Is gardening really frugal? An update

Since I wrote an update on how line drying is going and what I’ve learned from that last week, I thought I’d share how things are going with our little vegetable garden.

You might recall, I’ve had trouble with container gardening in the past. I worried that I was doomed to a black thumb forever. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case. My little vegetable garden is doing pretty well considering how late in the season it was planted and how little I knew what I was doing when I started.

Here’s how it looked right after I planted it:

And here it is yesterday:

Unbelievable what sunshine, water, and time can do for a garden!

I sort of rushed planting this garden, because it was late in the season, and I wanted to get some experience under my belt before I try my hand at some more ambitious gardening next year. I’d like to plant directly into the ground next season, but that’s going to take some considerable prep time that I just didn’t have this year. Instead, I put this tiny raised bed into the existing flower bed in front of the house. I planted red pepper, tomato, cucumber, sage, peppermint, parsley, oregano, rosemary, and basil.

The cucumber plant is my biggest success. I’ve already picked two cucumbers, and I see about 10 or 15 more tiny ones growing now. The basil and rosemary are thriving, and we’ve gotten the most use out of the basil for pizzas, pesto, and other cooking. I’m not quite sure what to do with the other herbs, but I want to harvest them late in the season and try my hand and drying them out for later use. I was worried about the tomato for a while, because I wasn’t seeing any signs of fruit, but now I’ve got several blossoms. I’m hoping to see at least some tomatoes, but I probably could have grown more if I hadn’t waited until the middle of June to plant.

Because I was so rushed, I made a ton of mistakes. But I learned! And that’s what’s important, right?

Lesson #1: Cages should go on tomatoes, cucumbers, and any other plant you want to grow vertically immediately after planting. This isn’t something you can do later. Doh. Consequently, when the cucumber and tomato plants started taking over my garden, I tried to rig a cage to hold them up. It’s sort of doing the job, but not as effectively as it should. I feel pretty stupid about this one, because it seems so obvious now.

Lesson #2: Plan your garden carefully and avoid giant plants in tiny beds. Seriously, look at that tiny little cucumber plant in the first photo. I had NO IDEA the thing would grow to be so giant and try to take over the entire bed. I had an idea about the size of tomato plants, but I probably shouldn’t have planted the red pepper plant right next to it. Sadly, my red pepper plant is not going to make it because it’s so overshadowed by the tomato. I was able to rig the cucumber plant in a cage to prevent it from taking over everything, but the parsley isn’t doing well because it’s under the cucumber.

Lesson #3: Plant what you eat. I sort of grabbed the plants that looked best to me, and there wasn’t a lot left in the middle of June. I knew we’d have a ton of uses for basil, but I’m sort of at a loss for what to do with the rest of the herbs. And I have no clue what I’m going to do with 20 cucumbers that will likely ripen within a week or two. I see lots of pickles in our future. When I plant my big garden, I’m going to be more careful about selecting what to plant to ensure that we get lots of use out of the food we grow.

Lesson #4: Gardening doesn’t always save money. I had hoped my garden would reduce our grocery bill. It’s taking forever to grow anything, though, and most of the herbs are things we don’t use regularly anyway. Between plants, the prefab raised beds, and soil (who knew soil was so expensive?!), I spent about $100 on my garden. I doubt I’ll yield enough to cover my overhead this season.

Next year I’ll lower my costs my planting directly into the ground (or building raised beds myself from lumber). We plan to start a compost bin soon, which will provide us with fertilizer, and tilling the soil and planting in the ground will mostly eliminate the high cost of soil. I will probably still buy seedlings next year, because I’m not confident enough in my ability to grow from seeds just yet. But in the future, I’d like to grow from seeds to cut down on plant costs. I also plan to learn about canning so we can make the most of our harvest during the winter months.

