Sunday, November 24, 2013

Veggienomics

Thanksgiving may be late this year, but winter isn't waiting patiently to arrive. Right now, at around noon, it's 29 degrees outside, with a 30-mile-per-hour wind on top of that. From my perspective this means two things: 1) from this point forward, I'm not going to be annoyed with stores that have their Christmas decorations up already, and 2) I can pretty much declare the gardening season over at this point. Which means that this is a good time to do something I've been planning all year: tallying up the total of all our garden produce for the year and seeing how much money this hobby has actually saved us.

I've been doing my best to keep track, throughout the year, of how much we actually harvested of each crop that we grew. Granted, that wasn't always easy with items like cherry tomatoes, which tend to be priced by the pound: if you're going out and picking Sun Golds by the handful every day, it's a bit of a nuisance to have to weigh each day's pickings on the kitchen scale as soon as you get them inside (especially if there are too many of them to fit in the little measuring cup that came with, the scale, so you'd have to do them in multiple batches). So in many cases, I ended up just eyeballing the day's pickings and making an educated guess. Also, it was often Brian who did the picking, and he didn't always notify me immediately about what he'd just brought in, so I sometimes ended up having to make an educated guess about how much had been harvested over the course of the week. So the numbers below are really just rough estimates, but as the Brits say, they'll do to be going on with.

Once I'd counted up the harvest for each crop in pounds, I had to estimate the regular cost per pound of each crop in the store. For some of them, I just checked the price at the Whole Earth Center, where all the produce is organic and much of it is locally grown; since all our garden produce is organic and as local as you can get, I figured this was a fair approximation of its market value. In some cases, however, I forgot to check on the price of a particular crop while it was in season, so for those I used this price list for produce from a food co-op in Brooklyn. That's reasonably close to us—within 50 miles, anyway—so I figured their prices should a reasonable approximation of what we'd pay in our area.

There was one crop in our garden this year that I wasn't quite sure how to count: the marigolds that we bought at the Rutgers plant sale and tucked in amongst our tomatoes. We did pick a lot of the flowers, so in theory, I could have reckoned up the cost of an equivalent volume of store-bought blooms and added that to the total. In reality, though, we never buy flowers at the store (we just pick whatever's blooming in the garden, even if it's technically a weed), so I decided that counting the store value of the marigolds would be cheating. I'm not saying the money we spent on them was wasted—they did provide a lot of nice flowers for the table, even if it's not clear that they actually did anything to repel pests on the tomato plants—but it can't be counted as a savings on our grocery bill.

So, based solely on the crops we planted and ate this year, our output was:
  • Arugula, 3 bunches (not nearly as good as last year) at $2.99 per bunch: $8.97
  • Basil, 20 bunches (I think this is actually a conservative estimate) at $1.78 per bunch: $35.60
  • Celery, 2 bunches (not a very successful experiment) at $1 a bunch: $2.00
  • Cucumbers, about 4 pounds (2 small, 2 medium, and 6 large) at $2.49 a pound: $9.96
  • Dill, 4 bunches at $2.17 a bunch: $8.68
  • Eggplant, about 10 ounces (four pathetically tiny eggplants) at $2.27 a pound: $1.42
  • Green beans, about 4 ounces (truly pitiful for 3 squares of garden space) at $2.38 a pound: $.60
  • Leeks, about 1 pound (3 small leeks, including one still out there now) at $2.18 a pound: $2.18
  • Lettuce, Boston, 9 small heads at $1.29 a head: $11.61
  • Lettuce, leaf, 6 bunches at $1.29 a bunch: $7.74
  • Parsley, 3 bunches at $1.28 a bunch: $3.84
  • Bell peppers (ripe, various colors), about 1 pound (6 smallish peppers): $5.43
  • Scallions, about 3 bunches (very rough estimate, since we tended to harvest them one or two at a time) at 87 cents a bunch: $2.61
  • Snow peas, about 2 pounds at $5.99 a pound: $11.98
  • Spinach, about 6 ounces (basically just a few stray leaves from our fall planting) at $2.17 a pound: $.81
  • Squash, butternut: 18 pounds at $1.29 a pound: $23.22
  • Tomatoes, cherry: 20 pints at $2.83 a pint: $56.60
  • Tomatoes, heirloom (a couple of Boxcar Willies and 1 large Brandywine), about 1/2 pound at $3.16 per pound: $1.58
  • Tomatoes, other (Moreton and Ramopo), about 2 pounds at $2.99 a pound: $5.98
  • Zucchini, about 14 pounds (6 medium squash, 7 large, and 3 HUGE) at $2.37 a pound: $33.18
TOTAL VALUE of all garden crops: $233.99
TOTAL SPENT on seeds, plants, and compost: $42.95
PROFIT from our gardening venture: $191.04

