Why my garden won’t replace my CSA subscription

I told the checker at the grocery co-op where I shop that I didn't need a receipt. “I don't want to keep track of how much I'm spending on my garden,” I told him. My modest cart had carrots and apples and popcorn — staples! — and tomato, lettuce, basil and lavender starts. The reason I don't want to know: I'm worried it won't pencil out.

If I had to guess, this year I've poured $500 in plants, seeds and compost-enriched dirt into my garden. Lots of it won't yield much this year (every few years, when I have available money, I invest in perennial bushes and trees, like blueberries, apples and currants; this was one of those years), but then again I'll probably get something like $200 or $300 worth of figs and raspberries alone. Those were planted years ago.

What I'm not so sure about is my vegetable garden. With several heirloom tomato plants producing 10 or 20 pounds of $4-per-pound tomatoes apiece and those very pricey herbs, I'm sure I'll get a few hundred dollars' worth of produce. I still am eating tomatoes I canned last year from my garden (and they're absolutely amazing, very flavorful and pretty to boot). What's more, I'm less likely to waste things like herbs and lettuce. Instead of buying a whole head or bunch from the farmer's market, I can pick just what I need for dinner.

Note: I never count my “labor” as part of the cost of a garden. I enjoy working on the garden, even the weeding and the digging, and I think of it as a duty necessary for my health and well-being, like reading a book or taking a long shower or going on a run. If I make decisions which calculate the cost of my work into the equation, I feel like my life is right out of a science-fiction book: I'd be a perfectly efficient producer-consumer — and thoroughly dull.

Because I haven't ever had the guts to keep track of my inputs — likely because so many of my inputs are wasted or get eaten by birds or transplanted badly and I end up feeling guilty — I don't know for sure what my outlay is in a regular season, and how much I end up buying at the farmer's market or the co-op.

Using a CSA

You know about CSAs, right? Community Supported Agriculture: pay up front at the beginning of the season and get a portion of the harvest each week, usually from June through October. They can be a fantastic way to get really high-quality produce that's raised with organic principles by a local farmer (the holy grail for many of us) for a reasonable, and fixed, cost. Last year I used a CSA, and for about $550, I got everything from rosemary and thyme to tomatoes and plums. Our farmer had a big variety of harvest, so I might be using three pounds of potatoes one week, or a couple of small cantaloupes on another. I got a lot of lettuce.

I love lettuce and salads, but I have a confession to make: I'm terrible at using it. I almost always end up letting half of my planted lettuce go to seed. I get leaves for sandwiches and make about one or two salads per week, for myself; only two of my boys eat salad, and they don't eat much. I loved getting herbs but I didn't use them nearly at the rate I was getting them. Parsley was one of the CSA offerings almost every week; and parsley grows as-if-wild in my garden. I could open a parsley CSA all on my own. And I'm not a big tabbouleh-maker. I used it once or twice, as an afterthought.

There were plenty of other mishaps; I never ate any of the kohlrabi, because I was too busy to get creative and use it. One week my share got left in a cooler on my front porch (a borrowed cooler whose owner had forgotten to pick it up) and I didn't realize until the gorgeous apples were the only thing not slimy and molded. I tried peeling and eating them, but the mold smell had soaked into the flesh.

I never got even half enough fruit; we eat a lot of fruit in my family, and I like to can and make fruit desserts like crumbles and pies. So many weeks I'd buy $30 or $40 in fruit in addition to the CSA delivery. (Our farmer would also let us purchase additional produce, like tomatoes or plums or walnuts, on some weeks, for a very good price, and I took advantage of this several times, too.)

In the end my great bargain, $40 or more of produce each week for about $25 per week cost, ended up not quite penciling out. I did eat a lot of great produce, and I loved my farmers so much I didn't mind what ended up as a not-great financial arrangement for me.

Tracking my produce

Starting this year (this week!), about the same time most CSAs start doing drop offs, I'm going to track the produce I buy at the farmer's market and the co-op. There are lots of things I don't grow (or not very well, or not in sufficient quantity for my family). On Sunday, for instance, I bought:

  • $4 in potatoes (I don't want to dig potatoes until later)
  • $3 in spring onions
  • $3 in spinach (I forgot to plant any!)
  • $2.50 in broccoli (my broccoli always ends up full of aphids)

With apples for my apple-crazed five-year-old, and some strawberries I plan to pick up Wednesday, I'll probably spend about $25 in produce this week. My big goal this year is not to waste produce that I either buy or pick, and to do as good as job as I can of harvesting most of my ripe produce before the slugs get it.

