Grow $700 of Food in 100 Square Feet!
By Rosalind Creasy with Cathy Wilkinson Barash
In 2007, I began to get lots of questions about growing food to
help save money. Then, while working on my new book, Edible Landscaping, I had
an aha! moment. As I was assembling statistics to show the wastefulness of the
American obsession with turf, I wondered what the productivity of just a small
part of American lawns would be if they were planted with edibles instead of
I wanted to pull together some figures to share with everyone, but calls to seed
companies and online searches didn’t turn up any data for home harvest amounts —
only figures for commercial agriculture. From experience, I knew those
commercial numbers were much too low compared with what home gardeners can get.
For example, home gardeners don’t toss out misshapen cucumbers and sunburned
tomatoes. They pick greens by the leaf rather than the head, and harvests aren’t
limited to two or three times a season.
For years, I’ve known that my California garden produces a lot. By late summer,
my kitchen table overflows with tomatoes, peppers and squash; in spring and
fall, it’s broccoli, lettuces and beets. But I’d never thought to quantify it.
So I decided to grow a trial garden and tally up the harvests to get a rough
idea of what some popular vegetables can produce.
I took a 5-by-20-foot section of garden bed by my tiny lawn to see how much I
could grow in just that 100 square feet. I wanted to produce a lot of food, and
because it was part of my edible landscape, it had to look good, too.
I wanted to make this garden simple — something anyone in the United States
could grow. I didn’t include fancy vegetable varieties; I chose those available
at my local nursery as transplants. I also selected vegetables that are
expensive to buy at the supermarket, as well as varieties that my experience has
told me produce high yields.
The first season (spring/summer 2008), I grew the following:
Two tomato plants: ‘Better Boy’ and ‘Early Girl’
Bell peppers, which are often luxuries at the market when fully colored: two
‘California Wonder,’ two ‘Golden Bell,’ one ‘Orange Bell,’ and one ‘Big Red
Four zucchinis: two green ‘Raven’ and two ‘Golden Dawn’
Four basils (expensive in stores but essential in the kitchen)
18 lettuces: six ‘Crisp Mint’ romaine, six ‘Winter Density’ romaine, and six
The only plants I grew from seed were the zucchinis. Hindsight is always 20/20;
I should have thinned each of the zucchini hills to a single seedling, but I
left two in each hill. As a result, I needed to come up with creative uses for
zucchini, including giving them away as party favors at a dinner I hosted.
It looked a bit barren at first, but the garden flourished—especially the
lettuces. Within several weeks, I started picking outer leaves for salads for
neighbors and myself. The weather forecast predicted temperatures in the upper
90s. I was heading out of town and feared the lettuces would bolt, so I
harvested the entire heads earlier than I normally would. Within about a month
of transplanting the lettuces into the garden, I had grown enough for 230
individual servings of salad. And by that time, the tomatoes, zucchinis and
pepper plants had nearly filled in the bed.
A Living Spreadsheet
Although I’ve grown hundreds of varieties of vegetables over the years and kept
rough notes, this garden was different.
My co-author, Cathy, created spreadsheets for each type of plant, and we kept
meticulous records each time we harvested. We recorded the amount — pounds and
ounces, as well as number of fruits (for each cultivar of tomato, zucchini and
peppers) or handfuls (for lettuces and basil).
The Investment: Time and Money
This 100-square-foot plot took about eight hours to prepare, including digging
the area, amending the soil, raking it smooth, placing stepping stones, digging
the planting holes, adding organic fertilizer, and setting the plants and seeds
in the ground. On planting day, I installed homemade tomato cages (store-bought
ones are never tall or sturdy enough) and drip irrigation. And I mulched well —
a thick mulch is key to cutting down on weeding, which is the biggest time waste
in the garden, in my opinion.
We hand-watered the bed for a few weeks to allow the root systems to grow wide
enough to reach the drip system. Three times over the first month we routed out
a few weeds, which was only necessary until the plants filled in and shaded the
Tomatoes in my arid climate are susceptible to bronze mites that cut down on the
harvest and flavor. To prevent mites, we sprayed sulfur in mid-July and again in
mid-August, which took about 30 minutes each time. In rainy climates, gardeners
often need to prevent early blight on tomatoes. To do so, rotate tomato plants
to a different area of the garden each year and mulch well. After the plants are
a few feet tall, remove the lower 18 inches of leafy stems to create good air
For the rest of the season, we tied the tomatoes and peppers to the stakes as
they grew upward, cut off the most rampant branches, and harvested the fruits.
The time commitment averaged about an hour and a half each week. (Our harvesting
was more time-consuming than average because we counted, weighed and recorded
everything we picked.)
To determine what my harvest would cost in the market, I began checking out
equivalent organic produce prices in midsummer. On a single day in late August,
I harvested 49 tomatoes, nine peppers, 15 zucchinis of many sizes, and three
handfuls of basil — which would have totaled $136 at my market that day.
From April to September, this little organic garden produced 77.5 pounds of
tomatoes, 15.5 pounds of bell peppers, 14.3 pounds of lettuce, and 2.5 pounds of
basil — plus a whopping 126 pounds of zucchini! Next time I won’t feel bad about
pulling out those extra plants.
I figured the total value of my 2008 summer trial garden harvest was $746.52. In
order to get a fair picture, I also needed to subtract the cost of seeds, plants
and compost (I can’t make enough to keep up with my garden), which added up to
$63.09. That leaves $683.43 in savings on fresh vegetables. Of course, prices
vary throughout the season and throughout the country. I live in northern
California, and for comparison, Cathy, who lives in Iowa, checked out her prices
and figured the same amount of organic produce in her area would be worth
The Big Picture
I started this garden to see what impact millions of organically grown
100-square-foot gardens would have if they replaced the equivalent acreage of
lawns in this country.
According to the Garden Writers Association, 84 million U.S. households gardened
in 2009. If just half of them (42 million) planted a 100-square-foot garden,
that would total 96,419 acres (about 150 square miles) no longer in lawns, and
no need for the tremendous resources that go into keeping them manicured. If
folks got even one-half of the yields I got, the national savings on groceries
would be stupendous: about $14.35 billion! So, a 100-square-foot food garden can
be a big win-win for anyone who creates one — and for our planet.
I have decided to keep the records from my 100-square-foot garden going
indefinitely. Last fall, I planted broccoli, chard, snap peas, cilantro, a
stir-fry greens mix, kale and scallions. This took much less time, as the soil
preparation was done and the drip system was in place.
In the summer, I planted different tomato varieties, added cucumbers, a tipi of
pole beans, chard and collards. Remember, I’m growing all of this in a bed that
is just 5-by-20 feet!
Getting the Most Food from a Small Area
Choose indeterminate tomatoes. They keep growing and producing fruit until a
killing frost. (Determinate varieties save space but ripen all at once.)
In spring, plant cool-season vegetables, including lettuce, mesclun and stir-fry
green mixes, arugula, scallions, spinach and radishes. They are ready to harvest
in a short time, and they act as space holders until the warm-season veggies
Grow up. Peas, small melons, squash, cucumbers and pole beans have a small
footprint when grown vertically. Plus, they yield more over a longer time than
Plants such as broccoli, eggplant, peppers, chard and kale are worth the space
they take for a long season. As long as you keep harvesting, they will keep
producing until frost