The Grocery Garden: Small cost, big harvest

September 6, 2008

4,000 square feet of raised beds becomes $16,000 in fresh veggies

More than a century ago, a plant breeder and seed merchant named W. Atlee Burpee bought Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pa., and developed varieties of vegetables for the home gardener. Today, the enterprise continues in the same soil under W. Atlee Burpee & Co.’s president, George Ball, who has seen the circle come full turn.

The company’s founder was selling seeds to people who relied on a domestic vegetable garden to provide much of their family’s food. The world changed; successive generations grew less reliant on their own horticultural green thumb and more on hopping into the car and driving to the supermarket.

But seed companies report a huge increase in sales this year as idea of a home veggie plot has come back with a vengeance.

Ball said his company’s sales have jumped 40 percent because of what he calls “the perfect storm.”

Food prices are through the roof, and higher energy costs leave everyone with a lot less money to spend on food. Concerns about food safety and a desire to reduce one’s carbon footprint have engendered interest in eating fresh food locally. And where does a locavore find the freshest, closest source of nutrition? Right outside their door.

To prove the point, this year Ball has tweaked his trial garden at Fordhook Farm and renamed it the Grocery Garden. He and his staff checked prices at local supermarkets in surrounding Bucks County, Pa., and then applied those prices to the produce grown in raised beds totaling 4,000 square feet.

Many of the beds are used for successive crops (the lettuce of spring might yield to the eggplant of summer, for example), but he estimates the value of the food harvested here from May to October to be about $20,000. The seed would cost $800, and if you add in the costs of tools, fertilizer, mulch and your own sweat equity, the figure climbs to about $4,000, he said.

You’re still $16,000 ahead on your grocery bill, according to Ball’s calculations.

That sum, however, doesn’t account for the infrastructure of the garden: the board for retaining the growing beds, fencing, trellising, the drip irrigation system, the gravel for the paths, or indeed the soil. All this could be installed somewhat economically if you are handy and thrifty.,,


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