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12 thoughts on “Is gardening really frugal? An update

  1. April

    I’ve done the tilled garden every other year but this one and I much prefer raised beds. Tilling a garden? Ugh, no thanks. The war on weeds wore me out and then I had drainage issues with certain spots in my garden where tomato plants would drown. It was the worst. But I think that’s the thing about gardening, you have to find out what works best for you over several seasons and for everybody that means something different. I think the raised beds were an initial investment, definitely, but for me I think they’ll be worth it over time. It does help to build them yourself if you can. And I admit I used a lot of cheap topsoil that I got on sale as a filler for the dirt. As for plants, I still think the most frugal thing I’ve ever planted is lettuce. We eat a ton of salads here and I easily save $4-6 per salad by using my own mixed greens. Herbs? Not so much. I like fresh herbs and all but I really don’t know what to do with all of them half the time.

  2. Kasey

    I grew up in southern Indiana we always had a huge tilled garden at my grandparents. It was a ton of work. My mom put a raised bed in our backyard a few years ago and it is much easier. The initial investment is more though. Living in the city I have a container garden with herbs and tomatoes. For me it isn’t cost effective but worth it for the green space in a concrete jungle. I’ve done both seeds and seedlings. Seedlings are just so much easier. I tend to buy my plants at Home Depot because it is just a few. But my parents always did mail order which can get you a higher quality plant at a lower price, especially if you can find a few people to share a large order with. As for what to do with extra herbs. We have rosemary thyme and oregano in addition to basil and parsley. We kind of just throw them into whatever we are making. We like them in stirfry and fried potatoes. Also you can make pesto with herbs other than basil so experiment with that too maybe.

  3. Rae

    From everything I’ve read, the first year is more expensive- but consecutive years are when you see the pay off- once your beds are built and filled, you add compost each year and go. We’re looking at trench composting as a cheaper and easier alternative to bins. Gorgeous garden, really nice job!

  4. Rae

    Sorry, also, starting your seeds before they can go into the ground can save some, too! Recycled pots like egg cartons, yogurt cups, even toilet paper rolls work really well (all of this being easier said than done with a little one, though, I know!)

  5. Karen

    I feel like I have to try tilling at least once. I want a really big garden, and I don’t want to pay for dirt to fill the raised beds. I’m going to have to clear space in the backyard before I can put raised beds in anyway, so if my tilling experiment fails next year, I’ll just put raised beds in the year after that.

    As far as weeds go, I’ve been told it’s a problem for the first couple years after putting a garden in where grass used to grow, but that it gets better after that. I guess we’ll see!

  6. eastTXmom

    Great job!!! I’m in my tenth summer of doing a garden and the one thing I have taken away from it is that you are always learning. . . .so don’t be too hard on yourself, next year you’ll remember to put those cages on those tomatoes :)

  7. Kacie

    Gardening intimidates the heck out of me. I will start with some herbs probably this fall but I’ll put them in my window sill inside and I think that’ll be fine. Parsley, oregano, dill, chives, idk. I have a dehydrator so I can dry some too.

    And then next season I will only do some container stuff. Tomatoes, maybe cukes. REALLY keeping it simple. I don’t plan to do anything really ambitious. Don’t think we have the land for it and I don’t think I have the attention span. But herbs, yes! And tomatoes for sure. Looking forward to hearing more of your gardening adventures!

  8. Sara

    My husband and I are on our 3rd summer of gardening. We dug our garden in the sunniest spot in our yard shortly after we bought our house. I wouldn’t say that it’s saved us any money yet, but it has been a great learning experience and there is something rewarding (and delicious!) about growing your own fresh produce.

    I thought I’d share a few things we learned the hard way:
    1) A large patch of ground does not a garden make. After we de-sodded the garden area, we learned our yard has a very small layer of top soil and a lot of hard clay underneath it. We ended up tilling in bags of peat moss – about 25 bags over the last 2 years – to make the ground usable as a garden. This year the soil is finally quite nice, but it was an unexpected expense.

    2) Each time you conquer one problem, get ready for the next. The first year a rabbit came through after a month of growth and ate the entire garden. After putting up a fence and re-planting seedlings, we over-watered and most things drowned out. Then the frost came early (yay Minnesota winter). We did manage to come away with a lot of green beans, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and hot peppers. Year 2 was extremely rainy and the tomatoes caught the blight early. Then came the slugs (ick!) who took out the green beans, carrots and cucumbers. We came away with plenty, but it was still disappointing. This year we’ve had a deer come through and a few major storms that have knocked down the corn and some of the peppers. From each of these issues, we’ve learned and improved our garden but at a cost (financially, productivity-wise and time-wise).

