Many Howard County gardeners admit it: They do not garden for the purpose of saving money.
No. 1 on their list of reasons for tilling the earth is often the personal satisfaction they experience from seeing things grow. Many others say they long for the taste of just-picked produce, or are enamored of vegetables not available in the grocery. Don't try to sell these people a "hot-house" tomato or a pale ballof iceberg lettuce.
When hard economic times come, as they have in the last two years, statistics show that more of us, for several reasons, turn to vegetable gardening.
Gallup polls commissioned by the National Gardening Association during the past 20 years reveal a correlation between recessions and numbers of households with some type of vegetable garden. When their surveys commenced in 1971, 30 percent of American families grew vegetables. By 1975, and the worst of that decade's recession, the number of vegetable gardeners had risen to 49 percent.
The numbers of food gardeners declined thereafter, in relation to "bettertimes," with the percent down to 40 percent in 1980 and bottoming out in 1989, with only 32 percent of American households having vegetable gardens.
In the last three years, vegetable gardeners' numbers are on the rise again. The National Gardening Association attributes much of this interest in gardening to the desire to save money on food bills. (They estimate that home gardeners raised $3.4 billion in vegetables in 1990.) But they point out that there are other advantagesto being a gardener during financially difficult times.
Stress increases, and the personal satisfaction element of gardening, for manypeople, becomes doubly important. And where can one find a more economical hobby, or cheaper entertainment? The statistics revealed that,in 1990, the average amount that was spent during the year per household on the garden was $43. A five- to six-month season of gardening in Howard County would appear cheaper than one, perhaps two, family outings to a movie or the bowling alley!
Gardening becomes an attractive activity on many levels. And those county gardeners in my informal poll who dismissed the idea of tilling to save dollars, are in fact, saving more money than they realize.
Here is an interesting formula that you may wish to plug your own numbers into. It comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is a mathematical way to convert garden area into dollar value of production.
The dollar value of production equals the area (square feet) multiplied by the crop intensity (less than 1 foot between rows equals a factor of 1.2; 1 to 2 feet, 1.0; 2 to 3 feet, 0.8; more than 3 feet, 0.7) multiplied by crop quality (good equals a factor of 0.7; fair, 0.4) multiplied by the length of season (200 or more frost-free days equals a factor of 1.2;less than 200 frost-free days, 1.0).
Here is how I figured out myown garden's dollar value:
I first determined my garden's area insquare feet by multiplying its length by its width, 20 by 25 equals 500. I then multiplied the number of square feet, 500, by 1.2 -- the spacing number I chose because I garden in intensive beds -- to come up with 600.
Now the subjective number. I flattered myself and called my vegetables good quality and multiplied by 0.7, which now equals 420. In Howard County we have less than 200 consecutive frost-free days (average last frost about May 10; average first fall frost aboutOct. 10) so I finally multiplied by 1, for a final figure of 420.
According to the USDA, I grew an amazing $420 worth of vegetables. Of course, there were some expenses to deduct. I didn't put up much ofmy produce, so there were not the canning/freezing/electricity expenses to subtract. But there were seeds and seed starting supplies, additional plants, fertilizer, the new shovel and hose I bought, and water (the water bill did go up last July and August, despite the watering ban). The cynic in me wants to add the cost of labor, but, excluding some days in July and August, most of my activity in the garden qualified as recreation/fun.
It felt like an extravagant year as faras spending for the garden went last year, but now I feel better. There are certainly many ways I could have cut costs, thus increasing my "vegetable profit margin." Here are some ideas for economizing in the garden.
Make efficient use of garden space. Implement intensive, wide-bed gardening techniques. Space plants equidistant from one another (so they will almost touch at maturity), within 18- to 30-inch-wide rows or beds instead of single-plant rows.
Save money on seeds. Watch for the traditional 25 percent to 50 percent off sales at local garden centers. Share packets -- which almost always have more seeds than one gardener can use -- with gardening friends.
Start youown plants. If you traditionally buy many tomato, pepper and flower seedlings, it may be worthwhile to learn how to start your own indoors this spring.
Recycle. Forgo the fancy indoor seed-starting systems and plant in equally effective Styrofoam cups, egg cartons, last year's pots, etc. Popsicle sticks or pieces cut from cottage cheese containers or ice cream tubs make good plant markers.
Use free soil conditioners and mulches. Most horse stable owners would love for youto haul away some of their resident's organic byproduct. Make sure manure is well composted. Last fall's leaves, or dried grass clippings(chemically untreated) make good organic additions to the soil and may be used as mulch as well.