The Economic Garden

VermontCathy Posts: 1,980 ✭✭✭✭✭

There are many reasons to have a garden. It's relaxing, it produces food even if you can't buy it elsewhere, the food you grow is healthier than many of the atlernatives, and so on.

In this discussion, I'd to specifically talk about the "saving money" aspect of gardening. This is the direction I'm moving as I try harder to make the garden pay for itself.

I have not run detailed financials on my garden, but I know from looking at expenses and rough estimates of what I get back that some crops are paying their own way and others are not. As the global financial situation deteriorates, I'm more interested in focusing on the stuff that makes economic sense.

My garden choices are also influenced by the small space I have. My native soil is poor clay, so most gardening is done in raised beds, and building beds and stocking them with good soil adds more costs. So I am looking for maximum productivity per square foot, not just per dollar.

Potatoes -- not worth it, at least not if I purchase certified disease-free seed every year. I have found that I can reseed at least one year without disease problems, but it's still very expensive for the yield I get. This year I spent over $80 on potato tubers, plus more on grow bags, and the total amount I got was about one shopping bag worth. I can't justify it any more.

Carrots -- seed is cheap, but they tie up garden space for the entire season. I often grow them under tomatoes, which works, but sometimes they remain very small. It's probably worth growing a few, but I don't see them as a major calorie crop, even though they have a lot of potential.

Lettuce, spinach, mustard -- cheap seed, grows easily, provides nutrients and roughage but few calories. The last couple of years I have planted too much of these crops because they are so easy and productive, and I get more than I can use. They also don't store well.

Tomatoes -- excellent source of vitamins, but few calories. Great product to provide umami flavor and body to sauces, salsa, and similar items. Plants tend to sell for about $1, or you can start them from seed with a lot of time and effort but very little cost. Some years I get a good crop, some not. There is a lot of variation in yield between different varieties. Next year I am going to experiment with a wide variety of different tomatos types and find out what works best. We eat a lot of tomato sauce, and if I could grow enough tomatoes instead of spending almost $60 for 10 lbs in canning season it would definitely save money.

Onion bulbs -- I had a terrible return on onions when I started gardening here. It's hard to get onions started from seed and get them big enough to harvest bulbs in one year, and if it takes two years, it's tying up space that could grow other things. I switched to buying transplants online, which worked, but was expensive and the resulting bulbs were still small. Only a few types of onions are available as sets, so I never liked that path. Eventually I discovered multiplier onions, including walking onions, potato onions, and shallots. Every year I plant some bulbs, let them multiply over the season, then harvest some and replant some for next year. I still don't get as many onions as I use over the course of a year, but now the ongoing cost is very low and I do get usable onions.

Scallions or green onions -- These are far quicker and easier to grow than bulbing onions, and we use them heavily in many dishes. Seeds are cheap, which is good because onions are biennials, making it hard to produce and save your own seed for next year. The stalks of walking onions, shallots, and potato onions can also be used as scallions. Spring onions (Syboes) are perennials, and can also make good scallions.

Cucumbers -- We grow these mainly for pickling. Seeds are cheap, many varieties are available, and making pickles is quick and easy. But you do have to buy a significant amount of canning supplies, including vinegar in bulk, so you have to take that into account. I will continue to grow and can them, but I can't really call them a staple.

Peas -- Cheap to buy seed, and can save seed once you get them going. Yields are decent, certainly enough to make them worth growing. They stop producing in the heat of summer, so you can pull them and grow something else the second half of the year, even in a short season climate like mine. We freeze as many peas as possible for winter.

Beans -- Probably the single crop that produces the most pounds of food for us at the lowest cost. Seeds are cheap, many varieties are available, and they can be eaten fresh, water bath canned with acids, pressure canned, or frozen. We eat them as green beans and also as shellies or dried beans.

Strawberries -- Cheap to buy initially, not as cheap as seed, but for $25 you can buy enough plants to create a solid bed. If you manage them properly, they will produce for many years, sending out runners that create new plants. We love strawberries and strawberry jam, so the amount of garden planted in them has slowly risen over time.

