The Economics of the Home Garden

VermontCathy Posts: 1,980 ✭✭✭✭✭
edited September 2021 in Garden Design

Much of our discussion around gardening at TGN revolves around health and self-sufficiency. But a garden can make a lot of sense in purely economic terms. You can grow food more cheaply than you can buy it, and you don't pay sales tax on the food you grow to eat yourself.

However, not every garden makes economic sense, and not every crop is economically suitable for every place you might want to grow it. There are several factors that affect this: the size of your garden, the length of your growing season, the cost of making the soil productive, the productivity per plant or per square foot, and the cost of the plants or seeds.

My Crop List:

I've found that green beans are my economically-best crop. They cost almost nothing. Seeds are cheap, soil does not need much preparation, and they can produce a steady supply all summer. Preserving them consists of a quick blanch and freezing in simple bags.

Peas also work well, handling poor soil and having minimal prep. However, they are much less productive. Their season is shorter because they don't tolerate heat well. I have had little luck growing them in fall, so I only get a single crop in the spring and early summer.

Potatoes are very productive and my best garden source of calories. They don't need rich soil, but do need loose soil, and it requires some care to mulch or hill around the tubers. I lost a lot of tubes this year because they were too close to the surface and turned green, indicating they were likely poisonous. And if you follow the standard recommendation to buy certified disease-free seed every year, the cost is much higher than buying small seeds. However, I have found that I can save potato seed (including those inedible green potatoes) and plant them for a good crop the next year. My experience suggests that the need for certified seed every year is overstated. (Farmers growing large-scale commercial crops on the same soil every year with little or no rotation almost certainly do need it.)

Onions were a waste of money for me when I was buying transplants. I have never been able to get bulbing onions going from seed. Transplants are expensive. And they never produced much. It was only when I switched to multiplier onions (walking onions, potato onions, shallots) that I got a crop that justified the space and expense, and since it is easy to save "seed" to replant the next year, the cost should be nearly zero from now on.

Much as we love tomatoes, they make no economic sense for us. They are too prone to disease, produce only a few tomatoes per plant, and have a very short season of about one month. We will always grow a few to enjoy fresh tomatoes, but economically they don't justify the space they take up here.

Lettuce, spinach, mustard, and similar greens are very cheap to grow. While it is difficult to save their seeds, it is cheap to buy them every year. They provide nutrition and fiber in our diet. However, it doesn't make sense to grow too much, because they have few calories. In some years, I have planted too many because they were so easy and had such a long season, only to find that we couldn't eat that much and the space could have been better used for potatoes or beans.

Garlic is ridiculously easy to grow and you can easily save seed for it every year. But how much garlic can you really use in a year? It's a flavor additive, not a major source of calories or protein. In some years, I have made the mistake of growing too much garlic and not even being able to use it all. Again, that space could better have been used for other crops.

What crops are economic for you? What have you tried, but then dropped because it didn't make sense?


  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,640 admin

    Very good assessment on what grows well and works for you economically.

    Tomatoes don't do well enough for me to justify the cost of the store bought transplants or the work involved starting them from seed. And there is the extra cost of having lights going to get the seeds to transplant stage.

    Sweet peppers have never done very well for me. Just get small ones. Not sure what I am doing wrong. But I have good success with hot peppers. I like to grow the Long, Slim Cayenne peppers cause I use them for making salve.

    Garlic is very easy and we use a lot. I just dry it in thin slices in my dehydrator and then powder it in a small blender. I like using it fresh in garlic/onion honey.

    I grow the smaller perennial onions, too, as I have never had much success with regular onions. They get a lot of root maggots in my garden.

    We grow a lot of greens. Because of our climate, cabbage family members usually do well for us. Not this year with the heat dome, although my red cabbage are really nice and so is the kale. But I got one serving of broccoli from 18 plants and one serving of cauliflower from 12 plants.

    We tend to grow the more exotic species of potatoes as a novelty (Blues, Reds, Fingerlings, etc.) rather than standard potatoes as there are several farms in our area that grow those and sell them cheaply enough.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,980 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I've tried growing two different types of blue potato, Adirondack Blue and All Blue, and was disappointed with the yield of both. I probably won't grow either again.

    Caribe and Reddale are our primary potato varieties, but Yukon Gold and Red Norland also serve us well.

    I tried fingerlings for the first time this year, and was satisfied with the yield.

  • Michelle D
    Michelle D Posts: 1,465 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I have been trying to decide which crops are most economical for us to grow. I've been testing cost/yield ratios for plants that I start from seed vs buying seedlings. I still have some things to determine. Tomatoes are a good investment for me. I start from seeds that I saved myself from the previous years crop. I do plant them closer to each other than recommended. They do very well here and I always get a large harvest. I have noticed a similar trend with peppers as mentioned by @torey. Hot peppers seem to do wonderfully for me but I can't seem to get sweet pepper plants to produce much of anything. It makes me very sad so I keep trying. I grow a lot of greens. My family really enjoys salads and there is nothing like fresh harvested greens in salad. Having the ability to harvest it when we are going to eat it reduces waste. It is also more cost effective way for me because I have such a large family.

  • RustBeltCowgirl
    RustBeltCowgirl Posts: 1,403 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I don't plant garlic. My CSA provides me with enough garlic to even give some away. What additional that I'm getting this year will take a whirl through the baby Cuisinart and get canned with white vinegar. The apple trees are having a huge yield, so that needs processed for winter usage.

    I have not been out to check the potato that I threw in a feed bag full of top soil. We'll see how that experiment worked.

