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With food costs rising, many people are contemplating starting a garden. This makes sense, since human beings have been growing their own food for thousands of years. The stuff just comes out of the ground and literally grows on trees. Gardening offers a lot of benefits: It can be spiritually and emotionally fulfilling, improves the look of your property, and provides delicious sustenance. The potential to save money doesn’t hurt, either.
At first blush, this might seem like an obvious win: Once you get a tomato plant going, for example, you get free tomatoes as opposed to having to buy them all the time like a sucker. But gardens have hidden costs, and not all crops are the same in terms of cost-effectiveness. Can you really save money by growing your own food? The answer is yes, but you have to be thoughtful about it.
Do some garden math
Once again, your high school algebra teacher wins. This is yet another moment in your life where you will use math.
The starting point is your initial investment. The good news here is that gardens are relatively cheap. A few years ago, the National Gardening Association conducted a costs survey and concluded that most home gardens required about $70 in initial investment. That money goes toward seeds, soil and/or fertilizer, cages, covers, water, tools, and fences, if those are necessary. The better news is that you can expect an annual return of about $600 and moving forward, seeds are incredibly cheap compared to grown fruits and veggies in the grocery. Tomatoes on the vine cost about $2 a pound, but a packet of seeds will be about $4 and each plant that grows is capable of yielding anywhere from eight to 30 pounds of tomatoes (though there’s no guarantee you’ll get that much, of course).
Those are good numbers, but keep in mind that there are ongoing costs as well. Water, for one, will be a regular line item on your budget. You’ll need to handle pesticides and use other measures to protect your crops, too. Plus, there will be breakage, meaning some of your crops will die off. Frost can come in unexpectedly and destroy more and every wild, living thing nearby will be eyeing your garden hungrily. Those breakage factors will make your initial sunny estimates of return on your investment look silly once they’re done with you.
The other consideration is what you plant. Some plants are more cost-effective than others, but there’s no point in planting a high-return plant if you’re not going to eat it. When planning your garden, choose fruits and vegetables that you enjoy and will actually eat, because to get a big budget impact from your garden you’ll need to eat a lot of what it produces.
These are the most cost-effective crops
So you’re going to conquer economic anxiety by planting a home garden and living off your own crops. What are the best plants to invest in? Here are some of the most cost-effective crops you can plant.
Tomatoes. As noted above, tomatoes are a terrific investment. They don’t take up much space and can be very easy to grow. Seeds are cheapest and produce the most economic benefit, but they take a long time to yield. Buying a seedling or mature plant will run you anywhere from $4 to $8, but will get you those red beauties much faster, and since you’ll still get at least around eight pounds worth of tomatoes, you’ll be saving yourself about $3 per pound.
Squash. Squash plants aren’t as productive as some crops, but they grow for a long time. For $3 worth of seeds you’ll get up to 10 pounds of zucchini, for example, compared with about $1.50 per pound in the store. Plus, squash freezes well, so if you have a bumper crop you can stretch those savings all year long.
Leaf lettuce. Lettuce is incredibly versatile, so it’s an ideal crop you’ll use in just about every meal. It also grows really, really well, requiring bi-monthly harvests. You will have plenty of lettuce. A packet of seeds is typically less than $3, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.
Green beans. For $3, you can get a packet of seeds for this easy-to-grow crop. Alternatively, plants will cost about $2 each. One plant will typically yield about 40 to 60 bean pods, and you can plant your seeds a week or two apart to get constant yields going. Fresh green beans go from $2 to $2.50 per pound in the grocery, so you’ll absolutely save some cash.
Herbs. If you’re paying Big Spice for your herbs at the supermarket, you’re overpaying no matter what they’re charging. Herb seeds are incredibly cheap—typically less than a dollar a packet—are easy to grow, and will give you all the mint, basil, and parsley you could ever want.
Berries. Fresh-picked fruit is pretty expensive. A pound of blueberries will run you as much as $7. Instead, you can buy three blueberry bushes for about $30 and get about six pints of berries from them every year. Raspberry bushes will be a little more expensive with about the same yield, so they’re still a very economical choice. Even better, they will continue to produce delicious berries for you year after year.
Okra. Fast-growing and relatively easy to maintain, okra is a great choice for a money-saving garden, assuming you like to eat okra. You can get a pack of seeds for about $5, which will usually get you about three plants, each producing about a pound of okra once the plants mature. With fresh okra going for about $5 per pound in the store, that’s a pretty good savings.
Cucumbers. Cucumber seeds will cost you about $6 a packet, and each plant will yield about 10 six-ounce cucumbers, or close to four pounds worth. Considering that cucumbers go for around 70¢ a pound in the store, all you need is about three plants to break even, with every other plant being a profit on your investment. Bonus: You can pickle your cucumbers, which takes another item off your grocery list and preserves your crops in time-honored fashion.
Kale. At $5 for a pack of seeds, kale can be an excellent addition to your home garden. It grows very quickly, and every bunch of kale you harvest represents about $1 in savings, so you’ll make back your investment pretty fast. Plus, kale is delicious and extremely versatile, so you’ll be able to enjoy it in a wide variety of ways.
A thoughtfully-arranged home garden can indeed save you quite a bit of money. Just keep in mind there’s a lot of work and care involved and your time has a cost associated with it, as well. Just because you’re saving cash doesn’t mean your garden is cost-effective if it’s taking up valuable time. That being said, a home garden is definitely worth looking into as prices continue to rise everywhere.