Updated on 07.31.14

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Farmers Market or Gardening

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Amy writes in: Is having a garden cheaper than say the farmers market? By the time you count materials, watering, etc. I just don’t know!

The answer depends heavily on how you approach gardening. If gardening for you requires piles of brand new tools, a big tiller, plants that have all been started at a greenhouse for you, and other such expenses, gardening is going to really add up. On the other hand, if you try to use minimal tools and use them until they wear out and keep your own seeds, gardening can be really inexpensive.

I’ll use our own gardening situation. Most of our garden implements were either gifts or were bought at yard sales, adding up to perhaps $10. Most of our plants are grown from seed in potting soil in our house in the late winter, then moved outside once the frost danger is out of the way. We mostly use a hoe for our garden to turn over the soil and mix in our compost, which is our fertilizer source and is made out of table scraps. We use hay out of a field near us for much of our mulch.

This type of gardening doesn’t add up to a whole lot of expense. We just don’t put a whole lot of money into our garden each year.

Now, let’s say we decided next spring that we wanted a garden. We go down to our local home improvement super store, buy a bunch of plants, buy a bunch of gardening tools, buy a small tiller, and stagger out with a pretty big charge on our credit card. We buy Miracle-Gro as our fertilizer and since we bought starts from the local store, we don’t bother saving seeds because the plants are hybridized.

The expense for the vegetables in this scenario is going to be quite high. Even if you spread the cost of all of those implements across several years of gardening, you’re still going to have quite an expense.

I’ll use tomatoes as an example. A single tomato plant will yield 10 to 15 pounds of tomatoes if properly cared for. How much does it cost to get there?

Most sources where I live sell tomato starts in the spring for about $5 each – or even a bit more. My parents can get them for $2-$3 from a person they’ve been buying plants from for years. Alternately, you can buy a packet of non-hybridized tomato seeds for $2-$3 or so, along with a reusable tray ($5-$10), a grow light ($30-$40), and a source of soil, and you can grow them in your own home, reusing the seeds year after year.

You’ll need some gardening implements to plant them – at the very least, a shovel and a hoe. You’ll also need a source of food (compost, which can be free; manure, which can also be free; or a commercial fertilizer, which is easier but can be expensive, on the order of a dollar per plant per year), a fence to protect the plants (we built ours for about $20 per year of use, or maybe $0.25 per plant per year), water (maybe $0.05 per plant), and some insect protection (you can make passable insecticides for pennies, but store-bought ones that work better can also cost you, let’s say, $1 per plant per year).

You’re easily reaching a cost of $10 per tomato plant. Assuming, of course, that your plant doesn’t get attacked by insects or animals and doesn’t die of blight or another illness, you’ll get ten or fifteen pounds of tomatoes out of the plant. That’s actually a pretty solid savings on your tomatoes.

However, to get to that point, you have invested quite a lot of time. You’ve started the plants from seed or bought starts at the store. You’ve cultivated the ground and planted them. You’ve weeded around them. You’ve mulched them. You’ve watered them and fed them. You’ve given them insect protection and disease protection.

Unless you enjoy that time invested, the time invested isn’t going to pay off for you. Yes, you’ll save money with a garden, but the hourly rate you’ll be saving on those plants and vegetables will quickly head toward $1 per hour or so.

If you enjoy gardening – and I do, in reasonable doses – it’s all well worth it and you can certainly save some dollars from gardening. If you don’t enjoy it too much, find something else productive to do with those hours and enjoy the fine produce available at your local farmers market.

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  1. Evita says:

    $5 for a tomato plant ?! at the nursery in the spring, I can get a pack of six plantlets for $3 or $4!
    I don’t bother with a garden but I always grow tomatoes and herbs in the summer…… :)

  2. Gus says:

    What kind of bugs do you have where you live that you need to use 1$ worth of pesticide per Tomato plant???

    I have grown tomatoes at my place for a few years now and never got any bugs.

    I get your point but really you should be using a min/max sytem to compare the savings.

    For example, what is the cheapest price you can buy tomatoes at the store? Compare that to the cheapest price for growing your own tomatoes. This will give you the maximum garanteed saving over buying them.

