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Elliott Morss | February 21st, 2018

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The Economics of Growing Vegetables From Seed

© Elliott R. Morss, Ph.D.

The Economics of Growing Vegetables From Seed

 by Elliott R. Morss, Ph.D.

 Introduction

I recently interviewed George Ball, the Chairman of Burpee Gardening, about the economics of the mail order/nursery plant/seed business (I will post that interview shortly). He said the vegetable seed business is growing rapidly, partly because in tough times, people want to take advantage of the cost savings resulting from growing vegetables from seed.

 That got me thinking: at 10 cents a tomato seed, there is definitely a cost savings if you can just rough up the soil, drop in a seed, and get a healthy tomato plant to grow. But living in New England, it is not quite that simple. In what follows, I will take you through what I do and what it costs.

Seed Costs

 Certainly seed costs are low enough to warrant growing from scratch, if that were all there was to it. The following seed prices are taken from my recent article comparing gardening catalogues.

 Vegetable Seed Prices

 

Price

Vegetable

(in cents)

Bean

2

Tomato

9

Cucumber

9

Pepper

13

Lettuce

1

Basil

2

If we could only live on lettuce, basil, and beans! 

Starting Seeds Indoors

 Living in New England requires that I start growing seeds indoors if I want vegetables before fall. What do I grow the seeds in? In essence, there are two possibilities: buy an all-in-one seed-growing package, or buy separate pieces and put them together. A good example of the former is the APS system that has been offered by Gardener’s Supply for many years. In essence, you get a water-holding tray, a capillary mat, soil holders and a plastic cover at a cost of $19.95 for one that holds 24 plants. You can get 2 with soil for $49.94. A. M. Leonard’s Gardeners Edge offers essentially the same product. Burpee offers something similar – its “ultimate growing system” has a reservoir, a mat, soil and 72 soil holders (the holders are smaller than the other two) for $19.95. The attraction of these systems? In addition to being all-in-one packages, they are self-watering: you can go away for a few days without losing your seedlings. The systems can be reused but new soil will be needed (more on soil costs below).

 All-In-One Sytems

Company

Price per Cell

Gardeners Edge 44 cells @$19.99

$0.50

Gardener’s Supply 48 cells @$49.95

$1.04

Burpee 72 smaller cells @$19.95

$0.28

 I turn now to the separate pieces. “Pot-Makers” allow you to make your own holders. In essence, you wind newspaper around the pot-maker to make a soil holder. Pinetree charges $14.95 for one, Burpee charges $19.95.

 Johnny’s offers “hand-held soil block makers”. You press down using a block maker and you get a block of soil that stands on its own. One that presses out 2 square inch soil blocks 4 at a time costs $29.95.

 And then there are the pellets – held together by a biodegradable netting ( that I do not find all that biodegradable the next spring):

  • The Jiffy-7 peat pellets;
  • Coir pellets.

So how do all of these products compare? To answer this question, we need comparable soil prices. Most catalogues offer seed growing soil, quoted either in quarts or cubic feet. So I asked, how many 2-inch square blocks (8 cubic inches) of soil can one get from each seller’s soil? You need to know there are 1728 cubic inches in each cubic foot and 67.2 cubic inches in each quart to make the conversion from bags of soil quoted in cubic feet or quarts in the catalogues to square inches. And that, coupled with the catalogue prices, allows me to the price per square two-inch (8 cubic inch) block shown in the following table.

Price per 2- Inch Block of Seed Starting Soil

Company

price/8 cu. in.

Harris (Jiffy)

0.05

Park

0.06

Johnny’s

0.07

Gardener’s Supply

0.09

Pinetree

0.13

Burpee

0.18

 According to this Table, Jiffy’s seed starting mix (not pellets) sold by Harris is the lowest priced soil. And Harris’ shipping fees are based on shipping value, not weight. How do these soil prices compare with the price of the Jiffy pellets (a peat growing medium held together by a biodegradable netting)? I use the “extra-depth” Jiffy-7. I pay Harris $56.95 for 500 pellets, or 11 cents per pellet. Park offers 200 coir pellets for $19.95 or 10 cents a disk). Clearly, the Jiffy soil is cheaper than the Jiffy pellets. But pellets don’t need a holder. If you buy the soil, you will need to use a pot-maker, a soil block press, or just buy trays with built-in cells.

 Lighting

 To grow a significant number of seeds indoors, you need lighting. I use a 3-level fluorescent stand with 12 growing trays of 10’ x 21.5” for a total growing area of 2,580 square inches. I have been using the extra-deep Jiffy-7 pellets. I can fit 40 pellets comfortably in each tray, or 480 seeds in all. I don’t transplant.

