Is your cabbage patch saving you money? Try a tally

Is it really worth all that effort for the vegetables you get? If you're a gardener, you have probably heard that question asked many times. Perhaps you have asked yourself the same question on days when you labor in 95 -degree heat in a losing race against weeds and pests.

For some people the nonquantifiable advantages of gardening are all the answer they need.

"I love working with the earth" or "I know my food is fresh and not sprayed with pesticides," they respond. Others agree, adding: "I like to try new varieties that I cannot find in the stores." Or simply: "I need the exercise."

But one must also weigh the nonquantifiable disadvantages of gardening, such as the disappointment of losing crops to frost or pests, the lack of time for other endeavors, and the heat and the pesky bugs that make working in the garden an ordeal.

However, most people asking about the worth of gardening are thinking of money. How do you go about making an economic evaluation of your garden?

Keeping fairly accurate records of your expenses and the value of your crops during the growing season provides the numbers for your tally. If you didn't keep such a record last season, consider doing so this year.

Make a list of what you spend on seed, plants, stakes, string, tools, canning equipment, and perhaps gasoline. I don't include water, because if I didn't water the garden I would have to water the lawn that would cover the same area.

To collect good data on your crops, make a list at the start of the season with the following headings: crop, first harvest date, amount (in pound or number), last harvest date, total amount of crop, store price, and value of crop.

As I harvest crops I weigh them on my kitchen scale and record them to the nearest quarter-pound. Whenever I go to the store I jot down a few prices and put them on my list.

If you live in a state that taxes food, don't forget to include the tax; you're saving that, too.

As I harvest the last batch of a crop I total the amount and figure the value of it. At the end of the season I add up the grand total value of all my crops and subtract my expenses to obtain the net worth of my garden.

Last year I took this evaluation one step further. Since I am a full-time homemaker I like to consider gardening as a part-time job. The question I wanted to answer for myself was: "What am I earning per hour?" Getting the answer required one more bit of record keeping.

Each day I worked in the garden I marked down on a calendar the number of hours for that day. I also included the time spent canning and freezing. At the end of the season I totaled the hours. Then I calculated the value of the crops divided by the number of hours of work. This gave me my hourly pay rate.

I discovered I earned less than half the minimum wage. Obviously I had put far too many hours into weeding the garden. So, my challenge now is to find a more efficient method of production for this year.

Keeping a financial record does more than provide just an economic evaluation. A quick glance down your record sheet lets expectation, which produced well, and which were a total disappointment. Such information can help you choose your crops for the following year.

A glance at the total monetary value of a crop can also aid you in deciding what crops really give you a good return on investment. For example, although my 50-foot row of snow peas produced only 10 pounds, they were well worth the effort of planting and harvesting, because in our area snow peas are available for only a short time and cost $2.30 a pound. That's too steep a price to pay for any vegetable, no matter how exotic, in my opinion. But it means that my 10 pounds of snow peas, an adequate amount for our family, was worth about $23. I'll certainly plant them again this year.

One other record I find valuable consists of a list of problems: pests, diseases, weather, weeds, and special problems, such as, "much source too far away."

During the winter I do my research. I check out gardening books from the library. I call the Agricultural Extension Service and I go through my gardening magazines. Then I try to narrow down the cause of any problem and find a solution.

By the time spring arrives I'm armed with a list of experimental solutions to try out on my gardening problems.

Keeping accurate records may sound too involved, but it takes only a few minutes each day. They provide an invaluable planning aid and, when kept from year to year, give an accurate picture of what your garden is giving to you and what you should be providing for your garden.

How about it? This may be a good year for you, too, to begin keeping records on your garden .

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