DIY: Gardening your way to frugality

One of the benefits to living in a temperate climate is the ability to garden. While many people grown the odd tomato or basil plant around here, I think gardening can be a fantastic way to thin the family grocery bill.

As I have mentioned before, if you don’t track it, you don’t know what its worth/costing you. Over the last two years I have meticulously tracked the expenses and income derived from my garden. Of note, I have not tracked the hours I spent gardening. I have decided my home garden is not work. To me its meditation, outdoor recreation, environmentalism, and sometimes even volunteerism. If next year I have a great enough tract of land and decide to sell produce, then of course I will need to track my hours.

Gardening on a Shoestring

I follow a few tenets of modern gardening, primarily Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardener.”

gardenMel has written convincingly since the ‘70’s about the efficiency of planting 4FtX4FT squares of densely packed
vegetables in a system which maximizes garden space. His system takes advantage of different plants’ time
to maturity and vertical space requirements. By immediately replanting in the space vacated by a harvested crop, and by working with plants that will to go up, rather than out (tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins), garden space and resources are maximized.

Two years ago we had three 4X4 square equivalents. Last year we had six.  Where we live in Zone 6b, we were able
to harvest a statistically significate amount of plant matter from late March until early November. We garden without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMO seeds.

square foot gardening



Like most things, I use an excel spreadsheet to track the value of my garden inputs, ie seed, pots, fertilizer, and outputs. Notably, I do not amortize the cost of durable goods.

To put a conservative spin on my harvests, I do not use the prices for “Organic Groceries” at the store or farmers market. Rather, I take the USDA’s price guidance from 2015. This eliminates seasonal and regional price variations and gives me a good price guide for what my food is worth. I also exclusively weigh my produce, rather than measure it by cup or individual unit, which negatively effects the valuation.

We try to focus on high nutritional and monetary value crops. No iceberg lettuce. We would love to grow more perennials, like fruit and nut trees.

In 2015 from Three squares we netted over $280 in vegetables

In 2016 we grossed over $580 in vegetables. While we doubled our space, we also added a seed starting station with lights, which hurt our profitability. Still not bad considering the market value of organic, fresh vegetables is much higher than the low prices I use in my calculations.

2016 tracking



Many supplies can be had or made for free. Pots, trays, trellises and markers can be improvised from household items. However, egg crates and other such “efficiencies” can cost you in the long run, as they make transplanting difficult. If you are careful, well constructed supplies will last for many seasons and will be a better return on investment.

Buy seeds from a grower in your area. A seed company from California will not offer seeds designed to grow in your environment, unless you live in California. Living in the Northeast, I go with Fedco Seeds. Not only does this Maine company have seeds especially suited to the cold environment, but they actively support genetic diversiOSSIty and open-source seed sharing. As stewards of our environment, both human and natural, allowing a few major companies to control the rights to the very seeds from which our food is grown is a dangerous road to travel.

We also practice seed saving. I grow several Heirlooms liberated from our travels!


As an urban Gardner, I am lucky to live in a place with unpolluted soil. Unfortunately, the soil is shallow, rocky, and very shady. I did a sun survey and maximized the sunny patches of my yard and deck.

To avoid having to manage pests, fertilize and water incessantly, we practice heavy mulching of our garden. I eagerly await having a larger more permanent situation to fully implement the “Garden of Eden” method of heavy woodchip mulch combined with chicken-composted additions.


This year we were over-run with rabbits, squirrels, and birds, which took a heavy toll on our seedlings. There was a considerable amount of dead space in the garden due to this damage preventing plants from becoming established.

In order to stymie these critters, I splurged for some bird netting from Amazon.  While this kept the birds out of the plants, it also removed a threat to the buggy pests, which took over the garden. The rabbits also slipped under the net, then munched with impunity, safe from the neighborhood hawks and cats. I learned that everything is a system. Next year ill cover the especially vulnerable crops, but leave the garden open/ remove the covers to allow Nature’s pest control to work. As a natural grower not using synthetic pesticides, finding this balance is important.

Powdery mildew is usually a huge problem for me. This year I had great success with a spray of neam oil, baking soda, a little soap, all mixed with water at a ratio of one teaspoon, one teaspoon, one drop, to one pint.

Next year I’m also going to institute some engineering controls and stagger my vulnerable plants both in physical space, and in time. By varying the planting times, I hopefully wont be inundated with zucchini again. Additionally, older plants seem less vigorous, so successively planting should allow me to have less plants, but a similar, steadier harvest.

Freezing, Canning and Serving

As far as gardening goes, nothing comes close to the taste of a fresh snap pea, tomato, or salad. However, storing food presents a challenge.

We own a chest freezer, ostensibly for me to freeze the deer I should be harvesting each fall. This deer-free freezer is a tempting place to put vegetables. Many veggies don’t freeze well. Those that do require significant processing, typically a blanching and cooling process to kill decay causing bacteria. Freezing incurs the cost of freezer bags. Vacuum sealer is a must to prevent freezer burn.


Next year we will freeze more greens like Kale and Chard, and less watery veggies, like eggplant. Gross!

Canning is a good way to preserve veggies, but also has a high energy, time, and consumables cost. Gasket lids are the main cost after initial investment. I only can bulk items like tomatoes and green beans. Canning lowers the risk of spoilage is the power goes out- a freezer can melt.I am actively seeking to plant varieties of vegetables known to store well. If I can dedicate more space to the potatoes, garlic, a hard squashes, and not have to spend time trying to can or freeze a veggie just to have it turn to mush, I’ll gladly buy my salad at the store.

The only garden related gadgets we have is a salad spinner and a compost bucket.

Salad spinners are vital if you are picking a washing a salad each day. Nothing gets the salad as clean or dry. Dry salads last longer. Dirty salad can carry all sorts of bad stuff, like listeria

Our compost bucket is classy enough to sit on the kitchen counter, but small enough to demand a trip to the compost pile before it smells or attracts flies. The lid detaches fully for easy dumping of the sticky wet stuff.                                       


With a garden you:

  • Always have a snack
  • Beautify your surroundings
  • Increase your ability to give
  • Replenish the soil
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of your food
  • Learn from Nature
  • Nourish your body with no pesticides or other human intervention
  • Learn skills for self reliance
  • Slow down
  • Remind yourself where food comes from.
  • … and hopefully save yourself some money.

What does your garden produce?


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