Raspberries -- Delicious, but not very produce per plant. You need a lot of plants to do much, they are more expensive than strawberries, and they take longer to spread. But they are perennials and will keep producing once established. Each year I get a few more plants coming up on their own and a little more yield.

Apples -- We inherited several apple trees when we bought the property. Some are good cultivated varieties, other are wild and produce small fruit that is less sweet. We use them all, making apple jelly, apple chutney, applesauce, apple pies, apple dumplings, apple turnovers, apple cake, and more!

What crops do you grow to improve your financial situation? What would you like to grow that would pay for itself? What crops have you found don't make financial sense for you?



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

    I also feel the need to make my garden more economical. I can relate to a lot of those details.

    @VermontCathy I think I remember us discussing previously that our grow spaces are about the same size. Other than the strawberries (I have yet to be successful with mine) and the fact that we have pears instead of apples, I think my experiences are extremely similar also.

    However, potatoes do well for me. This year I put winter squash in behind the potatoes I'm still waiting to see if that was worth it or not. I did a small stand of corn and pinto beans but the squirrels decimated it about a month before harvest. Otherwise it would have given me a good return.

    I think one of my biggest opportunities is that I am not great about seed saving and typically end up ordering seeds that I should have just saved the year before. I did better this year but not as good I had wanted to.

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

    @Michelle D Winter squash would do very well here if I could just keep the slugs off of them. Maybe I will eventually find a breed of squash with hard rinds that the slugs can't eat. They eat blue hubbard like it was candy. 😑

  • kbmbillups1
    kbmbillups1 Posts: 1,377 ✭✭✭✭✭

    My friend told me she buys organic potatoes that are growing eyes at the grocery store and plants the eyes. Shes been doing it for years. I tried it this year and had great success.

    I planted my carrots in 5 gallon buckets and a self watering container I bought growing flowers and they've been growing great. It makes my front porch look nice too!

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,518 admin

    You can also just plant potato peels. It's even cheaper than @kbmbillups1 idea above. I paid under $25 for my seed potatoes this year.

    I tried underplanting the tomatoes with carrots in the past, and they remained super small and not worth digging. That idea never worked for me. My tomato plants were huge as well but produced only a few tomatoes.

    There is also the idea of seed saving or having plants overwinter (peppers, other) and some plants reseeding themselves. I had lots of volunteer tomatoes & potatoes that dropped their seed and remained dormant over winter in zone 3. I will see if I can keep my tiny new seed potatoes over winter. I hope I am able to. If not, I may be trying to find a way to plant them early indoors. 🤷‍♀️ This is now my own local variety of a mixed pink & purple type.

    For us, we plant and get one round of most things. "Economical" hinges on it actually producing. We generally don't get second rounds of planting unless you include lettuce & spinach.

    I also buy extra seed when I order with seeds that last longer than 1 year, because the seeds are never going to cost as little again as the year you buy them. The next year is usually always costing more.

    On the green onion front, I planted green onions in my flower bed years ago. They faithfully produce flowers & seed every year. I suspect that somehow, these are perennial and never heard that they should be biennial. 😄

    We love peas, but in my garden, they never produce well. They are always a disappointment. Others can get good yields, but not me.

    We pick apples from others' trees when available and we buy strawberries (very expensive). Strawberries take lots of space & the ants & birds would eat the berries before we could get to them.

    Our raspberries don't do well, but it may be possible to harvest from other people's excess.

    I like to see what others have as excess. I have a rule to never turn down offers. If they offer, we will eat it.

    Gardens can do so well some years and other years, not so much.

    @Michelle D As long as you saved some seed. It's a start. Do what you can. I wanted to save carrot, lettuce, onion & oregano seed this year, but the kids pulled the onion that had green seed (I need to see if they matured enough...I kept the head...& unfortunately the frost got the rest.

    But...I foraged for some extra things this year, so I call that progress. Hopefully I can build on all of these things next year.

