Does Growing Your Own Food Really Save Money?

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The New York Times today put out a piece on this year’s unexpected rise in home gardening.

Seed companies and garden shops say that not since the rampant inflation of the 1970s has there been such an uptick in interest in growing food at home. George C. Ball Jr., owner of the W. Atlee Burpee Company, said sales of vegetable and herb seeds and plants are up by 40 percent over last year, double the annual growth for the last five years. “You don’t see this kind of thing but once in a career,” he said.

Ball said this year’s produce price spike is the main reason people are going back to the garden.

“People are driving less, taking fewer vacations, so there is more time to garden.”

With a big enough garden, people say you can take up to 30% off your weekly grocery bill.

Inspired, I decided to start my own vegetable garden. On the patio of my condo. Clearly, I won’t be reaping the advantages of scale. But I figure a few tomato and pepper plants will at least save me a little money.

In truth, it’s looking kind of expensive. Here’s the price breakout.

2 potted tomato plants: $16 (note to self: do not buy tomatoes at Whole Foods. Or anything else, for that matter.)
3 potted bell pepper plants: $10
One potted basil plant: $4 (Again, the high price comes from Whole Foods.)
Fertlilizer: $8
Soil: $5
Total costs: $43

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3 pepper plants. Each pepper plant produces 15 peppers. Cost to me: 38 cents per pepper. Cost of organic peppers at the store: $2.39 each.

2 tomato plants. Each plant produces 10 tomatoes, for a total of 20 tomatoes. Cost to me: 80 cents per tomato. Grocery cost for organic tomatoes: $1 per pound. Grocery store cost: $20 (assuming each tomato weighs a pound).

One basil plant, which is the equivalent of 2.5 packages of basil. Cost to me: $4. Grocery store cost: $10.

Total savings: $10 (basil) + $20 (tomatoes) + $35.85 (peppers) – $43 (total costs of plants and supplies) = $22.85.

Not bad. Not phenomenal, either.

After revising my math (thank you, commenters), I found that the savings are good.

Of course, my yields could be bigger, or prices could once again increase by the time my veggies ripen. Still, in the language of gardens, it looks like if you want to save significant amounts of money, plant seeds and go big.

Time for a real garden plot.

  • If you need be purchase/rent something to till the ground and/or purchase a fence to protect the garden from animals, the cost of a garden goes up even further. I see it more as a hobby and a way to have access to fresh produce.

  • Right -you have to be serious about it. You’re paying way too much for garden plants. I plant tomatoes and peppers from seed, use recycled pots and seed trays, sell half the plants (for 25 cents each), and still have about a hundred left for the garden. I can’t say how much I save by canning my own soup, salsa, stewed tomatoes, juice, and tomato sauce. I never buy tomatoes of any kind. I also grow other vegetables.

  • Carina

    I’m going to play captain-obvious for a moment and point out that buying the plants was a one-time expense that will not only continue to yield, but start to produce more as the plant gets larger. In essence, one would end up saving more and more money each year.

  • There are also things called “seeds” that are much cheaper to buy then potted seedlings. We start ours indoors in a glass aquarium with plastic wrap over the top to keep in moisture.

  • Gardener

    Those plants are crazy pricey. Between starting a few of my own plants and shopping local nurseries I got about 5-6 times that much stuff for 15 dollars.

  • Gardener

    Also 10 tomatoes from one plant? You need more practice, I can easily get 5 times that many tomatoes possibly more from smaller varieties from a single plant. Well taken care of pepper plants can produce more than 5 peppers as well. Also don’t buy potted basil plants, they cost way to much.

  • Gardener

    One more comment I’m not sure what kind of business you are in but I hope it doesn’t require math.

    15 peppers at 2.39 ea +
    20 tomatoes at $1 ea +
    2.5 packages of basil at $4 ea
    -43.00 (What you spent)
    22.85 (What you saved)

  • tweaqslug

    Maybe it’s just that I live in California, but I rarely pay more than $2 for a locally grown, heirloom, organic seedling – tomato, pepper, or otherwise.

  • Drea

    Excellent call on the math and yields. I verified the calculations you presented, and corrected the math. Also, yourself and many other commenters pointed out that the plants were really expensive. Yup, it’s true, they really did cost that much. I’m a novice at the gardening thing–little did I know that I’d purchased the most expensive plants in the state of Colorado, if not the entire Southwest. As far as yields go, I have yet to harvest, so estimates are rough.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Paul

    I bought my tomato plant at Whole Foods and it cost under $5, in fact I bought multiple plants there that day and they all were 3 or 4 dollars. This is out in San Jose, CA though. The only time I see prices close to what you have listed is if it comes with an expensive pot.

  • One major factor that you’re not considering is the value of your time.

