I love gardening. Taking a seed, some dirt, some water, and a bit of time and turning it into food makes me feel like a master sorceress. Food! I can create food!
But contrary to my ideas of scratching around out back and becoming insta-rich, it turns out that gardening is expensive. And not fruitful (I mean, except for the fruit), especially when compared to working a W2 job or freelancing.
Because I wish I had known this six years ago, when I started, here’s a list of how I built my garden, ways I was able to cut costs, and what was worth the money or not. This year, I’m going to make more than I spent, but last year I broke even and the years before, I always spent more. Gardening is often romanticized as a way to live off the grid, to make another stream of income (or at least cut grocery costs). Maybe someday it’s going to make me rich rich rich. For now, it’s making me happy happy happy.
Here are the major costs (the Amazon links below are affiliate links):
For raised beds:
1) You can buy kits for raised beds for hundreds of dollars, but I did not do that. Instead, I went to Lowe’s, bought three 2x12x10 (2 inches by 12 inches by 10 feet), had them cut one in half, bought a big package of hefty long nails, and hammered the bed together myself. It still probably cost about $30. If I had more money, I might buy a kit, because eventually, the 2x12s get yucky. I don’t know what I will do when that happens, but I think I might need to be putting in reinforcements at some point.
2) I had no idea how much dirt cost. I only had one bed for a few years because I could not afford to fill the beds. I was too poor for dirt! I considered trying to dig out a section of the yard but couldn’t manage the work. For the first bed, I filled it with as much yard waste as I could and covered it with a few bags of topsoil. The pathetic box was only maybe 1/3 of the way full, but I couldn’t justify spending so much money on dirt. Two years ago, my sister bought me a truckload of dirt from a local nursery for about $200, and we used it to fill that box and three more (two half-sized ones). I buy topsoil every year to spread out over the top, because it always sinks and the plants need new nutrients. I spent about $80 this year on topsoil, and I imagine that’s par for the course for the next several years (unless I build more boxes). I get the topsoil from Walmart. It would be cheaper to get it by the truckload, but then we would have a mountain of dirt that needs to be moved in a day or two and I can’t manage it.
You can have boxes just out there in the middle of nowhere, but then they are a pain in the rear to mow around. So we edged them, put garden rocks within the edging, and laid a garden path between the boxes.
1) Edging: we got the cheapest kind. It was WAY HARDER to get the edging in the ground (you have to dig a trench) than it was to fork over the money.
2) Garden stones. Also shockingly expensive and one bag seems to cover about 2 square feet, kind of sparingly. Now I’m just buying 2-4 bags a year to try to patch up the “sparingly” sections. I get “pond stones” from Walmart.
3) Weed cloth: weed cloth seems like a lot of money for nothing but it keeps the weeds at least slightly at bay. Slightly. We put weed cloth around the boxes, and then landscaped on top of them.
4) Garden path/stepping stones. I wanted something in between my boxes so I wouldn’t be fighting the weeds just to get in there. We opted for this cement path maker, which in theory saved us money, although the cement was more expensive than I thought and it took us several thousand times more work than I expected. Stepping stones are expensive. Mulch is expensive. Concrete is less expensive. I don’t loooooove it, but it’s okay.
The finished (kind of, except also kind of not, because it’s never finished) product:
1) You can buy established plants, but it is hundreds of times more expensive than buying seeds. However. One plant yields one plant, and a thousand carrot seeds do not give me a thousand carrots. Half of the seeds I plant don’t germinate, so I plant at least two seeds for every plant I want. I then have to thin out a ton so that the random ones that did germinate have space to grow. Also, some seeds are like the size of a pin head and while I think I am a gardening artiste, my thick fingers can barely manage to grasp the monster pumpkin seeds one at a time. By the time I spill 300 carrot seeds in the wrong place, get 600 where I want them to be, and accidentally knock the packet off the counter so the rest get ground into my greenhouse floor, I might get 100 carrots. I mean, they are still basically free. But still.
2) You can save seeds year to year. You dry out seeds from last year’s vegetable, put it on a paper towel, put the paper towel in a bag, store it for the winter, add water in the spring to get them to germinate. This is where the real magic lies, but where the heck do carrot seeds even come from? How am I going to get a thousand? Also, if your absolute favorite cherry tomatoes are a hybrid, you can’t do this because the internet tells me they will either take after their dad tomato or their mom tomato and that’s not the kind I want. It seems like this could save you a ton of money, but seeds are cheap enough that it might not be worth it except for making you feel like a wizard.
