The Chaparral Green Thumbs: The Garden Economy

Chaparral cn

Contributed by Jolene Ottosen for the Chaparral Green Thumbs

For many, gardening is a labour of love, but can it also be a way to help reduce food costs for a family? I had my own ideas on this topic, but I decided to go online and see what I could find. I found a variety of answers, some I agreed with and some I did not, mostly because of our cooler growing environment, as opposed to the warmer climates most of those lists came from. In the end, I believe that there is no definite answer to this question because it depends on personal taste and experience.

If you are gardening to save money, I believe that it is always cheaper to start from seed, however, some plants are more challenging to start because they need to be started indoors and, depending on the light required, may require the purchase of things like grow lights. While over time that investment generally pays for itself, for some it might be too much output at one time to be justified. While I believe that a case could be made for almost any vegetable based on the skill of the gardener, I am going to discuss the top recommendations and my thoughts based on the Calgary climate, as well as, time and effort required.


Lettuce topped every list I found, and I would have to agree as it grows well here, and one package of seeds can last for multiple plantings and possibly even multiple seasons. Lettuce also isn’t a fussy plant and will grow in almost any soil without a lot of special TLC. The only issue with lettuce is that it grows quickly and if you are not cutting it back regularly it will bolt, especially in the hotter months, which means it goes to seed, stops growing, and generally tastes more bitter.


Sweet peppers also showed up on many lists, I am assuming because of the higher costs to buy in the grocery store. From my experience, they would not go on the list simply because they can be hard to grow in our cooler climate. However, for a more experienced gardener with better luck than me, they might make sense.


While garlic is not necessarily expensive to buy, the quality of what you grow is so much better than the cheap bleached bulbs that are imported to Canada. Also, garlic grows quite well here and can be stored for a long time if cured properly, so I wholeheartedly agree with this addition to the list as I think you can save money, as well as, grow a superior product.


While I sometimes struggle with it, squash was found on many lists, which makes sense to me. Not all squash grow well here, but summer squash, especially zucchini, flourish and just a few plants can give you a freezer full of it!


I don’t know if I agree with growing tomatoes from an economic sense, as I struggle to grow them from seed, so often buy seedlings and they require lots of water and attention. However, when you factor in the quality of the product, I think you at least break even, if not save money in the end. If buying plants, smaller ones are cheaper and with the right care can quickly catch up to the larger, more expensive plants. Also, keep an eye open for sales.


I found broccoli on most lists and have to say that I do not agree with its inclusion, at least not in Calgary. While I do know a few lucky souls who have been able to grow it, I feel like they are in the minority, so I would not recommend this plant from an economic standpoint, or any other for that matter. Save the space for something that will actually grow well here!


Kale is a hearty vegetable that grows well in the shoulder seasons (early spring and late fall), as well as, having summer varieties, but with the advent of its superfood status, it can be quite expensive at the grocery store. It can be susceptible to moths, but other than that, it flourishes with little attention, so I always include it.


I must admit that as much as I love the taste of new potatoes, I don’t know if I would include them in this list simply because of the space required for them. If you are growing food out of budgetary concerns, unless you have a large space, I would recommend buying potatoes and growing other things that produce higher yields in a smaller space.


Asparagus was another problematic vegetable on many lists. Asparagus is quite expensive and established plants can produce a lot, but buying the roots can be a bit expensive, have more specific growing requirements than many other plants, and it takes a few years before they produce. If you are an asparagus fan it will save money over time to grow them yourself, but it will take quite a few years to see those returns.

Other Suggestions

When reading through the suggestions of others, I was surprised by the omission of a few other vegetables that I always include in my garden because of the bounty they produce.


Fresh herbs are outrageously expensive for what you get, so if you enjoy cooking with them, you really should grow your own. Many garden stores will have decorative pots with a mix of herbs, which are pretty, but they are cheaper if you grow them from seed or buy them individually and plant them yourself. Also, remember that some herbs like sage and chives are perennials that do well here so you can enjoy them year after year.


For just a few dollars I can buy enough carrot seed to keep us in carrots for months, especially when stored correctly. Also, as they grow downwards, they make excellent use of space.


Beets are another favourite for me because you can eat both the greens on top and the roots below and can also be stored for a long time.

Swiss Chard

I think Swiss chard should also be included as it continues to grow all season when regularly trimmed and a relatively small planting can easily meet all your needs. I do admit, however, that I don’t grow it very often anymore, as I am a beet fan and find that as long as you don’t harvest all of the leaves, the beetroots will continue growing and the leaves will regrow, so I just plant that instead.


My final addition is beans, although I will admit I do not endorse them as highly as some of the other vegetables listed above. The reason I like beans is that they are easy to grow, taste great, store well, and a single plant can produce a lot. The reason I struggle a bit with them from an economic sense is simply that they do take up more garden space than other plants.

That is the end of my list. Hopefully, some of this will be helpful. I am sure there will be some who disagree with some of my inclusions or exclusions, so please remember that these are just suggestions. Grow what you have success with and what you love to eat!

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