    Presumably you spent a few hours researching/buying/planting/watering these plants, so unless your time is worth very little (or you consider gardening enjoyable, which is entirely possible) then you likely took a loss from a strict economic standpoint.

    Like any other hobby, it depends more on your disposition to the task, because dollar & cents wise you will at best come out even unless you scale up significantly.

  • Lord

    It does depend on climate. Bell peppers don’t do well here. Better off with chili peppers and tomatoes which are very prolific. Nut trees are also great. Sometimes the pests make it too much trouble though.

  • Lela Davidson

    Herbs have a big payoff if you like to cook with them. That basil plant will continue to produce as you harvest. So it becomes a quality of life issue. If I could, I’d plant more. I’m working my way up to it. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying mint, basil, and rosemary. Anyone know what to do with sage?

  • randal

    If you bought the plants somewhere with better prices, you could probably have purchased all of the “inputs” besides your own labor for under $10.

    Also, as others have pointed out, one tomato plant will yield many, many tomatoes over the course of a summer.

    Even so, saving $100 to $200 over the course of a summer may not amount to a huge difference, but considering how little work it takes, why not do it…

  • Vanessa

    Lela – fresh sage goes really well with pumpkin, especially in things like risotto. It’d probably work well with other roasted veges too.
    My favourite recipe is It’s really yummy and easy, and you don’t have to use arborio – short grain white rice works fine.

  • amy

    Herb plants are one of the better investments, if you enjoy cooking with them. You can make a basil paste using leaves and stems and “enough” olive oil and freeze it for use in the winter time. Rosemary keeps going and going, as does mint. Much cheaper than buying at the store.

    BTW- Lela, sage tastes fantastic with pork, it’s one of the main flavors in traditional sausage, so it tastes great on a pork roast, mixed with ground pork for burgers or other crumbles. You can put a little in meatballs, on a poultry to roast, etc. Careful about the cook time as it can get bitter.

  • Susan

    Herbs are one of the easiest things to grow and they don’t require a lot of room. I have had some of the same plants for years. I have oregano, basil, thyme, cilantro and chives. I need to go buy a new rosemary plant this year and I have had sage in the past (also one of thr primary seasonings for chicken, turkey and stuffing/dressing)I have had the same tabasco chile pepper plant since last year – i brought it inside for the winter, and cut it back before putting it ouside again this spring. Initially planting your garden can be a lot of work, but if you enjoy it, it is well worth it! Good Luck!

  • Cory

    Tim, yes, the value of your time should not be forgotten, however, it is also often used as an excuse not to do something yourself. IF the minimal time Drea spends on her(?) garden would have otherwise been spent earning income, then yes you have a valid point.

    If, on the other hand, the time would have been spent watching “reality” TV, then I’d say the return on the time invested is probably better with the gardening. And, from a strictly economic standpoint, Shae comes out $22+ ahead.

  • Buthead

    you could buy an xbox with mauch money saved

  • LittlePig

    5 or 6 months of watering should also be considered in the cost/benefit calculation. Between that and time which could be spent doing something truly enjoyable or profitable, I doubt the savings would really be there. There’s something to be said for specialized activities in advanced economies.

  • Cory

    5 to 6 months watering? Where do you live? The desert? And what the heck are you planning to grow that takes 6 months to mature?

    Most vegetables mature at 90-120 days. So lets be reasonable and assume that you live in an arid environment, have to water most of 3-4 months, don’t mulch your garden and don’t want to capture and use the runoff water from your rooftop. Assuming expensive city water/sewer costs then maybe growing your own is a net loss.

    Also, perhaps you *really* are going to use all that free time (more on this later) for something either profitable or that saves you decent money. Again, you might be better off monetarily by going to the store and buying canned vegetables.

    On the other hand, when I posted my comment in early July we hadn’t had to water our garden yet. By the end of August when we started harvesting there were probably a total of 3 weeks where we had to run a sprinkler for an hour each evening.

    I didn’t really keep track of our time/expenses before making that post, but I did after. I also made some notes of our early time/expenses as best I could remember them at the time.

    Looking back at my notes we spent: $50 for fencing material (one time expense.) $26 for peat moss to loosen up the soil and provide extra organic matter (one time expense.) Roughly $30 for seeds and extra water use. $25 to rent a roto-tiller and gas for it.

    As for time it took, roughly: 4 hours tilling in the peat moss and putting up fencing. 30 minute picking up the tiller and dropping it back off. 1.5 hours laying out the rows and planting seeds. 2 hours weeding (about 15 min/week for 2 months.) 20 minutes watering (not like we need to stand there and watch the water run.) A few minutes every 1-2 days picking whatever we wanted to eat or what was ripe. (Less time than I’d have spent in the fresh foods isle trying to find quality ripe vegies.) But we’ll call it 40 minutes anyhow to make a nice round 7 hours.

