If you are new to vegetable gardening, deciding what to grow can be overwhelming. Let’s determine what will be the most cost-effective and will save you money on groceries.
Start with the vegetables you buy often
The best place to start in determining what will be the most cost-effective is to think about what you buy at the grocery store or farmer’s market.
- What does your family like?
- Are there veggies that you don’t buy often because they are too expensive? (like asparagus!)
Make a list of everything you can think of – kind of a vegetable garden wish list – and as we go along, we’ll weed out what is not realistic or advisable to plant.
Don’t even go there
Are there some vegetables that you or your family just plain hate? For me, it’s turnips and sweet potatoes. (don’t judge! Ever since I was a kid, I find these two to be gross.) Start a hopefully short list of all the “yucks”. When flipping through seed catalogs (click on the link to get links for tons of free seed catalogs) or displays, you can zip right by these and hone in on family favourites.
What homegrown vegetables will save you money?
Sorry if the above photo is a little blurry. I think I fainted when I saw the price of those peppers. $3.99 a pound? You know that I’ll be planting those in the garden!
Now that you have your Likes/Dislikes list, figure out how much it costs to buy your favourites at the store.
Here in Connecticut, grape and cherry tomatoes are about $2.50/clamshell, acorn squash is up to $1.29/lb and now that it is in season, asparagus is $1.99/lb on sale. All these are on my “grow” list. I just bought 8 asparagus crowns for $9.99 at the CT Flower Show this weekend, so those won’t be ready to eat until next year. The good thing about asparagus is that once planted, they will live and produce spears for about 25 years.
On the other end of the cost spectrum, bags of baby carrots are less than $1.00; and huge bags of potatoes and onions are fairly inexpensive. For me, these aren’t really cost & time-effective to plant. (Although I did get one packet of carrot seeds. I like them so much, that having a few growing in the garden will save a trip to the store if I run out.)
Keep in mind that a packet of 25 seeds will cost anywhere from $1.29 to $4.00 for some of the harder to find varieties. So that $1.79 packet of carrot seeds will never beat the price of carrots at the store. But the same price for a packet of acorn squash seeds will beat the store price on any day of the year.
Try before you buy
Is there a vegetable that you have never had before, but looks like it might be really good? For me, one variety is the golden beets (pictured above) that I saw at the farmer’s market. Also at the market stand were white eggplant, and another eggplant called Rosa Bianca. I bought both varieties of eggplant, and made eggplant parmesan with them to see how they tasted. OMG! The recipe came out the best it’s ever tasted. So, for this year’s garden, I made sure to get seeds for both varieties, and scratched growing the traditional purple variety.
Vegetables like these go for big bucks at the farmer’s market, but growing them myself will cost under $5.00. And that $5 is for what I can use right away; freeze AND still have some to give away.
I didn’t try the golden beets yet, but I’ll see if the market vendor has them this summer. But – I probably won’t be considering the golden beets as a vegetable garden “potential”. Why not?
Not all vegetables are cost-effective to grow
While the golden beets look pretty and probably taste great, planting them will not be cost-effective for me. I like beets a lot, but I never have been able to get them to grow well and get to a nice size. Also, I really (really) like eating the leaves steamed with tons of melted butter. (tastes like spinach, but with a hint of beet flavour.)
Since beets don’t do well, and the greens are more what I prefer, I plant a much more cost-effective alternative – rhubarb chard and/or Swiss chard. Chard grows really well, I can plant a little at a time and have fresh greens all summer, and it’s something that isn’t always available in the grocery store. WIN!
Some vegetables are ones that I would never use enough of to justify the time and effort required to plant them. Like snow peas. I love them – but would only use a handful every month. And because they like cool weather, there’s a small window of growing opportunity here in New England. Which brings me to…
Sometimes the weather just isn’t right
What climate do you live in? That will determine a LOT of what you can and cannot grow. If you have been gathering seed catalogs, you’ll see a zone chart in most of them. Here’s a plant hardiness zone map for the US from the USDA.
