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.
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!)
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:
- Initial start-up costs should be minimized.
- 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 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
- Romaine Lettuce
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!
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!
Our family favorite “free seeds” include:
- Pumpkins and Squash
- Peppers (jalapenos, bell peppers, habaneros, etc)
- Coriander (cilantro)
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)
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.
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.