Vegetable gardens have a variety of hard-to-quantify benefits

I also believe that productive and well-cared-for vegetable gardens have a lot of fringe benefits, from the global feel-good to the practical, like:

  • Barter. My fig trees and raspberry trees, as I've mentioned, are prolific! I trade figs and raspberries for everything from use of friends' cars to graphic design to bike maintenance.
  • Home value. This is the most practical; especially here in Portland, the value of an established mix of perennials and cared-for vegetable garden space is pretty high. I am going to survey my real estate agent friends, but I'd guess $20,000 or more on the value of a home.
  • Convenience. Going out to the garden to pick lettuce for salads or herbs for your marinade, well, that's my definition of convenience food. Sometimes I am hungry for something sweet and I realize, oh yeah! and reach out and snack on raspberries. I make my own mint tea from the many descendants of the two plants I bought.
  • Maintaining health of your ecosystem. My 10-year-old is sometimes a little afraid to walk through my garden because of the thousands of pollinators that are buzzing around. Lack of nutrition is a contributor most scientists who've studied bee colony collapse disorder agree upon; growing my variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and beneficial weeds, like clover and borage and calendula, is a small measure to counter the disastrous trends.
  • Well-being, environmental education, sense of self-worth. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: working in the garden feels good and keeps me emotionally and physically healthy. It gives me a literally hands-on method of teaching my kids about biology, the environment, the cycle of the seasons, and how to love good whole foods. It makes me feel that my work is having actual obvious benefits. It just makes me happy.

Do you think you spend too much on your vegetable garden, or do you think, like me, that there is no such thing?

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Kate
Kate
7 years ago

Funny you should say that about parsley, I wish you could send it over here! We use it in everything. Definitely for Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouleh and ful (an Egyptian breakfast bean dip that is totally not the same without tons of fresh parsley) but also for things like pizza: I made a green breakfast pizza the other day with pesto, leftover spinach, tons of fresh parsley and eggs and my husband raved about it! Also Smitten Kitchen’s asparagus pizza is great with fresh parsley. That said, we used to have a CSA box, and we ultimately discontinued using… Read more »

Beth
Beth
7 years ago

Interesting comparison! Gardening is much more than food, and it’s hard to weigh the costs.

I live in an apartment and used to container garden on my balcony, but it definitely was not a money saving venture! The plants didn’t get enough sun or air circulation, and I couldn’t grow enough of the things I really liked to eat.

Now I grow flowers and continue to enjoy the farmers’ market 🙂

Jane
Jane
7 years ago

We abandoned our CSA after a year, mainly because they upped the price considerably. I think it was first $40 a week (already high in my opinion) and then was increased to $50 a week. $25 sounds like a bargain. We toured the farm and loved the family in charge, but we also have our budget to think of. And like you, a lot of the produce was going to waste. We can’t eat endless amounts of lettuce and beets. Plus I’m the only one in the family who eats melon, and one week we got four cantaloupes. I appreciated… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Interesting – I thought potatoes grew well pretty much anywhere. At least, they grow well here but my husband and I try not to eat them so after one year where I proved to myself I could grow them I never tried again. Truth be told we could live on potatoes so long as butter and salt came with them; that is we could live on them until we dropped dead of heart attacks or strokes. 😉 Carrots here are terrible – we only tried them once – I hear they grow better in a more sandy soil and ours… Read more »

Jane
Jane
7 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

It surprised me as well, because I was under the same assumption as you. And we live in an area with a lot of clay. Maybe they were heirloom varieties, but the carrots especially had so much more flavor than the ones I buy in the grocery store. Plus the potatoes tasted like they had butter on them even before I put butter on them :).

What they did not do as well was sweet corn, mainly because we can get fresh sweet corn from Illinois relatives that is so tasty you don’t even need butter and salt.

Michael
Michael
7 years ago

We don’t have a a CSA around here. But we do have a farmer’s market. At the end of the day, the pricing probably isn’t as good as what you’re getting with a CSA. That being said, you get to choose what you want, so… No parsley!

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago

I don’t see where a CSA would make sense for our family’s budget anytime soon. As eaters, we’re far too picky. And except for onions, celery, and lettuce, most of the veggies our family eats are frozen. That said, we’ve had very small, successful gardens that haven’t cost us much in terms of money or work. Tomatoes and snow peas grow like weeds here in southeastern PA. Since we eat a lot of tomatoes we probably save ourselves $10/week from late June to the end of September. We’ve never tried fruit (unless you count tomatoes) because it just seems like… Read more »

Michael @ The Student Loan Sherpa
Michael @ The Student Loan Sherpa
7 years ago

I don’t feel like I spend to much on the vegetable garden. In the end it may be more expensive than just buying everything, but I love the process of planting and growing and eating healthy home grown food. Plus, the better we get, the more chance we have of saving money in the long term.

