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Mr. Miser

How much does DIY gardening really save? Add to ...

The few times I've ever tried to garden it has followed a clear pattern. I pot whatever it is I hope to grow, I water that pot once or twice at the most, and then ignore it until whatever is in that pot shrivels and turns brown.

Despite these failures, I like the idea of gardening - the serenity of tending a plot, the satisfaction of clipping a few herbs to throw into a dinner. And if you're trying to save a few bucks, the idea of paying for things that you could just grow seems ridiculous. I mean, why am I paying for stuff that just comes up out of the ground?

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"If you have a reasonably sized vegetable garden, you can probably save a fair amount of money with the produce that you produce every year," says Susan Littlefield, the horticulture editor at the U.S.-based National Gardening Association.

How much money can you save? According to Vegetable Gardening for Dummies, a garden that is 20 feet by 30 feet requires an initial investment of $70 for things like seeds and soil, and produces more than $600 worth of vegetables over the course of a season.

"But that's a fairly substantial sized garden," Ms. Littlefield warns. Many people don't have that kind of space to devote to a garden and, even if they do, they probably aren't looking for the 80 pounds of tomatoes or 30 pounds of peppers that the books says you'll get.

Still, growing even a few vegetables and herbs in pots is going to save you money, Ms. Littlefield says.

The packages of tomato and pepper seeds I bought over the weekend each cost $1.99. Over the course of the summer, one good tomato plant could produce 10 pounds of tomatoes. The same amount at the grocery store would run me $29.90.

And one good pepper plant could put five pounds of yumminess on the table. For $2. Compare that to the price it would run me at the store: $24.95. The price of veggies may go down in the summer, but it won't get anywhere close to homegrown.

Of course, it's not just a matter of emptying a bag of seeds into some dirt and then sitting back and waiting for the deliciousness and cash savings to come rolling in.

"The reality - and this is a tough reality when people learn it - is that it's work," says Doug Green, author of the Guide to Canadian Vegetable Gardening.

Starting from seeds is going to require a lot of attention, I'm told. I'll have to start them indoors in egg cartons and mist them every day and treat them like delicate children.

Still, with just a couple of vegetables and herbs to tend in three or four pots, it's not that much work once things get going. Mr. Green estimates I'm going to have to do one or two hours of labour on the garden each week, weeding and watering and pruning.

"Starting small is a good idea," Ms. Littlefield says. "It's really easy, when you're starting out, to bite off more than you can chew."

I've decided to keep three pots: one with tomatoes, one with peppers and one with a few herbs. That seems manageable. And the cost of setting it all up - buying seeds and pots and a bag of soil - only ran me $45.

Killing the vegetables through neglect will be free, of course. But, filled with the optimism of spring, I actually think I can make it work this time.

And if I do, I'll get to enjoy things that are difficult to put a price on, like getting to go out to the backyard to clip some chives for a baked potato or the esteem of dinner party guests who marvel at my green thumb skills.

While Mr. Green expects there will be a drop-off this year in the number of people who start vegetable gardens (too many newbies from last year will be discouraged by the work of it, he thinks), "there will also be the people who discover what an amazing difference there is in tasting a fresh ear of corn out of your garden that's five minutes from picking to pot," he says. "The taste of a freshly picked tomato just simply cannot be beat."

The savings will be pretty tasty, too.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

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