Monday, January 6, 2014

Seed money

As I've observed before on this blog, offers of any "free" product or service often prove more costly than they look. Emily Birkin of "Live Like a Mensch," for instance, has noted that she often falls into the trap of buying extra products on just to reach the $25 minimum needed to qualify for free shipping. I quite agree that it's silly to buy something you "neither want nor need" just to get something you do want delivered for free—but I also think there are grey areas. Case in point: today I placed my order at for the seeds for this year's garden. I already knew this was going to be a fairly large order, as we were not only restocking our supplies of several varieties we'd grown before but also adding some new varieties of familiar crops and a few new crops that we'd never tried at all. (We're going to try growing Brussels sprouts and New Zealand spinach, and we're also adding some marshmallow plants to our herb bed.) When I finally added everything to the cart and tallied it up, I saw that all the seeds came to about $23.50—but the $5 handling fee Fedco charges for orders under $30 would bring the order to around $28.50. And I started wondering: would it make more sense to just add a few more items to our order and get the total up to $30 so we could avoid that $5 charge? Sure, we'd actually end up spending more this way, but only about $1.50 more altogether, and we'd actually get an additional $6.50 worth of seeds for that additional $1.50 of spending. So wouldn't this be a much better value than paying $28.50 total for only $23.50 worth of seeds?

The question, I decided, hinged on whether we could actually use the extra seeds. Even an extra $1.50 wouldn't be money well spent if we threw it away on seeds we didn't have room for in the garden. So I started reexamining my shopping cart to see if there was any way it could be padded a little. Since our garden is so small, I habitually order the smallest size packet of every seed variety I buy, but what if I bumped up the sizes of the varieties I know we'll be planting again year after year? Would that enable us to cut back on future orders, or would the seeds go bad (that is, lose their ability to germinate reliably) before we could use them all up? I decided that it didn't make sense to increase the packet size for crops like cucumbers or green beans, since we typically sow just one or two seeds for each plant we want, and we don't have room for that many plants. However, for certain other crops, like scallions and basil, we use a "carpet bomb" method of sowing: just scatter the seed thickly over the entire patch of ground and thin out the plants if too many of them come up. This has the advantage of packing in the veggies tightly enough to squeeze out most of the weeds. So I decided that for crops of this type, I'd bump up the packet size from tiny to fairly small, assuming that the extra seeds would go to good use.

Doing that, unfortunately, only added about a couple of dollars to the order total—not enough to put us over the $30 limit. At this point, we had to decide whether it was worth actually adding more plants to our list, crops that we hadn't actually intended to plant, in order to avoid paying the $5 handling fee. On the other hand, we were now within $5 of the cutoff, so anything we added to our order at this point was essentially free; we'd be paying the extra $5 either way, so we might as well spend it on seeds instead of on handling. First I considered choosing another new tomato variety to add to our mix, which currently included one new variety (Amish Paste) along with several others that we already had seeds for. However, when we considered the amount of available trellis space in our garden, we realized that adding a new tomato variety would mean require us to drop one of the ones we already had, or at least cut back from two plants to one. So instead we chose a new pepper, giving us three varieties instead of two: Klari Baby Cheese, Cubanelle, and Superette Sweet Banana. (All three are completely new to us, since no variety we've tried in the past has ever been all that successful for us—with the exception of the jalapeno we grew the first year, and that gave us more hot peppers than we really had a use for.) We were still just shy of the $30 mark, so we decided to add some chives to our herb bed, bringing our total up to $30.60.

So altogether, we spent about $2 more than we would have spent with our original order—but for that extra $2, we added a third pepper variety to the garden (increasing by 50 percent the odds that at least one of these will actually work for us), diversified our herb selection, and also increased our stocks of arugula and scallions so that they can probably stretch out over at least three years before we need to buy more. So on the whole, I'd say we got good value for our money, though the real test will come when we actually get these new seeds into the garden and see how they grow.

Of course, this doesn't mean that I think I'll get good value by placing a minimum order of $30 from Fedco every year. After all, part of the point of buying extra seeds now was that we won't need to buy as many next year. But I do think that by buying enough extra seeds this one year to avoid the handling fee, I'll be able to pay less for my seeds over the long run. My guess is that in future I'll probably place an extra-large order every few years, stocking up on anything I expect to need, and then I'll cut back to much smaller orders in between. In fact, if I get really lucky, I might eventually find some varieties that work so well for us that I don't need to try out new ones each year, and I'll only need to buy seeds at all when my stocks need replenishing. But alas, I suspect it may take me years of trial and error to reach that goal.
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