Whenever people discuss frugality or ways to stretch your budget in this tough economy, one of the first things that gets suggested is starting a garden and then canning or freezing what you grow. I myself am a big proponent of both, as should be obvious to people who read this blog.
But really — how much does one save? Well, that depends on a lot of factors. Let’s take, as an example, the tomato sauce I made this weekend.
around a bushel of tomatoes (~50 lbs)
one large onion
a head of garlic
four bell peppers
Yield: about eight quarts (I like thick sauce; you could probably get ten if you like it thinner)
Time: six to eight hours, including processing time.
First, let’s assume best-case scenario: starting your own plants from seed and planting on land you have access to: your yard, or a neighborhood garden.
A packet of tomato seeds and a packet of pepper seeds would set you back about $5 total (and that’s using cheap, hardware-store seed, not organic seed). Alternately, healthy young plants cost about $2 each — you’d need at least 4-8 tomato plants depending on yield and at least one good pepper plant, for a total of around $15. Then you have to tend and water them for at least 3 months. Total cost, not counting time and water investment: $5-$15, plus $2 for lids, plus another $1 for a big onion and $1 for a head of garlic, best case scenario, assuming you already own canning jars; that’s somewhere between $1 – $2.40 per jar.
Buying direct from the farmer’s market, tomatoes cost around $25 per bushel. Best case scenario, if you qualify for SNAP and have a participating market, you might be able to get them for $12.50. Plus lids, onions and garlic again, you’re looking at $2 – $3.75/jar.
None of this takes into account having a functional stove, pots big enough to boil two gallons of sauce down, a food mill, the time to process the food, or the transportation to get a bushel’s worth of tomatoes back home (try that on the bus sometime). Even if you only “pay yourself” $1 per hour for your time, and ignore the transportation/gas/electric/water costs involved, those quarts are much closer to $5-$10 each. Throw kids into the equation (either watching, or figuring out babysitting during shopping/gardening and cooking) and the time cost gets exponentially steeper.
I grew my tomatoes from seed at a community garden, but bought the peppers, garlic and onion, and that made my material costs equal to about $1.50 /quart. I’m blessed to have inherited a seemingly endless supply of canning jars, as well as a Victorio Strainer, so I don’t have any equipment costs beyond lids. Giving myself $1 an hour, and factoring in a few external costs, I project my sauce actually works out to someplace around $5-$8/quart. Not much of a savings when you consider you can walk into Meijer’s and get Newman’s Own for $2.16. True, organic sauce at the food co-op costs $6/quart — but that $25/bushel at the farmer’s market is for conventional tomatoes. The cost goes up if you buy organic (again, unless you grow your own).
Here’s another thing to consider: I don’t have a yard suitable for growing food in. I did cobble together a couple of small garden boxes, but the light is weak enough that I’m pretty limited to what I can grow. That still gives me a much better setup than someone with an apartment balcony, and works out to about 16 square feet of dirt. I’m a pretty good gardener, can afford good seed, practice square-foot gardening, use trellises and can afford the odd bit of fish fertilizer. I also have space for a compost heap, which keeps me from having to buy more dirt every spring –again, not something someone could do in an apartment, or in most rental scenarios (though one of my landlords did let me keep a garden when I asked, so it’s not out of the question). All this means I have much more knowledge, space, and tools at my disposal than your average person off the street. That being said, here’s what my home garden yielded this year:
a pint of sugar peas
a dozen tennis-ball sized tomatoes
a quart of string beans
a pint of edamame beans
three small bunches of chard
about fifteen salads’ worth of lettuce
about a pound of runner beans
and that’s all. This was a legume-heavy year to prep the soil for nightshades or cucurbits next year — and while I could do another late planting of lettuce or kale, I’d only get maybe another two small bunches out of them. (Cold frames are off the table this year — I just don’t have the time, energy or tools to build them, and even if I found some storm windows to salvage, I’d still be looking at about $30 in lumber, parts, and gas.) And again, this is with a better setup than many urban gardeners could hope for.
Yes, gardening, cooking, and food preservation *can* help extend your food budget — and home- or locally-grown food is better for you in all sorts of ways — but they’re just not magic bullets. Unless you have a huge yard, save your own seed every year, and have the time and energy to throw into heavy-duty gardening, they’re a supplement, at best.
I am, of course, going to keep doing each of these things as long as I have the time, money, and location to do so — and I want somebody to come check me for a pulse if I ever stop — but I think it’s important to have a look at the total cost at the end of the season.