $140-$200 less than if you had purchased those mature vegetables from the grocery store. If you were to buy organic produce, the savings could be upwards of $180-$300.

Starter plants, available at nurseries and farmers markets, cost more than a packet of seeds (up to a few dollars per plant), but are still inexpensive and can save you time and space if you don’t want to start your plants from seed yourself.
Odds and Ends
One hidden cost you might not think about when starting up a garden is soil testing. If you are in the city or fear you have compromised soil, it’s a good idea to get a soil test from your local garden center or home improvement store. These run about $12 but are well worth it because you don’t want to plant in lead-tainted dirt that will contaminate your food!

If you don’t have gardening gear, you will probably need some basic supplies such as a wide brimmed hat, spade, shovel, and gloves. Home improvement stores or nurseries sell all of these for under $50. It may cost more up front, but it's a long-term investment that should last for the duration of your garden.
Additional Savings Tips
Many nurseries, churches, local organizations, or community garden clubs have seed and plant sales in the spring. You can score some major deals at these types of events, often up to half off what you would pay elsewhere! However, nothing beats the ease of simply trading with other gardeners in your area. Most people do not have a garden conducive to growing as many vegetables as a seed packet can grow. As a result, gardeners often have left-over seed that, if not stored for next year, is tossed out. Some garden clubs organize seasonal seed exchanges, so look for them in your community paper. Lastly, hit up the Internet for some deals on ebay or Craigslist. Many times, people will offer up plants and materials for free on Craigslist under the "free stuff" section.

Gardening is an investment and a labor of love, but it's worth it for the money you'll save on produce! Plus, it's a great way to get in some exercise while connecting with the earth. Start today to start reaping the benefits for your body--and your wallet.
Butterfield, Bruce. ''Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America.'' The National Gardening Association (2009): 1-17. Accessed April 2009. http://www.gardenresearch.com.
Kitchen Gardeners. ''What's a Home Garden Worth?'' Accessed March 2012. http://my.kitchengardeners.org.
Plangarden.com. ''Grow Your Own Vegetables Value Calculator.'' Accessed April 2009. http://www.plangarden.com/.
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Member Comments

We have now put our garden into grass but instead my DH made two large raised planters. I have tomatoes, onions,herbs, strawberries and even a few flowers in between. I also have a patch of asparagus and one of rhubarb, both of which I am enjoying at present. Report
Would have to find an area away from the cats and dogs. Lots of deer out here. Report
A few 5 gallon tubs, some soil and the cheap 25c seed packets and you can grow quite a few things. For a few bucks you can have tomatoes, peppers, lettuce etc. all season long. Absolutely worth it. Report
Gardening is one of my zen spaces. Nothing tastes better than home grown produce. Report
such a great idea. If you have the room Report
I'm in the Pac. Northwest so winter gardening is possible with kale, collards, purple sprouting broccoli & some greens. Fewer bugs to cope with. Now if I can just deter the slugs.... Report
For it was not into my ear you whispered,
but into my heart.
It was not my lips you kissed,
but my soul.
- Judy Garland Report
we love to garden Report
I have never had a green thumb - exactly quite the opposite. I also live in a town home and do not have the place for a garden or the time to invest into it so store bought it is for me! Report
I love to garden, but there has to be a reason I choose to grow something myself, either homegrown tastes significantly better, like tomatoes, or store bought is expensive, like lemons and figs. I grow zucchini for the blossoms. Artichokes are easy and expensive. But carrots are a pain to grow, and don't taste any better, so I don't grow those. Talking to others in your area can give you some ideas on what's easy, and worth it. By far the easiest is herbs, they don't require good soil, and your return on investment is good. Report
I do about 4 raised beds and I'm sure I lost money the first couple of years until my compost started to mature. I would say I save money now but the quality and freshness...there is nothing like the taste of homegrown tomatoes and lettuce (kale too) so it is worth it to me. Report
If you have a small apt you can still grow window gardens of salad veggies,and a vertical garden in a south facing window works too...NO pests, no pestisides, no excess heat,shade cloth, or fencing... ...takes up about 2 ft of floor space...even hang them on a wall! Good luck! Report
I started my own garden in pots on my deck last year and it's been a great source of joy along with food. We had a GREAT crop of lettuce last year, this year we haven't been able to harvest any. However, our green beans, basil, and parsley are out of control in a good way. We're also having some success with peppers, where they were duds last year. The investment of the planters was expensive at the time, but a great idea for the long run. Between seeds, starter plants, and dirt, we only spent $25 this year. That's a win! Report
I would love to grow my own food but the time is just not there. And I think that I would need to invest in some tools and stuff to get me going, which would cost a lot. Granted, over time that would pay itself off but still....so I am now participating in a local hybrid CSA where I get food from a local farm each week. This is a good one because I can pick and choose what I want if I want it with no obligations, so I don't end up with food that I don't eat. And I love supporting this local farm. I also get amazing organic free range eggs from them. Report
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About The Author

Jenny Sigler
Jenny Sigler
Jenny is a stay-at-home mom to her young children, Augustine and Olive. An avid gardener and baker, she enjoys writing about health and childcare topics to empower people to make healthy choices. See all of Jenny's articles.
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