Only The Inexperienced Are Cynical


My irrigation system

Some things I just cannot be reasonable about.  And one of them is writers who claim that vegetable gardens are ridiculous money and time sinks.

A backyard garden is only a ridiculous money and time sink if you, yourself, happen to be ridiculously inexpert.

As is apparently one Jennifer Reese over at Slate, who is trying to disabuse America of the notion that you can save money by growing your own food.  (Alice Waters apparently brought up the "free food" idea in connection with the Obamas' new garden.)

Reese's evidence that vegetable gardens are expensive?  She thinks she needs to spend between $1000 and $3000 on an irrigation system to water her pumpkins while she is away on vacation.

My dear, go down to the hardware store and buy a $68 battery-powered hose timer for your sprinkler.  This set-up has worked perfectly for me for many, many years. 

Similar claims to Reese's are made by other professional writers but beginning growers who spend thousands of dollars on stonework or backyard grading and then try to amortize such profligacy over a poor tomato.

Even with the wretched excess in my own garden–in a flush moment, I spent $5000 on a garden shed and $3000 on a cedar fence, neither of which was remotely necessary in such pricey form–I've still made my investment back and more.

My vegetable garden saves me at least $3000 a year on my grocery bill.  Year after year.  Add that up.

Unless you go out of your way to skew them, out of ignorance or some granite-countertoppy notion of what's necessary, the economics of a vegetable garden are absurdly favorable.  They are so favorable that Ashley Atkinson of the Greening of Detroit has told me that some of her urban growers are not only feeding their families, but earning $1000 a month selling the excess at farmers' markets.  And these are people spending a few hours a week at most in the garden.

Of course the economics are favorable:  Seeds are cheap.  Vegetable gardens are generally made on land the gardener already owns and would otherwise waste.  The best soil enrichments can be had for free–ground-up fall leaves, grass clippings, kitchen compost, manure from a nearby farmer.  No tools are necessary other than a shovel and fork.  Once the garden is made, even the time and labor required are minimal, if you mulch heavily rather than dig.

Even those investments that may be utterly necessary can be made inexpensively.  Given the diabolical  groundhogs in my part of the world, I can't garden without a fence.  But my neighbor managed to stymie his groundhogs with nothing more than those cheap metal posts you push into the ground, some chicken wire hung from them, and some railroad ties he had lying around.  I think he spent $40 total on the set-up.

Only young gardeners are cynical about the costs of the garden.  By the time you've hauled in as many harvests as I have–or as many as I suspect Alice Waters has–you have become slick and efficient and profoundly grateful for nature's bounty.  Year after year, even in the worst years, in the garden, my arms are filled with unearned gifts. 


  1. I have a neighbor who is going to babysit my garden while I’m on vacation in July, in exchange for whatever is ripe and harvestable during that time. How about that for a cheap solution?

  2. One wonders; if they think all these costly gadgets are necessary how they can possibly think farmers can feed themselves and sell cheap zuchini to supermarkets. Oh, wait, I get it they just don’t care.

  3. I LOVE LOVE LOVE my baby vegetables. I took care of several large vegetable gardens a few years ago (two 50 x 50 ft. plots and one 20×50 ft plot). We fed two food pantries once a week with a carload of vegetables each time. All of the garden staff (7) had all of the produce they wanted. We also had enough to send up to the restaurant.

    I didn’t have a vegetable garden for about four years, and I missed it every day. I love my fresh lettuce, in particular. I finally planted veggies this spring,and it is the absolute highlight of my day to go out and check on them. I’m doing everything I can to save costs-including growing as much as possible from seeds-and it is so fun. I didn’t realize what a hole there was in my life when I didn’t have a vegetable garden. And, I’m under 30 (for one more month!).

  4. Katie, when I say “young gardeners,” I really mean “young in the ways of the garden.”

    We’ve got professional growers at our local farmers’ market who are in the 20’s and absolute fonts of knowledge!

  5. Only young gardeners are cynical?

    How old do you have to be to be a young gardener? I think I’m a young-ish gardener, and am certainly not cynical.It’s not the gardeners who are cynical at all, but non-gardeners.

    However: You might save on food bills if you have a great deal of space, but if you have less space (city dwellers?) I still think that the satisfaction of growing your own herbs or vegetables or fruit on a tiny scale is AS important as the possible, small savings.

