Does a Basement Greenhouse Really Save Money?

When I was a child, my father used to grow plants in our basement all year long. I remember going down there in the middle of the winter with several inches of snow outside, only to find tons of tomato and pepper plants thriving under an array of grow lights. I remember how the basement smelled like fresh spring while the rest of the house smelled like… well, a winter home. I remember the deep green color of the vines and how the tomatoes seemed vibrantly red in contrast to the white and grey of winter outside.

Eventually, my father stopped doing this. Part of the reason was that the ceiling in our basement was pretty low and he had to stoop constantly when he was down there working and I think it began to bother his back.

The other reason, though, is that he began to really wonder if it was worth doing it compared to just buying vegetables at the store in the winter.

Lately (particularly as winter has descended upon Iowa), I’ve found myself thinking about those grow lights in the basement and wondering if I couldn’t clear out a spot in our basement for a small winter garden.

The question, of course, is whether this would be worth it. Would I actually be saving money growing my own vegetables in this way?

Grow lights This is where the real cost of the system comes in. Let’s say I decide to grow about 80-100 square feet of vegetables in my basement. This could be covered by an array of small grow lights or a single large grow light. After looking at a lot of options, it seems that the best choice is a single industrial-strength grow light like this one. The problem is that such a light costs around $300 depending on where you buy it. There are lower-cost alternatives, of course, but those have their own problems.

This single light would allow me to convert an 80 square foot room in our basement into a greenhouse, more or less.

Energy use of grow lights The grow light described above uses 1,000 watts of energy. If you ran the grow light 12 hours a day for three months, that’s 1,080 hours of use. The energy cost of this would be about $120 for a season of vegetables.

Pots We’d also need a collection of pots to grow the vegetables in. Thankfully, these can be found pretty cheaply and would be a one-time investment of about $100 or so.

Soil I’m lucky to have access to adequate soil and compost, so the cost here is negligible for me. However, if you’re made to use potting soil, the cost would be rather high for 80 square feet of vegetables.

Seeds The seeds for this project would be relatively inexpensive on the whole, totaling perhaps $3 per growing session (assuming that you’re not using heirlooms, in which case this would be a one-time cost of $4 or $5).

Water The cost of the water would be negligible. We’ll figure a dollar’s worth of water per season.

So, let’s figure up the costs here for ten “seasons” of growing.

One grow light, costing $300.
Ten seasons of electricity, costing $1,200.
Pots, costing $100.
Seeds, costing $30.
Water, costing $10.
(You’ll also need soil if you don’t have access to it.)

The total cost of all of these elements is $1,640, or $164 per season.

There’s also the housing cost of having 80 square feet to devote to such a project, plus the cost of heating and cooling the room (I’d just keep it at our house temperature plus the grow light), which would add some additional cost to the equation.

Using this as a guide for vegetable square footage, I could plant a lot of vegetables in 80 square feet.

Without getting into the complexities of a diverse collection of vegetables, let’s just say I could plant a single tomato plant per square foot and that tomato plant would provide ten pounds of tomatoes. This would mean I would get 800 pounds of tomatoes out of this room every growing season, assuming that because it is indoors, I’ll minimize or eliminate pest or disease problems.

This would give me a cost per pound of tomatoes of about $0.20. Compared to the cost of tomatoes at the store this time of year (about $2.99 a pound), that’s quite a deal.

The problem is that pulling this off is a tremendous amount of work and planning. I would be installing grow lights, hauling tubs of dirt into my basement, planting lots and lots of seeds, and performing all sorts of regular maintenance. I would easily estimate that I would spend 100 hours per growing season cultivating these plants.

There’s also the issue of dealing with that much fresh food coming in at once. Much of it would have to be canned or frozen, adding to the cost and time, or given away to friends, increasing the cost per pound of production but also providing a gift to friends, or perhaps even sold in small amounts if an arrangement could be found.

