Will victory gardens help us beat high food prices?

Movin' on up. Food prices are on the rise with gasoline. See more pictures of vegetables.
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Between April 2000 and April 2008, the price per gallon of unleaded regular gas more than doubled from $1.50 to $3.44 [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. When fuel costs rise, it creates a domino effect that hits consumers' wallets in more places than at the pump.

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Case in point: food. Pricier gasoline means higher costs to manufacture and transport food. And these days, corn and soybeans are used to create alternative fuel, so that also affects the price of food goods that contain those two vegetables. With these and other forces combined, a trip to the grocery store today costs you noticeably more than it did a few years ago. A dozen eggs now costs twice what it did in 2000, and ground beef isn't far behind [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. Things aren't faring much better in the fruits and vegetables aisle either. Iceberg lettuce has jumped a quarter from 65 cents to 90 cents, and the same hike goes for Red Delicious apples [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

­Overall, from spring 2007 to spring 2008, the average price of all goods we buy has gone up 3.9 percent [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. That may look like an insignificant figure, but we spend more money on food than almost anything else. The average American's food expenses eat up around 13 percent of all expenses [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. If you're mainly concerned about soaring gas prices, think again. We actually shell out around 10 percent more money on food than fuel [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

During World War II, the U.S. government urged people to turn their yards into "victory gardens" to help the war effort.
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To take the sting out of higher food prices, some people in the United States are harking back to the days of World War II and victory gardens. During the war, the U.S. government instituted a food rationing policy to free up supplies for troops overseas. As a way to encourage the American public to grow their own food and supplement the rations, the Department of Agriculture established the "Food Fights for Freedom" campaign. Lawns converted into so-called victory gardens became a patriotic symbol of helping the war effort at home. This also sparked the first community gardens in public spaces that people collectively cared for. By 1943, 20 million households had set up victory gardens, supplying more than 40 percent of the nation's produce [source: Bentley]. Even the White House hosted a victory garden of beans and carrots [source: Davis].

Although the U.S. is engaged in a war today, some Americans are turning to victory gardens for economic, not patriotic, reasons. On the next page, find out if it can make a difference with food expenses.


How much money can you save by gardening?

The price per pound for growing your own tomatoes is around 25 cents, compared to $1.77 at the store.
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Starting a garden in your yard isn't free, but it certainly outweighs the growing costs of retail produce. For example, take the tomato, which is the most popular vegetable to grow at home. Four tomato plants would run you about $15. The average yield for a row of about four plants is 60 pounds (27 kilograms) [source: Iowa State University]. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the going retail price per pound for tomatoes is $1.77, while yours only cost about 25 cents.

You'll save even more with bell peppers. With a $12 investment in six plants, you can reap up to 120 pounds (54 kilograms) of peppers [source: Iowa State University]. That lowers the price per pound from $2.37 in stores to 10 cents. Easy-to-grow broccoli also costs less than a third of the retail price per pound, at around 50 cents rather than $1.37.


With the right resources, you can satisfy all of your vegetable needs in your backyard. As we saw with tomatoes, growing your own vegetables has a significant cost-savings benefit as well. However, you would have to follow a purely vegetarian regimen if you want to completely duck the rising food prices because many people's food bills contain items other than fruits and veggies. And while home grown vegetables are better for your bank account, the food group worst hit from pricier fuel is dairy. The USDA has projected a 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent price increase in fruits and vegetables, while it expects dairy to inflate up to 6 percent and eggs to go up 10 percent [source: USDA].

Along with high food prices, people have started growing their own produce because of quality control and environmental concerns. Although no one tracks the exact number of vegetable gardeners in the United States, gardening organizations and stores have consistently reported an increase in activity in the past couple of years.

One survey from the National Gardening Association found that vegetable gardeners increased their spending by 22 percent between 2006 and 2007 [source: Gustin]. The Garden Writers Association also reported that people are spending more of their lawn care money on vegetable gardening -- vegetable gardening has moved from the fourth to the second spot this year in that list [source: Marks and Johnson].

As the urban landscape has changed since the early days of victory gardens, so have some of the ways that people are pinching pennies and growing their own fruits and vegetables. Read about modern victory gardening techniques on the next page.


Ways to Garden

Don't want to garden alone? Try community gardening.
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For the money you'd spend buying a couple of loads of veggies at the grocery store, first timers can develop their own high-yield plots. One gardening Web site estimates start-up expenses for a garden at $225 [source: Veggie Gardening Tips]. However, that price tag includes tiller rental fees and a specific set of tools, which you may not need. Also, to spend less, grow your vegetable from seeds, or if buying a plant, select a smaller or medium-sized one.

If time and space are an obstacle for you, you have a number of other options. Community gardening, in particular, has gained popularity recently -- an estimated 10,000 are in operation in the U.S. [source: Urban Gardening Help]. This form of urban gardening transforms public spaces such as a field beside a school or in a neighborhood into a plot that many people tend to. A community garden could be a good place for gardening novices to start since you can get instruction from other volunteers. For more information on them, read How to Start a Community Garden.


If you live in an apartment or don't have a large yard, consider container gardening. As the name implies, you can grow different fruits and vegetable in almost any sizeable container, such as a trash can, wash bin or bucket. In one 15-gallon pot, you can grow two broccoli, one cucumber, one melon, one snap bean and one lima bean plant [source: Rosen]. Or you could use multiple pots and expand the variety. Container gardening also works well for themed crops. For instance, to make a pizza garden, combine roma tomato, bell pepper and oregano in one container [source: Rosen]. To learn more about container gardening, read What is container gardening?.

You can even bring your gardening indoors, if necessary. Citrus plants grow surprisingly well indoors in bright areas. Since the average varieties are large and can overwhelm a space, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden recommends choosing dwarf species. Familiar citrus fruits including mandarin oranges and Meyer lemons have a reputation for thriving inside [source: Brooklyn Botanic Garden]. Herbs such as basil, cilantro and sage are also simple and savory choices for indoor gardening.

To learn more about how to get your own victory garden going, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Bentley, Amy. "Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity." University of Illinois Press. 1998. (May 22, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=InqSoenmQ0IC
  • Carey, Patricia. "Plan ahead: 5 gardening mistakes that cost you money." Good Housekeeping. March 2000. (May 22, 2008)
  • Davis, Mike. "Home-Front Ecology." Sierra Magazine. July/August 2007. (May 22, 2008)http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200707/ecology.asp
  • Gavin, Robert. "Surging costs of groceries hit home." The Boston Globe. March 9, 2008. (May 22, 2008)http://www.boston.com/business/personalfinance/articles/2008/03/09/surging_costs_of_groceries_hit_home/?page=1
  • Gustin, Georgina. "Going green (thumb)." McClathy -- Tribune Business News. May 15, 2008. (May 22, 2008)
  • Iowa State University. "Tomatoes." May 2005. (May 22, 2008)http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM608.pdf
  • Little, Christy. "Lawrence experts offer tips for growing your own produce." McClathy -- Tribune Business News. Feb. 28, 2008. (May 22, 2008)
  • Marks, Alexandra and Jonsson, Patrick. "As food prices shoot up, so do backyard gardens." The Christian Science Monitor. May 15, 2008. (May 22, 2008)http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0516/p01s01-ussc.html
  • Rosen, Rick. "Container gardening: One-pot vegetable plots." McClathy -- Tribune Business News. May 8, 2008. (May 22, 2008)
  • Weishan, Michael. "The kitchen garden." Country Living. May 2002. (May 22, 2008)