    Our economic lifesaver in food is not in the garden and tends to stay out of the garden (thankfully). Our milk cow easily gives us half of our food. I know it's not possible to keep one for most people, but that's our best investment food wise.

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

    Last year I spent a little over $60 on certified disease-free potato seed tubers. That produced about 20 lbs of potatoes, or $3/lb, ignoring costs like depreciation on the raised beds.

    $3/lb is not terrible, but it's much more expensive than almost anything else I grow.

    Thank you for the suggestions of planting sprouting organic potatoes from the grocery store, or even potato peels. These may be better approaches in a time of inflation.

  • dipat2005
    dipat2005 Posts: 1,278 ✭✭✭✭

    @VermontCathy have you tried the crush egg shells? As soon as I use mine I add water to them and let them sit overnight then I put them out to dry. After they are dry I simply crush with my hands, roll a rolling pin over them or blend them. Usually crush them with my hand does the best. There are somewhat larger pieces and place them on the ground. I haven't had slugs in years. I usually have to add them more than once. I save egg shells all year long!

  • JodieDownUnder
    JodieDownUnder Posts: 1,483 admin

    @VermontCathy I’ve not done the financials on my garden either. I’m just learning what grows well & what doesn’t in certain circumstances. (Trial & error in a sub tropical location) Last summer it was so wet, most plants rotted & I walked away, despondent & gave myself a break from it. But previously in summer my best producing crops that saved me a heap of $$$ was Okra, chillies, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, Jap pumpkin, apple cucumbers, cucamelons, zucchini, chokos & garlic. In winter, lettuce, rocket, pak Choi, sugar snap & snow peas, broccoli & leeks. Herb wise I haven’t had to purchase for years, basil, parsley, rosemary, lemon balm, lemongrass, coriander, oregano, different mints, comfrey & yarrow. Re orchard my lemons are abundant & I have preserved lemons sitting in jars on the shelf.

    Vegetables that I’m done with & will not bother again are, broad beans, cauliflower, cabbage, capsicums & possibly eggplant (I love it so much that I always try with mixed success.) Carrots are another hit & miss veg.

    @dipat2005 love your crushed eggshell hack. I’ve had great success this year with organic slug pellets made from elemental iron. It’s saved me a heap of heartache with my seedlings. I think of vegetable gardening as money saving, health saving & mental health savings. I always plan to seasonally grow a 1/3 of what we consume.

  • SuperC
    SuperC Posts: 951 ✭✭✭✭

    In one garden, We planted $5 worth of potatoes and yield was a three gallon pailful.

    The dill turned brown yet collected the seed for next year planting.

    our season was much drier this year so not much in production.

    our other garden had more beans yet not enough to last over winter. Next year we’ll be returning to our pole beans which allow more to be frozen.

    we have walking onions, and those are delish.

    We harvested oregano and thyme which are used a lot.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,640 admin

    I try to add perennials to the garden every year. Then it is just the expense the first year and after that they become "free".

    Jerusalem artichokes was one addition to the garden this year. I've only pulled one plant so far but it had a pretty good yield on it. I can see an issue with finding all of the roots, so they will most certainly come back next year. I will save some though, just in case.

    I got a new variety of potato this year that I am going to try to keep going every year. It is a heritage "Haida" potato and we're quite impressed with the yield and the taste.

    I bought 3 purple raspberry plants this spring but only 2 survived. That makes those two worth more but in future years they will produce suckers to expand the planting.

    My hot peppers usually do very well. More than paying for themselves. I have used quite a bit of cayenne as barter this year. I have one siracha plant that will be all for barter as the one pepper I tried almost brought me to my knees. :)

    Cabbage and kale are always winners. So much kale! Brussel sprouts are hit and miss, rarely paying for themselves. Mostly because the deer get to the plants before the sprouts are big enough to harvest. But I'm going to get a feed this year! Still not very economical, though.

    Carrots and beets usually produce well, more than paying for the seeds but the last couple of years we have had difficulty with them. Beets paid for the seed this year but I'm not sure if the carrots broke even.

