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Grow Your Own Food to Cut Costs

basket of vegetables from a home garden

Growing your own food can be a tasty way to cut costs on your monthly grocery bill. Just ask the 42 million American households who already are growing their own fruits, herbs and vegetables.

According to a 2014 report by the National Gardening Association, 35 percent of American households are growing food at home or in a community garden. That's a 17 percent increase over the previous five years.

Backyard Bounty

John Zahina-Ramos is an experienced backyard gardener. He grows all the fruits and vegetables required to feed his two-person household in his backyard garden in Palm Springs, Fla.

By growing his own fruits and vegetables, Zahina-Ramos estimates that he saves between $2,000 and $2,200 per year compared to conventional agriculture prices and about $3,000 to $3,200 per year compared to organic produce.

Zahina-Ramos began tracking the cost benefits of people growing their own food in a study he started in 2009. The total cost of his garden, in which he grows 65 different types of fruits, vegetables and herbs, is $320 per year.

“On average, I harvest about 425 to 450 pounds of vegetables and 400 to 700 pounds of fruit per year,” says Zahina-Ramos.

Although he doesn’t sell his produce at farmers markets, Zahina-Ramos does end up giving some away.

“I have a very long list of people who graciously offer to take excess vegetables off of my hands,” says Zahina-Ramos. “I do trade for other goods and services, though. And give food as gifts.”

Additionally, Zahina-Ramos preserves his garden’s produce to use later in the year.

“I can about 50 pints of tomatoes each season, some of which is marinara sauce, stewed tomatoes, canned tomatoes and tomato sauce,” says Zahina-Ramos. “I also freeze what I can't can.”

Community Gardens

For those who don’t have the yard space at home, community gardens provide a low-cost way to grow your own food to cut costs — especially for apartment- or condo dwellers, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to grow anything beyond what fits on their small balconies.

Govinda Gonzalez has been growing her own food through organic gardening for three years, cutting costs all the while. Gonzalez started growing herbs and vegetables such as tomatoes, beets, squash and zucchini on her small balcony while she lived in Germany. After moving to Florida in August 2013, she joined the Frog Alley Community Garden in Delray Beach and began reaping the benefits of additional garden space (as well as south Florida’s extended growing season, which lasts all the way from August to May).

“I haven't bought lettuce since September, and my husband and I eat salad for dinner three times a week,” says Gonzalez.

The nonprofit that runs the Frog Alley Community Garden provides its members with a raised bed and soil and mulch. It receives donated water from the church next to the garden. Plots cost $25 to $125, depending on the size — Gonzalez pays $75 a year, which covers a 12-foot by 4-foot plot and the lumber and soil she needs for her garden. Gonzalez buys her own seeds, which cost anywhere from $1 to $3 per packet.

“Not only does the community garden help financially because you’re only renting the plot, but you learn immensely from everybody there,” says Gonzalez.

In addition to the produce she receives, Gonzalez also enjoys the camaraderie of growing food in a community garden.

“The important word is community,” says Gonzalez. “My neighbor gave me seeds for green beans and I gave him some onion bulbs. Other people water my plot for me when I’m not there, and I water their plots when they need me to.”

Advice to Cut Food Costs for Beginners

Ready to grow your own food to cut costs at the grocery store? Here are some tips to help you begin:

Start Small

All it takes to get started is a piece of land or even just a window planter. Find out what grows best in your climate and when the optimal growing season is. Don’t feel like you have to go big right away. As your confidence grows, expand your garden.

Get Advice

Seek out recommendations from local experts. They can give you the advice you need to cut food costs. Look for free or inexpensive classes and contact community garden organizers. If you’re unsure of where to start, the American Community Garden Association has a map of its member community gardens all over the country. Social media also is an option. For example, Gonzalez found Frog Alley Community Garden on the social networking site Meetup.

Try Starter Plants

You know that growing your own food can cut costs, but growing your first garden from seed can be intimidating. Gonzales used starter plants for veggies such as tomatoes, beets, squash, zucchini, chilies, cucumbers, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Reach out to friends and family who have mature gardens for advice on where to find quality starter plants that grow well in your area.

Expand Your Cooking Repertoire

Challenge yourself to eat what is seasonally available from your garden rather than relying on imported fruits and veggies from the produce aisle. Growing your own herbs such as rosemary, basil and mint also can trim your grocery bill.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]