Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How does your Garden Grow?

I'm going to take some time to hijack this blog once again, to discuss another one of the myths of personal finance; that growing your own vegetable garden saves money.

The first requirement of having a successful garden is, of course, having a space to plant it. I know that some people have had success with container gardening on their patios or balconies, but the amount of produce you'll get from such an endeavor isn't really going to make a dent in your grocery budget. The cheapest way to go about this might be to pick up gently used pots of appropriate sizes from yard sales, thrift stores and flea markets, or maybe your friends and neighbors have some they're dying to get out of the storage shed. One other downside to container gardening is that it's a little more difficult to achieve proper watering in containers, especially when you get to the middle of the season - a couple of scorching hot days in a row can wipe out your plants. You could go with automated drip irrigation, but that requires some up front investment in cash, too, that pretty well wipes out any financial advantage for at least the first few seasons, and probably will require replacement and maintenance just about the time you edge into the black.

So, if you want to have a large and productive garden, you'll need a decent space, which might mean you'll have to buy a larger piece of property than you really need, more investment up front, higher taxes, etc. But let's assume for a bit that you already have a house with a nice area that's just perfect for growing a garden, and all you have to do is till up the soil, add some steer manure or other fertilizer, and you're on your way. Oh, did you forget about the cost of renting a rototiller for a couple of hours? You could do as I did about twenty years ago and buy one instead of renting. New or used? You'll have less maintenance costs with new, but used is less spendy in the first place. So, almost twenty years ago, my rototiller cost me about $400. Ignoring maintenance and repairs, that's a lot of vegetables to harvest to recover the costs. I have to put gas in the tiller every time I use it, too. That wasn't too bad when I first started, but now we're up around $4 a gallon, and probably going higher.

Do you a) live in an area where you can get some good aged steer manure for free from a local rancher? or b) have enough trees and shrubbery around your home that you can shred sufficient leaves and branches to mulch into the soil? If not, you'll end up paying for some sort of fertilizer or soil enhancement. The best results in a garden happen when soil has nutrients added back to it each year. You can accomplish this with the right planning, rotation and cover crop plantings, but are you really looking for a full-time job here?  If you do have enough "free" leaves and branches, you may need to buy a shredder - there goes another $400! Of course, it's very handy for spring and fall yard cleanup, so maybe you should only assign half of its cost to your vegetable garden.

Another aspect to consider is weed control. The first time I planted a garden at this location, I spent my entire summer, every day after work, pulling weeds from around the veggies. It was miserable. If you really love to pull weeds in the summer heat, don't let me stop you, but my solution was to buy weed barrier fabric and plant in holes cut through the fabric. This saved a ton of time, but usually costs me about $50 to $70 in the spring, whenever it needs to be replaced. The heavy duty fabric costs more and will last several seasons, but the cheap stuff will need to be replaced every or maybe two if you're lucky.

Onwards to the actual planting. You can order seeds from a catalog, and sprout them indoors, or you can go the the garden store in the spring and buy nice seedlings. It's six of one, half dozen of the other which method puts you in the best position to get an early harvest, and growing from seeds tends to be cheaper, until that new kitten of your daughter's decides the seedling pots look like a lovely litter box, and you have to start all over. I generally spend about $40 to $50 buying all of my plants at planting time.

Do you live in a temperate climate, without any possibility of a late frost? That's one of the biggest issues we have here in Idaho. I've set out plants when the weather looked perfect, and ended up having to go back and buy a whole new batch when a killing frost in mid-May sent me back to the beginning. I've tried the walls of water, and they worked wonderfully (and cost me some cash) until the year when they collapsed for no apparent reason and crushed all the little plants - return to starting point.

Another thing to think about is supports and cages. If you're growing beans or peas, you're going to need to provide support for them, such as poles or a section of chicken wire fence. Tomatoes need cages for support, and you can buy or build them out of wood or wire.  You'll probably need some stakes to keep them in the ground, and some zip ties to hold them to the stakes. I tried just letting my tomatoes sprawl on the ground one year, as one gardening book suggested - it was a huge sprawling nasty mess when harvest time rolled around.

Throughout the growing season, you'll need to water your plants regularly. If you're fortunate, you live in an area where water is relatively cheap, but in many urban areas, keeping your garden watered will significantly increase your utility bill each month. I've been lucky in having flood irrigation where I live, but the water doesn't always go where you need it to without a little engineering, so I've spent lots of money on an irrigation pump, pipes, sprinklers, hoses and keeping it all working each year, trying different configurations...

Now it's time to harvest your garden, and rather rapidly you'll find yourself wondering what to do with all this bounty. You can just give away everything you can't personally consume as it ripens - that's simple enough. Or you can try to preserve it for those long cold lonely winter months. Three of the most common methods are canning, freezing and drying produce. If you select canning, you'll need to invest in jars, rings and lids, a water bath canning kettle at the minimum and a pressure cooker if you're canning non-acidic vegetables. Rings and jars  can be re-used each year, but you'll need to buy new lids for every new season. If you decide to freeze your produce, cheapest case is to use locking freezer bags - also doesn't guard against freezer burn as well as other methods, or invest in a vacuum sealer and bags - another ongoing cost. Don't forget a freezer! The freezer compartment in your refrigerator will be overwhelmed in a hurry. Unless you're living in the Southwest, drying vegetables out in the sun on your patio isn't all that easy to do, too much humidity most other places, and you'll fight mold, so you're going to need a food dehydrator to make those sun-dried tomatoes. Oh, you've gotta store them in something, so add some more baggies.

After you've invested all this time and money, I really seriously doubt that growing your own produce saves money, and in fact it's probably more expensive than a trip to the grocery store. The reason to garden is because you love the experience of growing your own food, eating tomatoes fresh off the vine that taste like nothing you'll ever buy, shucking and boiling some ears of corn so fresh you can smell them across the room and slathering them in butter...

Just don't try to convince me it's saving you money.

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