    We have to face it: mass produced food is ludicrously affordable in this country. Coaxing people into spending more money to buy organic, or more time in the garden, has to be done with that in mind.

    My own schtick is that we will produce better, nicer, wiser humans if we teach our children how to grow things.

  6. Well I’ve been vegetable gardening for a while now (20 years). I really questioned some claims of gardens costing so little. Like Burpees $10 group of seeds to produce I think $600 of groceries. I do have inputs into my garden every year. I think it is cheaper to have it than to not have it, but I was curious, so this year I’m going to be adding it up. I amortized my 17 year old fence over 20 years ($60/year). The rest I’m not worrying about since I tend to fill in what I need when I need it. So far I’m at $166 spent. I live in the north and I haven’t yet harvested so I’m in the hole right now. I’m really curious about how much really comes out of my garden and how much I spend. I’ve never added it up before. It certainly is no where near $3000. My garden isn’t that big.

  7. great descriptor Michelle, “granite-toppy”! These are the same people who think they need a Viking range to scramble an egg–or they have a Viking but can’t cook an egg. Their problem isn’t inexperience, it’s the ignorance of consumerism–the only way to gain mastery is to buy your way into it. Some of us are lucky enough not to have that option. Ha!

  8. Hear, hear. I consider myself to be a new gardener. Aside from reading a lot, I have very brief actual garden experience…but I can definitely attest to the cost benefit.

    I started a couple years ago with just some herbs which pretty much grow themselves. If I tacked up just the savings I got from my now daily use of fresh herbs (does wonders for your cooking and health!), it has probably paid for most of my modest garden expansions and seeds. I now have constant fresh food from my garden with only a couple hours of work each week. By letting my garden do the work of creating soil, mulching and pest management that frees me up to grow the occasional seedlings, water a couple times a week, and eat the rewards….

    At this point I am probably $100 in the hole, but springs coming on strong and I have more than enough seeds to take that $100 deficit and turn it into many, many pounds of food.

  9. If your garden has to look like it’s on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens and you need to look like Angelina Jolie while you’re gardening, it WILL cost you lots of money to garden!

    The cost of materials and tools is expensive at first, but they are designed to last for years. Even an entire package of seeds can last a couple of seasons.

  10. Wow, that was some crazy rant by Ms. Reese at Slate. Ok, so the produce from a vegetable garden has costs associated with time, materials and labor. But it certainly doesn’t have to be expensive. There are millions of people in the world who earn $3000/year or less (cost of Ms. Reese’s irrigation system), and are still able to grow some of their own food. They’re just using their local agricultural/gardening knowledge and resources proven to work for centuries. Only in modern America would people take Ms. Reese’s argument seriously. We are so far removed from our agricultural heritage, that people believe they have to spend a lot of money to have a decent garden. And what about the costs of irrigating, weeding and fertilizing the lawn in place of the vegetable garden? i think if Ms. Reese did a thorough cost/benefit analysis for a vegetable garden, she would discover that the economic benefits are real and outweigh the costs.

  11. Is she for real? $1000 on irrigation systems, or $40 bucks to pay a neighbor kid to water your pumpkin….hmmm, which would I choose…? Tough decision, I think I need to call an expert!

  12. I’ve gotten by with simple drip irrigation on timers when I’m out of town. I guess I’m lucky to have friends who enjoy checking in on the garden now and again just to be sure all’s well.

    And, investing in keeping good soil tilth helps with the moisture requirements as well. A little compost from the bin or the garden center goes a long way and costs either nothing or just a few bucks a truck load.

    Sure, I spend a about $50/year on mulch, $25 bucks for a timer that lasts a few years, maybe around $300 for a drip system that lasts for years and maybe around $200/summer to water my entire garden (not just the food). And, I work, enjoying myself and becoming more healthy, as I “toil” (to use Ms Reese’s word) to create my food. Is it free? Nope, but it costs less than the 1-3 grand she’s anticipating dropping on her watering system. And, quite likely, it will feed me, the neighbors who pitch in, and I’ll have leftovers to donate to the food bank. (So, I suppose the food bank recipients will get free food out of the deal.)

    And, Frankly, if we hadn’t had our veggie garden on the farm as kids, I don’t know that we could have afforded to eat during the winter. Amazing how folks do math different these days.

