Most will agree, a garden is not complete without tomatoes.
We all know that growing our own food offers multiple benefitsófor our health, our taste buds, and our pocketbook. But how many of us know how much weíre actually saving?
For the past few summers, Iíve conducted a little experiment to see just how much I would save by growing veggies myself versus buying their supermarket counterparts. You may be surprised at the results!
Why Grow Your Own?
Before getting to the numbers, letís review the many benefits of growing your own food. They include:
Personal satisfaction: When it comes to self-sufficiency, there is nothing more elemental than being able to feed oneself. I love the early-evening ritual of wandering down to the vegetable garden, colander in hand, to pick whatever has ripened and prepare it for my dinner that same evening.
Lessening your environmental footprint: By reducing your reliance on foods grown far away and trucked hundreds or thousands of miles to your local grocery store, your food consumption contributes less to smog and global warming. By growing your vegetables, youíre also doing your part to reverse the globalization of the food supply.
Superior taste and freshness: Homegrown fruits and vegetables simply taste better than produce thatís been allowed to ripen in trucks during transport and sit on store shelves before youíre ready to eat it. Even if youíre not a verifiable foodie, the taste, flavor, and freshness of homegrown produce is reason enough for many gardeners to devote a portion of their yard, patio, or terrace to growing vegetables.
Better nutritional value: Because less time elapses between harvest and consumption (say, about an hour when I harvest my own produce compared to days or weeks when I buy it in the supermarket), homegrown vegetables deliver higher nutritional value. And if you choose to grow your produce pesticide-free like I do, youíll get the added health benefits of consuming organic produce at little-to-no extra cost.
Early September harvest
But for the budget-minded among us, a fifth important benefit of growing your own food isÖ
The ability to reduce your grocery expenses: In todayís challenging economy, nearly every consumer is looking to save a few dollars wherever they can. Growing your own vegetables can substantially reduce your grocery bill throughout the summer. If you freeze or can your surplus, you can extend your savings into the winter months.
The Economics of Homegrown
This was the third season I tracked my gardenís output, not only by the pound, but by its monetary value.
My garden plot is modest in size, about 120 square feet. It was not intended to feed a large family, although the inevitable surplus is freely given to friends and neighbors. In its current form, itís L-shaped (to detour around a small juneberry tree) and located in my front yard, to take maximum advantage of sunlight.
Die-hard gardeners can spend lots of time experimenting with heirloom varieties, growing plants from seed, and researching the best soil amendments, fertilizers, compost, and mulch covers. Yet you can fumble along, make mistakes, and still wind up with a respectable harvest, provided thereís ample sunlight and adequate watering.
Due to my own laissez-faire attitude about plant diseases, my garden is succumbing a few weeks early to blight and powdery mildew. With the harvest about 95 percent in, Iíve tallied up my pickings for the season.
To determine their monetary value, I checked the prices of comparable produce at Shop Rite, my grocery store of choice. Whenever possible, I used prices of Shop Riteís organic produce. But for about half of what I harvested, I couldnít find organic equivalents and was forced to use the non-organic price in my comparison. Because produce prices fluctuate regularly, I used an average of Shop Rite prices I found throughout July and August, at the height of my gardenís production.
Hereís what I grew and harvested this year, ranked by its dollar value:
2011 total monetary value: $330.08
2011 total expenses: $21.78
Net savings: $308.30
How do these numbers compare to previous years? In 2009, I grossed $148 in produce from a somewhat smaller-sized garden, but ended up with -$222 after factoring in my Ďstart-upí expenses which included a pricey, six-foot-high roll of wire fencing and metal posts (essential to exclude deer).
In 2010, I enlarged the garden (since I had leftover fencing) and harvested more, growing $515 worth of food ($429 after expenses). I attribute some of the increase to a more concerted effort to harvest wineberries daily during the month of July, as they ripened. The wineberries, which grow naturally in my backyard, are an invasive Asian bramble that produces berries that look similar to a raspberry. Since youíll never find them in a store, Iíve used raspberry prices for comparison when calculating their monetary value. (And you know how expensive raspberries are in the store!)
