Gardening is NOT free

One common misconception I see floating around the internet is that gardening is cheaper than buying food at the grocery store. My financial adviser husband is somewhat skeptical of this, and I can’t say I disagree with him. If you compare dollar-for-dollar, and if you take into account things like the cost of your time/effort, yes, you will probably pay about the same for an organic tomato as you would end paying if you grew your own from seed.

However, one thing we both wholeheartedly agree on is that there are so many non-monetary benefits to gardening that make it far more valuable than driving to the grocery store. Even the freshest produce you buy at your local co-op isn’t the same as something eaten fifteen minutes after it was on the plant or in the ground. The physical effort required for working the soil is good for your body, even if all you ever grew was flowers. You’re also making a significant dent in the impact of shipping in produce from hundreds of miles away.

I feel like the best part is how connected you become with your food. Not in a weird spiritual way, but in a really practical sense.  It makes you realize just what goes into that pepper or  that pound of beans you buy at the supermarket. You know the hard work, you know what it takes to get a plant to produce. You start to understand that cheap food probably means that someone is not getting paid a livable wage to grow that food, or that the land is not being cared for in a responsible manner.

Here’s how I feel about it at the moment: If you don’t enjoy being outdoors or gardening, you probably shouldn’t try to grow your own food to save money. You’re not going to reap the total benefits of it, and therefore it’s not going to be a worthwhile investment. BUT – I totally encourage you to change the way you shop. Try out your local farmer’s market and buy directly from the grower. If you can’t do that, watch for sales at your local co-ops and be willing to adjust your menu. We usually can’t afford to get everything we want for a certain recipe at our co-op, but if we were really flexible and planned our meals around what was on sale, we would probably do just fine. You should be aware of where your food comes from. You should, as often as possible, shake the hand that picked your squash. To farm and to work the land is the humblest and the most crucial of all trades.

Enough of my soapbox, though. What I really wanted to do was to give you a realistic idea of some of the start-up costs involved with gardening. Keep in mind that I am mostly starting my stuff from seeds – which involves a bigger investment up front but will save me money over time because I won’t have to buy my seedlings every year from a garden center.

Here’s a run-down of costs:

Grow lamps: I’m having great success using regular shop lights from Menards. One was given to me as a gift, and I purchased the other one myself. The lamps run between $20-$25, and the bulbs are $7-$10.

Lamp frame: You need some sort of support system for the lamps. We built one out of PVC pipes. The total cost, including the primer and adhesive, was $18. Keep in mind we can use the rest of the primer and adhesive for other plumbing projects.

Chain links: For lowering/raising the lights, you need longer lengths of chain. We bought a big package for $6, and we’ll likely use the remainder for other projects throughout the house/yard.

Seed starter: I had really wanted to mix up my own…but every store I went to didn’t carry even half of what I needed so I finally caved and bought some pre-mixed bags. They were on sale for $2.50 per bag, and I bought 5 of them for a total of $12.50

Trays: I have two 128-cell flats and one flat with six 12-packs for a total of 72. All three trays have clear plastic dome lids and flat trays for watering. All together, I think I spent around $18. I’ll re-use them from year to year. I will need to purchase some 3 or 4 inch pots for transplanting. I’ll let you know the cost of those.

Rope lights: I made my own heating system using rope lights and sand in plastic underbed totes. The lights cost $22 for a 24-foot section. When I’m not using them for seed starting, they’ll likely decorate the yard.

Sand: For heating purposes. It was $2.99 per bag, and I got three which was more than I needed (two would have been fine). I can reuse this from year to year, too.

Plastic totes: They were on sale at the local department store for $5.50 each. I bought three but may have been able to get by with two. We’ll see when I get more things started. Again, they can be reused from year to year.

Timer: For shutting the lights/heating tubs on and off every day. Because, technically, I could have committed to flipping the switch at 6:00am and 10:00pm every. single. day. But I didn’t want to. Anyway, I got a basic one for $9.99 that I plug a power strip into. It works great.

Seeds: Altogether, I spent $120 on seeds. Yes, that’s a lot. It was more than I was expecting to spend, for sure. But many of the seeds I ordered were heirloom seeds that needed to be ordered online, and therefore I had to pay shipping. If we had a decent local garden center, I would have bought them there.  My hope is that I can save most of my own seeds after my first harvest and cut this cost way down! Also, $110 is about what I would pay for seedlings, and I would only be getting a couple of each type of plant. If I plant a packet of 50 seeds and most of them germinate, I have the pleasure of being able to give them away to my friends and family. To me, it’s totally worth it.

So, for starting your own seeds, expect to spend about $280 in the beginning. I know, I know. It seems like a lot. And in all reality, I didn’t actually fork up all of the cash myself – many of the items were bought with gift cards that I got for Christmas. Jason (because he knows how to love me good) bought one of my three grow lamps and bulbs, and my in-laws bought another one. And there are ways to get around buying everything new – I could have used some of my dad’s old seed trays, or tried using regular old Christmas lights instead of buying rope lights. We could have built a light frame out of whatever we had on hand.  But I feel OK with the money I spent. Almost all of the items I purchased will be used from year to year, with the exception of seeds and starter mix. And while I’m working outside the home, some of the items I purchased for convenience sake are totally worth it to me. After all, my time is worth something!

One thing I should note is that I DID use a gift card to purchase a small heating mat for $20. The tubs are working out OK, but I would like to have an actual mat for comparing germination rates. Our basement is COLD – I think it averages about 55 degrees down there! So, while the sand/rope light tubs are working well for things like cabbages and onions, tomatoes and other heat-loving things may need a little extra warmth to get them started.

I work at a flower nursery on weekends in the spring and much of my earnings will go towards my garden budget to balance it out. In the past, I’ve used my extra cash to buy some seedlings but that won’t be the case this year. I may come home with a blueberry bush one of those weekends, though ;).

 

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