Is An Herb or Vegetable Garden Worth the Expense?

Flowering Herbs

By the time high summer arrives, most gardeners have had a chance to reap some of the rewards and contemplate some of the failures of the gardening experience. This is often the time we start tallying up our receipts and scratching our heads. Was all that and fertilizer, mulch and organic pesticide really worth it? Those weekends spent on our knees or stooping over a shovel (rake or hoe) can seem fruitless when our carefully tended blueberry bushes are under siege by relentless waves of Japanese beetles.

Gardening isn’t a virtual experience. The results are real and unpredictable, even during good years, years when nature smiles and cooperates. I’ve discussed some of the challenges and potential disappointments of gardening in previous posts. It’s a favorite topic; but this time around, I’d like to present some of the tangible advantages of gardening that you may not have considered.

Gardening Can Save You Money

A 2009 study conducted by the National Gardening Association found that the average backyard gardener pays around $70 a year to produce and maintain a vegetable garden. In turn, that garden generates around $600 worth of produce.  It’s true that a new vegetable and herb patch can tax your piggy bank beyond that $70 figure, though.  After you’ve amended your soil for the first couple of years, you’ll be able to plant crops without taking out a small loan or maxing out your credit card. That’s when you’ll start to see some real financial advantages to this whole gardening for food thing. 

Here’s an example: According to the Burpee Seed folks, a $1 investment in potato starts will net you $5 worth of potatoes by the end of the season. You can grow those potatoes in the ground, in a raised bed, trash can, mesh surround, trash bag or even in a bale of straw. That means you can grow potatoes on your patio, deck or just about anywhere else there’s plenty of sun and available water. That’s pretty flexible and a nice ROI (or Return On Investment for us financial neophytes). You can grow produce in a relatively small space, too, with a projected yield of a half-pound of produce per square foot of area, and more if you grow vertically or hydroponically.

Have you ever wondered which herbs and vegetables are the most space and cost effective to grow?  The top 10 from “The Most Profitable Plants in Your Vegetable Garden,” are:

  • Cilantro
  • Arugula
  • Green salad mix
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes, cherry
  • Turnip    
  • Tomatoes, large
  • Winter squash

There are plenty of other candidates, and any vegetables you tend to use in bulk should make your personal “cheaper to grow it” list.

Seeds, the Crops that Keep on Giving

Here’s something else to think about. Buying seedlings every spring can get expensive, but you can grow dozens of plants from seed for the price of one garden center seedling. Harvesting seeds one year to use the next is better than double coupon day. It’s a season’s pass to nearly free plants. Even better, plant varieties that thrive in your garden produce seeds and subsequent generation plants that are slightly more genetically predisposed to prosper for you again — and again. It’s nature’s selective breeding program at work making gardening easier and more productive — if you stick to it.

Preserving Your Yield

Flowering Herbs

A bumper crop of vegetables can sometimes be as daunting as a failed garden: If five tomato plants all ripening at the same time seems like overkill for your family, consider developing a new hobby — canning.  Canning is more popular today than it has been in the last four decades, and foods canned fresh from your garden will have fewer preservatives and additives than the canned goods on your grocery store shelves. Canning is also an efficient and time honored method of long term storage.

Canning jars can get expensive, it’s true, but you’ll also use them year after year. Think of it as an investment in the future. That’s a future where you don’t’ have to worry that the tomato sauce you use in your recipes is tainted with BPA leached from the can’s interior lining.

While we’re talking about equipment, the Ball canning company has developed a line of products designed to make canning simpler and more fun. If you like the idea of crafting homemade jam from your home grown strawberries, or relish from your jalapenos, these products take some of the stress out of canning. They also make it easier to produce smaller, family sized batches. Here are some examples:

*Ball® FreshTECH Automatic Jam & Jelly Maker (by Jarden Home Brands)
 *Ball FreshTECH Automatic Home Canning System 116852


Home Grown Foods Can Be More Wholesome than Their Store Purchased Counterparts

Produce grown for market is cultivated to meet specific requirements that have little to do with their flavor or nutritional value. Growers want crops that look good, are transport stable and have a long shelf life. Many of these crops are harvested early and then ripened artificially. This can reduce the available vitamins and minerals in the vegetables you buy and can have a negative impact on their flavor and texture, too. 

