Sunday, September 25, 2011

Calculating the Savings in Growing Your Own Food

 Most will agree, a garden is not complete without tomatoes.

We all know that growing our own food offers multiple benefits—for our health, our taste buds, and our pocketbook. But how many of us know how much we’re actually saving?

For the past few summers, I’ve conducted a little experiment to see just how much I would save by growing veggies myself versus buying their supermarket counterparts. You may be surprised at the results!

Why Grow Your Own?

Before getting to the numbers, let’s review the many benefits of growing your own food. They include:

Personal satisfaction: When it comes to self-sufficiency, there is nothing more elemental than being able to feed oneself. I love the early-evening ritual of wandering down to the vegetable garden, colander in hand, to pick whatever has ripened and prepare it for my dinner that same evening.

Lessening your environmental footprint: By reducing your reliance on foods grown far away and trucked hundreds or thousands of miles to your local grocery store, your food consumption contributes less to smog and global warming. By growing your vegetables, you’re also doing your part to reverse the globalization of the food supply.

Superior taste and freshness: Homegrown fruits and vegetables simply taste better than produce that’s been allowed to ripen in trucks during transport and sit on store shelves before you’re ready to eat it. Even if you’re not a verifiable foodie, the taste, flavor, and freshness of homegrown produce is reason enough for many gardeners to devote a portion of their yard, patio, or terrace to growing vegetables.

Better nutritional value: Because less time elapses between harvest and consumption (say, about an hour when I harvest my own produce compared to days or weeks when I buy it in the supermarket), homegrown vegetables deliver higher nutritional value. And if you choose to grow your produce pesticide-free like I do, you’ll get the added health benefits of consuming organic produce at little-to-no extra cost.

Early September harvest
But for the budget-minded among us, a fifth important benefit of growing your own food is…

The ability to reduce your grocery expenses: In today’s challenging economy, nearly every consumer is looking to save a few dollars wherever they can. Growing your own vegetables can substantially reduce your grocery bill throughout the summer. If you freeze or can your surplus, you can extend your savings into the winter months. 

The Economics of Homegrown

This is the third season I’ve tracked my garden’s output, not only by the pound, but by its monetary value.

My garden plot is modest in size, about 120 square feet. It was not intended to feed a large family, although the inevitable surplus is freely given to friends and neighbors. In its current form, it’s L-shaped (to detour around a small juneberry tree) and located in my front yard, to take maximum advantage of sunlight.

Die-hard gardeners can spend lots of time experimenting with heirloom varieties, growing plants from seed, and researching the best soil amendments, fertilizers, compost, and mulch covers. Yet you can fumble along, make mistakes, and still wind up with a respectable harvest, provided there’s ample sunlight and adequate watering.

Due to my own laissez-faire attitude about plant diseases, my garden is succumbing a few weeks early to blight and powdery mildew. With the harvest about 95 percent in, I’ve tallied up my pickings for the season.
To determine their monetary value, I checked the prices of comparable produce at Shop Rite, my grocery store of choice. Whenever possible, I used prices of Shop Rite’s organic produce. But for about half of what I harvested, I couldn’t find organic equivalents and was forced to use the non-organic price in my comparison. Because produce prices fluctuate regularly, I used an average of Shop Rite prices I found throughout July and August, at the height of my garden’s production.

Here’s what I grew and harvested this year, ranked by its dollar value:
2011 total monetary value: $330.08
2011 total expenses: $21.78
Net savings: $308.30

How do these numbers compare to previous years? In 2009, I grossed $148 in produce from a somewhat smaller-sized garden, but ended up with -$222 after factoring in my ‘start-up’ expenses which included a pricey, six-foot-high roll of wire fencing and metal posts (essential to exclude deer).

In 2010, I enlarged the garden (since I had leftover fencing) and harvested more, growing $515 worth of food ($429 after expenses). I attribute some of the increase to a more concerted effort to harvest wineberries daily during the month of July, as they ripened. The wineberries, which grow naturally in my backyard, are an invasive Asian bramble that produces berries that look similar to a raspberry. Since you’ll never find them in a store, I’ve used raspberry prices for comparison when calculating their monetary value. (And you know how expensive raspberries are in the store!)

 Acorn squash on the vine
 Last summer, I hand-picked 39 cups of wineberries, which really boosted my ‘garden’ productivity.  I planned to do the same this summer, but lost my enthusiasm after finding a tiny tick embedded in the skin between my fingers. I don hip boots sprayed with DEET for wading into the brambles as protection against ticks (I’ve had Lyme disease twice) but hadn’t counted on picking one up on my hand. So I settled for about nine cups of berries picked from the relative safety of the periphery of the thickets.

This year’s garden is pretty much spent, but I take comfort knowing I’ll be enjoying my tomatoes, wineberries, kale, basil, and zucchini (in the form of soups, stews and quick breads, and on my breakfast cereal) in the cold winter months to come. I can’t wait until next spring, when I’ll be planting soybeans for the first time.

How long have you been gardening? Are you considering trying your hand at it for the first time? What’s the first thing you’d want to grow?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

International Coastal Cleanup Day at Milford Point

Today was International Coastal Cleanup Day, an annual ritual here along the Connecticut and New York coastline when dozens of volunteers fan out to pick up beach litter from some of our environment's most beautiful locations.

You may have heard about the continent-sized toxic stew of trash (twice the size of Texas)  that perennially floats between San Francisco and Hawaii. It's images like that which propel me to do my small part to clean up this planet.

Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, probably 85% of the litter I found today was plastic, either soft plastic food wrappers or hard plastics like bottle caps, straws and many unknown objects. Along with that I found a shoe, a car tire, shotgun casings and a variety of unmentionables.

There was a disappointing turnout, but the three of us who did show up at Milford Point made up for our small number with determination. We trudged up and down the coastline with our bags of trash for nearly three hours and were rewarded with a glorious late summer day, bright sunshine and uplifting views of the coastline, marshes and estuaries.

  I love the warm, golden tones of beach grass in the sunlight.

This would be a great spot to explore in a kayak.

I was wondering if these purple martin houses were occupied earlier in the summer.

I would have liked to do some beach-combing right after Hurricane Irene. 
Perhaps there would have been some interesting seashell finds.

After picking up trash, I hung out at the Audubon Coastal Center, expecting to meet a new friend there for a get-together and picnic lunch. I spent some time chatting with an Audubon employee and her husband to pass the time. Then I lingered at the observation deck near the driveway that overlooks the marshes, taking snapshots. After about 45 minutes, I reluctantly left.

When I got home, there was a message from my friend. She had gotten a little lost, as I did, trying to find the sanctuary. I called her back, and she was still there at the center, wondering where I was. After we compared notes, it became apparent that we missed each other by about 5 minutes. Aarrgh.

It was such a beautiful day, and while I enjoyed my time there, I found myself thinking how much nicer it is to share that with another. Sharon, if you're reading this, let's try again! Hope you enjoyed the views!

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Clean-up Continues

Tropical storm Irene was not kind to Owl Hollow. She raged and roared, leveling a favorite tree, the snowball hydrangea, dropping the crown of a large hemlock tree on the tool shed my dad built and depositing several large tree of paradise branches in the backyard, not too far from the sun room.

Here's the collateral damage:

 The venerable snowball hydrangea, beloved by bees, stands no more. 
Amazingly, the hummingbird feeder that hung from it was not damaged.

 This is the crown of a large, single trunk hemlock; it remains exactly where it fell. 
I'm unsure whether it damaged the roof shingles or not but hope to find out soon.

 I have since cut up and hauled to the driveway most of these Tree of Paradise (ailanthus) limbs
except for a rather hefty 10-foot-long piece.

A friend had offered to dispatch with the largest limbs with his chainsaw. On Tuesday, the appointed day, he arrived with chainsaw oiled, sharpened and ready to go. Unfortunately, he managed to cut his finger even before he started up that chainsaw, making it impossible to do the tree work. You see, he somehow managed to nick his finger on something sharp at the top of my basement stairs (darned if I know what he grabbed) and his finger started bleeding. And bleeding. It just wouldn't stop. As he described it, "It's a gusher."

I am not a nurse, and the sight of an actively bleeding anything makes me uncomfortable. I suggested that since we couldn't seem to get the finger to stop bleeding using the usual pressure and holding his arm upright, that he should see a professional. Surprisingly, he agreed.

I drove my friend to a walk-in clinic about 15 minutes down the road, only to find the place closed due to a lack of power. Bummer. It didn't help that every 5 minutes Frank would cheerfully announce, "It's still bleeding."

We returned to my home. Frank said he'd drive himself to Danbury Hospital. I debated driving him there myself, but I was supposed to be driving my mother up to Sherman to do an art installation for an upcoming show. So we parted company at that point.

Frank got a tetanus shot and he is fine. Meanwhile, I set to work myself to cut up and then drag the many branches down my stone stairs and into the driveway until Frank (or someone else) could help me bring them to the landfill. If I left the branches where they fell, they'd kill the grass and their foliage would eventually shrivel up and fall off, making twice as much work for me. Using a broom, I reasoned, is easier than raking.

There's a large pile of debris that now occupies the driveway to the left of the garage. The storm solidified my desire to have a large white pine and the nearby Tree of Paradise removed in late fall. They both are situated to the south side of the house, within striking distance. Both trees grow way too fast and are prone to dropping their branches in a storm. The white pine is not ideally located since it blocks the winter sun from warming the house.

I have a tree guy in mind who seems to have fair prices. He's taken down a few others here in the past few years. It can be enormously expensive, and despite not really being able to afford it right now, I'd gain such peace of mind from having those two trees gone. I worry about tree limbs raining down on the house during every heavy rain or snow storm. There are several others that could possibly threaten the house, but the two I mentioned are, I believe, the leading contenders.  They could also take down power lines.

Irene was bad enough, but I keep thinking, what if all that had happened in winter? Six days without power was not pleasant, but in winter it would be disastrous. Can we say, frozen pipes, anyone?

Anyway, the tree cutting guy I have in mind tells me he works year-round, weather permitting. I am sure his business slows considerably in winter nonetheless as most people wouldn't think to have that kind of work done in January. So I will call him in November because I think I'll get a better price than if I called him when everyone else calls him. I am hoping it will be no more than $2,500 for the two trees, but I don't know. They will be a challenge, I am sure, because they are hemmed in on one side by telephone wires going to my house and on the other side by my neighbor's wires. There's not much margin for error.

Luther and Waldo will not appreciate the ear-splitting sound of a chainsaw so close to the house, but I think it still wouldn't be as bad as when the the old shingles from my house were pried off and new vinyl siding installed. It kind of made you jump out of your skin. They banged so hard on the walls that shelving and mini blinds fell down.

Ahh, the joys of home ownership.