There are many great reasons for growing food in your own yard: flavor, aesthetics, health, environmental, and sometimes cost. We all like to think that the hard work we put into our gardens will be rewarded with bountiful harvests of perfect produce that will lower our grocery bills. But, that may not always be the case. Sometimes it is far cheaper to buy certain foods than it is to grow them. However, growing some foods can actually save a ton of money.
My take on gardening economics is based on my own experiences and the experiences of friends and family in the Southeast US, zones 7 and 8. When figuring the cost of growing vegetables there are many variables: weather, insects, soil conditions, etc. These things might make some of the produce mentioned in this post vastly different for readers in other regions.
These assessments are of crops grown in backyard gardens, not truck farms. Planning productive small home gardens can be challenging, but understanding the cost versus yield of crops can help even the tiniest backyard plot produce the highest amount of food possible.
Our home garden is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our growing family. As we have started feeding more people, garden-economics has become more important. Each season I’m learning how to get more food from every bed. I can’t give advice on every crop, but here is what I’ve learned about a few.
Salad: Grow for the $$$$$$
My inspiration for this blog post was a giant pile of salad mix that I recently bagged up. Grocery store organic salad mix is expensive, but lettuce seed is super cheap and incredibly easy to grow.
Knowing the correct planting dates and best salad varieties for your region will ensure your success. In the Southeast, we might not be able to grow lettuce in our scorching summers, but late fall and early spring salad greens are almost effortless to grow. Succession planting starting in mid September should fill your salad bowls through most of the cool months of the year. I do not use row covers, but still manage to harvest lettuce every month that has the letter “r” in its name.
The salad greens that I have been the most impressed by in my own garden are black seeded Simpson, butter crunch, deer tongue, and sword leaf lettuces. Another of my favorites is arugula, a super producing green in most regions that provides the fastest salad imaginable. It’s almost instant gratification gardening.
My last planting of salad greens was in a 4′ X 6′ section of raised bed. I scattered all of the leftover lettuce seeds I had from my fall plantings mixed with a packet of sword leaf seeds. Over 45 days the planting yeilded: 2 large micro-greens salads from thinning sprouts, 40 side salads, 5 gallon sized bags of salad mix (that I was able to share), and I probably have 6 more gallon-sized salad mixes to be picked.
Total cost for seeds, and, and soil amendment was less than $10. The value of salad greens harvested was well over $100, making them a definite money saving crop.
Carrots: Grow for the kicks, flavor and fun
Carrots are easy to grow, even though they are a 100+ day crop. On the other hand, store bought carrots are dirt cheap. I imagine that zones with mild summers can grow carrots much easier and quicker. But, still, probably not as cheaply as buying them. However, the super sweet flavor of home-grown carrots can’t be found in your supermarket and that makes them worth growing. After eating carrots grown in our garden, grocery store carrots are now bland disappointments.
Commercially grown carrots are usually varieties that have been developed for long term storage. You can keep these bland orange sticks in your refrigerator for a month without them going limp. But, when you pull them out, they taste like nothing. The sweetest varieties of home grown carrots don’t store well, but you will eat them so fast you won’t need to store them. I throw grocery store carrots in pot roasts or stews to soak up other flavors. Our beautiful garden carrots are too fabulous to be lost in soups. They can be salad superstars or elegant side dishes.
To celebrate the amazing flavor of fresh carrots try this dish Simply Perfect Roasted Carrots . If these carrots were served at a fine restaurant they would fetch a pretty penny.
The most delicious varieties of carrots that I’ve grown have been Scarlet Nantes. But, every variety I’ve pulled from my garden has been far more tasty than any carrots from the store.
If you have raised beds you should definitely grow carrots every fall and spring. Flavor isn’t the only reason for growing them, pulling carrots out of the ground is fun. Really fun! You get to pull young carrots for salads as they need thinning. When it is time to harvest the mature carrots, it’s like digging up treasure: beautiful, healthy, tasty treasure.
Corn: Grow for the kicks and health
If your backyard is a 20 acre fertile field in Ohio, you might save money growing your own corn. If you are gardening in raised beds or any other small plots, corn is never going to save you money. It takes up too much space and nutrients.
Corn might not be a practical backyard crop (or front yard in our case), but there are some great reasons to grow it anyway. Home grown corn can be much healthier and more delicious than commercially grown corn.
Most corn purchased in grocery stores, even organic grocerers, is hybrid sweet corn. Hybrid sweet corn is higher in sugar and lower in proteins than open pollinated sweet corn varieties. Hybrid sweet corn is the deliciously sweet junk food of vegetables. I admit, I love Peaches and Cream corn. But, I don’t want my family fattenening up on that sugar filled “grain.”
We grow open-pollinated heirloom corns that are lower in sugar than hybrids. Last year our front yard corn patch provided enough Aunt Mary’s sweet corn to stock the freezer with small cobs perfect for adding to lunchboxes. Our kid loves having whole corn cobs in his school lunch, and I love knowing it is not modified super sweet hybrid corn.
Open pollinated corn also has more flavor–more than just sweetness. It is corn that tastes like corn, not just sugar. This year I will be growing Aunt Mary’s and Country Gentlemen corn. If I could go to a store and purchase these two varieties of corn, I probably wouldn’t be taking up precious garden space with a corn patch. But, I can’t. That is why homegrown corn has a place in our yard. I will never try to put a price on each of the ears that we pick. I’m pretty sure we aren’t saving money, but we are eating great.
Bell Peppers: Grow for the $$$$$
Organic bell peppers are expensive in the grocery store all year long. They might be slightly cheaper in the summer, but they are still pricey. We use bell peppers in salads, salsa, fajitas, enchiladas, pickles, sloppy joes, braised greens, grilled vegetables, casseroles, and too many other ways to list. Growing them saves our family serious grocery dollars.
Jupiter and Cali Wonder bell peppers are my favorite because of their vigorous growth and disease resistance. I have never spent any money on fungicides or insecticides for these Bell peppers. They do require a bit of organic nitrogen fertilizer or compost for optimal production. But, overall, they are a cost efficient home-crop with little required maintenance.
Many of the factors that contribute to the high costs of commercially grown peppers don’t effect home grown peppers. Bell peppers are easily bruised in shipping; much of the retail pricing covers packaging and losses. They suffer from sun burn; in our kitchen, we cut around sun burns and use them anyway. Only perfect specimens are marketable; at home, we love our ugly peppers, too.
Home grown sweet peppers might not always be as big or uniform in nature as commercially grown varieties. But, the little ones look great blended in a jar of salsa and the prettiest ones are good enough for stuffing. With the average cost of organic bell peppers $3.00 per pound, I can’t imagine not growing them.