Growing your own vegetables, fruit or herbs can potentially save you a lot of money, as well as being a fun hobby and a way to enjoy lots of interesting, tasty and healthy meals. However, if you aren’t careful, the running costs of a kitchen garden or allotment can creep up and eventually outweigh the savings, so here’s how to grow your own in the most cost-effective way.
To save the most money in an edible garden, you need to balance two things:
1. The amount that your produce is worth (what it will save you in grocery bills)
2. The amount that you spend running the garden (seeds, feed, compost, equipment etc)
Let’s start by looking at the value of your produce. Think about what you currently eat, and also what you’d really like to eat.
Growing valuable produce in your garden
The idea of the value of different ingredients is unique to each individual household, and you need to look at food value from a range of different angles. You need to consider:
- Staples that you eat on a regular basis
- Mid-priced ingredients that are better fresh
- Expensive things that you’d like to eat more often
Staple foods in the UK usually include things like maincrop potatoes, onions and carrots. They tend to be relatively cheap to buy, but you’ll probably use a lot of them. If you have a lot of growing space and the right conditions, it’s worth devoting some room to these, but remember to keep a balance with mid-priced and expensive crops too.
Many mid-priced ingredients don’t store all that well, but they’re extra-tasty when picked fresh from your back yard or allotment. You can grow your own superior ‘products’ for a lot less money than you’d pay at the market, especially peas, beans, tomatoes, courgettes, sweetcorn, beetroot, turnips, new potatoes, and so on.
Expensive ingredients at the supermarket include fancy salad leaves, herbs, soft fruits, and unusual veggies such as artichokes, rare squashes, asparagus, heirloom varieties of tomatoes and so on. When shopping, these either bump up the final price of your grocery bill considerably or you simply have to go without them. OR, you can grow most of them yourself from seed for a few pence.
If your growing space is very limited, you’ll probably shave the most off your grocery bill by growing more expensive crops that don’t take up too much room, particularly herbs and fancy kinds of salad – provided that you’d like to buy and use these sorts of ingredients on a regular basis. Then staples such as maincrop potatoes and onions can be bought in cheaply instead, as you need a lot of space to be self-sufficient and this is usually the most cost-effective compromise.
Growing reliable and productive crops
Once you’ve decided what you’d ideally love to grow to eat, you have to think about what’s reliable and productive so that you can maximise your ‘returns’. That includes easy-grow and high yield crops in general, and what grows well on your particular plot.
The main fuss-free and productive crops usually include salad, rhubarb, peas, beans, bushy tomatoes, beetroot, courgettes, new potatoes and perpetual spinach. There’s no accounting for fluctuations in the weather or certain pests of course, but that’s just the natural ebb and flow of gardening.
The quirks of your growing space need to be taken into account. For example, if you have heavy clay soil you might not have much luck with root vegetables, but you could have great success with cavolo nero, kohl rabi and sprouting broccoli. If your plot doesn’t get much sun, you probably won’t be able to grow butternut squash and sweet peppers outdoors, but you could do well with pak choi, choi sum, rocket, mizuna, and spinach and other leafy greens.
There’s nearly always a good intersection between what you ideally want to grow to eat and what you’re realistically going to be able to grow in real life, and it’s worth taking the occasional risk, but try to pick plants that are most likely to thrive as the core of your growing choices.
You may also wish to factor in your time, as time is money for some people. Plants that need lots of extra care and cosseting are not ideal if that’s the case for you. On the other hand, you might like to think of your gardening time as a free workout, or you might decide that some of the more high-maintenance and expensive ingredients are worth the additional effort.
To sum up, to get the maximum value from your plot, plan around these factors:
- What crops are worth at the supermarket, greengrocer’s, market etc
- What you want to buy / eat on a regular basis
- The reliability of what you intend to grow
- The yields you expect per plant / unit of space
- What will grow well on your particular plot
- The amount of time / effort needed to care for plants
In the next article in this series, we’ll be looking at lots of ways to keep the running costs as low as possible in your kitchen garden or on an allotment.