A home vegetable garden can have all kinds of benefits for your health and wallet. It offers a chance to save money on groceries while enjoying homegrown flavor and freshness. It can also be a way to eat organic on a budget and try new varieties of produce you can’t get at the store. And gardening itself is a healthy outdoor activity that can provide exercise, relaxation, and fun.
Yet despite all its rewards, most Americans don’t grow their own produce. According to a 2014 report by the National Gardening Association, only about 1 in 3 American households grew food in 2013, either at home or in a community garden.
People cite various reasons for avoiding gardening as a hobby. Some people, especially apartment dwellers, don’t have a lot of space to grow their own food. Others don’t have a lot of time. And for some, the cost of gardening — which a 2014 study in the Journal of Extension put at $238 for one year — is an issue.
Fortunately, each of these problems has a solution. It’s all a matter of choosing the right kind of garden — one that fits the amount of space, time, and money you have to spare.
Types of Gardens
Each type of vegetable garden has its own unique set of pros and cons. Some gardens are cheaper than others but require more space or time to maintain. Some fit into small spaces but can’t produce a lot of food. Some types of gardens are more labor-intensive, and some are better than others for growing specific crops.
However, no rule says you have to limit yourself to just one garden type. If you have space, you can maximize your benefits by maintaining separate gardens for different crops. For instance, you could have a window garden for herbs, a container garden for tomatoes, and a small raised bed for squash.
1. In-Ground Beds
The simplest type of vegetable garden is a patch of plants set directly into the ground. This type of garden requires no expensive materials to set up, especially if you have good soil to start. It’s easy to get started since there’s nothing to build.
However, this type of garden needs plenty of space. According to biointensive gardening guru John Jeavons’ “How to Grow More Vegetables,” you need about 200 square feet of garden space to grow enough fruit and vegetables for one person (via The Spruce). So, for a family of four, you should plan to plant an 800-square-foot garden.
But that’s only enough space to supply your needs for produce during the growing season. It won’t provide all the food you need or give you extra produce to store for the winter. To supply all your food needs, you need a much larger space — about 4,000 square feet per person.
In-ground beds also need a moderate amount of maintenance. They don’t dry out as quickly as raised beds, so they don’t need watering as often. However, they have no barriers to keep out weeds or pests, so they can require more work to keep these problems at bay.
What You Can Grow
What kinds of crops you can grow with in-ground beds depends on the quality of your soil. The best type of soil for gardening is loam — a crumbly, nutrient-rich soil that absorbs water well. You can tell if you have this kind of soil by squeezing a handful of dirt in your hand. If it holds its shape briefly before falling apart, your soil has just the right texture for growing nearly any kind of vegetable.
Even if you aren’t blessed with this kind of naturally superb soil, you can still plant an in-ground garden. However, you’ll have to either amend your soil, which can be expensive, or grow crops that thrive in the type of soil you have.
For instance, if you squeeze a handful of dirt and it stays clumped, that means you have clay soil. As Dave’s Garden and GrowVeg explain, clay soil is rich in nutrients. However, its dense texture doesn’t give plant roots a lot of breathing room, and it doesn’t drain well. You can amend clay soil and make it closer to loam by breaking up the clumps and adding lots of organic matter, such as compost, shredded leaves, straw, or peat moss. Or you can choose plants that naturally flourish in clay soil, such as lettuce, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, and squash.
On the other hand, if a handful of dirt squeezed in your hand falls apart immediately, you have sandy soil. It’s light, fast-draining, and quick to warm up in the spring, according to Proven Winners. But it doesn’t hold water or nutrients well. Your plants will do better if you enrich the soil with organic matter, water frequently, and use mulch to hold in moisture. According to GrowVeg, vegetables that perform well in sand include root vegetables with long taproots, such as carrots and parsnips, and early spring greens.
What You Need
You can start an in-ground garden with very little equipment. All you need is a hand tiller to turn the soil, a trowel, and some seeds. If rainfall isn’t consistent in your area, add a watering can or garden hose to this list for watering your crops.
However, if your garden soil is less than ideal — and most soil is — you also need to amend it with compost every year. If you want to grow vining plants, such as squash or tomatoes, you must provide some sort of support for them, which could be a trellis, stakes and twine, or cages. Finally, a small fence of stones, bricks, or wood can be useful for holding water in the garden area, especially after heavy rainfall.
