Sunday, September 20, 2009

How Economical is a Vegetable Garden?

Over at Down To Earth last Thursday, there was an interesting comment from Tracy in Brisbane:
A few people have commented to me recently that growing one's own vegetables/salad items is not always financially viable... What would you have to say about such claims....?
I am assuming that by 'financially viable' they mean 'money expended on the vegetable patch does not exceed the usual shop price of the harvest'. That is, is a vegetable patch economical?

I thought I'd consider the matter on my own blog. There are a lot of variables, so it's hard to make a general case. I can only provide specifics for my situation, and raise some of the issues with the calculations.

Vegetable garden costs per annum:
  • Seeds ($80)
  • 4 bales old hay &/or sugar cane mulch (say $50)
  • Additional water (say 2 hours a week @ 4 l/min = 25 kl *$1.87 = $50)
  • Bag potting mix ($10)
  • Electricity to run my seedling heating pad at night for 2 months (say $5, but it's probably less)
  • Chook food, since the chooks provide the fertiliser and eat insects and weeds ($120)

Total cost: $315 per annum

  • Some gardeners buy most vegetables in as seedlings; this is considerably more expensive. Home-collected seeds are, of course, much cheaper.
  • I was in two minds about including the hay, as its first purpose for guinea pig bedding in winter. I decided, however, that I would need to mulch the vegies even if I didn't have guinea pigs, so I left it in.
  • My chooks are a fundamental part of my vegetable garden, because I tractor them in it for half the year. I rarely move manure about (only when I want it around a plant in the front garden) because the chooks generally deposit it where I need it. Of course, if you don't have chickens, you will have to get your fertilising and pest-killing done in other ways, which are probably going to involve more money.

Food produced per annum:
  • Free range eggs, say 2 a day for 9 months= 45 doz (@ $6/doz, that's $270)

Breakeven cost for vegetables: $45 per year

Now I don't weigh and price my harvests as Scarecrow does, but I'm pretty sure that I am getting more than $45 worth of vegies out of my patch in a year!

  • I'd probably recoup my $45 on fresh herbs alone. If I didn't grow fresh herbs, however I would probably use less of them in my cooking, rather than buy them in -- so how do I account for that?
  • If I grew potatoes, carrots and onions in my back yard, I would not get the dollar value that I do by growing asparagus, fancy lettuces, Tuscan kale, herbs and so on.
  • I wonder what the market price of chervil is? I have never seen it for sale, so how do I price it? What about the interesting cultivars I have that are not available in the shops?
  • If you have an organic vegie patch, its contents should be priced accordingly. You are not producing forced tomatoes for $2/kg.
  • The taste issue is a big one for home gardeners. Even the expensive truss tomatoes aren't a patch on the taste of a fresh, home-grown tomato. Strawberries, peas and sweet corn also deteriorate very quickly, and are never as nice from the shops. But you'll find a 'taste premium' on all home-grown food. Even spuds!
As a final note, someone will no doubt ask how I priced my time. I haven't. The reason is that my garden is also my hobby. I don't buy scrapbooking materials, or cross-stitch, or anything else in the artistic or craft line (note that many crafts are quite expensive). Which, I suppose, raises another question: should I deduct at least some of the money I spend on gardening from my craft budget?


Scarecrow said...

Ha Chookie I see you did mention that I weigh my produce but it isn't for a monetary reasons, it's just out of curiosity really. I could never afford to buy so many organic vegetables and fruit.

The main reason for that is we would have to travel over 500kms (to Adelaide and back) each time we needed to buy anything as we can't buy organic anything around here!

I think you also have to factor in the health benefits of the food we grow as well as the exercise we get gardening.

Yolanda Elizabet Heuzen said...

Great post, Chookie! IMO money is saved by growing your own fruit, veg, herbs and flowers and it's a great hobby and you get free work outs, tasty and healthy food and it's fun.

My potager is in my back garden so no transportation costs either which is good for my wallet and the environment. ;-)

greenfumb said...

Yes great post. I sometimes worry about how much I spend on my garden and my chooks but like you it is my hobby, my exercise, my relaxation etc.

I haven't weighed or counted much in the past but this year I will just out of interest. My guess is that a decent tomato harvest and the eggs we get will cover all the costs. All the herbs, beans, potatoes and other things will just be the icing on the cake.

And as Yolanda pointed out if our veges are coming from our back yard the food miles are almost zero. Just the one trip a year to the garden centre for cow manure.

AnnaT said...

Very pertinent as I seem to spend abit on seeds and hay etc...and a good reminder to use the chicken poo and worm wee more often instead of buying dynamic lifter.
thanks for post, Anna

Amanda said...

