The 10 Cheapest Veggies To Grow

It's almost Mother's Day, the official garden start-date in many parts of the country. While you're dreaming about growing leafy greens and jalapeño peppers, you'll also want to consider the financial return on your investment. 

In some ways, it's impossible to put a price on the satisfaction of harvesting your own dinner. Even through laborious weeding sessions, it's easy to dream of sugary corn and fresh spinach and ignore your aching back. In many ways, the enhanced flavors from just-picked crops are well worth the labor. Still, I've grown some veggies that simply didn't pay off in terms of cold cash. For example, relatively low-cost veggies like potatoes may not be worth the cost, labor and gardening space. Besides, they're a pain to harvest.

I decided to do a little research to determine yields of various plants per square food and the value of the produce at harvest. Since I'm a city dweller with a fairly small garden footprint, deciding which food is cheaper to grow and which to buy is an important factor. Herewith the results of my research, based on organic prices. (Many of the vine plants grow on trellises, which is sort of cheating the square foot rule, but we'll just agree to ignore this detail, okay?)
1. Leafy Greens
It turns out the return on investment for leafy greens beats all other crops by a hefty proportion, particularly when you're talking the more exotic varieties. Per square foot, cilantro, chard and arugula are worth more than $20 per square foot. Wow! A more common green salad mix saves $18 per square foot.

2. Herbs
Chives, dill, basil and other standard herbs cost a fortune at the grocery store for a meager portion. It's also difficult to use up the entire packet of herbs before mold sets in. Grow your own, however, and you'll not only save roughly $10 to $18 per square foot (depending on the herb) but you'll always have just the right amount necessary for a recipe. My particular favorite is basil as you can grown it in a container and it's useful in so many recipes.

3. Tomatoes
Whether red or green, tomato prices have skyrocketed at grocery stores. What's worse, store-bought tomatoes rarely have the juicy flavor of home grown. My favorites are cherry tomatoes -- which usually get popped directly into my mouth -- and beefsteaks that make delicious melted-cheese and tomato open-face sandwich. Cherries and medium-sized tomatoes save you $16 per square foot while the larger varieties save $9.50.

4. Winter Squash
Despite their tendency to sprawl across the garden, winter squash are much cheaper to grow than buy, to the tune of $8.50 per square foot. There's also an advantage in that these late-summer veggies come to fruition around the time the rest of your plants are dying out. Summer squash come in at $6 per square foot, which is a truly decent bargain.

5. Cucumbers
Like tomatoes, store-bought cucumbers have simply lost their juice. Pulpy and dry, the lovely "cuke" loses its attraction when purchased, even from many health-food stores. Grow your own and you'll save $7.50 per square foot when whipping up cucumber and onion salad topped with a vinegar and sugar dressing. Yum. Naturally, you can also use these green tubes in standard salads, but that's not nearly as much fun.

6. Snow Peas
A handful of snow peas from the batch bin at a supermarket may seem lightweight and cheap, but the ability to grow them on trellises means you're square-footage savings of $6.25 is worth the investment. Personally, my snow peas (or any peas, for that matter) rarely make it inside the house because I like to nosh on them while weeding.

7. Bell Peppers
For some reason, store prices on bell peppers have skyrocketed in the last couple years, sometimes to over $1 per pepper. Compare that to the square-footage savings of $5.50 and you've got a bargain. Besides, the baby peppers are simply adorable.

8. Zucchini
We're talking here about baby zucchini, not the overgrown monsters neighbors try to pawn off on you each fall. Pick zucchini when they're small and you'll save roughly $5.40 per square foot.

9. Green Onions
Per bunch, you'll save $4.20 on green onions. Best of all, you can replenish these baby onions well into the summer. Buy a bag of the bulbs and replant as you go.

10. Brussels Sprouts
While you may not appreciate the "Queen of the Winter Veg," as my dad always called them, brussels sprouts look so cool when they're growing and they're ready to be picked when other veggies have withered away. You'll save $3.60 per square foot here.

As your mother always said, it's important to eat your vegetables! Tossing $30 worth of crops into the compost bin isn't exactly the best way to invest your money.

Source: U.S.D.A. Cooperative Extension Service

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