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.