Recently, I decided to take the plunge and do my own backyard garden - even though I live in a very urban city. In addition to empowering me to eliminate Monsanto products from my family's diet and giving me an endless supply of my favorite eats, I thought it might even save me some coin - I spend a small fortune on organic vegetables for my family.
But my house sits on a quarter-acre lot: very intimidating. So, I headed to the bookstore, and flipped through a few gardening books -- they ran $30-$50 on average. Online, I found the perfect compost bin: $109 on Amazon. Then, I found this ready-made vegetable garden kit at Gardens-to-Gro.com. Price? $2,575. (Apparently, lumber costs almost as much as gold!)
At the rate these costs were stacking up, I wouldn't be seeing any savings from my garden for many, many moons. I decided that I had to take some serious steps to make sure my garden actually saved more money than it cost. Here they are, so you can take them, too!
1. Educate yourself on the cheap. Those gardening books add up! Don't buy them off the shelf unless you're at the used bookstore. I stocked my own gardening library with some massive reference books for half off at my local used bookstore, and supplemented it with some books for - get this - a quarter (!) at the local Friends of the LIbrary book sale. Because these inventories are local, they tend to have great specimens of gardening books specific to your region and climate.
Also, search online and see if your city or county government sponsors any gardening courses. For example, in my neck of the woods, the Bay Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Coalition offers amazing low- and no-cost workshops on everything from worm composting to edible garden design to organic pest management.
2. Plant stuff you'll actually eat. Gardening is very future-oriented, even aspirational. You have to plan the foods you'll be eating sometimes months down the road. So, it's easy to plant foods you think you should be eating and foods you want your kids to eat, vs. the foods they actually will and do eat. No savings there. Better to plant more of the things you enjoy eating than to let rot a bunch of things you thought you should try to eat more of. Track the fruits and veg you buy against what you actually eat and what gets thrown away for a couple of weeks before planning what to grow in your garden.
3. Compost. Composting is a process of recycling green and food wastes to create a super-rich, homemade soil conditioner, fertilizer and natural pesticide - all in one! When your bananas turn black or your kids don't eat their broccoli, toss them right into your kitchen compost bin.
Compost makes your garden's soil healthy, which, in turn, makes the food you grow nutrient-rich. This generation of compost bins takes all the odor and mess out of composting, and many offer microbial enzyme boosters or allow for worms or aeration to speed the process - but compost bins aren't always cheap. Many municipal waste management agencies offer deeply discounted, brand name home compost bins; check in with yours to see if you can save.
4. Go organic. The biggest savings your urban garden will ever generate is probably on your long-term health care costs! But the most nutritious and healthful way to eat is organic, so skip all the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Composting helps: home compost serves not only as a soil booster, but also contains natural, microbial pest killers.
Beyond composting, you can also design your garden to be naturally pest resistant based on which plants you locate near each other, and you can make your own natural pest killers. And if you're not sure what's been in or on your soil lately, consider planting in raised beds with organic soil.
5. Preserve what you don't eat. Most produce can be preserved and used long after the season is over. Freeze your berries for smoothies well into the winter. You can also dry, bottle and pickle many types of fruits and vegetables, or turn them into your house marmalade, jam or jelly!
Organic preserves from your own garden can also make for yummy, frugal holiday gifts.
6. Sell the rest. The savviest urban gardeners zero out their gardening costs by selling their remainders to local restaurants and artisanal bakeries. Increasingly, high-end eateries are committed to the locavore philosophy of sourcing their ingredients within a 50- or 100-mile radius; as such, their chefs are often skilled at tailoring their menus to whatever produce is abundant locally at a given time. The downside to this is that they often struggle to obtain sufficient supplies from any single supplier to fulfill all the orders of a favorite menu item.
If you have a particularly fruitful harvest that is clearly much greater than your family and friends will ever eat, give a ring to a few local restaurants and see if they can use your overflow.
Seeds in the city: 6 steps to ensure your urban garden is saving you money