Saturday, April 14, 2012

How Much Does a Vegetable Garden Cost/Save?

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Finally!  A day without work to play in the vegetable garden.  My peas are coming up!  The potatoes have poked through the soil.  My seed starts have all sprouted!

Raised Bed Cloche
Raised bed cloches, such as this one in a Master Gardener demonstration garden in Lincoln City, OR, are a great way to get a jump start on the growing season. 

The time I get to spend in the garden is truly a gift.  Even better, my garden is a gift that keeps on giving.  We haven't bought garlic or shallots since we started gardening (I always overbuy and overplant).  My kids don't like to eat peas, unless they're straight from the garden.  Herbs are always clipped from the perennial rosemary and thyme shrubs, out front.  We celebrate with fresh salsa and pesto, when we harvest our cilantro and basil.  And, like many gardeners, we have been known to leave bags of tomatoes and squash on the doorsteps of our unsuspecting neighbors.

Although I am totally sold on vegetable gardening as a way to have more direct control over what my family eats, as well as way to supplement our family food budget - I thought it might be useful to spell out the approximate monetary value of home vegetable gardening.

Thus, I tracked down as many references as I could, that detailed how much it cost to start a vegetable garden, as well as how much their garden yielded.  I came up with 6 studies, that reported 8 observations.  The sources include:
  • James Stephens and colleagues 1980 paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society (Volume 93, pages 70-72).  They report on two separate gardens in this paper: one in Tallahassee and a second in Jacksonville.  Time spent in the garden was tracked, and charged at $3.10 per hour.
  • J.D. Roth's Get Rich Slowly blog, where in 2008, he and his wife tracked how much a vegetable garden cost and saved for one year.  They spent a total of 54 hours in their Oregon garden, between their January start date and October harvest.  I did not add in the cost of their labor in their reported costs of $318.43.
  • Stall's 1979 paper published in the  Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society (Volume 92, pages 213-214).  Labor, water and travel costs not included in the reported costs.
  • Roger Doiron's Kitchen Gardeners blog, where he and his wife tracked how much food they could grow over six months in their large, home garden in Scarborough Maine.
  • Cleveland and colleague's 1985 paper, published in HortScience (volume 20, pages 694-696), where they looked at the costs and yields of vegetable gardens in Tucson, Arizona, over 2.5-3.0 years.  Labor costs were included in total cost of establishing and maintaining the gardens.  As you might expect for desert gardens, the greatest cost incurred was the cost of irrigation water.
  • Utzinger and Connolly Harrison's 1978 paper, published in HortScience (volume 13, pages 148-149).  I admit that I didn't read this paper (no electronic access to this paper), but secondarily cite information, as reported in Cleveland et al. 1985. 
For each garden, I looked at the difference between yield and cost (difference = yield - cost).  I adjusted the value of the difference to its 2012 value, using an online Consumer Price Index inflation calculator.  I then divided this adjusted difference by the size of the garden, to arrive at the value per square foot of garden area.
Source Location Size (Square Feet) Cost Yield Difference Difference, Adjusted to 2012 Value Value/Square Foot
Stephens et al. 1980 #1 Tallahassee, Florida 1,400 $70 $384 $314 $874.14 $0.62
Stephens et al. 1980 #2 Jacksonville, Florida 638 $83.00 $416.00 $333.00 $927.03 $1.45
Stall 1979 Homestead, Florida 600 $333.65 $495.70 $162.05 $512.02 $0.85
Doiron 2009 Scarborough, Maine 1,500 $282.00 $2431.00 $2149.00 $2297.80 $1.53
Roth 2008 Oregon 878 $318.43 $606.97 $288.54 $307.42 $0.35
Cleveland et al. 1985 #1 Tucson, Arizona 833 $45.00 $154.00 $109.00 $232.38 $0.28
Cleveland et al. 1985 #2 Tucson, Arizona 627.5 $56.00 $178.00 $122.00 $260.09 $0.41
Utzinger and Connolly Harrison 1978 Columbus, OH 150.7 $46.00 $90.00 $44.00 $154.80 $0.41

Altogether, the gardens had an AVERAGE VALUE OF $0.74 / square foot of garden area, and a MEDIAN VALUE OF  $0.62 / square foot of garden area. 

For a modest-sized garden, 200 square feet in size, that's a return of $148 in the first year.  For larger gardens, 500-700 square feet in size, that's a return of $370-$518 in year one, alone!

In at least 5 out of the 8 observations (all but Cleveland et al. 1985, and maybe Utzinger and Connolly Harrison 1978), the costs incurred included what was needed to establish a garden, and not simply to maintain a garden.  These costs are sure to decrease in subsequent years, as the cost of maintaining a garden is substantially less than start up costs.

Thus, even in the first year after establishment, the net economic benefits of vegetable gardening are positive - and these economic benefits are sure to increase in years two, three and beyond.

The consistent 'winners' in these papers included:
  • salad greens
  • tomatoes
  • beets
  • broccoli
  • potatoes
  • strawberries
These were the fruits and vegetables that yielded the most, in terms of dollars saved by not having to purchase these items.  However, to truly get the best value from your vegetable garden, it is important to plant what your family likes to eat.  No one really liked the green tomatoes (or the pear tomatoes) that I planted a few years ago.  Lesson learned.  I scratched those from my list.

