Green Vegetables: Growing Your Own Is Not Always Cheaper!

I've seen $4 half-pints of raspberries. I've experienced corn at two for a dollar. I've come to see that the best tomatoes cost more per pound than cheap cuts of steak. But only now have I found the most expensive vegetables: the ones I grow in my own backyard. It is true that by growing my own produce, I've shrunk our grocery bill. It's been weeks since I've bought any vegetables, and even fruit purchases have been close to zero, thanks to a bumper crop of plums, grapes and especially apples. But even so, the savings due to the garden can be measured in tens of dollars, not hundreds.The expenses due to the garden were definitely of the three-digit variety. (If I counted the hours spent constructing, filling and planting the garden beds, I'd be in the hole for thousands of dollars, not just hundreds, but the very thought is depressing.)I can't say that the uneconomical nature of food gardening came as a complete surprise. Several years ago when I first began mulling over the idea of raising a vegetable garden, I asked a number of people why they garden.The answers: for the exercise, as an antidote to a desk job, as a scientific challenge. I'd then ask these green thumbs whether it's economically worthwhile. The answer: "ummm, let me show you my tomato starts..." Now, I don't like to think of myself as a gadgeteer, easily taken in by all the latest mechanics. And I'm not easily swayed by catalog photos. I just want to have a garden that produces bushels of food without too much work or expense. I don't want to fuss; I just want to plant, weed and reap.In fact, I like to think of myself as a cheapskate lazybones when it comes to the garden, one who lets perennials do the work, accepts "volunteers" where they seed themselves and looks for gifts where I find them. In that vein, the beds themselves are made of recycled metal siding (I have to admit I did pay $300 to have the siding brought in and the beds built), and the walkways are covered with castoff carpet (I merely had to be willing to rip it out and haul it home).It was with great glee that I snared 100 bags of leaves from around the neighborhood before the trash trucks got them last fall, giving me a glorious compost pile. And I took pleasure in a weekly stop to get manure from a friendly horse I'm acquainted with. But these were new and apparently bottomless beds, so the free stuff wasn't enough. As I wrote the $96 check for manure to fill the beds out, I began to take notice that my garden was eating up a lot more than pocket change. Already, before the first plant had sprouted, I could see that these were going to be some damned expensive vegetables.Once the plants were in, I just simply "needed" a drip irrigation system. It does save water, of course, by preventing rapid evaporation from overhead spraying, but it was another $105 in materials. Even with the great new system, I kept forgetting to water, so the solution was easy: add a timer to the system for "only" $40. (Now I'm hankering after another environmentally sound, water-saving device, a moisture sensor that will shut off the automatic system if it rains; these are $70.) As for the plants themselves, I had every intention of starting them all myself. I even bought the seed necessary to start tomatoes, peppers and brassicas on a windowsill, but I never quite got the seeds in the planter's mix. Instead of growing from seeds (each at a value of a penny), I used starter plants from greenhouses (valued at a dollar or more). That was another $60 in set-up costs.I also decided to commit to a biggish strawberry patch this year. I bought 60 plants for $20. I dutifully planted them per instructions, adding what I thought was a nice touch: a hay mulch over them to shield them from the drying sun. It smothered them instead.By the time I admitted they were dead and never coming back, it was too late to plant more berries and it was also too late to start much of anything from seeds. I hated to see a vacant bed, though, so I bought more starts: $20.So that's $641, not counting a gardening magazine subscription, an occasional "how to" class or anything spent to prettify the yard. With that same money I could have, instead, spent more than $25 a week at a farmers' market buying nothing but the best locally grown produce. But no; I spent it so I can appear to be a back-to-the-earth, simple kind of gal, whose gardening is an integral, organic part of life.

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