Shrink Your Grocery Budget by Growing Your Food

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Now that we’ve survived this year’s long, cold winter, it’s time to think about more sunny subjects – such as gardening.

Money Talks News finance expert Stacy Johnson discovered that getting your hands in the dirt isn’t only good for the soul, it’s good for the budget too. Watch the video below to learn how much people are saving by growing their own food. Then keep reading for tips to get you started.

Really, how much can you save?

Well, that’s something of a tricky question. It seems to depend on who you ask. Here are two examples.

Now, to be fair, the Times columnist appears to have had a lot of startup costs that wouldn’t repeat year after year. Meanwhile, the Burpee calculation doesn’t seem to take any of those costs into consideration at all.

Meanwhile, Gail Langellotto, statewide coordinator for the Oregon State University Master Gardener program, analyzed the findings of six reports on the subject. She found that gardens yield an average of 74 cents worth of produce per square foot planted. However, most of the studies she used were quite old – dating to the 1970s and ’80s – which could mean their results may not correlate to those of gardeners using newer seed hybrids and gardening methods.

Since the data out there is murky and anecdotal at best, MTN contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their take on the issue. A department representative had this to say about the Burpee claim:

I think the “accurate” answer is that it’s possible under the right conditions … but a yield of that size depends on so many factors: site selection, availability of light, soil condition, adequate water and nutrients, temperature, as well as pests and diseases.

Bottom line? You probably can save money by gardening, but you need to do your homework first.

3 steps to gardening success

When it comes to doing your gardening homework, start by going over these three simple rules for gardening success.

  • Be realistic about what you like and what you’ll eat. Tomatoes and peppers may be easy, but if they never pass by your lips, they’re a waste of money to grow. Maybe your family goes through potatoes and strawberries like nobody’s business. That’s where you should focus your gardening efforts instead.
  • Be realistic about what you can grow. You may love oranges, but I guarantee an orange tree is going to be a disappointment in your Minnesota backyard. You need to understand what can thrive in your area before you run out and drop a lot of cash on seeds and supplies. That means knowing your hardiness zone, the type of soil in your ground, and how much sun your proposed garden spot will get.
  • Be prepared to preserve and share your bounty. When a garden is successful, it can be really successful. As in, you’ll have zucchini, broccoli and lettuce coming out of your ears. Before you’re faced with baskets of overflowing produce, learn a little about canning and freezing. And don’t forget to spread the wealth by sharing some of the excess with family, friends and community service organizations.

The most profitable plants for your garden

Once you know what plants you and your family will eat and which ones will grow in your area, you may have more options than space. You can whittle down your short list by concentrating on those plants that are most profitable.

While conducting her analysis, Langellotto found the following plants had the greatest economic benefit:

  • Salad greens
  • Tomatoes
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Strawberries

Again, her research included a number of older studies, and yields for some crops may be different today.

A more recent analysis (although still more than 5 years old) of profitable garden plants was completed on the Cheap Vegetable Gardener blog. The blogger compared crop yields to average grocery prices and found the following plants were likely to save you the most money:

  • Cilantro
  • Arugula
  • Green salad mix
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Lettuce
  • Cherry, small and medium tomatoes

All of these plants had a value of more than $15 per square foot, with a square foot of cilantro being worth $21.20. Visit the blog at the link above to see the entire list of vegetable values.

Where to go for more help

Since MTN is a personal finance site, we can only tell you so much about the nuts and bolts of planting your garden. We can, however, direct you to a number of resources on the Web covering everything from starting seedlings to finding a community garden plot.

Here are a couple of our favorite gardening sites:

  • The National Gardening Association. It offers gardening guides, a zone finder and gardening calculators.
  • My Square Foot Garden. For those with small spaces, square-foot gardening can help you make the most of every inch. Although there are plenty of websites and books on the subject, this blogger has put together an easy-to-read, step-by-step primer on the process.
  • American Horticultural Society. Use this website to find gardening maps, Master Gardener programs and societies, clubs and organizations in your area.
  • Old Farmer’s Almanac. It contains beginner tips, garden plans and planting dates.
  • American Community Gardening Association. If you don’t have room on your property for a garden, this website can help you find a community plot nearby.

Do you have experience gardening? Share your advice and tips in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • http://myoverflowingcup.com Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    One of the ways my garden saves me money is that it keeps me from driving to the store for fresh produce. I can go longer between shopping trips, thus saving wear and tear on the vehicle, gas, and the temptation to purchase more than I really need while I am there. Lettuce and cilantro are the biggest money savers for me. I think that the key is to know what you can grow well, and concentrate on those crops rather than trying to grow everything.

  • bigpinch

    One of my favorite subjects. I’ve been doing this for many, many years. I co-authored the Organic Certification Standards for the State of Texas in 1988. Those have been subsumed under the USDA’s rules since then. The best piece of advice I can offer folks trying their hand at growing vegetables in the back yard or even on the back porch is: start small.
    Learn to grow a couple of things that you like so that you learn to do it successfully. Success breeds more success.
    Learning to grow vegetables isn’t hard but it has to be approached systematically. Using the Internet, you can learn it all (except for what experience will teach you) for free. I’ve been gardening for more than 40 years and I still enjoy using the Internet for reference.
    It doesn’t have to be expensive. Seeds, dirt, water, and sunshine will just about cover it. You really don’t need all of the gizmos in the gardening catalogs. Later, if you get bigger, some of that stuff will help you save time but don’t let the money keep you from getting started.

  • Jake

    I grow vegetables, but herbs are where I have saved most of my money. My wife likes to use a lot of fresh mint and other herbs, which are pricy at the store, but grow like weeds at home.