Making money from your garden?

For many years I have been a consultant to horticultural businesses. Theirs is a very lean and efficient industry on a scale few imagine and which has to work very hard to make money. I have also advised countless private customers, and rather a large proportion have queried how they could make money from their garden. Many times they have been speculating selling surpluses and herb plants by the gate imagining wildly that this might cover running costs or even make a profit. I have had to disillusion them, So can you make any money from your garden?

Now it is possible to grow food without it costing anything, but it’s going to be a limited range unless you invest some cash at least initially. However once you have that first plant or seed you can usually grow more of the same for yourself for free. By spending only a modest amount purchasing good quality seeds and plants you can ensure low cost production for future years. Fertility can also be grown in house as green manures and made as compost, and pest control can be gained gratis through ingenuity. Once you are running it is not difficult to have a wide range of crops for next to nothing, excluding your labour of course. And these will often produce a surplus. It’s a shame; none of us like’s to throw away good food, so we freeze, bottle and store. We give it to our friends and in-laws till they hide when they see us coming with yet more bulging carrier bags. But is this surplus worth selling? Obviously any cash earned would be almost clear profit. Yet in fact it is very seldom you see garden gate produce offered.

Why are we all so reluctant? Why don’t more of us sell our surplus produce and spare plants? Now maybe in this freedom loving country we are concerned that by offering healthy home grown produce we will transgress a shed-full of rules, regulation and byelaws. All much worse if we dare be such criminals as to measure by good old fashioned pounds and ounces. And it is true. You really do need consider insurance, health and safety, trading standards, access and of course planning permission. To say nothing of the social security and income tax implications. So all these considered it is no surprise that most of us don’t consider it worth going to the trouble of selling our garden produce. Perhaps in some areas it’s also the theft problem; the cash, not the produce.

But with hard times and for those determined to help their cash flow what can you hope to sell and more importantly where from? The garden gate is traditional but relies on passing trade. If there is little traffic you can never sell much. Worse, if you offer such as, say lavender plants, a typical item, then as soon as all prospective purchasers have passed by and bought plants then few more are ever likely to sell at all. And unsupervised as the gate must be there is a real difficulty preserving the cash as almost anything you can contrive for the customers convenience will be under threat from thieves. They do steal produce as well but only rarely. Continued vigilance is not feasible as it leaves no time for the gardening. Locked cash boxes, well chained down and pick-proof, are probably the best solution- unless you want to have a credit card reader installed.

Selling to shops is possible with the right product at the right time by prior arrangement- but this does not cater for all the small surpluses most of us have. Indeed it really is the domain of a proper business as most shops want a regular not sporadic supply. Direct selling to friends at work or in your street may seem un-British but could be most effective as we have all become used to box schemes. Perhaps you could find one or two families who agree to buy your produce rather than the supermarket’s whenever you have some available. After all it should be so good they want it or after all why are you growing it?

And that brings us to the next big problem. We are not running a business growing produce; we just want to sell our surplus. But when we have a surplus then so does every other gardener and prices are absolutely bottom. So even if you sell all your surplus the cash realized will probably be scant. Courgettes are rarely like gold dust neither are apples, plums nor most other crops that regularly over-produce. Pumpkins will sell up to Halloween but are not much use the day after.

Thus, as with a real business, if you want success you have to spot the market which you can supply at a price worth your effort. And ideally you want a surplus that keeps longer than a day or two. A most sensible opportunity is seeds. Now many vegetable seeds are strictly controlled by regulations forbidding us selling our own. And commercial varieties may also be protected. But many herbs, uncommon vegetables and ornamentals are not. And collecting seed, cleaning and packing it in recycled envelopes produces something that can stored and sold over the next year (or ten if you have no scruples).

Selling seedlings and small cell grown plants may be the way round the vegetable seed regulations. After all most of us produce a surplus of these anyway, why not sow an extra tray or so and see how they go. Tomatoes are probably well over-subscribed but sweet corn and hot peppers may be quickly snapped up.

Bigger plants are less sensible. First they require pots and loads of compost but you also need to put in a lot of time watering and tending them. Obviously a genuine surplus can be put out, but it is foolish to start growing and potting up batches of bigger plants to sell unless you really are pretty sure they will go.

Speciality items might be worth looking at. If you have it when it’s hard to get otherwise the price rises. Not used by every cook true but fresh grape vine leaves could be a lucrative little line- and guaranteed to grow abundantly more years than the grapes themselves. Horseradish, salsify, scorzonera and chokeberries are not in most supermarkets or speciality shops and you could satisfy a local need.

Now it may be offensive to some hard line kitchen gardeners but flowers for cutting have always been part of the vegetable plot. Flowers also make a lot more money than vegetables and so have to be considered. Without doubt the easiest to grow and quickest mover is sweet peas. Small bunches at a reasonable price go like hot cakes. And with several sowings, autumn, early spring and late, you can get weeks if not months of blooms. And as legumes they benefit the soil so are a good choice. Dahlias, chrysanthemums and daffodils are more flowers that move, and roses, red, will always find their place. Dried flowers such as Sea Lavender and Helichrysums are not only popular but once prepared remain sellable for many months indeed years. But all flowers have potential; mixed bouquets as well as bunches of all the same. Mixed flower ready-made ‘arrangements’ also allows you to produce something to sell more days of the year. And once people get used to buying flowers from your gate they are likely to carry on. Do not forget that pieces of foliage and fern add class to the display and are also easy to grow lots of. Unusual, and again dried, flowers, seed pods and foliage can all find good prices from flower arrangers, and possibly from local hotels and some other businesses. Christmas is obviously a good time to trim any holly or ivy - and it may be worth planting a few bushes of the variegated forms to provide more variety.

Another unusual surplus you may not think of is the barbecue market. Few of us would want to start producing firewood or charcoal but converting your prunings into kindling, and scented fruit wood off-cuts into sawdust for smoky flavourings is a real possibility. Grape vine prunings are produced in abundance and make neat little bundles and fruit tree prunings can be used similarly. Or you can tie them up in rolls wrapped in cardboard and offer them as insect hotels.

Eggs have been removed as a possibility as hens must now all be tested for salmonella etc. Jams and cakes and so on all fall foul of the red tape. But honey is an exception and is one of the traditional gate sales. Now bee keeping goes well with gardening and has now become recognized as important as so many bee colonies have been lost. Many bee keepers have given up- meaning that the market has been unsatisfied and at the same time the few colonies left can gather far more honey apiece as there were too many keepers too close together in many places. The second hand equipment is up for sale and starter colonies can be bought in to get going. And not only will you have honey and wax to sell, but your garden and the countryside will benefit too.