What It Costs
The cost of starting your first in-ground garden depends on its size and the quality of your soil. Suppose you’re planting an 800-square-foot garden like the one Julia Clem recommends in Best Pick Reports. It includes 15 crops:
- 20 to 30 feet of beets (planted in a row)
- 10 to 15 bell pepper plants
- 12 to 15 broccoli plants
- 12 to 16 feet of carrots
- 40 to 50 cornstalks
- 4 to 6 cucumber plants, or 2 to 4 vines
- 6 to 8 eggplants
- 15 to 20 feet of kale
- 20 to 30 feet of lettuce
- 4 to 6 melon vines
- 40 to 50 potato plants
- 30 to 40 feet of spinach
- 4 to 6 squash plants
- 5 to 8 tomato plants
- 4 to 8 zucchini plants
Based on the calculators provided by McGill Compost and Green Mountain Compost, a garden this size needs 2.5 cubic yards of compost. That means somewhere between 67 and 99 bags of compost unless you choose to make your own compost. It also requires 13 to 26 wire cages for the tomato plants, squash, melons, and possibly cucumbers. The cheapest way to acquire them is to build your own plant cages from wire stakes and fencing.
Prices for these items can vary based on what region of the country you live in and where you shop. Based on prices listed at Home Depot in the Northeast, your first-year costs for this garden would be approximately:
- About 85 bags of compost: $255
- Seeds for 15 different crops: $25
- Tools (which you can then use year after year): $45
- Wire fencing and stakes for cages (also reusable): $160
- Total: $485
It’s a significant investment, but it pays off in fresh produce. According to the Vegetable Value Calculator from PlanGarden.com, an 800-square-foot garden with these 15 crops can produce over 700 pounds of veggies and fruit worth more than $2,000. Based solely on your financial costs, that’s a potential profit of more than $1,500 in your first year.
However, if you want to count the value of your time as an expense, that’s much harder to calculate. The amount of time you spend in the garden can vary widely. For instance, rainfall in your area affects how much time you spend watering, and weeds and pests are also tougher to deal with in some areas than others.
However, you can get a rough idea of the time commitment from the Fresh Legacy blog. Blogger Kyrstie says she maintains a garden roughly 430 square feet in size and spends about 85 hours per year maintaining it. If you assume an 800-square-foot garden would take about twice as much work, that’s 170 hours, which is like earning a tax-free hourly wage of $8.82. So, even if you see gardening as a chore, it’s one that pays significantly better than minimum wage. And if you see it as an enjoyable hobby, the money you save is just the icing on the cake.
2. Raised Beds
If you don’t have very good soil in your yard, you can save yourself the work of tilling and improving it by building boxed raised beds and filling them with purchased soil. Raising your beds off the ground helps them drain better and warm up faster in spring, lengthening your growing season. Also, because your beds are clearly defined and you don’t have to step inside them to work, you avoid compacting the soil, which keeps your plants healthier.
A typical raised bed measures 6 to 8 feet long, 3 to 6 feet wide, and 6 to 8 inches high. However, you can either add legs or build a base from bricks or cinder blocks to raise your beds as high as waist height, allowing seniors and people with disabilities to garden without stooping. You can also add fixed trellises to your beds to support vining crops. Trellises can nearly double the usable space in each bed by allowing your plants to grow up rather than out.
Raised beds cost more to set up initially than in-ground beds. However, they can be cheaper to maintain in the long run. Because the garden space is contained, water, fertilizer, compost, and mulch are less likely to run off and go to waste. And, because the soil doesn’t get compacted, your garden may not need as much organic material added each year to improve soil quality.
One garden chore you’ll have to do more often in raised beds is watering. Raised beds drain faster than in-ground beds, so you must keep an eye on your plants to make sure they don’t dry out.
What You Can Grow
Because raised beds are limited in size, most gardeners who have them use the block-planting method, laying out crops in squares rather than rows. Block planting, also known as intensive gardening, involves spacing the plants closer together than row gardening. That increases your yield per square foot and helps crowd out weeds, saving you work.
However, this gardening method doesn’t work well for all crops. For instance, according to the University of Georgia Extension, sweet corn isn’t a good choice for compact raised beds because you need to plant large blocks of it for proper pollination — too large for a typical raised bed. And based on my own experience, large melons and squash, such as the larger varieties of pumpkins and watermelons, can be too heavy to grow on a trellis and too sprawling to contain in a small space.
Aside from these limits, you can grow nearly any vegetable in a raised bed. In fact, you can tailor the conditions in your beds to meet the needs of the crops inside them. For instance, if you have some crops that like very light soil and some that prefer dense soil, you can grow them in separate beds and amend the soil in each one to suit their needs.
For more information about block planting and other methods, read our article on gardening tips and ideas.
