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Does gardening save money?



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:

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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