Looked at in the light of an investment, that's an amazing annual return. We put in $42.95 starting with our seed order back in January, and by the end of November—less than 10 months later—we had more than quintupled our money. I punched the numbers into this little online calculator I found, and it claims that our annualized return on this investment was 617.5 percent. Just for comparison, the About.com "Investing for Beginners" site reports that stocks usually earn about a 10 percent rate of return (before inflation), and bonds get maybe half of that. An ROI of over 600 percent isn't just good; it's literally incredible, in the sense that if someone promises you that kind of return, you shouldn't believe him.

Realistically, though, these figures are misleading, because the money we spent on seeds and compost isn't all we put into this garden. We also invested hours of labor into planting, watering, weeding, pest control, and picking—and the value of that time is much harder to calculate. Although I kept at least an approximate record of everything we put into and got out of the garden, I kept no records at all of how much time we spent cultivating it, so any estimate of the amount of time we put into the garden this year would be more or less a wild guess. But, for the sake of argument, let's go ahead and make a wild guess: let's say that, from April through November, we spent an average of an hour a week on gardening tasks. (That's just for the vegetable garden itself; add in the amount of time we spent on yard work altogether, and it's probably at least twice as much.) That's about 34 weeks, or 34 hours of labor. So if we look at this garden as a job, rather than an investment, then we earned a salary of $191.04 for 34 hours of work, or about $5.62 an hour—much less than minimum wage.

However, that figure doesn't really tell the whole story either. After all, we don't garden simply as a way to save money on our grocery bill; we also do it for the healthy outdoor exercise, and for the flavor of veggies that were picked literally minutes before they landed on our plates, and for the satisfaction of seeing something that we've planted and tended literally bear fruit. All of these factors are virtually impossible to put a price on. So frankly, calculating the value of our garden crops doesn't tell me whether gardening is a worthwhile activity, because we already knew that, for us, it is; we wouldn't do it otherwise. (Even if the savings on groceries are fairly impressive, if that were the only consideration, it would probably be easier to find some way to work a few more hours each year and spend the proceeds on food.)

So, in the grand scheme of things, calculating the dollar value of our garden crops doesn't actually tell us much about the value we get from gardening. However, it's much more useful for seeing, not the big picture, but the fine details—that is, figuring out which particular crops give us the best return on the money and time we invest in them. And based on the numbers above, I think it's reasonable to say that we get great value from our basil, zucchini, and butternut squash—all of which not only gave us huge yields, but also required very little work to grow. (Okay, we did need to invest a bit of effort into protecting our zucchini from squash vine borers and processing all the basil that we harvested, but in general, these crops gave us a pretty massive bang for our buck.) Our eggplant, by contrast, gave us pathetic yields even after all the effort Brian put into protecting it from squirrels. Our peppers barely broke even, since we had to purchase plants after the seedlings we started failed to germinate, and then those plants, despite their head start, barely produced anything. And our Sun Gold tomatoes, though they certainly gave us a huge dollar value for the amount we spent on the seeds, were so much work to maintain that I don't think we can possibly afford to devote this much space to them next year.

So on the whole, I think my calculations give us some useful information that we can apply when planning next year's garden. For example:
  • DO plant lots of butternut squash—maybe even more than three plants, since you can't really have too many of a squash that will keep all winter long.
  • DO continue to plant two, but only two, zucchini plants (fewer and you risk having your only plant succumb to squash borers; more and you risk having more zucchini than any sane person could eat).
  • DO continue to use the "carpet bomb" method for sowing basil, which provides massive yields with very little effort. (No room for weeds in a patch completely full of basil!) DO try using the same technique with leeks and scallions, and possibly even lettuce, in hopes of boosting our yields next year.
  • DO get the snow peas into the ground earlier, so they'll have as long a growing season as possible.
  • DON'T bother growing eggplant next year.
  • DON'T attempt again to grow the varieties of peppers, green beans, or celery that we planted this year. Look for others that offer better yields.
  • DON'T, under any circumstances, plant more than two Sun Gold tomato plants—and keep those plants isolated at the end of a row, so they can't take over the whole bed. That way we might actually manage to get some tomatoes off our other plants.
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