The Economic Gardener

Ahh spring!  Flowers are blooming, green stuff is growing again, and gardeners (like Mrs. Tako) are finally coming out of hibernation after a long winter.

Gardening is one of our favorite hobbies in the Tako household — partly because it provides a true economic output from our effort — Food we can consume!

It’s been said that home-grown fruits and vegetables are healthier, and tastier than the store bought variety.  In many cases that may be true!  There’s nothing quite like garden-grown tomatoes!

Before you catch that garden-fever, we need to have a little talk.

Is that beautiful garden truly worth your time and effort?  Could it be that gardening, often thought of as a frugal hobby, actually isn’t?


The Problem with Gardening

Just like any other hobby, the human ability to take things way too far cannot be overstated.

The simple truth of the matter is that some gardeners frequently invest way more money into their gardens than they’ll ever realize by growing their own food.  I call these people the “Spendy Gardeners“.

“Spendy Gardeners” take things to a point where a garden’s return on investment becomes impossibly low — it makes more economic sense to visit your nearest organic grocer and just buy food instead.

spendy garden
If this your idea of what a garden should look like, you might just be a “Spendy Gardener”.

As a reminder, let’s review that friendly little equation for Return On Investment:

Return on Investment = (gain from investment – cost of investment) / cost of investment

Obviously to start gardening, that ‘cost of investment’ has to happen.  Depending upon your situation, you might need seeds, dirt, pots, fertilizer, tools and other necessary equipment.

In the case of seeds, fertilizer, and plant starts, you’ll need to replenish these every year.  Tools typically have a much longer expected lifespan, but also have high costs.

Other equipment might include pots, raised beds, soil, hoses (for watering), fencing, watering timers, and any decorative garden elements you might desire.

All of this can cost significant money.

Frankly, the ROI for small-scale gardening frequently isn’t very good.  Unless you have optimal lighting, soil, temperature, and rainfall, you’ll might have a difficult time producing food in any sort of volume.  The economies of scale that real farms realize are completely absent from small-scale home gardens.

Remember: fruits and vegetables frequently have the lowest prices per pound in the supermarket.  Less than $2 per pound when in-season.

According to survey data from the National Gardeners Association, the average garden produces half a pound of food per square foot from a well maintained garden, by an experienced gardener

In the Tako household, we have a roughly 50 square feet of garden area.  Using those statistics, that means we can produce about 25 pounds of food per year.  At $2 per pound, that amounts to an economic value of merely $50 per year.

I happen to know many gardeners easily spend more than $50 per year on fresh seeds, plant starts, manure, and potting soil ….every year!  Essentially they’re generating a 0% ROI. 

That’s not even counting the cost of tools, what it cost to build the raised bed, and the cost of water (it ain’t free folks!)

garden area
The Tako family garden ready for spring planting. From a financial perspective we’ll probably only generate $50 worth of food savings in a year.

In real world applications, I try to look for a minimum of double what my money could earn from long-term stock market returns (2 x 7% = 14%).  And that’s being generous.  “Real World” business owners frequently look for returns of 20% or higher before investing real capital.

From a purely economic point of view, it might make more sense to invest your “garden money” in index funds, and just buy food at the store.


Changing the Equation

Now, I’m not trying to completely poo-poo on gardening here — It happens to be a wonderful hobby.

It gets you outside, and produces healthy organic food.  How freaking fantastic is that?

 The problem I have with gardening is merely how much people spend on it, completely ignoring return on investment.

But what if we could alter that ROI equation to our advantage?  What if we could become “Economic Gardeners” instead of “Spendy Gardeners”?

Well folks, you’ve come to the right place!  Maximizing return on investment happens to be one of my personal favorite hobbies!

In simple terms, to become a “Economic Gardener” you’ll need to drive the monetary cost of gardening as absolutely low as humanly possible.

Two things will have to happen:

  1.  Initial start-up costs should be minimized.
  2. Recurring annual costs need to be driven down to basically zero, and kept there!


How To Minimize Startup Costs

To minimize start-up costs, begin with my favorite rule-of-thumb:  Don’t buy a damn thing from a retail store. Or, I’ll smash your thumb.

Instead, utilize the old, the imperfect, and the out-of-style resources in your life.

Find other places to get tools and materials.  Utilize sharing economy groups, like the Buy Nothing Project.  Look for extremely low-cost resources at garage sales, and estate sales (dead people don’t need garden tools).

Don’t be afraid to source things from unusual low-cost sources, like “the side of the road“, and “that dumpster behind Home Depot” either.

