Set Up Your Kitchen Garden—and Save!

It’s spring—time to dream of ripe tomatoes and sugar snap peas.  You can grow them yourself and save hundreds on organic produce with a few tips and a bit of inspiration.  Our first post in a four part series on organic home gardening will focus on garden materials and the money you can save once you do. 

You don’t have to invest hundreds of dollars to get results.  In fact, you may be able to get started with a very modest investment that will yield you a harvest for several weeks. 

Today’s contributors, Mara Reynolds and Caitlin Blethlen are expert gardeners with plenty of tips to share.  Mara works with Portland Community Gardens to further support gardening in the city. This tremendous program allows families to rent garden plots, learn how to preserve food, and get their children involved in gardening.  Caitlin is the Youth Gardening director for Growing Gardens, a non-profit dedicated to helping low-income, urban families grow their own food.

GBG:  What materials would you recommend for families who are setting up their first kitchen gardens? 

Mara: Containers are a great option for those without access to soil.  They should be made of non-treated wood or ceramic–plastic works but is not ideal for growing things you want to eat.  To determine what size of container to use, remember that a plant’s roots will more or less mirror its above-ground size, which be will determined by how much space the roots have to grow. 

Raised beds are great for anyone with physical trouble bending down, or for containing plants that spread quickly, but otherwise they just require more materials and aren’t necessary. To start a garden, begin by starting a compost heap (no bin required) and building up layers of mulch on your beds.  The tools and amendments you need will vary based on the size and needs of your garden.  

GBG:  Approximately how much can families save by raising their own produce?

Caitlin:  A family of five in Maine did cost analyses of growing their own vegetables in a 1600 square foot garden (0.3 of an acre). They priced what it would have cost them to buy the same items using three different sets of prices: conventional grocery store, farmers’ market and organic grocery store (Whole Foods, in their case).  The total value came to $2200, $2400, and $2500 respectively.  They had about $200 in out-of-pocket costs for seeds and supplies.  The cost of their labor was not included because they enjoy gardening and the physical work involved.  If they would have included labor costs, they would have subtracted gym and country club memberships from those costs.

From this they calculated that a square foot would add up to roughly $1.50  per square foot. That would mean a smaller garden of 400 square feet would produce $600 of produce. These are averages and certain crops are more expensive and space efficient than others. Each year our Home Gardeners participate in a survey and about 97% of them say they saved money on their food bill by growing their own veggies.

Thanks for joining us this week for Thrifty Green Thursday!  Please feel free to jump in with your frugal green tips.  It’s easy—just click here for details. 


  1. I just started my home garden. I put quite a bit of money and effort into it last year, but this year I think my money spent will be minimal. I have a lot of compost to use for fertilizer, so I mostly just need seeds, some of which I still had from last fall. I think this year’s garden will be pure savings!

  2. Wow, that little equation ($1.50 per square foot) is rather discouraging. According to that, I’ll be able to grow just $96 of produce in my two 8′ x 4′ raised beds. I’ll probably end up with a net loss this year, considering the price of the beds and dirt, the cost of plants/seeds, and the expense of a couple new tools I needed.

    On the bright side, I am not necessarily growing a garden to save money. I do love vegetables straight from the garden, and it’s nice to feel self-sufficient.

  3. that cost analysis is interesting. we probably don’t save a ton, either, but we really enjoy it and love all the fresh produce! Last year we tried to make the most of produce at the end of the year by canning and storing green tomatoes in the basement–I got that tip here and it really worked!

  4. This year’s garden will be at a loss becuase I have to start over from scratch. We have absoluately no topsoil and even though we compost, will need to spend the bulk of this year’s gardening budget on good soil and soil amendments. But if we do it right this year, then next year our garden expenses and output should be in the black.

  5. Oh, I forgot to ask. Where can I get seeds for dollar bill plants like the photo? I could really use a real money tree! 🙂

  6. I love my kitchen garden, even though it’s small. I’ve found that potatoes grow spontaneously out of the compost I put in my veggie beds, so I set aside a section for them and it costs me exactly nothing. I find that one or two zucchini plants usually give me all the squash I can use, so one $2 packet of seeds will last me at least three years.

    You can’t beat the great feeling of wandering outside, pulling some things out of the dirt, and having a truly fresh salad just a few minutes later! Speaking of salad, here’s a great tip for growing lettuce that I picked up from a gardening book: Just sow one row of lettuce seeds every 2 weeks for a couple of months. This will insure that you spread out your harvest, instead of being overrun with lettuce for a couple of weeks and then having the rest of it bolt. (That said, I always let one or two bolt and then collect the seeds at the end of summer to use next year–another cost savings.)

  7. It’s great that so many people are interested in home vegetable gardening. I have had a garden for most of my adult life, and love it. I grow 45 different tomato varieties.

    Growing Gardens is such a wonderful organization, putting in 600+ gardens for lower income families and working with them of 3 years. It is inspiring to check their website. Note to #2 rebbeca: The value per square foot depends on what you grow. One foot could grow 20 lbs. of delicious tomatoes worth $20-$40.

  8. Thanks, Bob! I was just thinking that I could plant the vegetables that cost the most in the store. I may even fill one whole garden box with tomatoes and basil. Zucchini might not be the best use of my garden real estate, since you can usually buy it for really cheap in the summer.

    I just ordered the soil for my garden beds and it will cost over $100! Of course in years to come I will not need new soil and tending to the garden will be less work. That’s the idea, anyway!

  9. I am in my third year of having a kitchen garden and I LOVE IT! I feel so much satisfaction from the whole process, financially as well as from a stress-reduction perspective. This year my son (5 years) has really gotten into the process and requested me to plant grapes, blood oranges and strawberries. We’ve planted all three and I can’t wait to see how they produce in the years to come.

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