    I could have earned over $1300 at my max rate for 9 hours! Add the stat up costs and now we’re at nearly $1200. Expensive garden right!?!?

    Not so fast! This was a 15’x15′ garden. Based on our local mega-mart prices for fresh vegetables, we got $40 worth of red/yellow peppers, $30 worth of beats, $30 worth of green beans, $30 worth of broccoli, $20 of potatoes, $25 of cucumbers, $30 of carrots, $15 of onions, $20 worth of squash and $50 of tomatoes. Or a net gain (money only) of $159.

    You could argue that I only made (saved) $17.67/hr at an opportunity cost of my standard billing rate. The truth is that only 6 hours of that time was in a long enough consecutive block to be worth anything. I didn’t have any billable work waiting to be done at the time anyhow so it’s a specious claim. Most of the rest of the time would have simply been “lost” time.

    I also look at most of the initial cost and time as an investment for future returns in the garden. I’ll easily cut 3.5 hours off the time it costs this year. The only recurrent expenses are going to be roughly $50-60 for seeds, water and tiller rental (if I even need to till this year.)

    Assuming the same yield (should be better if we actually learned anything last year) and those estimates and we’re talking over $40/hr worth of food doing some fairly enjoyable “work”. That is also not considering that the food produced was organic. If I use prices from Whole Foods or my store’s organic isle instead of the bulk fresh foods isle then the value of what we produced in the garden jumps significantly.

    And finally… while some foods really don’t taste much differently fresh out of the garden compared to store bought many just don’t compare at all. I never cared for BLTs until my wife made some this fall from fresh tomatoes out of our garden. BIG difference and definitely worth a little effort on my part.

  • LittlePig

    I live in an area of Texas that experiences extreme heat much of the summer. Constant watering is required to keep lawns alive. Runoff and other gray water techniques are probably good ways to mitigate the problem, but rain is unreliable, and altering the landscaping and plumbing of our home to make those techniques effective is more work and expense to consider.

    Gardening in our part of Texas typically starts in March and ends in November. Even in December we often have 80° days. You can stagger plants with different growing times. Assuming we get our normal spring and autumn rains, it’s safe to say watering would still be needed 5 or 6 of those months.

    And I’ve tried my hand at gardening before with mixed results. Our long summers are pest friendly. Sometimes we don’t even get hard freezes. Pest control of some kind and regular fertilizing are necessary to see any real returns.

    But I agree with you on the time cost issues. Whether or not your free time has more valuable uses will depend on the person. I do a lot of freelancing on the side, and when I’m not working, I’m usually taking care of other necessities. Adding another chore to the list will not displace the necessities. That leaves other leisure activities or potential earnings from work as sources of displaced time. Since effective gardening requires more than an hour here or an hour there whenever I happen to be able to find it, there will be some lost earnings, especially in creating the garden.

    But having said that, I actually started a good size garden this weekend. There are benefits other than dollar savings. I just hope I win against the varmints.

  • LittlePig

    I didn’t understand your cost analysis of work time lost. But…

    Your expected vegetable return: $290

    Your yearly expenses:
    $25 Tiller (that’s a good price. At our Home Depot, the light weight tiller is $39 + tax for 4 hours, and that tiller is worthless IMO).
    $25-35 Water & Seeds (I have no idea how many gallons you need or how much water costs you. I think the cost would be quite a bit higher where I live.)
    $230-240 Profit

    But this is not distributing your initial investment or considering any other recurring supplies such as fertilizer, pesticides, repairs, mulch, etc. And it definitely ignores opportunity loss.

    In our current economy, gardening is making a comeback because people think they will save a lot of money. But that is only true for certain people. For many people it is much better to work more. Or look harder for a new job. And for most I’d say it is a break-even kind of game. But gardening is not a bad way to spend time

  • Cory

    Initial investment was already accounted for by claiming the entire expense last year. It does ignore repair costs, however, just how much repair is a garden going to need? I suppose the fence will have to be repaired every now and then and I may need to buy a new hoe from time to time but that will have little impact amortized over the life of these items.

    I don’t use pesticides. Mulch is free as a waste product of maintaining my property. We use compost instead of fertilizer and again at no cost because it is waste I would have to dispose of anyhow. There is a labor cost to turning the compost pile but it’s only about 10 minutes a month extra.

    And again, opportunity cost only really exists if you would have used the opportunity. My nephew-in-law (is that a real word) loves to cite opportunity cost as a reason he doesn’t do anything himself. He also uses all that extra free time to sit on his butt and watch TV. So in his case “opportunity cost” is a fallacy.

    Another relative of mine, however, never stops working (much to the displeasure of his children.) Taking 30 minutes to change his own oil (plus time to purchase it, etc.) would indeed cost him far more than paying someone $25 to do it for him. For him gardening would be kind of foolish and it would cost him far less to just order completely sustainable and organic groceries, have them delivered and have a cook make dinner for him. (Then again, at this rate he may have to factor in the cost of giving 1/2 his assets to his wife due to divorce sometime in the future… but that’s not really relevant here.)

