Tomatoes, beans, carrots, corn.
When my husband and I lived in regional Victoria, we grew it all.
The soil was nutrient-rich and the sun was plentiful. The hardest part was keeping the water up on those hot blustery days.
But since moving to suburban Melbourne, the veggie patch just hasn’t taken off. After carefully watering and fertilising our tomato plants, it was so disappointing to pick just a handful last year.
We’ve recently moved again, and this time around, the garden needs a total rethink.
As we stood on the lawn with a cup of tea, staring at what could become our dream veggie patch, my husband asked what many of us have surely asked before – is it really worth trying to grow food, or are we better off just buying it all from the store?
So, I asked for help from the experts, including kitchen garden extraordinaire Stephanie Alexander, celebrity gardening guru Costa Georgiadis and Australia’s largest gardening gang, The Diggers Club, to find out once whether growing your own veggies is ever financially worth it.
But Emily. It’s not all about the money
I know, I know.
For me, nothing beats the taste of a fresh tomato picked off the bush. In fact, many of the benefits of home gardening are hard to put a value on.
So before we dive into the economics of it all, it’s worth laying out exactly what they are.
As Costa says, you can’t really compare the price of home-grown to supermarket-bought.
“I think that’s where people sometimes lose the true value,” he says.
“A supermarket price has been grown generally in broad scale, with massive inputs, massive transport – a whole lot of hidden costs that are consumed within that overall volume that’s produced.
“I try and stay away from that direct comparison because I say what else did it provide?
“It provided the therapy, it provided the relaxation, it provided those health benefits of being outside.”
For the Diggers Club’s Marcelle Swanson, who lives on a 20-acre self-sufficient property, the benefits are all about nutrition.
“You obviously know exactly how you’ve grown things and what’s gone into them. So, then you’re back in control of what you consume,” she says.
Marcelle hasn’t bought any meat or veggies for over eight years.
“My husband and I regularly don’t really know what things cost.
“When someone comes over for dinner and we give people a roast, we actually don’t understand that at most people’s homes, that roast is probably a $100 dinner that you’re putting on for someone.
“At our house, it’s just food,” she says.
For Stephanie Alexander – chef, author and the creator of the Kitchen Garden Foundation – growing your own is about enjoyment and educating young children.
“Accountants may not value these things, but for food gardeners they have significant value,” she says.
“Perhaps the biggest cost is your time, but for most gardeners they would laugh and say gardening is not work – it’s my release.”
Ok, but again, what about the costs?
Do we really need fancy wicking beds or raised garden beds to get started?
The experts say no.
‘If you’ve already got a little bit of space in full sun in your backyard, then realistically, the costs could be down to one bag of good compost and some manure,” Marcelle says.
“Don’t be afraid to grow in containers,” Costa adds.
Even better if you can pick them up second-hand or in hard rubbish.
“If you do that, not only will you get to know your yard and the sun, but you don’t have to do the back-breaking work initially by building the soil in a garden bed and maybe removing grass and so on,” he says.
I want bang for my buck. Which veggies do I choose?
Most home gardens tend to be small, so Stephanie suggests choosing plants that are compact.
“Yes to tomatoes and eggplant and capsicums (all crop heavily and are compact plants), but no to onions or parsnips as they take up lots of space for long periods of time,” she says.
“Yes to silverbeet because it is pickable 12 months of the year, yes to soft tender lettuces that grow fast and need a ready supply of new seedlings to keep up the salad supply.”
“Tomatoes are definitely one of the most cost-effective,” she says.
“They are a high-yield crop for minimal input, so they really are a great one to save money and to fill your pantry.”
And the costs are pretty low.
“You’ve got the sun, you’ve got water, you might have improved the soil at some stage, you might want to give them an application of seaweed solution or something like that,” Marcelle says.
They work out to be in the cents per kilo.
A packet of cherry tomato seeds will set you back about $4-5, or about $3 for a seedling.
“Your average tomato plant will give you anywhere between eight and 10 kilos for something like a cherry tomato,” says Costa.
How much will I save!
In the capital cities, it costs at least $8-17.50 per kilogram (or more if you are buying organic or live remotely).
That’s surprising – home grown tomatoes will still be cheaper per kilo for most.
If you’re a summer salad lover like me, lettuce is a good crop to grow.
“It’s a quick crop, you can be harvesting lettuce in six weeks,” Marcella says.
“If you normally go through three lettuces a week, you’d only plant six seeds a week so you stagger your harvest – that’s the trick.”
Costa wants us to think smart, by going for repeat harvests.
“You want to grow things you can multiple harvest, not just once at the end of 150 days,” says Costa.
“That’s where things like salad greens are really valuable. You can repeat pick.”
The seeds for mini cos lettuce cost about $4-$5 for a packet of 250. And again, the input costs are minimal.
At the supermarkets – it costs about $2-$3 for two (again, it’s more if you’re buying organic or live remotely).
But I’ve got nowhere to grow stuff
We hear you. Not everyone has a backyard. Not even a small one.
“If you’ve only got a balcony or something small where you can only have a few pots, you’ve got to get a little more creative. But one square metre can grow a fair amount of food for a family,” said Marcelle.
She used to live in a unit with tiny balcony and says the best plants for tiny spaces are herbs.
But which ones?
Perennials like thyme or sage will keep growing year-round.
“You can harvest those all year for about three to four years before you even see any loss in the plant,” Marcelle says.
It costs about $5 per potted plant.
“You’d never have to buy dried [herbs] again. Often you’d spend about $4 at the supermarket on one small bunch,” she adds.
Herbs are a favourite for Stephanie, too.
“Think of how much one pays at the supermarket for a bunch of parsley when you really only wanted 1 tablespoon of chopped for your recipe tonight,” she says.
“The purchased parsley will smell bad and not keep well for more than 3 days in the refrigerator.”
Are there any plants that are just not worth it?
Plants that take up a lot of valuable growing space may not be worth it for the home gardener.
Stephanie suggests not bothering with onions or parsnips.
“They take up lots of space for long periods of time,” she says.
For Marcelle, cabbage is a no-no.
“Cabbage is one of those things where it takes so long to grow in the garden. They can be taking up valuable space in your garden for 22 weeks.”
So with all that in mind, there’s really only one more piece of advice to keep in mind.
And it’s perhaps one of the most important things to consider.
“Just because you’re in a bit of a lean patch, doesn’t mean you give up the game. Get back into the nets,” implores Costa.
You probably won’t kill everything you touch. Give it a good crack.