Monday, October 18, 2010

The cost of a garden

I have touched a bit in the past on the vegetable/flower gardens that my friends over at Hobo Mama have spear-headed in our yard. The process of talking about it, deciding where to put it (we literally started with a completely garden bed-free portion of our lawn), buying plants and starting seeds, staking out the garden beds, killing the grass, buying the lumber, building the raised beds, filling the beds with soil, planting in the beds, watering the beds . . . . and then really, all told, not a whole heck of a lot of eating out of the beds. It was a rough year for tomatoes in Seattle, so most of those were a wash. We did get some cucumbers, a few peppers, a nice amount of zucchini, some peas and some gorgeous flowers. There are still some pumpkins out there, too.

It was also a lot of work. I'm exhausted just thinking about it and truth be told, I didn't even do most of it. There was a tremendous amount of labor investment in this garden, but also a financial one. There were some things that were purchased this year that won't need to be again for a while (some by my family, but not most), but some that are recurring every year. Imagine my surprise when I opened our water bill from this month and noticed that it dropped almost $120 from watering the gardens less over the past few weeks. I had no idea how much the cost was of just water for those suckers. Truth be told we probably could have bought an entire fruit stand worth of vegetables for what we all put in to it.

That said, I love the garden beds. They are right outside our kitchen window and every time I am in the kitchen, without fail, I look outside and feel so happy that they are there. They are incredibly beautiful, even as things are dying out for the year.

I know that if my friends want to do the gardens again next year (they'll have a brand new baby after all!) then I am all for it. But if they don't, I'm not sure what we'll do. I enjoy the beauty, and want to enjoy the theoretical bounty, but am not sure that the time and financial investment is worth it.

I am curious if anyone else has struggled with this with regards to their own gardens? Is the pay-out worth the investment?


  1. You know, Sybil...I was thinking and thinking and this just baffles my brain. This year was hard for gardening in TX, too, because we had more 100+ days in a row than ever recorded, but even with watering our raised beds 2x/day AND watering the ducks and 2 new trees like crazy our water bill was only up $20/mo. Most of my materials were purchased from garage sale money, but we only spent about $250 to build the beds and "make" the soil and buy seeds. That stinks immensely and I'm not sure I would do it again at that price. There has to be a cheaper option...rainwater collection? Our local Master Gardener Assoc. does classes on making rainwater collection barrels. I could only imagine yours would, too. Did you save seeds? Seeds last for years if you keep them in a drawer in the refrigerator between uses. Hopefully next year the investment won't be so much if you can get the water bill down! Sorry I'm not much help.

  2. Thank you Tara! That is so interesting. I wonder if the cost of water is very different where you are? Here we not only pay for the water that goes in, but we pay again when it comes back out. Of course, they don't actually measure the water that comes back out, because they just charge you for the same amount you consumed. So, whether you water your garden with it or flush it down your toilets, you pay the same for the sewer service.
    Blah blah.

  3. Well, I know they measure us in units used and I'm pretty sure we only get charged for useage. Our bill averages about 80/mo right now and that includes 12$ for trash and a little something for sewer, though it's not the same total. I would think, then, that it would be GREAT to collect rain water and "trick" them into believing you're not using any water for the garden, if that makes sense. I can only imagine ya'll could catch enough to take a bit of the edge off, especially since you esentially pay double. ICK!

  4. Welsh Ducks-- I think you are absolutely right that we should get rain barrels. We didn't this year because it was one more financial investment we weren't able to do, but it makes the most sense. Looking more closely at the bill, I think it's not ALL the garden that has taken the water. Our bill for this time period is lower than last October-- and we weren't gardening then. But it's still lower.
    I do imagine that the initial investment is the one that is really the killer. We have been unbelievably fortunate in having friends to share the burden of all of it. Surely there will be lots of brainstorming for next summer!

  5. Ok, for some reason, I've been thinking about this but not actually commenting. I will try to remember all I've been musing on.

    My first thought is gardening is a hobby, bringing pleasure to the person doing the gardening apart from any gain (in the same way knitting or sewing could be more expensive than buying the item new, but it entertains the crafter). I have to imagine there are more efficient, less hobby-ish ways to garden. But like, for me, it's fun to buy new seeds and seedlings every year even if I don't need them, just for experimentation.

    As for the harvest, this summer sucked, weather-wise. So, yeah. But I am enjoying the tomatoes we were able to freeze, and we ate the zucchini and my pregnant self seriously craved that celery — oh, yum! I'm only sad we went out of town so I missed harvesting more before the freeze, and missed when the sunflower seeds dried. Ah, well! I have no idea why the strawberries bit the dust.

    I actually started a draft of a blog post for how to garden thriftily, but I haven't finished it — probably because I'm so bad at it. ;)

    But, I agree the first year's the worst in terms of sheer volume of supplies and materials. A lot can be reused (like the beds, of course, and most of the soil, and my seedling containers and so on).

    However, ways we could save money:
    * Rain barrels. This is the rainy season, so this would be the ideal time to set one up. They're $75 from the city of Seattle, but I have to imagine someone moving is getting rid of some on craigslist or freecycle from time to time. You could make your own with any old barrel and a screen on top; it's just harder to get the water out if it doesn't have a spigot. But it would be a cheap way to start.
    * Compost bins, since I'm on that link. The first one, for yard clippings and/or food waste, is only $25. Technically, you don't even need a bin. That would bring down our cost of having to buy new compost every year. I've heard the kind you can spin with a handle are easier, but I don't know the price.
    * Drip irrigation system. We could actually use it this next year. :) That should save a bundle off your water bill. I don't know if it was the mowing around it that was too difficult?
    * Save seeds and do seed exchanges. And resist the temptation to buy new…heh.
    * Look on craigslist & freecycle in the spring/summer to see if people are offering free compost or other materials. You can also get free compost each year from the city, and free coffee grounds from coffee shops.
    * Save lawn clippings & leaves for overwintering mulch. I forgot that one this year. Oops.

    Ok, that's all I can think of for now. But since water's your biggest expense, maybe prioritizing the water ones would help you.

  6. Part 2:

    As far as the hobby element goes, maybe you and the girls would enjoy taking more of a hand in the planning. Especially since I'll have a newborn in the summer. A lot of starting seedlings starts next month already, so you can begin dreaming now if you'd like. Maybe you and the girls could take one or one and a half beds for yourselves, to plant what you want. I can still spearhead the planning and labor for you as I'm able into the spring (for instance, I can start the seedlings at my place if you prefer, since I've got supplemental lights already), but it might give you more of that satisfaction to see what you chose sprouting up. Also, I'm going to back off on tomatoes, since I don't want it to be so disappointing if the no-sun thing happens again!

    All right, that was my novel!

    P.S. I keep meaning to get over to tear out the rest of whatever yuckiness has died, but weather, holidays, laziness, blah blah blah. I also considered mulching & putting up plastic sheeting over the hoops, but the cost aspect was kind of tugging at me there. This year will be an experiment to see what's hardy enough to survive without coddling…


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