Wondering how you might lose money gardening?
There are tons of articles filled with tips for saving money by gardening and saving money ON gardening. You can easily find frugal gardening suggestions and lots of tips for getting more bang for less buck. But like all things, the pursuit of frugality has a point of diminishing returns. Sometimes trying to stretch your garden budget ends up costing you MORE money. Here’s a few ways to lose money gardening and how you can avoid them.
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Spending your garden budget on the wrong things
This is a tough one, to be honest. While it is possible to garden cheaply, there are still always LOTS of things out there to buy. Some promise to make the work easier, some promise to make the garden more productive, others are simply decorative or appealing. For every dollar in your garden budget, there are 100 things you could spend it on.
So how do you decide where to put your garden money? First, let me go ahead and say this is subjective, and it’s also situational. But here’s my advice, use it as you will.
Save money gardening by looking at the return on investment
Look for the purchases that will give you the biggest return. These won’t always be instant savers but planning your purchases to save money over the long term is a solid way to reduce costs. For example, instead of buying compost, start making your own. Even if that means you spend a little money this year on a modest compost bin, the cash you put into a compost system will save you money every year you garden. By contrast, buying bags of compost will just keep costing you money.
Now a compost set up may not be right for you and your garden. And that’s ok. But I bet there’s something similar in your garden, something where you could spend your dollars today in order to spend less over time. Perhaps it’s a rain barrel or a timer for your sprinkler so watering your garden costs less. It could be purchasing the growing lights, heat mats and other items you’ll need to start seeds indoors.
How to evaluate your garden expenses
The best way to figure this out for YOU is to look at what you’re spending money on now. Make a list of everything you’ve bought for your garden. If possible, pull numbers from the past few years. Where’s the biggest chunk of change going? Start there and see what you might be able to change now that would reduce or eliminate that cost over the coming years.
Your biggest expense might be plants, in which case it might make sense to invest in a seed starting set up (more on that below). It might be supplemental water or it might be fertilizers. Everyone’s list will look different and you might not be able to do anything about some of your expenses. The point is to look for places where a large portion of your budget is going and see if you can change anything to offset that.
And look at places you can trim the budget
The inverse is, don’t “waste” your money on things that aren’t making a real difference in your gardening. Hanging baskets of annuals are very pretty, and can bring a lot of joy. But if your goal is growing food, you might be better off using that extra money on a tomato cage. That will help improve your vegetable yield and you can always grow your annual flowers from seed.
On the other hand, if you love growing flowers but feel like a “real” gardener grows vegetables, stop growing vegetables. Spend your garden budget on flowering plants and seeds and make that your priority. If any money is going towards something that isn’t actually furthering your garden goals, it’s worth cutting it. Try it for a year, you can always add it back in if you find you just can’t live without it!
Look where your garden money is going. Where possible, remove or reduce recurring expenses or purchases that aren’t helping you meet your garden goals.
Misplaced Garden Frugality
You don’t buy the right tools, supports, or other items and your garden ends up costing you money
Sometimes, you can put together a trellis from scrap wood or repurpose a container to make an improvised greenhouse. Taking care of a problem without spending any money, especially if you can reuse something, is a great feeling! But other times….the best solution is the one that costs a bit more.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you bought pea seeds and sowed them right on time, in neat little rows. They germinate and you have a beautiful bed full of little peas. When the time comes to provide a support for them to climb, the idea of spending cash on a trellis or even on sturdy poles and twine doesn’t appeal. So you let the peas grow and they…don’t do so well. Their growth slows, they don’t make flowers and you don’t get peas.
That’s an extreme example but it holds true. If you’re going to spend the time and the effort to plant a bed full of peas, you’ll also need to come up with a way to support them so they can grow and produce. The same holds true for not caging or staking tomatoes or withholding supplemental water during dry spells. Or many other attempts to cut costs by skimping on tools, supplies or resources.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for free or low-cost gardening solutions. But don’t focus so much on frugality that you end up sabotaging your efforts.
Reduced yields cost you money
If the cost-cutting keeps your plants from producing effectively, it’s not saving you money. You’ve lost the money you spent on seeds or plants and you’ve lost the time you invested. You’re also going to lose out on the produce, which could raise your grocery bill.
This includes tools. It’s wonderful if you can make do or snag a tool on the cheap. But after a certain point, investing in good quality tools that are built to last and built to get the job done saves you time. Your time is a hugely valuable asset, too. For example, a hula hoe makes weeding vegetable beds a cinch, leaving you with time for other things. Perhaps more importantly, it gets the job done really well. Can you garden without a hula hoe? Of course. But like many tools, it can help you do that same work in less time.
Research everything your plants will need to complete their life cycle, including producing fruit, vegetables, flowers or seeds. If the idea of potentially increasing your water bill or buying a trellis doesn’t seem like a good fit, it’s ok to pick another crop.
Doing your homework on the real growing needs of a plant will help you decide if it’s a good choice for you right now.
Buy plants or seeds that aren’t suited to your climate is a surefire way to lose money gardening
This is a toughie. Every gardener has optimistically brought home something that really isn’t suited to their garden. Whether it’s a plant that needs tons of extra water in your climate or a rose bush that needs precise fertilization and pruning, we’ve all been there. It’s not that those plants might not be worth it. They are, to some people and in some situations. But if your garden budget or your time is limited, highly specialized or high maintenance plants might not be the best option.