 This lighting apparatus in available from A.M. Leonard’s “Gardeners Edge” for $600 or from Harris for $720. I believe this lighting system bought from Leonard will be as good or better in price per square inch of growing area than any other lighting system on the market.

 My tomato plants get special treatment. I use a now discontinued Gardener’s Supply APS system where each cell is 4” inches square. When the plants get too large for the fluorescent stand, I stake them and take them to the basement where I have a halide light hanging from a beam. They don’t go outside until the Memorial Day weekend.

Heating mats are simply too expensive for me, and my vegetables grow without them.

 Outdoors

 There is really no limit on what you can spend once it is time to move your plants outdoors.

 I believe the following table constitutes pretty close to the bare minimum of what is needed. You really need a small seed dispenser, but maybe you could do without the soil-testing machine. The catalogues convince us we need fertilizer and fertilizer sprayer. But how about the need for the bean innoculant and tomato blossom set spray? I don’t know, but I get them.

 Every year, I buy a few bags of manure/compost. I don’t buy red mulch any more for my tomatoes. They do fine without it. I do need tomato, bean, and cucumber supports (I use the metal cages. Soil is tough on skin and nails, so gloves are needed. A weeding instrument for gardeners is like a good knife for a chef – they come in many different forms but are essential. Rabbits ate all my green peppers and beans last year and it will not happen again. I will start with sprays (Liquid Fence). If that does not work, I will have to buy fencing.

 There are many different ways to water your garden. But whatever method you use, you will at least need a hose with a nozzle. I use a combination of sprinklers and soaker hoses on a timer. You really don’t need a mechanical tiller, but you do need clippers and to be politically correct, a composter.  

On all of these products, I recommend that you first check with Pinetree and Gardeners Edge on price. Gardeners Edge seems to be mimicking Gardener’s Supply but with lower prices.

But I should say: I will always have an allegiance to Gardener’s Supply – so many original great ideas! What does that mean? I will always buy their new ideas from them – but I will not buy upside down plants from them or anyone.

 I have left out a lot. For example, water and electricity costs. And I have to get my trees trimmed back every other summer at a cost of $1,500 a trim.

 I now want to return to George Ball’s claim that there are great savings in growing vegetables from seed. In the following table, I have two columns for costs: the middle one is for annual costs and the right one is for investment costs. I arbitrarily assume the investments will last six years.

Growing Vegetables from Seed: Summary Cost Table

 

 

 

6-yr

 

Line

Item

Annual

Investment

 

1

Inside

 

 

 

2

Seed (480 planted at 10 cents a seed)

$48.00

 

 

3

Jiffy 7 Pellets (480 at 11 cents a pellet)

$52.80

 

 

4

Lighting

 

$600.00

 

5

Inside Total

$100.80

$600.00

 

6

 

 

 

 

7

Outside (assuming 300 seeds transplanted)

 

 

 

8

Small Seed Dispenser

 

$20.00

 

9

Soil Testing Machine

 

$25.00

 

10

Fertilizer

$20.00

 

 

11

Fertilizer Sprayer

 

$60.00

 

12

Tomato Blossom Set Spray

$9.00

 

 

13

Bean Innoculant

$10.00

 

 

14

Manure

$20.00

 

 

15

Mulch

X

 

 

16

Tomato/Bean/Cucumber Cages

 

$40.00

 

17

Gloves

 

$20.00

 

18

Weeding Instrument

 

$40.00

 

19

Rabbit Control

$40.00

 

 

20

Irrigation – Hose, Timer, Nozzle, Sprinkler

 

$186.00

 

21

Electric Tiller

 

$300.00

 

22

Composter

 

$100.00

 

23

Clippers

 

$40.00

 

24

Outside Total

$99.00

$831.00

 

25

 

 

 

 

26

Overall Total

$199.80

$1,431.00

 

27

Investment/yr. Amortized over 6 Years

 

$238.50

 

28

Total per seed for 300 seeds planted

$0.67

$0.80

 

   

 

 

 

  

Overall Per Seed

$1.46

             

 This assumption is reflected in line 27 where I take the total investment cost ($1,431) and divide it by 6. In line 28, I get the costs per seed planted. For the annual costs, I divide the total ($199.80) by 300 seeds. For the investment costs, I divide $238.50 by 300. That results in a total cost per seed of $1.46.

 What does it all mean? George Ball was right: at $1.46 for a vegetable plant, you are doing a lot better growing than buying your vegetables in the market.

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