  • dipat2005
    dipat2005 Posts: 1,279 ✭✭✭✭

    Carrots have usually had a poor yield for me and this year the soil wasn't prepared deeply enough for either the beats or the carrots to grow. I haven't pulled any onions up but we will see. I usually can grow small green bunching onions from seed. I have also used bunching onions from plants and they have done well. The greens have been abundant this year with huge leaves as well as the kale (although not as abundant). The spinach has bolted already even though it was planted under the swiss chard. Planting the Spinach under the Swiss Chard was a great idea. I was trying to pick only Swiss Chard this morning and realized that one of the leaves was spinach (it was quite large).Tomatoes and I don't seem to get along and so I haven't grown those in several years. I love peas and do try to get a fall and spring/summer crop. I also like frozen green beans (which are just like eating fresh) when they are flash frozen (so easy to do). I am still drying (air) not a machine some of the greens and will pulverize to use in lots of things.

  • JodieDownUnder
    JodieDownUnder Posts: 1,483 admin

    @VermontCathy I’ve never really considered the economics or calories when growing my own. I usually work on what I like to eat and prepare. Now I’ve learnt more about plant medicines and health value, I tend to go down that track.

    This winter, mustard greens thrived, far to many but I’ve made and frozen 2 lots of pesto. I changed my planting date for potatoes and look forward to my harvest soon. Pumpkins are a good one, one plant can produce many and they usually store well. Tomatoes are fiddly but the promise of that home grown flavour, well I can never resist. Chokos are prolific, okra to. I’ve had success with onions but don’t seem to grow enough. Garlic, well I grow enough to last all year and besides using it as a flavour bomb in lots of meals, I make Fire Cider and put a clove or 2 in my morning smoothies. This year I finally has success with celeriac from seed, so hopefully they produce some big old ugly bulbs that taste wonderful. Zucchini, celery, spinach and cucumbers also flourish and atm I’m feasting on sugar snap peas. For the life of me I cannot grow carrots and I’m about to stop trying. Cauliflowers don’t seem to do well in my climate, so I’m axing them next winter.

  • vickeym
    vickeym Posts: 2,116 ✭✭✭✭✭

    When we lived at our old place, about 50 miles from where we are now, We had a good sized garden. It was at least 50 by 50 feet. Snow peas and sugar snap peas always did very well. We had great broccoli and cauliflower. Never got to eat them except the little side shoots. Seems the moose really liked my garden as well.

    Potatoes did well there also. Did corn the year before we moved. Had it in a cold frame. Got enough corn to last us for the winter.

    In our new place I don't really have a garden yet. I did get a greenhouse last year. And a smaller temporary one. Had great luck with peppers and cucumbers in the green houses. Though the sweet peppers did not get as large as store bought. We had not done enough reading and forgot we had to hand pollinate them so they got a late start.

    Tomatoes did "ok" last year. Had a lot that were not ripe at the end of the season so had to pick them green and let them ripen inside.

    My calendula was incredible. Took over about half the bed I had planted it in. Bloomed like crazy all through summer and into fall. Came back this year but not as well. Probably because I did not keep the blooms picked as much this year.

    This year was a whole different story. The weather was chilly and wet all summer. Nothing flourished. What little heat we had in late spring early summer cause my lettuce, kale, chard and tat soy to bolt very early.

    Carrots are the only thing we did good with this year. Several others in our community said they had the same type of problems.

    Whenever we end up with too much of something for us we either share it with our local food bank and our friends or since we have a regular egg customer base we have also take it to offer to them which adds a little to our bank accounts for more seeds or feed or whatever we currently need.

    The one thing I have not had ANY luck with is horseradish. Have planted it twice now. Nothing. Tried digging it back up to see what was going on and it was just gone. Nothing left at all. I'm thinking some critter must like it. Planted in different places each year, no sign of the tuber I planted or any plants. Made it a nice raised bed all it's own this year. nothing happened. I am gonna try again next spring but will try starting in a large pot and see what happens.

    I make fire cider with it as well as cooking and sauces. Buying it here means special order and waiting. Plus it is $20 for 3 pounds.

    First year trying garlic. It should arrive within the next month or so.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,640 admin

    @vickeym I am shocked to hear of the lack of success with horseradish. I have given away many starts from my plants and the only complaint is that they take over. It grows in all climate conditions.

    I think the pot idea is a good one. If something is eating it (and I can't imagine what critter would like it), they wouldn't be able to get at it in a pot. Once it gets big enough, you should be able to put it in the ground. Maybe in a pot with the bottom cut out for the first year or so.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,980 ✭✭✭✭✭

    It's very interesting to see how one gardener's highly productive plant is another's failure.

    In the end, after reading about climate, soil, sun, water, and various tricks, the only way to find your own best varieties to grow is to experiment.

    Keep good records of your trials, and don't give up after a single year. Even the best crop varieties for your garden may produce little or nothing in some years. I've had years when we had too many carrots to use, and others when the same varieties of carrot produced nothing.

    COWLOVINGIRL Posts: 954 ✭✭✭✭

    Thank you @VermontCathy! Very interesting.

  • vickeym
    vickeym Posts: 2,116 ✭✭✭✭✭

    torey Glad to know it works well, once you can get it growing. I really think a shrew or something is stealing my root starts before they can grow. Some of them I never did find. I dug through the soil and there was nothing there. A couple I found but they looked pretty much just like they did when I planted. Just not as dry. I ordered them (from either SOW TRUE SEEDS or JOHNNYS SEEDS) and they came in looking like dried sticks.

    VermontCathy I won't be giving up, will just keep trying different methods until I get some to grow and get established. If it is something I want to grow I can be pretty determined to find a way. lol

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,980 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @vickeym That's exactly the same problem I had with sunchokes until I moved one inside the fence.

    Ironically, after I did that, a couple more did manage to grow out by the road. I have my doubts that they will manage to keep going, but we will see.