How Long Does Gardening Take to Pay Itself Off? It Varies

We love to garden.

Nothing is more rewarding than going out into your own vegetable patch, picking something ripe, and then immediately cooking with it. From the flavors to the satisfaction that you did it yourself, it really can't be beaten.

But is gardening better than buying produce at the store? Particularly over buying produce from local farmer's markets where the quality would be comparable?

We thought we'd take a look at a cost-benefit analysis for all things gardening to see what the math says. But in this one, we have to look at two kinds of gardening outright- container gardening and in-ground gardening. The math for each is quite different!

Note: This evaluation considers gardening to be for more conventional items like tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, beans, and more. Perennial plants, like berry bushes and citrus trees, are not included in this discussion as, assuming they survive to production age, their payback period typically is the first year or two of a full harvest (generally 3-8 years) as maintenance costs can be quite low. As such, they are excluded from this evaluation. 

How Much Does it Cost to Start a Garden?

Strawberries in a Garden Patch

The costs to start a garden are, unfortunately, all over the place. For the purpose of this evaluation, we're going to break this one up into two sections, container gardening and traditional, in-ground gardening, as their upfront costs to get started can be highly variable.

Production volume is an additional factor to consider for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of gardening, but generally speaking, many things scale somewhat linearly. Container gardeners who only have one pot will have proportional expenses to those who have four pots. Those who garden in the ground may have some economies of scale (say, in fencing off a larger gardening area), but we're going to assume it is roughly proportional as well.

Ultimately, in this one, we will attempt to translate costs to a $/square foot of gardening area and then equate it to an equivalent value of $/square foot of produce generated for comparison purposes. That being said, this will cover a wide range, so this is meant as a rough evaluation only. To put it bluntly: this analysis takes a lot of assumptions, and your mileage will vary significantly. 

Costs to Container Garden

Container Gardening

For those who wish to container garden, your major costs are, naturally, going to be the containers themselves, dirt, possibly stakes (a nominal cost), and of course your plants which can be purchased either as seeds to grow yourself or as sprouted plants from a nursery.

For pots, the costs here can be highly variable. If you go the cheap plastic route, a 12″ circular pot may cost $5-$10 (~0.8 square foot of planting area). This can be significantly less if you buy in bulk, but most home gardeners likely do not. If you go high-end, a nicer version of that same pot maybe $50 or more. Even more extreme are self-watering raised bed planters which can be upwards of $200 for roughly six square feet of planting area. 

So, for the sake of argument, let's work with a range here and say that containers generally cost anywhere from $7 to $60 per square foot of available planting area. And, for even further argument, let's say the average lifespan of a pot is five years for cheaper options (as they tend to get weathered, break, and more) and 10 years for more expensive options (although they could possibly last significantly longer). So if you look at this cost yearly, you're looking at about $1 to $10 per year per square foot. 

For dirt, the cost here will be roughly proportional to your available planting area. If your pots are about one-foot depth, then one square foot of planting area will require one cubic foot of potting soil, which generally costs about $20. But this soil does not last forever, and most sources suggest replacing dirt yearly or every other year. As such, your yearly cost for dirt is likely going to be $10 to $20 per year per square foot.

This is the part that makes container gardening quite expensive!

For plants, the cost here will vary on whether you can grow from seed or if you buy plants directly at a nursery. Packets of seeds often have several if not dozens of seedlings per package, and generally cost just a few dollars each. As such, your cost per plant may be as low as $0.05 to $0.25 if each seed is successfully germinated. For the sake of this one, we're going to say this cost is virtually zero as you can see other costs above are far, far greater. For those who buy already germinated plants, most nurseries likely charge anywhere from $3 to $5 per plant depending on their size (with some much larger ones costing far more).

In this case, planting density will matter a lot. Some, like cucumbers, can likely grow spaced somewhat close together (~12 inches). Others, like large tomato plants, are recommended to be spaced two feet apart or more. As such, it is safe to assume you will need between one and three square feet of planting space per plant on average. These will likely need to be replaced yearly as most are not perennial, either, so you're looking at $3 to $5 per plant per year- or $3 to $10 per year per square foot of gardening space equivalent.

Container Gardening

So now we can tally the math a bit:

  • Pots: $1 to $10 per year per square foot.
  • Dirt: $10 to $20 per year per square foot.
  • Plants: $0 to $10 per year per square foot.

