Does gardening save money?

No.

Seriously though, I have read many articles over the years suggesting that growing your own veggies can be a way of saving money on groceries. Writers of these articles are very optimistic at best, disingenuous at worst. I have been vegetable gardening for twenty years, and I know for a fact that it does not save any money. I would suggest that gardening is a relatively inexpensive hobby (compared to some other hobbies), depending on how you go about it, but as a way of saving money on produce and fresh food, it does not stack up. Here are some reasons.

Gardening is unpredictable

Gardening is fun, but the results are very unpredictable. Take this year: we had a great crop of apricots, but no passionfruit or mulberries to speak of. This means we have been eating apricots for about three weeks (awesome! We love apricots), but we still bought berries and other fruit. Our apple trees finally produced some apples, but half of them were eaten by rats. To protect the apples from the rats, we will have to buy a net for next season (more dollars shelled out). I can buy a kilo of apples for five bucks. A net will cost me at least thirty dollars, and I need two of them (we have two apple trees). Ignoring the water and fertiliser for the trees, I am already set back $60 to protect about ten apples on my two trees.

The veggie patch is the same. Last year was a bad year for tomatoes, and we ended up with very few. This year, we are having a bumper crop. This season, our potatoes were a total blowout, and so was the corn. In previous years, we have had success with both potatoes and corn. Gardening on a small scale in the backyard, like we do, achieves inconsistent results. It is great fun for someone like me, who enjoys the time spent outdoors and watching plants grow, but at best I supplement my family’s diet with homegrown vegetables at peak times of the year. The rest of the time, we have to rely on supermarkets and vegetable shops like everyone else.

Gardening supplies cost money

Last week I spent about $120 on basic gardening supplies at the Big Green Shed. Today I spent another $50 on decorative plants (for funsies).

This is not uncommon. Generally speaking, I do spend quite a lot on gardening supplies like mulch, organic fertilisers and tonics (seaweed extract etc), stakes, twine, wire, seeds, and plants. I would spend more on supplies than I would ‘make’ out of the garden: that is, it costs me a lot more to garden than I would ever save on fruit and vegetables that I grow. It’s worth it to me because I grow interesting heirlooms that I cannot buy in the supermarkets, and because it’s my main hobby. As a hobby, it is cheaper than many others. I don’t go to the pub, go wine tasting, or go to live shows or the movies often. Gardening is cheaper than all of those things. But if you want to do it well, it is not ‘cheap.’ For example, this year I built tomato cages for all of my tomato bushes. These alone would have cost about $150. I will be able to re-use them next year, but still, I could buy a lot of tomatoes from the supermarket for that. I know they taste better, but they are not cheap tomatoes.*

Gardening takes time and space

Some of the articles I have read about how gardening saves money seem to ignore the fact that time is also expensive. There is a reason I am the Part-time Gardener. I have a job. Maybe if I had all the time in the world, I could spend it in the garden and grow everything I need and save thousands of dollars a year. But the fact is that most people do not have that kind of time. There are weeks where I do not even walk outside, let alone weed my garden or think about succession planting carrots. If I am really busy with deadlines, I may not poke my head outside in the veggie patch for a month. Gardening takes real time and dedication. Because I ‘bank’ time by spending entire weekends out there when I do have the time, my garden makes it through the busy times – but many people do not have that kind of time.

I’ve read some articles that underestimate the kind of time people need to spend in the garden to achieve great results. They tell people they can grow all they need to feed their family with five to ten hours of hands on time a week. I do not think this is true. I would spend about five hours a week in my garden, on average, and I cannot feed my family of four from my garden. In my opinion, articles like this are discouraging to new gardeners, who might find that the time required is much higher than they anticipated. I understand that gardening writers are trying to encourage people to garden, but it is more effective to be honest about the time, space, and money required to successfully garden for fun and productivity.

Gardening enough to ‘save money’ also requires a lot of space. We are fortunate to have a lot of space, but many people do not. I have read articles exhorting people to grow in pots or on balconies. That is very expensive and time-consuming. I am growing tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, and blueberries in pots on my balcony this season. I already owned the pots, so I did not have that expense. I did have to buy good quality potting mix, which is expensive if you are growing more than one or two pots. I also needed fertiliser and soil wetting agent for the pots so they don’t dry out in the heat of the day. Pots require more regular watering. I estimate I spend at least half an hour a day just watering my balcony pots. So far I have harvested one eggplant and a tiny handful of cherry tomatoes, for about $100 of potting mix and a whole lot of time and water. Saved a lot of money there!! Next year I will only grow flowers on the balcony, and leave the veggies in the garden.