    Greens always give more back than the cost of the seeds. I have sorrel as a perennial green. And mustard reseeds so prolifically, that I have many volunteers every year.

    My herbs certainly pay for themselves as most are perennials. The chives sure do. I have plants to give away every year when I divide mine. Then I still manage to pick and dry a quart jar full over the season. With what I picked from my spearmint patch this year, I have made the equivalent of $56 worth of mint sauce and there is still more to pick. (Mint sauce is a popular condiment in my house so we go through quite a bit.) My main lovage plant is 25 years old and gives me many babies every year. My original horseradish plant was a freebie. We eat a lot of horseradish sauce and haven't had to purchase it in many years. Same for comfrey. The original was also a freebie and will continue to provide for me for many years.

    My cherry trees do pretty well. My apple trees have both been attacked by bears in the past and are in desperate need of some TLC. I have met someone who is much more knowledgeable that I am that will come this spring to prune my apple trees so hopefully they will produce better. But they have paid for themselves several times over already. All my trees are over 20 years old.

  • kbmbillups1
    kbmbillups1 Posts: 1,377 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I haven't figured up the cost of my garden vs what I grew either. BUT I do know that since I grew salad ingredients, okra, and 2 kinds of beans I didn't go to the store as often. So, I know I saved money because I never buy just what I go for even if I have a list. Fewer trips = money saved to me!

  • jowitt.europe
    jowitt.europe Posts: 1,454 admin
    edited October 2022

    We hardly buy any vegetables and fruit during summer and autumn months. I just check what we have and we decide what we cook to make use of our own vegetables and fruit. And they last more or less until the new year as we have a good cellar. I do a lot of foraging: mushrooms, berries…

    we really do feel that our costs for food in summer and autumn are very low, despite frequent visits from grandchildren, children, friends

    we grow potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, leek, onions, garlic, squash and zucchini, pumpkins, Jerusalem artichokes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, pepper, eggplants …apples, plums, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, 4 different colours of currants, blackberries … and then, of course, herbs and all kinds of exotic plants like figs (we ate 5 this year 😊), goji berries, physalis (I have to take them to winter garden for winter), sea buckthorn…

    i stopped growing cauliflower and cabbage. They take too much space.

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

    @dipat2005 Thanks for the suggestion on eggshells to prevent slug damage. I'll try that next year.

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

    I've tried to get sunchokes started several years in a row, but with repeated failure. However, after finding one tuber that the voles missed and planting it _inside_ the garden fence, I got a good crop this year.

    I was impressed at how many tubers were produced in only year 2, and how large they were. This is in heavy clay where few vegetables will grow at all.

    Most of the sunchoke tubers were dug up and replanted elsewhere, some around the perimeter of the garden inside the fence, others scattered around the yard in various places. I'm hoping to get a self-sustaining, free supply going.

    My claytonia have become self-seeding in a cold frame several years in a row, and are now our primary source of greens for sandwiches and salads every spring.

    Crops that require no new seed purchases and are good, reliable producers every year contribute a lot to the economic garden.

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

    @LaurieLovesLearning I'm not surprised that your milk cow produces more food than your vegetable garden. We eat a lot of animal products even though we don't raise animals, and the expense adds up. A single large block of cheddar cheese is over $10.

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,518 admin

    On the subject of gardens paying for themselves, if something over produces, it will allow for grace for the things that might not do as well. I wouldn't necessarily give certain things up. There is also the factor of weather variables that will affect how much something grows and it can fluctuate greatly year to year.

    @VermontCathy That is a lot! Here, a small block of 500 g costs us $13.50. It is an unpasteurized, no modified milk ingredient product, however. It isnt organic, which would cost even more if it was available.

    Modified milk ingredients have absolutely nothing to do with milk, sadly, yet that is in the majority of "dairy" products and most of the cheeses & ice creams available in the stores.

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

    @LaurieLovesLearning Cabot Creamery, our Vermont co-op, doesn't use modified milk ingredients as far as I can tell.

    Their ingredients label says, "Pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, annatto (if colored)."

    So hopefully we are avoiding the adulterated stuff.