Want a beautiful raised-bed garden?  Build it yourself!  Source lumber from free pallets or other free wood sources.  The world is completely awash in free wood.

Want some pots to grow plants in?  Don’t buy them!  With any luck you can find a neighbor that’s giving-up the gardening hobby.  Or, you can simply source containers from unusual places — milk/yogurt containers, plastic bowls, and old paint buckets (washed clean of course).

Sure, doing things this way might not look as pretty as the garden of your dreams, but who gives a damn?  

You don’t garden to impress your neighbors!


OK, But What About The Organics?

Believe it or not, you absolutely DO NOT need to buy plant starts or seed packets to get started growing stuff.  There’s places to get this stuff for free!

Look no further than your own kitchen — There’s a mountain of free plant starts that can easily be grow from kitchen scraps!

I shit-you-not.  You can start a garden completely full of plants from basically garbage.

Some of my favorite include:

  • Green Onions
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Garlic
  • Fennel

Yes, you really can grow all of these things merely from leftover kitchen scraps.  The Tako family has been doing this for over a decade now!

winter green onions
My “winter” green onions.  Planted from kitchen scraps in the fall, and let grow through the winter. We’re now harvesting them in the spring.

If you google “Kitchen Scrap Gardening” you’ll find a bazillion articles (mostly all the same) on the subject.  There’s even a book written about Kitchen Scrap Gardens.

But you’re probably wondering, “What about plants that grow from seeds — Where do you get those for free?”

The same place!  Your kitchen is absolutely full of seeds that can be grown in your garden!

free jalapeno seeds
Most pepper plants can easily be propagated from seeds. I’ll plant these jalapeno seeds this spring and eat some spicy peppers this summer.  Free of course!

Our family favorite “free seeds” include:

  • Pumpkins and Squash
  • Peppers (jalapenos, bell peppers, habaneros, etc)
  • Tomatoes
  • Coriander (cilantro)
  • Raspberries

We regularly source seeds from groceries we buy during the winter.  We then plant these seeds in the spring.  In the fall, when plants go to seed, remember to save seeds from your current crop too!

(Note: I have read that some grocery store produce has actually been bred to produce infertile seeds.  In practice I’ve never personally encountered it)

free raspberries
The Tako family raspberries, beginning to show some spring growth amongst the fallen cherry blossoms. Our raspberry plants were entirely free, and yet they continue to produce every year.


Finding Garden Soil

More than likely you’re going to be growing a garden in dirt.  If you don’t know where to source dirt, just find your nearest child and ask them….they produce a ton of it.

OK, OK, all kidding aside — not all yards are going to have great dirt for gardening.  It probably won’t be anything like the potting soil you find in the store.  You might have to deal with clay, tree roots, and endless rocks.

handmade sieve
My handmade garden sieve, used for removing the endless rocks from the soil. Built from free scrap wood.

Apartment dwellers who wish to garden might not have access to a good dirt source either.

Thankfully, these problems are very solvable for next-to-nothing.  In many cases dirt is given away for free on Craigslist, or your local sharing economy groups.

As expected, free dirt doesn’t mean good soil.  You’ll need to sieve out rocks, and mix in kitchen compost to make some really nice garden soil.  It won’t be effortless like buying potting soil from the big-box store, but it will be cheap.


Final Thoughts On “Economic Gardening”

Hobbies like gardening often escape financial scrutiny, to everyone’s detriment.  I’ve always felt that even the most frivolous of hobbies needs to be held to some kind of monetary scrutiny.

Gardening happens to be one of the better “frugal hobbies”.

That said, gardening isn’t just about being frugal and saving money.  Most people who garden do it for the simple love of watching something grow…and enjoying the fruits of their labor.

There’s nothing quite like dipping into a fresh batch of homemade salsa grown from your very own tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos — all from entirely free resources.

It almost feels like cheating.

In the pursuit of financial independence, we need to be mindful of where our hard-earned dollars get spent.

If activities like gardening make people happy, and activities like “work” cause unhappiness, shouldn’t we maximize the time spent on one and minimize the other?

Becoming an “Economic Gardener”  can help you do just that.  Spending less money on your gardening hobby can get you to Financial Independence faster.

If you truly love the hobby, doing things “the hard way” won’t matter either.  All those extra hours will still bring you happiness.


[Image Credit: Flickr1, Flickr2]

33 thoughts on “The Economic Gardener

  • April 12, 2017 at 3:30 AM

    One day we want to become lazy frugal (or “economic”) gardeners. How do you ask? Well, we see the beauty in permaculture. Set it up once, let nature take it’s course and don’t do too much, but still bear the fruit of your original labor (pun intended).
    Love some of your smart economic tricks though, good post.

