Not all gardeners have the goal of gardening to save money. Some, for example, are gardening for the amazing flavors of freshly-picked, naturally-ripened produce, and some are gardening because they just love plants.
Right now in my life, saving money through growing food is not my biggest reason for gardening, but it does get factored-in as I plan the garden. When the kids were small, and our income was low, saving money was a much more major motivation.
Other people are experiencing a similar motivation to start gardening now, as the pandemic and its associated weirdness result in job losses and tight family finances.
For ideas on reducing the cost of starting a garden, see the article How Much Does it Cost to Start a Garden?
There are no hard-and-fast rules for saving money through gardening, because every one of us is in different circumstances, with differing access to resources, but the ideas that follow may be helpful.
In addition to considering strategies for starting a garden with the smallest cash-outlay possible, by planning ahead (for example, start your compost pile now!) — see that link above for details — our crop choices can also influence the money-saving value of gardening.
How can gardening save us money?
One way my garden continues to save my family money is that it keeps us from making last-minute trips to the grocery store when we are short on recipe ingredients or meal ideas.
Often, there is something in the garden that inspires a meal, when we can’t identify any good options in the pantry or fridge. Of course, it helps if the crops in the garden are the kinds that can form the base of a meal.
Also, fewer trips to the store means fewer “impulse buys”. That is another way a garden helps keep food costs down.
A side benefit has been that, early in the pandemic, when we were all locked-down and limiting our trips out of the house, having a garden meant that we could go two or three weeks between grocery shopping expeditions. Fresh produce was out in the yard.
Several strategies for choosing garden crops exist. The strategies described below are mix-and-match ideas; they can be combined as you consider your own family’s food and money needs.
Crop strategy 1: Filling Plates
My personal experience has been that gardening saves my family the most money when what we harvest can be a major component of our meals. An example of a nearly-all-from-the-garden summertime supper is mashed potatoes, ears of sweet corn, black-eyed peas, and tomato-cucumber salad.
I am not a nutritionist, which you should maybe keep in mind when considering my choices, but for good health, filling meals, and money-saving, I usually grow some of these:
- Root crops – potatoes, sweet potatoes. These root crops are (almost always) productive, filling and nutritious; also, they taste good. Parsnips belong in this category, too, but I do not yet know if they will grow in my new yard — on a wet sand dune in zone 9a.
- Legumes – Southern peas, dried-type beans. These can provide the major protein component when a meal is mostly from the garden. Soybeans would probably give the most protein, but they are not my favorite.
- Nutrient-rich veggies – collard greens, kale, mustard greens, parsley, turnip leaf (and root). Dark green veggies provide loads of vitamins and minerals that keep us healthy. I don’t actually like turnips, but I grow a few each year, thinking that someday I will.
Other people might argue that the above-listed crops are not expensive to buy. For example, when we lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we could buy a 50-pound bag of potatoes for just a few dollars.
That kind of purchase may still be possible in some parts of the country. I never saw that option in Georgia, but I could grow 20 or so pounds of potatoes, in my organic garden, each spring in just eight or nine square feet of garden space.
Sweet potatoes did better, usually producing more than 30 pounds in that same amount of space. The vines tended to take up a lot more room than that, but they could be re-directed when they flowed “out of bounds”.
Crop strategy 2: High-end Veg
Another point of view might say that a better strategy in gardening to save money would be to grow the priciest crops, the ones that we spend the most money on per serving. These may not be plate-filling, but they can augment meals that are assembled from low-cost ingredients.
These might include the crops asparagus, artichokes, and radicchio. Culinary herbs might also fit in this category. Little packs of fresh herbs in the grocery store tend to be pricey.
If your family uses a lot of an herb that is easy to grow, adding it to your garden could be helpful. We use a lot of cilantro, so I plant some every fall.
See my related article Some Garden Economics for a look at economic value of garden crops.
Consider how often your family relies on costlier crops and how much space they might take in the garden as you make your choices.
Crop strategy 3: Snacks
Growing some of your own snacks can save money if these replace purchased snacks, like potato chips. These options are probably better for our health, too.
My Joe thinks radishes, sliced thin and salted, are an awesome snack, but other people may not agree.
Popcorn –In our north-Georgia garden, a patch of about 15 plants used to provide enough popcorn for nearly a whole year of “movie nights” when our kids were still at home. Back then, the only source of organically-grown popcorn was our yard. It wasn’t available in grocery stores yet.
Peanuts –Peanuts are fun to grow and good to eat, for those of us who are not allergic to them. They are easy to roast on an iron skillet, and they make a high-protein snack. In addition, growing them can boost the nitrogen level in your garden soil.
Crop strategy 4: Fruits
Gardeners who eat two or three servings of fruit daily can save quite a bit of money by growing some fruit in the yard. Since we moved, the fruit portion of my grocery bill has been higher than I prefer. There is a plan in motion to fix that.