What You Need
A raised-bed garden requires the same seeds and tools as an in-ground garden of similar size, plus the materials to build and fill the boxed beds. You can buy ready-to-assemble boxed bed kits from home centers and garden supply stores, but these can cost anywhere from $45 to over $200 for a 4-foot-by-4-foot bed. Building your own is generally a cheaper option.
There are plenty of plans online showing how to build your own raised beds from scratch. EarthEasy offers plans for a 4-foot-by-8-foot bed made of rot-resistant cedar boards. Lowe’s shows how to build beds from inexpensive two-by-four lumber, and My Outdoor Plans has a plan for an elevated raised bed with legs. If your bed isn’t elevated, adding a layer of steel-mesh hardware cloth to the bottom can help keep out burrowing pests. An additional lining of landscape fabric or newspaper helps deter weeds.
Once you have the beds, you need soil and soil amendments to fill them. You can calculate the volume you need by simply multiplying the length, width, and depth as measured in feet. Thus, a bed 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 8 inches deep can hold about 21 cubic feet of material.
Gardeners’ Supply Company recommends filling your beds with a mixture of 60% topsoil, 30% compost, and 10% potting soil. You can buy these materials in bags at any garden center. If you have a large volume to fill, some garden centers also sell bulk compost and bulk topsoil by the cubic yard and deliver it to your home.
What It Costs
When you garden intensively with the block planting method, it doesn’t take as much space to feed a family. Rosalind Creasy, one of the pioneers of edible landscaping, wrote in a 2010 Mother Earth News article that her first intensively planted garden, which measured just 100 square feet, produced around 236 pounds of produce in its first year. A garden three times this size would match the production of the 800-square-foot in-ground garden described above.
Of course, Creasy is an experienced gardener, so you probably won’t get results like these in your first year. Still, her results show it’s possible to feed a family of four with about 300 square feet of raised garden beds. That’s roughly nine beds if they’re each 4-by-8 feet. If you built your own raised beds using the Lowe’s plan, your costs based on the prices at Home Depot in the Northeast would be:
- 90 (10-foot) two-by-fours: $720
- 1 pound of deck screws: $10
- 113 cubic feet of topsoil: $200
- 57 cubic feet of compost: $170
- 19 cubic feet of potting soil: $210
- Seeds for 15 different crops: $25
- Tools : $45
- Total: $1,380
As you can see, the initial cost for this raised-bed garden is quite a bit higher than for an in-ground garden. However, it should pay you back in its first year with more than $2,000 worth of produce.
After that, you can reuse the boxes, tools, and soil. Your only ongoing costs will be $195 per year for fresh compost and seeds.
3. Container Gardens
If you’re short on outdoor space, a container garden could be your best choice. Container gardening means just what it sounds like: growing plants in containers rather than planting them in the ground. You can grow a container garden in the tiniest of yards, or even without a yard at all. Any outdoor space that gets several hours of daily sunlight, such as a patio, deck, balcony, or rooftop, can hold a few pots of tomatoes and greens.
Container gardening can save you time as well as space. Because your plants don’t go into the ground, you don’t need to prepare the soil or weed the crops. However, since potted plants can only hold a limited amount of water, you have to water your crops more often.
Keeping plants in containers also makes it easier to give them what they need. You can move the pots around your yard throughout the year — or even throughout the day — to make sure they always get the proper amount of sunlight. When meteorologists predict harsh weather, such as a severe frost, you can cover the pots or even bring them inside temporarily. You can also cover them at night to protect them from animals.
What You Can Grow
The most significant limitation of container gardening is that it limits the amount of space your plants’ roots have to spread out. Of course, you can grow almost anything if your container is large enough. However, for large plants like corn, you’d need either such large containers or so many of them you’d lose most of the benefits of container gardening.
- Beets: 12 inches deep
- Cucumbers: 5 gallons for two plants
- Eggplant: 5 gallons for one plant
- Beans: 12 inches deep
- Lettuce and Other Greens: 6 to 8 inches deep
- Onions: 4 inches deep
- Peas: 5 gallons for multiple plants
- Peppers (Sweet or Hot): 12 inches deep
- Radishes: Any size
- Squash: 5 gallons for one winter squash or two summer squashes
- Tomatoes: 12 inches deep
However, some of these plants need special care to grow well in containers. Tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, and some peppers and beans grow best with a trellis or other form of support added to the pot. Tomatoes also need protection from cold, and peppers need consistent water levels. Squash needs a large container and plenty of light, water, and fertilizer.