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

In terms of finances, I know that we do not spend too much on our garden, but it does get a lot of our time. We have chosen against using a CSA, not really for any reason, mainly as it’s a challenge for us to keep up with what we have growing. We face a similar challenge with the lettuce going to seed. We usually do pretty good with it can mean we’re eating some pretty big salads there for a couple of weeks.

Eric Duminil
Eric Duminil
7 years ago

Ahah. 😀
We have a CSA and I was also puzzled by the kohlrabi.
I never tried it before, and didn’t know what to do with it.
Well, the best way I found it to just peel it, slice it and pour salt on it. It’s basically a huge radish, and I love the taste.

EMH
EMH
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric Duminil

I like to peel and slice the kohlrabi very thin and mix it with parmesan, sliced green apples, celery and dress it all with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice and salt. It is a delicious summer salad.

Anje
Anje
7 years ago
Reply to  EMH

If you boil it you can mash it like other root vegetables. Mix with onion, potatoe, brocoli etc as desired. Easy and tasty.

Jen
Jen
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric Duminil

I have a kohlrabi from my CSA sitting on my counter right now and I had no idea what to do with it. Thanks for the tips!

Jenifer
Jenifer
7 years ago

I am keeping track of my garden expenditures this year…mostly out of curiousity. I will also keep track of our harvest…noting the quantity and the current grocery store price. I am working on maximizing my garden space and finding the right and the right amount of vegetables. (I cannot grow bell peppers to save my life!! But if you need jalepenos, I’m your girl!) This year I also started all of my plants from seed…definitely a learning experience. Living in the Northeast means extra care and sunlight are required. 🙂 I hope to invest in grow lights next year. I… Read more »

JMV
JMV
7 years ago
Reply to  Jenifer

Excess seeds can easily be stored in baby food jars in your refrigerator drawers. They will last for many years when stored properly!

cathleen
cathleen
7 years ago
Reply to  JMV

I use one of those plastic shoeboxes you get at the drugstore. I can fit about 100 packets in there, organized!
I store it in the fridge, the plastic prevents moisture from ruining the seeds.

I have seeds from 6 years ago that still work very well.

Andrew
Andrew
7 years ago

Two years ago I spent over $200 on seeds, starters, fencing, soil, fertilizer, etc. and planted a variety of vegetables. I ended up harvesting ONE tomato. That’s it.

Now I just throw some cherry tomato starters and potato eyes into pots on the deck and ope for th best.

Davina
Davina
7 years ago

I spent $75 on pots, soil and tomato plants awhile back and got seven cherry tomatoes. I’ll have a real garden eventually, but it’s going to be just flowers and tomatoes.

Jake @ Common Cents Wealth
Jake @ Common Cents Wealth
7 years ago

I can guarantee we don’t get enough benefit out of our garden to justify having one, but I still will have one every year. I love planting and watching the fruits/veggies grow. I have a green thumb and having a garden is part of the way I show it. My wife and I aren’t huge produce eaters, so we don’t spend much on it each month anyways. That being said, I know my mom will enjoy the tomatoes we’re growing!

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

Brings to mind one a great memoir that I’ve read many times over the years- The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. It’s hilarious, and rather extreme, but a good reflection that produce yield isn’t the only thing I get when I garden. These days I don’t do a whole lot of gardening outstide of a few pots, but someday taht will change. And when that happens I’m sure it’ll cost more than buying conventional produce, but that’s the way it goes… Read more »

Lucille
Lucille
7 years ago

I spend between $20-40 a year on starters and seeds and typically I get a pretty good harvest on cukes, string beans, cherry tomatoes and eggplant. For some reason, the lettuce doesn’t look like it’s ready and then I turn around and it’s done for. I cannot get a full size tomato out of my garden to save my life. I did a CSA twice in the last 7 years. I liked the idea of them and it was an adventure opening up the box each week, but it wasn’t cost-efficient for us at all. So instead, we go to… Read more »

tas
tas
7 years ago

A lot of farmer’s market stands will offer a “market share” CSA — you basically choose whatever you want from their stand, but pay in advance. We pay $100 and get $115 worth of veggies. It offers the farm a bit more consistency so they can plan what to plant, but also offers the flexibility a box lacks. And I love not having to carry as much cash to the market.