In the end, this type of gardening can save you some money, but it’s going to be a labor of love along the way. If gardening is something you’re passionate about, you will save money with this effort. I would estimate that you could even approach minimum wage with it for the time invested if you canned all of the excess vegetables along the way.

Still, the question really is whether you find personal value in doing this. If you do, this can certainly be a great project for an extra room in your home.

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  1. Liz says:

    Trent, you don’t have to go nuts and start out with 800 pounds of tomatoes the first year. Don’t you start seeds and have a small light for that? Put a couple of tomato plants in pots with the small grow light and see how that works for you. Sure, it’s more economical to grow 800 pounds at a time, but yikes!
    And how many tomatoes will you really go through a week/month? Think of planting the tomatoes like you’d plant lettuce or spinach. Plant some each week (or month) so you’re not swimming in green leaves one week and have none at all the next. For that matter, why do you have to grow JUST tomatoes? Leafy greens go up in price in the winter around here, too, and those should be a lot less work to grow. I’d skip the cucumbers or squash, though. Unless you like the Little Shop of Horrors as home decor look…

  2. rebecca says:

    For me, the thing that makes me itch to start working in the dirt in the spring and the chaos of my massive garden and amts of produce in July and August is the fact that I don’t have to do it all year long. By October I am glad to be done and swear every year I am cutting back next year, and by Easter the next spring I am ready for seeds, and planning my garden out.

  3. LB says:

    Was the $300 estimate for grow lights an estimate for multiple lights? I started seeds under grow lights a couple of years ago and my startup cost for a single 3ft long grow light was about $22. A flourescent fixture which holds two bulbs at a home improvement store was $8 and the full spectrum bulbs were about $7 each for 2.

  4. Hannah says:

    I don’t have the space for growing on this type of scale, but I will say that a single growlight (I went with the 4′ jump start system because it’s easy, which I put on a timer–I didn’t notice any impact on my electric bill) made all the difference in being able to start plants from seed last year. I ended up with about 60 plants that all made it successfully into the garden. I’m thinking about starting a few herbs this winter just to have things like basil until the spring gets here.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    I’m with #1′s comment – why grow a lot more than your family could use fresh, if it’s problematic & time consuming to deal with the excess? And, yes, another advantage of starting small is to see whether you really want to be gardening year round.

    If your soil source is not commercially prepared potting soil, you will have weed issues to deal with at least the first few years, and possibly some pest problems.

  6. Becky says:

    Can people really get tomatoes to fruit under grow lights? You’d need some very serious lights. Starting seedlings is one thing, but if my plants get very big under a single shoplight they get spindly and miserable — the leaves don’t like to be more than a few inches from the lights. So how does that work on a 4′ tall plant?

    Lettuce, herbs, and small greens would probably be a better choice.

    Also, you certainly do get pests and disease problems in an indoor growing situation. Not necessarily the first year, but eventually they will show up.

    My gut tells me that growing vegetables indoors in the winter would fall under the “enjoyable hobby” category rather than the “serious money saver” category.

  7. George says:

    $8 for seeds is about a 3 year supply, even if you’re planting 80 at a time.

    A single 1000w halide light system is overkill in the basement unless you have a high ceiling. Better to use several 65w flourescent to spread the lighting out over the growing area. 15 fixtures would cover the 80 sq ft and provide more even light.

  8. TLS says:

    Water for $1? Seeds for 80 square feet of vegetables for $3? These are not accurate calculations for where I live. These costs would be far higher.

    Still, this is an interesting post. I wish I had space for something like this.

  9. lurker carl says:

    It’s one thing to nurture some tropical houseplants and start seedlings for springtime planting, quite another to grow a garden for consumption indoors.

    Winter gardeners use outdoor greenhouses for many excellent reasons, a grow-light in the basement is nothing more than a well lit basement unless far more is done to isolate the garden from the rest of your home. Conditions required for growing a successful indoor vegetable garden are detrimental to the contents of your home, the materials of which typical homes are constructed and eventually the health of the occupants.