On the other hand, my kids couldn't get enough green peas or kale.  Thus, I am more than accommodating with space for these favored fresh veggies.

To cut our garden start up costs, my husband and I did the following:
  • We compost everything we can for the free soil amendments that composting yields.  Our first year garden was planted in subpar (cheap) soils that we purchased (but we still had a great harvest!).  Years two and three were amazingly productive.  I give credit to the compost.
  • We built raised garden beds out of recycled/reclaimed fencing material.  The fencing material had not pressure treated.  CCA, or copper chromated arsenic treated wood should be avoided -  primarily because of the hazards with handling the wood, rather than the wood contaminating the garden produce.  Other wood types are likely okay.
  • We started gardening with what I like to call the 'starter set of seven' - vegetables that do well with little work, in most home gardens.  My starter set was:  peas, leaf lettuce, summer squash, tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, garlic.
  • We were proactive in our pest management.  I like walking the garden every day, and this helps me catch problems before they grow out of hand.  Cabbage worms in kale?  I hand picked them off, nearly every day.  Slugs clipping my seedlings (which is happening right now)?  Time to pull out the Sluggo.  My husky is eating the peas again?  Ugggh.  Time to fence her out.
  • Kids in the household = free help with weeding.  My kids have come to understand that it takes time and effort to grow our own food.  They normally leave the garden to me - but will help spread wood chips (as a weed-suppressing mulch) or will help hand weed beds - when asked.  I also invite them to plant with me.  At 17 and 15 years old - they take real delight when they see something that they planted and harvested on our dinner plates.  
  • We hand water everything.  A turf professor once told me that he thought watering should be as burdensome as possible, so that folks realized how much water they were using to maintain their lawns and their garden.  I've taken that to heart - and hand water (every day, in the heat of the summer) our vegetable garden, as well as a few ornamentals.  This cuts down on our water use, which cuts down on irrigation costs.
  • We're learning to preserve what we grow, so that there is no waste.  We're still not perfect in this regard (some tomatoes have been known to be worked into the soil at the end of the season, rather than put up in cans).  But, we're getting better, and we accept mistakes.  Gardening should be relaxing, and not one more thing that stresses you out. 


  1. Great article. I shared it on my blog and my Facebook. Nicole Ward, Extension Plant Pathologist, University of Kentucky.

  2. Thanks, Nicole. I really appreciate your passing this on. What's the URL to your blog? I'd love to check it out.

  3. Hi Gail,

    Very informative! Thanks for putting this together!

    Jeff Gillman

  4. Thanks, Jeff. A compliment coming from you means a ton! Love your blog and love your books.

  5. Hi Gail. It's Roger of Maine checking in. You refer to my data above, but there's an error in your figures. You've listed my garden as being 10,890 square feet when in fact at the time it was 1500 square feet. I'm not sure where you got the larger number. Making this change send our value/square foot calculation up to $1.43. Thanks for making the change and for bringing this data together. Roger (

  6. Dear Gail,

    This fascinating piece of work you did on the net value of veggies/sq. foot is invaluable! I have given the talk on growing vegetables and herbs to our Interns Class in the Northern Shenandoah Master gardeners Association (of Virginia) for 3 years now and would be delighted to include the economic value of growing vegetables alson with all the other benefits. I read the blog, and note that the writer from Maine pointed out an error in the size of his garden. Are you going to recalculate the average and mean net revenues with his corrected data? I do not mind doing it just for myself, but if you are anyway, then all your readers would have the corrected values.

    Thanks again for a very helpful article. Paula PB of NSVMGA

  7. Thanks so much for the comment and the correction, Roger. Getting a comment from you is like getting a comment from a gardening rock star!!! Even if it was to correct my mistake.

    I've updated the numbers, accordingly. My apologies that there was a mistake, to begin with.

    1. No worries, Gail! I was so glad to see that you'd brought this together.

  8. Thanks guys, for sharing such informative data.
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  9. GREAT article, Gail - I'm sharing it with all 160 or so of our Guilford County EMGs and recommending that our Community Garden Outreach coordinators share it with the 45 or so community gardens in our County. Thanks for sharing it with the "world."

  10. How many of the garden examples used were using square foot spacing vs row spacing?

    Also, another great way to save on time spent throughout the season is to use deep mulch gardening methods...

    There's a free documentary on the process here:

  11. I may have missed it but do these costs include soil, tools, and structures? It does say"start up" costs, I just want to be sure. I was gifted an 8x40 frame from a neighbor who gave up on veggies. It seems it will cost about $100 to fill with soil, if I start seeds inside I need to rig a shop light $30, seeds are inexpensive and I saved some from last year. I do have 2 tomato cages but will need two more. I do have a compost pile so I hope that will help this year. I feel like I spend $200+ every year. I live in the mountains in Georgia so my ground is clay and granite :/ Any extra tips? Thank you!

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  15. Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking.
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