    • April 12, 2017 at 2:03 PM

      Good luck! I’m curious what you’ll grow. I’ve had great luck with raspberries over the years. Free to start and near impossible to kill. Even in bad years they still bear fruit. It’s a tough plant.

  • April 12, 2017 at 5:31 AM

    A garden is also a wonderful place to develop an understanding of the natural world and find inner peace. I watched my lavender plant and some mint battle it out for over a year! It was an epic struggle for resources taking place in my own backyard.

    Eventually the mint realized there were more resources to be had in the area, expanded laterally, then CRUSHED the lavender.

    Mint is crazy. I’m scared to go outside alone now.

    • April 12, 2017 at 1:57 PM

      Lavender is kinda a wimp anyway. Plant a zucchini and show that mint who’s the real boss.

  • April 12, 2017 at 6:09 AM

    Gardening! We planted 14 fruit trees this year in our newly moved into home. I figure better to do it now then wait but it cost me around $600 between the holes, soil, trees, and drip system (gotta love California dry summer’s for costs of gardening). There were also 3 garden boxes at the house. For some reason they are 3 feet tall and were not full of soil, so there goes another expense. So year one of gardening has been costly, but I suspect the cost to go dramatically down every year going forward.

    Thanks for sharing tips on economic gardening.

    • April 12, 2017 at 1:55 PM

      Wow, that’s A LOT of fruit trees for a single family. Watering and keeping all those trees alive in the summer has to be a killer.

      In a few years when they actually start producing fruit, I hope you’ll be able to handle it all!

      • April 12, 2017 at 8:47 PM

        Oh man…buyer’s remorse? I have yet to water them in the summer, but a drip system is in place. I think we will be able to eat or give away the fruit. Our mature lemon tree produced a ton of produce and we enjoyed it thoroughly!

  • April 12, 2017 at 6:30 AM

    Our gardening adventures have been all negative returns (my wife claims to have a “brown thumb”) except for herbs – haven’t calculated the ROI, but it’s rather large for basil, parsley, and some Japanese herbs that we somehow need but aren’t readily available in stores. Would like to get a bit more organized and disciplined (as you seem to have become long ago) as the right focus seems to help – along with being opportunistic for money-saving along the way! Kitchen Scrap Gardening is on my to-do list now – thanks
    Paul recently posted…The Delights of Double Deductions

    • April 12, 2017 at 1:53 PM

      We struggle to grow stuff in the Pacific Northwest here as well. The climate just isn’t conducive to growing certain kinds of plants. But then again, we don’t spend any money on it, so anything we do produce is a bonus!

  • April 12, 2017 at 7:09 AM

    Great job with the economical gardening, Mr. Tako! We just started our garden this year and it was an expense to set up. Fortunately we won’t have to build raised beds again, so the costs were upfront. We’re already seeing a good return–and all of our food is organic, too! I’m very much into utility when it comes to gardening; no plazas or waterfalls for us. 😉

  • April 12, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    Well, I just bookmarked this page and the one on making your own salsa. I haven’t done any gardening ever in my life, but that’s a hobby that’s high on my list to pickup when I leave the 9-5 in a few years. And funny enough, one of the things I keep saying is that I want to at least grow everything needed to make my own salsa.

    I’ll definitely be referring back to this since I’m not planning on wasting as little money as possible in setting up and maintaining my garden. I’m aiming for a good, cheap hobby with some fruits and veggies as a reward – having it look pretty definitely isn’t a concern for me…. no Spendy Gardener here! 🙂

    — Jim
    Jim @ Route To Retire recently posted…Will You Be Part of the 1% to Be Financially Independent by 50?

  • April 12, 2017 at 8:12 AM

    Nice post. It is spring and warming up in the ne. Our forsythia is in bloom. It take time and money to keep up our property and garden. We do it all ourselves.

  • April 12, 2017 at 11:55 AM

    This is a great article. Over the years I have tried to grow vegetables without success. I still recall nurturing one glossy eggplant for weeks only to realize that a slug had burrowed in from the back and was eating his way to the outside. I still like getting my hands in the soil and seeing things grow but minus the cost. I’ve never heard of kitchen scrap gardening before. Thanks a lot!

    • April 12, 2017 at 1:50 PM

      Thanks Freedom 40 Guy! We don’t actually put that much work into it.

