Last year, the local-food movement put vegetable gardening on the radar. This year, the sagging economy sealed the deal.
We're all looking for ways to save a few bucks -- and many of us are finding them in our own back yards.
"With economics the way they are, interest in vegetable gardening is really blooming," said Terry Straub, coordinator of the University of Minnesota Extension Service's Hennepin County Master Gardeners program.
How much money can you actually save by growing your own food? Quite a bit, depending on what you grow and how much you produce. A $70 investment in home food gardening can deliver a $600 return on investment, according to the National Gardening Association. Seed company Burpee is marketing a $10 "Money Garden" value package that it says can produce $650 worth of vegetables.
And some local gardeners report even greater savings. Garden blogger Lori Erickson last year grew more than $800 worth of food on her small Minneapolis lot. She spends about $75 a year on seeds, "but you could do it for $20 or less, especially if you're not buying organic" seeds, she said. "Berries and heirloom tomatoes have the best savings -- they're super expensive in grocery stores."
Two local community gardeners produced $780 worth of organic produce on a 20- by 10-foot plot, and that was four years ago, before food prices spiked, said Kirsten Saylor, executive director of Gardening Matters (www.gardeningmatters.org).
But saving money isn't the primary motivation for Richfield gardener Ann Dejak. "We love fresh vegetables," she said, and she and her husband want their five children to experience "the miracle of watching things grow." Still, the savings can be considerable.
"You can spend $3 to $6 for a tomato plant, but with the price of tomatoes, you'll spend that much on a couple of purchases," she said. "Growing your own gives you two months of tomato production for the same amount of money." Home-grown herbs offer even better returns because store-bought herbs are so pricey, and the plants can be wintered inside, she noted.
If you freeze or can your produce for use during the colder seasons, you'll save even more. Ana Micka, author of "The Fresh Girl's Guide to Easy Canning" (www.freshgirls guide.com), strives to produce 120 to 150 jars of homemade soups, tomato sauce and veggies each season, enough for three meals a week during the non-gardening months, she said. (Three pounds of fresh produce yield about a quart of canned food.)
Canning is easier than people think, she said. "It's time-consuming, but it saves a lot time in planning meals and shopping. You always have stuff around."
And there are other benefits to growing your own, on which you can't put a price tag.
"How much is healthy food worth?" asked Mike Hibbard, horticultural adviser for Bachman's. "When you grow your own, you know where it's been and what's been done to it."