Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's a vegetable garden worth?



This year we set aside a 10x10 foot plot at the Derwood Demo Garden as the Grow It Eat It Garden. We planted "typical" backyard vegetable crops, harvested and weighed the results, and made an attempt to calculate the value of the produce based on grocery store prices, as another data point in the continuing debate over whether it's reasonable to declare that having your own vegetable garden is a great way to save money. Have we come to any definite conclusions? Not sure. But here's the data. First, have some beans.

(Kentucky Wonder pole beans on the left, Masai bush beans on the right. I am a big fan of Masai now - nice little compact plants with a huge yield. The pole beans pulled the teepee over; what else can I say?)

My previous post on the totals through July showed we'd harvested $153 worth of produce. Here's the update, August through October:

Tomatoes: 19 lbs
Zucchini: 3 lbs (our one plant succumbed to mildew and squash bugs)
Peppers: 6.5 lbs
Basil: 5.5 lbs
Beans: 27.5 lbs (yes, seriously)
Mesclun: 1/2 lb

My estimated total value for these crops: $234. So that's $387 for the year.

Notes and caveats:

As I've said before, the demo garden is not your home garden. We work once a week, occasionally more often, sometimes less often due to weather. We can't always keep up with harvesting and so some produce is wasted, and we can't always keep up with pest and disease management. I wish we could be there every day inspecting plants for damage as you should in home gardens, but since we are all volunteers it's just not possible. And by the same token we are not as efficient as we should be in planting succession crops; we should have had some fall crops in that garden and just didn't get to it (aside from the pitiful harvest of mesclun). So a home garden ought to be more productive.

The price selection process is fuzzy and unscientific. I didn't go for the cheapest possible prices or the most expensive or necessarily a consistent level of price (though most of them are from Giant). Prices change through the season and I did not keep that in mind, just tried to choose an average. Some of the prices reflect the low end of organic produce costs, since our garden is an organic one, or farmer's market/locally grown costs. I went for a higher price on tomatoes, for example, which brought the total up considerably, because I personally feel there's a big difference between locally grown tomatoes that may cost more and cheap ones that are shipped unripe. Whereas with zucchini and cucumbers the origin makes less difference and so I used a "bargain" price.

Another reason the total jumped is the high price of basil and the amount we harvested from our plants. This might not be as worthwhile to someone who doesn't like pesto.

Now, subtractions. Many people who argue that vegetable gardening is not monetarily worthwhile are including the start-up costs of a new garden: tools, fencing, soil enhancements, etc. I agree that these costs will eat up $387 pretty quickly. However, once you have the tools and the fence they will last you a long time (and you might still manage to break even that first year!). So let's choose to make our subtractions based on the idea of an established garden. You may need some new soil enhancements, if you haven't been composting: perhaps about $30. Another $30 or so for fertilizer. About $20 for seeds (remember that some of them can be used next year), and then another miscellaneous $20 for garden things you didn't get last year. That brings your "profit" down well under $300, but it's still not bad. Again, totally unscientific, and it is always possible to waste money on a garden, as I well know. But with careful planning and maintenance you should be able to save instead of spend.

You can also choose your crops based on what costs the most at the store, although I think the first priority should always be what you will most enjoy eating, and then what you will most enjoy growing. Carrots may be cheap to buy, and not always the easiest to grow in our soil, but if you really want to try purple carrots then try them! Just learn as much as you can about growing them successfully before you start; knowledge is one of the biggest cost-savers out there.

And no matter what you save or don't save, you have also gained a lot just by being in the garden: getting exercise, learning about nature, knowing that you produced your own food. That's worth a lot, whether it can be measured at a cash register or not.

(Photos by Katherine Lambert)

2 comments:

  1. This is great information. I estimated that a new 10 ft. X 10 ft. garden would conservatively produce vegetables valued at $175-$275 (at $2/lb. retail).

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  2. Jon, I think $2/lb is probably a good estimate for average price. It really does depend on what you grow, and as I said I think the basil in our garden threw the price average off since it retails for something like $16/lb! And we grew a lot of it. Mm, pesto.

    You could play with numbers forever and not get a perfect answer for this problem. But I do think it's "worth it."

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