While year one will have an obvious upfront fee for pots, if we generalize this one a little bit we can average out costs over the long term to be anywhere from $10 to $40 per year per square foot of planting space– excluding other ancillary purchases like stakes, fertilizer, watering, etc. all of which may be highly variable to your individual location. 

Comparing this payoff will also be highly variable based on your crops of choice, their yield (and how the weather and local factors impact that in every given year). But a quick search shows that tomato plants generate about eight pounds per plant per year, cucumber plants may yield 20-25 pounds per plant per year, pepper plants may produce 8-10 bell peppers in a year (4-5 lbs if you're lucky) or 25-50 hot peppers in a year (maybe a half pound or so), and so on.

As local costs for heirloom varietals at a farmer's market may vary, we can look at our rough planting costs to get an estimate. For plants that can be spaced in one-foot dimensions, you need to offset $11 to $40 in yield equivalent. For plants that can be spaced in two-foot dimensions, you may need to bump that up to $22 to $80 in yield equivalent (if not more pending on the shape of your pot).

For low-yielding plants that have to be spaced far apart (e.g. tomatoes), you'll ultimately be spending roughly $2.75 to $10 per pound of yield if not more. For high-yielding plants that can be planted closer together (e.g. cucumbers), you will be spending roughly $0.50 to $2 per pound of yield if not more. 

This is where the math on a proper payback period can be tricky. Are you spending $10+/lb for tomatoes at a farmer's market? No, this likely never happens. Are you spending more than $2.75/lb? It is entirely possible that could happen. This same logic holds true for cucumbers, peppers, and many other popular garden varieties as well.

To put it bluntly, while you can possibly save some money gardening at home, you can see how the savings goes away with any small changes. Buy premium pots for aesthetic purposes? You probably will cost yourself out even if the pots last significantly longer. Buy your plants from a nursery instead of starting from seed? That could push the cost up just enough to be financially impractical. Do not have a rain barrel and need to water during a drought? You may be adding a couple more dollars per square foot per month as well which will almost assuredly push you past any possible ROI over buying from a farmer's market. 

Ultimately, we see container gardening as being a wash at best as there are far more cases will you'll spend more than what you produce over coming out ahead financially. But the real benefits here are not about saving money for most gardeners, but simply being able to grow food yourself, possibly with heirloom varietals that no local farms have available, and potentially at even higher quality. These are several intangible benefits of container gardening, and these are the real reason why we do what we do. 

So, what about in-ground gardening?

Costs for In-Ground Gardening

Troubles with In Ground Gardening - Pests

The cost for in-ground gardening will be a somewhat different analysis than container gardening if only because you may be able to make far more effective use of your land for gardening purposes. Instead of purchasing pots at 1-6+ square feet of available planting space, you can craft your own garden space on a customized plot of land that you have available.

While some gardeners can go out into their yard, till some dirt, and get planting (for a cost that is virtually nothing), others may want to craft their own garden via raised bed planters and protect them from animals via fencing and other mechanisms.

If you go this route, you will likely need to purchase the material for the planter (wood, cinderblocks, etc.) and fencing at a minimum.

Pre-designed raised bed planters generally cost $50-$200 each for 10-25 square foot of planting area- or $5 to $20 per square foot. Building planters DIY may be far cheaper especially if you use cheaper materials like cinderblocks. That same 25 square foot of planting area could cost as low as $40 if you only have a planter of eight-inch depth and get your cost down to < $2 per square foot of space. 

Fencing costs here can be highly variable based on your style, but some of the cheapest garden fencing generally runs $20 to $100 for 20 to 100 linear feet, or about $0.25 to $1.00 per linear foot used. While you may be able to get some economy of scale here with larger gardens, for the sake of argument let's assume that the linear foot is the same as the square footage of planting area as it will be close- so $0.25 to $1.00 spent per square foot of garden space.

Dirt is another cost you will have upfront to fill the planters, but this dirt can often be revitalized over time with fertilizer, compost, etc. and may not have to be replaced at regular intervals like container gardening. While you can get away with crafting your own raised bed planter dirt mix out of topsoil, compost, planter dirt, etc. for less than the cost of potting soil (often for less than half the cost of potting soil). So here your costs will likely be $5 to $10 per square foot with nominal annual fees from there for fertilizer if you do not have a composter.