  10. Availle says:

    I’m with #9 lurker carl on this one – I can’t believe it can be done that easily.

    What about heating? While lamps do heat up a space, I don’t think it will be sufficient – especially in the night, when you turn the lamps off (you need to do that, right?)

    Moisture control – most greenhouses are rather damp. I can’t speak of the average American basement, but in Europe such conditions would be quite inviting to mould.

    So, yes, it’s a nice idea if you’re into gardening, but I think there’s a bit more involved than putting a plant under a lamp.

  11. Josh says:

    Agree with others — an outdoor greenhouse would be the way to go here. Anything on a large scale is most likely going to cause a lot of mold problems in your home.

  12. Liz says:

    And I know I forgot one of the most important details when growing a garden in the basement. The electric company may report a spike in electric use to the local authorities. It happened to a friend of mine when he began breeding tropical fish in his basement. Fortunately he was friends with many members of the local police force, one of whom showed up and apologetically inquired about the sudden rise in electricity use (we’re talking about $100 to $150/month). The immediate assumption was growing plants of a different kind.
    (Of course, the funny part of this story is that after giving the officer a tour of his elaborate fish breeding center, he showed the officer out of the house and then told his kids “come on, we’re tearing out the aquariums and putting in pot!”)

  13. Sara says:

    Interesting calculation, but unless you normally buy 800 pounds of tomatoes every winter, you are not really saving as much money as this calculation suggests. What would you do with 800 pounds of tomatoes per season? If you’re going to be canning or freezing most of them anyway, why not just grow them outside in the summer and avoid the costs of setting up an indoor greenhouse? How would the calculation come out for a more reasonable amount of tomatoes?

  14. AnnJo says:

    I would be concerned about the damage that high humidity could do to the house and contents. And anyone who thinks that growing plants indoors prevents pest infestations has simply never done it. This is definitely a project to start small and learn from by trial and error.

  15. Evita says:

    Clueless here……… how are the plants fertilized ? bees and wasps do no live in houses I believe….

  16. jim says:

    Interesting. THis is the first time I’ve heard of anyone doing any gardening in their basement that was legal.

  17. Cheryl says:

    Re pollinating, think paintbrush

  18. Evita says:

    Thank you Cheryl, this is good to know. My indoor gardening is for the moment limited to a pot of herbs on the windowsill which does not need pollinating.
    I cannot understand why Trent would want to grow 800 pounds of tomatoes that would mature all at the same time since he actually is in control of the quantity and the timing, not being subject to Mother Nature’s schedule. But this is an interesting post anyway.

  19. moom says:

    Wow, I’d never heard of this except for growing Marijuana…

  20. Luke G. says:

    I agree with the comments which warned of mold issues. It seems to me that you’d have to amp up the humidity to compensate for the drier winter climate, and doing that in a basement sounds like a recipe for disaster. My basement is dry, and has no mold…and I’d like to keep it that way. ;)

    However, it sounds like the basement Trent described from his past may have been more of a cellar, which if it was anything like my last cellar, it could have already been a somewhat damp place. So, if that’s the case…sure, why not go ahead and make use of the humidity and grow something! :)

  21. mary m says:

    My dad has a greenhouse that he made from
    Putting up big thick plastic sheets over the screens of a small screened in porch. He puts his outdoor potted plants and flowers in there in the winter and they have flowers in the middle of winter. $100 for pots? He repurposes any and everything from coffee cans to 2l drink plastic bottles into pots. Wire shelves are good bc you can hang hanging plants off of then as well.

  22. Georgia says:

    Okay, Trent was just using the tomatoes as an example. One could also use a fan to pollinate the plants which would also help keep the humidity down. The normal floresant (sp) lights are not going to grow a tomato plant to fruiting. It may grow some lettuce or other small plants like herbs or radishes. So one would have to have a much larger light with a different spectrum to grow tomatoes.

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