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Grocery costs are rising—do you need a survival garden?

Experts weigh in

Fresh vegetable produce of eggplants, tomatoes, cucumber and carrots sitting in wooden crate on top of soil in outdoor garden. Credit: Getty Images / aluxum

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With inflation at the top of mind for many, you may be wondering if it’s most cost-effective to grow your own food versus shopping at the grocery store.

Considering that food prices are up 10% in 2022—and in 2020, the average U.S. household spent almost $1,000 on produce—a survival garden may be just what you need to trim down the grocery bill.

It’s tempting to leave the supermarket behind and start a garden to grow patio tomatoes and backyard beans, but will you end up spending more money on seeds and supplies than if you just bought your veggies at the store?

We spoke to experts to find out if a survival garden can help you save money on food costs. Here’s what they had to say.

What is a survival garden?

Gardner holds wooden box filled with pumpkins, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, and onions.
Credit: Getty Images / Julia_Sudnitskaya

A survival garden doesn't require a huge lush backyard to thrive–a patio or balcony will suffice.

A survival garden is grown in a backyard or in pots on a balcony or patio, and ideally includes enough food to feed everyone living within the household.

“Gardening is most cost-efficient and pays off if you can use every inch of space growing multiple things for as long as you can to make it as productive as possible,” says Cynthia Haynes, an associate professor of Consumer Horticulture at Iowa State University. “This may mean four crops of lettuce in the same space or succession planting.” (This means planting a different crop in the same space when the first crop has been harvested.)

Haynes also notes that most food crops need full, direct sunlight to thrive, and advises to choose plants that grow well together in tight spaces, with options for succession planting and interplanting.

You may not have the right amount of space to grow everything you want in your yard but don’t forget that plants can grow up. Tomato trellises and stakes can help you grow more produce by growing plants vertically instead of letting them trail on the ground.

What should I plant in a survival garden?

Person sprinkling seedlings from the palm of hand into the soil of garden.
Credit: Getty Images / simonkr

You can cultivate anything from eggplants to pumpkins with the Survival Vegetable Seeds Garden Kit which comes equipped with 16,000 seeds.

Think about what you like to eat and are easy to harvest.

“Radishes, lettuce, and greens are good,” says Selena Ligrano, a project manager at Seattle-based Tilth Alliance. “You can keep harvesting greens [that grow back] and have fresh lettuce, even if you only have room for a pot in your apartment.”

You can grow whatever foods your family enjoys eating by purchasing seed packs or starter plants individually. Alternatively, you can buy a survival seed kit like the Gardeners Basics Store 16,000-seed Survival Garden Kit, which is full of a variety of seeds like watermelons, pumpkins, celery, corn, and basil.

When it comes to seeds, Ligrano says, “I don’t think people realize how many seeds are in a seed packet,” explaining that a packet of 100 lettuce seeds can yield 100 lettuce plants. (You can use your Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to purchase “seeds and plants, which produce food for the household to eat,” according to the USDA.)

Also, choosing vegetables that are easy to store can save you money over the winter. Onions, potatoes, and winter squash are all candidates for long-term storage.

Vegetables and fruits harvested from your backyard the same day you eat them are a lot fresher than supermarket varieties that may have been picked, shipped, and on display for days or weeks before they arrive in your kitchen.

“Supermarket varieties are grown because they travel well, not for diversity,” says Ligrano. Home growers can get access to seeds for edible and medicinal plants and herbs that just aren’t available in stores.

For all the ins and outs of starting a garden, see our guide to gardening for beginners.

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Can a survival garden save you money?

Person reviewing transaction receipt after shopping for food at grocery store.
Credit: Getty Images / simonkr

Depending on how excellent your green thumb is, your survival garden can be cost effective and even taste fresher than what you buy in the supermarket.

Whether you save money by growing food in your survival garden comes down to a few factors, according to Kevin Athearn, a regional extension agent at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.

How much will it cost to set up and raise your garden?

Do you already have a yard that you garden in, or a set of large patio pots with a watering system? That takes less money than setting up a garden from scratch.

Remember to factor in materials such as garden tools, raised beds, seedlings, soil, soil amendments, stakes and trellises, garden hose, sprinklers and hose nozzle heads, and processing materials like canning jars or dehydrators.

How much will you get out of the garden?

New gardeners tend to get lower yields than experienced growers. Some plants, like zucchini, give high yields with little skill and effort, but that doesn’t mean much if you don’t like to eat zucchini (or if you have hungry woodchucks living nearby).

What would you have paid for the same vegetables at a store?

In general, Athearn says, crops that need hand-harvesting, like baby spinach, cost a lot more per pound than machine-harvested crops like carrots and potatoes. If you’re already buying organic baby spinach, and you’re willing to do the labor to grow your greens, you’ll absolutely save money.

In Athearn’s test garden, he managed to save about $0.50 per pound by growing tomatoes and $4.67 per pound of baby spinach, but lost $0.50 per pound growing carrots at home because they’re cheaper to grow at industrial-scale farms.

Decide early on if you’re counting your time and labor in the cost of your garden. Athearn cites a study that shows that home gardening saves money if you don’t count the cost of labor. If you’d rather be inside watching TV or flipping flapjacks than outside in your yard, then gardening is work, and your unpaid working hours count against your savings.

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