    It's possible to buy raw, unpasteurized milk directly from Vermont farmers, but that requires research and driving significant distances as there aren't many sellers. I would only pursue it if making a lot of cheese at home, which I don't normally do.

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

    I think that my biggest issue with keeping my garden economical is pests! I lose so much to squirrels and raccoons. I need to put up better fencing but that can get pretty expensive!

    @LaurieLovesLearning I would love so much to have a cow! I can definitely see how it would make such a difference!

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

    @Michelle D Good fencing is very expensive, so it has to be viewed as a long-term investment.

    It's tough for Americans to justify big expenses on property or housing improvements, including gardens, because we move so often. People who can settle down and stay in the same place for 10+ years will find it easier to justify investing in their homesteads.

  • Rosie
    Rosie Posts: 2 ✭✭✭

    Fencing is an issue for me, too, with deer and groundhogs doing major damage. Nonetheless, each year I find a couple of crops that do well. This year it was beans, squash (winter and summer), and peppers. All of those are worthwhile to me, given the costs in the supermarket and the fact that most of these were started by seed. I also grow sunchokes, pears, and thornless blackberries, which were prolific earlier this year. Those are my primary crops, but I always experiment with other things that don't always prove to be worth the cost or effort. For example, my tomatoes were terrible this year with all the early rain.

    For those of you having problems with winter squash, I recommend tromboncino squash. They produce squash that can be eaten in the green stage as summer squash, but also produce huge squash if left to grow to the yellow stage, and they can then be used as winter squash and keep well in a cool basement or garage.

  • Megan Venturella
    Megan Venturella Posts: 678 ✭✭✭✭

    I always have trouble defining my goals with the garden. I’m never sure whether it’s better to grow expensive things or high calorie foods that would keep us full in a pinch. I also find that what grows well varies from year to year, so I’m frequently at a loss.

    Lettuce, baby greens and particularly herbs are shockingly expensive where I live, so I’m trying to reestablish herbs here and also to grow no more than six lettuce plants of any kind because I always end up with way more than we can eat.

    I think my greatest gardening expense is compost, so my goal this winter is to produce as much of it as I can. I already have my beds in place and everything fenced off, so if I didn’t have a seed-buying habit I think the garden would save me so much money! I grew so much this summer I almost got sick of it. That was a first for me, lol.

    I always try to grow a few potatoes and sweet potatoes because they grow so well in my climate and also because if they did ever become expensive or unavailable for some reason, I’d have a way to start growing them.

    I'm trying to overwinter five pepper plants because those took up so much space while they grew and didn’t even get going until the end of the season. I think that if I can manage not to kill them this winter, I can get by with less than half the plants I grew last year and save space while producing much more.

    I’m also going to try to grow a sweet potato as a houseplant this year so I’ll have slips ready to go for once.

    This was the first year that we produced enough to call it more than a very expensive hobby, but with costs going up so rapidly I feel like nearly everything we produce is not only an improvement in quality but a savings as well.

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,518 admin

    @Rosie 👋 Welcome to the forum! Please leave a short introduction in our Introductions section do that we have a general idea where you are from. Yhis helps assist us with giving better advice & may help you network as well.

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

    @Megan Venturella There's no one right answer to this question.

    Remember that the food you grow is only part of the equation. Food that you purchase and store is also part of the balance.

    If you are worried about food shortages, it's important to grow as much of your own food as possible, both for calories and nutrition. It doesn't matter how cheap food normally is if it's not available.

    If you are worried about food prices, but expect most foods to be available, it makes sense to focus on growing products that are more expensive. You can supplement these by buying additional foods elsewhere.

    If you are concerned that nutritious foods may not be readily available, but cheap calories will be, it may make sense to focus on growing highly nutritious foods such as greens, and supplementing by buying cheap calories (meaning ingredients like raw potatoes and sweet potatoes, not fast food).

    So you have to decide your concerns first, then form an objective, then decide what to grow to meet that objective.