3) Bang for buck: I like plants that give me tons and tons of food. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, peas. I like spinach because you cut it and it grows back for a few more harvests. I am less keen on things like carrots and beets, where one seed makes one plant and one vegetable, except God I love beets. And carrots.
4) More bang for buck: perennials. We have some AMAZING blueberry bushes that just produce and produce and produce, year after year. Each year, I’m trying to add some new perennials. This year, grapes and I’m putting in a garlic patch. Last year, raspberries. These things take time to be established, especially if you keep accidentally running them over with the lawn mower. I’ve asked my husband to buy me a new apple tree for Mother’s Day.
5) Pots for seedlings: they aren’t expensive, but they aren’t free. I sometimes transplant plants directly from the plastic bags but I am clumsy and murder a lot that way. The not-biodegradable-biodegradable pots are nice for transplanting purposes. You only really need these for the seedlings you are starting inside: tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are what I do inside. I swear, squash will grow on Mars, so I just put it directly into the ground. Same with all the root vegetables (don’t transplant carrots. I learned that the hard way), spinach, lettuce, etc. Planting some seeds in pots gives them a longer growing season, which translates to more tomatoes and cucumbers before the fall frost.
1) A couple years in, I bought this supply kit from Amazon, with a bunch of tools and a bag. I chose the cheapest one I could find that seemed okay, and it has been so nice to have the bag and all the implements together. I didn’t need something fancy, but having designated tools and a bag is great. It’s held up well over time.
2) I also got this kneeling pad to help with weeding. I like it a lot, especially on the concrete. Again, nothing fancy. But it’s nice to have.
3) Last year, I bought a heating pad for seedlings. I know people who swear by them, but I found it to be just meh.
4) I also bought some clogs that I wear constantly. I cannot recommend these enough. They are waterproof and basically made out of rubber, comfortable enough and slip-on.
5) This year, I finally got a crappy box to put my wayward seeds in. It didn’t have to be anything special but it did need to be more fancy than “the bottom of my bag of stuff.” Having the seeds in alphabetical order is AWESOME. I think this might be something I will invest more money into in the future, but for now, this does the trick.
6) Plant label sticks. I don’t buy them. Over time, I’ve figured out what the different plants look like. You have to do that anyway, in order to weed effectively. I think you can do this for basically free with sticks, or draw a garden map (there are apps for this) showing what is where. I also have found that sticks come free with all sorts of other tools, so I never seek them out.
7) A rickety green house. I asked my husband for this last year for Christmas, because it’s a small investment for – a green house?? Are you kidding me?? It can’t possibly be worth the box it’s packaged in, right? Except I LOVE it. It took me about twenty minutes to put together and who knows how long it will last but my plan is to take the plastic off at the end of the season and put it back up in the spring and hopefully get a few seasons out of it. I love it. It’s like 20 degrees hotter in there than outside and it’s humid and it feels like I’m doing everything right when I walk in. The shelves are rickety and since we live in a wind tunnel, some plants have fallen off the shelves, which sucks, but I’ve managed to get around that. If this green house cost more than a hundred bucks, I would say it wasn’t worth it, but it’s a cheap way to get your seeds started. And make you feel like a professional.
8) Trellises: I have asked for gift cards for my birthday each year (it’s in March, so it’s perfect timing) to Burpee, and over the years have gotten a couple of really nice trellises for tomatoes and cucumbers and peas. You can do it for cheaper, but these are super sturdy and have lasted and I’m spoiled.
If you’re starting out, even if you do it relatively cheaply, I’m guessing it’s going to cost you at least $500 to put in a decent-sized garden (obviously you can buy a seed packet for $1.99 and plant them in a pot that you can buy at a garage sale for $.50, but if you want big yields you’ll need to invest more). Even after you get it set up, renewing supplies (topsoil, seeds, replacements for broken tools, etc.) is around $100 a year. How many tomatoes can you buy for $100? Will the money you sink into it bring back returns? Probably eventually, but at least in my experience, purely in terms of economics, gardening is not the fastest way to FI.
It is pretty great, though.