    By introducing all those assumptions, you render your conclusion irrelevant.

  3. Lisa says:

    Compost is really a soil amendment rather than a fertilizer. It does provide nutirents, but it also provides beneficial organisms, adds organic matter to improve soil structure, conserves moisture when used as a mulch, etc. To compare compost to Miracle-Gro is not really a good comparison. Comparing homemade compost to a store-bought amendment would be a better cost comparison.

  4. Gretchen says:

    Two words: Mel Bartholmew.

    Square foot gardening. Once the plants are in, that’s pretty much the end of it. Water on occasion.

    Table scraps do not a compost make, unless you are feeding worms.

  5. Gretchen says:

    But gardening is something I enjoy and it means I don’t have to mow my lawn (which I *Hate*).

    The edibles are just a bonus.

  6. jim says:

    It seems to me that this really boils down to the amount of time spent. Is it worth your time or not? Thats the key question.

    I don’t think most people are going to go buy a new shovel every year. So once you’ve bought your equipment once then your capital costs are done. Other than that the annual spending depends on how efficient and frugal you want to be, which again also turns into a time vs money choice.

  7. cathleen says:

    I don’t garden to save money, I garden as a hobby and i get the bonus of organic food :)

    I spend a lot of my discretionary budget on gardening and I readily confess I like my garden to look a certain way and not have odds and ends or plastic or ugly pots marring its appearance. I am not denigrating others’ approach to frugal gardening, I admire it but I spend hours in my garden and like it to be a calming, beautiful place :)

    I start many plants from seed but sometimes I’ll want to get the beds filled and will buy transplants, so those costs go up.

    We entertain in the garden too so I actually look at it like a room extension of my (small) house. I live in Zone 9 (Bay Area) so we can garden and be outside year round.

    I ordered my raised beds from minifarmbox.com (no tools required!) and then faced them with stone. We put those down on a bed of crushed limestone so it looks like Provence :)
    We planted dwarf orange, lime, lemon and blood orange trees in 4′ oversize terra cotta pots (which I got for a steal) and the garden looks fantastic and we have citrus all year long.

    I set up a seed starting operation in the garage with a grow light, grow mats on metal kitchen shelving with room for all the little peat pellets, markers, domes, etc.
    I love it, esp during winter when I get itching to start spring flowers and veggies.

    I probably spend $100-200 per month on garden, more in the summer. Totally worth it for me.

  8. Steven says:

    Please address this issue, as you bring it up with every single cost analysis post: If you aren’t otherwise earning $$$ with the time that you’re using to implement these cost-saving techniques, how is it relevent to calculate the hourly rate?

  9. deRuiter says:

    #2 Gus, There is no comparison taste wise between super market bought tomatoes which are harvested green and gassed to make them turn red while remaining rock hard and tasteless, and home grown, picked at the peak of ripeness from your own garden, rinsed and sliced for eating. Home grown is better tasting, and we never use inorganic fertilizer or pesticides, so the food is safe.

  10. littlepitcher says:

    DeRuiter-Home-grown broccoli outshines its agribusiness competitor A garden will save or lose money on rainfall alone, so consider that. I got part-time jobs with two different farmers market vendors while out of work, so I saved money on gardens and markets.

  11. Rockledge says:

    Tomato plants are really cheap if you grow them from seed. I did invest in an indoor grow light to start the seeds inside, but it’s lasted for years. Even if you don’t save the seeds and buy packets, it’s still really cheap.

    I love gardening and have been doing it ever since I can remember. There are are many things that are so much better from the garden than the store that I won’t even eat them out of season.

    However, I wouldn’t put in a garden if I didn’t enjoy being outside nurturing plants.

    Here’s a good and quick way to see if you’d like gardening if you are unsure; get a few large pots (I get them from my neighbors when they discard them after landscaping), fill with a bag of potting soil (expensive, but this is an experiment), buy lettuce plants (in season) and herbs (costly to buy fresh in the grocery store, but easy to grow), an inexpensive soil moisture probe (to learn how to water the proper amount) and see if you enjoy growing and harvesting plants. If you hate it, well then, you don’t want to garden. If you like it, then try more plants or a little garden.

