Grow your own garden

People pick over plant cuttings at the House of Gardening in Paris. Its Green Fingers exchange is an increasingly popular event for swapping plants and advice that aims to promote gardening for ordinary residents there.

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KAI RYSSDAL: It's the time of the year when zucchini mysteriously shows up in the office kitchen. For free. Vegetable gardeners among us with crops to spare. But that same squash can sell for a couple bucks a pound at an organic supermarket like Whole Foods. Which made us ask, which is really cheaper? Growing your own vegetables or buying them at the store? So we sent Cathy Duchamp from KUOW in Seattle to do some digging.

CATHY DUCHAMP: I'm at the annual Seattle Harvest Festival. I thought this would be a good place to explore the economics of gardening, first starting with the professionals.

Mike Peroni runs Boistfort Valley Farm. His produce stand looks like a fall harvest still life. There's rainbow-colored chard, crimson tomatoes. His cauliflower is purple.

Could I grow the same things in my own backyard? Would it be cheaper than buying from Peroni?

MIKE PERONI: I can't imagine it being any cheaper to grow it than buying it at a farmer's market especially. If you value your time and you look at the inputs you have to put into a garden, I fully encourage people to garden because it's therapeutic, but from a strictly financial perspective, I don't think you can beat your local farmers market.

DUCHAMP: But you're charging four bucks a pound for your yellow wax beans!

PERONI: When's the last time you got on your hands and knees and picked a yellow wax bean?

DUCHAMP: Never. I used to eat 'em out of a can when I was a kid.

PERONI: Yeah that's what I'm talking about.

The guy to talk to about the hidden costs of gardening is William Alexander. He wrote a book called "The $64 Tomato." That's the number he came up with as the total fiscal cost of growing an heirloom brandywine.

WILLIAM ALEXANDER: Oh it was just horrible feeling. I think I went through something close to the five stages of grief.

Alexander's biggest cost was building the garden. Then came the money he spent just that one summer:

ALEXANDER: And this was the real shock that I had spent some $700 on those Saturday morning trips to the garden center and leaving my pruners out in the rain to rust.

And fighting 4-legged pests. Alexander estimates he spent $300 alone on a new charger for his electric fence to combat a big, fat, ground hog he nicknamed "Superchuck."

Alexander's conclusion: Growing your own veggies is not worth the investment, but it is worth the taste.

ALEXANDER: We had some of our fingerling potatoes last night. We just cooked them in olive oil, a little kosher salt and baked them in a copper pan. And I mean, if you're into this kind of food, this stuff is almost orgasmic.

That's not the end of this story. There is one way to make gardening pencil out. Use someone else's land.

SUSAN KASEY: We are at the Interbay P-Patch which is one of about 45 or 50 community gardens in the P-Patch program in Seattle
Susan Kasey rents a garden plot from the city. She used to be a hospital analyst so it makes sense that she'd keep precise records on costs and yields. Kasey spends $75 to rent a 500 square foot space, and about $50 a year on seeds and vegetable starts..

KASEY: So for $125 I get about $500 worth of food

Kasey says that's based on supermarket prices from a few years back. She says the biggest bang for her buck comes from her winter garden, which she starts in October. Leeks, kale, and especially fava beans.

KASEY: Between 60, 70, 80 pounds.

DUCHAMP: Don't you get sick of fava beans and kale?

KASEY: Those I freeze and they're all gone by the time the next ones come in.

Kasey's advice-start small, with a couple select veggies, probably with peas in the spring.

In Seattle, I'm Cathy Duchamp for Marketplace Money.

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