    3) Blight prevention is key for in-ground tomatoes. I don’t know how much of a problem it is in your area – but here in Minnesota blight is inevitable. It kills the leaves and stunts the flowering, leaving the few tomatoes to scorch under the sun, unprotected. It lives in the soil and eventually the tomatoes will catch it. (Think heavy rains splashing contaminated dirt up on the leaves.) Once tomatoes catch the blight, you just have to cut off the infected branches and hope that you get some tomatoes before the blight kills the plant. To prevent it, you can either plant in raised beds/pots or line your tomato patch/area with landscape fabric (frugal alternative = newspaper). We’re trying the landscape fabric this year and so far, so good. We’re also trying potted tomatoes with moderate success – no blight, but darn is it hard to give them the proper amount of water.

    4) The weeds aren’t that bad – it’s the volunteers that get you. Throughout the first year we kept a compost pile in the far corner of the garden. At the end of the season all of the fallen cherry tomatoes went to the pile. When the next spring/summer came around, we spread the compost and had literally hundreds of cherry tomato plants sprouting up everywhere. These volunteers don’t produce much, but keep enough of them and you don’t need to buy any new ones the next season.

    5) Carefully pick and choose which items you buy as seedlings and which as seeds. I have a hard time starting seeds in the house between remembering to water them and the cats digging out the dirt/eating the plants. Instead, we’ve found that cucumbers, lettuce, peas, green beans, corn and some peppers grow just fine from seeds when we plant – it just takes a couple extra weeks to get produce. We choose to buy tomatoes in seedling form from the local greenhouse as Minnesota has such a short growing season.

    6) Plant a round of seeds in the fall to get produce in the early summer. We had planted a second round of onions, lettuce and radishes late last summer and most of them didn’t grow. This spring was especially rainy, so we weren’t able to till up the garden as soon as we would have liked and were pleasantly surprised to find these things sprouted. Had we planned them better, we could have left them grow, but they were in the middle of the area that needed tilling.

    I’d also recommend canning/pickling your extras. Canning has a high start-up cost if you need to buy the jars, but you can usually find them cheaply at garage sales, thrift stores or at grandma’s house. Neither my husband nor I had any experience canning/pickling, but we gave it a go and it worked out much better than expected. We’ve made all sorts of pickled cucumbers, spicy green beans and peppers. We can only eat so many pickled things, so we give extra jars away as Christmas gifts and take relish trays to potlucks and family events. Perhaps we have saved a bit of money that way, but not enough yet to offset all the costs involved.

    Wow – that turned into a short book quickly. I guess I have more to say about gardening than I originally thought. Hopefully it’s at least a bit helpful! Good luck with the rest of your gardening adventures!

  9. Karen

    Thank you, Sara! So helpful. But I’m even more intimidated now. I didn’t know I could face so many problems! I guess I’ll just continue learning as I go. :)

  10. Megan

    I just planted veggies for the first time this year, and I’m definitely learning a lot, too. The oregano I planted last spring survived the winter in NC and came back in full force this year, so I’m not terribly worried about using it all up right this minute. Indiana’s much much cooler than NC (understatement) in the winter, but you figure it should still survive a few more months. I’ve seen it as an ingredient in red meat marinades, but I usually use a few springs of it in my homemade pasta sauce. I’ve also heard of folks who make herb-infused olive oils with rosemary or basil, but I guess that’s a frugal option only if you have ready access to reasonably-priced olive oil. Good luck! I’m excited to hear how you put your harvest to work!

  11. Jennifer

    Well, next year you can still plant in these raised beds and your cost will be minimal. You do have to think long term when investing in your garden. I have made the pepper mistake before, planting them too close to a much bigger plant. I also learned the cucumber lesson last year and this year they have an entire raised bed to themselves. Except they are still taking over the garden. the good thing about cucumbers is you can pick them all different sizes. So you can pick a couple each day (hope you like them!) and hopefully won’t be bombarded with 20 in one day. They do last a week or so in the fridge. We eat them for lunch and dinner this time of year. good luck and hopefully you will be feasting on tomatoes soon enough, I can’t wait for my first one.

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