Sometimes, you don’t realize the plant in question isn’t a good fit for your growing conditions. It’s easy to impulsively buy a beautiful plant only to find out later it’s going to take a lot of time and resources to thrive in your garden. Research the plants you buy and make sure you know what you’re getting in for.
The good news is that in many cases, there’s a less fussy or needy plant with similar traits. Substituting a variety better suited to your garden is a great way to free up resources for other aspects of your garden.
Choose your plants carefully and be realistic about the extra resources (including your time!) you can devote to higher maintenance plants. Substitute varieties better suited to your resources when possible.
Buying tons of annuals every year
First, let me say that there’s nothing wrong with buying plants every year. Not everyone has the space, time or resources to deal with seed starting. Not every plant grows well from seed and some growing seasons make starting from seeds challenging. And not everyone wants to focus on perennials. BUT if your budget is thin, this can be a really key way to make it go further. Let’s explore.
If you fill your garden with nothing but annuals, you’re probably spending $3-$8 for most smaller plants. A modest vegetable garden for a family of 4 would need something like 8 squash/zucchini, 4-8 tomato plants, 10-15 bean plants and 3-6 pepper plants. Let’s say you need 30 plants total, and you’re able to get them for $4 each. That’s $120 before you factor in soil amendments or fertilizers, supplemental watering and anything you might need to spend repairing or refurbishing beds or containers.
Flower beds aren’t any better. A 10’X3′ flower bed would need between 30 and 50 plants. Some annual flowers cost as little as $2 each but that still adds up fast.
By contrast, two grow lights cost $42, seed starting mix (vermiculite and coco coir) is around $25 and seed packets are usually $3. Let’s say you buy six kinds of vegetables, so $18 for seeds.
Total cost to start your own seeds is $85. But you can use those lights every year and there are likely enough seeds in those packs for two or three years. It’s not stretching things at all to say that $85 could easily cover two full years of vegetable plants, and probably more.
Don’t overlook using perennial plants. While most vegetables do grow as annuals, things like asparagus and rhubarb will come back year after year. Many herbs are perennials. There are tons of flowering perennials that will be happy to provide you with beautiful blooms year after year. Swapping just a few of your annual plants for perennials can save you money year after year.
Perennials are generally easy to propagate, too. So in just a few years, you can potentially multiply a few plants into dozens. Not only will that fill your beds, you can barter your plants for others, which is a great way to save money gardening.
Ok but I don’t want to deal with starting seeds indoors. Ugh.
And that’s completely fair. While it’s not a challenging thing to do, it does require a small amount of space and it does take some time, especially at the beginning. Another option would be to sow your flower seeds outdoors, instead of buying packs of annuals. There’s two ways to do this.
One is winter sowing. In a nutshell, you put your flower seeds into a covered container (often milk jugs) in mid to late winter. The seeds sit in starter mix for months and as the weather warms, they germinate. In due course, you move them to their beds. The timing will depend on your weather and the seeds, but this is a great way to start things like calendula, pansies, poppies and cornflowers.
The second option is to direct sow the flower seeds into their bedding spot. The downside to this is that it can take longer than just popping a plug from the garden center into the ground. And you’ll have to pay attention to the frost dates for your zone and the plants in question. But this can be a great way to get tons of flowers for less money and without a lot of extra effort.
I’m not sure about any of this, I like buying my plants.
I get that. It’s a lot to think about. But you don’t have to do this all at once, or to do all of it. You could try just winter sowing a few flowers one year and see how it goes. If you hate the experience, you can still buy flowers. But if it DOES work for you, you’ve just reduced the cost for your annual flowers substantially. Ditto with the vegetables. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but starting to look at options for reducing the number of annual plants you buy each year can help your dollars go further.
Bonus, when you start seeds you generally have more options available than the garden center!
Look for ways to either grow annuals yourself or replace some of your annual favorites with perennials. Even a few substitutions can have a positive impact on your garden budget.
Putting your effort into growing foods or herbs you don’t like or don’t eat
This is really one of the biggest money traps in gardening, I think. Growing food or herbs you just don’t like or don’t want to eat means you’re pretty much throwing the money and time you spent away. It’s one thing to try a new variety and realize you don’t care for it. But if you and your family just don’t like eating summer squash, you don’t have to grow it every year. Grow foods you enjoy eating. If you’re not super into vegetables, shift your focus to fruits or herbs. Or just grow flowers and flowering plants! There’s no reason to spend your resources growing things you hate.
Take a realistic look at what you’re growing, and how much of it is actually getting consumed. It might not be as cut and dried as not liking summer squash, either. It could be that habit leads you to planting a whole row of squash, which yields WAY more yellow squash than you can use. While it’s always good to have an extra plant or two in case of garden disasters, there’s no benefit to using your resources and growing space for food you won’t use.
A final thought on this. If you still end up with more than you can use, it might be time to think about canning or preserving that extra. It doesn’t take a lot of special equipment of money to get started water bath canning, and that can be a great way to store extra tomatoes or fruit for winter. Stockpiling summer’s bounty can reduce your winter grocery budget, which might free up more cash for the garden! If canning isn’t your thing, consider drying your extra herbs or produce.
Get rid of plants you don’t actually enjoy. If you aren’t eating it and it doesn’t bring you joy to grow it, it doesn’t need to be in your garden. And if you do nix something and discover you miss it, just add it back in the next year.
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