The cost for plants will be the same as in the analysis above; however, you can likely optimize your planting a bit better than in the above analysis as you are not constrained to the size of your pots as much. We will assume any benefit from this is nominal although in all likelihood will present some opportunities all the same.

So now we can tally the math here, too:

  • Planters: $0 (for those who plant in the ground) or $2 to $20 per square foot (for those who build containers).
  • Fencing: $0 or $0.25 to $5 per square foot.
  • Dirt: $0 or $5 to $10 per square foot.
  • Plants: $0 to $10 per year per square foot.

In this scenario, the cost to build an in-ground garden can be as low as $0 and a bit of time all the way to roughly $7.25 to $35 per square foot for those who go fully custom. So for a 25-square-foot garden, for example, you may be able to do this for $0 all the way to $875+ depending on materials, depth, etc. 

As these costs likely do not need to be replaced on as frequent of intervals as container gardening (this may vary by materials selected), we can look at a little bit of payback here if we ignore the cost of water, fertilizer, etc. which are highly variable to your individual location and seasonal weather.

As noted above, most traditional garden plants yield somewhere between one and 25 pounds of vegetables per year. Depending on spacing frequencies, we can provide a rough estimate of 0.5 to 10 pounds of produce per square foot planting density. If we assume that most produce costs approximately $3-$5/pound at a farmer's market (your prices may vary), this means that a perfectly utilized 25-square-foot garden may generate anywhere from $40 to $1,250 worth of produce per year. 

Is it likely your largest producing plant (i.e. cucumbers) would also be the most expensive at a farmer's market? No. As such, we should note that high-end figure doesn't make a lot of sense. Likewise, will you get the same value if you only plant low-yielding and reasonably priced crops like lettuce? Also no. Accounting for these, a more reasonable figure is probably $200 to $625, but your mileage may vary wildly here based on what you plant and what your local farms charge outright. This is just looking at things at a far more reasonable figure to cover the bases.

In either case, you can see that payoff for in-ground gardens may be much easier to swallow than container gardening. If you are spending, say, $200 to harvest $100 in vegetables per season, the payoff is more or less the second season. If you are spending $875 to yield $625 of produce, the same math holds. If you built something for the cheapest amount of money possible and grow the highest-yielding, most expensive vegetables, you may recoup the costs in a single season if you are lucky. And, of course, if you go out into your yard, plant vegetables, and get any harvest at all, you have almost no cost to recoup outright. 

Those are all good figures!

But, as with container gardening, if you have to replace your equipment at more frequent intervals, spend more money for compost/fertilizer, and water during a drought, the payback periods may get delayed significantly. Here, it is likely you would add on just another year whereas container gardens will always remain impractical from a financial standpoint, and the math still sounds pretty good to us for those who can garden in-ground.

Ultimately, this analysis ignores a lot that goes into gardening. Financially, you will have damaged equipment, crops destroyed by animals, an untold amount of water consumption, fertilizer, and of course equipment costs which we assumed you already own. Practically, gardening is also a lot of work! You cannot go outside, plant a tomato plant, and return five months later for a harvest. Plants require frequent tending, sometimes daily in the event of a drought, and the cost equivalent of your time may make all financial scenarios impractical- even in the cheapest of cases.

One year of a raccoon taking up residence near our garden resulted in me spending well over $100 on raccoon repellants, which for our small garden was no small dollar amount, and our yield was virtually zero that year as well. These unforeseen expenses can really add up- possibly adding another year on your potential payback!

That being said, gardening is incredibly rewarding. There is no greater feeling than eating a tomato you grew yourself, and when you throw on the fact that you can grow heirloom varietals that farms don't stock, the intangible benefits keep growing.

Is gardening for everyone? No. Is gardening cheaper than buying produce at a store, even expensive organic produce from local farms? Probably not. You may get close, and those who garden in the ground in large volumes will certainly come the closest. But even there, the intangibles that are not accounted for in this analysis can quickly offset that (particularly the time element which we did not even discuss at all).

But one thing is for certain, if you do garden and get bit by the bug as we have, these factors will likely become immaterial.

The best food is simply what you grow yourself, and that is priceless!

Do you garden at home? If so, do you find it actually saves you money or do you do it for the love of gardening? Comment below to share!

Looking to get some new products for your garden? Check out the options at Gurney's!

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