    In the COVID peak years, with too many empty shelves in stores, I was concerned about shortages and tried to grow things like potatoes in quantity, along with various nutritious greens.

    In 2022, I felt that shortages had eased off but prices were rising, so I started to look more closely at what foods would be more cost-effective to grow rather than buy.

    Looking at projections for 2023-4, I am concerned about food shortages again (coupled with higher prices), so a growing pattern similar to 2020-1 may make more sense.

  • Megan Venturella
    Megan Venturella Posts: 678 ✭✭✭✭

    You said that so well. Thanks for putting into words the random thoughts rolling around in my head- you did it better than I could have.

    With shortages coming and prices rising, I need to really think this through. So far my “strategy” has been to grow as much of everything as possible and just see what does well and m this climate. I really need to narrow it down though because I don’t want to burn out!

  • marjstratton
    marjstratton Posts: 1,132 ✭✭✭✭

    I had a less than productive year crop wise. Timing of the weather was bad. The only thing I got a good crop on was garlic. Well, hoping for better weather and crops next year.

  • marjstratton
    marjstratton Posts: 1,132 ✭✭✭✭
    edited October 2022

    I had a few volunteer squashes that produced several small squashes of indeterminate identity. We'll see how edible they are. Just harvested a couple of them.

  • jowitt.europe
    jowitt.europe Posts: 1,454 admin

    @Rosie welcome to the forum from me as well!

    Tomatoes. They do not like rain, I know. I grow them in my greenhouse, but then I always have too many plants. I grow my tomatoes from seeds. I plant the rest outside and am always disappointed. They do not like rain. This year I constructed a kind of a roof and the harvest was much better.

    i also have thornless blackberries. The crops were enormous. Thank you for the squash tip. I will try those.

  • jowitt.europe
    jowitt.europe Posts: 1,454 admin

    @Megan Venturella I can very well understand you. I love trying out new plants, exotic plants. Sometimes successful, sometimes not. I love variety, but it takes too much time and the result, sometimes is not worth the effort. This year I came to the conclusion that I will grow what we definitely eat and try not to grow too much. I will definitely continue with potatoes, carrots, radishes, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, peas and beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, squash, leak, strawberries.. Some kind of balance that we have enough fresh vegetables and fruit during all seasons.

    The herbs multiply themselves so I do not have to bother. I have plenty which are self seeding. And I already have more than enough fruit trees and bushes. I just have to concentrate on keeping the plants happy and healthy.

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

    @Megan Venturella It makes sense to start a garden by trying to grow everything possible, and finding out by trial and error what works in your climate, soil, solar exposure, and so forth. After a couple of years, you'll have a pretty good idea what you can and can't reasonably grow in that location.

    For an economic garden, I would suggest not growing things that require a lot of babying. Those type of crops are fun experiments, but don't make sense when you are trying to feed yourself. You can of course have some small-scale experiments in your garden, just don't count on them as food.

    For example, I am going to trial a wide range of tomato varieties in 2023 to see if I can find some that do very well in our short growing season, then focus on the winners in later years. I may not get a lot of tomatoes in 2023, but that's okay.

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

    @jowitt.europe Self-seeding varieties that grow well are a great thing to have in an economic garden.

    I have found that claytonia do extremely well here in the cold early spring, and they reseed themselves as along as I leave the flowers in place for long enough.

    I grow other things in the cold frame beds during the warm months, but when I pull the end of summer crops and plant the fall crops, turning over the soil seems to naturally trigger the claytonia seeds to sprout again.

    Most of my other crops aren't good at self-seeding. Lettuce seeds take too long to form, so I have to pull them and plant the next crop before they are ready. Spinach is an outbreeder, so you have to grow quite a lot to avoid inbreeding depression, and I don't have space to do that. Mustard produces quite a bit of seed, but doesn't seem to self-seed well, probably because the seeds form in tight pods and don't break open on their own readily enough. Tomatoes self-seed almost too readily, but plants that sprout through self-seeding are usually too late to fruit in my climate unless we have an unusually long warm growing season that year.

    We should start another thread specifically on self-seeding crops.