A couple of friends of mine have asked this recently: considering how cheap certain vegetables are at the grocery store, are they really worth growing at home? Should you put more time and effort into species that are seriously expensive at the store?
Of course, gardening isn’t always just about economics, but you have to take into consideration how much space and time you have to dedicate to your veggie garden. You might simply decide that you’ll buy your cabbages rather than making the effort.
What’s “Worth the Effort” of Growing?
The easiest way to determine which vegetables are worth growing is to take a quick trip to the grocery store. Write a list of all the vegetables you enjoy eating the most, and then take note of what are the most expensive items in the produce section.
Quite simply, the vegetables that are worth the effort of growing are those that cost less to cultivate than they do to purchase.
Where I live in rural Quebec, the cheapest vegetables at the store are cabbages, peas, asparagus, carrots, beets, and potatoes.
A huge head of standard green cabbage is around $0.99, and I can get two 10 lb bags of potatoes or root vegetables for $5. There’s a “pick-your-own” asparagus place down the road where I can fill a massive bag of the stuff for a couple of dollars, and peas are grown all over the place.
Meanwhile, the most expensive offerings are tomatoes, garlic, lettuce, kale, and peppers. As such, the vegetables that are worth growing in my garden are nightshades, garlic, and tender greens.
In contrast, when I lived near Sacramento, the most expensive vegetables were asparagus, peas, corn, and brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. The weather there just wasn’t conducive to growing cool weather-loving crops such as those.
Check out the supermarket prices and let them inform your garden choices.
Crops that are Generally Worth the Effort
In addition to the vegetables and herbs that are more expensive in your area, the second and third aspects to take into consideration are how much you love these veg, and how easy they are to grow.
The average person doesn’t have 70 spare hours a week to tend and weed their garden. As a result, the most popular—and cherished—vegetables are those that are both prolific, and low maintenance. The ones listed below are some of the easiest ones out there. They’re delicious, nutritious, and won’t keel over if you aren’t fussing over them 24/7.
1. Cherry Tomatoes
These easy-to-grow plants do well as long as they have a sunny spot and decent soil. You can grow them in pots on balconies, or fill a yard with them. Either way, they’ll produce prolifically, and you can harvest them daily for salads, sauces, and snacks.
Since heirloom types are often pricier at the grocery store, grow a wide variety of different hues and save the seeds. Then you can have a veritable rainbow of sweet, juicy gems year after year.
2. Climbing Peas
I’ve only had a poor pea crop once in the past 30 years, thanks to a powdery mildew outbreak. Aside from that, these vegetables are some of the highest-yielding and lowest care-needing plants around.
Water them at ground level and trim away excess foliage and you won’t get the aforementioned mildew issue. Then harvest them to eat fresh, or can them, freeze them, or even dry them for winter soups.
3. Pole Beans
These are ideal for the same reasons as above. They’re also dual-purpose, as you can eat both the young green pods and the mature seed beans within.
Beans can be rather expensive at the grocery store, depending on your locale. As such, they’re well worth the effort of growing at home. For best results, grow a variety that’s been cultivated in your area for at least a century.
4. Mixed Lettuces
Are you fond of salad greens? Or do you have a herbivore companion that’s greedy for lettuces? Then dedicate a garden bed to mixed lettuces and go nuts. Lettuces are definitely vegetables worth growing because they’re incredibly cheap and easy to grow.
Baby lettuces can be ridiculously expensive at the grocery store, but are so easy to grow at home. To avoid them bolting in hot weather, grow them in a partially shaded location.
These dual-purpose plants are ridiculously easy to grow. Choose a smaller variety like ‘Hailstone’ or ‘Cherrybelle,’ and sow widely. Thin out the seedlings and eat their greens, then harvest the root bulbs when they peek up above the soil.
Small radishes like these mature in 22-27 days. Plant successively by tossing more seeds around every couple of weeks, and you’ll be harvesting regularly until after the first snow falls.
6. Green Onions
Also known as spring onions or scallions, these grow enthusiastically without much attention.
As an added bonus, these are easy to cultivate from store-bought clippings. Once you’ve chopped up the green parts for food, plant the white bulb end root-side down and water it in. A new onion will start to sprout up in a manner of days. Then you can cut it back and use it a good few times over the season.
If you’re a huge fan of zucchini (courgettes), then it’s well worth growing some on your land. These plants are prolific and will have you waist-deep in zucchini bread, “zuudles”, and stir-fries for months. I like to plant them as the Cucurbitaceae member of a three sisters guild instead of pumpkins or squash, and end up eating the fruits daily for months.
Just know that they’re prone to powdery mildew! As such, try growing them vertically and watering them at root level. Additionally, cut back excess foliage and make sure none of it trails on the ground.
This hardy brassica can be grown in almost any zone, and is almost always cheaper to grow than to buy. Kale is prone to bolting in hot weather, however, so cultivate it as a spring, autumn, or winter crop, depending on where you are. I like to eat it year-round, so in summertime, I grow it indoors so it doesn’t go to seed overnight.
Broadcast plenty of seed, and harvest some of the young plants as “baby kale” to eat raw. Then let other plants mature for braising, dehydrating into kale chips, or kimchee.
Which Vegetables are NOT Worth the Effort of Growing?
The vegetables listed below are rarely worth the effort of growing.
Your end results usually won’t match the time and effort needed to cultivate them. They’re prone to a host of issues, and you might not get as much out of them as you put into their care and maintenance.
That said, if you simply love the process or you find the results superior, have at it! No harm in trying. Lots of people have a little corn patch in their yard simply because they like the look and enjoy the few ears they grow.
But if you’re thinking economics, the following might not be the best choice:
Cabbages take up an excruciating amount of space and need constant tending. You need to cover them to fend off cabbage white butterflies and spray them to prevent worms and borers.
They’re inexpensive worldwide, so if you really love sauerkraut and kimchi, just pick up a few heads at the supermarket.
This is difficult for the same reasons mentioned above, only it’s even fussier. It has a long growing period and is super picky about temperature variations. It’s best grown commercially in greenhouses where the climate can be tightly controlled.
Carrots can be incredibly fussy too. They need soil that’s both rich and well-draining, and so help you if there are any stones in it. You need to water them consistently at the same time daily for them to thrive properly, and they’ll bolt if there’s a heat wave. These tend to be cheap to buy, so why waste the yard space?
Unless you have a significant amount of land to farm, corn just isn’t worth the effort. They’re large plants that are prone to a wide range of pests and diseases, and you only get two or three ears per plant.
You need to grow at least 20 of them in a grid for wind pollination to be successful, and even then only half the ears are likely to develop fully.
This temperamental vegetable won’t thrive if there aren’t enough nutrients in the soil. In particular, it needs a lot of calcium and boron, so heaven help you if you haven’t amended your soil sufficiently for its fussiness.
If you love the flavor of celery but don’t have the patience to baby your plants, grow lovage instead. It has a similar flavor, but is a low-care perennial that will flourish even if you neglect it.
Oh, look: one that doesn’t start with the letter “c”.
While tomatoes are super easy to grow, these nightshade cousins (also called aubergines) are the polar opposite. They’re incredibly fussy when it comes to temperature changes, and are prone to a host of pests and diseases.
Unless you live in one of the drier, hotter southern US states, or you’re in the Mediterranean, don’t bother. You’ll end up frustrated and screamy with plants that are burrowed through and covered in flea beetle holes.
Which of these plants are worth the effort of growing for you? If you live in Italy or South America, then you can likely get fresh tomatoes any time you want to, but radishes and peas might be more precious. Grow what you love and can save money on, and your harvest will be well worth the time and effort.