    And, no, my garden today is not a farm:

    Now to start “toiling”…or was it tilling? hmmm…

  13. In our vegetable garden, I’ve way overspent, and over-designed, to make it a good-looking raised-bed potager. It has so many expensive non-essential bits (rose standard, boxwoods, concrete-block raised bed, copper trellis, apple espaliers, soaker hose…) that I’ll never recoup the cost in vegetables.

    Those were one-timed fixed costs though. Our annual costs are low – just seeds and compost. Even on our small plot I bet we get a few hundred dollars worth of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, dill, basil, and more. On top of all that we enjoy looking at it and working in it. That’s priceless.

  14. I feel that you are calling me old. *wink* I turn 30 in one month. Even though I’ve been gardening since I was three years old, I still consider myself “young” in the ways of gardening. I learn a lot every year, but I still have a lot to learn!

    Oh, and so much for saving $$. I went to my local master gardener plant sale this afternoon and came home approximately 1/2 paycheck lighter. DANG! But, I have to keep the butterfly garden I planted for my dog in good shape. (Yes, I’m nuts, but she sits right by the window and likes to watch the butterflies!)

    Happy gardening!

  15. Some people golf. I garden

    Some people shop. I garden

    Some people have a motorcycle. I garden

    Some people cook lavish meals. I garden

    Some people go to Europe. I garden

    Some people do drugs. I garden

  16. To me gardening is a way to connect with the dirt, my youth, my grandfather, my soul. There is something magical about taking a small seed and nuturing it to a plant, a tomato, a juicey slice of heaven.

  17. I’m glad we’re not burdening the young anymore. Whew!

    But otherwise, here here, it doesn’t have to be expensive. It also helps to learn how to make things because gardening asks you to make things. The more ingenuity you discover in yourself, the more you save.

    But what is it really: seeds, soil, water. If you got the first two, your on your way.

  18. We are ALL ‘young gardeners’, as Thomas Jefferson said. Heck, the older I get, the more I like that saying…

    Anyway, some of you know about the twenty-five dollar organic victory garden challenge I’ve given myself (if you don’t just click onto my blog and read all about it). But the point is, it doesn’t have to be expensive. Can I really plant a food garden that can feed my family of four all summer for twenty-five bucks or less???
    Yes, and I’m documenting the whole process including almost daily videos.

    Believe me, I’ve had to get creative but I’m amazed how resourceful we become when we need to. So far, my seeds are planted and I’ve spent a total of seven bucks on two bags of seed starting mix. I’ve used pizza boxes for seed trays, cake toppers for mini-greenhouses, and seeds donated from frinds. My garden soil is free from the county facility, and garage sales and will help equip the garden,etc.

    Gardening CAN be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. And I’m gonna prove it! Shame on anyone who is communicating that gardening is financially inaccessible, especially now!

  19. Agreed! I applaud your efforts, and am admiring them from afar. . . Though I might tote my wheel barrow down the street to scavenge some junk in my neighbor’s yard (by the curb. that means “take me!” in my neighborhood) to make trellises.

    I spend my pocket money on my garden, and that’s ok with me. You keep up your $25 garden, Joe. I am enjoying your progress! I think it is important for people to understand that gardening is not just for the wealthy, but only recently was viewed that way. I saw a hilarious magnet in a store in Florida. It said

    “Eat Organic Vegetables! Or, as your Grandma called them: Vegetables.” I think that sums it up pretty well!

  20. I’ve been enjoying everyone’s comments, but yours in particular stopped me in my tracks, it is so beautiful. Very well said!

  21. Vegetable gardening does not have to be expensive! I am pretty much a novice at it, but am really going to expand my garden this spring not only to save money, but to eat healthier and make a more positive impact on our environment. My kids love to get involved, so this will definitely be a family project. I found that when they help with the vegetables, they actually want to eat them! I found lots of help at – I could design my own garden, and am getting the entire package through them. They are creating some interesting things over there – I think that, like Daphne, I’m going to add up my savings this year!

  22. I love that saying Katie. How revealing is that about where we’ve come! I’m going to borrow that from you for my podcast quote of the week, ok?

  23. Apparently, I am a Rant stalker this week. I think I am tired of writing.

    I definitely will save money if I grow as much lettuce as I am planning to. I could eat an entire head of lettuce a day, myself. I love lettuce!

