Thursday, December 13, 2007

Counting the cost

I have a sneaky suspicion I've said this before but ...

I'm not sure my garden saves us money. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is a drain on the budget. When I visit frugal living sites I read people singing the praises of gardens as a way of feeding the budget-conscious family; Digger's Seeds offers a special deal to health card holders, offering enough seeds to feed a family for a year for a very small sum (the sociologist in me notes that health card holder = renter = someone who might not have the freedom to dig up their landlord's neglected roses, but it's a nice idea).

But for us the sums don't add up. There's the cost of improving some pretty gutless soil, especially before the compost bins and free manure source happened. There's the cost of the seeds which, though minimal in terms of dollars per unit, soon adds up when you're looking at multiple varieties for diversity. Plus, we still have to buy a lot of food - self-sufficiency isn't possible when someone works and the other one has two tiny kiddies to care for - a garden for self-sufficiency requires time we don't have, especially as we are still setting up the system. And there's the cost of labour - I do the garden work and the time spent tending the seedlings could be used to grow my career, which will provide more potatoes in the long run. Plus, my daily rate for freelance work is large enough that my brain is always going to be worth more than what I stick into and pull out of the ground - I'd be better off sitting at the desk each night tapping away than I ever will be trying save thousands on organic lettuce (hi, Phil, if you're here reading despite the focus on rhubarb and babies).

I'm aware that each person, each group, has set of things it's okay to spend money on, and a list of things that are definitely trashy - consumption is, after all, not only how we keep up with the Joneses but how we differentiate ourselves from them, how we make a claim to moral as well as social superiority. I think organic gardening, just like eating 'healthy' is an arena in which this can play out. It's nice to pat myself on the back for doing something so worthy as saving seed (read: saving the world) and just as nice to be a little shocked at the number of people who eat at Hungry Jacks and garden with pebble mix from Bunnings.

Today, while watering in the evening, looking around at my domain with all its heritage varieties, and doing a sketchy calculation of amount of money we've poured into the plot, I was reminded of the comments of David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise
I get the feeling that organic gardening can be a bit like spending thousands on a slate shower or an aga cooker: it's just fine because it's so very authentic, in a way that all that money going on high heels and designer jeans just never can be.

But of course it's not just that - how painful (how much more painful?) I would be if it was. That garden gives me sanity, it lets me feel like I'm contributing to my family's wellbeing by feeding them food I have control over. It's a place where the unloved species of my neighbourhood are once again loves. Plus, it's what I like to do, and as hobbies go, it's still on the cheap side.

Also, gardening is a way in which I can leave my place a little better than I left it. When we came, the ground was more dog sh*t and sand than it was soil, there were no birds, and the beds were planted with UDL cans. Now, it's an oasis in the street, a place of richness and productivity. At the risk of sounding unbearably worthy, I'm well aware of our luxury in purchasing a home and in having a garden to plant as we will, regardless of cost. There's a responsibility that comes with such good fortune, I think, to make sure we not only protect but nurture the things we've been given. I've been given a garden - sometimes one more item on a long and crushing list of things to do, sometimes a joy and a delight - and it's only respectful that I treat it right.


And of course, there's lot of free things to join the scrap garden (thanks, Victoria, for that beautiful phrase). The borage from the now built-over wild space up the hill and down the dale is blue, blue, blue

and these - what are they? - are the very essence, the heart, the idea of pink.

And they didn't cost a thing.


kate said...

I've had similar thoughts about our (rented) garden. I can't even justify it as an investment in our property values because it's not mine. It's an investment in my family - because it's something we do together, because it's away from the telly, because it chills all three of us out to dig and turn the compost. It's environmentally the right thing to compost our food waste, so I may as well plant something in the compost, and I like looking at veggies and flowers. I'd rather live surrounded by mulch and plants I've paid for than the weeds that were here when I moved in. I know I may lose this garden any time, as soon as the landlord hears how much the place over the road went for, but I've enjoyed the process and I'll leave my street a little less weedy and sandy and a little more green.

Thanks for the heads up about the Diggers HC card saving though, it'll make my hobby a bit cheaper!

Suse said...

By god an aga would look good in my kitchen.

(I'm so shallow).

Kris said...

Suse - I think it would - it's the perfect partner to mud brick. I think one would look great in my kitchen too. And if I had an aga I'm almost sure I would bake my own bread and cook more game - it's a natural progression.

Kate - I think you've put the issue much better than I have with all my waffling. It's the doing that matters, not the outcomes, and the value of gardening needs to be calculated without reference to dollars and cents.

fiveandtwo said...

I grow food now because I like to. There was a time, that lasted about ten years, when I grew food because I HAD to. I had a huge vegie garden, I bottled many dozen jars of tomatoes each year. It was essential to our family's budget. It was liberating to not HAVE to do this once our financial situation improved. Gardening should be enjoyable, back then, it was often a chore.

Kris said...

Absolutely. But I'm interested to know in what circumstances is growing your own food actually a way of saving money, once all the set up and running costs and income forgone are actually factored in.

blue milk said...

I really like the way you can sing the praises of gardening without any bullshit.

zose said...

I;ve also been told by a science geek friend who works in bio-whatever that if you live within 600m of a main road, you should not consume anything grown in said garden.

We live under a very busy flightpath, 40m from an arterial road which has a lot of truck activity, in a light/moderate industrial area. We have a control from the EPA not to dig past a certain depth because of soil pollution (damn, there goes the pool...).

So, I'm not *certain* that growing our own veges would save us money or be much healthier for us than buying organic or at least locally grown when we can.

Kris said...

Bluemilk - no bullshit but lots of horse shit and compost (little gardening joke there).

Zose - this is the thing: I'm interested to know in what conditions gardening can actually save money. In your case if you chose to eat the food you either have to grow in pots (which are not cheap and have the only going cost of compost) or do a no dig thing, which takes some organising and again, can be expensive.

I didn't know about the 600 metre thing - most of my town would be out, then, and in many other parts of big cities too, I imagine. We'd definitely not be eating - maybe it's site specific? Worth googling, though.

Janet said...

But you'd know how to grow food if you ever had to.'s amazing how a few things from your garden can eke out a tight budget. I remember one student summer (living on an unimagineably small income) and just waiting and waiting for the loquats and then the plums and apricots to be ripe so I could eat heaps of good fruit.

Gardening is what I'd call a "provident" hobby in that it doesn't cost that much and gives something wholesome and material in return. A bit like sewing.

ps. I think your borage might be what we call chinese forget-me-not. What I think of borage has a different flower that turns pink in some liquids. But they might well both be borage.

Em said...

Lately I've been reading more on the real cost of what we consume, and it has shifted the way I look at what we buy and what we make/grow. I think that if other food were priced according to its real cost (environmental and social), that our vege garden would stack up pretty well.

But I'm pretty sure that if I didn't buy non-essentials, like a new birdbath, a cute kiddie watering can, and organic garlic bulbs, that our garden budget would stack up better regardless of real cost... and if I asked other people in our street for cuttings, seeds, advice, and shared buying supplies with them, it would cost a lot less. That has been something I've had to learn how to do since I had children; I still find it difficult to ask for help.

We wouldn't ever be self sufficient from our patch, but the garden supplements our budget well and provides a million moments for the boys; in a recent newsletter I saw a holiday camp where you could pay for your children to experience what we do every day.

But every situation is different, and our garden will probably fluctuate with our lives. Some day soon I will have to go back to payed work, so I'm not sure how it will pan out for the vege patch.