We have planted several fruit trees and a couple of muscadine vines in our new yard. These should produce plenty of fruit, in the coming years, to bring that cost back down. We are already harvesting kumquats from the yard.
Back in north Georgia there was a glorious stretch of about ten years when our blueberry bushes and native plum trees, along with foraged blackberries from a nearby city park, provided most of our fruit (for four people) for most of the summer. In addition, the plants provided a surplus that allowed for making jam and for storing some fruit in the freezer to eat in winter.
If your family eats a lot of fruit, consider planting some of the easier-to-grow fruits. The list will vary, depending on where you live, but most of us can grow some kind of tree-fruit, bush-fruit, or bramble-fruit.
Crop strategy 5: Focus on Productivity
Some crops produce lot more food per plant, and per square foot of garden space, than others. For example, one tomato plant can produce multiple fruits, making many, many pounds of tomatoes.
On the opposite extreme, one onion set will produce one, larger, onion, at harvest time. The up-side for onions is that individual onion sets can be spaced 5-6 inches apart, allowing a gardener to plant 16-20 onions in a space that is just two-square-feet, when a garden uses intensive spacing instead of rows.
Some crops can keep producing for an ongoing harvest. These crops can include green beans, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, collards, and more.
Each family’s needs, and what is available inexpensively at nearby stores, can influence the crop choices each gardener makes.
I prefer to feed myself and my family food that was grown using organic methods, as much as possible. However, we moved to an area where local stores have extremely limited organic produce selections.
Most weeks, we can find organically grown carrots and salad greens — but not always — and usually there are organically grown fuji or gala apples. About half the time I can find organically grown bananas.
There is more, but the variety is not great, and it is all inconsistent. Organically grown cabbages are especially hard to locate. The nearest source seems to be New Orleans.
Much of the organic produce available nearby is heavily wrapped in plastic; much of it costs considerably more than chemically-grown produce.
So, for me, growing as large a variety of crops as I can manage is a big money-saver, since I grow it using organic methods. In addition, “growing our own” decreases the amount of plastic we bring home from the store. There is no shrink-wrap on our garden veggies!
Why am I thinking about this now?
One part of gardening to save money is keeping expenses down. However, it is that seed-buying time of year. Money will be spent.
Websites of seed companies indicate that they are mostly ready to start taking orders for the 2022 garden year.
Seed catalogs may be later to arrive this year than last year, but it is not too soon to start planning what we need for the upcoming garden seasons.
Saving on seeds, and more
We have a few options to keep our seed-buying expenses down.
Create a seed list or inventory
I completed a “seed inventory” to see what seeds I have left from the last couple of years of gardening. Then, I made a list of seeds-to-buy, based on gaps in my inventory, and cross-checked with the “gardening goals” that I established last spring.
Not-buying seeds I don’t need, by knowing exactly what I still have and what my garden-goals are, is a great way to save money.
I did not make a complete inventory last year, and this resulted in my buying seeds for a couple of crops that I had plenty of seeds for already, leftover from the previous year. Having too many of those seeds may mean that some are wasted, if I do not end up planting them all before they get too old to grow.
I have already sent in a couple of seed orders, and my first order for 2022, to Baker Creek Rare Seeds, has already been delivered in the mail! The mailer that my seeds came in is beautiful.
Split seed purchases with another gardener
Most seed packets contain more than enough seeds for two or more home gardeners to share. If you pool resources and share the seeds with one or more other gardeners, your individual costs will be lower.
In the past, I have done this with a gardening friend, and we both found it helpful in keeping costs down.
Consult your local Cooperative Extension office
Most Cooperative Extension offices — and these are in every state — put together lists of crop varieties that are known to do well for home gardeners in their area. If you are new to gardening, these lists are an essential resource for identifying seed varieties that will grow and make productive plants.
Using crop varieties that actually work will be a big money-saver! New gardeners, especially, may not realize that some varieties produce more reliably in some parts of the country than in others.
The varieties listed by local Extension offices will include some hybrid crops. There will also be old tried-and-true non-hybrid varieties, the ones local farmers have relied on for decades.
For gardeners who want to avoid growing hybrid crops (because some gardeners do), the inclusion of these older varieties is especially helpful.
Local Extension offices can also provide suggested planting dates for your crops, to help you know when to plant your seeds at the right time of year for best success.
Get your soil tested
If I hadn’t sent a sample of my new yard’s soil off to the state testing lab, I would not have known that there was very little potassium in it, and that it is overloaded with phosphorus.
I would have wasted money on the wrong fertilizer, and my garden would have been less productive.
Your local Cooperative Extension office can provide information about sending a soil sample to the state testing lab.
Ready to garden?
I love this garden-planning time of year. It helps that I already have a goals list and seeds list made. In the last week of December, I will start filling out my garden calendar, to help me keep on track. Hopefully, other gardeners are also getting their planning in gear. For those of us in the South, spring planting starts surprisingly soon.
Best wishes for a great gardening year!