  24. Not to always be the contrarian but I think Reese makes several good points.

    For example, she says that gardening is good for the soul- one of the joys of life – even while it messes up your hands and the knees of your pants.

    and “Peaceful and meditative, it’s work that involves nurturing lovely, colorful creatures that never talk back or defile the rug. You proceed at your own pace in your own space while listening to the birds”

    She says she will have to skip a summer vacation because she can’t afford one. Maybe some of that meaningful time in her garden will help ease her pains.

    It always eases my pains.

  25. Hate to be difficult here, but no one has mentioned the opportunity costs–if you tend your heirloom tomatoes, what are you giving up? An extra hour with your better half? A baseball game with your 9 year old? A glass of wine with a lonely neighbor?
    Don’t get me wrong–I have a large garden (flowers only–perfidious raccoons, rabbits, and deer just never give up), so my better half and my kid have, alas, been neglected. But they see it as the cost of having a happy papa.
    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the cost of growing your own carrots–just be honest that, at the end of the day, you garden because you want to. Home grown turnips are a benefit (only if braised in cider).

  26. I have spent $4.94 on the vegetable garden this year on two packages of spinach seeds. The rest of the seeds, lettuce, beets, radish and snap peas I have sown so far were gifts. The wood chip mulch was free. Come real vegetable gardening season in mid May I may spend about $40 on vegetable starts because I don’t have the proper space to start my own warm season veggies right now. There was a request for strawberries to, so that may cost a bit more.

    The raccoon insists on getting his share of the sweet corn, but other than that we eat way way more than $50 worth of fresh produce. $3000 worth, I don’t think so. Are you exaggerating just a bit Michele? Or do you just grow massive quantities of potatoes or the expensive gourmet stuff?

    As far as time spent, I am not sure if the puttering around in there after the mulch is spread qualifies as real work. With the mulch there are hardly any weeds. Watering is minimal, even with a so called drought last year. I kind of just wait til it is time to harvest things.

    I grow it, harvest, wash it and the best part of all is someone else prepares and cooks all that fresh food. Then I do the dishes and clean the kitchen.

  27. Christopher C, lucky you to live with a good cook! We are a family of five here. My grocery bill runs between $250 and $300 a week because I like the good stuff. In gardening season, I shave a least $100 a week off that.

    I do grow potatoes, loads and loads. I grow loads of everything. If I want to eat it, I want to grow it. I just made a curried cole slaw two days ago with the last of my 2008 cabbages.

    Turnips braised in cider!!! Thank you, Steve.

    Katie, I am managing with a four-foot tall cedar fence. I have nailed cage wire to the bottom of it. I dug a foot-deep trench, and bent the cage wire into an L shape, so it’s not only a foot deep, but also extends a foot across. It was a really lousy, nasty job that involved many weekends of my lying on my stomach in the mud with a hammer and staples, but this is working for me.

    But other people who garden near me really do it in what look like prison yards. Groundhogs are tough. A dog is a big help.

  28. I think the cost is context dependent. I’ve seen homes that are very granite counter-toppy. With that money all-ready spent, it seems valuable to keep the investment and install a garden with high architectural value. This is going to be a lot more expensive and you probably won’t break even on food costs.

    Some homes don’t have that look, or don’t have it on the outside, or there are parts of the outside that don’t. In those cases, it can be done much more economically.

    If you feel like you can’t get started unless it is going to look good, I do understand that. I think it is okay to say that it isn’t for everyone.

    For my part, I took a middle road. Sure it cost more, but it looks better. I call it “reinvesting” some of the garden back in the garden. Each year it looks better than the year before. This year I upgraded the border on the raised beds to a nice stone. Total cost was about $200. Money well spent if you ask me!

    There is something to be said for gardening on the cheap. But if you can make it look good at the same time, I say go for it. If you can use last years saving to fund it, so much the better.

    As an aside; I would estimate I get $500 a year worth of produce. Certainly not $3000 though! Someday maybe , if I can get some more space 🙂

  29. One thing, of course, the older of a gardener you are the more gardening assets you’ve built up: you have a healthier garden balance sheet. You have useful stuff laying around to built things out of (usually stuff that didn’t work in its first incarnation); you know good free stuff when you see it (and hopefully you know useless crap when you see it too); you are wise in choosing what to grow and how to grow it so you make fewer mistakes (except when you see really really cool plants and can’t resist). I’ve noticed a lot of young gardeners are afraid of making mistakes, and so they think maybe an expensive irrigation set up will protect them from error. They do not yet realize that error is part of the process, that even a $3000 irrigation system won’t be fool-proof, that gardening is hands-on, brains-on and spirit-on. And that even the oldest, wisest gardener with the grungiest fingernails (not me, yet) makes mistakes and learns from them.