Acorn squash on the vine
Last summer, I hand-picked 39 cups of wineberries, which really boosted my Ďgardení productivity. I planned to do the same this summer, but lost my enthusiasm after finding a tiny tick embedded in the skin between my fingers. I don hip boots sprayed with DEET for wading into the brambles as protection against ticks (Iíve had Lyme disease twice) but hadnít counted on picking one up on my hand. So I settled for about nine cups of berries picked from the relative safety of the periphery of the thickets.
This yearís garden is pretty much spent, but I take comfort knowing Iíll be enjoying my tomatoes, wineberries, kale, basil, and zucchini (in the form of soups, stews and quick breads, and on my breakfast cereal) in the cold winter months to come. I canít wait until next spring, when Iíll be planting soybeans for the first time.
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Yes, I won the Potato Lottery!
Potatoes! Alleluia! I am blessed!
I actually returned the potato seed to the nursery because they were shriveled and wrinkled. I planted them, but then became disgusted at their black, blotchy appearance and convinced myself they were no good.
I was so surprised when healthy green shots sprung up two weeks later.
Then I endured three consecutive weeks of nightly slug picking. They decimated my once healthy plants despite my best efforts.
The tops began dying back a few weeks ago, and because they never had a chance to flower before the slugs took over, i figured there'd be no tubers.
WRONG. I harvested half my crop, only becus mosquitoes were biting. I dug up 6 lbs. of big, beautiful, red potatoes!!!!
I hereby declare tomorrow Potato Salad Day!
My garden is winding down. What with the cooler temperatures and shorter days, you can tell the growing season is coming to a close as the produce is considerably smaller.
But early on, i decided to track how much produce I harvested, in part to determine how worthy this undertaking was from a strictly financial standpoint.
Of course, I can't tell you how satisfying it is to walk down to the garden after a day's work and see what the day's pickings are. (Organic, of course, and noticeably more flavorful than store-bought veggies.)
So, without further ado, here's what I harvested this summer:
Enough lettuce for 2 large salads
Several servings of snap peas
3 zucchini (The zucchini rapidly got shaded out by everything else)
7 green peppers (Three plants)
33 cucumbers! (Just 1 or 2 vines)
108 tomatoes! (I had no more than 6 plants!)
I gave some produce away to family and friends. And when the tomatoes threatened to take over the kitchen, I chopped them up and froze them for later use this winter in soups and stews.
As for costs, I did sit down to calculate that as well. My expenses included seeds, tomato seedlings, deer netting, poultry fencing, wood stakes and Miracle Grow. I estimate all this came to about $50.
So, that's $50 for 108 tomatoes, 33 cukes and an assortment of other produce. I don't know what a tomato goes for in the summer, in the supermarket, but I think i came out ahead.
I'm planning a much larger garden next year to accommodate the same vegetables, plus more pepper plants and definitely string beans.
At some point earlier in the season, I decided to keep track of how much produce my modest garden generated.
If you're a vegetable, you're just hitting your stride now in Zone 6, when both days and nights are warm and often humid. And here in the Northeast, we've gotten a heck of a lot of rain, saving me at least one chore.
The garden plot is just about 6 x 6, not over-sized by any means. I threw seedlings and seeds in the ground so quickly that I forgot how large the plants would become, so now the entire garden, with its flimsy deer netting and spindly wood posts, is slowly imploding toward the center. I can't walk inside to weed, but I can pick produce by reaching over or under the flexible fencing.
So here's what I harvested so far:
2 large servings of lettuce
several large servings of snap peas
6 green bell peppers
Not bad for such a modest space, and I project my overall harvest will double by the end of September, at least if we're talking tomatoes!
As for expenses, this is only an estimate, but the cost of seeds, seedlings, fencing, posts and Miracle-Gro must've come to about $46. And I have plenty of seeds and more deer netting, left over. I will have to come up with a better fencing system, though, when I expand the garden.