What You Need
Nearly any type of container can hold a plant as long as it’s large enough and has drainage holes to let water escape. You can use plastic or clay pots, fabric grow bags, hanging baskets, or wooden barrels. You can also repurpose containers such as plastic tubs, takeout containers, trash cans, or buckets.
In addition to containers, you need soil to fill them. Using plain topsoil isn’t a good idea, as it doesn’t drain well and can also make your containers too heavy to move easily. According to Better Homes & Gardens, a good type to use is a potting mix made from 8 parts potting soil (with perlite or vermiculite included), 4 parts compost or peat moss, and 1 part coarse sand to improve drainage.
As for tools, all you need is a hand trowel and a watering can or hose. And of course, you need either seeds or seedlings to put into your pots.
What It Costs
The cost to start a container garden depends on how many plants you want and what types of containers you put them in. Let’s suppose you’re creating a small patio garden with just five containers — one each for tomatoes, beans, eggplant, peppers, and lettuce. Your costs, based on Home Depot Northeast pricing, will include:
- Five (5-gallon) grow bags: $20
- 20 gallons of potting soil: $25
- 10 gallons of compost: $5
- 2.5 gallons of coarse sand: $7
- Trellis netting and stakes to support the tomatoes and beans: $25
- Seeds: $12
- Tools: $6
- Total: $100
You can reuse the grow bags, tools, and trellis materials from year to year. However, you’ll have to add fresh potting mix each year, as the original potting soil gets depleted of nutrients.
Although this garden has a very low initial cost, it also won’t provide nearly as much produce as a larger in-ground or raised-bed garden. However, based on calculations from The Spruce and Vegetable Growers News, even this small garden could provide as much as 25 pounds of tomatoes, 3 to 4 pounds of peppers, 150 pole beans, 12 eggplants, and three or four heads of lettuce. According to the Vegetable Value Calculator, that’s about $157 worth of produce — enough for your garden to pay for itself and then some.
4. Window Boxes
One special type of container garden, called a window box, requires no outdoor space at all to grow. All you need is a good-size window that gets plenty of sun. With a window box, even apartment dwellers can enjoy the savings, fun, and homegrown flavor of gardening.
A window box is a long, narrow planter that hangs either outside a window or off the side of a deck. These shallow boxes can’t accommodate very many plants or very large ones, but on the plus side, they also require very little maintenance. There’s no digging, no tilling, and no weeding involved. However, the plants do need regular watering to keep their roots from drying out.
What You Can Grow
Many Americans’ favorite vegetable crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, are simply too big to fit in a window box. However, there are quite a few shallow-rooted crops that can grow perfectly well in a window box. According to Fine Gardening and Better Homes and Gardens, appropriate choices include lettuce and other greens, radishes, beets, and some types of beans. Even carrots can work if you choose a short variety.
Window boxes are also ideal for growing fresh herbs, such as parsley, dill, basil, chives, thyme, and marjoram. These delicate plants can be quite expensive to buy at the store, and they often come in larger bunches than you need, so most of it goes to waste. Growing fresh herbs in a window box and snipping them off as required gets you a big bang for your gardening buck.
What You Need
A window box requires fewer supplies than just about any other type of garden. All you need is a suitable box planter, brackets to hold it in place, potting mix to fill it, seeds, and water. Some crops can benefit from a dose of slow-release fertilizer, but it isn’t essential. Even a trowel is optional since you can plant in these small boxes with your bare hands.
What It Costs
Window box planters vary significantly in size, material, and cost. You can spend over $100 on a 4-foot wide teak box planter or pay less than $18 for a 3 foot wide plastic planter. Choose any container you like, as long as it’s well drained, fits your window, and stands up well to the elements.
Let’s say you have a 30-inch window and want to grow five crops in your window box: lettuce, oregano, dill, thyme, and parsley. Your expenses will include:
- 31-inch, self-watering plastic window box with brackets: $35
- 20 quarts of self-watering container-friendly potting mix: $12
- Seeds: $12
- Total: $59
Once you have the box, you can keep using it year after year. However, you need to replace the potting mix and seeds each year for an additional $24.
It’s difficult to calculate the exact yield from a box like this. Typically, you don’t harvest herbs or lettuce from a window box all at once: you take a leaf here or a sprig there as you need it. However, let’s assume that without this box, you’d need to buy a $2 package of fresh herbs once per week throughout a 32-week growing season. At that rate, your box would pay for itself in its first year and would save you up to $40 per year after that.
5. Community Gardens
If you’re an apartment dweller wishing for a bigger garden than your little window box, a community garden plot could be the solution. Community gardens are shared areas where neighbors can plant and grow vegetables and flowers together. They can be located on vacant lots, on rooftops, in public parks, at schools and universities, and on business campuses.