There is also some concern that big agribusiness uses depleted soils that contain fewer and fewer of the many micronutrients humans need in their diet. That green bean casserole you serve at Thanksgiving contains fewer vitamins and minerals than the same recipe prepared by your mother 20 years ago. That’s scary. When you grow your own produce, rotate your crops, plant green manure and compost (even in small ways), you help add nutritional diversity to your diet that may be missing in the foods you eat now — even when those foods look and seem natural and nutritious.

Home Grown Vegetable Offer Better Variety

If you’ve ever looked through a vegetable or herb seed catalog, it’s easy to see there’s a lot more variety out there than you’ll find in your market. How about finger sized eggplant for your stir fry, or stuffed round zucchini. How about classic Amish paste tomatoes for spectacular homemade tomato or spaghetti sauce, or home grown paprika peppers perfect for smoking and drying?  There’s a vegetable revolution going on, and it starts in your garden.

Just as an example, there are over 7,000 kinds of apples, 400 types of rice and 7,500 cultivar, heirloom and open pollinated tomato varieties grown worldwide. How many types of a particular vegetable or fruit are you likely to find at the store? Fully 30 percent of the apples sold in the U.S. are Red Delicious. It’s a great apple, but with so many varieties to choose from, doesn’t seeing the same five or six on offer make you feel a little sad?

Many fruits and vegetables available to the casual gardener are sold as: heirlooms, pest or disease resistant strains or interesting cultivars developed for their flavor, aroma, size, texture or color. There are also classics you don’t see in stores that may have been popular additions to your grandmother’s garden back in the day. Or, what about vegetables from around the world, like Australia’s take on spinach or deeply flavored ox heart tomatoes from South Africa?

If you’d like to expand your culinary repertoire with lemon basil or pineapple tomatillo, the world is your garden, but you’ll have to grow the plants yourself. 

The Act of Gardening Can Be Good For Your Body and Spirit

Gardening is hard work, but it’s also good exercise. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), gardening is a moderate-intensity level activity. A two-and-a- half hour a week commitment (and what garden requires less), can help reduce your risk for: heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke, as well as a host of other conditions. Gardening can help you control your weight, dial back your blood pressure and stave off depression by reducing cortisol levels in your body.  Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that metabolizes carbohydrates and proteins and regulates some stress responses like blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Less cortisol has broad implications for better health.

You burn around 275 calories an hour gardening (yea!), and the plants do most of the hard work. Gardening also gets you outside where you can increase your vitamin D absorption, take advantage of the fresh air and benefit from interacting with the natural world. Some studies suggest that just getting out into nature more — as opposed to staying in man-made environments like houses, offices and office cubicles (ugh!) — can help you destress and start tackling that sour attitude you’ve been meaning to work on. (If you’ve yelled at the kids lately and regretted it, maybe you need a “green” break.)

So what if this year’s roses look forlorn or your grape arbor is listing sideways again. There’s always next year to get it right. You’ve learned a lot, and even if you don’t make the cut for premier gardener of the neighborhood, bird watching and bug patrol will keep you busy until the first frost. After that, it’ll be time to start planning next year’s garden.


Cheap Vegetable Gardener. “The Most Profitable Plants in Your Vegetable Garden.” 2009. “The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America.” 2009.

Scientific American. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” April 27, 2011.

Templin, Neal.  “How Much Green Can Growing a Vegetable Garden Save You?” The Wall Street Journal. April 16, 2009.

The Telegraph. “Gardening Goodness – How to Exercise While Gardening.” March 2011.

Van Den Berg, Agnes E.  “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress.” Journal of Health Psychology.” 2014.

* I may be compensated for product link activity in this article. If you find this inappropriate but want more information about these products, please copy and paste the descriptions into your browser and follow the results to other sites for expanded retail options and more information. You can also visit the Ball site for product information, recipes and tips. This is not a sponsored post.  If the idea of canning your harvest has captured your imagination, you can find more information by visiting the National Center for Home Food Preservation funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Canning photo from Flickr, User: Chiot’s Run

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