    I think most of us fall in between these extremes and have plenty of otherwise “wasted” time. For me, the time I spend in the garden is just robbing me of a few minutes watching television for the most part.

  • Hmm it is funny how people start counting in how much they would have earned from their job, but they aren’t at their jobs, they are at home, their sparetime.

    Yes the time where they are busy eating McDonalds and sit on their fat “cushins” watching “reality TV”.

    So okay, lets turn it around a bit:
    1. they get a little excercise in the garden – how much does a fitness center cost? this is free exercise.
    2. they get halthier food without all the chemicals – have any of you any idea of how many chemicals are poured over the “fresh” veggies you buy?
    3. veggies in your own garden are harvested when they are READY to be eaten and full of vitamins, minerals and great taste – factory veggies are harvested a long time before they are ready and artificially ripened with gas, so they lack a lot of taste, vitamins, minerals, flavor but of course they got a good dose of chemicals and last a long time and they almost glow in the dark.

    What is all this worth to you? Having your own veggiegarden also encourages eating more veggies, because they taste better, they are ready at hand and in return you get healthier (how much is that worth to you?) Look at the world as it is now, people are getting fatter and fatter and all that matters to them is to make enough money so they can buy more premade (almost prechewed) food so they can spend more time to sit infront of their tv and get even bigger… Tragic (yes you might think I sound fanatic)

    Bring the kids out with you in the garden, teach them stuff, spend time with them, it’s called quality time, and you can’t put a price on that and you can’t put a price on your familys health either.

  • price of tomato seed packet… 50 cents to $4 maximum

    price to save seeds for next years plantings… free

    use online seed exchanges to increase your biodiversity for the cost of a few stamps

    For patio gardening use self watering containers made from 5 gallon PVC buckets (google it)… i get the buckets for FREE from a local bakery and my local costco.

    The first year use a decent potting mix, in the following years use home-made compost which you make yourself for (you guessed it) FREE

    Hope this helps someone

  • don’t till the ground… use a square foot garden or other bio-intensive method… less weeds, greater yields..

  • Paul

    How about the fuel costs for going to the store and labor costs? Yes your time costs money….

  • Paul.. excellent point… this point can be turned around on people… if your time costs money then how you use your time is very important. How much are you losing watching TV when I am growing my tomatoes?

  • MountainMama

    I spent $300 on a used tiller 3 years ago, $200 on organic open-pollinated seeds (that can be saved year-to-year).

    It takes about 3 hours at the beginning and the end of the season to get it going and put it to bed, but the rest of the season, I spend about an hour a week weeding.

    I don’t count the time harvesting and preparing because if I were spending time going to the grocery store, it would actually take more time, and you have to cook regardless.

    The difference between getting it out of the garden and getting it at the store is, when I pick my dinner in the summer, I always make a double or triple recipe. One we eat, the others we freeze. Add to that all the vegetables we are able to store without processing, and it’s a pretty good return.

    It took a couple seasons to get down to a system, but now I am able to feed a family of four for most of the year, mostly from our garden, and our annual cost is less than $100 (fuel and experiments). I know that before we got serious about putting up our produce, we spent about $300/month on a groceries. Now we spend less than $100 (cleaning supplies, etc). It is enough of a savings that when we do eat meat we are able to buy local, organic meat, and still spend less/month than when we were chained to what the big-box stores wanted to sell us.

    Finally, growing any of your own food offers a lot of non-monetary rewards, especially if you have a family. You know your food is not contaminated with chemicals or e-coli, it’s a fun, healthy way to spend time with kids of all ages (and gets them outside and away from the TV), and it can be tremendously educational on so many levels.

  • joe

    hello i was just wondering why youre planys are so expencive i mean $8 for a tomarto plant i sell tomarto plants in the uk for 30pence the reason you find it so expencive is cus you are being scammed i sugest you find a better garden suplys dealer or grow from seed cus that is ridiculous

  • Rap

    If you grow organic open pollinated plants and flowers it will support the only organic ecosystem that we have while producing next years seeds for the grower so there is a savings of the cost of seeds.
    Hybrids produce dependable crops for the season but undependable crops from their seeds, if any, the next season. Organic, open pollinated plants feed the pollinators, feed the humans, support our ecosystem, are sustainable while hybrid plants do not supply the proper nutrition to pollinators, the ecosystem and are not sustainable. Hybrid plants are to pollinators what fast food restaurants are to humans. They taste good, make you feel momentarily full, but do not supply the proper nutrition and are unsustainable in that most ingredients are supplied from unsustainable usually inhumane sources.