Look at the back of the seed packet or in the catalog, and most of them will tell you the days to maturity for the vegetable. This tells you how many optimum growing days you will need for seed to harvest.
Some crops do best in cool weather – like spinach. Since New England weather changes quickly, the spring isn’t really long enough to keep the spinach from bolting and going to seed. (Another reason why I plant chard.)
Other crops like a long, long period of warm, sunny weather. Again, New England just isn’t suitable for those crops.
Therefore, even though you may really like something, and it would be cost-effective to grow – you need the right conditions to grow it at home. I would love to have pineapples, avocados and limes in my garden, but I would have to move out of New England to grow them!
How much space do you have
Another consideration is the amount of room you have for a garden. An acre? One small raised bed? A few pots on the balcony? Limited space will narrow down your choices.
Not that I have limited space, but one year I decided to grow pumpkins in the far back corner of my property. Pumpkins grow, and grow and grow! It also takes them the entire summer and early fall to mature. AND the plants and leaves are huge. So off to the back corner they went, where I could let the plants take up as much room as they wanted to. When it came time to harvest the pumpkins, I followed the vines all through the corner of my yard to pick the pumpkins until I got to the end of the vine. Well, one plant decided that MY yard wasn’t big enough, and he went on a little adventure. I followed the vine to the fence, and then saw that it had traveled over the fence, and into the back yard of the neighbour on the next street. And to make matters worse, the most beautiful, plump, gorgeous orange pumpkin was sitting there in full glory – in the middle of the neighbour’s back yard. Yeah, so not exactly cost-effective when your renegade pumpkin decides to live in somebody else’s yard. And I don’t even know those people, so I wasn’t going to ask them to give me my pumpkin back!
But, something like leaf lettuce is perfect in a pot! I grow mine in a cobalt blue ceramic strawberry planter that sits at the foot of the back steps. The planter is too small for the amount of strawberries I want to grow, so those now grow in upcycled gutters above the herb garden. Lettuce has a fairly shallow root system, and I can move the pot into a shaded area as the summer progresses. I also sow a few seeds at a time, and have an almost continuous supply of different varieties of lettuce from spring to fall.
If you live in a dry climate or are in drought conditions, some plants are not good choices for growing at home. Cucumbers are one variety that likes a lot of water, and if they don’t get enough, they will be too bitter to eat.
Will you have access to a hose and water source? Or do you have to rely on the rain or use a watering can? Another consideration is how much you pay for water in your area. Or if you have well water, is there enough?
These are all factors to keep in mind in determining what will be the most cost-effective things to plant.
And the birds. And all the other critters. Consider who else is living in your environment, and how much you are willing to share. Last summer was very dry, and the birds thought that ALL my seedlings were theirs for the taking. And then the neighborhood woodchuck ate everything I replanted. I finally put up netting fences around all the raised beds when I did the third planting.
And then there’s the bugs
If you have bunnies in the ‘hood and want to plant lettuce, you may want to 1) plant extra and 2) put up fencing. Deer are another story! Those guys will jump over a fence and eat everything in sight.
And some vegetables seem to draw bugs like a magnet. I once tried planting Brussels sprouts. They took all season to get to harvest size. When they were at their peak and ready to pick, they were coated with thousands of gross, grey bugs. I mean, you couldn’t even see green anymore. Ewwwwww. And no more Brussels sprouts planting for me!
Some of these problems you will learn about as you garden, and often you can learn by asking other gardeners in your area. We gardeners love to talk about our gardens, and most are more than willing to help out a newbie.
What’s going into that empty garden bed?
By now you have:
- seed catalogs
- likes & yucks list
- costs of what you buy at the store
- did a “taste test”
- determined your climate/weather
- assessed the amount of space you have
- determined water needs and
- took a head count of who else shares your space and wants to be fed
Every gardener will have a different list, and every garden will be different. We love to swap information, recipes, samples and sometimes even seeds and seedlings. And that’s part of what makes gardening so interesting and fun!
What will YOU be growing in your cost-effective garden?
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