5 foods it’s cheaper to grow
If grocery prices have you thinking about cutting costs with a garden, you may be on the right track. But be careful what you plant; a garden could raise your food costs.
I’ve dallied with gardening on and off for years, but with prices at the supermarket higher every time I go, it’s time to get serious. I want to grow a garden that saves a significant amount of money.
There’s one catch to that plan: It’s easy to spend more on a garden than you will ever get out of it.
Seeds are cheap, but they are just the beginning. William Alexander, the author of “The $64 Tomato,” learned that the hard way.
The title says it all, but the dirty details reveal he spent $16,565 building the perfect garden and $735 maintaining it for one year. Amortizing the initial costs over 20 years, adding this year’s expenses and dividing the result among all his produce, he figured his 19 Brandywine tomatoes cost $64 apiece.
Whether you save by gardening depends largely on where you live, what you grow and how well you resist slick gadgets and miracle solutions. If you’re looking to save money rather than to start a hobby, here are five garden crops likely to give you the best return:
- Fruit trees. If you really want a return on your garden investment, plant fruit trees. Alexander planted one $14 peach tree, and it gives him more than 200 pounds of peaches every year. Yes, he sprays it every year with about $3 worth of fungicide and pesticides. (The sprayer cost $30.) In the Hudson Valley, he doesn’t have to water fruit trees. At $1 per pound for the peaches, in the first year that he got a full crop, he had a 1,400% return (or a mere 339% if you throw in the cost of the sprayer and a few years’ worth of spray). Try getting a return like that on Wall Street. It took Alexander five years to get a full crop, so it does require patience.
- Lettuce. Can’t wait five years for results? Try lettuce. You’ll be eating the thinnings in two or three weeks. From a $2 package of mixed lettuce seed, you can have lettuce for months. A bag of spring greens costs about $3 at a store, so you recoup your investment with the first picking. Lettuce bolts — goes to seed — during the summer heat, so plant again in the fall.
- Herbs. These can give you the fastest payback of all. Buy a pot of parsley or mint and you can nibble on leaves on the way home. A parsley plant costs about the same amount as a bunch of cut parsley from the produce department. Parsley in a pot, kept out of reach of slugs, will provide fresh herbs all summer and can be brought inside in the fall. Thyme, rosemary, sage and other herbs come back on their own year after year in moderate climates.
- Vine vegetables. These are the most prolific crop producers by far. Zucchini and cucumbers are notorious. Put an 88-cent zucchini plant in your garden and, if cutworms don’t get it, it will try to take over the neighborhood. In most parts of the country, you can grow more zucchini from one plant than you’ll ever eat. The Alexanders grow a couple of cucumber plants, from which they make a dozen jars of pickles. They never buy pickles.
- Bell peppers. You can pay $1.50 for one pepper, or you can use your $1.50 to buy one pepper plant that can produce six peppers or more. But first make sure peppers will grow in your part of the country.
What about tomatoes? They require moderate care and vigilance, and in short-season climates, you can tend them all summer only to have them not quite ripen before the first frost. When they do ripen, everybody’s selling them cheap.
But you can’t put a price on everything. Home-grown, just-picked tomatoes are heavenly. Some foods you have to grow yourself to fully appreciate.
5 to leave to experts (or farmers)
Even so, not every crop is cost-effective to grow at home. Skip these five if you’re in it primarily to save money:
- Potatoes. Homegrown spuds are great, but by midsummer, farmers are almost giving them away. Alexander says, “For the $30 I spent on seed potatoes this year I could probably buy 100 pounds of white potatoes in August (and trust me, my harvest won’t be anywhere near 100 pounds).”
- Carrots. Carrots are popular, but they grow slowly and are fussy about soil conditions. Carrots in grocery stores are cheap and taste about the same.
- Celery. This vegetable doesn’t like sand or clay, requires plenty of water and grows slowly. Steve Solomon, in “Gardening When It Counts,” says he considers regular celery one of the “difficult” vegetables to grow. He recommends easier-to-grow Chinese, or cutting, celery.
- Asparagus. Solomon also considers it to be difficult. If you’re looking for a fast payback in the garden, asparagus is not for you. Asparagus requires the right mulch at the right time and weed-free beds. (It’s doomed at my house!) You might get some asparagus the second year, but it can take several years to get a real crop.
- Wheat. You can buy a 50-pound bag of whole-wheat flour for $62. Other grains and dried beans can also be purchased more easily than they can be grown. Alexander grew almost 20 pounds of wheat from two packets of seed that cost next to nothing — except about 40 hours of backbreaking, never-again labor. Don’t try to compete with thousand-acre farms with combines.
Get Rich Slowly blogger J.D. Roth is tracking how much work and money his family’s garden consumes, including such things as electricity, seeds and hoses.
Note that your time is considered free. One consolation is that if the plot is in your backyard, you’re probably spending time on it already. Lawns are hard work — you have to feed, water, weed, thatch and mow them all summer long. At least with a garden you have something besides grass clippings when you’re done.