11 Most Cost-Effective Foods to Grow (Beginner Friendly!)

cherry tomatoes on the vine

It’s no secret that fresh produce can be expensive, especially if you’re buying organic. But what many people don’t know is that it can actually be cheaper to grow some vegetables than to buy them at the store.

In fact, the National Gardening Association estimates that a 600-square-foot garden could produce $600 worth of groceries in one growing season. Seeing how food prices are ever-increasing, imagine the effect a well-planned vegetable garden could have on your grocery budget. 

It takes extensive planning and a lot of garden space to rely only on homegrown produce, but supplementing your weekly grocery needs with a few small harvests from the garden bed will be financially and emotionally rewarding. 

With that in mind, it’s time to get the following food crops growing in your yard, whether in a raised bed, a pack of pots, or a traditional, in-ground garden.

Here are 11 cost-effective foods that you can grow at home:

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Herbs
  3. Lettuce
  4. Green Beans
  5. Zucchini
  6. Swiss Chard
  7. Kale
  8. Bell Peppers
  9. Winter Squash
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Green Onions

What makes these foods cost-effective?

Some foods made the list because growing them is cheaper than buying them at the store. Crops like tomatoes can be expensive, especially if you go for heirloom or organic options.

Other vegetables, like winter squash, aren’t always expensive to buy, but growing it will produce a large enough yield that it’s worth the investment. Lettuce is another one of those vegetables that’s not too pricey at the store, but you’ll get a lot more value out of it if you grow it yourself.

And then there are some foods, like green onions, that are so cheap and easy to grow that there’s no reason not to have them around.

Costs aside, grow what you and your family like to eat to avoid wasting your efforts and resources.

Here are the foods to grow to save you money:

1. Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the most cost-effective and versatile crops you can grow. You’ll pay anywhere from $2-$4 a pound or per pint of cherry tomatoes at the grocery store.

A packet of tomato seeds will cost you about the same, around $3.00, but if you grow just one or two plants from that seed packet, you’ll harvest pounds and pounds of fresh tomatoes over the summer.

Even buying a few small seedlings at the garden center is an upfront cost that will pay off. Tomato plants cost $4-5 each, but even one plant will yield so many tomatoes that it will repay itself in no time. Cherry tomatoes, in particular, tend to have heavy yields. 

You can grow many tomatoes in a small space, and with the proper care, they will produce an abundance of fruit over a long season.

When you pick out seeds or plants, look for “indeterminate” types which produce over months.

“Determinate” types will ripen the majority of their crop all at once, making them perfect for canning and preserving, but not as helpful if you want to harvest tomatoes for fresh eating all summer.

2. Lettuce

Lettuce is an excellent crop for beginner gardeners that will quickly pay for itself. A head of lettuce at the grocery store runs about $2 in my area, and a one-pound container of organic salad mix is upwards of $5.

A packet of lettuce seed is around $2.50, and you can grow head lettuce like romaine or a mix of leaf lettuce that you can pick from over a few weeks. One packet of lettuce seeds usually contains at least 50 seeds, so your cost savings are exceptionally high with this crop. 

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, so plant it in the spring and fall. It doesn’t like hot weather, so it’s one of the first crops to bolt (go to seed) in the summer.

3. Herbs

Herbs are one of the simplest plants to grow because they need little to no maintenance. Pests tend to avoid these aromatic plants, and most are typically disease-free. A little watering, ample sunlight, and you are good to go.

Herbs can add a lot of value to your garden and cuisine while also saving you money at the grocery store.

If you only grow one herb, let it be basil. For the same price as one bunch of fresh basil at the grocery store, you can buy a packet of 50 seeds or one small plant which you can harvest all summer. You’ll have pesto, tomato and basil salads, and pizza toppings right in your yard for just a few dollars.

Other valuable and low-maintenance herbs include parsley, chives, thyme, and oregano. These herbs will produce more new stems as you harvest from them, so with one or two healthy plants, you’ll have a steady supply of your favorite herbs at a fraction of the cost of buying them fresh at the store.

4. Green Beans

Green beans are a great summer crop that’s easy to grow and will save you money. A pound of green beans at the grocery store is around $2, but you can easily harvest that much from just one plant.

There are two types of green bean plants: bush and pole. Bush beans are the easier to grow of the two, and they don’t need any special support since they only grow about a foot high. They’ll also start producing beans earlier than pole beans.

Pole beans will need a trellis or some other type of support to grow up since they will reach 5-6 feet tall. This type of beans will produce over a more extended time than bush beans if you keep the plant picked.

Beans are very easy to grow from seed, so they are a good pick for your first crop if you’ve never gardened before.

5. Zucchini

Zucchini is not very expensive at the store, but it’s such a highly productive plant that it makes it worth growing. There’s a running joke among gardeners that you’ll have to play ding dong ditch to get rid of the excess zucchini your garden will pump out.

