Is Growing Your Own Tomatoes Cost Effective?

Is growing your own food from seed a cost effective way to eat organic without breaking your budget?

If you’ve ever gone to the garden supply store in the spring with the notion of growing a few vegetable plants in containers, you may have experienced sticker shock when you realized how costly it can be.  Pots, good quality organic soil, plant supports, fertilizers, gloves, trowels…these all add up before you’ve even put a single plant pack in your basket.  Growing your own vegetables can easily start to seem like an expensive hobby rather than a viable way to eat real, healthy food at a price you can afford.

Does it have to be this way? Is there any way to grow your own food without dedicating all your free time to tending a garden and spending as much as you would in a grocery store for organic veg and fruit?  I sincerely believe so, and this ongoing series of articles is about me, a novice gardener with a sunny balcony.  This is about my experiences, trials, questions, successes and failures.  This is about having a useful, safe and productive food source.  This is about doing it as cheaply as possible.

I love beauty, however, I really believe that good clean food needs to be affordable to everyone, to be democratized so that real food is the rule and not the exception.  So I set out last spring to make a container garden on my balcony as cheaply and with as little fuss as possible. It wasn’t full of gorgeous, glazed pots and garden gadgets.  I wanted to do it on the cheap and so I spent the most on good, organic soil and went completely utilitarian with the rest of the components.

What I grew

Marzanos are a delicious plum tomato prized by Italians for making sauces and preserving in jars whole, diced or halved, for use out of season.  While they can be eaten fresh, their real culinary value is realized through cooking.  In stews and tagines, quartered Marzanos add a wonderfully balanced tomato flavor, while retaining their shape and texture.  In slow cooked sauces, Marzanos deliver a rich tomato flavor without too much acidity.  Also, their flesh is less juicy, which makes them less appealing to eat raw in a salad, yet perfect for sauces and pastes.

For fresh eating, I grew two kinds of cherry tomatoes, large and small.  Both were sweet, juicy and so delicious it was hard to bring the sun warm tomatoes in for weighing without popping a few in my mouth.  The skins of the small cherry tomatoes were slightly softer and more delicate than the large ones.  But both were fantastic in both flavor and color for any kind of fresh eating.


Cost of supplies

Containers: $30
Soil: $48
Seeds: $3
Stakes: free, salvaged what I could find
Fertilizer: free, used home made compost made from kitchen scraps and worm castings from my worm bin

I used two kinds of containers: black plastic nursery containers and containers made out of dried cow manure.  The plastic ones will last indefinitely, while the manure containers will last several years and slowly biodegrade.  I had to purchase the manure containers.  I found several black plastic containers for free (they are the size that small fruit trees come in), and bought the rest.  This kept my container cost low.  They aren’t the prettiest to look at, especially when the season is just getting started.  Once the plants are lush in summer, green is what you notice.  Tomatoes have a wide and deep root system.  You must make sure your growing containers are large enough.

You must use heirloom seeds.  If you use hybrids, you will not be able to save the seeds for the next season.

Tomato harvest

Cherry tomatoes 3.72 lbs (1.69 kg)

Marzano tomatoes 4.46 lbs (1.57 kg)

Was it worth it?

This is what I got out of growing my own tomatoes last year:

  • Happiness Factor (because I love gardening)
  • Tomatoes that were as organic as can be
  • Absolutely fantastic flavor
  • No need to deal with packaging: those green plastic pints or horrid plastic clamshells
  • Tomatoes at the peak of ripeness, flavor and nutrition—pick and eat
  • Free seeds for next season, and enough to share with others
  • The market value of my yield came in at just under $50 worth of tomatoes
  • I found growing these tomatoes required very little work or time

Amortize

In 2013, I’ll be able to reuse the pots as well as some of the soil.  I’ll add to the fertility of the soil by adding my free home made compost and worm castings.  I’ll be able to use the seed I saved from last year’s harvest.  The only thing I will likely need to buy this year is a little bit of composted manure to enrich the soil mix.

That means that, while last year’s tomatoes were expensive, this year’s tomatoes will likely see me break even.  Next year’s tomatoes will be virtually free, and so on.  If you plan on being alive for the next two years and you plan on eating tomatoes, it’s worth the investment.  Every year gets cheaper, until it’s virtually free.  Plus, you gain experience growing your own food, which is going to become increasingly more valuable as we continue down the road of climate instability and peak oil.  By growing some of your own food, you are building resilience into your local food system, into your life.

Why is saving your seed so important?

When you save seed, you choose which plants did really well in your climate and conditions.  All of my plants produced tomatoes, but some produced noticeably more.  I’ll save seed from those plants.  There were other plants that did not produce as much, but resisted the mold that plagued some of my other plants.  I’ll save seed from those as well.  There were some plants that were only mediocre producers and did not resist mold, and I won’t save any seed from them.

By saving seeds from plants that do really well in my local conditions, I’ll have an even better yield next year.

Growing from seed?  Time to get going!

Growing from seed is very satisfying, cheaper than buying plants…and it also takes longer.  Meaning, you need to get your seeds started indoors soon, so it’s time to start gathering what you will need.  Start your seeds in little seed pots indoors.  There is a very good section in Garden Anywhere that covers growing from seed, what you will need and how to use recycled containers for seed starts.  The author likes to use seed starter, but I have used regular potting soil to good effect as well.  This year, I will be composting my leaves separately to make leaf mold.

Gardening books I like

Here are some books on gardening I have found very helpful:

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series)

The Winter Harvest Handbook and Year-Round Vegetable Production with Eliot Coleman: Set

Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, Including 50 Recipes, Plus Harvesting and Storage Tips


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