Whatever you think of Burpee, America’s largest seed company, I think they’ve been pretty shrewd in the way they market their wares to would-be vegetable gardeners. These are the vulgarians who bought the revered Heronswood Nursery and gardens
in 2000 and then, a few years later, moved the plant stock to Pennsylvania and shut the gardens down.  Maybe they don’t understand beauty, but they do understand economics.  And while economics has nothing to do with exquisite hellebores, it has everything to do with the kitchen garden.

Now Burpee is really hitting the sweet spot and talking cash to all of us over-leveraged Americans.  They are selling something called the "Money Garden" for $10–a seed starter pack of six unadventurous vegetable varieties that "will produce over $650 of legally tender vegetables."  This calculation is roughly based on the results from test gardens it planted at its research facility Fordhook Farm in Bucks Country, PA.

Burpee concluded that for every dollar spent on seed or fertilizer, the home gardener would harvest $25 worth of vegetables.

Of course, adjust the variables and the 25:1 ratio could be even higher.  What if you skip the bagged fertilizer and use free manure and hay from a nearby farmer?  What if the vegetables you’re comparing your own to are pricey organic ones from the farmer’s market?

Nonetheless, when Burpee President George Ball argues that "A hundred dollars will produce $2500 in groceries…that’s $2400 a family can save in five months," he’s really in my ballpark.

I probably spend $150 on seeds and seedlings every year.  In return, I cut my grocery bill at least $100 a week for seven solid months.  No hedge fund ever delivered this rate of return.

Of course, I was delighted to present Burpee’s mathematical proof of the value of my efforts to my husband, who occasionally grouses at my sense of urgency about the garden, "You act as if you are a professional farmer!"

My husband’s response was terse: "Right. Don’t see second home factored in here anywhere."

It’s true.  I’m an example of nothing.  I do my vegetable garden at a cheap but charming little house in the country.  No one in my family cares about the place but me, and it’s my favorite place on earth.   It makes no sense whatsoever.

But I am paying a third of the tiny mortgage with all the green beans I grow.


  1. Burpee sure knows how to market, but I’ve always been afraid to calculate how much I spend on the vegetable garden vs how much I save. How do I amortize the tools? I’ve got free chicken manure, but I occassional buy greensand and rock phosphate. No labor costs calculated in, but of course neither is the delight of really fresh safe vegetables.

  2. A nicely written piece and excellent marketing by Burpee, but I have to say that for most people I know and myself the veggie garden is never as productive or cost effective as the pros say. Tomato plants shrivel and die mid August. Beans can’t compete with weeds. Rabbits eat the beets and chard, cuke vines produce maybe 5 veggies all summer…I’ll continue planting seeds for the fun and therapy of it, but at what point does the time and effort required to grow your own out-price the local supermarket?

  3. What about free chicken manure from hens who live in an overpriced hen chalet, eat premium organic food, and get taken to the bird vet rather than dumped in the stew pot when they’re not feeling well?

    Ah well, it all works out…

  4. There are other things to consider in the cost/benefit analysis of vegetable gardening.

    – You don’t have to drive to the store or market, particularly in search of unusual varieties. If you can, grow what you crave or what is hardest to find.

    In urban areas, particularly low income areas, fresh produce is hard to find, period. Burpee, reach out to the low income population with some low cost, square foot gardening options!

    – Fresh picked food lasts longer. Vegetables from the store have a shorter storage life.

    – Proximity = use. If you grow it, likely, you’ll eat it. You’ve made a commitment to the food. You can’t walk past it like you can in the grocery store veggie aisle.

    – Taste. Grocery store veggies are bred for the ability to withstand the trip from field to table. Home grown veggies are bred for taste and reliability.

    Not all of these have a monetary savings, but you’d have to admit that if we all ate more veggies, we’d be healthier and feel better. That’s worth something.

  5. The resolution I made this year was to actually add it all up. I’m keeping track of what I spend on my garden and what I harvest.

