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Basement greenhouse: a labor of love for cheap winter veggies

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AP/Ventura County Star, Juan Carlo/File

(Read caption) This file photo shows vegetable crops at Roman Elementary School's community garden in Oxnard. Calif. In a basement greenhouse, you can grow fresh vegetables like these through the winter in a relatively small amount of space. It takes planning and intense manual labor, however.

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When I was a child, my father used to grow plants in our basement all year long. I remember going down there in the middle of the winter with several inches of snow outside, only to find tons of tomato and pepper plants thriving under an array of grow lights. I remember how the basement smelled like fresh spring while the rest of the house smelled like… well, a winter home. I remember the deep green color of the vines and how the tomatoes seemed vibrantly red in contrast to the white and grey of winter outside.

Eventually, my father stopped doing this. Part of the reason was that the ceiling in our basement was pretty low and he had to stoop constantly when he was down there working and I think it began to bother his back.

The other reason, though, is that he began to really wonder if it was worth doing it compared to just buying vegetables at the store in the winter.

Lately (particularly as winter has descended upon Iowa), I’ve found myself thinking about those grow lights in the basement and wondering if I couldn’t clear out a spot in our basement for a small winter garden.

The question, of course, is whether this would be worth it. Would I actually be saving money growing my own vegetables in this way?

Grow lights This is where the real cost of the system comes in. Let’s say I decide to grow about 80-100 square feet of vegetables in my basement. This could be covered by an array of small grow lights or a single large grow light. After looking at a lot of options, it seems that the best choice is a single industrial-strength grow light like this one. The problem is that such a light costs around $300 depending on where you buy it. There are lower-cost alternatives, of course, but those have their own problems.

This single light would allow me to convert an 80 square foot room in our basement into a greenhouse, more or less.

Energy use of grow lights The grow light described above uses 1,000 watts of energy. If you ran the grow light 12 hours a day for three months, that’s 1,080 hours of use. The energy cost of this would be about $120 for a season of vegetables.

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Pots We’d also need a collection of pots to grow the vegetables in. Thankfully, these can be found pretty cheaply and would be a one-time investment of about $100 or so.

Soil I’m lucky to have access to adequate soil and compost, so the cost here is negligible for me. However, if you’re made to use potting soil, the cost would be rather high for 80 square feet of vegetables.

Seeds The seeds for this project would be relatively inexpensive on the whole, totaling perhaps $3 per growing session (assuming that you’re not using heirlooms, in which case this would be a one-time cost of $4 or $5).

Water The cost of the water would be negligible. We’ll figure a dollar’s worth of water per season.

So, let’s figure up the costs here for ten “seasons” of growing.

One grow light, costing $300.
 Ten seasons of electricity, costing $1,200.
 Pots, costing $100.
 Seeds, costing $30.
 Water, costing $10.
 (You’ll also need soil if you don’t have access to it.)

The total cost of all of these elements is $1,640, or $164 per season.

There’s also the housing cost of having 80 square feet to devote to such a project, plus the cost of heating and cooling the room (I’d just keep it at our house temperature plus the grow light), which would add some additional cost to the equation.

Using this as a guide for vegetable square footage, I could plant a lot of vegetables in 80 square feet.

Without getting into the complexities of a diverse collection of vegetables, let’s just say I could plant a single tomato plant per square foot and that tomato plant would provide ten pounds of tomatoes. This would mean I would get 800 pounds of tomatoes out of this room every growing season, assuming that because it is indoors, I’ll minimize or eliminate pest or disease problems.

This would give me a cost per pound of tomatoes of about $0.20. Compared to the cost of tomatoes at the store this time of year (about $2.99 a pound), that’s quite a deal.

The problem is that pulling this off is a tremendous amount of work and planning. I would be installing grow lights, hauling tubs of dirt into my basement, planting lots and lots of seeds, and performing all sorts of regular maintenance. I would easily estimate that I would spend 100 hours per growing season cultivating these plants.

There’s also the issue of dealing with that much fresh food coming in at once. Much of it would have to be canned or frozen, adding to the cost and time, or given away to friends, increasing the cost per pound of production but also providing a gift to friends, or perhaps even sold in small amounts if an arrangement could be found.

In the end, this type of gardening can save you some money, but it’s going to be a labor of love along the way. If gardening is something you’re passionate about, you will save money with this effort. I would estimate that you could even approach minimum wage with it for the time invested if you canned all of the excess vegetables along the way.

Still, the question really is whether you find personal value in doing this. If you do, this can certainly be a great project for an extra room in your home.


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