Mother Earth Living

When the Going Gets Tough, Grow Your Own Food

Michelle Obama's White House kitchen garden got everyone talking about the health and culinary benefits of growing your own food. This Maine family proves its economic value.
By Roger Doiron
March/April 2010
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Brightly colored homegrown vegetables offer a feast for the eyes.
Photo By Roger Doiron
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Last year, my wife, Jacqueline, proposed that in addition to crunching on our own homegrown produce, we also crunch the numbers to see how much money our garden saves us. This sounded about as appealing as a heaping plate of overcooked broccoli. In addition to raising three busy boys, managing two careers, volunteering and growing most of our own produce, she wanted us to weigh and record every item from our garden and spend leisurely winter evenings doing garden math? Jacqueline, a former economics major and a native French speaker, answered with a simple “oui.” The project began.

We filled our log book with dates and figures, starting with our first salad greens in late April and ending in mid-February with the final cutting of Belgian endive, forced from roots in our basement. We grew 35 crops: 834 pounds and nearly 10 months’ worth of organic food. We calculated what it would have cost us to buy the same items using three sets of prices: conventional grocery store ($2,196.50), farmer’s market ($2,431.15) and Whole Foods ($2,548.93).

Our costs? We spent $130 for seeds and supplies, $12 for a soil test, $40 for water and $100 for locally made organic compost—a return on investment of 762 percent.

What you need to know

1. Size your garden according to your goals and the amount of time you plan to invest in it. 

Certain crops are more profitable and space-efficient than others. A small garden planted primarily with salad greens and trellised tomatoes, for example, will produce more economic value per square foot than one planted with potatoes and squash. Start small with the crops you enjoy the most and scale up as you succeed. 

2. Location matters. 

Kitchen gardens do best in areas that drain well and receive full sun (at least six hours). Be sure the location is convenient for you. The easier it is for you to get into your garden, the more produce you’re likely to get out of it.

3. In cool climates, extend the growing season with cold frames, hoophouses and mini greenhouses. 

Our small cold frame made from scrap materials lets us begin harvesting greens a full month before most gardeners in my area have set foot in their gardens. 

4. Don’t try to plant all at once; put in crops over a number of weeks. 

If you plant an entire packet of beans in a few long rows in early June, you’ll have a bumper crop in late July, but what about August and September? Planting shorter rows early and often ensures a steady supply. It’s less important to spread out the planting of root vegetables, which are likely to go into long-term storage.

What We Saved

The following breakdown shows what we would have paid in our area, over the same time period, for some of the plants we grew.

Crop  Weight 

Grocery Store
Price/lb.  Value
 

Farmers' Market
Price/lb.  Value
 
Whole Foods
Price/lb.  Value
 
Onions 53.84 lbs $1.50   $80.76 $1.95   $104.99 $1.64   $88.30
Leeks 11.5 lbs $3.99   $45.89 $3.29   $37.84 $2.49   428.64
Cucumbers 33.86 lbs $1.99   $67.38 $1.70   $57.56 $2.00   $67.72
Snap beans 21.11 lbs $2.49   $52.56 $2.97   $62.70 $1.99   $42.00
Carrots 34 lbs $2.00   $68.00 $2.00   $68.00 $1.99   $67.66
Salad greens 29.36 lbs $7.52   $220.79 $9.80   $287.73 $12.77  $374.93
Tomatoes 157.8 lbs $3.99   $629.62 $3.32   $523.90 $3.99   $629.62
Strawberries 34.68 lbs $2.99   $103.69 $4.00   $138.72 $3.99   $138.37
Potatoes 141.59 lbs $1.49   $210.97 $2.25   $318.58 $1.79   $253.45

 

Roger Doiron is founding director of the nonprofit group Kitchen Gardeners International, which led the successful campaign to replant a kitchen garden at the White House. 


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