How much does organic gardening really save you?

Raised beds, soil and fencing add to a garden's costs.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer hard at work, weeding her garden.

Sometimes it feels like I'm throwing money at my garden.

Plant things like yellow squash, which you can later process and freeze.

My husband and I have been gardening for nine years. I don’t even want to think about the amount of money I’ve spent on the garden during that time, but I can definitely tell you that growing our own food hasn’t saved us money.

True confessions on the economics of growing our garden

This year we spent $124 on worms called “beneficial nematodes.” They’re microscopic, and burrow in and kill the eggs and larvae of harmful insects. (They’d better work!)

Last year, I was prepared to spend $400 on dirt, but I was saved when the truck that was supposed to deliver it couldn't get up our narrow driveway. We got a full refund.

In years past, we’ve had a number of one-time budget busters. We had to buy yards and yards of deer fence to surround our garden and protect it from the marauding Bambies of our neighborhood. There was also the yards and yards of bunny fence to keep out all the Thumpers, too. That didn’t deter one determined mother rabbit who decided to have her babies in our garden. I ran around after them, banging pots and pans to scare them. (That didn’t cost anything, except my dignity in front of my neighbors.)

Now, some studies swear you can save a bundle growing your own food. Did I mention most of them were done by seed or fertilizer companies? A blog on Burpee’s website says, “Your little tomato patch yields you a thousand dollars worth of store bought tomatoes from a seed packet that costs you three or four dollars. Your return on investment? 250 to 1 or 25,000 percent. J. P. Morgan would not pass up that kind of opportunity.”

Why we really garden

Here’s the thing: Gardeners don’t necessarily grow vegetables to save money. That’s certainly the case with me and my husband. I like the exercise and the taste of a fresh-picked tomato is priceless. Plus, our garden is organic. I like the idea of giving my kids veggies that aren’t dunked in pesticide.

Bruce Butterfield is research director for the National Gardening Association. He says, “The money-saving aspect is not the main reason why people are growing tomatoes in the back yard.”  

Butterfield says people mainly want good quality, better-tasting food. 

How to save a few pennies

There are some things you can do to cut down costs. My husband and I share our garden, and its expenses, with another couple. We also make some of our own soil by composting.

Cindy Haynes, a horticulturist at Iowa State University, says it’s a good idea to plant things that you can later preserve, like tomatoes or squash. She also says to plant vegetables like lettuce or spinach because they don’t take up much space, and grow fast.  

“You can continually plant them,” Haynes says. “So you harvest, then you plant again. So you can get two or three crops out of a single growing season.”

So, does growing your own food really save you money? Don’t hate me, but I have to say it depends. If you have crummy soil like we do, you’ll have to buy some good, composted soil. And if you live in a hot, humid place like we do, you’ll have to water a lot. 

To definitely answer this question for myself, I’m doing an experiment this spring and summer. I’m going to keep track of how much we spend on our garden and how much it produces.

I’ll be tweeting about it, so follow me: @MarshallGenzer

I’ll let you know if that $124 investment in worms pays off!

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer hard at work, weeding her garden.

Sometimes it feels like I'm throwing money at my garden.

Plant things like yellow squash, which you can later process and freeze.

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