I agree- when you see the produce as your hobby, its one with financial benefits as opposed to most other hobbies.
that's how I think of the chooks - pets that repay us for their feed costs.

Bren Haas said...

Followed you over from Twitter. LOve your postings. I would have to say I don't really think about what I can save when I grow my veggies. I can't think of any other way to eat in the summer then to grow my own due to the taste factor. NOTHING like a fresh Brandywine and some basil from the garden. LOVE IT!

Can't wait to see what you blog next. Please stop by my garden sometime!

Greg said...

Nicely put!

I found the bulk of my costs were in getting the whole machine cranking... setting up garden beds, chicken run, improving the soil. Like any business, the garden runs in the red for a few years before you can hope to turn a profit. My biggest ongoing cost is expansion and continual improvement of the process.

I'm certain that purely in quantitative terms, I'm lucky to break even (in fact, one of my goals is just to break even). The hardest thing to put a price on is the freshness, taste and piece of mind (I like knowing my food isn't loaded with a cocktail of chemical). I think this is far outweighs any cost (its absolutely priceless), and its one of the key reasons I'm out there getting dirty.

Cadi's Mum said...

Love this post. I feel exactly the same way - it's not just the financial benefit, although I think I would break even, if not be better off. It is the complete lifestyle benefit. No gym fees and those food miles. And there's the benefit of always having something on hand for dinner - even if its just a salad of baby leaves because it's only been in a week. I didn't go to the fruit & veg shop at all for 3 months last summer, and am looking forward to doing the same this year.

Darren (Green Change) said...

I don't get the people who knock gardening based upon the cost/benefit. Not everything comes down to dollars and cents.

They'll sit there with a $10 takeaway meal in front of them and question the economic sense in you growing your own vegies. If you apply the same logic to their choice of lunch and suggest they have a vegemite sandwich instead if money is that important, they look at you like you have two heads!

At the end of the day, the people who question the economics of vegie gardening aren't concerned about economics at all.

Onesimus said...

I’ve been trying to get a viable veggie garden running for three years now. I’m not sure how economical it’s been so far. At times the costs seem to exceed any potential financial benefits. I always seem to be buying something: concrete blocks for borders, bales of straw for mulch, manure, blood and bone, dolomite lime and so on…and then there’s the seed or seedlings.

We’ve had a few successes, such as zucchini, butternut pumpkin, corn and beans. But we’ve also had a lot of failures – our brassicas never do well. Our tomatoes were attacked by fruit fly. Potatoes have been poor. Carrots were hardly worth the effort…

The main benefit of my veggie garden so far has been the satisfaction of eating food we have grown ourselves. Maybe when I have a better idea of what I’m doing the financial side of gardening may improve. And with practice I might be more successful with those veggies that have given me problems to date.


Anonymous said...

Once you are past the economics of gardening, you may want to visit - a site that helps diminish hunger by enabling backyard gardeners to share their crops with neighborhood food pantries.

The site is free both for the food pantries and the gardeners using it.

Over 900 food pantries nationwide are already on it and more are signing up daily.

It includes preferred delivery times, driving instructions to the pantry as well as (in many cases) information about store bought items also needed by the pantry (for after the growing season).

If your community has a food pantry, make sure they register on

kris at Blithewold said...

I agree with Darren - the actual nickle and dime cost of gardening - for food or ornament - is beside the point. And those of us who do it know that gardening is a pleasurable process full of rewards and benefits regardless of financial gain (or loss).

Chookie said...

But Scarecrow, you are so organised. I'm just in awe as I'd never remember to weigh things before I started eating them!
Thank you for mentioning the workout aspect, Yolanda and Scarecrow -- I forgot that. Perhaps because mine is practically no-dig?
Greenfumb, yes, food miles are a serious consideration in Australia.
Anna, if you get the birds to put the fertiliser in the right spot you don't have to remember anything. Perhaps your worm farm could be moved closer to the vegies too?
Amanda, LOL at 'pets that repay us their food costs'!
Bren, I'm glad the Brandywines are so tasty as it's the first time I've grown them. And I didn't even know I'd been tweeted!
GJNairn, I think harvests improve as your soil improves. I didn't include startup costs either, did I? Or the cost of my chook dome.
Cadi's Mum, wow -- three months without buying vegetables? Now I have something to aim at!
Darren, you're right -- knocking gardening on economic grounds is probably done by people who just want to knock gardening because they don't want to do it. It is important to look at motives.
Onesimus, I think some of your troubles are due to poor soil and you just need some tincture of time. And check the pH -- you might need lime. I am sure fruit fly appear in Genesis 3...
Anonymous food pantry poster, that is such a great idea. Long may it prosper.
Kris, you are obviously one of those gardening fanatics. As Edna Walling said, let's hope they never find a cure!

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