Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Final Summary

As I promised yesterday, with the 2011 main gardening season over, it is time to distill some lessons from my gardening effort.  It was a very bad year weather-wise:  almost three months of rain and cold, followed by epic heat.  Things would sprout and then become stunted; the fruit trees tried to fruit but couldn't.  Our oak trees didn't even produce acorns.  I watched lettuces struggle and then bolt practically overnight. Yet, in spite of all of that, we turned a bit of a retail profit, and we learned the following:

Gardening is profitable:  If you average the haul out over the entire year, we brought in more than 10 pounds of produce per month and saved over $20 per month.  I consider that pretty pathetic, given the amount of space I dedicate to gardening, but even with the challenges we faced, we saved money.  In a sense, the garden this year was like a monthly CSA box that I was paid to take.  I still stand by my calculation that the overall savings is more like $20 per week, because the garden produce displaces a lot of more expensive and less-healthy purchases.  Why buy frozen pizzas when that shredded zucchini in the freezer can be the basis of zucchini orzo?

But local produce is out there:  If you don't have the space to garden, don't worry.  More and more, I saw local and/or "regional" produce available in my grocery stores, and the prices became very reasonable when the produce was in-season.  If you can't garden, you can still buy local, and you can save some money by respecting seasonality.  That means strawberries in May, not December.  And I hope my local supermarket reads this and sees my displeasure at finding pumpkins and rhubarb in the same produce section.

Organics are difficult:  However, I had a lot of trouble readily finding organic produce.  Yes, it is out there.  Most grocery stores carry some.  However, much of the time that I looked for an organic analog for a price comparison, I couldn't find one.  Had I been able to, my "amount saved" tally would surely have been much higher, because organics average about $1 per pound more than conventional produce, across the board.  With the recent opening of a local Earth Fair store, I should have a better chance at checking organic produce prices in the future.  However, right now our best chances for organic produce are lettuces and "keeper crops," like squashes, potatoes, onions, and carrots.

So are special varieties:  Purple potatoes?  Black Krim tomatoes?  Specialty peppers?  If I wanted a certain variety of veggie, I almost certainly had to grow it to be sure I could get my hands on it.  Stores are making progress, but they still carry primarily the most common varieties of veggies and often lump others together under the umbrella "heirloom," which anyone who has ever grown Black Krim, Amish Paste, and Yellow Pear tomatoes knows is nonsense.

Herbs are lucrative:  If you can only grow one category of produce, make it herbs.  Across the board, my herbs gave me the best ROI.  However, I expect this will change when and if I ever have another 300 pound tomato year.  (Cripes!  A decent tomato year could net me about $900!)

Save your seeds:  Above all, the difference between profit and loss in a bad year was saving seeds, starting my own plants, and relying on perennials.  Crops like leeks that are relatively new to me I grew from greenhouse plants, and they didn't turn a profit.  With things like herbs, peppers, pumpkins, and tomatoes, even a relatively small harvest could be profitable because of low or no seed/plant costs.

Gardening makes you eat more veggies:  Duh, right?  But this finding is very important if you are considering a gardening effort.  If you are buying all of your produce, you will buy exactly what you think you will eat.  If you are growing it, you will eat whatever is ripe.  This makes for some amusing meals ("Do you think we could put zucchini in that?"), but it means that we used veggies to stretch pizza dough, to top pasta, and to moisten cookies.  This isn't a trick to get little kids to eat; this was a way to use our hard-earned veggies in healthy ways before they went bad.

The garden never ends:  This was the big surprise to me.  I've been gardening since I was eight years old, but recently Mr. FC&G and I have put a lot of effort into extending the season on both ends.  This year, we started forking the garden in February, and now in November, we still have leeks, peas, carrots, mint, rosemary, swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes (fingers crossed) and limes to look forward to.

And the Future:  So what does this mean for the future of this column on the blog?  Starting today, I will be reporting on the garden like a business, which I think of it as anyway.  I will do a month-end post that lists produce harvested and expenditures.  I'll keep adding to the current tallies through the end of 2011, then January 1, 2012, the "garden year" rolls over and we start from zero.  I anticipate operating in the red for a while in January/February because of the seed orders, then working ourselves into the black as the year goes on. It seems like the best way to take into account the ebb and flow of a garden.  After all, gardeners don't typically buy all new seeds and plants in spring, put them in the ground at Mother's Day, rip them out before the first frost, and call it done.  Instead, we have stashes of seeds, we start things at different times,  we watch the weather and pull out the tarps to see if we can extend the season by days, weeks, or even months.  A real gardener is always looking for a new crop to fill in underused time and a new treat to bring some veggies to a winter-dulled palate.  I think this will be a better way of keeping track.
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  1. Looking forward to it.

    I planted peanuts and rosellas. Need to put in sweet potatoes and Kangkong this weekend.

  2. Fairy from Organised CastleNovember 6, 2011 at 7:11 AM

    Hi Jennifer

    I am in Australia but found your blog some months ago thanks to Frugal Down Under blog.

    Our gardening conditions are quite different to yours. Our main problem was flooding rains last summer (Dec - Feb) and pretty well everything in the garden was drowned or rotted.

    The winter was a great success with broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage as good as I have ever grown. There were other things of course, too.

    I often refer to your blog and method of calculating savings in my blog and also in conversation. I agree about the incalculable savings because you are not buying other foodstuffs and also some of the 'interesting' meals.

    I look forward to reading more of your gardening adventures.

    Thanks again for an informative and interesting blog.