Friday, October 10, 2008

Financial Argument for Planting a Garden (in SIPs)

With most of our retirement portfolios worth about sixty percent of what they were two months ago, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of “boot strapping” both in the corporate sector and at home. People will hold off large expenditures and start watching what they spend on everyday items, like, most appropriately here, food.

People will weigh food costs against quality; which may impact the commercial supply chain. The big box grocers will be running sales on produce that don’t seem possible until you realize the direct correlation between cost and quality. The niche markets, focused on organic or higher quality produce may suffer, since their food is often more expensive to grow. The farmers may feel a pinch as well with their commercial buyers but also the farmers markets and CSAs since spending four or five dollars a pound for tomatoes may seem like a luxury to some people.

Please take a breath and gather some perspective. High quality, locally sourced, organic food is probably much better for your health than the high volume, commercially grown, low quality produce alternative. What is your health worth to you (please factor in rising health care costs before answering)? Some people believe that since the “good stuff” has more concentrated flavor, a person is more likely not to overeat or need as much of it. Maybe less is more?

This seems like the perfect time to start planning your own garden. You’ll reap the benefits of locally grown, high quality, organic produce for next spring, summer, and fall. Perhaps, you’ll be enterprising and think about canning and freezing for next winter.

Gardens can seem expensive – turning a yard into a serviceable, organic garden takes a lot of hard work, tools, and time. Let alone watering everyday and weeding and fighting off insects.

Yes, the “traditional way” can be difficult but I use SIPs (Sub-Irrigated Planters) in my rooftop garden that I feel paid for itself this year alone. Friends and family are surprised to see the yields and the ease of use. I use the commercial Earthbox planters but you can make your own (plenty of options on this site alone). Besides for the initial set-up (fill with potting mix, fertilize and plant your crop), all there is left is daily watering. That will be taken care of next season with an automatic watering system from Earthbox but you can build your own as well from instructions on our site. There is very little weeding and watching for pests (I sprayed organic solutions for about a week this past year). The most labor intensive thing you may have to do is build trellises and supports for all of your plants.

To give you an idea of why I feel good about my garden investment this year, here’s an example. I planted four boxes of tomatoes (actually five but the last box was a late season addition of donated heirlooms tomatoes – I want to keep this fair). My investment for the boxes was $34 each (I bought twelve at once). I figure the potting mix and fertilizer cost another $12 per box and starter plants were about five bucks each (two per box). That’s about $224.00 for tomatoes this year!

But wait. Some claim that they can get yields of 40lbs of tomatoes per box per season. I didn’t count but I would estimate that, on average, I was pulling about 5-10lbs of tomatoes per week since mid July (I’m still pulling 5 lbs a week in mid October). If we take an average of two pounds of tomatoes per box per week for 13 weeks, it’s about 26lbs of tomatoes per box, per season (a conservative estimate) or 104 pounds of tomatoes. At my local organic grocer, organic tomatoes cost about $4 per pound in season. At the farmers markets, they average about $3 per pound. That’s $300-$400 if I were to purchase my yield and quality at the store or market. That’s a significant savings and don’t even get me started on my lettuce! On top of the cost difference, I have the pleasure of walking upstairs to pick my “fresh off the vine” tomato for my BLT. I will track the costs better next year. This year was my “R&D” phase to see if growing vegetables on my roof was possible.

I feel that we’ll see a significant grassroots movement back to vegetable gardening. In order to do that, especially in an urban setting, people will need information resources. Our goal is to supply them here. Before next spring (planting season), we will be offering information on how to plan your garden along with tips we’ve learned along the way. We’ll try to include local suppliers of materials and cost-effective tips. If you have any ideas, please feel free to forward them.


Anonymous said...

Hey, great post. I live up in Lake County (Gurnee) and have been doing a little research about turning my back and maybe front yards into food production. I don't know anything about gardening though.

I want to get some 10x10 fields set up to start planting in the spring and could use some advice as to what mix of gypsum, cardboard, compost, topsoil would be best?... Where to get it?... What seeds should I order for spring?... I have some big trees shading my back yard, how much should I trim back for sun?... I have books but would really like connection to a like minded network.

Anyway, I work from home, mostly Internet based work. I've recently been thinking about some kind of regional social network to support urban / suburban gardening and homesteading.

What do you think? Is a free/open learning network for neophyte, experienced and supportive back yard growers a possibility?

- David.

Bruce said...

Hi David,

You've asked some good questions.

I recently read an article titled
Easy Garden Anyone Can Make that walks you through the basics of turning a suburban lawn into a vegetable garden. I don't have any direct experience doing it, but it seems possible. You might also want to consider square foot gardening. And don't forget about the SIPs.

Starting stuff from seeds is easy enough to do. You don't need to worry about ordering them until next February. The tree trimming is a little out of my league. I'd say you want at least 6 hours of sun on most of the vegetables, with some notable exceptions. So maybe try to situate your plots in between the shadows. Failing that, buy a chain saw.

This blog is our attempt at setting up some kind of informal network of like minded people. My enthusiasm has faded in the past month or so, but I'd like to participate/contribute to any new projects, i.e.

I'd guess that Russ and H2 would be interested as well.

Unknown said...

Hey Bruce,
Thanks for the links. I have/had a subscription to MotherEarthNews so I have the magazine with that article. I also have the square foot gardening book.

I think it would be great to use the net to start some kind of regional support network. I already joined the site and it looks like there's a few people over there.

I could start it up / moderate it. It would be great if all of you would want to participate and spread the word about your efforts and your blog.

- David.

H2 said...

Nicely done, Russ, tying together two pressing issues. All week I've been thinking the same.

This winter we're trying a new experiment: bringing inside several SIPs to our unheated second floor/southern exposure and growing cool-weather greens. Some heat leaks from our first floor up, so it stays in the 40s usually.

We've been talking to Bruce about his seed-starting lighting system in case the winter sun isn't enough to keep the greens growing. I'll post more about this soon.

Anonymous said...

Wow you guys. What an amazing summer. I came across your site a few weeks ago after you were featured in the Trib. I'm in Bucktown/Wicker Park and would love to grow some produce on our roof top next summer. Your site is now my #1 resource. I'd love to be involved in any social network you get going.

H2 said...

Nice site, hideyourbreakables. We welcome green neighbors and would be happy to show you our roofs sometime.

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