Set up costs are high

The set up costs of a garden are quite high. To reach the point where we are now (a relatively productive vegetable garden and an attractive front garden), we have had to spend a lot of money and even more time on our garden. We have built retaining walls, bought trees (good quality fruit trees can cost up to $100 each), plants, fertiliser and mulch, and paid a professional arborist several thousand dollars to remove trees and stumps. While all of these things are arguably an investment in our home, it may not be affordable for all potential gardeners. We chose to spend this money instead of doing other things, but we also had some money to invest in it because it was important to us. When people write that gardening will save money, they ignore the high cost of setting up even a small vegetable or container garden. This annoys me, because it implies that these costs are negligible, or that everyone has the money to spend. I would rather they write a truthful article that looks at the real costs of setting up a garden, the most cost-effective plants to grow if someone is hoping to save some money, and the potential and ongoing costs that could arise over a typical year of gardening.

These are some things you should consider when deciding to set up a garden:

  • How much space do you have, and what is the soil like? Will you have to spend a lot of money preparing the soil before you can grow vegetables?
  • Are you renting? If so, you might not be allowed to dig up the landscaping for a garden. Check with the landlord first. Also, find out if there are pipes underground on the property that you don’t know about. Once when I was digging on a rental property, I hit a water pipe and broke it. That was an expensive lesson for a broke student.
  • If you are renting, or don’t have much space, consider a community garden. Many of the expensive set up costs of gardening and the cost of water are already covered by the community garden. You will have to pay for the plot rent, and possibly a membership fee, but it is a good way to try gardening if you are low on space. We were members of a community garden for seven years when we were renting, and it was fantastic. We made friends, learned about gardening from more experienced gardeners, and had the fun of gardening with lower overheads.
  • Look carefully at the space you are considering for your garden. Are there big trees nearby? If so, you might have to consider moving the planned garden, as big trees love to send roots where there is water. You may just end up watering the tree and not your plants.
  • Think about your garden space as premium real estate. Some plants take up a lot of space, and may not be worth it. Think about yield and what will give you best yield for the space they are taking up. Also, in Australia you can grow plants a bit closer together than is generally recommended in garden books and on seed packets. The plants shade each other in our hot weather.
  • Don’t forget that water is expensive, and growing a garden requires a lot of water. If you want to reduce water or water more sustainably, you will need to mulch – and this also costs money.
  • What do you like to eat, and can you buy it cheaper than growing it at home?
  • If you still prefer to grow it yourself, read about the best way to grow it. Is it best to grow it from seed or seedling? Seed will always be cheaper, but in some instances it will not be the most cost-effective because you still need apparatus like seed trays, seed-raising mix, and time to raise them. Best vegetables to grow direct from seed include peas, beans, carrots, rocket and other leafy greens, turnips and other root vegetables.
  • There are online seed and plant retailers that are as cheap or cheaper than the big hardware and garden retailers. There are also some seed exchanges, but sometimes the seeds are not what they promise, so take care. If you buy heirloom seeds, you can save the seeds to replant next year. Also sometimes the smaller supermarket chains can be a good source of plants like perennials and herbs at good prices.
  • If you are in a smallish space, consider setting up a no-dig garden.
  • If you can afford it and you have the room, consider a compost bin. This is the cheapest and most effective way of building up your soil.
  • If you have the space and money, buy some products in bulk. Best organic fertilisers to buy in the large bags are Dynamic Lifter and Blood and Bone. They keep well and are most useful for organic gardeners.
  • Sugar cane mulch is a cheaper mulch than pea or lucerne straw and in my opinion is just as effective.
  • Save and wash plastic pots from plants you have bought, and reuse to raise seedlings.
  • Don’t forget that pests, weeds, and diseases also happen, and you might need a plan to manage these. I garden organically, so I do not spray or poison anything, but this means that I need to spend more time weeding and managing my garden to prevent pests and disease. Think about how you want to manage these and how much money it will cost. Pesticides and herbicides are expensive, and organic gardening can be time-consuming.

I hope this list does not discourage new gardeners from trying out an interesting and healthy hobby – I just want to be honest about it. Gardening ain’t cheap, but it is fun and I love it. Maybe there are cheaper ways to do it than I do, and if so, that’s brilliant.

*For a great read about the high cost of gardening, the book The $64 Tomato is hilarious. I’d agree that right now, each apple from my tree cost about $64 each. Delicious, but still…

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