    By the way, in most places, tomatoes are one of the hardest plants for an inexperienced gardener to grow.

  12. elyn says:

    I can’t imagine life without having both a garden AND a farmer’s market. There’s no comparison for me between the two. There is no way I could grow the massive quantities of giant organic red bell peppers that I buy from the Farmer’s market to freeze for the year, and if I could, I know I couldn’t beat the price. Same goes for corn. We buy and eat a ridiculous amount of corn. Also shitake mushrooms. While we’ve recently planted fruit trees in our yard, there is no way to grow the dark cherries that we get at market- they don’t grow well in town. Same with the peaches. Oh, and then there are the eggs- no chickens for us in the near future. The list goes on and on. At home, I grow tons of herbs, lettuce, beets, tomatoes, leeks, green beans, strawberries (tons of those), and more.

    Anyway, my point is that this comparison falls flat for me, because there are way too many variables. Comparing things like making your own coffee vs going out- those comparisons are much more straightforward than one like this.

  13. Bill in Houston says:

    Five bucks for a tomato plant? I don’t think the price is that high at Eataly in New York City (if Mario Batali sold tomato plants, that is).

    The local garden center chain here in Houston sells tomato starter plants for 99 cents. We picked up a few. Since my garden area isn’t too large, we limited ourselves to four different tomato plants (two roma, one grape, one cherry), three peppers (jalapeno, yellow, and poblano) and three zucchini plants. We also grow herbs (mint, rosemary, basil, and chamomille), the last one for my wife’s favorite tea. We don’t really save all that much money, but I like working with the plants.

    Comment about most farmer’s markets: the produce really isn’t from some local farm, but rather they buy from jobbers just like supermarkets do. Unless your market’s individual stalls tell you exactly which farm the food comes from, it came from some city’s distribution warehouses and was driven out to this market.

  14. Bill in Houston says:

    I almost forgot, if you want tomatoes, start from seeds that come from the one you just ate. Simply cut the seeds from the tomato, rinse once, and put them in a jelly jar with a half cup of water for three days. You’ll see the seeds sink to the bottom.

    If there’s some pulp still on the seeds when you drop them in the jar it will separate. It’ll look scummy on top because the pulp will float. Scoop that stuff away, drain the seed water, and rinse the seeds off. Dry the seeds on a glass dish (best). Do NOT use paper towels because they’ll stick. Separate the seeds. After a few days they’ll be dry and ready to go.

    The seeds “ferment” in that jar, but they don’t quite germanate unless you leave them in too long.

    One more thing. During the initial three days cover the jar with something that’ll keep flies off but let some air in. I use a coffee filter and a rubber band.

  15. elyn says:

    In response to Bill- I’m not sure what Farmer’s Markets you are referring to, where the food does not come from local farms, but in, the past 3 towns I have lived in (Harrisonburg, VA, Eugene, OR, and now, Boulder, CO), the food is most definitely from the local farms. Each stand has the name of the farm, and it is really easy to visit the farms themselves (because they are indeed local)… I’ve never actually seen the sort of Farmer’s Market of which you speak. Maybe in a really big city?

  16. Rockledge says:

    In response to both elyn and Bill, I’m from the Clear Lake area of Houston and we have a few farmer’s markets that started just in the last several years. They are very different. My favorite is quite small and the produce is really grown by the people selling it–I know because as a fellow gardener, we spend a lot of time talking about the plants, etc., and they only have produce that grows locally and in-season.

    Another, larger farmer’s market is dominated by one seller. This seller grows a few things, but mainly sells stuff they buy wholesale elsewhere. You can tell because they have produce that doesn’t grow well here or it’s out of season, none of it is organic, and they either don’t want to talk to you about the produce or they will come right out and say it’s from out of state.

    So, in Houston, at least, you will find very different types of sellers and quality of produce at a “farmer’s” market.

  17. elyn says:

    Huh. These fake markets sound horrible and misleading. Real farmers’ markets are really wonderful things.

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