lmoot
lmoot
7 years ago

I have to admit I do not have much experience in gardening anything, let alone fruits and veggies. I was wondering if anyone has had any luck with benign neglect gardening of veggies. By that I mean outside of weeding and initial setup, no money is spent on soil, and only the soil from the ground is used (but could be mixed with homemade compost for fertilization). I ask because I’ll be going to school for 18 months in Gainesville, FL, which is a highly agricultural city, lots of naturally good soil, weather, and rain for a variety of produce.… Read more »

cathy
cathy
7 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

I’d say the bottom line is the food you grow is only as good as the soil you grow in. I don’t spend a ton on my garden. I buy some starts (tomatoes and woody herbs especially) but grow many others from seed. The thing you won’t know until you buy your house and check out the soil is the quality of that soil. If it’s too sandy, it won’t retain water. If it’s clay, water can’t penetrate. So you may have to amend the soil so the plants will grow. There are, however, plenty of natural/organic ways to fertilize.… Read more »

stellamarina
stellamarina
7 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

Only if you know what you are doing and have lots of experience. I suggest starting out small….eg a few large herb containers and one cherry tomato plant. Grow up from there. Plus tropical gardening can be hard for newbies in the area so there is a learning process there too. I am cheap and will not put a lot of money into supplies and containers etc. Watch out for containers you can recycle. Look out for free mulch from tree trimmers and get free seeds and cuttings from other gardeners. The main thing is to be involved with your… Read more »

Jenne
Jenne
7 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

It depends what you want to grow. Want lettuce? Usually you can grow it anywhere from seed. Got enough space? You can probably grow (too many of) both squashes and melons from seed unless you get a borer infestation. In Gainesville you should be able to start long-season items like tomatoes and peppers without starts. In the ground, I’ve grown excellent tomatoes from starts and had it be cost-effective; but in pots, not so much. I have never had good luck growing basil from seed, so we buy starts at the local market. Ask a local master gardener (call the… Read more »

KathleenC
KathleenC
7 years ago

I’ve always gardened. There’s such a thrill in planting a tiny seed and watching it grow into something good to eat or beautiful to look at. I don’t focus too much on the expense because of all the other benefits gardening provides. My husband and I started out with a small garden at our home and have slowly expanded it over the years. Our local garden center has a seed sale in the early Spring, so I’m able to get my seeds at a very good price. I seed start just about everything. The plants seem healthier and stronger than… Read more »

Lucille
Lucille
7 years ago

Seeds work just fine. My string beans came up really well from seed. I buy the tomato and other things as starters (just $2-3 a piece) because I don’t have the time to start them from seeds indoors, which is what I’d have to do in my neck of the woods.

But if you don’t have to start indoors, and you have the time, why not try just seeds?

Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

I did this when I was in school, and it is a wonderful way to support the community and get great quality produce. 100% agreed!

mary w
mary w
7 years ago

I’ve tracked all the costs of my vegetable garden (except labor and water) and the total pounds harvested. 1st year it was over $14 a pound – lots of start up costs. Next year was $1.20 lb. Last two years it was less than a dollar a pound.

If I could ever permanently solve my skunk/raccoon problem it would be even cheaper. Electric fences aren’t cheap!

cathleen
cathleen
7 years ago

Gardening is my big splurge, I’m at the nursery every weekend. So I try to be as frugal as I can while still feeding my addiction 🙂 I purchased my raised beds from http://www.minifarmbox.com (no tools required) and then faced them with stone so they are gorgeous and give the garden some beautiful architecture and permanency. My beds are 4×8 but there are many different sizes available (and other suppliers obviously). I found that growing in raised beds versus the ground is night and day. Our yield is 10x what it was and it looks so much tidier. Also, much… Read more »

Tara
Tara
7 years ago

I’m with you on CSA’s. While I like the idea of them, I could never keep up with all the chard I was getting every week! I have since joined a members only food coop which has ridiculously great prices on produce (only 15% above cost) so I can get everything I like to eat instead. I do miss the crazy items, like garlic scapes, but I waste a lot less this way.

Ms.W @ GrowingHerWorth
Ms.W @ GrowingHerWorth
7 years ago

I love to garden. Growing up, I always helped my mom in her garden. It’s been hard to find the time since I’ve owned my house… This will only be the second time in 7 years that I’ve had a garden. The first time I planted way more than I could ever use, mainly with seeds, and was able to share a great harvest with family, friends and neighbors. This year I’m doing a smaller garden, and so far the plants are looking on the small side. Not sure how much I’ll actually harvest. But to me, half the value… Read more »

LynnMc.
LynnMc.
7 years ago

I’m fortunate to garden year round. I’m also very fortunate to live close to many year-round-farmers’ markets which are going on any day of the week. So what I can’t grow or don’t have room to grow, I can find at the local farmers’ markets. Best of both worlds.

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
7 years ago

Some things just aren’t worth growing also. I love fresh cilantro – I use it on everything. But I’ve found that because of the way the plant grows that it’s a whole lot easier (and cheaper) to purchase it from the store.

Jenna
Jenna
7 years ago

I’d like the update on home value once you’ve talked to your real estate friends.

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