A packet of zucchini seeds will cost you less than $3, and just one plant will produce enough for you to harvest over a couple of months. Two plants will do the trick if you have a large family or love zucchini.

The plants do spread as the season goes on, the central stem wandering a bit as you continue to harvest, so make sure to give it plenty of room. You can grow zucchini in containers; just limit it to one plant per five-gallon size pot.

6. Swiss chard

Swiss chard (the rhubarb doppelganger) grows well in different climates, and you can enjoy a steady supply throughout the season from just one or two plants. It even overwinters in mild climates, providing fresh greens all winter.

If Swiss chard is new to you, it tastes similar to spinach, but the leaves are thicker, and the stems are large and ribbed. It’s a versatile green for the kitchen and worth a shot in the garden.

Bunches of Swiss chard sell for around $3, and one plant for the same cost will yield one bunch every 10-14 days. One plant will earn back its price in just two weeks, making it a valuable and low-maintenance addition to a cost-effective garden.

Growing Swiss chard is easy. The seeds are large, so they’re easy to handle, and the plants don’t need much care. Just give them some water and a little bit of fertilizer now and then, and you’ll have an abundance of leaves for harvest.

7. Kale

Kale is right up there with tomatoes and basil for value. Conventionally grown kale costs only a dollar or two per bunch, whereas an organic option will cost you twice as much at $3-4 per bunch.

It’s worth buying (or growing) organic kale considering that the conventionally grown option is one of 12 types of produce on the “dirty dozen” list, a publication from the Environmental Work Group that ranks produce based on the amount of pesticide residue left on it.

Along with spinach, tomatoes, and bell peppers, kale is on the list. You can buy a plant and harvest leaves all summer and fall for the same cost as one organic bunch of kale, making it a highly valuable crop to grow.

In addition to being cost-effective, kale is straightforward to grow. It can grow in full sun or partial shade, and as long as it has regular, well-draining soil, it will grow well.

Aphids can be a problem if the plant is heat or water-stressed. If that happens, spray the plant with a strong spray of water to knock the aphids off. Repeat the process every day for a few days, and that should get the aphid population under control.

8. Bell Peppers

Green bell pepper costs as much as $2 each at the grocery store, and red and yellow are much more expensive because they take longer to ripen and are sweeter than the younger green version.

A bell pepper seedling can cost less than a dollar if bought in a six-pack for $5 (sometimes less), and one plant can give you about six large peppers each.

Start the seedlings in a small pot and transplant them when the weather is warm. If the seedlings try to put on blooms when the plants are still very small, go ahead and pinch them off, so the plant puts its energy into growing larger.

Pests and diseases aren’t a big concern for bell peppers, but you will have to watch for cutworms. These grubs like to chew through the stem of young plants just above ground level, cutting the plant in half.

The easiest way to prevent this is to put a ring from a small plastic cup (yogurt or cottage cheese containers work great) or around the young plant’s stem until it gets a little larger.

You can also wrap the stem in a strip of newspaper to create a physical barrier that will decompose quickly.

9. Winter Squash

Winter squash isn’t one of the most expensive vegetables, but like zucchini, it’s so easy to grow and provides such a good harvest that it’s an excellent crop to include when cost-effectiveness is your goal.

It sells for about $2 per pound, and one squash weighs between one and four pounds, making it $2-8 per squash.

Growing squash is easy. Plant 2-3 seeds per hill, or grouping, and give them plenty of room to grow. Water the plants regularly, especially when they start to produce squash, and fertilize them every few weeks with a balanced fertilizer.

10. Cucumbers

Fresh cucumbers from the summer garden earn this vine a top spot on my list. In my area, cucumbers cost anywhere from $0.70-$3 each, depending on if I’m buying a regular cucumber or an English-style greenhouse cucumber.

You can get seeds for a range of cucumbers, from tiny cucamelons to long Armenian types or round lemon cucumbers. Prices for a packet of seeds range from $2-$5, and one packet will usually provide you with 25 or more seeds.

Novelty cucumbers like this cucamelon are typically very expensive to buy at the grocery store. Save money and grow your own!

One plant can produce more than a dozen cucumbers, so even if you only plant a few seeds, that’s still a lot of cucumbers for the price of a packet of seeds.

Cucumbers are one of the easiest vegetables to grow, and they don’t take up a lot of space. They can be grown in a small garden or even in a pot on a patio or deck. Just make sure they have a trellis or something else to climb.

11. Green Onions

Green onions, also known as scallions, are a handy garnish and ingredient for your garden, and they’re another easy grower for a beginner gardener.

You can get a packet of seeds for less than $2, which will give you dozens or even hundreds of seedlings. You can plant just a few or the whole packet and thin them as they grow.

As you harvest the green onions, leave the roots on the bulb. Once you’ve cut off what you want to use of the plant, put the rooted bulb in a jar of water, and the leftover stem will sprout new onion shoots, making this a seriously cost-effective plant with two harvests for the cost of pennies

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