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(Matthew Sherwoood for the Globe and Mail)
(Matthew Sherwoood for the Globe and Mail)

Family finances

Cashing in on an urban garden Add to ...

Clarine Lee-Macaraig looks out the window of her Toronto home with pride at her heirloom tomatoes, millionaire eggplants and cheddar cauliflower. There’s chocolate mint that “smells exactly like chocolate,” and lemon balm that is “good with some vodka.” A sea of Provence lavender is in full bloom. There’s parsley, garlic and green onions, too.

“In the summer, my garden gives me 80 per cent of my produce. Whatever I have as leftovers, I am able to freeze.”

The yield is impressive. Ms. Lee-Macaraig counts two pints of cherry tomatoes, at least three cucumbers, an eggplant, some cabbage, blueberries, a zucchini and an endless array of herbs. And that’s just one recent week’s harvest.

An exact dollar value is difficult to pin down, but she estimates her household saves “somewhere around $300” a season. If she were to sell her harvest in the market, she figures she would be “making a killing.” The only time she visits a grocery store is to buy more exotic, tropical fruit, and her summer harvest keeps her stocked well into the winter months.

A rough back of the envelope calculation says she’s only spent about $30 this season.

But factor in labour – about eight hours a week spent planting, watering and weeding – and the picture changes. In strictly economic terms, gardening is a money-losing venture, says Emily Van Halem, a co-ordinator for an urban agriculture project. As with other time-consuming hobbies (such as knitting or needlepoint), it’s best not to think about your labour costs.

On top of an initial outlay of about $100 for compost and seedlings, Ms. Van Halem figures she spends roughly $300 worth of labour hours on gardening each month for produce worth approximately $150 to $200.

But like many new urban gardeners, she’s interested in more than just knocking $50 off the monthly grocery bill (which she does). Her small plot gives her access to heirloom vegetables that aren’t available at Metro or Sobeys. And there’s pleasure in getting up in the morning and spending time in the garden, meeting neighbours, sharing food and trying new recipes – and satisfaction in having control over what you eat.

“For urban gardeners, you really have to do it for the fun of it,” she says.

“I don’t think we can call gardening a viable money-saving endeavour. Many begin with the intention of saving money and realize they are not saving at all. …

“But I still think it’s worth it,” Ms. Van Halem says. “It’s just a different kind of worth.”

To help give beginner gardeners a realistic perspective, Ms. Van Halem advises them to think of a first-time garden as a start-up business. “You are not going to make money the first year,” she says, citing the initial cost of purchasing seedlings and buying triple mix – typically $100 for a backyard plot. But once you’ve gone through a season, those costs decline: Seeds can be harvested directly from plants, and a composter can provide nutrient-filled soil free.

If you choose the right plant varieties, and factor in the additional cost of buying organic produce, however, you can come out ahead – significantly.

Angela ElzingaCheng has gardening down to an art form. A community food worker and a mother of two, she lives in a garden co-op in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto. She plants enough to feed a family of four a full meal twice a week.

“There are certainly monetary benefits,” she says, estimating that she saves as much as $20 each week on tomatoes, given that a pint of organic ones goes anywhere from $4 to $7. “I couldn’t afford to buy organic produce otherwise. And I spend [the money I save]to pay my phone bills and help around the house.”

Ms. ElzingaCheng has 24 varieties of plants in her garden, most selected because they produce high yields. Beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchinis are all good vegetables to start with, she says.

“We have more tomatoes than we can eat,” she says. “We have enough to share with all my neighbours.

“I feel really, really lucky.”

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