  • April 12, 2017 at 4:43 PM

    Your garden looks great! I tried to grow some plants, but the seeds kept dying or disappearing. Totally disappointing for me at least…

  • April 12, 2017 at 6:09 PM

    Umm, not sure what happened with my last comment, take two!

    Y’know what makes great garden soil? Chicken poop and shredded bills! We rotate the hens back and forth over the two garden patches and while it’s hen space we throw in all the shredded bills, any leaves we sweep up and weeds. Lo and behold the soil is pretty darn good!

    Since the hens also eat fruit and veg scraps, random things sprout all the time. I haven’t bought tomatoes in years but they just keep popping up. I also scored what I think were Cape Gooseberries… never eaten them before but they grew in my garden for some reason! Why plant anything when half the ‘weeds’ that pop up are actually food 😀

  • April 12, 2017 at 6:24 PM

    “If you don’t know where to source dirt, just find your nearest child and ask them….they produce a ton of it.”

    Ha ha. So true.

    I always loved the idea of growing my own food, but given my track record on house plants (every one of them died because I kept forgetting to water them…even bamboo!), I’ll stick with the grocery store.

    Good post on how to become an Economical Gardener! I never understood why people need to buy truck loads of garden tools from stores. Just get it from garage sales! There are so easy to find.

  • April 12, 2017 at 9:23 PM

    Cool post, Mr. Tako! I love how you show us all the free seeds we can make use of without much effort and at all. We have a small garden but don’t tend to it all that often. However, we typically have a good production of zucchini squash which is fun for the kids and it feels “green”.

  • April 13, 2017 at 6:32 AM

    I’ve been gardening in pots for years and have loved it. Just last year, we finally had some land to start a garden and the whole process was awesome. Everything was growing and producing fruits and veggies within weeks of starting. Plus Mr.Wow and I really got a kick out of the time we spent tending to our garden. But then the gophers attacked and our garden suffered immensely. We basically had to start over again this year, after digging everything up and reinforcing with chicken wire and planks. Fingers crossed our defenses work this time around. Any advice on how to keep pesky critters at bay?

  • April 13, 2017 at 9:09 AM

    I’ve managed to keep the costs of my small garden quite low. Problem: I have a brown thumb. I get no where near enough produce to eat so far. This year, I’m trying peppers and cherry tomatoes. Varieties people have told me they have successfully grown on accident before. Already have some cherry tomato fruit on the vine!

    Also, I am human or cephalopod.

  • April 14, 2017 at 6:42 AM

    Our building has a community garden. Check it out.
    It’s been great. Yes, it probably cost more than buying produce, but we like it.
    I like to grow herbs because those are really expensive at the grocery store. And we rarely use the whole package of what we purchased. Good stuff.

    • April 14, 2017 at 1:16 PM

      Oh yeah, I have the same problem with herbs I buy at the grocery store. I end up using some, but then the rest go bad in a few days.

  • April 14, 2017 at 3:25 PM

    What are you doing for mulch? My wife’s garden ROI stinks but we have some fruit trees and bushes that deliver year on year. The return on them, considering some were even clippings from other plants has been fantastic.
    FullTimeFinance recently posted…The Personal Finance Word Game

    • April 14, 2017 at 10:39 PM

      Actually we don’t really use mulch very much.

  • April 25, 2017 at 9:16 AM

    Water not free? You obviously haven’t gotten/made a rainbarrel yet. The City was giving them out a few years back as part of their stormwater management efforts and we snapped up several. Our neighbour’s constantly complaining about her summer water bill…meanwhile, we don’t even have a water tap for our backyard. 🙂

    As for herbs, no need to keep buying seeds/seedlings – we save the seeds our basil produces every year, and chives, oregano and sage all overwinter just fine. But avoid the mint at all costs – we too have a battle unfolding in our backyard.

    • April 25, 2017 at 2:36 PM

      Actually, we have *two* rain barrels, but that’s not enough water to get us through the summer. We’d need about 8 or 9 to manage that.

      Eventually we end-up having to use the municipal water system to maintain the garden. Sad, but true.

  • May 31, 2017 at 11:03 PM

    Hello Tako, Gardening is one of my favorite hobby. Your garden is looking great. I am always curious to know about latest gardening tips to sort out problems. Thanks for sharing your beautiful blog.

  • August 18, 2019 at 3:01 AM

    Gardening would certainly cost how much you want it to. A bit of creativity goes a long way in minimizing expenses. I’ve built my garden beds out of free pallets, free soil, and use mostly free fertiliser and seeds.


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