Typically, community gardens have both a common gathering area and a bunch of individual plots. People living in the neighborhood can sign up for one of these plots as their personal garden space. You choose what to grow in your own plot, and you’re responsible for keeping it neat and presentable.
What You Can Grow
Community gardens can have either in-ground beds or raised beds. In theory, you can grow anything you could grow in the same type of garden at home.
However, most community gardens have some limitations. For one thing, you only get one plot of limited size. There’s no standard size for community garden plots; North Carolina State Extension suggests that community garden organizers make them anywhere between 100 and 500 square feet. However, Carolyn Beans writes on NPR’s The Salt about tending a community garden plot that was no more than a single 4-foot-by-8-foot raised bed. Thus, you have to scale back your ambitions to fit the scope of the available space.
Also, community gardens can have their own rules about what crops are allowed. For instance, Ewing Community Gardens bars members from growing any crops tall enough to shade another member’s plot. It also bans all potentially invasive crops, such as castor beans, bamboo, morning glories, and mint.
Finally, you need to consider how much attention your crops require. When your garden is a few blocks from your home rather than right outside the door, it’s harder to tend it every day. Thus, it’s a good idea to focus on low-maintenance crops that don’t need constant weeding, watering, or harvesting. According to The Spruce, The Creative Vegetable Gardener, and Tenth Acre Farm, good choices include:
- Basil and other herbs
- Kale and other leafy greens
- Peppers, especially hot ones
- Tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes
What You Need
You can only grow food in a community garden if there is one in your area. To find one, do an Internet search for “community gardens near me.” You can also look for nearby community gardening groups on Meetup.
If you don’t find a local garden this way, try asking around at places in your neighborhood that might host one. That includes schools, colleges, universities, office parks, and your town’s parks and recreation department. Your local library may also have some information.
Finding a nearby community garden doesn’t guarantee you a spot in it. Plots are often in high demand, and many community gardens have long waiting lists. Some limit eligibility to people who live within a very narrow radius of the garden to keep the list down.
If you’re lucky enough to secure a garden plot, you have your space and soil all ready to go. Some community gardens also have a shared collection of tools and make their own compost on-site. If your local garden is one of them, the only thing you have to buy yourself is the seeds. However, if you want to add extras to your garden plot, such as a trellis or a layer of mulch, you might have to pay for them yourself.
What It Costs
The cost of using a community garden varies. Some community gardens charge an annual membership fee to cover their expenses. Others get their funding from grants, sponsorships, or tax revenues and are free to their members.
In addition to membership costs, you must supply your own seeds. These typically cost between $1 and $5 per packet. However, you can reduce this cost by shopping online, saving seeds from your crops to plant next year, and swapping seeds with other gardeners.
In some cases, you can even grow food from scraps of organic produce you’ve bought at the grocery store. For example, you can allow store-bought potatoes to develop “eyes,” cut the potatoes in half, and plant them. You can also plant the root ends of scallions (green onions) after using the green parts. Eventually, a new scallion will grow up from the root.
The amount of produce you can get from a community garden plot depends on its size. If you have a 100-square-foot plot and grow your crops intensively like Rosalind Creasy, you can hope to match her yield of 236 pounds of produce. That’s around $700 worth of food for the cost of some seeds — and all the hours of work you put into tending your beds.
If you’re new to gardening, there’s one crucial thing to know before you get started: Not every crop you plant will succeed. Failures are a normal part of gardening. It’s tempting to go out and spend a lot of money on fancy gardening tools and equipment that promise guaranteed results, but sadly, there’s no such thing.
If you really want to maximize your chances for success, what you need is knowledge. You’ll learn a lot as you go along about what works and what doesn’t in your particular garden space. However, you can speed up the process by reading gardening books, websites, and discussion groups. Whenever you have a gardening problem, just do an Internet search, and you’re sure to find advice from other gardeners who’ve dealt with the same thing.
Aside from that, the best way to make your garden flourish is to take care of it. Give it plenty of water and good compost, weed it regularly, and protect it from pests. Keep an eye on your produce, and harvest them as soon as they’re ripe so they don’t go to seed.
If you’re lucky enough to find that your garden is producing faster than you can eat the yield, look into ways to preserve your harvest. Often, you can keep produce fresh longer simply by storing it properly. If you still can’t keep up with your garden’s production, try preserving your produce through canning, drying, pickling, or freezing. These techniques allow you to enjoy homegrown veggies all winter long.