  30. Nice writing Michele, especially the last sentence, which beautifully sums up how I feel about my vegetable garden.

    “Year after year, even in the worst years, in the garden, my arms are filled with unearned gifts.”

    All gardens cost something to set up, be it money or sweat. There’s little room for freeloaders, and nature’s bounty isn’t a right.

    The real lesson for inexperienced GIYers (Grow It Yourselfers) is to worry less about the cost of a new garden, and more about approaching nature with humility. Put in a wholehearted effort. Then, as Michele suggests, the whole process will gradually streamline and nature will prove very generous indeed.

  31. The word Alice Waters used was FREE. Can nobody read? Garden grown food is NOT FREE, which is not to say it is not better, more nutritious, more fun, more satisfying, and not expensive. FREE???Tell me about it!

  32. Saying “manure from a nearby farmer” is easy to come by or inexpensive is far from the truth if one lives in the centre of a large city. Being indignant, however, appears to be free wherever one lives.

  33. Also well-said. If only everyone thought like that … we’d have no one to whom to pass our extra zucchini !

  34. The spelling of “centre” suggests that it’s not an American city that you’re talking about. So I can’t say.

    However, there are many cities here that compost yard waste and deliver it for a small fee. And horse manure from a riding stable is generally an option even in very populated places. Fall leaves, kitchen compost, these all work in a garden.

    And if you have to buy bagged manure, that hardly represents an expense that will throw the entire business plan out of whack.

    If I sound indignant, I am. That Slate piece really sounds as if I was written by somebody who knows very little about vegetable gardening.

    Let’s be clear–we’re all amateur gardeners here. I think the best garden writing has been written by amateurs, if they are writing about their own experience. But a certain humility is in order if you are going to extend very limited experience out into the universe at large–and you presume to discourage other beginners.

    So I reiterate: If you think vegetable growing HAS to be expensive, you don’t know what you’re doing.

  35. Hmmm – I guess I should read and understand the title of this site in a more literal manner than I had been!

    For the record – I never suggested veggie gardening has to be expensive – I grow a year’s worth of tomatoes in recycled pots on my deck. I don’t know, however, of any farmer that wants to truck in his or her manure for inner city gardeners. There’s city compost in abundance, but isn’t that a bit different than manure?

  36. Hi Chris, apologies if I ranted AT you. But as I said at the top of the piece, if you want to make me mad, the way to do it is to suggest that vegetable gardening is too laborious/expensive/tricky for ordinary people to attempt. My vegetable garden is one of the joys of my life, and I think the world would be a better place if a few more people grew tomatoes, like you, in recycled pots on their decks.

    In my experience, composted manure plus bedding is the best soil enrichment in a vegetable garden. But almost any kind of organic matter will work, as long as it isn’t drenched in herbicides or pesticides. Christopher C. of Outside Clyde has gotten great results doing little more than mulch his vegetable garden heavily with wood chips. Free wood chips:

  37. Being both young AND inexperienced, I’d like to express that not all young gardeners are cynical (ok not true I am cynical about some things but not about gardening).

    This year I am starting my very first garden And I freely admit it’s going to cost about $400.As Katie said, however, all you need is seed, soil and water and I fall short on that second one. I live in a very new neighbourhood and the builder’s idea of “top soil” is maybe an inch of something that very vaguely resembles soil and then clay down to the bedrock. So most of that cost is buying something that can support life. Not even the weeds do well on my lot.

    I know very little about vegetable growing, but unlike Ms. Reese I seem to know a lot more about reading to get the info I need (my irrigation system is going to cost $65, if I even put it in this year).

    Living in the middle of a somewhat large city, I am going to have to drive just past the city limits to get as much manure as I can haul, for free. A nearby farm gives it away once year. I suppose I’ll have to borrow a trunk and there will be the stand in line time cost but I can live with that.

    I don’t know how much food I’ll get off my garden (remember first garden) but there are many other benefits that should have financial value attached to it. Like the extra exercise, entertainment value, and the natural cooling effect of plants (any plants) for hot summer days. I’m sure there are more but that’s all I can think of offhand.

    All those things and food for $400 that’s one heck of a deal I’d say.
    Thank you for your lovely rants

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