    Every year is different though. Some years the groundhogs find my garden and eat all the beans. Sometimes the tomatoes won’t grow. The squash usually gets killed by vine borers. I don’t spray toxic chemicals on my garden (even organic ones) so sometimes the harvest is lacking. I’ve heard of how much money you save and I’ve heard of the $64 tomato. I think it really depends upon the weather and how much free fertilizer/organic matter you can scrounge.

  6. Well I feel lucky then. Tomato, pepper, squash and some cukes were bought as starts. I bought some taters at the grocery store. I know, shame on me. I bought a few packets of seed. Plenty more seed flooded in from the kindness of internet friends. I bought a single bag of cow poop, a dash of fertilizer and tipped the driver $25 for a load of wood chips. That might amount to about $75.

    Despite the raccoon eating half my corn and the wilt hitting the cukes and some squash, I still ate plenty corn, squash, cucumbers and have jars and jars of pickles. There were tomatoes out the wazoo, green beans, snow peas, greens, peppers, two kind taters, one perfect cantaloupe and Uncle Ernie the scarecrow to entertain me. It was easy to produce sacks and sacks of food.

    My secret? Fresh wood chip mulch.

  7. There is no way that I am saving money by growing my own vegetables.
    I do it for the love of gardening and the fruits of my labor, but it is in no way a cost effective venture.

    I winced hard when I started to add up the costs vs. walking 4 blocks down to my weekly downtown farmers market and plunking down a couple of dollars for beautifully grown organic produce, eggs, honey and cheese.

    With the cost of water here in dry arid California combined with the cost of purchasing well aged organic compost ( my garden requires more than my household can produce ) and the small cost of the seed or plant starts, it’s not a cost effective venture at all.
    I didn’t even amortise the cost of the land and its ridiculously high taxes.
    Nope, not cost effective, but it sure is enjoyable.

  8. Michele with one l, my definitive post on that is here:

    It is one of the most visited posts now from google searches. I know this topic has been hashed out here at the Rant before.

    Unlike Michelle with two l’s, I am on well water, no city water and sewer fees, and since I have to drink and bathe occasionally, I won’t spread that intial drilling cost to my vegies. Plus I get way more rain and that wood chip mulch kept my actual hand watering of the vegies to a minimum even in a drought.

    Same with the house and property taxes. Maybe I am more patient with compost too. That is what wood chips turn in to. That may change perhaps. I am not in the tropics anymore where things decompose 24/7.

  9. Christopher C, I read Linda Chalker-Scott’s book, but when she endorses woody mulches, she’s not talking about vegetable gardens.

    However, I just read a fascinating article by an organic farmer who argues that a wood chip mulch allows him to add organic matter without over-fertilizing his beds.

    And my theory, the great skeptic and minimalist that I am, is that ANYTHING organic works on a vegetable garden…including stuff vegetable growers have long been discouraged from using…such as wood chips and leaves.

    So I am very glad to hear of your success.

  10. One of these days I was going to get around to posting on the economics of veggie gardening. But until then, here’s the key:

    Your gardening labor is not a cost. It’s a benefit. It goes on the income side, Maybe $10 to $20 an hour. That’s what you’d pay for any other activity that gives you that much pleasure.

    If that seems like a lot, you should take up another hobby.

    The better food and lower grocery bills are just icing on the cake.

  11. It’s a great conversation. I consistently spend over $100 a year on seeds – a true sucker for those catalogs and packaging.

    Two years ago we spent $300 a month for water during a drought. There may be a time when and a place where vegetable growing at home is a money making proposition, but we do it for the sheer joy of it.

    I wonder why there are snarky comments about Burpee. Are the seeds poor quality? Or is it something else?

  12. I usually don’t buy seeds from Burpee but I might try the 68 day Sweet Seedless Hybrid Tomato on page 3 of their catalog which I forgot I had buried in mail.
    Your post made me dig it out and page 2 shows George B in denim petting a dog extolling the benefits of gardening. Perfect advertising.
    If they walk the talk I might buy more.

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