Garden Crops That Make Financial Sense

My mom and I both love to grow corn. There's something amazing and magical about those tall wavy plants and the ears that spring into physicality before your eyes. It's American as can be; the cultural significance is as mysterious and nuanced as crop circles.

And, according to my favorite garden guru, Steve Solomon, it's a total waste of money. In his vegetable gardening tome -- targeted at growers in my region -- he has a list of the best crops to grow for which your investment of space, seed, water and compost money will pay off. Some vegetables, he says, can be purchased extremely cheaply in season from local farmers; corn is one of those. Ears are as cheap as 10 cents each when they all come ripe at once in August or September; but the plants (as I've learned) strip the soil of nutrients and take up a lot of space and sunlight.

The best crop to grow for your money, it is almost universally agreed-upon, is the tomato. Even at the height of the season, when tomatoes are coming ripe faster than zucchinis, a huge heirloom tomato can be five whole dollars -- or more, sometimes, for organic or especially in-demand varieties. And growing them yourself doesn't take a lot of space; the plants are in the ground from May, or even as late as June, to September -- and aren't too taxing on the soil. You can easily pull them up and plant garlic cloves in their stead to harvest when the baby tomatoes go in next season. And, if you're even the least bit handy in the kitchen when it comes to preserving, you cannot grow a bumper crop too immense to preserve and use throughout the year. Tomatoes can be canned into sauce, chutney, ketchup, marinara, or whole; they can be roasted and frozen or set on the windowsill green to eat later when they're fully ripe.

At a few dollars for even the fanciest plant, and way less if you grow your own from seed (or save seeds), the payoff can be enormous -- as much as $100 in value for a $2 investment. If this were Wall Street, you'd be spending your summers in a 10,000-square-foot home in the Hamptons for this kind of return. But we know you'd rather spend them in the garden of your own humble backyard...