Gaby Hinsliff got me thinking about the costs and benefits of growing your own in this post on her blog Used To be Somebody. She been trying to grow some fruit and veg - lettuce, blueberries and the like - to save money and to show her son "that vegetables don't all come shrinkwrapped in plastic". She concludes that "apart from the salads and herbs, everything would have been cheaper at Waitrose".
She's got a point.
It really gets my goat when people - be they celeb gardeners, gardening hacks or whoever - make glib statements about GYO being a great way to grow cheap veg. The fact is, as Gaby points out, you're likely to be spending more than you save, particularly in the first few years as you invest in tools etc.
Having just spent a considerable (to me, anyway) amount of money on transforming the rear end of my garden, this has also made me realise that I'm not going to recoup my outlay in what I save on tomatoes and lettuces. I've invested in a new shed, two raised beds from Harrod Horticultural and a picket fence dividing the area off from the rest of the garden. I designed it and did all the measuring and purchasing of materials myself, which helped - I scoured the voucher code websites to find a 20% off code for Harrod Horticultural, which was a big money-saver, and searched around for cheap bulk sources of chipped bark. My biggest saving was the path, made from bricks recycled from the old concrete and brick path that ran around the garden. Eagle-eyed readers may spot that some of the bricks near the shed are a different colour, but it still looks great, and it saved the bricks going to landfill as well as saving me approximately £250 in paving materials.
The plus side to this outlay is that I've made an area of my garden that can be used effectively for growing fruit and veg, composting and in the future housing some quail too (I'll expand in another post why I'd like quail rather than chickens, but the idea is quail eggs are a better bartering chip, and quail don't need to be let in and out morning and evening). There are ways you can save some money, though. Here are a few of my top tips: please add your own in the comments.
As Gaby points out in her post, buying bags of compost for growing gets pricey. Most of us don't have room for a huge composting setup, and even if you do, the amount you'll produce in a year won't go very far. Look for special "4 for 3" deals in garden centres, and buy in bulk if you can as it works out a lot cheaper. At season's end you can also recycle compost you've used in containers as a mulch or soil improver.
Whatever you do, don't spend money on fertiliser, organic or otherwise. Make comfrey tea to use as a fertiliser - if you don't have the room or inclination to grow it, comfrey is easy enough to harvest from grass verges and waste ground. Urine's another great fertiliser, or you can put it on your compost heap as an activator.
Equipment can be expensive - and as someone with a bit of a habit for pricey bronze tools, I know this all too well. Don't buy poorly-made, flimsy tools - they'll break or rust quickly and cost you more over time. At least my tools from Implementations come with a lifetime guarantee - if they break, you send them back and the people at Implementations send you a new one. If you haven't got the money for such a big outlay, look out for special offers on quality tools - for instance you can buy two Spear & Jackson hand tools for £30 at Tesco right now. It's also worth searching for tools in junk shops - my local always has a good selection and I got a vintage galvanised watering can for £5 in there recently.
Seeds are probably the least of your worries in terms of outlay, but if you are really strapped for cash, try Lidl and Wilkinson - both do cheap seeds that seem reasonably good quality. I'd also recommend Seeds of Italy who fill their seed packets very generously, so you can use them year after year or swap with friends, and likewise The Real Seed Catalogue. Once you're up and running, it's also cost effective to save your own seed, eg tomatoes and beans (see the Real Seed Catalogue link for a good set of instructions on seed saving).
Finally, I must mention my sister, who has also been figuring out how to save money, albeit on another big ticket item - clothes. Her blog, Sewn By Hand, charts her efforts at making her own clothes by hand in the spare moments at the park or waiting at the school gate. Aside from being a supremely talented crafter, she's also very inspiring - she helped me get started on my first scrap quilt and has made some lovely things for my children, including this magnificent patchwork ball.