Frugalites, health gurus and anyone with a penchant for fresh tomatoes praise the home garden as an affordable way to bring more nutrition and flavor to the typical diet. In fact, according to the study "The Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America" done by the National Gardening Association, over 30% of U.S. households participated in some form of home gardening in 2009 (with that number climbing steadily every year since). When done correctly, even the smallest backyard plot can, indeed, produce a windfall of the finest produce specimens, and possibly even a significant savings to the grocery budget.
What Are the Expenses to Garden?
The total bill for a DIY veggie plot will vary by type of plant grown, number of plants and the length of a growing season. To calculate the true cost to start a garden and maintain it throughout the year, add together the following factors:

  • Cost of plants or seeds
  • Cost to provide nutrient rich soil (dirt, fertilizer, worms)
  • Cost to protect and structure plants (cages, coverings, fences)
  • Cost to water plants
  • Cost of tools and accessories (tiller, gloves, spade)

This, of course, does not factor in the cost of time and effort, which we assume you are not looking to add into your final bill.

The Real Return on Investment
While the risk involved with the pursuit of gardening can sometimes lead to a total or significant loss to your initial investment, the National Gardening Association still concludes that the average gardening household in 2009 experienced a $530 return on their average $70 investment to garden. When events such as drought and disease further restrict the availability of certain foods to be purchased at a reasonable price from the grocer each year, the value of home-grown lettuce, for example, will double or triple.

Ways to Save
As much potential as a garden can bring to the bottom line of the average foodie, the initial price tag for all the necessary supplies can cause a bit of sticker shock. With designer "heirloom" variety plants bringing a price of $10 each, or more, it may seem that gardening is only for those with ample cash on hand each planting season. There are ways to stretch that dollar, however, and many gardeners have figured out the best techniques to start on a shoestring. They include:

  • Start early with seeds started indoors. At $3.00 a package (or less), gardeners can give their plants a home-grown start and spread the risk out over several tiny plants. Picking the strongest from the bunch for transplanting outdoors will give you a comparable alternative to that expensive plant from the nursery – but at a cost of around 10 cents a plant.
  • Give square-foot gardening a try. This popular gardening technique isn't just highly effective at producing the healthiest plants with the smallest effort, it's affordable, too.
  • Grow only what you need. While it's nice to have an abundance of produce to share with family and friends, the upkeep of a larger-than-life garden will kill you on expenses and effort to maintain. Consider just one or two of each of the plants you like most, and avoid planting rows and rows of veggies simply because you have the room. Food waste is a common problem for overzealous gardeners.

The Bottom Line
In the end, the decision to garden is a truly personal one. Don't feel that it's necessary to go 100% into a gardening scenario; many gardeners grow those things that are easiest to produce (tomatoes, for example) and leave the trickier varieties to the professionals at the farmer's market. Doing your research before the planting season is the best way to find out how cost effective a backyard garden will be for your personal lifestyle.