For All Its Frustrations, We Get a Lot More Than Just Free Vegetables from Our Garden

Gardening is a test of patience as the temperatures rise, but even an average to good gardener will be rewarded for their efforts.

By the end of April to early May, my plot of earth in Washington County, Oregon, has endured its last frost and is ready for gardening. Several of my neighbors start planting far sooner than my wife and I do, but I’ve seen a late cold snap choke out their plants as our clay earth goes from pliable mud to concrete with a grass toupee. Patience is key, and forbearance helps bring in the best harvests.

I’ll admit that the gardening in our household is far from an equitable affair. I’ve planted Cascade and Centennial hops, and they make up the lion’s share of my gardening efforts. The rest of my gardening duties consist of taming wild Himalayan blackberry and bleeding myself dry during harvest season in mid-July. Otherwise, I simply treat my home’s legacy Lodi apple trees with copper-based anti-fungal sprays and wait for the apples to ripen.

My wife has the far greener thumb. During our first year in the house, she tilled out three large garden boxes, a roughly 15-by-5-yard patch, and three smaller circular beds. The small beds are home to blueberry plants rescued from around the property. The large patch hosts pumpkins, onions, garlic, rhubarb, asparagus, and decorative gourds. The beds are dedicated to strawberry, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, kale, lettuce, and squash.

With the exception of the blueberries, none of the produce above was picked lightheartedly. On an average week, we have large salads for dinner twice. Each dinner that we eat at home is served with a vegetable of some sort. My wife is also an active canner, stocking our basement pantry with jams, pickles, preserves, and other items.

Between my blackberry efforts and my wife’s prodigious gardening, we’re able to keep our house stocked with at least minimal supplies year-round. At various points in the year, it saves us money as well. It may not be enough for me to emphatically declare that gardening is always the best option, but it’s enough to make it a worthwhile endeavor.

Our garden began with my in-laws handing my wife a Territorial Seed catalog. In it, seed packets for lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, gourds, melons, onions, peppers, and more sell for between $3 and $6. One packet can produce months worth of tomatoes, green beans, herbs, zucchini, mixed greens, and asparagus — just one bundle of which can sell for $3 to $5.50 on its own.

As we noted in a previous article, the folks at Bottom Line Productions note that some vegetables are far more cost-effective than others. Certain onions and potatoes cost anywhere from 32 to 50 cents per pound, but use large amounts of water for growth. Meanwhile, artichokes, eggplant, head lettuce, carrots, and celery are all magnets for blight and pests.

My wife learned a lot of this through trial and error. Zucchini grows to enormous proportions if left unchecked in our garden for too long, as do cucumbers. However, onions never managed to produce enough quantity to make them a suitable return on investment. While strawberries tend to love our soil as well, moles, voles, birds, and squirrels also tend to love them.

There’s also the small matter of patience. Plant asparagus from seed this year, and your efforts won’t pay off until about 2021. Tomato plants may struggle in their first year, but they also seed “volunteer” tomatoes that can bulk up your tomato beds quickly. Also, as many of you likely know, a garden as heavy as ours is with cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkins tends to draw cucumber beetles and other pests.

It took a lost year of strawberries for us to line the bottom of the garden boxes with industrial mesh to thwart moles and voles, while using a combination of chicken-wire cages and bird netting to keep out squirrels and birds. It also took a year of producing all of two dinners’ worth of green beans to determine that, for us, they weren’t worth the strings and bed space.

But the produce that flourished has fed us well. We keep substituting zucchini for pasta not because it’s healthier (though it certainly helps the low-carbohydrate diet we’ve been on), but simply because there’s too much of it to keep grilling or roasting it solo. Now four years into our asparagus-growing tenure, asparagus is reliably the first harvest of the season and finds its way into our meals well into fall. Tomatoes have become so prolific that we’ve taken to making jars of sauce that we use throughout the winter. As for the blackberries and strawberries, it’s a lot of jam and jelly, but also cases of blackberry wine each season.

Family Food Garden suggests keeping a multi-page garden planner to keep track of expenses including seeds, soil, fertilizer, building supplies, tools, gardening gear, mulch and water usage, but neither of us has much desire to do it.

I count at least 14 13-ounce jars of organic strawberry jam in the basement and know that’s at least 14 jars of Bonne Maman preserves ($6.79 apiece, or $95) we aren’t spending. I look at 20 16-ounce jars of organic pickles made with garden garlic and purchased dill and see nearly $120 we didn’t spend. We’re down from a dozen 16-ounce jars of organic tomato sauce to about two, but even at $2.50 a jar, the store-bought equivalent’s $30 price tag pales when compared to what we produced out of $4 worth of seeds.

My blackberry wine is more a hobby than a food staple, but it’s blackberry wine that didn’t cost anywhere near $11.99 a bottle (or $575 for the two cases I’ve produced so far).

I realize I’m not factoring in the hourly rate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which notes that the average agricultural worker makes $10.83 an hour maintaining crops. Full-time farmers, meanwhile, make $31.91 an hour. But the simple pleasure in turning wheelbarrows full of apples (both the legacy Lodi and my wife’s Jonagold and Mutsu planted three years ago) into ciders and pies, using home-grown tomatoes and zucchini in zucchini lasagna, and working outside during our state’s few dry months tends to offset that cost a bit.

Sure, my wife still wants to kill every rodent in a two-acre radius when part of strawberry bed disappears a day before she was ready to pick. Yes, I consider using the strongest brush killer imaginable on the blackberries when the canes stab me with their spines just as a bee emerges from the bramble and stings me in the arm (this was two years ago).

But when the flavors in our salad exceed any store-bought equivalent, the jam finds its way onto morning toast, and a glass of blackberry wine at sunset closes a trying day, it’s better to have gardened and suffered than not to have gardened at all.

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.