Monday, June 27, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow?

When we were newly married, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine how much money my garden saved us from our normal grocery bill, and I came up with close to $1,000.  At the time, the garden was much smaller, as were food prices, but I was using garden food to replace a lot of expensive prepared and packaged food that I had gotten used to as a single person.  Therefore, it was easy to say that having a garden shaved about $20 a week off the grocery bill for 50 weeks of the year.  Now, with a much larger garden and food prices through the roof, I thought it was time to do a different sort of calculation.

This summer, I will be running an experiment and a blog series called How Much Does a Garden Grow?  Each column (and a summary at the end of the primary garden season) will examine how much (in pounds and in some cases raw numbers) of each crop I am able to bring in and attempt to put a retail price on each crop.  I'll compare this retail price to the investment in seed/plant costs where possible and determine whether each crop is a money-saver or not.  At the end of the season, we should have a pretty good idea how much produce my garden generates and what the retail value is.  A few ground rules, if you plan to follow along:

  1. I will not be collecting weight data on leaf veggies and herbs, as that could get slightly insane.  Suffice it to say that I will note which leaf veggies we grew and whether it was a good year for them (so far, not so much).  I will also try to do an end-of-season tally of dried herbs and spices and give you a cost guess-timate for what those filled spice jars would cost me at the store.
  2. I will not change my gardening behavior.  That is to say, if I eat peas or strawberries or cherry tomatoes while weeding, I will not be weighing those.  If I eat a bunch of them, I'll put my thumb on the scale at the next weighing or something.  But I don't want to give up that pleasure for the experiment.
  3. I will collect at least one comparable price for each crop at a retail establishment.  When possible, I will get the price for the organic version of the crop, since we grow organically; when I can't, I will note that.  When possible, I will also get a farmer's market price for the crop and will report that too.  However, the price I will use for comparison is the one most readily available at my handiest retail source -- likely a grocery store -- because I want to know what this produce would cost me if I simply shopped for it without additional effort in my day.  My garden is ultra-handy, since it is right outside my door, so I want to compare with a source that feels almost as handy.
  4. I will discuss how the garden changes our eating habits.  As a preview, consider veggies like zucchini.  If I'm having a good zucchini year, we will make zucchini pie in place of making or (shudder) ordering a pizza or going out.  If a $5 zucchini pie (counting price of cheese and crust), which generates at least one dinner for two and a couple of lunches, replaces an $18 trip to Noodles & Co. (our go-to desperation dinner), then I will include that in the commentary.
  5. I will also occasionally feature value-add projects, like food preservation, and talk about how much those projects save (or don't).  However, the final tally will be poundage and total price of garden output.
  6. I will not make a regular point of discussing investment of time.  Gardening is my summer hobby.  I would garden even if it cost me money overall, which I'm sure it doesn't.  If I didn't garden, I would do something else -- probably, take more dance lessons, which would be a really expensive substitution!  Therefore, I'm not going to tally my hours and try to get a living wage out of the project.  However, I will comment here that, if one so desired, gardening would be a more-than-adequate substitution for time exercising in the gym.  I'm not going to put my gym membership on pause (which would drop it from $35 a month to $10) because I like to swim and take the exercise classes, but if I wanted to, I could easily pause my membership at minimum for the months of May-September for a savings of $125.  That will not be in the final tally either.
At the end of this, I hope we all have a better idea of how much a suburban garden will grow, what crops are the best money-savers, and which are a labor of love!  If you have other ideas for data collection, please leave them in the comments!
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